First, two radical feminist thinkers:
Andrea Dworkin: A very large woman who always wore overalls. She developed the first systematic analysis of pornography, which she called a “religion,” and with the lawyer Catherine MacKimmon pushed for limits that raised Freedom of Speech issues and were unsuccessful in legislative terms. But they began the conversation.
Mary Daly: so far the only Church woman to announce herself as a “radical lesbian feminist.” She taught at a Jesuit college for thirty-three years, then ran afoul of the authorities when she forbid men to take her advanced class in Women’s Studies at Boston College. Also the only writer to take on the necessary reform of language.
Both these were important, and so far, unique.
Also, of great importance to me in the early 1970s as well as to other women as we woke up:
Silences, by Tillie Olsen: known mainly as a New York short story writer about working-class women, Olsen also wrote the first book about “silenced women.” She is particularly strong on the unresolvable problems of women writers who are raising children. She quotes me on pp.209-210, from my short story collection, The Way It Is Now, adding the note, “1972—and no book since.”Adrienne Rich’s Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution and her On Lies, Secrets and Silences, Selected Prose, 1966-1978 were probably for me the most important books, as well as her poetry, especially Diving into the Wreck.
Adrienne broke the mold for poets of that generation. She didn’t kill herself; her husband did. We shied away from both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton because their suicides seemed a warning we didn’t want to hear. But Sexton’s A Self Portrait in Letters is worth looking at because it is such an indictment of the difficulty of that period for women.
It may be hard to believe now, but the women poets of that time were most important to feminists finding our way; they were enlisted in our cause and could give it a more eloquent expression than most prose writers. Anne Sexton’s All My Pretty Ones (in spite of the disclaimer above), Maxine Kumin’s House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Adrienne Rich’s Poems, Selected and New 1950-1974, which contain her Harvard-inspired conventional verses, changing into the overt feminism of When We Dead Awaken, all deserve reading.
And finally, Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness was a wake-up call for many of us after decades of Freud-influenced therapy.
It’s hard now to believe the extraordinary sense of liberation I as well as many other women felt during the early 1970s. It was a freeing of our thought, our language, our behavior, and our looks we had never expected during the buttoned-up decades that we had known. Later, of course, there were repercussions and some disillusionment as the Feminist Movement experienced the attacks, and the internal rifts, inevitable for all radical efforts.
But for a few brief moments, it was the sunlight of a new dawn.