by Robin Morgan
The following is an excerpt from Saturday's Child: A Memoir by Robin Morgan (W.W. Norton Publishers).
The year 1970 hits like a meteor.
In January, I get a phone call from Jane Alpert, one of the women at the underground newspaper Rat. She says that women have decided to seize the paper for an issue and need ideas and support from women's liberationists. I'd written some pieces for Rat in 1968 and '69, but couldn't tolerate the paper's lifestyle emphasis aimed at young white straight males--sex-wanted ads, pornographic articles and graphics, and Rolling Stones coverage had begun to bury political reporting of any substance. So I find it terrific that the few women on Rat have finally had enough, too.
We come from all parts of the nascent women's movement, most of us knowing zip about putting out a newspaper. But we do it. A few feminist newspapers have already begun--Everywoman, It Ain't Me, Babe, and Off Our Backs among them, but this is the first time women have seized a male-run periodical, and it creates ripples all across the Left, with women in other cities taking over local media on a temporary or permanent basis. We do not, in fact, ever give Rat back to the boys, although we never manage to change it into a real feminist paper, either.
"Goodye To All That" is my contribution to the first issue. It simmers with fury about Leftist men's betrayal of women. To my astonishment, it becomes an instant classic, having apparently articulated the experience of most women in the Left. The piece is quoted, read aloud in struggle meetings, cried over, fought about, excerpted on posters and banners, and widely reprinted. I receive my first death threats. They're from my Leftist revolutionary brothers.
* * *
The year 1970 accelerates.
In March, Kenneth is fired from his job at Funk & Wagnalls for refusing to take down his My Lai atrocities in Vietnam poster.
In April, I am fired from my job at Grove Press for union organizing. We're bringing the war home indeed.
I've been working at Grove as an editor for two-and-a-half years when I'm summarily fired, along with five other employees. The official reasons are "reorganization needs," but the real motive--as later confirmed by the National Arbitration Association of the National Labor Relations Board--is union-busting. Grove Press has built a reputation as a Left-liberal, avant-garde publisher, but much of its output consists of sub-imprints (the Venus, Zebra, and Black Cat lines) of soft- and hard-core porn paperbacks. I've refused to work on these, though I did edit a critical edition of the Marquis de Sade for them, which gave me nightmares. But I can't refuse to engage the unequal treatment of women employees, from janitor to editor, all around (and including) me.
In 1970, publishing--a white collar business, and one of New York City's largest industries--is experiencing feminist and union stirrings in general. The two issues merge, since more than eighty percent of all publishing employees at the time are women and we are virtually all at the bottom of the pyramid. There is talk of forming an industry-wide vertical union. With the help of two notably anti-war, anti-racist, progressive unions--the Fur, Leather, and Machine Workers (FLM) and District 65 (hospital workers)--organizing efforts have begun in a number of publishing houses, including at Harper and Row, which previously had managed to co-opt such efforts into a "company union." At Grove, we few who've volunteered to be union organizers are warned by our superiors that we could be fired, but we know that's illegal. Each of us has also withstood pressure to name employees who signed union cards toward holding an election. Then the purge hits. The Grove Press firings serve as a warning to employees throughout the industry. In this at least Grove is avant-garde.
It is also avant-garde in playing unwilling host to a seizure, barricade, and occupation of the executive offices by myself and thirty other women--protesting the firings, the union-busting, discrimination against women employees, and misogynist publications.
This is the first such militant action of the current feminist wave. It's also the first time women declare pornography a form of hate propaganda against women. My rallying cry will be "Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice."
* * *
We are ensconced in the executive offices. I have marched us all in at 8:00 AM, claiming to the security guard that these are friends come to help me carry out personal stuff from my office, now that I've been fired. He thinks it odd I need so much help, but we move into the elevator and up to the sixth floor before he has time to stop us. Once upstairs, I sever some of the elevator cables, strew vaseline-coated thumbtacks on the stairs, lock the doors, and pour glue in the locks. Then I hang our Women's Liberation banner out the window of the executive office--a white cloth emblazoned in red with the feminist symbol. Some of us lug furniture to barricade the doors; some hit the phones to inform press, other publishers, and union officials of the seizure; some patrol windows. Martha Shelley, unfortunately, busts open the executive liquor cabinet to have a "symbolic" drink. I start inspecting the financial files of Barney Rosset, Grove's founder and owner. I suspect we'll find that Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, has been bilked on royalties from his autobiography, and find correspondence in which Rosset admits he'll fight union organizing to the death. It turns out I'm not wrong on either count: "Grove Press won't tolerate a revolution; Grove Press is the revolution." We laugh with glee and chomp potato chips.
As word gets out, a crowd gathers down on the sidewalk, at the corner of Mercer and Bleecker streets in Greenwich Village. Secretaries, junior editors, women from other publishing houses appear in solidarity. Union pickets start circling. After five, when work lets out, the crowd swells, spills into the street, stopping traffic. Police arrive. Journalists and camera crews are everywhere. Our lawyer and spokeswoman, Emily Jane Goodman, talks with the press on the street. She displays a pornographic paperweight found on Rosset's desk, and breaks the news that in addition to demanding our right to unionize, we insist that the proceeds from the pornography imprints be used to set up a fund for prostituted women's bail, rehab, and tuition, and that Malcolm X's royalties be properly paid to his widow. Emily is soft-spoken, blonde, elegant, smart, and recently corporation counsel to Grove itself. Some male journalists can't grasp why she "needs to be a feminist." She informs them that Rosset "never knew how to treat a woman lawyer like a lawyer."
The hours wear on. Rosset, in Denmark screening violent porn films for US distribution, is apoplectic on the phone. This exposure is disaster for his would-be radical image. Fred Jordan, vice president and editor of Grove's Evergreen Review, calls to scream obscenities at me. Dick Seaver, another VP who heads Grove Books and is my former boss, calls to offer me my job back if I'll leave. I remind him we have political demands. Later, he calls again to warn me arrests are imminent at Rosset's and Jordan's insistence, though he too has "been forced to" sign the complaint or risk Rosset's ire. He begs me to go, asks why am I doing this "to him," and whines "Robin, I've done nothing!" Borrowing a retort from the British suffragists, the Pankhursts, I reply that this is happening because he's done nothing. Tension grows. Police vans arrive. Some of us can't afford another bust on their record; others are scared. We sneak them down the back stairs and on out with help from sympathetic secretaries at another firm. The "Grove Press Nine" who remain are Martha Altman, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Barbara Chambers, Suzanne DeVincenzo, Beth Katz, Barbara Kevles, Geraldine Maleba, Wendy Roberts, and me.
The arrest finally comes. The elevators are still out of action and it takes a while for the police to wend their way up the back stairs. When they do, they find us barricaded and have to de-hinge doors and heave furniture to get at us. My colleagues go peaceably once arrested. But I'm sailing with it now.
I declare that I refuse to recognize male authority and will surrender only to policewomen. For a few minutes everyone huddles considering whether to call for women officers, then they jolt back to reality and remember their own power. When the policemen approach me, I go limp, trained in the civil-rights passive-resistance tradition. I'm charged with resisting arrest on top of criminal trespass and criminal mischief, a felony, and hauled out and down six flights--like Christopher Robin dragging Pooh bear, my head bouncing unceremoniously on each step.
The crowd roars in support as I emerge feet first, but I can't see anyone, surrounded as I am--one short woman bobbing in a sea of blue-clad men. I do register the presence of Red Squad reps. And I can spot, from afar, Emily, smiling reassuringly, fist raised. And further back, John Simon, my non-editing editor at Random House, looking shell-shocked but with his fist gamely raised.
We are detained for arraignment. This is a first bust for some of the women, and they require hand-holding. It's all very well having to mother them, but personally I'm worried about my real baby: Blake's been having a mild reaction to his smallpox inoculation and is running a low fever. Only after using my one call to phone home am I reassured: "Fever's down. We love you. Give 'em hell!" Kenny says. I can hear Blake piping "Yaaaay!"
I breathe easier, but soon realize I have committed a major tactical error--including Ti-Grace Atkinson in the group. Divas and detention are a lousy combo. Her imperious, patrician attitude has been irritating enough throughout the long hours of the occupation, plus she has brought along a friend--a woman who behaves so suspiciously some of our group think she's an agent. Atkinson's haughty behavior would actually be comic--if it weren't in the circumstances dangerously provocative of the police, in whose custody we decidedly are. This is 1970, and sensitivity training for cops is as yet unheard of. She rants at them, calls them vermin, says she will sue to have her mink jacket cleaned from police van "filth," reminds them their parents were probably immigrants whereas hers have been here for generations, screams she's being tortured when the desk sergeant tries to fingerprint her, and refuses to be searched, threatening the matrons who come near her. I catch myself being concerned for the matrons' safety, then decide my sense of sisterhood must be getting bleary. When one of our other women, a diabetic, faints, I wheedle a decent young cop into getting food for her fast--which he manages to do, so Ti-Grace loudly castigates me for "collaborating with fascists." Fortunately, Emily appears, with attorney Flo Kennedy also in tow. Emily bears the news that John Simon will put up bail for me--quite a gesture considering the trouble it may get him into at Random House. I gratefully refuse, I can't leave the others behind. Message comes back: Okay, okay, bail for all nine protestors. To the mixed reactions of my sisters, I again decline--unless bail can be extended to include Kitten, Candy, Peaches, and the other six women with whom we're penned, women busted for prostitution, women I consider political prisoners. John's purse isn't big enough. We're taken to holding cells for the night.
* * *
There's a peculiar freedom about being in jail. You have nothing to do but wait. Somebody's usually humming a spiritual off in some neighboring cell. You feel pure, light, weightless, momentarily unburdened of duties, no bills to pay or phones to answer, cut loose from your responsibilities and personas, from the physical moorings of familiar places and things. I rediscover that I am, after all, not the Tiffany shade on the livingroom lamp, much as I love its greengold swirls. I am not my clothes or my furniture, I am not my husband, not my child, not the books I have read or written. I am simply who and what I am, in my mind, emotions, and body. I have been stripped of everything--even my tampon, which the matrons insist I replace with a sanity napkin they give me. I ponder why, and decide it's because they're afraid I'll hang myself with the two-inch string. Laughing, I fall asleep on the hard wood slab, my pea-jacket for a blanket, one sleeve for a pillow.
On the other hand, awakened repeatedly during the night, I have second thoughts about the meditative qualities of this jail. I don't know how in hell Marx wrote Das Kapital--or even his name--in prison. Maybe European detention is quieter. Or maybe long-term sentences yield some silence. Or maybe men's prisons do. But New York women's jails are a cacophony of screams, sobs, talk, giggles, singing, cursing, snores, and shouts. Furthermore, Ti-Grace is shrieking she's having a nervous breakdown from having been tortured and also that she must have lightly poached eggs for breakfast, real cream--not milk --with her coffee, and fresh--really fresh--croissants. After such a night, Helen of Troy would appear at her arraignment looking bloated.
The next morning, soft-voiced, sharp-brained Emily gets us released on our own recognizance. Hundreds of women are in court where they've been all night, waiting for us; one has been arrested for banging her tambourine. There are cheers, crowds, and a rush of interviews to do--but everything will just have to wait. Nothing in the universe is more important than the fragrance of Blake's baby hair, the instant I can clasp him in my arms while he waves his little fist, hugs my neck, and laughs.
In strategic terms, the action is a success. Boycotts of Grove Press books are mounted (and eventually will be so successful that Grove as a publishing house will fail, existing merely as an imprint out of other houses).
A few weeks later, the judge throws out the charges, actually lauding us for protesting against pornography, but lecturing me for resisting arrest. The other women manage to restrain Ti-Grace, who wants to complain to the court that she should have pulled down an extra charge, too, because she meant to resist arrest and besides she was tortured. Meanwhile, I get the feeling that this judge is railing against porn because he's against sex, not sexism--but it's NOT the moment to quibble.
There's still the whole arbitration battle to fight with Grove. Rosset and Jordan, in print, declare me "a brown-shirt, fascist, would-be book burner" for my comments about their porn lines. Carl Oglesby, in print, resigns as a contributing editor to Evergreen Review and declares me "the real wolf of the revolution" that Rosset, by publishing radical books, has invoked but cannot deal with in the flesh. I do not feel like a fascist or a wolf. I am linguistically disgruntled by the way "fascist" is thrown around, and by all this anthropomorphism regarding animals. What I do feel like is a human, quite worried about the matter of survival--which will mean more reliance on free-lance editing again. And where's that supposed to come from? I now have a union-organizer's reputation in the book industry.
It's another radicalizing experience. Which is becoming a daily occurrence.
* * *
Sisterhood Is Powerful is published in the fall of 1970. It will be become a best-seller but not be listed as such on The New York Times list because at the time the list excludes anthologies. It will become the "click," the first feminist epiphany for hundreds of thousands of women, and the staple of mushrooming women's studies courses around the world. Toward the end of the 1990's, The National Association of Librarians will choose it as one of The World's 100 Most Influential Books of the Twentieth Century. Random House's anxiety about missing the boat will be a touch off the mark: the book will remain steadily in print for the next thirty years, still going strong at the turn of the millennium.
The dedication reads: For Faith, my mother. With love. Finally.
* * *
My mother says "That's nice, dear."
I swear I will never compile another anthology.
Meanwhile, the thought occurs to me that there really is a need for an international version . . .
Book promotion. Movement promotion. The talk-show circuit.
The instant I hit the TV world, they remember who I am--or rather, was. I insist my former career not be mentioned, not because I'm hiding anything, but because I know that once allowed in, this subject will take over and bury whatever feminist ideas I'm there to discuss. Selfishly, I dread gurgles of "Look who's grown up to be a feminist!" But I also worry that once I'm identified as a former child star, the mythical tiny woman inside the lens, the woman in curlers and a housedress, ironing and watching TV, might dismiss me as being a celebrity too distant from her reality to carry a political message of any relevance to her life.
* * *
above is an excerpt from Saturday's Child: A Memoir by Robin Morgan (W.W. Norton Publishers, 2000).