A Spark Is Lit: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 2)

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This week, the second part of my conversation with author and activist Alix Kates Shulman, one of the most prominent figures in second wave feminism, who has been on the front lines of the fight for equal rights and social justice for more than 50 years.

At a time when the United States has a president* in the White House who brags of sexual assault, and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have put feminism back at the forefront of the national conversation, Alix’s perspective has never been more apropos.

(For Alix’s full bio, see Part 1 of this conversation, “Feminism in the Age of Monsters,” or the bottom of this post.)


THE KING’S NECKTIE: We were talking last time about the importance of “consciousness raising” in the feminist movement. On the one hand, I would say, “If you’re a woman, how can you not be a feminist?” For that matter, how can any human, male or female, not support equality, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. But especially if you’re a woman, how can you not be a feminist? On the other hand, if you’re in this Frantz Fanon colonial mindset where you’ve been indoctrinated to accept your own subjugation…. 

ALIX SHULMAN: At the time that the second wave was spreading, you had to marry or you were an old maid, uncertain of how you’d survive. Husbands were the breadwinners. I’m just talking about the middle class now, because most working class women were always working outside the home, and that includes many people of color, immigrants, people living in poverty. It’s a different set of pressures. But a lot of middle class women felt threatened by feminism in those early days because they worried that they were going to lose their only way of surviving if they embraced women’s liberation. No way they were going to be able to get their husbands to do half the housework. So what were they going to do? Get dumped? I mean, people act in their perceived self-interest.

This was another rallying cry of our movement in the early days of consciousness raising: “Figure out where our interests lie and fight for them.” For women it was a kind of revolutionary statement to claim the right to put our own interests first.

Another principle from one of the earliest consciousness raising groups was, “We take the women’s side in everything.…We ask: is it good for women or bad for women?” This in itself was very shocking. Of course there are so many different categories of women, but in those early days that wasn’t perceived as such an issue. So if a woman sees her self-interest as threatened by feminism, she’s going to oppose it.

Though the backlash was mainly men, there were also women, including many evangelicals, involved in the anti-abortion movement, the anti-gay movement. Remember Anita….what was her name?….

TKN: Anita… (searching) She was the orange juice woman…..I can’t remember now. I guess that’s a good sign! Oh, Anita Bryant!

AS: Right. People like her were very public figures and yet they were arguing against women having public lives.

TKN: You started to allude to distinctions—class distinctions and otherwise—within the feminist movement. Can you talk a little bit about that?

AS: The #MeToo movement that has surfaced so far—or anyway that has gotten a lot of press—has been mostly in industries where there are celebrities. But much worse—because it’s so entrenched and without recourse—is the sexism and sexual harassment and abuse and misconduct toward women who are waitresses, chambermaids, cleaners, health care workers, blue collar workers. Many of these workers get such low pay they lack a financial cushion, especially those with families to support. Who is going to stand up for them? Even where they have a union, the women aren’t necessarily supported in their complaints against union men—as reported in the superb New York Times story on sexual harassment at two Chicago area Ford Motor plants. Recognizing the need, prominent women in the film industry recently founded the Time’s Up movement precisely to create a legal defense fund for victims of sexual harassment in low-paying and low-profile jobs.

TKN: One would hope that it begins where it began, in entertainment and media, for the reasons you cited, and eventually it spreads. I mean, it’s great that Harvey and the rest of them all are being brought down, but you’re telling me there’s no sexual harassment on Wall Street? Come on!

AS: That’s surely going to happen. Another place is in the universities, of course. The professors in charge of your dissertation can ask for anything and frequently do. And how do you refuse when they control your future? That’s another aspect of the sexual harassment law: retaliation. It’s illegal to retaliate against someone who alleges sexual harassment. Yet it happens all the time and is hard to prove.

TKN: And it also goes to the issue of consent. Often the defense is that the relationship was consensual. But when the power structure is such, like a professor and a student, how can there be true consent?

AS: Right. As Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” I tend to be more permissive about consenting adults, although of course it’s complicated.

The military is another place where misogyny and abuse are rampant. We have so much evidence. Every so often there is a scandal involving the terrible sexism in the military: women being raped, mistreated, shunted aside, ridiculed, and retaliated against when they complain. The military is so male dominated, and the power in the military is not democratic in the least.

TKN: By definition. It’s not a democratic institution even when it’s in the service of a democracy, and it can’t be.

AS: I just read that the number of rapes at West Point doubled last year. So I don’t know if the military is going to change. I kind of doubt it.

TKN: Although, I grew up in the military, I was born into it, I was in it myself—

AS: I know.

TKN: ….but I was always in all-male units, I was never in a unit with a woman, so I can’t speak to that. But I’ll say this. The Army desegregated before the rest of American society because it was ordered to. Truman simply ordered the military to desegregate well before the majority of the general public was ready to accept that. And even the racists in the service who didn’t like it still had to salute and comply. “Three bags full, sir!” So the same anti-democratic structure can work to the advantage of social justice.

AS: Yes.

TKN: It can, but only if the people in power—whether they’re female generals or male generals—say, “This is not going to continue. We’re going to stop it.” They can stop it. I don’t know if they’re going to do that when it comes to sexual harassment or discrimination, let alone assault, but they can.

AS: Yes, right.

TKN: Same with the removal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the lifting of the prohibition on homosexuality. One day you just get an order from above that says, “I don’t care how you feel—I don’t care if you’re homophobic or not—this is how it’s going to be. Deal with it.”

AS: But I wonder if the powers that be in the military will have that attitude towards women. Who knows? So far, they haven’t even enforced the rules they have.

TKN: Right. I mean, it’s a macho institution by its nature: just the numbers of men versus women in the ranks, and the nature of what a military does. But the flag officers, the brass, could stand up and be the leaders they’re supposed to be and set an example for the whole country.

AS: They could. Of course they could.

TKN: They could be the ones to say “It stops here and we’re going to lead the way.” We’ll see if they do.

AS: And if you disobey, you get court martialed. Discharged. Out!

TKN: We’ll see.


AS: I keep hearing that there’s a generational split around the #MeToo movement. Older women grew up understanding that the only way to survive was to go along a bit, as you see in Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. What alternatives did you have? I mean, you can’t make a big fuss or you’re finished. And some of the women of my generation, and maybe the older half of the next generation, were able to survive only by being accommodating. And that should include me, but since I became an ardent feminist it doesn’t.

Young women now have a different experience, and with the #MeToo opening, many just won’t tolerate it. That’s what’s so great; that’s what I love about them. They’re not going to give sexual harassers or abusers a pass or give them a break. They’re going to demand justice. Lovely. Go for it!

TKN: It’s such a huge change. When you go back and look at things like the image of the businessman chasing his secretary around the desk, what used to pass as routine now looks appalling. There’s an enormous swath of older pop culture that now just makes your jaw drop.

AS: I’ve written about the Beats, so radical in some ways but quite as misogynist as the rest of the culture. There’s a movie that a few of the Beats are in, the young Allen Ginsberg and Jack Karouac, made by Robert Frank, the photographer, called Pull My Daisy. If you look at Pull My Daisy now, the plot is how to sneak out of the house and away from the wife. That’s it. The women are demonized. It’’s the same plot in the Dagwood and Blondie comic strips and movies; also in Jiggs and Maggie. The whole point is that the poor guy has this monstrous wife who won’t let him go out with the boys.

TKN: Talking about my daughter, she started watching I Love Lucy, which is fantastic of course, except that as good as it is, most of the plots turn on how ditsy Lucy is, or how she does something dumb, or gets herself in some sort of fix. It reflects its era, of course, but it’s problematic today to show that to a little girl, over and over. And that was just taken as normal! It was a comedy.

And then we started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I have very fond memories of as well. I actually wrote about this in the very first post in this blog. The first season of that was 1970 and I have to explain to my daughter things about it that are mysterious to her. Like, she’ll say, “How come the camera guys won’t listen to Mary? She’s the boss.” I’m like well… how do I explain it?

AS: That’s how life was. And in many ways still is.

TKN: It’s painful, because you hate to ruin a child’s innocence, but at some point you have to let them in how the world is and prepare them for the injustice they’re going to face. 

AS: But young women today, in this time of reawakened feminism, are not going to accept that. They are not going to take it. It’s wonderful.


TKN: I don’t know if we told you that Ferne and I were at that Dustin Hoffman thing with John Oliver.

AS: No, what was that?

TKN: It was a panel discussion for the 20th anniversary of Wag the Dog, with Hoffman, DeNiro, Barry Levinson, and Jane Rosenthal who produced the film. Oliver was the moderator. It was a normal Q&A for a while, and then Oliver said, “Well, I can’t avoid this issue. The film turns on an incident of sexual abuse by a fictional president, and Dustin, you’ve been accused of such and such back in 1985.” And Dustin was very calm, and sort of had a fairly standard answer ready, but then John Oliver just shook his head and said, “You know, that answer really pisses me off.” Because Dustin really wasn’t owning up to it…..he was just saying, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” And he really emphasized the “if.” And from there it got ugly.

It was pretty extraordinary to watch; you don’t see something that raw in public very often. And finally Oliver moved off it, but then Dustin brought it back up again! Twice! He was like the defendant in court representing himself and just digging a deeper and deeper hole. And John Oliver was like, “Hey, I tried to get off this and get back to talking about the movie, but if you want to get into it, I’ll get into it.”

I love Dustin Hoffman, but it was amazing to watch this man who is so accomplished and so successful and so beloved, and he simply couldn’t stand the fact that this one British comedian didn’t think he was a good guy. And he couldn’t let it go.

I mean, let’s keep in mind that he’s 80 years old, and he’s been a giant movie star his whole adult life, so I’m sure it’s not easy for him to adjust to this sea change in our culture all of a sudden. But he just couldn’t get his head around the problem and how to respond, even to save his own ass.

AS: That’s the thing. It was a different time. But now is now and you have to inform what happened back then with your consciousness of now. And some people have a new consciousness and some people just don’t. They want it to be the old way. That’s what frightens me, because they have power. But we’ll see. I hope that a huge change occurs and that it lasts, but I’m not counting on it.

TKN: Is that based on your experience of having watched the cycle before?

AS: Yes, exactly. The backlash, which is conducted by the people with the power.

TKN: And of course we’re only talking here about the West, and really about America. As you can see the reaction to #MeToo in Europe is different. Asia Argento was run out of Italy. Catherine Deneuve signed this letter that said “What’s wrong with stealing a kiss?” and then she immediately had to back off, but still. And that’s not even talking about the Third World, the Islamic world, or the fundamentalist Christian world.

AS: Now finally women can drive in Saudi Arabia. [laughs] No, gender equality is very far from happening. Even in the best of places—well, I don’t know. Maybe in the Scandinavian countries it’s great. I don’t know.

TKN: Maybe it’s the speartip of it. My hope is that my daughter will grow up in a different world. We’ll never live to see it, of course—

AS: I certainly won’t.


TKN: So what is the breaking point at which this changes permanently?

AS: The struggle for women’s equality has been going on for a couple hundred years and improvements are made and battles won, and then it stops. And sometimes it goes backward, but not all the way back, and then it starts again. And there’s no reason to presume that this pattern isn’t going to continue. I mean not until the entire society changes, not until we have a revolution of true gender and racial equality. Until people are just people. And I don’t see that anywhere near happening. Each generation can take it only so far.

And which of the changes will become permanent with each revitalization of the movement? You just have to wait and see.

Abortion was the sine qua non for the second wave because for liberation women must be able to control their bodies, their reproduction, their sex lives. In the beginning the struggle for abortion rights went through surprisingly quickly. And it’s still the law. But it’s been chipped away so steadily that even if Roe v. Wade doesn’t get overturned—which is a possibility—access to abortion is not nearly as easy as it used to be. I’m saying this to illustrate that even what seems to be permanently changed–by Supreme Court decision!–isn’t necessarily so.

I don’t think we can ever let up our vigilance. I don’t think we can ever relax and say “Well, now we have it. We have equality.” I think that’s maybe what happened in the 1920s after women got the vote. A lot of people thought, okay we’ve got that now. But there are many things that can eat away at the accomplishments of a movement and undermine the gains.

Take the civil rights movement; Black Lives Matter is such an important movement. It’s not that people didn’t know that police brutality was much harsher against people of color; that’s been forever. But the civil rights movement was able to take it only so far before the forces of reaction, the forces in power took over again. Look at school segregation. It was declared unconstitutional, but the schools may now be more segregated than ever. Racism and misogyny are so much stronger than law. So the movements have to rise again and spread. That’s just the way it works.

TKN: I had this conversation with Bill Jersey when we were talking about fundamentalism and evangelicalism. There are these things that are signposts of progress. I don’t think a politician today could get away with saying “We should go back to separate drinking fountains.” I think we’ve cleared that incredibly low bar. And the same with the feminist movement. I think women make 79 cents on the dollar or whatever, maybe it’s worse than that. But I don’t think a politician would say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” They have to pretend. They pay lip service.  

AS: Like they pay lip service to sharing childcare.

TKN: Right. So these are such tiny incremental steps, but they are steps.

AS: But in some ways they’re huge. Whatever steps are taken make a big difference, especially those that are permanent. It’s hard to imagine that some of these aren’t permanent, though I have seen how advances have been stalled or reversed. Like women being sent back to the kitchen after WW II or abortion rights. So you can never take them for granted.

I can’t predict the future. I think that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is not impossible.

TKN: I was going to ask you about that, because my contention is that if Hillary had won and that show aired, people would have said (dismissive) “Eh, more dystopian science fiction.” Now they watch it and they’re like, “That looks like the news.” It’s scary.

AS: I know. Exactly. That’s why we can never stop being vigilant and fighting on every possible front.

All of these #MeToo women who came forward, they came forward as a group really, and quickly became a movement. I mean, they did it one at a time but they had a whole cohort backing them. And it keeps growing. That’s why it‘s happening now. Once that spark is lit, it’s really hard to put out the fire.

Now I don’t know how far this will go. I don’t know if another big wave of feminism will take off. We’ll see. I hope it’s a tsunami. But we’ll have to wait and see because I know the power of backlash. The backlash has already started and it’s going to get stronger and stronger. The media is always a big part of a backlash. We’ll see what the media does. The media still is run by men. And I’m not saying that all men are the enemy—nothing like it. I’m just saying that the backlash is going to be conducted by men who are still in positions of great power in every institution in the United States. But now there’s also the internet and social media, where power is diffuse. So we’ll see.

I’d like to say another thing about our movement. A strong feminist movement springs from a unified vision of equality and liberation and radical transformation, of which the myriad feminist projects—sexual autonomy, anti-racism, workplace justice, healthcare, family, violence, etc.—are contributing beams of light. But during the dark times of backlash, when the movement is relatively weak, it becomes fragmented, and those programs become separated. Separate they are not so threatening to those in power, because they seem to have limited goals, rather than the great goal of changing our entire society at its core. And of course there are certain strands of the movement that are always less threatening —for instance, the movement among corporate women to get women a bigger piece of the pie. But in the feminism I know, the goal is to change the entire pie. Not to get a little piece of it, not to get crumbs, but to transform the very recipe and distribution of pie.


Alix Kates Shulman

Hailed by the The New York Times as “the voice that has for three decades provided a lyrical narrative of the changing position of women in American society,” Alix 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 Ménage; 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, with Honor Moore, the Library of America anthology Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991.


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