When a history of civil disobedience moves us, it is because the writer is able to convey the human emotion at the heart of efforts to stand against the crowd. Ruth Rosen in The World Split Open captures the rage that both forged and tore the women's movement in the latter half of the twentieth century.
It was the rage of women toward men who presumed them to be subordinates and sexual side dishes that compelled the women to start a liberation movement. It was the rage of men who thought women had nothing to complain about that made feminists increasingly strident, but also more demanding of their sisters to speak with one voice. As women expressed themselves, they found they had not one voice, but hundreds, thousands, causing the movement to fragment even as its influence, paradoxically, seeped into most levels of society.
In vividly written passages, Rosen illustrates the level of antipathy toward women who tried to expand the dialogue of the New Left. In January 1969, the day before Richard Nixon's inauguration, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) veteran Marilyn Salzman Webb began her speech at a rally against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. "We as women are oppressed," she proclaimed. "We, as women [who] are supposedly the most privileged in this society, are mutilated as human beings so that we will learn to function within the capitalist system." Suddenly, pandaemonium broke out in front of the stage. Webb plunged on, denouncing a system that treated women as objects and property. To her horror, she watched as "fist fights broke out. Men yelled things like 'Fuck her! Take her off the stage! Rape her in the back alley!'" Rosen writes. Shouts followed, along the lines of "Take it off!"
Journalist I.F. Stone wrote about the event in his newsletter. "Their [the women's] accusation that men were only calling for revolution to get power for themselves was met by obscene jeers from the male audience in an uproarious climax of self-satire."
Webb, who was married to a veteran SDS activist, was depressed about the way her speech had been so thoroughly scorned and rejected. After the calamity, when she and the other women were holding a postmortem in her apartment, the phone rang. It was a woman who said, "If you or anybody like you ever gives a speech like that again, we're going to beat the shit out of you. SDS has a line on women's liberation, and that is the line." "That was the last straw," writes Rosen. "Webb felt convinced that 'we had to make a break from the SDS and become an autonomous movement.'"
A history professor at the University of California, Davis, Ruth Rosen lived through the movement. As a graduate student at Berkeley, and as a young journalist and photographer, she observed feminist activism and found herself converting to the cause. She has since become part of the coterie of intellectuals in America that has exhumed women's history and helped to keep it alive and visible. But her sympathies do not prevent her from being critical of the movement as she traces its decline. Because it was filled with people grappling with profoundly new selfdefinitions as they rebelled against domination, it pathologically avoided electing leaders and forming a hierarchical organization. In the void, the media sought out the same spokespeople and anointed them the leaders. "The movement ended up with 'leaders' who had the loudest voice, the flashiest public style or the most time to stay at meetings," writes Rosen.
Sometimes a "trashing" would then begin against those women by other members who felt the "leaders" weren't entitled to speak for them, or because they didn't like their clothes, their politics, or the people with whom they were sleeping. "Trashing," wrote Jo Freeman, who in the early days of the movement renounced her patrimonial surname and used the name Joreen, is "not done to expose disagreement or to resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy."
In 1975 Gloria Steinem was "trashed," according to Rosen, when two important figures, Carol Hanisch and Kathie Sarachild, accused Steinem of working for the CIA and directing the movement toward moderation and capitulation. Steinem ignored the accusations, hoping they would go away, but then Betty Friedan implied that "a paralysis of leadership" in the movement "could be due to the CIA" and demanded that Steinem respond.
After three months, Steinem wrote a six-page letter to feminist publications describing her work on two student festivals in 1959 and 1962 that were funded by the CIA. "I naïvely thought then that the ultimate money source didn't matter, since in my own experience, no control or orders came with it," wrote Steinem, aiming to dispel the charge that she was a government operative.
As it turned out, the government was keeping tabs on the movement through female informants paid by the FBI. It was part of Cointelpro, a domestic surveillance program. In 1969 J. Edgar Hoover tersely instructed the bureau's San Francisco office to "identify the aims and objectives of this organization." But, as Rosen explains, they couldn't because the movement wasn't unified; it wasn't one organization. "How could any male agent--or female informant--begin to grasp the fine distinctions between radical lesbians, radicalesbians, lesbian feminists, political lesbians, liberal feminists, radical feminists, dykes, social feminists, feminist socialists, Marxist feminists and feminist Marxists? The politics of the women's movement flummoxed even the most experienced agents."
Rosen has quite a bit of fun showing how agents and informants who knew no women's history tried to keep track of suffragist Elizabeth "Katy" (actually Cady) Stanton and educator Emma Willard--both of whom had been dead for ages.
In fact, the politics of the movement flummoxed many of the women themselves because it raised more questions than it answered. If men and marriage were the oppressors, you didn't have to get married--or if you were married, you could get divorced, and many did. There were many lovers to be found in the sexual revolution, including those of the same sex. But what if you had children? What were you to do then? And what if you loved your husband and your children but wanted to love yourself as well? How could you fulfill a new promise to yourself without breaking commitments made to others? It could take years to redraw the boundaries of existing relationships, and many women sought quicker solutions.
Self-help books crowded the bookstores in the 1970s with recipes for improving women's assertiveness, time management skills, and domestic relations. Rosen calls this trend "therapeu-tic feminism," a program that "ignored the economic or sociological obstacles women faced, and instead emphasized the way in which each individual woman, if only she thought positively about herself, could achieve some form of self-realization and emancipation."
The most famous advice book of the decade was hardly a feminist treatise. The book that advised women to perk up their marriages by greeting their husbands at the front door dressed only in Saran Wrap was Marabel Morgan's Total Woman. It topped the nonfiction best-seller list in 1974, just ahead of Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men. Deferential to the core, Morgan claimed, "It is only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him."
In reality, most women were not involved in groups that agitated to change the status quo, but absorbed the cultural influence spread by books, music, movies, and television. As big business repackaged feminism and sold it back to women, it took on aspects of consumerist competition in which women imitated men. "When Americans took a good hard look at this narcissistic superwoman who embraced the values of the dominant culture, they grew anxious and frightened, for they no longer saw loyal mothers and wives who would care for the human community, but a dangerous individual, unplugged from home and hearth, in other words, a female version of America's ambitious but lonely organization man," writes Rosen.
While Rosen regrets that feminism hasn't received the recognition it deserves for causing one of the largest migrations in American history, the journey of women from home to the workplace, she chronicles the influence it had in changing almost every aspect of society: "Everyday life had changed in small but significant ways. Strangers addressed a woman as Ms.; meteorologists named hurricanes after both men and women; schoolchildren learned about sexism before they became teenagers; language became more gender-neutral ... and two decades after the movement's first years, the number of women politicians doubled."
In the end, the argument Rosen makes about the significance of the movement throughout the book bumps up against her conclusion that "women had not gained the power to change institutions in fundamental ways." This is falling back into an old notion that the rank and file are powerless to change the status quo, something that Rosen has shown to be false. The women in the civil rights movement found power by drawing on their own resources, reaching out to one another, and speaking up. In her book Faithful and Fearless, Mary Fainsod Katzenstein has shown how activism by women in the military and the Catholic church is slowly changing those patriarchal institutions.
The changes are slow and often conducted away from public view. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced last year that it had discriminated against female professors in the School of Science five years after the same women organized, lobbied, and demanded that the administration investigate their suspicions of unequal treatment. Biologists, chemists, psychologists, physicists, and geologists drew on their investigative training to compare the allocation of resources to the male and female professors. Their conclusions so convinced the leaders of the university that similar committees are now investigating the treatment of women faculty throughout MIT. Other schools are trying to replicate that success.
For those organizations that refuse to acknowledge that women have anything to complain about, like the New Left men who jeered the feminists in 1969, the women have had to leave and force change from the outside. Using the laws enacted since the 1960s, women are suing employers one workplace at a time--as in the recent class action suit against Salomon Smith Barney alleging sexual harassment and economic discrimination. One suit often triggers a chain reaction in the industry as female employees gain a vocabulary for describing the discrimination they perceive. On the heels of the Salomon Smith Barney challenge, female brokers filed a class action suit against Merrill Lynch & Co.
This kind of activism through the legal system changed the supermarket industry. In 1994, 14,000 female grocery store employees of Lucky Stores won a $107 million discrimination suit against the California chain for segregating them into low-paying dead-end jobs. Subsequently, Safeway, Publix, and Albertson's settled suits requiring the stores to distribute high- and lowpaying jobs equitably to each sex.
As women march through the institutions of American life, they are fundamentally changing them as they go. Perhaps Rosen is right that it is a sign of how deeply feminism has become part of this society that most of these women don't identify themselves as feminists. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the sophistication and dedication of the new activism of working women even if it is less obtrusive than the street demonstrations of previous generations.