In the mid-1960s, young African, Hispanic, Native, and Caucasian American activists became a driving force for civil rights, free speech, and academic freedom. In manifestos, conferences, and teach-ins, young Americans also opposed the Vietnam War, capitalism, and racism; some eventually became willing to use violence. The mainly male leaders fought about socialism versus communism, totalitarianism versus democratic socialism, and whether Soviet Russia or the United States was more to blame for the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. However, the quarrelsome male socialists, Black Power, Native, and Latino activists shut most women out of significant roles in these debates. In 1965 and 1966, many male movement leaders expected women to make them coffee, do the typing and mimeographing, and provide sex.
As feminist ideas gained currency, women on the left refused to be treated in this way. They began drafting manifestos of their own, which were treated with contempt. Some men also humiliated the women. When Marilyn Webb, a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), tried to speak about women’s liberation, the men yelled: “Take her off the stage and fuck her.”
SDS morphed into the Weather Underground. Bill Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernardine Dohrn, and Mark Rudd, among many others, began a program of bombing commercial and government buildings and robbing banks. They held up a Brink’s armored car and killed a police officer. Some blew themselves up by accident. Survivors went underground.
The FBI spied on the Weather Underground as well as on Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, and SDS. Weirdly, the FBI also infiltrated nonviolent feminist groups and collectives; informers and agents provocateurs filed reports that many of us later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The FBI had been scouring hippie and lesbian feminist communities in its search for radical left-wing female fugitives. They found no one. Then, in 1974, the Weather Underground fugitive Jane Alpert, who had been in touch with Robin Morgan at Ms. magazine, surfaced voluntarily and met with the FBI. Jane was ready to denounce male leftists. She’d become a feminist.
All hell broke loose.
In 1969 Jane had participated in eight bombings of commercial and government buildings in New York City. These bombs led to no deaths or injuries.
She was sentenced to 27 months in jail. Soon after, the FBI arrested five more fugitives, all feminists with whom Jane had lived or traveled. Robin defended Jane by blaming some of the newly arrested women for not taking proper precautions.
Jane had one wish before she went to jail: She wanted to meet the feminists whose work she’d been reading. We gathered in Kate Millett’s loft. When Jane arrived, Flo Kennedy and Ti-Grace Atkinson exited noisily and in a rage. They believed that Jane had named names and was therefore responsible for the arrest of one of her former underground comrades and for the imprisonment of several feminists.
In 1974, Ms. published Jane’s ode to “Mother Right,” which Gloria Steinem introduced. “Mother right” was a “new feminist theory” that claimed that women are naturally nurturing and compassionate caregivers, biologically different from, and superior to, patriarchal men, who wage war against each other and against women, whom they victimize.
At the time I wanted to believe that this theory could be true. But if it was, how to explain women’s cruelty to children, men, and each other?
Robin had formed a “Circle of Support” for Jane that divided the feminist movement in an ugly way: Either you believed in a matriarchy or you didn’t; either you believed in class warfare or you didn’t; either you were against the government or you were for it; either you sympathized with Jane and Robin or you viewed them as traitors.
Feminists had already fought about whether class warfare against the system or reform of the system would free most women. We had fought about whether lesbianism and identity politics were the cutting edge of feminism or the most reactionary, narcissistic, and self-defeating of positions. White feminists berated themselves constantly because women of color were not with us in droves. Some of us made genuine overtures to try to interest women of color in joining us; others made only token efforts. While there were many important individual exceptions, most feminists of color chose to fight for women’s rights with other women of color or for racial-minority rights with both men and women of color.
Jane and Robin were supported by Gloria, whom Robin had persuaded to back Jane’s position by having Gloria introduce Jane’s article and giving it prime space in Ms. This led to a great division among feminists. It prepared us to believe the worst about each other: it unleashed demons, exposed fault lines, and was the training ground for what later came to be known as the great feminist sex wars about pornography, prostitution, and censorship. As I said at the time, the FBI could have saved taxpayers money by leaving us alone: Feminists did not need agents to do us in. We did a pretty good job of that ourselves.
The Jane-and-Robin division followed me around the city. Once I was standing on a street corner in Greenwich Village waiting for a bus when two women suddenly materialized out of the urban mist. I didn’t know them, but they seemed to know me. One stood in front of me, the other to my right. They were standing far too close.
They had come to confront me. They demanded to know whether I would be signing a petition for or against Jane. I refused to say. I don’t even know which side they represented, only that they’d come not to have a discussion but to bully and frighten me.
Like most feminists, I simply pledged and maintained my longtime political alliances. I believed that Robin was trying to protect her friend Jane and I admired her for it. However, as a scholar I was uncomfortable with Ms.’s embrace of Jane’s “mother right” doctrine. I thought that Ti-Grace and Flo had raised some real and worrisome points about it.
Even ideologues were diplomatic and pragmatic where Gloria was concerned. Flo viewed Jane as a pig, but she didn’t cut her ties to Gloria over her support for Jane and Robin. I didn’t agree with Kate’s early support for decriminalizing all aspects of prostitution or Flo’s continued support of prostitution, but I didn’t cut my ties to either of them, either.
Some years later, Jane Alpert wrote an autobiography in which she accused Robin of using her when she was underground because, as a fugitive, Jane was sexy. Robin stopped visiting her in jail and eventually cut Jane off completely and denounced her as an inveterate man junkie. Jane approached me afterward. She was looking for support and sympathy, trying to get me to see that Robin was a chameleon exploiter. Jane was in anguish, but I didn’t break with Robin over this.
After Jane Alpert surfaced in 1974, left-wing feminists were always looking for FBI agents in their midst. The FBI did infiltrate feminist communities and collectives, ostensibly to determine whether they were hiding Weather Underground fugitives, but also because J. Edgar Hoover really believed that feminism was a threat to national security. If only.
The summer of 1975 was a hot one for feminists. An educational venture in Vermont called Sagaris—named after the weapon used by Scythian Amazons—was splitting the feminist world wide open. Feminists saw FBI agents behind every tree. The atmosphere was highly charged.
The radical-feminist group Redstockings accused Gloria of being a CIA agent. As a result Sagaris attendees split over whether to accept a much-needed grant of “tainted money” from Ms.
As I understood it, Sagaris cheerfully accepted grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, so apparently robber-baron money was acceptable, but feminist money was held to a higher standard. Robber barons had not presented themselves as feminists, nor were they interested in cornering the market on Brand X Feminism, which Redstockings believed Ms. was doing.
I do not believe that Gloria was a CIA agent. In 1959 and 1962, she had attended the World Youth Festivals in, respectively, Vienna and Helsinki. The festivals were largely underwritten by the Soviet Union. She knew that her attendance was partly funded by the CIA, but, according to the feminist historian Ruth Rosen, in The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, Gloria “naively believed that the CIA did so to help prevent wars, not as a systematic effort to contain and subvert Communism.”
This fact would have died on the proverbial vine were it not for Betty Friedan, who kept talking about it and made common cause with those left-wing feminists who earnestly, honestly believed that Gloria was an anti-feminist Mata Hari. Gloria took to her couch. She didn’t get up for many days. I know because I visited her as her friend and unofficial shrink. I went there day after day until she rose and soared again. The Gloria I knew could not bear to be so disliked, so publicly attacked, the target of so much vitriolic rage.
Gloria was no spy. She was a sincere feminist. That the media preferred a pretty, dry-witted, and emotionally low-key woman must have gnawed at Betty nonstop. Gloria was so damn likable, and Betty was a rare harridan constantly raging at everyone, including the women who adored and served her.
However, radical leftist feminists did fear that Gloria would water down their version of anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal feminism, sell that inferior brand, and gain celebrity, influence, Democratic Party power, and funding, which in turn would enable her to buy off or reward those feminists who supported this approach while consigning to the dustbin of history all those who had been activists years before she began covering their ideas and activism as a journalist.
They had a point.
Feminists spent years accusing each other of being “male identified” and elitist. According to Ruth Rosen: “One of the strangest consequences of such anti-elitism was that activists pressured one another to write without bylines. Writing anonymously had been required of modest ladies of the 19th century. Now, in the name of solidarity, some women’s liberationists asked that no woman take credit for her work.”
My friends Kate Millett, Naomi Weisstein, and Robin Morgan were, like me, subjected to these insane pressures. Charges of plagiarism, especially against Robin, were fierce. But at the time it was impossible for me to know what or whom to believe.
That was what the radical feminists were doing—eating their leaders, destroying their own best minds.
Robin and I were friends. Robin was eloquent, charming, and a superb cook. We met for intimate coffees at Cafe Borgia in the Village and talked nonstop feminism. In one-on-one situations, Robin, who had been a child actor, acted the part of your best, most maternal friend. As one of our movement’s many mother-wounded and mother-starved daughters, I was seduced, completely taken in.
Robin needed money and a job, and I suggested to Gloria that she hire Robin at Ms. Gloria loved the idea; she always wanted more color around her, both skin color and politically radical color. Robin fit the bill especially well because she was one of the radical-left “downtown” girls, a veteran of the feminist takeovers of the leftist underground newspaper Rat, the East Fifth Street Welfare building (where I once worked), and Grove Press, as well as a woman who had kept in touch with SDS members when they were underground.
A perfect cover for the haute bourgeoisie.
What about the grown-ups, the within-the-system reformers?
How were they doing?
Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique had started second-wave feminism as a reform movement. The importance of founding the National Organization for Women must never be underestimated. NOW pioneered countless successful lawsuits, marches, demonstrations, press conferences, and lobbying campaigns.
Betty’s volatile, abusive personality had the founding mothers of NOW constantly on edge. She viewed them as attempting to steal her rightful power, not as having normal human reactions to her off-putting behavior.
Then the radicals and the lesbians stole even more of the media thunder that Betty had counted on for herself.
And then came the ultimate indignity. Almost a decade after she had published The Feminine Mystique, six years after she had helped found NOW, along came Gloria and Ms., and they stole the media limelight from both Betty and the radicals.
Phyllis Chesler is the author of 20 books, including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and A Politically Incorrect Feminist. Her most recent work is Requiem for a Female Serial Killer. She is a founding member of the Original Women of the Wall.