Long live Lib
It’s 1999. I’m in my first prof job at the Bio department at Valdosta State U, in southern Georgia – a much better school and general gig than I’d thought. I’m on the organizing committee for the annual Women’s Studies Conference there, similar to roles I’d played in many such events. “But what straight white guy could do it, and handle it?” “Get Edwards.” At the end of the conference, I’m hanging out with guest of honor Kate Millet, who was kind enough to attend my talk. We discuss another guest of honor at the conference, apparently a rising star in the field, from somewhere in Wisconsin or Minnesota, and who arrived with a small busload of students. These students dress like her, hang out together exclusively, and are obviously disdainful of the southern location. This conversation is surrounded by a party, but It’s just Millet and me, drinkin’ beer. Millet shakes her head – “She’s toxic,” she says. “She’s harming those students.”
I agree completely. I like Millet – she’s a tough, keen-eyed ol’ broad who waits to speak, and whose statements combine hammer-power with surgical precision. By contrast, I had disliked the prof we were discussing within a day.
Earlier in the final day, the conference had held a slam, a microphone session where people line up and speak briefly. Sitting with another older woman, an artist whose work I’ve had on my wall since, I’d watched woman after woman – locals – get up and discuss how the women’s program at VSU and its associated services had helped them. These are women who’d been beaten up. Raped. Trapped in jobs which effectively en-serfed them. Lawfared into poverty. They don’t look “feminist” in the sense a casting director or hip magazine editor would recognize at all: beehive hairdos, deferential southern phrasing, conservative clothing. They don’t talk about their feels, but about their lives, with pride. And all those little hipster, PoMo snots sit there looking confused and miffed.
Because that, people, is fucking feminism, or should be. Action by which women overcome systemic abuse. It doesn’t matter who facilitates it, but what effect it has. It’s not a look, a feel, a community, an ideology, or a set of permitted or unpermitted words. You can guess what sector of current society fights me the hardest on this: those most committed to a look, a feel, a community, an ideology, and a set of permitted and unpermitted words, either as their own identity or as a specific target. My problem with a whole lot of feminism is that it’s not feminist at all. To be absolutely precise about it, it’s not women’s liberation.
You might notice a trend in my choice of acquaintances at the conference. I love women activists and artists who – at that time, 15 years ago – were in their 50s and 60s, and generally, throughout my life, they’ve loved me back. We speak the same language and know the same things, and a lot of the same people. They like men fine, regardless of anyone’s partner-orientation. They hate sexism and bullshit and aren’t afraid to use words like “hate” and fight.” They know I am their son and they want to know how I’m doing.
Right now, I’m looking for visuals for this post, and the text at all the sites I find talk about Marvel “flirting with relevance,” “muddled politics,” openly dismissive of the 70s superheroes, and promulgating a horrible lie that the 80s brought real-life issues and more mature writing and themes into superhero comics.
I will never understand that. The 70s Ms. Marvel was a hero, as were Tigra, the Black Widow, Thundra, Medusa, Spider-Woman, Mantis, and many others – even the mixups like Red Sonja were full of promise; I see them as necessary missteps to discover boundaries. I’ll present my case that they outshone the 80s women heroes in a later post. I want to talk about those 70s comics heroines, and to do that, I have to include the political variables no movie you ever saw, or any prof you ever had, with few exceptions, will touch. It is, also, my literal upbringing and life you are looking at here.
Fortunately there are some good books about it. As usual, this is me riffing on the books, so whatever errors and horrors follow, they’re mine. To begin, here are some details which might seem random at first.
1. No one – no one – was prepared for the Pill’s arrival in 1961. It tossed women’s activism on its ear just like it did everyone else. See Elaine May’s America and the Pill for some more thoughts on the entirely unexpected consequence that a whole lotta women wanted a whole lotta more sex now.
2. When members of Students for a Democratic Society met with reps from the government of North Vietnam for strategy discussion, the former were gobsmacked by the latter’s insistence that women be included.
3. White participation in lower-income and ethnic civil rights efforts tends to overlook the role of local, nonwhite and/or non-middle-class women in keeping the work going; it’s not at all right to tag “womens rights movement” with the visible white authors as if they’d invented or were definitive of female activism or radicalism, or as if women weren’t instrumental in “other” goals.
4. No one ever burned a bra. There was one minor, not very interesting demonstration in which people burned issues of the Ladies Home Journal; and which was bloated into national news probably because it was trivial, and that’s about it.
Now for the points. The first concerns the shift from long-standing activism for women’s rights, which Echols calls mainstream or liberal feminist (meaning centrist, not Left), exemplified at the time by Betty Friedan and NOW, to a call for women’s liberation, a new thing born in a welter of ricochets with the other New Left goals of the moment, beginning quite rightly with the observation that women were subject to systemic oppression. The POV was characteristic of the New Left, in that the systemic problem was rooted in imperial and military policy, directly linked to racism, and they all needed to be changed via the grassroots, with the politics of confrontation and demonstration. A good example is the Women’s International Conspiracy From Hell (WITCH), a men-and-women’s group given to mocking, nude demonstrations against political corruption and war.
New Left groups began to pull the emergent women’s issues and a variety of NL aims together in 1967, for instance, the term “women’s lib” comes from the Women’s Liberation Committee within the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1968. In grassroots practice, this was successful, prompting a multi-city proliferation of women’s lib groups featuring immense diversity in priorities and approaches, some of it New Left like, and some not – all of it prioritizing the excellent question, What do I want, and what is stopping me? But in terms of “official” groups and leadership at a level similar to SDS and the BPP, organizing efforts detonated catastrophically. Why?
- Men bore the risk in resisting the draft and were up against a generation who had equated both Americanism and manhood with military service in WWII. Incorporating machismo into draft resistance was crucial so you could stomach the accusations of being a pussy. Bluntly, they were tin-eared and deeply fearful of losing the one thing that was still manly to them, their available on-the-Pill girlfriends. The infamous “Girls Say Yes to Guys Who Say No” draft resistance advertisement seems silly, but it hit the whole movement right where it lived. This is where the term male chauvinist (pig) emerged, a within-activism term, not directed at the outer society. Consider what “pig” meant in draft-resistance terms and you can see it had to hurt.
- There was no vision of achievement from anyone, but only a deep confusion about the problem: Is enjoying sex part of the problem or part of the solution? What specific infrastructure is causing it? Who’s supposed to change, men or women? People jumped fast not only to hasty answers, but to the expectation that everyone would agree.
- The two most high-profile New Left groups, Weather and the BPP, underwent famous crises and shouting matches between men and women. Although both continued to feature women in their respective leaderships, by the time the Jane Alpert court case hit, the schisms between them and other groups were irreparable.
- The late 60s and early 70s attempts at “liberated” marriages and communes were terrible – whether in concept or because they were attempted by people completely steeped in prior values, is hard to say.
There’s no question that sexism and to my eyes strange expectations of subordination ran through the New Left just as it did in the larger society. But these completely contingent conflicts and arguments were taken as the defining nature of the issue. Paraphrasing from Evans: A great deal of the conflictual rhetoric that people now say is intrinsic to gender politics was simply the artifact of specific high-profile (i) organizational spats and (ii) failed relationships, both among people who had absolutely no idea what they were doing. I agree with her. I saw it happen.
From all this shouting in the New Left came the radical feminists, a tricky term because the whole NL was obviously radical; this is a self-designated term with special meaning in this case. Several different outlooks were present, but the term became associated with Robin Morgan’s anti-Left “Goodbye to All That” (1970) and SCUM (No More Fun and Games, Cell 16), later the Redstockings, who were into separatism + celibacy + karate. This sector were consistently anti-sex of any kind, including lesbian as well as porn, and were decidedly not pro-choice. The historical self-designated radicals aren’t what you think, and were in no way Leftist, Old or New. They rejected class struggle as “male,” abandoning systemic criticism to focus on attitude and consciousness.
The radical feminists weren’t what they made of themselves, either. A big part of their rhetoric concerned “no leaders,” consensus, and the magic of sisterhood which allegedly replaced “dominance.” But … paraphrasing from Echols: The avowed anti-individualism, no-leaders rhetoric opened the door for media to choose “leaders” or “speakers” who despite their minimal credit in effective action, benefited immensely from this status. “Who me, a leader? Li’l ol’ me?” Morgan’s a good example, especially since as far as I can tell she was roundly evicted from every grassroots group she joined and sought to dominate. So is Andrea Dworkin. Radical feminism was good at looking much bigger than it was in terms of political base and will – not a movement.
Echols argues that the radicals swiftly transformed into cultural feminism, e.g., Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s A Lesser Life and Sheila Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. I can’t even go into the arrant stupidity in the new content: biological essentialism + goddess-worship + gynocracy + lifestyle called “politics” + idealized transcendence … the core idea is that instead of reforming economic and legal injustice and thereby freeing up strictures on life-experience (a viewpoint they derided as “male”), women should just be women, which would somehow generate a literal new Goddess/Mother/Woman religion, culture, and society. Consciousness first, then society transforms.
Echols’ account argues that cultural feminists were absorbed by or conjoined with the liberal feminist effort. Granted, no one in, say, the John Birch Society would call NOW or Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine “mainstream,” but cultural feminist priorities and favored processes were distinctly non-radical, and were soon about the same as any corporate startup. In New Left terms this meant assimilationist, racist, and classist – a justified criticism; back in the 60s, The Feminine Mystique was shot-through with entitlement and overlooks how much and how hard poor women were working.
You may find this puzzling – how could “radicals” be mainstream? Easier than you think – both uncompromisingly disavowed the Left, with its confrontational weirdos and Marxist arguments and naughty sex, and both generally sought white, middle-class female recruitment. The wedge issue included the linked details of:
- Supporting Alpert’s cooperation with the FBI, as repeatedly held by Morgan and Steinem; and conversely condemning her former partner Swinton, who had been killed by prison guards
- Not supporting the similar case of Rebecca Saxe, who was avowedly Left and did not so cooperate
- Defending Steinem and Ms. itself against the exposure of CIA ties
With a little sanding-off the edges from the SCUM Manifesto into Morgan’s friendlier Sisterhood is Powerful (1975), and ramping up the vague “women are wonderful” unity, cultural feminist efforts turned centrist-friendly. In using universal sisterhood rhetoric to obscure a real diversity of aims and needs, in rejecting radical political organizing and alliances, and in favoring socially-insular communities rather than outreach, they were perfect to provide “tough speakers” in the mainstream marketing of feminism, ultimately to become merely an ideology – a target market – of self-improvement. In other words, despite superficial radicalism, they ultimately abetted the American Way, due to their dismissal of all opposition to that Way.
[Pause for mild re-balancing. Many radical feminists found other paths than this, e.g. Millet. Credit goes to NOW for opening the nation’s first rape crisis centers. The NL was torn apart both externally or internally by the end of the 70s, and women’s lib as a movement was completely gone.]
By the late 70s, this large-scale synthesis had almost entirely monopolized the term feminism. Women’s Lib had vanished in the storm of Alpert’s trial, Weather’s underground phase, and Patty Hearst’s trial, in which militant, system-confronting women were successfully shamed as sluts. How lesbians’ political concerns were stifled under the guise of inclusion is a huge topic – in fact, Millet had been practically the sole voice protesting this at the time. In an earlier post, I talked about the big left-behind causes in 60s-70s activism, prison reform and sex work – and this is one of the reasons why. The Morgan-Steinem synthesis was petit-bourgeois to its core and had no use for “criminals” and “whores.” (One day I’ll post about how Omaha the Cat Dancer critiques this very thing.) And the most tragic thing about this is that women’s activists ever since have felt forced – or knew no better – than to stand firm in the defense of anyone using the label feminist, gutting their own effectiveness thereby. Morgan’s trick of trumpeting sisterhood-solidarity while actually stomping genuine needs into the dirt is still going.
As well, horribly, external backlash by the emerging New Right set in hard by the mid-70s, to identify New Left female political action with slutshaming, man-hating, dykes, and communism … and the cultural feminists were all too similar, shoving lesbians, poor women, sex workers, and ethnic women activists under the bus. Later the similarity between some cultural feminists and the Moral Majority would become active alliance, as with Dworkin’s disgusting collaboration with the Meese Commission in the mid-80s (see The way underground).
The narrative ever since has been hopeless, at least from the POV of this man who was born into this issue and raised directly as a participant. What was “a” feminist? What did feminism “want?” Are lesbians feminists by definition? Are mainstream corporate capitalist glass-ceiling breakers feminists? All because the whole culture has forgotten the truth: The diversity of Women’s Lib was hijacked by this synthesis, marginalizing and excluding the reflective and effective efforts almost before they began. Therefore the term “feminism” was screwed both as self-designated by the named individuals, and as accused by its vicious and organized opponents.
I want my Women’s Lib back. Sure it was diffuse. Sure people made a million bad decisions. Sure it included misplaced anger. Sure it was all over the place. But that’s how anything good starts, and say what you like, there was room to discover what might or might not work. It was fraught with sex, which is fine, because sex is fraught and we all need to figure out how it might not be. (60s women had to figure out what it was for once pregnancy was no longer so likely. 60s men were terrified and turned on at the same time, mostly the former.) Most of all, Lib was a pile of urgent questions and unanticipated reactions – not an answer in sight. It didn’t cast anyone as the super-person who’d figured it all out and was above all that now, or any way as the known way to go.
You’ll see more posts on other female heroes and post-1973 politics later for sure. This post is about Thundra, whose story begins without her, when Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. introduced the Femizons in Savage Tales #1 (man, that title – it had or did anything!). I read it reprinted in The Superhero Women a few years later. It was a cool, grim science fiction story that threw just about anything messed-up about men and women into one big pot. But onward to Fantastic Four #129-130 in 1972, in which Roy Thomas and John Buscema brought a suspiciously New Gods-looking femizon named Thundra into the superhero stories, tentatively allied with the Frightful Four just because she sort-of mysteriously wants to fight Ben. However, her presence is only a layer on top of the gender crisis inside the FF itself, beginning with a crass “woman driver” crack from Ben and developed by both Reed and Johnny being complete buttheads to Sue and to Crystal, respectively. Flat-out: male chauvinist pigs are making women’s lives impossible and causing ten times more trouble than they solve. And I’m not being snarky, it’s entirely what happens in the story and instead of caricature, the dialogue is depressingly realistic.
Pause for weirdness. I’m seeing these stories again for the first time in 38 years. It so happens I’m looking at the real comics, not a collection, making it doubly surreal as they include the ads – which create a weird meta-effect by promising big muscles so you can be a real man! This and others like it fill the ad pages throughout all the issues I’m talking about here. It dovetails in my mind with my mom not renewing her Ms. subscription when it started featuring mainstream advertising, at the same moment.
#133 is the big arena match issue by Gerry Conway and Ramona Fradon, in which Thundra does beat Ben but is tricked or manipulated by her own chivalry from the final victory, and she also saves Alicia from the Frightful Four (off-panel). In my reading, the character is rather appealing, being competent and honorable if admittedly single-minded. She doesn’t come off as a harridan or as a stupid ranter, but rather exactly how so many male heroes and almost-heroes with similar powers and bees in their bonnets do. This is important: Thundra isn’t about compensation, she’s not hiding some well of low self-esteem or whining vengeance – she simply is a chauvinist in addition to being mostly an all-right
Joe Jane. It’s not a caricature of feminism or women, but of the male ego: “See? This is what you look like. Why do you say you don’t like it now, I wonder?”
But the main event is #151-153, by Gerry Conway and Rich Buckler, doing as was their wont a pretty good imitation of Lee-Kirby, but with wonderful floofy 70s haircuts. I pored over this story as a kid, and you may decide for yourself how it combined with my contemporary reading of the “Stories for Free Children” in Ms. Magazine. Here, Thundra isn’t a villain or half-villain at all; she’s struggling to Find Herself, as well she might, and thinking her way out of the whole Machus vs. Femizon war. Which means it’s the perfect time for the real villain to show up: Mahkizmo, the Nuclear Man, likely the most thorough asshole ever to grace a supervillain page. He rules Machus, or at least he’s its top bully or champion, he wants to conquer Femizonia because It Bugs Him, stopping him turns out to be the whole reason Thundra ever showed up anyway, he punches everyone silly including the Baxter Building, and Conway probably had as much fun giving him lines about how effeminate all our heroes are as Buckler probably did giving him that one squinty eye and one bulging eye in most panels.
But whose power,as it turns out, crucially, is not his muscles and nuclear punch, but a ray which saps others’ courage – in other words, a monstrous cheat. And said ray emanates from a … structure that
looks exactly like can’t possibly be a penis. After much imprisonment and confusions and running around (and let’s pass over why Medusa doesn’t just do the bastard in after conking him with a bottle), these years of Ben-and-Thundra hit their moment: they have come to respect one another, and in teaming up, how do they deal with Mahkizmo? They kill him.Yeah, Marvel superheroes. They fuckin’ kill him.
Work with me, people. There is nothing “muddled” here. The problem is American men and their stupid military-manhood, necessarily abusive toward women as well as toward everyone else, with the allied concept that the same thing would be just as wrong when women do it. This is not poking fun at or villainizing women’s activism. It heroizes women’s capacity for thoughtful action. Thundra does not personify the female mirror to Mahkizmo’s assholery, but rather the human quality of trying to break free from it, and being smart enough to see that just being a mirror of it won’t do the job. She doesn’t turn to Ben for help at all; they merely act together because they agree.
In these stories, there’s no romance, not even a hint or banter, not even suppressed, between Thundra and Ben. The final bit about kissing him is merely a joke and also highlights the emerging Machus-Femizonia cohesion. All that business about her being turned on by him arrives – unfortunately – during a period of utter sexual confusion at Marvel that began in the very late 70s.
No one listened. No one listens. To this very day the enemy remains unchanged: ethically, defining empowerment through coercive force, and politically, defining national interest as being the foremost deliverer of war. Calling it “manhood” is one way to sell it. Co-opting womanhood for the same thing is another. In the long run, now that we’re looking at how “empowered womanhood” interplays with U.S. war policy, you see what that means: instead of the dissolution-conjoining of Machus and Femizonia and a new beginning for everyone, they have remained the same and become horribly allied. We can look forward to manly and now-womanly American war, forever.
Next: That duck, ’nuff said
Posted on August 2, 2015, in Heroics, Politics dammit, The 70s me, The 90s me and tagged Alice Echols, America and the Pill, Andrea Dworkin, Betty Friedan, Black Widow, bra burning, Daring To Be Bad, Elaine May, Fantastic Four, feminism, femizons, Gerry Conway, Gloria Steinem, John Buscema, Kate Millet, Mahkizmo, Mantis, Ms. Magazine, Ms. Marvel, New Left, Personal Politics, Ramona Fradon, Red Sonja, Rich Buckler, Robin Morgan, Roy Thomas, Sara Evans, The Superhero Women, Thundra, Women's Lib. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.