Responses to Vivian Gornick’s “Feminism in These Times”


We led off the Spring 2015 issue with Vivian Gornick’s incisive piece on “Feminism in These Times,” in which she challenged recent critiques of Second Wave feminism and defended the goals and accomplishments of that movement. In turn, we invited our readers to respond to her uncompromising polemic; many of you responded with arguments of your own that were thoughtful, forceful, often erudite. Here are the essays you submitted; we have interspersed them with snippets of selections from the many comments you added to Gornick’s piece. You can read these comments in their entirety by going to the Persimmon Tree archive, scroll down to the “Voices” section and click on “Feminism in These Times.”

 


 

Feminism’s Many Facets: A Response to Vivian Gornick

I have been a fan of Vivian Gornick since the early days of feminism, when I found Women in Sexist Society in 1971. I was a new feminist, and reading those essays gave me enormous confidence in my changed understanding of myself and the world. Indeed, they supported me when I and others began the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1974. I am pleased that she submitted this essay to Persimmon Tree. I am responding because I want to call attention to some things with which I differ, in order to strengthen further her observations.

 

First, I don’t like to read what is a cliché, and a misleading one, that second-wave feminism was primarily a white middle-class movement, for there were feminists of color in the movement from the start. Marilyn Hacker, in her comment on Gornick’s piece, does a fine job of naming some of the wonderful writers who emerged soon on: Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldűa, and others. Working-class women and lesbians were vocal as well, as Hacker notes, such as Allison, Grahn, and Pratt. That they were writers is especially significant, because writing itself suddenly emerged as a primary route both to experiencing and communicating the power of a feminist understanding. There was at the same time a flourishing of small presses founded by women to bring the writing of traditionally under-published women to the public. Women writers of color in particular were being published by presses like Conditions, founded in 1977, and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. This writing was appealing to many, but it is worth noting that I taught a university course on American Women Poets in 1973, because there was by then such a body of published work.

Importantly, women of color were activists and political thinkers as well as artists: Angela Davis, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Florynce Kennedy. The National Black Feminist Organization was founded in 1973, and the Combahee River Collective began meeting in Boston in 1974.

I could go on, and that fact alone matters, but I think I have made my point. Race, class, and sexual identity were from the start points of argument and often anger in the movement, but these encounters were fruitful in building our movement.

 

Next, turning to contemporary young feminists, the online activity that flowers on sites like Feministing is in fact only natural, only correct (as it were), because today for younger people and others much communication, connection, and action transpires online. For some this kind of communication may seem secondary or even not real. However, my observations, along with lengthy (often heated) discussions with my eldest daughter Alexandra Juhasz, a strong feminist since she was a very young woman, about the place and power of the Internet have helped me to understand how it dominates the lives of so many. Alex, a professor of Media Studies, has been teaching a course on YouTube for eight years and has written a free on-line “video-book,” Learning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2011). Writing and teaching as a feminist, she shows both YouTube’s limitations and weaknesses but also its political power.

On the other hand, there is indeed feminist political action in the flesh, as it were, as some of Alex’s recent work also attests. She participated in the project, “Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building,” which comprised an exhibition, two scholarly publications, and a series of public events that documented, contextualized and paid tribute to the groundbreaking work of feminist artists and art cooperatives centered in and around the Los Angeles Woman’s Building in the 1970s and 1980s. She wrote an article for “Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and the Women’s Building in Contemporary Culture” (2011) and hosted a presentation of tapes from the Woman’s Building, “Doin’ It on Tape.” Bringing an icon from second wave feminism into the present represents a remarkable sense of continuity between then and now.

Another project that she helped to start is FemTechNet (femtechnet.org), which brings together feminist scholars, artists, and students from around the world, meeting in groups and online to discuss feminism, technology, and pedagogy and then to teach, write, and make things together in fields including STS, Media and Visual Studies, Art, and Women’s, Queer, and Ethnic Studies.

Alex’s work exemplifies several of the many forms that feminism has taken today. I think that second-wave feminism makes sense now, as well. There were and are many styles of feminist activism, and there is no reason to believe that what emerged in that earlier time would be indigenous today.

 

Gornick and I share a powerful nostalgia for the moment that changed our lives, but there is no reason to think that recent feminism cannot change lives, too. We did not change the whole world, but I don’t think that we “need to take the same territory again and again.” Not all of it. Many things are different, even as many are not. True, “it isn’t over till it’s over,” and that may never happen, so powerful is and has always been the conservative status quo: abortion rights again? But then, look how many women are now in government to challenge this obscenity. Along with a woman president, perhaps?

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Many many feminists in the 1970s and 1980s did not think the feminism of women of color would have to wait thirty years to emerge, and that very much includes the feminists of color who were engaged themselves in the struggle … – Marilyn Hacker

I remember reading Vivian Gornick in the Village Voice back in the day. I remember wearing white and marching through Chicago for the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember telling my family that I was going back to school to learn computer programming. Those were heady years, exciting years, and like Ms. Gornick, I do not expect to see them again in my lifetime. Judith Copek


Caught Between Cultures

The term feminist originated in the late nineteenth century, but when I was born in the early 1940s, no one in my family had ever heard of it. Nor had we heard of it in the ‘50s.

Growing up, several events shaped my concept of being female. I had absorbed since grade school the notion that my goal was to attract males, which included being “sweet.” In high school, the focus of my and my friends’ lives was being attractive and dating. When our gym teacher told us the school was going to start a girls’ volleyball team, I was excited, but my friends were aghast. When I urged then to join, they objected, “You’ll get muscles and then no one will want to date you.” That finished my volleyball career.

And then there was my mother’s admonition when I seemed too intellectual: “Aren’t you afraid you’ll scare the men?” I heard that concern repeatedly over the years, the last time when I was fifty and serving on the board of a private school.

In the early ’60s, my parents insisted that my brother and sister and I would finish college. Nothing else was acceptable. I wanted to major in art, but my parents insisted on education. That way, they said, I could always get a job teaching if my husband didn’t earn enough or if he lost his job. That I would marry wasn’t in question.

During the ‘60s, like so many other women, I became a feminist – at least in theory. When I was hired to teach at a liberal arts college, I was paid significantly less than male professors. I did complain vociferously – but only to myself.

In the early ‘70s, I did marry at what was then a shockingly old age – thirty. My husband helped in my transition from theory to practice. Before our wedding, he declared that we would have no gender roles in our marriage. That turned out to be invaluable – he became a much more inventive and talented cook than I am, but he hates yard work. I enjoy mowing the lawn, stacking firewood, and even wielding a pickax to pry out an old stump.

At 72, I’ve transitioned from one dominant culture to another. Am I a feminist? Absolutely. I support equal pay, equal opportunity, more money for research on women’s diseases… the whole list of feminist concerns. Of course, I still thank my husband when he unloads the dishwasher.

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… after the ERA, many of us left the big national issues to NOW and turned our energies to the pressing local needs of women: the explosion of homelessness among women and children; … legislation to address violence against women, … as well as establishing shelters and support systems for battered and homeless women; rape crisis services and specialized training for police and emergency personnel; support for pregnant women confronted by protestors with violence and abuse at abortion centers, etc. From my point of view, the Second Wave’s efforts never ended. – Christina Wos Donnelly


Outrage and Economics

On that first day of second grade, she walked down the rows stopping at each desk to talk to each child. When she reached my desk, I was afraid to look at her but she commanded me to look up, so I did. She wore a dark purplish gray suit tucked at the waist, with big padded shoulders and fabric-covered buttons closed all the way to her neck. Her white hair was rolled up at the sides with another bun-shaped roll at her neck. The Max Factor red on her never-smiling lips provided the only spot of color. Before my first day with Mrs. O’Mara, my brother, Mickey, warned me not to talk out of turn. “Big mouth girls,” he said, “get a giant tongue to wear around their neck all day and boys get a ribbon to wear in their hair like a girl ‘cause girls talk too much.” It was 1959.

That was the year I became a feminist. Watching boys with large white ribbons tied around their heads, I wondered all year long why, if the boys talked a lot, too, was the apparently undesirable trait of talking too much attributed to girls. This seemed entirely unfair to seven-year-old me. When I asked my mother why it was so, she shrugged it off as “that’s just the way it is.” I heard that excuse offered up on many occasions throughout the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s. Even women, often afraid of offending the men in their lives or their male bosses or worse yet, a prospect for marriage, mouthed the mantra, “I don’t believe in women’s lib.” And, yes, coming from a poor but not deprived background, my circle included mostly girls and women who were looking just to survive, whose life vision didn’t translate beyond high school, marriage, babies and taking care of men’s needs.

Every movement, every change in societal thinking still comes down to economics. Behind the face of the opposition is not merely fear of change, but fear of economic competition. This is the fear that holds minorities down. This is the fear that rails against global economics, NAFTA and the like. And this is the fear that shuns feminism, equal pay, equal opportunity and equal rights. Although I earned a college degree and landed a job in banking management, I endured rejection, resentment and discrimination to get there, and then to keep the job, and then to be paid the same as my male colleagues, and then to advance. Economics. During the push for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, I lobbied a male friend of my husband’s to vote for its passage. He looked at me and said, “I already have to compete with black men for a job. Why should I have to compete with women as well?” Outraged at this man’s unwillingness to even listen to my case for equal status, I showed him the door.

The Women’s Movement is in a holding pattern, unlikely to reach the heights of outrage again in my lifetime. I look around and see far too many middle- and upper-middle-class girls and women happy to earn a degree but not do much with it. Few seem hungry enough to develop their talents and skills and, perhaps, change society’s view of women. Many still fear being seen as assertive or (shudder) aggressive. Good girls, it appears, still don’t talk out of turn. It’s not 1959, yet it’s still 1959. We’ve come a long way but, then, we haven’t. And poor women? Well, they are still just trying to survive.

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I have a difficult time accepting young women who accept being called – or call themselves – sluts and bitches as feminist. And while I appreciated de Beauvoir when I was in college, Sartre was a nightmare of a man and I’ll be damned if I understand that relationship. – Veronica Robinson

Today’s young women are just plain confused. They are being told to go out there and compete for a prestigious job. They are told to go out there and be seductive and sexy and sleep around. They are told to find a mate and raise perfect children. That’s a lot of conflicting messages. – Janet Tamaren


Lace & Legacy

In a steamer trunk in a storage closet upstairs rests a handful of cotton pillowcases and napkins now yellow with age. What makes them keepers is the lace that adorns each of them, lace that women in the Occoquan House of Corrections in Virginia made for my grandfather’s family. He was a warden there. Occoquan is where women were incarcerated for chaining themselves to the White House fence, for trying to convince Woodrow Wilson to give women the right to vote. My mother was named Virginia for the state of her birth, a birth inside the Occoquan House of Corrections.

 

When my mother was in her mid-eighties, she developed ovarian cancer. It was too advanced to operate. In October 1997 Oregon voters considered whether to enact the Death with Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives through self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician. Her belly, distended and bloated from the cancer, meant she, a Republican woman who liked pearl necklaces and white gloves, was limited to wearing housecoats. She asked to be taken in a wheelchair to her voting poll in her housecoat to cast a vote she believed in. For her, this was an act of courage.

The right to vote was not a gift. My mother was eight when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Women harassed, hounded, fought, debated and undertook acts of civil disobedience to procure it. I have voted in every local and national election since the day I was old enough. I remember finding the choice between Shirley Chisholm and George McGovern, the critic of the Vietnam War, to be a difficult one. Those lace pillowcases haunt me: always vote.

Yes, I am a feminist. The strength and beauty of my daughter and nieces delight me. All three of them have pursued advanced degrees (they too inherited white privilege): to teach environmental sciences at a university, to analyze worldwide public health policies, and to coordinate social services for drug-dependent young people. When I was young, these choices did not appear open to me. Perhaps they were, but no one helped me see these opportunities. We breathed and voted below the glass ceiling.

I became a teacher. My father said this was the right career for a woman. Teachers, he said, could be home in the summer with their children. For a time, it worked for me – eight years teaching high school English included managing a program for teens who could not read. I taught a course called Women in Literature. Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper were staples in the curriculum. Women’s stories matter. I appreciate Persimmon Tree.

Eventually I got to what I wanted to be – a writer. For some decades that meant writing annual reports, press releases, and water conservation brochures. Now it means poetry. I have been blessed to be in relationship with good men – men who truly saw me. My father was kind, even if determined to outline a career path for me. My brother began reading my poetry when I was sixteen. My husbands understood my compulsion to write.

I understand the interplay in this story of white privilege and the inheritance of tatted pillowcases. Each day I wake up grateful to have been given another day, another chance to be a feminist in spirit, a feminist in heart, a feminist in the body politic. Another day to rejoice that I raised my daughter to know her strengths with certainty.

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True feminism will come only when women can make their own decisions about their bodies; their money and their will. And when they see themselves as equal to men in all ways, when they learn to love themselves first and when they can love a man without being hurt, humiliated or despised. Is that doable? – Maria Lambert

We will only get to “true feminism” by being willing to take on the label – the identity – that identifies us as wanting to get there. We have to do this out loud and in public. – Pat Madsen


Feminism, a Necessity

Proudly, I call myself a feminist. I expect I was a feminist before I knew what feminism was. I never liked women being the butt of jokes. I didn’t like that magazines and society told me I must learn to please men, hide my intelligence, and enhance my attractiveness with the proper makeup and hairdo. Dorothy Parker’s “Men never make passes at girls who wear glasses,” tended to carry out the theme; pretty women succeeded; they got a husband. If we wanted a career, we could be secretaries, nurses, or teachers. All the other choices were reserved for men. Employment opportunities were advertised in newspapers as Men Only or Women Only. All women were paid less than men with the proviso that men needed to support a family. When we finally were allowed into the “men only” positions, disparity in pay persisted. It also happened in comparable jobs. Cleaning women were paid less than janitors, even when cleaning the same offices. Menial labor workers were routinely paid more than jobs that helped children, babies, the elderly, or the infirm. In the 1970s women were earning 59 cents for every dollar a man made. Today we are making 77 cents for a man’s dollar. That is 18 cents in 35 years, too little to count as progress.

That is not all. Social and political equity is desperately needed. I worked for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, doing everything I could to draw attention to the need for a constitutional amendment. That the ERA didn’t pass is not surprising. As a country we did not sign the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the only industrialized nation not to sign. Why do women need to go to safe houses to escape a violent home situation? Why haven’t we instead taught our men to respect women, to not abuse or treat them violently? Why were rape in the military and on college campuses not fully acknowledged until recently? Why is there a glass ceiling?

 

Feminist is a good word. It is a term of equality; both women and men can be and are feminists. I was pleased to be married for 42 years to a man who was not threatened by a woman’s equality. Now, at 88 years old, I want to make it clear, women who work for women’s rights do not hate men. But some men and corporations, abetted by unthinking women, have profited from our second-class status. They have put everyone in a bind.

I believe that most women want to be more than sex objects. They want control over their own lives and bodies. So what’s the answer? As countless women have demonstrated, we can make progress only if we speak out and identify gender discrimination. We cannot give up now. Our foremothers sacrificed too much for us to get as far as we have. I, and the wonderful women who worked so hard for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, sacrificed also. I’m proud to be a feminist still doing what I can to help all women have a better and more respected future.

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There are many ways to implement change and I have no doubt that the movement is alive and well. Women are angry, fed up and creating their own businesses, living without men out of choice, supporting themselves and raising children alone better now than ever and they are helping each other to become stronger. Don’t discount what they can achieve. They are not done! – S. Schechter


Talking About Abortion

I live in Missouri, the land of Todd Aiken who brought us the term “legitimate rape.” He is not alone in Missouri or across the country. “Obviously rape is awful,” West Virginia member of the House of Delegates Brian Kurcaba has said. “What is beautiful is the child that could come of this.” No one likes abortion. Even those of us who are pro-choice don’t like abortion. Our “like” is the concept of a woman choosing for herself. It is not our right to judge her circumstances or her story. Not judging is not pro-abortion.

 

Where is the talk about the sperm provider who created the pregnancy?

Last fall, in my public speaking class, a young woman asked if she could do a persuasive speech on abortion.

“Are you planning on having one?” I said.

“Of course not,” she said.

“So do you plan to argue for having one or against?”

“Against.” She wavered a bit in her answer.

“I see. So you want to argue against having abortions. Look around the class. We have as many males as females. How are you going to reach males? They aren’t having abortions.”

She looked at the men in the class. “I want them to be against abortion, too.”

“So you are going to argue that men should be against abortion even though statistics say they are rarely impacted by an unplanned pregnancy?”

The class stared at me. One of the young men spoke up. “We have to pay child support.”

“In theory,” I said. “Some men do and some don’t.”

“I do,” he said. “And I keep her one day a week.”

“Good for you. That’s more than many men. How many days a week does her mother have her? And did you practice safe sex, like using a condom?”

The young man slid down a bit in his seat. “She said she was on birth control.”

“Ah. So that absolves you from responsibility for your sperm?” The young man slouched lower.

“What if” – I was on a roll – “what if the man who produced the sperm that fertilized the egg had to go to jail for the same length of time the woman was pregnant? DNA testing could prove the sperm donor. Would men be more conscious of using condoms? Do you think there might be fewer requests for abortions?”

No one in the class responded.

 

This, then, is the abortion problem. Whether we call it the War on Women or simply the Abortion Issue, the fact remains: Women are targeted. Men are not. The responsibility for terminating a pregnancy is on the woman’s shoulders and conscience. Most of the time, the woman goes to the abortion clinic alone and she leaves alone. Why is there so little consciousness or talk around the issue of shared responsibility? Why is abortion only a women’s issue?

Forty-two years have passed since Roe v. Wade and we’re still fighting about a woman’s right to control her body. I’ve been a feminist that long. I knew Sarah Weddington in those days; I went to the “First Women’s Convention Since Seneca Falls” in the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas. The women in my consciousness-raising group vowed to raise their daughters differently; maybe they did. Except I also saw the slide backwards and watched the term feminist become a pejorative for many of those daughters.

 

I said, “We have to raise our sons differently!” I have. One summer, my teenage grandson came to visit. I picked up clothes from the floor and found a photo, his arms draped around two girls’ shoulders, his fingertips tucked inside their halter tops. When he came home, I sat him down. We were going to have a talk.

“Remember junior high when I warned you girls’ lap dancing could lead to bigger problems? Do you keep a condom in your wallet? Do you realize that if you become pregnant, you’re responsible for a child until he or she is out of college?” He lounged in an easy chair across from me. “Are you listening?”

“Yeah, Grams. But you’ve been telling me that since I was about five.”

“Oh,” I said. “Even about paying for the child until after college?”

“No,” he said. “That part is new. But it’s good information.”

It is possible to raise sons to respect women and to take responsibility. Perhaps that’s the conversation we need to be having. It’s time.

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To create a just and loving language for humanity and divinity is a feminist issue. For God’s sake, it’s doable. – Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman

 

 

 


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5 thoughts on “Responses to Vivian Gornick’s “Feminism in These Times”

  1. Cherry Weiszbrod

    One more issue is that video games are generally serious in nature with the most important focus on understanding rather than leisure. Although, there is an entertainment factor to keep your sons or daughters engaged, every single game is generally designed to focus on a specific experience or programs, such as math or science. Thanks for your article.

  2. Nan Rush

    I agree with Sally Thomason: Although I would love to see a woman as President, electing a person of integrity is far more important than electing a woman whose behavior continues to be questionable. Bernie Sanders is a wonderful candidate, but I can’t see him defeating the Clinton money machine. You never know, though. . .

    Also, Jimmy Carter’s recent TED talk proves that there are men out there who believe in “equal pay, equal worth, and equal status.” He believes the mistreatment of women is the number one human right’s abuse. Yes, it’s sad that this message will probably have more impact coming from a man, but he sounds like a feminist to me. I have worked on the frontlines at an abortion clinic where feminist men joined feminist women to prevent blockades from terrorizing patients, where both male and female doctors put their lives on the line each day they came to work. Like Cleo Kocol, I believe it’s obvious that both men and women can be feminists.

  3. Madison Woods

    Thought, provoking, Janet. Abortion is such a divisive topic and I wish it were less of a platform in our politics and more of a discussion at our dinner tables. I am pro-choice and it astounds me how often people interpret that to mean “pro-abortion”.

  4. Judie Venturini

    20/20

    In or around 1986, I went to my friend Dorothy’s home for a lazy afternoon at poolside. Little did I know that she invited about 100 other women. The results were similar to a women’s caucus in for San Francisco with the major topic de jour being equity for women. We committed to working for the election of women to government positions with a goal in mind. By the year 2020, women would represent 20% of Congress. We surpassed that only recently, but now have the esteemed privilege of electing our first women president after the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court. The election of Hillary Rhodam Clinton appears an easy matter for the Democrats, but her election to office is not a shoe in. Why, you may ask? They answer comes from women ourselves. We tend to engage in “bitch-slapping” powerful women and become the henchmen if a politically positioned male is not comfortable with that dubious honor. As women, we must rally against the naysaying women who feel compelled to keep men in office. Until we fully unite, we will continue to face All Forms of Discrimination. Hillary may not be perfect, and you may not like all of her baggage, but she is electable with unity among women. Then, and only then, will we receive equal pay, equal worth and equal status in the future….Of the Women…For Women and By Women with a little help from our male friends, and we CAN DO IT.

    Judie Venturini

    1. Sally Thomason

      As a committed feminist, both first and second wave, I have witnessed great and good change during my eighty-one years both culturally and professionally and I agree we are not yet finished.

      However, I am deeply disturbed when the election of a woman as President, or any political office, regardless of her “baggage” becomes a feminist aim. I believe this does fundamental damage to the movement. We may disagree on policy and programs but must not loose sight of the need for basic integrity in our nation’s government. Hillary Clinton’s questionable integrity since her first job out of college, the privatizing of official emails and her hidden manipulations to amass great personal wealth while Secretary of State, should disqualify her nomination by the Democratic Party.

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