That Seventies Show

That Seventies Show

Travels with Older Feminists

On a blustery day this past April, I sat in Barnard College’s Altschul Hall among fifty accomplished feminists in their fifties and sixties, ten or so students, and two high-schoolers for the annual Veteran Feminists of America meeting. Part conference and part award ceremony, the event is a look back at the early days of the modern women’s movement, starring the women who led the charge of the second wave. Feminine-mystique buster Betty Friedan was there, as was zipless-fuck creator Erica Jong. Different-voice researcher Carol Gilligan stopped in for the dinner to receive her medal. Seven of the original thirteen Our Bodies, Ourselves collective stood with their arms around each other on the dais, recalling the days when they sat at a kitchen table hammering out the original feminist health bible. Many of the women at the event spoke of having been through hell and euphoria, having known intense excitement and bravery and loss, which is why they use the somewhat tongue-in-cheek term “veteran,” connoting one who served in a war, instead of the less bloody-sounding “pioneer” or “trailblazer” or (ahem) “foremother.” In other words, these women enlisted in the revolution, and they have the scars to prove they were there.

I have attended this meeting for the last four years as a guest of Barbara Seaman, who wrote The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill and Free and Female, among other influential books. I’m not a pioneer of the second wave but a person who was raised with the benefits of feminism. This year was a salute to the writers of the movement, and at the nonfiction panel it was suggested that no big, ground-breaking feminist books were being written today. Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will and, recently, In Our Time, argued that this was because so much was unearthed by the second wave that it was next to impossible to find a hot, profound topic that would make millions of women exclaim “Wait, she’s writing about me!” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, former editor of Ms. magazine and co-creator of Free to Be . . . You and Me, added that it was also due to the kind of feminism practiced by the daughters of the second wave, which she characterized as very individualistic, concerned with culture rather than politics. (This was seconded by sister panelists Brownmiller and Phyllis Chesler, author of Women and Madness and, now, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.)

The theory that the important books were ones written roughly between 1964 (The Feminine Mystique) and 1975 (Against Our Will) struck me as provocative and inaccurate. I am the co-author of a book about the current state of feminism, and I’m in the process of writing two more books along feminist lines, so I have a personal stake in resisting the news that all the good writing has been done. Ironically, I had embarked a few years before on a grand plan to bring out some of the classics of the second wave. I focused on out-of-print books th...