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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Aging into Feminism Response: Off Our Backs

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Aging into Feminism

By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

From a talk: Sex & Gender in the City: From Lesbian Feminists in the 70’s to LGBTQs Today: A Cross-generational Dialogue on Gender, Identity and Activism Saturday, March 20, 2010 Wheelock College Brookline MA

When I told two friends in Boston that I would be coming here today to speak, one a trans-guy said, “Wow that looks interesting, I’ve been thinking about those issues a lot lately.” The other friend, a lesbian for whom much of my talk will likely be familiar, said, “This makes me nervous.” And it is into that tension, between “this is interesting,” and “this makes me nervous,” that I enter the dialogue.

Much of this talk was written a few years ago for Off Our Backs, a feminist publication that was celebrating its 35th anniversary, just a few years before I was turning 50. They were asking for reflections and I wrote this piece called “Aging into Feminism”; it was not accepted for publication which I think speaks to my tenuous relationship with mainstream feminist voices, as well as the fact that my personal reflection was perhaps not the kind of voice they wanted to hear.

Thirty-five years ago, I was just 12 years old. I spent my time listening to Michael Jackson sing “A, B, C, it’s easy as 1, 2, 3…” on an A.M. radio that I carried with me at all times. My best friend Linda and I chain smoked cigarettes hanging out at the local schoolyard wearing army jackets with male names emblazoned on the pocket. In the humid Brooklyn summer evenings, Linda would take me upstairs to her attic bedroom, and climb on top of me and rub herself against me, pretending to be my boyfriend. The next day she flashed the “L” sign to me and winked.

I couldn’t imagine marrying a boy and since there was no other alternative I decided in my early teens that marriage was a trap that I would never willingly step into. I was liberated not because I had sex with boys, or even because I had sex with girls, but because I insisted on my right to have sex with whomever I pleased. When I voiced opinions in school, on interracial relationships, the Viet Nam War, and gay liberation (meaning gay men) I was sent to the principals’ office. When I smacked a boy upside the head who tried to grab my breasts, the home economics teacher told me that, “I would never get married if I couldn’t stop acting like that,” I made a pact with myself to continue acting just like that for as long as I could. I didn’t play dumb, so they called me a women’s libber, a bitch and a witch. Years later I circled naked under the stars with radical dykes and claimed those identities with pride.

My single mother spoon fed me women’s liberation and taught me to work hard, get a good job, and never expect anyone else to take care of me. Yet she was once very disappointed in me because I got a speeding ticket, saying, “You are a beautiful woman, and you let some man give you a ticket. He’d give you anything you wanted if you played your cards right.” I struggled with the hand I was dealt and paid my ticket, because I couldn’t give a man a smile he didn’t deserve.

I discovered feminism with an insatiable hunger. I read every book, saw every film, bought every woman’s music album and read Off Our Backs religiously. I joined consciousness raising groups, support groups, coming out groups. I attended concerts, panel discussion, conferences and festivals. I marched in Washington DC for the ERA, and in local small town gay pride rallies, holding my boyfriends hand, in upstate New York. I worked at rape crisis centers, provided birth control to teens, and cleaned abortion machines. I spent hours trying to reach consensus.

In 1970, an organization called RadicalLesbians wrote an essay, trying to define this growing revolutionary movement. Listen to these words, perhaps you can insert the words “queer” or “trans” for the word lesbian, or perhaps you can just close your eyes and imagine a world where there was no real life for a woman, “a girl,” “a lady,” outside of heterosexual marriage. You couldn’t get a credit card in your own name, and physicians were always men.

The RadicalLesbians said, “What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society … cares to allow her. [This] brings her into painful conflict with people, situations, the accepted ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, until she is in a state of continual war with everything around her, and usually with herself. She may not be fully conscious of the political implications of what for her began as personal necessity, but on some level she has not been able to accept the limitations and oppression laid on her by the most basic role of her society–the female role … She is forced to evolve her own life pattern, often living much of her life alone … for she is caught somewhere between accepting society’s view of her – in which case she cannot accept herself – and coming to understand what this sexist society has done to her … the perspective gained from that journey, the liberation of self, the inner peace, the real love of self and of all women, is something to be shared with all women – because we are all women.”

It was another decade, however, before I read the Radical/Lesbians in my college Women’s Studies program, one of the first in the nation. In 1970, I took Del Martin’s book (may she rest in peace) Lesbian/Woman out of the Brooklyn Public Library and hid it under my bed, and read it late into the night. I stared at the pictures of those 1950s lesbians, and I knew that whatever I was, was not quite like that, something a kin, but different. I proudly called myself bisexual, and when the lesbian-separatist in the Women’s Center said, “You can always tell a real lesbian because they never shave their underarms,” I proudly pulled up my shirt and showed her. I have never shaved my underarms.

Eventually the bubble burst. I realized that feminism was not perfect, that we had made some glaring mistakes. Feminism tried to be all things to all women, without really hearing the voices of women of color, or working class women, of women working in the sex industry. We put down stay at home mothers and stay up late at night butch/femme bar dykes. For all that feminism had taught me about gender it also denigrated my desire for butch women. I got tired of hiding sexy lingerie in the back of my sock drawer and the expression the personal is political began to take on a new meaning.

I stopped drinking herbal tea about 20 years ago, a decade after I stopped drinking alcohol. After living in lesbian-feminist communities for most of my life, I just lost the taste. Potlucks became tedious, and political correctness became exhausting. Feminist discussions circled ‘round and ‘round like our covens under the stars, and political actions were so mired down with rhetoric that I could determine the conversation and tone, as well as the players, before I entered the room. I grew tired of marching, and began to suspect we were had lost direction.

I began to question feminist authority, and wonder whether feminist answers were the only answers. I was battered by another woman and realized that violence was not a just a male prerogative. I began to read On Our Backs, and queer theory. I’ve learned that some of what sucks about human relationships has little to do with gender or politics, and some of what is great about living has lots to do with gender. I began to change, and like so many lovers before and since, feminism – she who loved my body like no other – did not necessarily change with me.

The lesbian-feminist community that reared me does not exist anymore. The small coffee houses, the sense of commonality, the button we wore to recognize each other on crowded enemy streets, are relics of another day. Partially the movement has been absorbed into the larger LGBTQQI-alphabet soup movement for queer civil rights. Partially it became transformed into academic women’s studies programs. Partially it has been co-opted, sold out to the dazzle of consumer capitalism and the lure of romantic security, represented by gay business and gay marriage. Partially, it continues onward, limping, like all of us aging crones still following behind.

I read the obituaries in feminist papers today before I read the festival news. Every paper reports the deaths of the women who changed my life, women who died of cancer, and women who died from their own hands. Feminist leaders, thinkers, activists who died of disabilities that were supposed to kill them 30 years ago, and crones who dared to die as old old women. It is the passing of an era, a generation. Those of us still alive go back to school, raise children, fight for disability payments and search the eyes of women to find those who remember.

When Mary Daly died earlier this year, I found out on FaceBook. Her death was mourned by old lesbian-feminists, remembering what it felt like to hear a woman speak about tearing down the patriarchy – as Kate Clinton said, “We used to talk like that, use words like that ‘partriarchy’” – Mary Daly was a woman who dared to close her classes to men, so that women could learn and study together. Her death was celebrated, however, by my trans-activist friends. She was anti-trans, they said, and I learned she was indeed the dissertation chair for Janice Raymond’s hate-mongering book, The Transsexual Empire. I’m here to tell you something about Janice Raymond and her damn book. I was, and remain, a very well-read dyke. I NEVER heard of that book, until I started studying trans issues. I don’t know any lesbian-feminist who read that book. I bought my copy in a dollar bin at a feminist bookstore, two decades after it was printed. That book was never the voice of lesbian-feminism on trans issues. It was a book written by one woman, not the voice of a movement. Mary Daly, may have had many faults, including perhaps supporting Janice Raymond’s dissertation, and for all the ways he views appear limited, even quaint from today, she, in her day, an extremely radical thinker about gender. She born in a different generation and was the first person to say out loud, “Perhaps God is a woman,” an idea hardly radical to those of us who grew up rolling our eyes at Goddess-worshipping rituals. It is hard to understand the world that women lived in only 35 years ago, let alone 50-60 years ago, when Mary Daly was a rare woman who actually went to college. No wonder my aging lesbian-feminist friends are “nervous.” I fear that as we race into our cyber future, we may be losing track of history, of a valuable HERSTORY. Do not judge those who came before by the knowledge that has been gained since. Recognize that the knowledge we have today would not have been possible without their hard work. Do not forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants, women of enormous grandeur.

Today, in the online social work course I teach, the female students insist they are not feminists. Of course they believe in equal rights and equal pay for equal work. Of course they think that “girls” should go to college and become doctors. Of course, they think they can have it all — work and children, love and a professional paycheck. They cannot believe that homosexuality once one in the psychiatric diagnostic manuals. They challenge me “Who could ever think homosexuality was a mental illness?” they ask incredulous.

They look up to me as their role model, but still believe that feminism is a bad word and that feminists hate men. I try to explain that it was actually men who hated women, and we rebelled, us feminists. I tell them that all they have in their lives today is the fruits of a movement that women planted with our own hands, the soil was our very bodies. The men in the class tell me that they too have been battered, by the hands of a woman, raped by their mothers. I tell them that all pain matters; women do not have a monopoly on victimization. But I also tell them the story of women’s liberation, of how battered women were called masochists who invited their husbands to beat them, and how fathers ruled their homes and rape in marriage was legal – and in some states still is. I tell them that I was 11 years old, in sixth grade, before I was allowed to wear pants to school, and they tell me they had no idea I was that old.

And somehow I have grown a bit old, not quite a crone, but no longer anywhere in the vicinity of young. I can see reflected in my students’ eyes that they see me as a graying fat maternal rendition of their mother, a bit hipper perhaps, but from another generation, someone with a view from a far. My feminism is quaint to them, not the radical edge of human transformation, but nostalgia from a bygone generation. I have become, in their eyes, a woman who still thinks that gender matters.

I am 52 years old, more than a ½ century on this blessed planet. I still devour feminist books, but I no longer allow feminism to devour me. I am critical of some of what has been done in the name of feminism, but I will not let other women define feminism for me, or dictate which acts of mine are feminist and which are colonized. I stand firm when I am accused of being a feminist by those who are attempting to insult me, just as I stood firm when men taunted “lezzie” out of car windows at me, when I dared, dared, to hold my girlfriend’s hand in the light of day. I claim and reclaim myself as a feminist still, a feminist teacher, a feminist therapist, a feminist academic. I keep insisting that feminism is not a dirty word, not another “ism,” but a movement that has made possible all that has come since.

I share with you, again, the words of the RadicalLesbians, the closing words of their essay: “It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which is at the heart of women’s liberation, and the basis for the cultural revolution. Together we must find, reinforce, and validate our authentic selves. … With that real self, with that consciousness, we begin a revolution to end the imposition of all coercive identifications, and to achieve maximum autonomy in human expression.”

Women Valuing Other Women – I am here today to tell you, that I was born into a world where the idea of women valuing other women was a very radical idea. Before gay marriage was a possibility, I committed myself to women, and I do not want us to ever forget what a radical act that can be. And if you think this is a history lesson, ask the women today living in Afghanistan, living under the Taliban, what they would give to live, in a country, a community, where women are valued.

Today, I work for transgender rights and argue queer theory, and I insist that it is feminism which was the mother of these freedoms. I give credit to women’s liberation for not only changing my world, but for changing the whole world, for starting a dialogue about rethinking gender that continues on today. Like all important tasks, dismembering patriarchy is the work of many lifetimes.

Today I live with two young boys and a dyke who can pass for one. My breasts miss the sun at the Michigan Women’s Music festival every summer Womyn spelled with a “y” which takes the word “man” out of the word women, you’ll find we made into the dictionary, our radical ideas became embedded within the larger culture.

It was at Michigan where I learned the many ways a woman’s body can look, and where I learned, not intellectually, but in the core of my being, that the body that housed my soul, was a fine body, and so was everyone else’s – the gay women with the mastectomy, the dyke with the tattoo’s, the pregnant lesbian, the sister with the full beard. Every time I hear a woman disparage her body — and as a therapist I hear this a lot – I want to scream, go be with 6,000 naked women for a week; it will change you forever. Of course, I cannot send women to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival anymore, because the way they define “woman” (however they spell it) is abhorrent to me. But, when I work with trans people who are seeking to actualize themselves, it is the lessons of feminism, the lessons I learned at places like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival that guides me in guiding them to their authentic embodiment. Lesbian-feminism taught me to love myself, my short, round, sharp, now aging self, to become myself, to grow out fully to my own edges; and that is the lesson that guides our queer/trans politics of today, and guides me as therapist and an activist in assisting people in their own actualization.

I embrace the queer youth of today, and I know they can do what they are doing precisely because we did the work of feminism. However, I still rear my sons to be feminists, just in case we don’t eradicate gender completely in the next few decades; because you know transmen still get paid more than transwomen, and that’s why the work of feminism is not over. I plan to get old, older, and tattooed, grow my chin hairs out and wear bright red lipstick. Feminism has given me the freedom to be fully myself.