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by Robin Morgan

The following is an excerpt from Saturday's Child: A Memoir by Robin Morgan (W.W. Norton Publishers).

While still pregnant, I've had to do Merv Griffin's show, when another activist cancels from stage fright. This entails smiling grit-teethed while explaining The Basics ("No, women don't want to be drafted. Actually, we'd like to end the draft for men, too. No, rape survivors don't 'ask for it' . ."), only to have Griffin fixate on my belly, asking: "How can you be a genuine feminist if you've got a bun in the oven?"

A few weeks after Blake's birth, I do The Tonight Show, at that time still aired live. The staff promises not to raise "my past," but to treat seriously issues of my present. While on air, citing statistics on employment and education discrimination, I glance at a monitor and see that I'm really doing a voice-over, while clips from the network film-morgue are being run: little Dagmar skipping rope, sitting on Mama's lap, eating that eternal cookie. Mortified, I interrupt myself and call it. Carson puts on his quizzical, raised-eyebrows, whywhatssamatter look. Big laugh from the audience. I explain courteously but firmly that I agreed to do the show in order to publicize issues that affect women's lives, and that his staff swore not to trivialize that by focusing on my having once been a kid actor. He manages to turn my indignation into a joke. This is a no-win. I rise, politely wish him good evening, and walk off--off camera, off stage. There is panic behind me as I leave the stage door. Nobody walks off The Tonight Show, live, on air.

I'm certain they'll never have me on again, but I'm wrong. This time they're pre-taped, though. This time Bob Hope is a substitute host for a vacationing Carson, and another guest, Glenn Ford--a pro-gun, anti-choice, conservative, it turns out--has at me. But several years have elapsed, and consciousness has begun to shift. This time I ignore Hope and Ford and appeal directly to the woman inside the lens, asking her to complain if she thinks it's unfair for men to gang up on and make fun of a woman trying to talk about women's rights. Hope makes a joke about rape and rapier wit. The LAUGH sign flashes, the audience titters. I laugh later, when a feminist mole on the show's staff informs me that protest letters are inundating them, mailbag after mailbag.

The Phil Donahue Show is live, originating in Dayton, Ohio. They want me to debate an editor from Playboy magazine, a man unforgettably named Anselm Mount. I tell them I don't debate such basic issues as human freedom. They swear they'll have us on in separate segments. When I check into the hotel in Dayton, Mount has left a chummy little note, asking me to have a drink with him in the bar so we can discuss tomorrow's debate. It's been a trap. I decline his drink and once in my room, get on the phone and start calling around Ohio to women's groups I know. All night they drive and arrive in stages--sixty women, from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Akron. A women's media group from Antioch College comes, complete with video equipment. We strategize in my room. The next morning, they all show up, smiling, docile, in line for the studio audience. Once on air, seated beside Mount (it is a trap, there's no separate segment planned), I seize the mike from a startled Donahue and refuse to give it back, announcing that we will not be debating after all, that women are taking over the program. Indeed, they rise from all over the audience, the Antioch video women calmly elbowing aside the cameramen to take possession of the cameras, women moving up onto the set, women moving to guard the doors. Mount is reduced to jumping up and down, throwing a hissy fit, screaming that we're all just jealous that we're not cute enough to be a Playboy centerfold; he finally slumps into a sulk. Phil, to his lasting credit, goes with the flow, unprotesting that his show has just been yanked out from under him. He knows his audience--mostly women whose hair has been in rollers--and his audience applauds us. The switchboard is jammed with questions and call-ins of support. I stay in the studio for two hours after the show, answering women's phone calls. The producer claims this was the most watched Donahue show to date. On subsequent appearances over the years, Phil will take naughty pleasure in starting each interview with me by running videoclips from the first take-over.

* * *

Of course, I feel guilty all the time: not being there every single second for Blake, not there every second for Kenny, not there every second for the movement, for Rat and WITCH and Sisterhood Is Powerful. Not earning enough money. Certainly not writing enough poems. I'd feel sanctimonious about my sacrifices but I'm too busy feeling rotten about my deficiencies. The triumphs seem ectoplasmic; only the failures seem real. But guilt is a homey, familiar emotion for me by now. I'm also learning it's not just me, it comes with the territory of being female--guilt, plus fatigue so pervasive as to be invisible and normal. The word "multi-tasking" has not yet been coined, and won't be until men discover decades later that they too can do more than one thing at a time. The word "proletariat" has been coined, however. Etymologically, it means "bearers of children." I understand why.

Copyright 2001 by Robin Morgan


The above is an excerpt from Saturday's Child: A Memoir by Robin Morgan (W.W. Norton Publishers, 2000).

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