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The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born

An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale

NOTE: The material in this section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the minds of Alex and Ilene and is also based upon
their large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.

Reflections of A "Person"
New York, 1969—71

By Ilene Astrahan Gross

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Since  this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.

I'm writing this chapter because, so far as I'm concerned, almost everything that has been written so far by and about the women's movement, pro and con, by women or men, has been pretty much nonsense. At least I've never been able to see myself in most of it. I'm not saying feminism hasn't had its good points—in fact I'd be inclined to support it on a lot of individual issues, and I look forward—writing in 1975—with some curiosity to seeing how the Equal Rights Amendment will work out in practice, when and if it is passed. But I think an awful lot of the noise and effort has been ill-defined, contradictory, and probably self-defeating in the long run. Since some of the most vocal opponents of the women's movement turn out to be other women, it ought to be pretty clear that something has gone wrong somewhere.

My first contact with the women's movement came when Alex was busy holding the Art Workers Coalition together. I used to go to most of the Coalition meetings, and when the women's group, originally run by Juliette Gordon, started up, I was asked to attend meetings. The group was called WAR, or "Women Artists in Revolution." It was assumed I would want to attend simply because I was a woman. And because I was a woman, it was also assumed that I had all sorts of grievances against men which I wanted to air. I didn't necessarily go along with any of these assumptions, and I didn't like the way they were being assumed. But I went to several of the early meetings, mainly out of a sense of obligation.

I cannot tell you how square most of the women at these meetings were and how boring it was sitting there. And this was Greenwich Village in the swinging Sixties! A lot of the people there even had pretensions to being avant-garde or artists or something. Most of them had no imagination, no verve, no real ideas. We just sat there re-digesting things we had heard elsewhere. Basically, it was all just a bitching session, a long dreary kvetch about how bad we women had it. If this was supposed to be consciousness-raising, I decided I'd keep my consciousness as low as I could.

I soon became aware that hardly any of the women in the group had ever held a job or been self-supporting. A number of them were married and seemed to have wealthy husbands. And almost all of them had kids. They were all bored stiff with their lives, or so they said. And I also got the impression that many of them were not enjoying the fullest of sex lives.

None of this applied to me. I have had exhibits of my work as a painter, a sculptor, and a jewelry maker. I had been using acetylene torches, grinding wheels, and other tools normally employed by men since I was eighteen. Except for one experience, which I will relate, it had never occurred to me that I was being subjected to any kind of discrimination because I was a woman. I have been self-supporting most of my life, and Alex and I have taken turns helping each other as the going got rougher or easier in our different fields.

I have never seen myself as having children, and I don't now. In fact, I think this was one of the big victories of the Sixties, that a woman is now more or less allowed to admit that she doesn't want children, even if people still aren't overjoyed about it. You didn't even dare mention the subject during the 'Fifties. Even during the Sixties a lot of the women in our group obviously weren't ready for it.

As for some of the other issues, for ten years before the women's movement ever came into existence, I had already favored a public abortion program, equal pay for equal work, and better knowledge about birth control. And as for sex, I just didn't have the hang-ups a lot of these women seemed to have. Although they bemoaned the scant attention they were getting from their husbands, they also seemed incensed with the idea of men finding them attractive (and a few of them, contrary to prejudice, were quite attractive) or making passes at them, the so-called "sex object" approach, as we called it. But I really couldn't tell if they resented this approach because it offended their idea of the new femininity or because they weren't getting enough of it.

There was a lot of criticism of the men in the Coalition for being free with their hands, and even criticism of some of the women for being too flirtatious and courting this attention, though this kind of talk usually took place at the cow sessions (can't say bull, you know) that went on at St. Adrian's bar after meetings. But most of all, the men were resented for being the leaders, or for acting like "leaders," and constantly coming up with plans for action and expecting us to join in.

As Alex was one of the leaders, some of the women would give me a hard time on the basis of guilt by association. The black artist Tom Lloyd was also often singled out for this sort of criticism, though when it came time for us to write our demands, we stole almost all of them from Tom, substituting the word "Women" where he had written "Black." Frankly, I don't think there would have been a woman's movement without the example of the Blacks. Tom, I should add, was also subjected to attacks from one or two of the black women for his habit of seeking out white girlfriends.

Of the other men, Barry Schwartz, Laurin Raiken, Ed Lynch, and several others were frequently singled out along with Tom and Alex for criticism, although I happened to know that some of the women doing most of the complaining had either had affairs with these men or tried to have them. In fact I know for a certainty that one of the women who was most critical of Alex had been trying for the longest time to get into bed with him. Some-times the criticism would come from a conventional leftist position that the men were not "radical" enough, but most often it just had to do with the fact that they had, up until that time, been leading things in the group.

About the only constructive side of the meetings was the campaign to do something about the prejudice against female artists in many galleries and by many art editors. I myself had had one experience of this sort. After a feature story on my work had been approved for publication by Ralph Ginzberg, editor of the now defunct Avant-Garde magazine, I ran into what I was sure was sexist opposition from his art editor, and the article was never published. I can say this was true because until this time I had never encountered this sort of opposition before and had not found that the work of a woman, if it was good enough, was necessarily less highly prized or less saleable than that of a man.

Many women pointed out that almost all the big names in the art world belonged to men and cited this as proof of their theories. But there is another side to this so-called sexism in the art world, which nobody seemed to be thinking about. At the same time as we were considering ourselves such hotshot radicals for preaching women's lib, we were colliding headlong with another branch of the movement representing another oppressed group, gay men. The reason there were so many gay men involved in the gallery and museum world (as well as in hairdressing and interior decorating) was basically the same reason so many women had been encouraged to study art in school—it was the only field both of our groups were supposed to go into. We were so sure we were striking a blow for justice in claiming sexism in the arts that we didn't bother to think about the fact that we were launching an attack on another oppressed group. I really didn't like the idea of this, but I could find no one willing to talk about it. I should add that at this time the gay element in the women's movement had not become obvious, though even if it had, there seemed to he little love lost between gay women and gay men.

About the only real plan for action that ever got discussed at these WAR meetings was the project to set up a women's center in New York. And you should have seen the fur fly over that one. We had all been furious with Tom Lloyd when he got funding for his ghetto arts programs, but there was no end to the jockeying for power to get a foot in the door of this women's center. Jackie Skiles, one of the most masculine of the women there and certainly one of the most aggressive, was always being called onto the carpet for trying to get things done, and sooner or later we would get back to our kvetch sessions again, which a a lot of the women seemed to think was the main reason for getting together. But there was still tons of plotting going on behind the scenes, with everybody trying to outdo each other with a ferocity men could just barely match.

There were just so many things wrong with this branch of the women's movement that I find it hard to count them all. First of all, we were so unhip, it wasn't funny. The women had no really new or striking or radical ideas, they just wanted in on the action of the men. We called others sexist, but we ourselves were just as sexist as any Latin country because we went on insisting that there are only two sexes and you can tell them apart by the shape of their genitals. To me this is just plain benighted and primitive.

There was just so much cowshit flying around in every direction, and most of it either cancelled out or boomeranged back onto us. For instance, a lot of us seemed to have some kind of Lysistrata complex, that if we women would only stop letting men make love to us, we could bend them to our wills. This worked out in practice about as well as you would expect. Then there was the big campaign that women didn't really have vaginal orgasms but only clitoral ones. The idea was that the more intense orgasm was all a big lie invented by men. From what I could see, most of the women doing the talking just wouldn't know.

I think everybody should take care before generalizing from their own experience. On the whole I think it's pretty well proven that this sort of thing can change and deepen as you grow older and your nerve centers change. I'm sure a lot of those making most of the noise were being quite honest from their own experience, but how much did they really know? I was also disturbed by a certain neo-puritanical element bordering on blue-stockingism that began to creep into the movement. One of our leaders actually went around saying that women ought to wear more clothing and keep themselves fully covered at all times. And holding hands at the Coalition meetings, or flirting, or any of that ilk, was definitely off bounds for this leader and a few others.

Then there was the giant cowturd about us women being somehow finer and softer and more sensitive than men, and if the running of the world were just turned over to us, suddenly there would be no more war or aggression or all the dumb masculine things that had kept happening throughout history. What absolute nonsense! And somehow we managed to swallow this at the same time we said we wanted to develop a new "aggressive" women's consciousness and resist the male-imposed stereotypes about women being softer and finer.

Through history women have been just as guilty of condoning violence as men have, and it is ridiculous to deny it. Often the violence and bloodshed in society were instigated at the behest of women to protect their property, their children, their concept of normality. We have often set men at each other's throats for our own purposes, and we have encouraged men to believe we approve of them in so far as they are winners rather than losers, strong rather than weak, aggressors rather than passive putterers. It is absurd to suppose that history could be the blood-soaked pageant it is if women had not been complicit in it at every point. Catherine the Great and Indira Gandhi are just two examples that come to mind, with Messalina and the Empress Theodora not far behind. Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, when and if it happens, will be no better than any male Tory. [Just a reminder: this was written in 1975.]

Then there's the lie about the women's movement being international, and the solidarity of women in all countries. Anyone who has ewer visited a Latin country knows what a load of nonsense this is, not to mention an Arab or an oriental nation. The best you can say is that in all countries some sort of women's consciousness may slowly be developing. It's likely to take a long time and may still turn out quite differently in all the various countries when it has developed.

And of course there's that other big cowpattie about women not really needing men, for we are supposedly more highly sexed than men anyway and can make do with other women. There's no more real support for the view that women are more highly sexed than men than for the reverse, and in case a few of the sisters haven't noticed, men have ways of doing without women too and may start going in for them more industriously if we don't get our own heads and bodies together.

But the biggest blind spot of the movement has to do with what we claim we want and don't want men to do with us sexually. Here the contradictions are so enormous that men could be excused for lapsing into a dated sexist aphorism and just saying women can't make up their minds what they do want. On the one hand we feign shock that men are interested in us as sex objects and voice our disapproval of all those gaudy sex ads and films showing women in flimsy, feminine garments. And we insist that we really don't want brutish men to ravish our bodies in demeaning circumstances—rather they must look into our souls and see us as "persons." And at the same time we publish volumes of women's sex fantasies proving that this is exactly what we do want. Obviously, no woman is courting sheer brutal rape, and few of us are in favor of total promiscuity, but the signals we are now sending out are just too contradictory to be taken seriously either way.

It seems to be forgotten that there were not just one but two revolutions for women during the Sixties. The first one took place in 1967 and was summed up by a widely published photo of a Berkeley girl carrying a poster that read "Every Woman Secretly Wants to Be Raped." For many this revolution was shocking enough. A few years later the second revolution took place, and rape was declared off limits again—in fact some feminists went so far as to claim that most sex with males involves an element of rape and is therefore wrong.

[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]

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This book excerpt is Copyright © 2000
by Ilene Astrahan Gross and Alexander Gross.
It may be reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
All Rights Reserved.

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