A birthday being a good moment to reflect, I noticed that I am not mellowing with age. I am as fierce (aka strident) a feminist in my 60s as I was in my 20s and 30s. Pursuing feminism in the midlands in the late ‘60s and ‘70s I was conscious that my study and my reading was shaped by my beliefs. I researched and wrote about Mary Wollstonecraft for my history degree, for example. Her published works were hard to find at that time. I have an American edition of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, picked up during my visit in 1967-8. (BTW, as they tweet, my sister emailed me this image from Desktop Retreat blog. ‘I love this picture of you writing your blog?!’ Had she spotted that the picture on the wall is a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft?) Mary Wollstonecraft – an early example of writing the revolution.
I think I was one of many women, reading like mad! The second wave of feminism, as it has been called, was fuelled in part by sharing women’s writings. I was well placed to enjoy them as I was emerging from the canon of English Literature as taught in school. (I was already alert to new fiction, requesting On the Road by Jack Kerouac for the school library. Request refused.)
We found that it was in our collective action that we learned, explored, argued, sought support for our private troubles and laughed and laughed and laughed. How did feminists ever get a reputation for dourness? One of the activities of the Rugby Women’s Group was discussing books, and these are eight books I remember being especially influential at the time. Most of them seem to have come from abroad, especially from the US.
The Feminine Mystique (1963) Betty Friedan, asking why American women were not happy in the suburbs and suggesting some reasons. She called it ‘the problem that has no name’.
The Female Eunuch (1970) Germaine Greer, the Australian who made her name in the UK, challenged the prevailing views, especially about sexuality it seems to my memory. She also made us understand that we had learned to judge ourselves though men’s eyes.
The Second Sex (1949) Simone De Beauvoir, the French consort of Jean-Paul Sartre (how impressive was that!) wrote magisterially about women’s status over the centuries.
Our Bodies Ourselves (1971) Published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, an innovative health guidebook for women. It’s hard to remember now but when it was first published medical records were closed to patients, and women had to have their husband’s permission for prescriptions for contraception.
If they come in the Morning (1971) by Angela Davies. This book and her Autobiography (1974) were shocking because they revealed the treatment of African-Americans, and the hounding of a black woman communist. She was imprisoned, for goodness sake.
Fear of Flying (1973) Erica Jong was explicit about women’s sexual desires and invented the phrase ‘the zipless fuck’.
The Women’s Room (1977) Marilyn French’s American novel is about a women who finds herself when she rejects her cosy life in the suburbs (see Betty Friedan, above).
The Children of Violence Sequence (1952 – 69) Doris Lessing’s five novels, beginning in Rhodesia but continued in London as the protagonist, Martha Quest, became politicised. The Golden Notebook was also written during this period in 1962.
In the UK there were important and interesting new developments in publishing. In 1973 Virago was established, the dark green covers showing up quickly on the shelves of like-minded women. (She’s celebrating her 40th birthday this year!) The Women’s Press was also set up at this time, and its subscription ensured that those of us who didn’t live in metropolitan areas still got to read the zebra striped publications.
And of course there was Spare Rib: a monthly magazine, with pre-digital layout, bringing us news to which we had no other access.
This was the time when women were reviled for bra-burning, for rejecting the marriage-status defining title of Miss or Mrs. (We pioneered using Ms, and it saddens me that today it is often mistakenly believed to to indicate lesbianism, I hear, or divorce.) Spare Rib and to some extent the Guardian’s Women’s page published on Tuesdays, gave a different voice, a serious consideration of the matters that concerned us.
Some of us were campaigning for abortion rights (Abortion Act 1967), better contraception including for unmarried women, maternity rights, and later supported the miners’ wives and were active against the US base at Greenham Common. Others were involved in trade unionism, parliamentary politics, education, mental health, housing, consumer rights …
In whichever strand of feminism one was active there were women writing to support the revolution.
Do you have memories of significant writing from the second wave of feminism? Who will be remembered as the feminist writers of today?
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