"I think it was necessary for me to break myself off from men in order to get involved with women - with myself. I had to say. 'I can't deal with this role. I can't deal with these sexual trips. It's not satisfying me. it's not fulfilling who I am!' "
- Amy. Chicago
"We're trying to do what we can and be honest. We can be auto mechanics, we can be musicians. we can be artists, we can be filmmakers, we can he carpenters. We're just people! We can be real.
"Women have helped me and put time into me. I love my friends; they've given me so much."
- Leaf Berkeley
During the past five years our society has been facing the challenge of a reemerging feminist movement. While much of the early impetus for this renaissance bloomed from women's involvement and frustration in left-wing politics, the radiation of women's consciousness has spread far beyond that and seeped into practically every kitchen and office in the country.
Among the women actively concerned with their situation in society, there are those who are devoting their lives to the choice of being a "woman-identified woman." The radical feminists' action is like a stone breaking through the calm surface of American society. They are seeking to plunge to the bottom of the problem. to find liberation for themselves. At the same time they are sending out ripples large enough to rock the boat of the status quo. I hough their numbers are small, these feminists are often credited with being at the core of the movement. Many of the women whom I talked with were finished with struggling to maintain their integrity and creative expression within a culture they have experienced as male-dominated and oppressive; instead they have chosen to build their own community.
The development of this subculture has taken place in major urban areas throughout the country. centering mainly on Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area. The common purpose in these women's lives is to "come out of the closet," the kitchen and the steno pool: they are determined to get in touch with the natural abilities that our society's structuring has cheated them of for so long.
"I feel like I'm 'coming out' all the rime, coming out just by getting in touch with a part of my being that I've never been in touch with before. I've come out not just because I could love women, but because !could play drums; I could play guitar; I could sing; I could build a loft-bed; !could drivea truck. I can do all these things for myself. Coming out is a constant process."
- A lesbian musician in Berkeley
It is risky for a person to go beyond the expectations and limits of traditional roles. These communities are forming to provide a supportive atmosphere in which a woman may engage in this self-discovery. Women are coming together to provide services for each other and at the same time to create a tangible women's consciousness through which they hope to revolutionize society. Such a community consists of three aspects: consciousness, services, communications. The first includes rap groups, education and just associating with women. The services expand out and manifest the consciousness: health clinics, rape counseling, hotlines, bookstores, refuge centers, legal aid, coffee houses, day-care centers, art and theater collectives. Communication is the thread that ties the community together and reaches out to the rest of the world.
"Today the world in general rakes it for granted that women can't do things. It's a stereotyped belief that people have. So you have to show them concretely that not only do you want to do things, but that you can do things - and it's O.K."
- a sister in D.C.
So what is a women's community? How is it different?
A women's community is meant to be the embodiment of feminists' ideals in the form of a creative society that is supportive, cooperative and compassionate instead of coercive, competitive and detached. These women, and the men who share their
struggle, feel that feminism demands no less than a total personal and societal revolution. The desired end where a person is free to choose herself how she wants to live is agreed on by all, though there is ample disagreement on the means to attain this.
Women who are drawn into the feminist movement are conscious of and disturbed by the status of women in our culture. In this country, women are rarely considered on an equal basis with their male counterparts for employment, even though they are as highly skilled - especially for jobs which are traditionally "man's work." In spite of public pressure for equal employment opportunities for women, recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce show that while women make up almost 40% of the labor force now, compared to 32% in 1955, they earn only 59.5% as much as men, and in 1955 they were earning almost 64% as much as men. Women earn less in every sort of job, skilled and unskilled. As Supreme Court Justice William Brenner Jr. recently stated, "Traditionally, such discrimination was rationalized by an attitude of 'romantic paternalism' which, in practical effect, put women not on a pedestal but in a cage."
Radical feminists believe that the economic oppression of women is just one of the critical symptoms of an imbalance in our society. Many women feel consistently relegated to the status of second-class citizens with little voice or control over their own lives. The longer a situation like that exists, the more those persons are to do
what they can to separate and start afresh. The "women's consciousness" that the radical feminists are propagating is meant to create an atmosphere that inspires rather than exploits human beings, giving people space to experiment and change and tune into their inner feelings. The strength of such a community is not based on structure but rather on knowing who you are. These values often seem to be in direct opposition to the dominant patriarchal, profit-making society. A woman in Berkeley described one of the purposes of the women's community:
"The main thing that is different about women doing things is how we do it, not so much what we do. A lot of men feel they have the same ideals we do, but they're too hung up in the profit system and too alienated from one another emotionally to get together … The reason our actions seem separatist right now is because supporters of the status quo don't want to make a start. When people see we are embodying the values they have long forgotten, they will begin to change and a synthesis will emerge."
Chris, a woman at the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU), told me:
"It is particularly important to see women working together. The way our society is structured, most people would say that this is something women don't do: they don't cooperate with each other because of competition for men and status. We can show that women are human beings and deserve the same kind of respect and dignity that all people deserve."
Joan, who plays violin in the Family of women band in Chicago, told me at dinner that "to me the most important thing is woman identification." A woman-identified woman is one who doesn't accept definition from a male-oriented society, or from men, or even from women who are male-oriented. There are differences of opinion as to whether or not it is possible for a woman to be woman-identified while she is still living with and associating with men. As Joan explained further, "Certainly if a woman is living with a man and is woman-identified it's a lot harder and more confusing to stay that way. She has to constantly put out extra effort to fight off his conditioning."
Another characteristic of woman's consciousness is perseverance. Susan told me how a friend of hers described what it is like for a woman to attend medical school where 95% of the student body is male:
"The atmosphere is very competitive and really insensitive to women as human beings - in fact, women are practically nonentities. Actually, women are fully capable intellectually of getting through their courses; but they are put in the position of having to expend twice as much energy as the male students just to exist in an environment that so thoroughly ignores them. To make it, a woman either has to develop an iron mind and give up the qualities she values as a woman - including the qualities of love that truly heal - or she has to lower her sights. So most women become nurses."
LIBERATION FROM MEN?
One of the key issues among feminists is what to do about men. "After all, they're here. Let's be practical." Generally it is agreed that it is men who have kept women oppressed within society; and most women agree that this way of living is dehumanizing to men as well. But it is a matter of controversy whether women continue associating with men or withdraw to themselves in seeking their real nature.
"It just became predictable being with men," Kathy, a woman working in a free school in Washington D.C., told me. "No matter how 'enlightened' these men were, it was always the same subtle, underlying vibration: sex. If there was love, it was always connected with sex. I found myself just naturally turning more and more toward women for inspiring relationships. I'd never really talked with these people and now I was finding communication - comradeship. It seems like all the energy I'd had to use psyching out men, competing and/ or protec. ting myself, began to come out in all kinds of creative ways I hadn't even known were in me.
"And I discovered love. I guess all the conditioning and selfish grabbing for love from another person that seemed to pervade my relationships with men hasn't entered so glaringly into my friendships with women. Since it's kind of abnormal for women to be close in our society, there aren't so many conceptions in women's heads about relating to each other.
"Now I'm finding that I'm less self-conscious with men and more able to love; I'm not needing from them as much. And that frees them too."
In Chicago, Joan feels differently:
"Men have nothing to offer me in terms of a life style. Regardless of what they say, men are totally dependent on women in every way. I mean, if my mother died, my father would collapse; if my father died, my mother would be fine. Women have been trained to cater to and baby men, not only in physical and practical ways like cooking, but also emotionally. On the other hand, women can function fine emotionally, psychologically, physically without men. We're just beginning to get together and develop our own culture: our own music and our own art as a manifestation of our lives together as women."
Sonia, who works with women and films in the Bay Area, pointed out that "as women become disenchanted with their relationships with men and withdraw from them, they force men into states of self-criticism. Then men begin to attempt to understand what's wrong with themselves and the nature of their relationships with women. That's happening an awful lot. Men are becoming more conscious of these things and are starting to have insights into the roles they play in their relationships with men, too. They are realizing they have to get down to fundamental human values."
"SMASH BERKELEY DYKE STEREOTYPES"
- a sign up by the refreshments at a women's dance in Berkeley.
The epitomy of woman's struggle to find herself and be herself is found among lesbians. Many preconceptions abound about these women, even within the women's movement in general. One of the major splits is between the heterosexuals and the homosexuals, the "straights" and the "gays." Each one is suspicious of the other's motives and allegiances, and within that the fragmentation goes further. Robin Morgan, editor of Sisterhood Is Powerful, talked about the groupings of gay women at the West Coast Lesbian Conference last April:
" … there are some lesbians who work politically with gay men, some work politically with straight men, some work politically with other lesbians, some work politically with only certain other lesbians, some work politically with all feminists, and some, of course, don't work politically at all.
"As Laurel pointed out in the current Amazon Quarterly, there are sub-sub-subdivisions among gay women, lesbians, lesbian-feminists, dykes, dyke-feminists, dyke-separatists, old dykes, butch dykes, bar dykes and killer dykes.
"Heaven help the woman who is unaware of these fine political distinctions and who wanders into a meeting for the first time thinking maybe she has a right to be there because she likes women."
While in the Bay Area, I talked with gay women about their involvement in the women's movement:
"I do feel it's really hard being a lesbian. You're constantly feeling put down and paranoid, which can make you very defensive. It can make you want to exterminate men, to hate them. But that's robbery: putting energy into hating people is not self-expression, it's not freedom," Leaf began. "That's the thing about lesbians: we all have this self-hate because we're women, but also
because we love each other."
Cloud clarified this. "It's not that we hate ourselves because were lesbians, but we hate the situation that were in and don't know how to deal with it." There are so few men who are willing to change. Most of them laugh at women's liberation and disparage it as much as they can. Now many women are expressing their despair and their anger. You have to deal constantly with what men have done to the world."
Leaf continued, "I think it's only human to be attracted to people and some of these people have women's bodies. You go through life loving friends or teachers you've had who happen to be women and wanting to be close to them. But there was always a stop sign saying, 'No!' So you had to cut yourself off and direct your energy somewhere else: toward men.
"I got involved with women about three years ago when I was living in New York. I'd found I had to break off living with a man I was close to. Not much later I went to an open house at a women's center. There were all different types of women there. And I saw these lesbians and they looked just like me! They were just like me, except they could touch each other. They were the most far out people there. They could enjoy one another - and all the other people there were wanting that, but they were too uptight. I was just really turned on to that kind of realness. It's not hard to tune into people's love: you want it.
"But I was too paranoid to express my interest. After all, none of my friends would understand, and my parents lived in New York, too. How could I be gay in New York? My picture might be somewhere … How could I let people know I was this thing that was supposed to be so terrible? And I just kept discovering that all the most far out women I knew were lesbians, and they weren't all mechanics. It was like, 'Oh, God! I can't escape. This must be something: all these far out women are lesbians, so I guess I must be … but how do I be a lesbian? So I knew I had to leave New York.
"It's just that between two women the relationship starts out at a more equal level than it does between a man and a woman. Of course, it isn't easy becoming close to a person any way you slice it. With women, though, it's more honest because the roles aren't so heavily defined. But I don't want to paint up the lesbian community too much as being the answer because we still have problems that were trying to work out with ourselves, within ourselves. We are all trying to find peace in some way, and we don't know how - men and women both.
"Being a lesbian doesn't put me in common with everything. There are some les-
bians who are into such totally different trips that I don't have anything to say to them. There are some men whom I feel I have more in common with than women who go to bars every night and just kind of hang on not figuring out what they're here for. I just keep realizing that being a lesbian isn't an end. It's part of a process of becoming free."
TOGETHER WOMEN TOGETHER
"There is no solidarity among men. While I was traveling cross-country I could drive into any town, call the ,women's organization, tell them I needed a place to crash, and I could find one. Just because I am a woman. For men there is no such thing happening. They are still basically alone in the world."
Of all the political-social movements that abound in the U.S., the feminists are perhaps most obviously oriented toward the individuals involved and their problems. While the anti-war activists have been seeking an end to the suffering in Indochina and its painful roots in American life, the women's movement has held that personal liberation is more fundamental. Feminists want to eliminate the physical and economic manifestations of sexism, but they see that oppression begins at home, in the mind and its conditioning. Women are not only pulled down and out externally by our male-oriented society, but are oppressed from within, as Leaf puts it, by "the pigs in our heads" - the internalizing of that conditioning.
The purpose of a women's community is for women to have ways to get together to redefine themselves, by themselves, for themselves. Through one woman's personal realization hopefully the state of women at large will be affected. The outreach programs to provide information and education are there; but even in the past two years the stress has shifted more toward building women's consciousness through personal example than through ideology. More women are choosing to be revolutionary by their way of expression and whole life style than simply by politics. The switch is from words to action.
Jeannie spoke to me about this development. "At the beginning there was all this energy being released just from the relief women felt in comparing their experiences and helping one another. A creative consciousness is manifesting now; the focus no longer seems to be just resistance or getting out the bad stuff, but it's creating for yourself what you want."
Everyone has an image of themselves and women are taught a particular cultural self-view from birth, one which emphasizes the idea that the woman's place is in the home. The traditional role of the woman as wife and mother is not fully understoodand so even on these terms a woman is not given respect. Is it any wonder women lack self-confidence and self-respect?
Becoming liberated means not only for women to free themselves individually from the effects of society's limited perspective, but also to allow the alternative to become known and accepted. "Every little girl should be able to accept herself and express herself, even if she'll never look like Miss America."
The backbone of the women's movement has been the rap group, an oasis whose structure varies but serves as the means for women to come together in the masculine desert. Many of the major women's collectives and organizations grew from a family of women who first discovered themselves and each other in a rap group.
The Women's Center on North Halsted Street in Chicago, where Joan works, is one of the few places in the city that helps women get together to form new rap groups. Their literature explains that "A woman who is isolated from other women in this society often thinks of herself as sick or crazy. Only when she begins to talk to other women does she realize that her experiences are common, that they are part of the condition of being a woman in a sexist society. This realization of her own oppression is the necessary first step toward any woman's taking control of her own life and fighting her oppression."
Joan elaborated on this and described her own experiences in her rap group:
"About two months after I became aware of all the discrepancies I was living in (as I knocked myself out cooking and scrubbing, all the while feeling guilty to practice the violin), I realized somehow I should learn to verbalize my feelings, to understand them better because I couldn't explain where I was at to anyone. The Women's Liberation Union suggested I join a rap group.
"My group stayed together a year and a half, and the experience changed my life. We managed to build up a lot of trust and we helped each other grow. At first we were all terribly, painfully dependent on men; now we're all super-involved. One woman is in the Graphics Collective, another woman wrote the rape survival handbook and is lecturing all over. The Women's Center, too, grew out of this group."
One step beyond rap groups are such women's schools as the Breakaway in Berkeley and the Liberation School in Chicago. As a woman from the Woman's Place Bookstore in Berkeley demonstrated to me, there is a basic need for new models for women to grow up with:
"The problem with every woman is to have confidence in herself, to know that I'm an O.K. person, worthy to take up my space in the world. But all the children's books say things like, 'Brother can go out in the canoe and sister waves from the shore.' There is a picture in a coloring book of a tree with five boys up in the top most branches. There are two girls: one is sticking close to the trunk and the other is helping a boy into the tree. She's on the ground. That epitomizes it. Women grow up with these images and later wonder why they don't think they can go so high or why they're afraid to take a non-conformist position. It's a wonder we can get a woman's movement together!"
Women are starting to create their own media and means of distribution, such as bookstores and press collectives, so that woman can become created in her own image. As Jane told me at the Graphics Collective in Chicago, "The media is so pervasive in this country; its power is not only in selling things but in shaping people's heads. It is a major means of socialization. If we don't want to be the sort of woman the media has established, we've got to create our own."
"I'd never heard of any woman drummers, so I thought there weren't any."
- Alice, Boston
A more individual medium for change is the arts. A whole women's culture is alive and growing, a female renaissance in poetry, theater, dance, music and the visual arts. Leaf talked to me about women and music:
"There are a lot more women musicians than anyone realizes - including women. They are rarely heard from. I guess women are more easily intimidated by instruments as they've never had much access to them or been as openly encouraged to practice as men have. But I think women musicians are going to break down a lot of the mystique and exclusiveness that surrounds music and its stars. Women are into music much more as a way of expressing their story and soul than as a way to fame.
"The problem is that women are still pretty shy and not enough sisters take what is happening out of their homes so the world can hear. The models the public has are still mostly male. But go to any women's concert or poetry reading and you'll see how high it is. There is so much participation and communication among the people, so much contact … One woman's expression becomes all of ours."
The Chicago Women's Liberation Union was formed out of a number of groups three and a half years ago; since that time it has gained a wide reputation for stability,
service and education. At least a dozen ongoing community programs are coordinated through the Union. These include DARE (Direct Action for Rights in Employment), which has been sustaining a battle to gain equal job treatment and wages for city janitoresses; the Health Project which is fighting for women's control of their health services, and specifically to see that the new Women's Hospital being built by the McGaw-Northwestern University Medical Center is responsive to women's needs; the Abortion Task Force; the Southside Women's Health Collective, which serves women through pregnancy testing, classes on women and their bodies, a rape-crisis phone and rap groups for rape victims; the Rape Project and Crisis Line; free legal counseling for women; the Graphics Collective; the Liberation School for Women; Womankind, the monthly newspaper for the CWLU;and the Connecting Link,a new work group responsible for doing outreach work and creating a bridge between the CWLU and interested women.
One of the oldest women's services in Chicago is the Maternity Center. Housed since its birth in an undistinguished building on Maxwell Street (which is presently slated for urban renewal), the Center is the only operating home-delivery service in the country.
As a woman who has worked there for some time told me, "One of the best things about the Maternity Center is the neighborhood that it's in. There is a fantastic mixing of nationalities and races there. The location is something almost everyone can identify with and in a sense is reassuring. People know it's a small place and they know they'll get personal service there, which is so hard to get at a larger institution, no matter how good the people are."
The Center was founded in 1895 by Dr. Joseph DeLee, the "father of modern obstetrics." When he couldn't find a hospital willing to underwrite the center, Dr. DeLee founded the Chicago Lying-In Hospital himself. In 1932, Dr. DeLee started to look for someone to replace him at the Center because of his age. He was quite concerned until he met Dr. Tucker, fresh from her residency at Lying-In. Dr. Tucker described those days, "There 1 was, finishing my residency, and of course I knew everything. I was going to go out and make all this money because I was such a brilliant, beautiful woman. But somehow I got talked into coming to Maxwell Street and I've been here ever since." She has spent the past forty years living in a one-room apartment above the Center, raised two boys abandoned by their mothers, and, in just the past year, helped deliver 1200 babies.
"WHERE ARE ALL THE FEMINISTS??"
One of the most revealing examples of the discrepancy between the ideals of the women's movement and their practical realization is found in the Women's Refuge Center in Berkeley. One local woman activist described it to me as "the place for women who don't have anywheze else to go. The women who come here are really helpless."
Officially, the Refuge is an emergency housing facility for women and children, but in fact it sezves as a counseling and resource center.
"We get mail addressed to the 'Women's Freak-out House,' and take all kinds of flak from the community because we're the only people who will take in any woman regardless of her situation. When we were closed for a time people were sleeping in the parks with their children. We were forced to reopen."
One of the basic problems is the lack of qualified staff to take on the load of these women and their problems. Many of the staff are crashers who stayed on. Susan explained that "the biggest problem here is keeping a cohesive organization, we have so many transient people coming. And the staff is often as transient as the crashers!Really, the crashers' problems are so huge that many staffers leave because they can only take listening to those terrible, awful stories for so long. There's so little we can do for them, except make referrals."
The Refuge is officially run by the YWCA, but basically they are on their own for funding. This means they have little money at all; one woman who has worked there a year recently received $50 for her services, thanks to a $500 donation.
"Still, maybe the women in the community do think the Refuge is a good thing, but we could really use more material, practical support. We need feminists to come here and work. In the community it seems most women are freaked-out about this place and don't want to set foot in here - including a lot of old staff members. That's because this place is heavy and actually they'd rather work in a place that's a little more groovy and a little more fun. That's the one thing that makes us bitter where are the feminists in the Bay Area? We don't see them."
"The women's community is a theater of war. There's just a lot of petty hassling, a lot of ideological differences and a lot of social games."
- a woman photographer in San Francisco
In spite of the amazing amount of energy and dedication that women give to it, the feminist movement has degenerated in many places. In Washington, D.C., one of the cradles of the radical feminist community, the split between the 'straights' and the 'gays' was enough to signal a general breakdown starting about two years ago. The momentum of the women's movement in every part of the country has been based on drawing in more and more people, yet it seems it has never had hold of a basic enough underlying principle to draw this diverse group of people into a feeling of common unity, into feeling true community. As one respected organizer from D.C. put it to me, "It's like five fingers without the hand." There is so much interchange, but no clear focus.
"IF YOU'RE SO GAY, HOW COME YOU'RE NOT HAPPY?"
The last conversation I had was with a sister in Detroit who'd been very active in organizing the movement in Lansing before finding limitations even within the liberation movement. She spent some time telling me just how she's felt about it:
"There was a point for me in the feminist movement when I realized that I wasn't going to get a satisfactory answer to my question of 'Who am IT in a women's group. We could share our common experiences, but still we were all in the same boat: we were all confused by who we were. I realized what I was searching for in the movement was identity, but it wasn't going to come from other women; it was going to have to come from inside. I just didn't know how to get there. I could see the women's movement wasn't really answering the questions like, 'What is the true nature of woman? 'What is the true nature of man?' 'What are we truly capable of! 'Why are we here? 'Why is there this oppression?'
"Why did it happen? These questions weren't being answered because we weren't clear on them ourselves. Our own needs weren't being met. How could we offer anyone else anything when we were confused ourselves? We had no real sense of priorities and direction. I remember saying so many times, 'There isn't any love at this woman's centez. There really isn't any love.' That's what we were looking for identity and love.
"In my experience as a lesbian feminist, I soon came to realize that love was something very different from what I thought it to be. I discovered it wasn't something you get from other people. In a non-monogamous situation my understanding of love was put to a test in the sense that I saw that to be truly loving is not to have to bargain for a return. It's to truly have no expectations of the other person, just simply to love them. That was the most incredibly difficult thing I ever went through because I realized I couldn't do it. What happened was like a nightmare.] saw that my ideal of thinking that women could love because women are more affectionate and emotional was just not true. We thought women could get together and communicate on that level of greater emotional vulnerability, maybe we could get underneath all the garbage of all the roles and find out who we are.
"I really do feel, though, that it's a beautiful gift to be a lesbian because it frees your mind from psychological dependence on men for love - and on them economically. In a sense you become very self-reliant. It frees you from so much of the confusion and games that other people get caught in, but then others develop. What happens when women relate to women is that the relationship reaches a level of communication unattained before. It's very beautiful to share your innermost feelings with your sister who loves you so much. But it actually becomes boring after a while; you know everything about each other. It's like two trees that become so close together that they choke each other out. The dependence on the other person becomes really intense. The subculture that you get down into is so tight and so closeknit for safety, because it's the bottom of the barrel: everyone oppresses gay people.
"Finally it just cracked. I was driven inside because there was something there saying monogamy isn't working and hasn't worked with men or with women. It's always come to that point where it's boring and I've started looking around where the grass was greener. I came to the conclusion that our whole approach to love is wrong; ow entire approach to love is reversed. All the time we were saying as women, 'We have so much love.' What we were really communicating was, 'I need love. I want to be loved desperately because 1 feel so empty and so alone.' The entire time our love was really from a selfish motive. I tried to have no expectations of a person but I still experienced a lot of resentment and pain. It showed me we had to go higher than that level, but I didn't know how to make any connections.
"So what would a perfect love be? I think you'd be able to experience a love for everyone; but the only way it's possible to transcend all those different personalities is to be able to love the essence of everyone. That perfect love would be lasting and totally fulfilling with no necessity to be attached to the different personalities. Women are very much wanting to be able to love everybody. But it must begin at home where the root of the problem is: self-hatred. To erase self-hatred we need self-love, love in ourselves. We need to depend on that."