Telling it Like it Was

Telling it Like it Was

by Phyllis Chesler

It is time, and Second Wave* feminists are beginning to document their salad days. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, feminists literally felt ten thousand years of patriarchy begin to give way by at least an inch or two, before the so-called “backlash” and intramovement strife hit, hard. But first, we’d changed the world.

Suddenly, it was no longer the world of our mothers, or even of our own childhoods. We met, we marched, we sat in, we spoke out, we sued. Almost overnight, (or so it seemed), women’s studies programs and women’s centers, abortion clinics, rape crisis hotlines, shelters for battered women, lesbian and gay centers, opened their doors to the women of this country.

We analyzed, theorized, sculpted, painted, and performed. We stood up, coast to coast, and spoke truth to power, almost every day. We left abusive relationships, found joy in celibacy, and in non-procreative sex or in each other’s arms. We realized we didn’t have to marry, (or stay married), have children, (or not have children), i.e., make choices based on our absolute terror of being alone. Female friends and colleagues, (male friends, too), began to matter in new ways. We began to value bonding with each other, not only in traditional, womanly, ways (to help each other preserve the status quo), but in radical feminist ways: to support each other as we collectively attempted to transform the status quo.

“I believe that psychoanalysis,
read not as Freud gave it to us
but as revised by both
psychoanalytic and feminist
theorists, remains the most
powerful account we have of
the psyche.”

No wonder that Women Make Movies has embarked on a four-part documentary series about The Second Wave for television – a feminist Eyes On The Prize; no wonder, too, that a growing number of scholars, journalists and Second Wave activists have also embarked on retrospectives, biographies and autobiographies of those days of glory.

Is this because my generation’s days of action are over? Or because now, our most important “action” may consist of remembering exactly what happened, gathering up the lessons of our lives so tar, passing them along, our legacy, to the coming generations?

I think both explanations apply. A few years ago, I was approached by Drs. Ellen Cole and Esther Rothblum to co-edit with them a special volume on Feminist Foremothers for the Journal of Women and Therapy. 1 agreed. We now have a great treasure in our possession: nearly 50 first-person accounts by Second Wave Foremothers and Foredaughters, psychologist Dr. Laura S. Brown’s felicitous phrase. For those who still think “We’ve come a long way, baby,” psychologist Dr. Ellyn Kashyk was informed by her computer that “foremother” is not a word; spell check changed “foremother” to “forefather.” Kashyk eloquently writes: “Again, there is no word for us and again we will prove them wrong, for here we are, still inventing the words to speak of ourselves and to ourselves.”

The contributors range in age from their mid forties to their eighties. In their words, this is what it was like to be a woman in college or graduate school before and after a strong feminist movement existed.

The 1940s:

In the early 1940s, Ruby Rohrlich, worked three jobs to support herself while she was in college. Offered a fellowship to attend Columbia’s Graduate Anthropology Program, she was ecstatic. “But my husband was aghast at my delirium. He said, ‘How can you think of going away to do fieldwork for possibly two years, when we’ve been married for such a short time?,…’ Sorrowfully, bitterly, I turned down this golden opportunity.” Rohrlich stayed home for 8 years as a full-time mother. She finally returned to graduate school and received her doctorate 29 years after she’d received her B.A.

The 1950s:

Although psychologist Dr. Bernice Lott won honors and medals and had a straight “A” record in high school, she writes: “I was never counseled to apply for a scholarship at a private college nor was I encouraged to pursue a particular curriculum.” In 1951, Lott entered the graduate program in psychology at UCLA. The chair, Roy Dorcas, shook her hand and said: “I’m sorry to see you in this program. Your credentials are excellent but getting a Ph.D. will be a waste of everyone’s time and energy since you will undoubtedly have children and never work as a professional psychologist.”

The 1960s:

Artist Judy Chicago remembers her graduate school days at UCLA this way: all her teachers were men, and the most ambitious art-students, besides herself, were also men. “Eager to fit in with the distinctly macho art crowd of L.A., (I) adopted an exaggerated masculine costume and demeanor, and took to smoking cigars and attending motorcycle races”… (I) even “joined in with the men putting other ‘women down, calling them chicks and cunts.”

When psychologist Dr. Pauline Rose Clance was applying to graduate schools, she was “told by one graduate school, directly, ‘We’ll only look at your application if you’re twice as good as any male candidate. Women drop out.’ Other women were told,’If you aren’t married and you want to enter graduate school, we don’t want you because you will get married and drop out,’ or, ‘If you are married, we don’t want you because you’ll have children and drop out.’ You couldn’t say you were a lesbian because psychologists still thought that lesbians were ill, so essentially there “was no way out.”

During this same time period, psychiatrist, Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, writes: “I was being taught that all women suffered from penis envy and were inherently inferior, castrated humans, with a lesser superego, and if we protested, it was evidence of having a masculinity complex.”

Surely, such blatant woman-hatred softened, slightly, in public, professional places with the advent of Second Wave feminism, didn’t it? Not so. Feminists were ostracized and diagnosed as much, even more, for daring to “fight back,” if only with words. The so called “backlash” was upon us from the very moment we drew our first Second Wave breath.

The 1970s:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the famed Menninger clinic in Topeka, Kansas, would not prescribe birth control for their troubled female adolescent patients. As psychiatrist Dr. Teresa Bernardez became increasingly and singularly successful with her teenaged female patients, her male colleagues and supervisors saw her as engaging in a “masculine protest,” and of “wanting to be a man.” She writes: “The blindness and impermeability of men was so intense that I began to think there was an unconscious reason for the necessity to want to see women as deprived and lacking…Men were noticeably uncomfortable if I became angry or even passionately involved in a discussion. There was what amounted to dread of the anger of women.”

In the early 1970s, psychologist Dr. Paula Caplan, was a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Duke University. Caplan mildly critiqued Freud in one of her term papers. She writes: “When (my) professor, Marty Lakin, returned (the paper) to me, he had scrawled on the front, ‘How many times in this century is Freud to be attacked for his views on women?’ Several pages into the paper, you can still see his pen’s indentation from what was apparently the intensity of feeling with -which he wrote that comment.” And then, Caplan was “kicked out of the clinical program in Psychology for having weak ego boundaries.” Caplan writes: “I came to understand that my advisor John Coie’s remark about my allegedly weak ego boundaries reflected the all-male faculty’s discomfort with a woman who was expressive rather than detached and formal, as they thought therapists should be.”

In the mid-70s at Harvard, psychologist Dr. Carol Gilligan began to “connect her work and her life” in the research that would lead to In A Different Voice. Gilligan writes that: “Initially, Lawrence Kohlberg was very dismissive of my research with women and basically ridiculed my abortion decision study, getting his class to vote that abortion was not a moral problem and telling my research seminar that I had confused gossip with research. At the same time, he was also very collegial and personally friendly, so it was a complicated double message…. I knew the research which Kohlberg was defending had included no women… as long as they (Kohlberg and Erik Erickson) could incorporate my work into their theories or regard it, as Larry used to say, as a kind of interesting cross-cultural research, a study of this other culture called women, then everything was fine. But when listening implied changing their theories, then there was a problem.”

Surprised? So were we all.

Feminist work, if it’s bold enough, serious enough, just has a way of slipping through our collective fingers and down into living deaths. For about 10 years, a number of radical feminists were very much in demand on campus, on television, in publishing, on legislative panels, but mainly as “dancing dog” sensations. The pioneer whistle blowers didn’t get to inherit the ships of state and industry, the jobs went to ever-younger white men, and in token numbers to anti-feminist women, and lastly, to a few, token feminists.

Most institutions, including universities, treated Second Wave feminists badly because we were women, and because everything we believed in, and did, both within and outside our professions, threatened everything they believed in and did.

The patriarchal academic world is not set up to appreciate or nourish creativity, only to crush it. After nearly 30 years of struggle, I and most other radical feminists, still have no institutional power. What we know, dies with us. Without institutional power, we can’t pass our knowledge on to the next generation.

For example, between 1975-1995, sociologist Dr. Diana Russell published eleven major books, and coordinated countless speak outs and campaigns, in the United States, in Europe, and in South Africa, her native country. Russell writes: “Despite these accomplishments, the price I have paid for my radical feminism has been high…. I did not receive a single academic job offer during my 22 years on the faculty at Mills College. I was also shabbily treated by key members of the Mills administration, which contributed to my early retirement in 1991 at the age of 53. Although I have applied for research grants many times, I have received only two substantial grants to date. I have been turned down for every fellowship I ever applied for I sometimes wonder what I might have accomplished had I received the rewards that a man in my position would have enjoyed.”

Dr. Catharine R. Stimpson notes that: “Women’s Studies has met with plenty of opposition … However, the mistakes Women’s Studies has made cannot account for the extent of the opposition. The resistance to the field (includes): one, the widespread belief that women of all races, like minorities of both genders, are irrational, castrators of reason, by nature nonacademic; and two, the (fear that thinking about women) will result in disturbances of the status quo.

In 1969-1970, I taught one of the first accredited women’s studies courses and co-founded one of the first women’s studies programs in the country. I also published a great deal in both academic and feminist journals, and in the mainstream media. Nevertheless, my battle for tenure was uphill all the way, and I had to fight: hard, for the right to keep my tenured position, and for each and every promotion thereafter. I’ll never forget the questions my colleagues asked when I’d formally appeal each of my non-promotions. ‘But you’re only publishing things about women! That doesn’t count,’ or ‘You’re publishing too much,’ or ‘Your reading lists have the wrong books on them.’ It took 22 years of constant battling to finally be promoted to full professor. However, despite numerous formal applications, I was never allowed to teach graduate students at my own university. No explanation given, none required.”

The 1980s:

Psychiatrist Dr. Nanette Gartrell completed her psychiatric residency at Harvard (1976-1979) and then served on the American Psychiatric Association task force to develop a curriculum on the psychology of women for psychiatric residency programs. Gartrell writes: “When we submitted our detailed 200-page proposal two years later (1980-81), APA officials were incensed over a single sentence written by me: ‘Homosexuality is a normal variation in sexual expression.’ The magnitude of the backlash surprised me. Never mind that homosexuality had been eliminated from the DSM (Diagnostic Manual) six years previously. Prominent female psychiatrists pressured me to delete the sentence, warning that my professional career could be ruined if I did not comply. Meanwhile, several male psychiatrists rewrote my sections and submitted their versions for publication under my name. I was also subjected to a long-term smear campaign…. Despite these tactics, I refused to capitulate. I resigned from the task force, withdrew my contributions to the curriculum, and removed my name from authorship. Many colleagues followed suit. Sadly for women psychiatrists, the curriculum was never published. I became completely disillusioned about the possibility of making any changes within organized psychiatry without major resistance.”

Teresa Bernardez also encountered trouble in her own Department of Psychiatry. A new chairman maintained she wasn’t a “mainstream psychiatrist,” because she “did not treat depressed women with drugs and because I was against involuntary hospitalization. I had to defend my position through a grievance, which I won. My position in protecting patients who had been victims of therapists’ abuse had already (resulted in) a series of disputes with a few faculty members. These battles demonstrated to me the violence hidden under the professional demeanor of these men, the virulence in their hatred of women when they were in danger of being uncovered.” Bernardez left the Department of Psychiatry “with their arcane views and biological reductionism” which was “toxic to me.”

What is utterly amazing is the extent to which these women were punished for being creative, compassionate, brilliant, moral, and for daring to persevere. Equally amazing: despite this, these pioneers never stopped working, never stopped finding each other, teaching their classes, doing their art, and their research, healing their patients, making their speeches, encouraging each other, building feminist networks.

Gloria Steinem writes: “Hearing women stand up and tell the truth (about their abortions) in public, in 1969 changed (my) life…. Feminism has given me a life. And saved my life. The last step of healing is to use your experience to help others.” bell hooks writes: “Damaged spirits rarely choose revolution…. It had become more than evident that individual black females suffering psychologically were not prepared to go out and lead the feminist revolution…. (The) Contemporary feminist movement radicalized the notion of mental health. Feminist understanding that women would need to heal from the psychological wounds inflicted by sexism…created a cultural revolution.” Psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker writes that “without her feminist therapy peer support group in Denver (she) could not have continued her difficult but very rewarding work” (with battered women).

So, did we “win” or “lose?” We did both and neither. As psychotherapist Sandra Butler writes: “Nothing that sexually victimized women needed existed, so we had to create it. And we did…my feminism is a practice, not an ideology. It is no longer about success and failure, but instead is a way of life that is demanding, scrupulous and unsentimental.”

Most Foremothers eventually withdrew from, (or never sought to enter), the narrow, patriarchal hierarchies/ bureaucracies so hostile to women and to feminism. They didn’t go away, and they didn’t give up. Instead, they expanded, deepened, became rooted in more organic, entrepreneurial, ways of being. They became (or remained) writers, therapists, lecturers, artists, freestanding “agents of change,” loosely confederated, tribal, fragile.

They followed their hearts and their minds and found little competition. Many began publishing with non-academic or with small presses, self-publishing, writing for large, national magazines. Many created new and unique professional networks, both psychoanalytic, and anti-psychoanalytic in orientation. Some began (or continued) serving incest and rape survivors, battered women, mentally-ill and homeless women, refugees, lesbians, alcoholics, disabled, and elderly women and each other.

I’ll let some Foremothers have the last word(s):

Z Budapest: “Maintaining spiritual health is integral to mental health… spirituality is important to women and it is suicidal not to include it in political work.”

Judith Lewis Herman: “My only regret is that I wish we were much further along in what we had to offer. It’s hard to turn around to people who are suffering and injured and say to them, ‘What you need isn’t out there, you have to go organize it.'”

Ellen Kashyk: “I’ve seen it too many times by now, a woman trying to run faster than the speed of sorrow. We have the words to speak to each other now, but often what we have to say with those words is still unbearable. We are paying careful attention, but what we see not only ruins our eyes, it can break our hearts.”

Teresa Bernardez: “To my astonishment, I am not afraid of old age and it is to my sisters that I owe this continuous rebirthing, this ending of exile.”

Editor-at-large Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. is the author of seven books, including Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial, and the recently published Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness.