As one of the most prominent figures in “second wave feminism,” Alix Kates Shulman has been on the front lines of the fight for equal rights and social justice for more than 50 years.
Hailed by the (not failing) New York Times as “the voice that has for three decades provided a lyrical narrative of the changing position of women in American society,” Shulman exploded on the national scene in 1972 with the publication of her bestselling debut novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. As a coming-of-age tale set in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it feels like it could have been written this morning in its depiction of sexual assault, discrimination, and misogyny. She is the author of fourteen books including the novels Burning Questions, On the Stroll, In Every Woman’s Life…, and Menáge; the memoirs Drinking the Rain, A Good Enough Daughter, and To Love What Is; the children’s books Bosley on the Number Line, Finders Keepers, and Awake or Asleep; and numerous works of non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, and The Guardian, among many others. Currently she is co-editing the Library of America anthology Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991.
Alix’s perspective has never been more relevant than in the current moment.
THE SADNESS OF THEIR MOTHERS
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thank you for sitting down with me, Alix. Let me start with the broadest possible question. I feel like we’re in a blender as a nation, with everything that’s going on. The country is finally reckoning with endemic sexual harassment and assault in our culture, while we have a man who brazenly boasts of his own history on that count in the White House, at the expense of the most prominent female politician in American history. So what do you make of the present moment?
ALIX SHULMAN: It’s quite ironic that the latest resurgence of feminism was born because of Hillary’s defeat and Trump’s election. But that’s the way it works. When people get very angry they can be very effective, if they’re organized. There’s no way of knowing when a revolutionary moment will occur, or explaining why any revolutionary moment occurred at a given time. It’s a mystery. But I do think that it usually has to do with some event that provokes a sense of, “enough is enough.”
You know the first wave of feminism started in 1848 and ended in 1920 when women got the vote. That’s three generations of constant struggle with its ups and downs. Then nothing much until the 1960s—late ‘67 early ’68 I would say—and suddenly it exploded again as the Women’s Liberation Movement, or radical feminism. That was the time of resistence to the Vietnam War; the nation had been politicized. I think there was probably as much bifurcation among the public then as there is now, maybe even more.
The backlash against feminism set in probably in the mid-70s and on, when the war ended. Is that a coincidence, or was that a reason? It’s complicated, and I’m not a historian.
TKN: In that dormant period between the end of the first wave in 1920 and the rise of the second wave in the ‘60s, you have the Depression, and you have the Second World War, and then you have this sort of Eisenhower era. To what extent was the war a factor—the “Rosie the Riveter” phenomenon of so many women going to work outside the home?
AS: During the Depression, because there was such high unemployment, a family policy was introduced whereby only one person in the family was allowed to work. Guess who that was! But then during the war women had employment opportunities they hadn’t had before. Women got jobs in the factories, and jobs doing many things that the men who had gone off to war had done prior to that. And then when the men came home, the women had to give up their jobs. There was really a deliberate, massive propaganda campaign to get them back to the kitchen. And there was so much discrimination against women. For example, most of the unions would not organize or include women. It was really bad during that period; it’s hard even to describe. Women didn’t like that, but they didn’t have much choice.
My mother was one of those people who was sent back to the kitchen. She had worked for the WPA in the ‘30s—Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration—and when the war started, the WPA ended. She lost her job. But I grew up knowing how happy she was working. She was the only mother in the neighborhood who had a job, and I was so proud of her for it. But it didn’t last.
TKN: So in that period of dormancy, things were happening; it’s just that activism per se wasn’t happening, yes? Rosie the Riveter and all that contributed to what then happened in the ‘60s, it seems to me.
AS: It wasn’t Rosie’s generation that restarted the feminist movement; it was Rosie’s daughters’. After the war, during the ‘50s, people who had been socialists and communists—important movements in this country, especially during the ‘30s—were under attack. As soon as the Hot War ends the Cold War and McCarthyism take over and many people lose their jobs—forever. That is not a time when political organizing is likely to go on. People might be angry but they’re also terrified.
But the ‘60s was a time of tremendous political activity, especially among the young, over the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. So it makes sense that the feminist movement would be reborn at that time. The radicalized young women activists in movement organizations were shocked that their male comrades did not treat them as equals and dismissed their outrage about misogyny as trivial. The women were kept out of leadership positions and expected to go on doing the typing, coffeemaking, and fucking. After certain incidents, they resigned in fury and started meeting separately.
The main weapon of organizing the second wave was something called “consciousness raising” where women would get together in small groups and speak personally about their experience vis-a-vis men and male power. These were not group therapy sessions: these were political meetings trying to understand how they got here and how to mobilize their anger in order to make a movement. Some of that consciousness raising was around issues of bad sex, of abortion and maternity, of violence against women and what is now called rape culture, of education and job discrimination, of what was later named sexual harassment, and of all the manifestations of patriarchy including the patriarchal family. Another topic was the sadness of some of their mothers over their limited lives—a plight Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique described so well. Looking back at what happened to their mothers, the young middle-class activists among them didn’t want to live that restricted a life. It’s rage over injustice that gets any movement going.
IT TAKES A MOVEMENT
TKN: It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that that moment of anger has happened again.
AS: Absolutely. But the question is, will it be sustained? Because it has happened other times. After Anita Hill was so humiliated and mistreated in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, there was a mini-revival of the movement, but it was kind of short lived. In the ‘80s and up to the present there has still been a great deal of second wave activity around core feminist issues, but there wasn’t so much of that unified vision as there had been during the late ‘60s and the ‘70s. There was such a big, well-organized backlash against second wave feminism that the movement splintered. People went on struggling, but a lot of them felt that they were keeping the pilot light lit for the next great moment.
For a number of decades until Trump’s election—or maybe until Beyonce declared herself a feminist, a year or two before the election—that backlash made many young women, who otherwise believed in the goals of the movement, reluctant to use the word “feminist” about themselves. Now, since Trump, everybody is using the word feminist. It’s being used by men respectfully—by editors of journals who never would have given a moment’s thought to feminism except contempt—now they’re jumping on the bandwagon. It’s amazing to me. And also I can’t help finding it a little amusing.
But who cares what word we use? I don’t care. I just find it a symbol of something that’s changed now that the word is being embraced again by everybody. Even Trump recently used it by announcing that he’s not one.
TKN: Is that rejection of the label “feminism” in part an ironic result of feminism’s very success? Those younger women who benefited from everything that you did—they didn’t see a need to be “feminists” because of the very things that feminism had already accomplished for them, without them even realizing it.
AS: Yes, they were born into a different world. Just as I was born into a world where women had the vote and were able to smoke and have skirts as short as they wanted and had a kind of a sexual liberation beginning in the ‘20s, the Jazz Age, and even before that, in the 1910s in Greenwich Village. I would say I took it for granted. I didn’t know a world any different than that.
TKN: So to what do you attribute the fact that all that’s happening now is happening at this particular moment? The Harvey Weinstein story could have broken a year ago, or ten years ago—and similar stories have broken. Why is it having this massive impact now?
AS: Because of Trump! Because Trump was so misogynistic, so blatantly racist, sexist, anti-immigrant—proudly, actually—that he got everybody furious. It wasn’t just some real estate developer: it was the person who defeated Hillary unjustly and became president. So the day after his inauguration, that huge women’s march which took place all over the world announced a new movement. And when you have a movement you can do things. You can do things together that you couldn’t do as an individual.
TKN: So when you were a young woman, did you already implicitly understand the injustice?
AS: Yes. I always knew that it was unjust. I had a brother. My parents treated us equally but the world didn’t. But since there was no word for it—for the idea of injustice based on sex—and it was not acknowledged, I had no language with which to object. There was no movement. So I went about trying to be a little subversive, trying to be a boy, many different tactics. But without a movement those individual gestures mean nothing. In fact, one of the first things that the second wave insisted upon was that there are no individual solutions. The only way to change things for women is to have a mass movement.
TKN: No “separate peace,” right? Everybody has to stick together.
AS: Yes. It’s like separate but equal. We were separate and it was presumed that we were equal because we had our sphere. To have any other goal, to have ambition…..even now, for a woman to have ambition is considered unwomanly, unfeminine. This is what Hillary had to contend with. And that’s after a feminist movement. Before it, you were a freak or you were unacceptable if you let it be known that you had any ambition.
I have a little collection of girls advice books from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. They all tell girls not to show that they’re smart. They say when you’re with a boy just ask questions, know about sports, ask about what’s he’s interested in, don’t show off, don’t let it be known that you’re smart. If you do, you’ll never get married.
TKN: You’ll never be president, for sure.
AS: For sure!
OCCAM’S RAZOR (FOR GIRLS)
TKN: That issue of ambition and the way that the same traits that are celebrated in boys and men are criticized in girls and women: you couldn’t ask for a plainer example of it than the election. But any time I’ve written or said that I thought misogyny played a huge role—not the only factor, of course, but a big one—I’ve been attacked. “Oh, that’s an oversimplification, it’s reductionist, etc.” But to me, it’s blatant. As close as the election was, if Hillary was the exact same candidate—same strengths and weakness, same CV and same baggage—but had a penis, she would have won in a landslide.
AS: Yes, absolutely. That’s it from the beginning. The hate campaign against Hillary for decades—ever since Bill first ran for president—was so clearly misogynist.
TKN: We thought we had made great strides—and as you say, we had made some great strides—and then we were starkly reminded of how far we still have to go. You know, we thought we were in a post-racial society when Barack was elected. We found out we weren’t…..
AS: I never thought so!
TKN: And then we thought we were in a post-chauvinist society, and we found out we weren’t. So I’m going to take back what I’ve always said about Trump. He actually has done something good, accidentally: he restarted the feminist movement!
AS: [laughs] That’s why I started by saying it’s ironic.
I think of it is as a kind of consolation prize that we’ve had this awakening. But it may be bigger than that. A consolation prize is a lesser prize. I’m not sure this is lesser. We didn’t get the first female president, but we got this awakening. He’s going to be in there for eight years max. But if this movement takes off, it’s going to be a lot bigger than Trump.
TKN: I ‘m loath to be a pollyanna and say, “Well, he burned it to the ground and now things are going to be better.” We don’t know if they’re going to be better….
AS: We don’t know.
TKN: But they might.
AS: They might. Who knows? The suffragettes fought for three generations before getting the vote. It took a civil war to abolish slavery.
TKN: Speaking of a consolation prize, for Hillary, maybe better than being president is that she’ll go down in history as this martyr and maybe have a second or third act in her life.
AS: Well, let’s hope, yes. But as for going down in history, I myself am very skeptical of that. The first women who did everything don’t go down in history because history is not written by women. It’s written by men. There are a lot of women now who have been able to become feminist historians because of the second wave, but most of them are shunted to women’s studies and nobody listens to them except other women.
When I was in school there was no mention of the first wave of feminism. Zero. Susan B. Anthony and the vote got maybe a paragraph, never even a full chapter. This is half the population of the country. And when Susan B. Anthony was mentioned, it was often with ridicule: this hatchet-faced old maid! She was never honored in any textbook I ever had: elementary school, junior high school, high school, college, graduate school, forget it. So I don’t think that Hillary Clinton will go down in history unless she has another act to come.
Just as Geraldine Ferraro hasn’t. Nobody young knows who she is. Just as Shirley Chisholm hasn’t, outside of African-American and women’s studies. Rosa Parks, yes: she launched a movement. But even the story about Rosa Parks is inaccurate. She was an activist, a member of an organization of activists. But she is known as just a random woman passenger on a bus who decided on her own not to move to the back. No, it was planned.
TKN: I didn’t know that.
AS: Few people know it. And not only that, she wasn’t the first one. There were a few women before her who refused to move to the back of the bus. Note: all women. But the thinking was that the time wasn’t yet ripe to make an issue of it. The time would come. And it came!
TKN: In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, it’s striking how a book that came out in 1972 and is set in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s deals with the exact same issues we’re dealing with today.
AS: It’s amazing how contemporary it feels. Some things have changed, but a lot of things haven’t. Certainly the women’s movement, the second wave, made tremendous strides. When I first came to New York and well until the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, the employment ads in the New York Times and every newspaper in the country were divided into “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female.” We weren’t allowed to apply for a “Help Wanted Male” listing. And the bottom of the pay scale for men was the top of the pay scale of women. All kinds of discrimination against women were perfectly acceptable. So we have made great strides. However, sex segregation in many jobs and pay disparity persist.
There are now things that are illegal that didn’t used to be illegal, like sexual harassment on the job, marital rape, and date rape. There weren’t even names for those offenses. Before the women’s movement, in order to get a rape conviction, in most places you had to have two witnesses. Witnesses!
So many things have changed for the better. I can tell you the name of the woman who went state by state by state getting marital rape and date rape recognized as rape and made illegal.
TKN: What’s her name? Let’s give her credit.
AS: Her name is Laura X. And she did a fabulous job. And I can tell you the name of the woman who invented the term ”sexual harassment.” That term didn’t even appear until the mid-1970s, though the offenses it describes go back to cavemen. Her name is Lin Farley. They were movement activists.
The law makes it very clear what justifies firing people for sexual harassment. And it doesn’t have to be rape. That isn’t to say there aren’t distinctions, of course. I mean rape is a criminal act and you should go to prison for it whereas some of the other things that qualify as sexual harassment, you only get fired for. Like creating a “hostile work environment.” People make distinctions. Nobody is saying not to. But legally, it doesn’t have to be sexual assault in order to be sexual harassment.
It puzzles me why so many people are saying, “Well, that person was fired without a hearing, without due process.” But in fact we have no idea about what went into the firing. And I would be very surprised if most of these companies didn’t have a process in place, because they stand to be sued if they don’t follow procedures. The fact that they don’t make the process public is not surprising. The public doesn’t really have a right to know why any person is fired. If somebody’s fired because she came to the office late three days out of every five, does the public have a right to know that? I don’t think so. That’s an internal process.
Anti-harassment laws have been in place for decades, but when women complained nothing was done. Where those laws were not enforced they might as well not have existed. And not only were they not enforced, but the women’s complaints weren’t believed. So even though many companies had procedures in place, they didn’t use them. Or no one was punished. Now, because of the #MeToo movement, starting with Harvey Weinstein—whose horrors could no longer be hidden, although they had been for many years—now companies don’t want to be tarred that way. And so they are following their protocols as they hadn’t for decades.
TKN: Can you talk a little bit about how feminism has shaped us culturally?
AS: When I was growing up—and this is pre-television—there were no female voices on the radio, except the occasional entertainer. It was just agreed that women’s voices were not pleasant. They were shrill, we were told. So women didn’t get to be on the radio. And there was always some reason like that for everything. You can go into fancy restaurants now and find that all of the waiters are men. How can that be? I won’t go into those restaurants, or if I do, I make a fuss. I ask “Why are there no waitresses?”
TKN: Well, that’s in your book, definitely.
AS: Oh, really? Oh I don’t remember that.
TKN: The character goes up to Lake Placid to work, which—ironically—my mother did too.
AS: Really? She was a waiter there?
TKN: She wasn’t a waitress but she worked up there. Faye Dunaway was a waitress at her hotel. She wasn’t “Faye Dunaway” at the time, not yet—she was just some girl. But that world was something my mom had told me about.
AS: But here now, in the 21st Century, the fancier the restaurant, the less likely they are to have waitresses.
TKN: About the voices, I’m embarrassed to tell you this story. I wanted my daughter—who’s almost seven—to see women’s sports on TV, because if I watch football or something she always asks, annoyed: ”How come it’s all boys?”
AS: She will? She’ll say that?
TKN: Yeah. Her generation of six-year-olds are super politicized. In our neighborhood anyway.
AS: Oh, great! Good for her. Fabulous.
TKN: So I recorded an NWSL women’s professional soccer game to show her that women can be pro athletes too, and we turned it on and I was shocked that the commentators were women. The play-by-play announcer and the color commentator both. It hadn’t occured to me beforehand; I just assumed they’d be men. And I felt like an asshole that it surprised me, so there’s my own innate sexism right there. But to my daughter it was perfectly natural. She was like, “Yeah, of course they’re women. Who else would it be?”
AS: Of course they are. But that was very hard to achieve. They also said we can’t have women sportswriters because they’d have to go into the male locker room. [laughter]
TKN: It’s a combination of sexism and prudishness. Prudishness is a weapon.
AS: Well penises are weapons. [laughter]
There were also many organizations that wouldn’t hire women because they didn’t have enough women’s rooms! I remember a big complaint by the women in Congress was that they didn’t have adequate women’s rooms.
TKN: Speaking of Congress, you have to look no further than that to see how far we have not come.
AS: Exactly. But that could soon improve. More women than ever before are running for office in 2018. And they need support.
TKN: When Mitch McConnell said “she persisted”—well, he meant it as an indictment, but it’s been turned against him beautifully. He didn’t even realize what he was saying.
AS: “I told her to shut up and nevertheless she persisted.” My daughter had a little bracelet made for me that says, “Nevertheless she persisted.”
TKN: Now it’s gone into the lexicon and it will always be there and it will be hung around his neck like an albatross, as it should be. And then you have Kamala Harris getting shouted down by her colleagues….
AS: Like Hillary being interrupted and shouted down and stalked during the campaign and the debates. But never mind, let’s not go there. Too painful.
FEAR AND SELF-LOATHING
TKN: At the risk of stating the obvious, the election was the perfect embodiment of the plight of women in America. You had the most qualified possible candidate you could ever imagine—a woman, as it happened—losing to the least qualified, most cretinous, in fact actively counter-qualified man imaginable, and one whose maleness was a decisive factor in his win. And it was just the injustice of it—I don’t care what your politics are—that was so appalling.
TKN: And I won’t put it on the Russians either. I have no doubt they did what they did, but sixty some million Americans still voted for that guy…..and millions of them were women! How do you explain that?
AS: Because not all women are feminists. Certainly no feminist ever voted for Trump. But many white women are anti-progressive and anti-feminist. That’s no surprise in a polarized country like ours with its racist and misogynist history.
People have difficulty bucking their community and their situation. A lot of white women are still dependent on their husbands economically, especially women with children. Remember that Trump won in rural areas, where goals like gender and racial equality have made smaller inroads. It’s no accident, I think, that the second wave started in the big cities and university towns, places traditionally open to new ideas.
I don’t think it was stupid to vote for him if you believed that he might actually improve your life.
TKN: But that’s the thing—it was a con.
AS: Yes, of course! And not the first time in our history.
TKN: If it’s true that he’s gonna improve your life, it’s great. Except it isn’t true! It’s never going to be true.
RADICAL IS AS RADICAL DOES
TKN: It struck me as astonishing that when you wrote A Marriage Agreement in 1969, the concept you proposed was considered so radical—the idea that parents should share equally in childcare. Radical! Revolutionary! Not to take away from your idea in the least, but from the perspective of today, it only seems logical.
AS: It’s hard to imagine what it used to be like when it’s not like that anymore. Although I’m not sure how much it isn’t like that anymore, to tell you the truth. Nowadays at least lip service is paid to the idea of equality in the household, in the marriage, in childcare and housework. But it was laughable—ridicule-able—in 1969 when I wrote that. Sex roles were so clearly delineated. Taking care of children was women’s work and men who did it were considered unmasculine. It was a slur.
At the end of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen I have a chapter in which I quote Dr. Spock, who was the childcare guru of the time. For starters, in his famous book he never uses any pronoun but “he” for babies or children. Then he just assumes childcare is exclusively women’s work. He has a passage in which he says that if the husband doesn’t want to change a diaper, it’s okay. Don’t force him. Maybe he’ll become better with the children after they’re old enough to be friends with him. This was a given of the time.
TKN: And he was progressive!
AS: Well, he was progressive on the war; he was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. I don’t know that he was progressive on women. Nobody was. To be a progressive meant to be a progressive about boy things. Women‘s issues weren’t in the progressive conversation. His book came out in 1946; that was way before there was a revival of the feminist movement. There’s no such thing as being progressive about women absent a movement.
Next week in part two of this conversation, Alix elaborates on anti-feminism among women, generational differences, classism, and the danger of losing hard-fought gains.