Dear Sisters Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement, Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, editors Basic Books, $30
“Broadsides, Cartoons, Manifestos and Other Documents from the Twentieth Century’s Most Influential Movement.” That’s what the cover promises and, indeed, that’s what the book delivers. Feisty women — not just well-educated whites but Chicanas, Blacks, from the privileged to welfare mothers, rethinking society in the exhilarating days of the women’s liberation movement, from 1966 to 1977.
There’s the pleasure of rereading the manifestos that were my own wake-up call in the ’70s: Poet and leftist activist Robin Morgan’s “Goodbye to All That,” written in 1970, remains a brilliant, gutsy analysis that brands the left just as sexist as the rest of society. To quote just a few of the many “Goodbye” insights: “We have met the enemy and he’s our friend. And dangerous….We? are the women that men have warned us about.” This strikes a chord going back to the ancient warnings about Lilith, a dangerous, powerful, woman-on-top female, not a role model for nice .Jewish girls.
And there’s the gratification of rereading Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the ‘Vaginal Orgasm,” published in 1973. How truly liberating to be reminded that Freud was anatomically wrong; the clitoris, not the vagina, is where the nerve endings are. In Koedt’s phrase. “Invisible Woman” refers to men’s “refusal or inability to see women as total, separate human beings…. Sexually, a woman was not seen as an individual wanting to share equally in the sexual act.” Substitute “religiously” for “sexually” and “religious act” for “sexual act” and you get lots of the Jewish establishment restrictions on women that inspired the creation of Lilith magazine in this same time period, bringing the issues of women’s liberation to Judaism.
If some of the entries in Dear Sisters seem dated in their polemics, in part it’s a measure of the movement’s success in having changed our thinking. At the same time, the issues persist. Abortion remains under fire and silver-haired white men continue to rule Congress.
The Dear Sisters editors have gone from participating in the women’s liberation movement to teaching women’s history in universities. They make title point that despite title movement’s determination to uncover women’s History, misconceptions about the women’s liberation movement come in part from the lack of a history of the movement itself. “We want to give them sisterly support but also want them to check their facts. For example, the causes they cite for the start of the Berkeley free speech movement are simply not correct.
Dear Sisters does include a final leap to the end of the century with the all-women Lilith Fair. This group of women musicians grossing 35 million dollars from just two musical tours is given as an example of female cultural and financial success. Now there’s proof of the movement’s impact.