“For the People Hear Us Singing, ‘Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!’”

The Feminist Memoir Project, edited by Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Ann Snitow
1999

In 1999, my friend Ann Snitow asked me to contribute a memoir of Bread and Roses, the Boston socialist-feminist group, to a collection she was doing with Rachel Blau Du Plessis of memoirs of that time. This what I wrote.

      I grew up in the fifties, a time when nothing could be talked about, at least in my family. My immigrant grandparents had come to the United States to save us from pogroms and starvation; my parents had worked their way through the Depression and World War II and made it into the suburbs so that we could go to good (i.e. white) schools. We should be grateful, keep our heads down, and not ask questions. Of course my poor mother, whose family were the only Jews in a small Wisconsin town, had no idea how to teach me to be a middle-class suburban girl. I was a misfit, shy and angry, with my nose forever buried in a book—often some classic feminist text I read over and over, like Hedda Gabler, Saint Joan, or Little Women, for I was a premature feminist. I had no language for it, just knew the life offered girls was boring and unfair. Sometimes I thought of myself as a suffragette. In sixth grade I passed around a petition saying we should elect a girl as class president for a change. I told my family that when I grew up, I wouldn’t get married; instead, I would go to New York, be an actress, and have lots of boyfriends.

Who would marry me? my family replied.

I chose a college, Brandeis, that I sensed would be more tolerant of weirdness than people in the ‘burbs. But it was not fundamentally different in its vision of women. In 1964, I went to graduate school in London, where I did research for three years on marriage and comedy in the period following the English Restoration. But war and revolution were on the front page every day—the civil war in Nigeria, the Six-Day War, the war in Vietnam. And the war at home—in 1967, there were riots in 127 U.S. cities—Detroit. Newark. Atlanta. Boston, Chicago, New York among them—as blacks signaled their frustration with a society that just would not change. Martin Luther King said the United States was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. One hundred and fifty thousand people marched on Washington to end the war. I started to meet guys who had burned their draft cards. What about me? In 1967, I went home to the United States for a visit and reality crashed in on me. I returned to London and had a nervous breakdown, unable to sleep for weeks, feeling I couldn't hold back any longer yet terrified to move forward, knowing my temperament was such that, once I committed myself to politics, it would be the end of “my brilliant career.” I had formed myself in opposition to the suburban world I came from, but as an artsy bohemian, not a political radical. These self-definitions became obsolete overnight.

So I joined the Stop It Committee, a draft resistance group of antiwar Americans in London. At first I just went to meetings and asked questions. But Linda Gordon was a member, and she soon suggested I run for the steering committee. Interesting idea. Before long I went cold turkey on my thesis and was doing politics full-time. In 1968 I decided to return to the United States—that was where the war had to be stopped. As I remember it, on the plane back. Linda handed me a magazine.

It was the first issue of No More Fun and Games, published by Cell 16, a Boston women's liberation group. I remember catching my breath: Women had their own group? Then, as I read, I began to smile, for I recognized the voice: angry, raw, full of pain combined with a kind of bitter triumph at seeing the situation as it was. It sounded just like my own voice. It was the voice of the: women’s liberation movement being born.

Nine months later, Cell 16 called the first women’s liberation conference in Boston, on May 11, 1969, at Emmanuel College, where Roxanne Dunbar taught. Trude Bennett and I began to plan a workshop on women and psychology. By psychology, we didn’t mean Freud. We meant the way it felt to be a woman.

Our workshop left me reeling. I had never heard such talk—about the most intimate things. I was not one to open up to strangers, but rethinking my own history as I prepared for the conference. I had begun to construct a mythology of my own life, starting with what I called my "political breakdown" in London the year before. The night after the conference, I wrote down my memory of this breakdown—the tone may sound overheated. but 1969 was a time of overnight epiphanies and my self-dramatization was low-key, compared to many.

[A year ago] I had no connections….There were so few people...I felt relaxed with, able to be off guard with, to touch. I was surrounded by a glass wall the rest of the time, sometimes in panic, often in resignation. The pain of this isolation was never as intense as in college, when I felt as if I were choking, when I could see my own breath on the window of my solitude. I didn't panic very often but it was always a possibility. My inability to function was the index of the fact that the world had finally succeeded in communicating to me what it was like….The thought of Vietnam and of life in the ghetto became absolutely intolerable, yet I could think of nothing else….Merely to exist with such perception was pain….I had no choice but to fight the causes of that pain, or to spend the rest of my life fighting a rearguard action against my realization of it—which would be to go mad.

People at the conference responded strongly to what I said. I got a little scared at the intensity of feeling flowing back and forth and the revelations I had made to people I didn't know and might never see again. What was my responsibility to these women? What was theirs to me? Unnerved, I wrote in my diary that night. "I am so effective sometimes it terrifies me. I feel I must use this ability to change lives systematically in all directions, and when I can’t see the way at once, I want to cry.”

To give expressive leadership is exhilarating, draining, and terrifying. It is not just self-expression; it is letting the spirit speak through you. At certain historical moments when change is possible, collective energy fills the air like static electricity, shooting out sparks. Some people can channel it; they know how to express what a group feels and point it the way it wants to go. Like dowsing rods or Geiger counters, they absorb and feed back feeling, indicating energy and direction. Often this gift is a burden. Sometimes it feels like hubris, sometimes prophecy.

After the Boston conference at Emmanuel College, I became obsessed with questions of organization and strategy. If women's liberation was serious, and it felt more serious than anything else in the world, we needed a plan. You can't make a revolution without a plan. I couldn’t figure one out by myself; I didn't know enough. I needed a group. NOW was out of the question; they weren't revolutionaries. Cell 16 was a cadre group; they said they didn't want new members. A couple of project groups seemed to be growing out of the conference, but those weren't enough to do the job. We needed an organization with a program. My head exploding with ideas, I wrote in my journal, May 24, 1969:

[Small] groups would be given strength and purpose by relating to a program of analysis and demands….A program gives people a way of relating to the movement, a reason for joining it, and something to ‘join”—to enter an experiment with. Instead of saying to people, “Some women are doing this and some that,” you can say, “Women’s liberation wants this and that, and is working to get it this year by doing this and that.”

I thought, what if a small group of women worked on strategy over the summer? And what if each simultaneously started another small group to spread the discussion? Surely we could get together a program for women's liberation by September. Then we would form an organization! In my inexperience and grandiosity, I had no idea I was asking people to do the political equivalent of inventing the atom bomb in the kitchen. So I typed up a proposal and took it to Linda. She was appalled: how could one little group set itself up as strategic leaders for the whole women's movement? It was so elitist!

But she cautiously agreed that it wouldn't hurt to try to pull things together a little. We might as well call a meeting to discuss it. A handful of us met at her house the next week, and then again four days later, this time preparing by reading a New Left Review article by Juliet Mitchell giving a structural analysis of the oppression of women. My journal entry conveys the feeling of these early discussions—all our ideas were so fluid, we were so intense yet so easily shaken, that one comment could suddenly tip a whole political decision:

The talk [at the meeting tonight] was much less uptight and hostile than last time. But people are still pretty resistant to organizational ideas. This mostly takes the form or skipping from subject to subject and never arguing through anything…. Linda thought of a way…to solve the dual problem of organization and theory—how to work out analysis and program in a nonelitest way. [She said] we should call an open meeting of some sort and people would divide into groups to write papers analyzing different aspects of the [oppression of women]…It was on the verge of being adopted when Jean Tepperman said that it made her very sad because what she felt she really needed—a political collective that would talk about all kinds of things—wouldn’t happen….[So I said why didn't] each of us…invite the people—two or three—whom we considered were where we were politically—anticapitalist, etc….[to a meeting] to set up a bunch of political collectives like our own, which would discuss strategy and organization with a view to formulating a program. This was accepted with great relief.

Our initiating group, soon to be called Collective No. 1, ended up with eleven members: Fran Ansley, Trude Bennett, Michelle Clark, Linda Gordon, Marya Levinson, Grey Osterud, Sara Syer, Jean Tepperman, Judy Ullman, Wendy Towner, and me. The larger group we called together first met on Friday night, July 24, 1969, and began to meet regularly each Friday in the living room of Hester Butterfield's mother’s house near the Radcliffe Yard. By September it had coalesced into a citywide organization called Bread and Roses. Our name came from a women's labor song from the Lawrence, Massachusetts strike of 1912—“Hearts starve as well as bodies. Give us bread but give us roses!"—for we were conscious radicals, trying to learn from the past, trying to figure out ways to unite our antiwar, antiracist politics with women's liberation in order to bring about permanent social transformation.

But to embody these desires in a strategy and program—that was harder. We didn't know how to do that. The best we could do was draw up lists of demands as long as your arm, covering everything from abortion rights to jobs to sex. These lists were meant to bring us somehow from the present to the revolution—we had no idea how. We spoke of revolution the way old-time anarchists used to talk about Der Tag—the great day when everyone would suddenly wake up, pour out into the streets, and start a general strike. Only our revolution would be more complete than those of the past, because women would have equal power.

By this time I had begun to write. I had always wanted to be a writer but had held back, not only because I had nothing to say but because there was no one I wanted to say it to. Now I had both a subject and an audience, gifts from history.

A young woman is walking down a city street. She is excruciatingly aware of her appearance and of the reaction to it (imagined or real) of every person she meets, She walks through a group of construction workers who are eating lunch in a line along the pavement. Her stomach tightens with terror and revulsion; her face becomes contorted into a grimace of self-control and fake unawareness; her walk and carriage become stiff and dehumanized. No matter what they say to her, it will be unbearable. No woman can have an autonomous self unaffected by such encounters.

This became a four part essay called Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Daily Life. A section was published by the New York Radical Feminists in Notes from the Second Year, edited by Anne Koedt and Shulamith Firestone. Notes wouldn’t print my whole essay because they felt the second half was too socialist; Roberta Salper, a New York socialist feminist, would only print the second half because the first was too radical feminist. (I thought New Yorkers were impossible. We weren't so sectarian in Boston.) The excerpt in Notes was picked up by the Liberation News Service, a movement version of the Associated Press that sent packets once a week to hundreds of underground newspapers. Then the whole essay was published as a pamphlet by the New England Free Press, a Boston cooperative that produced and distributed movement literature. Appearing in the spring of 1970, Woman and Her Mind became one of the founding documents of the women’s liberation movement as it exploded into existence. By the time the New England Free Press folded in the eighties, its editors estimated they had sold 150,000 copies of my essay by mail, at prices ranging from thirty-five to fifty cents.

      People told me my work had changed their lives. Without such assurances, I might not have been able to give myself permission to keep doing something as pleasurable as writing, for finding a strategy for women's liberation was a heavy burden. I began to search history for prototypes, digging into the archives in the Schlesinger library to find the connections between class, race, gender, and revolutionary strategy. I found wonderful stories but, drowning in detail, could make no sense of them. Nobody else seemed to have a better grasp than I did. Most did not even seem bothered by our lack of a long-term plan; they were willing to live from day to day. But I couldn't stand the anxiety.

Looking back, I ask myself, why? Why didn't I just go on with writing? I had a book contract by this time, and was doing research that fascinated me on the history of women and working-class organizations. Other people in the movement managed to go on with their lives, go back to school, develop careers. Why did I have such ants in my pants? I think thc stakes were higher for me because I never knew who I was until the women’s movement. Without it, I had no community, no place I felt at home. I loved the women’s movement so much, I couldn’t bear the thought of its failing to achieve its highest aims. Though I had little sense of the risks involved, I was trying to be practical: women’s liberation required a revolution so I would just have to find out how to bring one about.

Ultimately, the desire for a strategy that had made me push to form Bread and Roses propelled me out of it, in search of answers to my questions: How do you make a revolution that works for women instead of selling them out after the seizure of power? How do you build the kind of movement that will unite women across class and racial lines and not be twisted to serve elite interests? How can you tell when small reforms add up to revolution and when they are just reforms? By 1971, these questions were driving me crazy. Inevitably, I began to read the only writers who addressed such issues: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung. They didn't say much about women but they knew a lot about revolution.

In addition, as my own answers ceascd to satisfy me, I began to pay more attention to those of my husband, a red diaper baby who had learned Marxism at an age when most boys were being bar mitzvahed. He had dropped out of college to work for a union but by this time he was drifting, working in a factory on his own, without being connected to any union or organization. He desperately needed a political context for his work, but neither of us—especially me—thought much of the Marxists we had met. The Communist Parry people were so lame they seemed to be in a time warp and I simply could not suspend my disbelief in the Soviet Union as an example of liberation. The people from Progressive Labor were just rich kids from Harvard pretending to be workers. But in 1971 we began to meet people who had lived in China, people who knew about the Cultural Revolution firsthand. China really was different from other revolutions. It was an exciting thought, worth pursuing.

In 1972, we left Boston to do factory work in a midwestern industrial city. In 1973, we joined the October League (OL), a Marxist-Leninist "pre-party formation" led by people who'd been heavily involved in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). During my time in the OL, I worked on an assembly line in a TV factory, then in an electronics factory, and finally as a nurse's aide in a small private hospital. Until then, I had led an almost completely segregated life, not by choice, but because I grew up in a segregated city, went to college before affirmative action programs, and became politically active only after the early unity of the civil rights movement had become racially polarized. Because I had no experience with anyone but white people, I did not have enough political grasp to understand how to fight the de facto segregation of the antiwar movement and women's movement. In my years in the OL, I began to learn—not from theory but from the experience of being white in places where the work force was almost entirely made up of African-American and Hispanic women, Since that time, most of my political work has been on a multiracial basis. Being in all-white political meetings or social gatherings no longer feels natural to me; I see them as the product of political choices, however unconscious.

Learning how to live in a multiracial world was important to me personally. Since race is at the heart of the way every contradiction comes up in the United States, it also affected my ability to think strategically. In other ways, my OL experience was mainly negative. Even before I’d joined, I’d had trouble with their line and practice in relation to women, but there were so many things I needed to learn that I decided to reserve judgment and keep my mouth shut. But, in fact, I could no more keep my mouth shut than fly, and the OL leadership had a nose for error. I asked too many questions and I asked them in the wrong tone of voice, disagreed about too many things and challenged leadership too often. Inevitably, I was expelled. This meant I was attacked and ostracized by everyone I had worked with, including my husband—he had to choose and it was easier to replace a woman than a whole political context.

So in August 1975 I became a single mother. I had no money and only dubious survival skills, was alienated from my family (who disapproved of the course I had taken) and was working as a nurse's aide, earning so little I was eligible for food stamps. I barely survived. Finally I decided I had to return to the Northeast, where at least I had friends who would talk to me. In 1976, my father died and my mother gave me his car, which I was able to sell for a thousand dollars. With this nest egg, I moved to New York, where, with difficulty—my resume was truly bizarre—I got a job as a secretary. I badly needed a support group, and friends from Bread and Roses now in New York—Sarah Eisenstein and Ginger Goldner—pulled together a group that helped me reconnect with the broader women's movement.

By 1977, the movement was in weird shape. A huge gap seemed to have developed between people doing practical work, who had little idea of how their work connected to anyone else's, and people doing theory, whose ideas were increasingly academic and cut off from practical consequence. Then Representative Henry Hyde started his campaign to cut off Medicaid funding for abortion, and, to my surprise, I knew what must be done. Apparently I had learned how to think about strategy differently; I seemed to be doing it. The feminist movement’s biggest problem was its whiteness and middle-classness. There were minority and working-class feminists, but they had little connection with what they saw as the feminist movement. Consequently, the movement’s strategy on abortion—and everything else—must be directed toward building a path to a multiracial feminist movement. That meant white feminists would have to think about abortion differently in 1977 than they had in 1969—they couldn’t just dramatize themselves, or treat it as an aspect of sexual freedom, or stake everything on a change in the law, or isolate abortion as a single issue, or make it part of a general health-care program. They would have to find a strategic link with an issue that concerned Third World feminists.

CESA (the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse), founded several years before by a Puerto Rican doctor, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, had already begun to work on the issue of sterilization abuse, a considerable problem for both African-American and Latina women. Members of CESA, particularly Karen Stamm and Ros Petchesky, became part of the process that led to the formation of CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. Together we began to develop an analysis of reproductive rights that has now become so strong that few people care to remember how different the prevailing ideas were just fifteen years ago. Ros Petchesky has been particularly important in developing this analysis and linking US women activists with others in the Third World—an alliance that had stunning impact on world policy at UN conferences in Cairo and Beijing.

My work took me in a different direction. I was immersed in CARASA for three years. During much of this period I was working full-time as a legal secretary or editorial assistant. I was also the mother of a six-year-old daughter, Corey, born in 1974. Though I still wanted to write, I was too exhausted. And though I gave a tremendous amount of time to CARASA, I was practically the only woman with a young child and could not seem to get people to respond appropriately to my being a single working mother. After a while I got sick of sacrificing all my time with my daughter to meetings and phone calls, with no help from anyone with child care.

I had been trying to finish my history book, The Rising of the Women, for years, but had had no time. And the political climate was clearly changing. The mass movement was not going to keep expanding indefinitely, around reproductive rights or any other issue; we were entering a more conservative period, when we would have to defend what we had won and would make few new gains. Rather than continuing to spin my wheels doing activist work, I decided it was time for me to act like an intellectual and develop my ideas, pending the time when it became possible to build a mass movement again.

In 1979, I got laid off from an editorial job and was able to collect unemployment. This enabled me to finish my history book, The Rising of the Women, which was published by Monthly Review Press in 1980. Then I got a substantial advance on a proposal for a historical novel, Rivington Street, published in 1982 by William Morrow. Around the same time, I also wrote Families (Atlantic Little Brown: 1981), a children's picture book that showed a spectrum of different family structures, from single parenthood to the extended family, to gay and childless couples, as if all were normal, rather than presenting the traditional family as normal and the rest as peculiar. I also married a second time, developed asthma, and had another child, my son Elijah.

Then, in 1986, I attended a Congress of International PEN, the writers' organization. Norman Mailer, then president of PEN American Center, presided. I could not help noticing that all the speakers seemed to be men, mostly white and rather advanced in years. Someone counted—only 16 out of the 117 panelists were women. Had we gone back to the 1950s? A number of women complained to Grace Paley, who was on the PEN board; she raised her hand and announced that some people were unhappy about the small number of women on the program and had decided to hold a meeting at lunchtime the next day to discuss it. I chaired the meeting. Two hundred people came. We drew up a protest resolution, elected spokeswomen, and said we would occupy the hall unless they got time to present it at the plenary. We went on to form a women's committee in PEN American Center.

Three years later, I began to try to organize a women's committee in International PEN; it was accepted in 1991, at a PEN Congress in Vienna. Finding through hard experience that this work needed an independent organizational base in order to work with the necessary freedom, Grace, I, and a number of others have recently formed a new human rights organization, Women's WORLD, which stands for the Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development. We have published a pamphlet manifesto called The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship, and Voice. Thus, for the last ten years, most of my political work has been concentrated on questions of women's voice and gender-based censorship, and much of it has been international.

I love this work and think it is critically important, but my writing has not done equally well. In all the years since 1986, I have published only one book commercially, my second novel, Union Square. All my books went out of print, except for The Rising of the Women, which is hardly distributed. [Note: They have since come back into print.] Families stayed in print for fourteen years, then, in 1994, became the target of a censorship campaign led by the Christian Coalition in Fairfax County, Virginia, who felt it "glorified divorce” and objected to the inclusion of a lesbian couple. When their campaign affected sales, rather than fight to defend the book, Little Brown put it out of print. I am happy to say that the Feminist Press decided to reprint it, showing again women's need for an independent organizational base, especially in hard times. And these are hard times for American writers; the publishing industry, increasingly conglomeratized and interested only in the bottom line., does not keep old books in print, particularly radical ones, and does not welcome new oppositional voices.

To work so hard to strengthen women's voices in the rest of the world and find it impossible to make my own heard in my own country makes me very unhappy. I feel like one of the last surviving members of a nearly extinct species—the committed left-wing feminist. And yet I know my species is not extinct, though we have been pronounced so again and again by the media, who never wanted to recognize our existence for more than ten minutes in the first place. Publishers have been telling me "there's no market for feminist books any more" since 1977, when McGraw-Hill dropped The Rising of the Women, a history of relations between labor, socialist, and suffrage women before World War I, because they had decided the feminist movement was dead. After many years of work on censorship issues, I have concluded that censorship in the United States wears the face of the sales rep, the marketing manager, the spin doctor, all those who service the corporate monoculture that now controls publishing and is being imposed upon the rest of the world. As we say in The Power of the Word:

The media have made possible a new form of cultural domination, the global monoculture, which has become a threat to cultural diversity and specificity the world over…A parallel development has taken place in the publishing industries of Europe and North America, where production is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few transnational conglomerates…a film company, an oil company, a newspaper company, etc. These conglomerates make few concessions to individual editorial taste; their interest is the bottom line and they see writing as just another product, like soft drinks or sneakers….The growing world domination of the North American commercial monoculture…is an extremely unhealthy development, the equivalent in culture to the hegemony of commercially bred seeds and the practice of monoculture in farming. Both drive out diversity. Both impoverish the soil they feed on. Both produce sterile seeds, without a living relationship to their environment.

I still believe in the power of the word to transform reality and I know how to think about strategy better than I did in 1971. I know the word is central to women’s movements, which are based so much on individual changes in consciousness, set in motion by other women’s testimony and lives. I am frustrated by my inability to get my own words into the hands of those who I think need them. Of course this feels like my own problem, like failure, but it is also a social problem affecting anyone who questions traditional ideas about gender, class, and race in conservative times.

Inevitably, conservatives will try to block, ridicule, and marginalize our writing, and to obliterate even the memory of our questions. Women writers have to organize to keep one another going, and to ensure that our words and questions survive. How? That's the problem I'm working on now.

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.