Monday, October 30, 2006

Review: In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

I was really excited about reading Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoirs of a Revolution. My sister had brought it back from America (I don't envy much about living in America, but I would love your bookstores, particularly their low prices). I was really disappointed; think I got to about page 20, before I had a biro in my hands at all times to make furious scribbles in the margin. You could call it a stylistic problem: I could not handle the way she described the women she was working with:

"Kathie [Sarachild] had close-cropped, honey-colored hair and a voice that was small and tenacious."

"Carol Hanisch, an Iowa farmer's daughter, red-haired and freckled.."

"Like her namesake in Little Women, Jo [Freeman] was a stubborn, coltish, no-nonsense doer."

"At five feet one inch tall, she gazed at all comers through owlish glasses, tossing the mane of dark hair that cascaded below her shoulders."

The last one refers to Shulamith Firestone. This is only the beginning other women are described in just the same way: bubbly, titian hair, frizzy hair, big soulful eyes, hair that falls below her shoulders, open-faced and bespectacled. She describes Bernadine Dohrn as a siren.*

Partly it's the descriptions themselves, which read exactly like the sort of descriptions that journalists never give men - trying to make a point about who a woman is by the way she loosk. But partly the focus on physical experience is part of a wider lack of respect she seems to have for other women in the movement. She casually mentions serious personal problems prominent women were going through in a way that is almost gossipy.

Other things that frustrated me when I read the book, bother me less now. As I wrote in my review of Against Our Will, I now understand Susan Brownmiller's aversion to anything that resembles left-wing economic analysis. But it certainly doesn't make the book any stronger:

The SWP's passion for marches and rallies added another dimension to the abortion struggle. Worried that legalized abortion might be employed a form of population control by "the state", the activists carefully appended "No Forced Sterilization" to every WONAAC poster and flyer. At first WONAAC championed the provocative slogal "Free Abortion on Demand." Later it excised the "free" part as ultra-left and unrealistic. WONAAC's effectiveness was seriously undercut by its ties to the SWP.

Red-baiting is not adequate political analysis.

Those are the small issues I had with it. The big issues are larger:

I watched the battered women's movement from a sisterly distance, and was deeply impressed even as I developed philosophic differences with some of its tenets. The larger women's movement had begun to lump rape and battery under the general rubric of 'violence against women,' and I thougth that was sloppy thinking. Rape was a one-time event, whether it happened in the context of a date or was committed by a stranger or strangers, unknown to the victim. Battery was systemic violence within an intimate, ongoing emotionally complex relationship. Any woman could become a victim of rape, but a pattern of physical abuse in a long-standing relationship begged for further interpretation.

I find it staggering that the person who literally wrote the book on rape, would categorically state that rape was a one time thing. I don't know if she's missed the fact that women get raped in abusive relationship many more times than just once. Or she blames women who are raped in the same way she blames women who are in abusive relationships, but either way I'd expect better.

The fundamental problem I have isn't that I disagree with her. I'm probably going to disagree with any feminist about some issues. It's that she's not clear what sort of history she's attempting to write.

She calls it a memoir, but she doesn't attempt to tell her own story. She starts as the feminist movement began, with very little background. You get very little idea of what was going on in her life, and how she became the person she was. She doesn't owe us that, she has no obligation to write her story. But the book becomes a personal tale when she wants it to. Early on in the book she appears to summarise inter-feminist struggles in two different ways, in one part other feminists with power were trying to shut her out, in another part she was unfairly cut down because people were jealous of her power. She appears to be presenting very similar situation differently depending on what position she was in.

I understand that she would feel that way (I've felt that way), but that's not a historical analysis. That's not the story of what happened in the women's liberation movement.

Part of my frustration was about the fact that I'm a big historical geek. Right at the beginning Susan Brownmiller credits "SNCC Position Paper (Women in the Movement)" to Mary King and Casey Hayden, but this just isn't true. The paper was written by larger group of women in SNCC. It's not a huge mistake, but it shows how easy it is for hearsay to creep in. Because she doesn't footnote most of her statements we don't know whether her accounts come from the fact that she was there, the fact that she's talked to people who were there, the fact that she's talked to people who talked to people who were there or the fact that she's read stuff about what happened. It's incredibly frustrating to read all sorts of interesting bits of information and not know where it comes from, and no way of judging their reliability.

But even if you're not a geek, even if you're not filing pieces of information away in your mind, the difference between memoir and history is important.

I believe memoirs - people telling their own stories, how they experienced the world, what it was like for them - are incredibly important. But if you try to tell your story under cover of a general story, then you're going to end up being dishonest. You need to be clear what's your experience and what's other people's.

If you want a good memoir of the feminist movement I can't recommend Roxanne Dunbar Oritz's Outlaw Woman enough, Ruth Rosen's The World Split Open is a good history.

*I find this particularly frustrating because I've read many accounts of the history of SDS which cast Bernadine Dohrn as an Eve character - sexually tempting the New Left to a fall - to violence and the underground. There is no excuse for women to go aorund with the same offensive idea.

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