January 19, 1969, was the second day of the counter-inaugural protest in Washington, DC. It was rainy and cold and the ground in the tents had turned into muck. Marilyn Salzman Webb, a feminist writer and activist, stepped toward the microphone and tried to speak.
Men in the crowd began screaming: “Take it off!” “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” Other men yelled, “We must take the streets!” in a gross double entendre. Instead of supporting the women and calming the crowd, the protest organizers told the women to leave the stage.
The women’s liberation presence at the counter-inaugural had been fraught from the beginning. Organizers failed to include them in newspaper ads for the event. Initially, Webb was allowed to speak during the “serious part of the program.” But the more radical feminist, author Shulamith Firestone, had been moved to a later time slot. Firestone and her contingent of New York feminists fought hard and got her on the bill with Webb. But it was a tense negotiation. Firestone and the New York feminists were worried about Webb being too conciliatory to men. Webb was worried about making the men of the movement mad.
By the time she took the stage, one of the protest’s organizers, Dave Dellinger, announced that “the women have asked all the men to leave the stage except for the Vietnam vet who has earned the right to be there.” It was a lie. The women had made no such request. And the statement was like pouring gasoline on the dry tinder of misogyny in the crowd; the women’s voices were the match.
The boos and the jeering grew louder when Firestone stepped up to speak. Above the catcalls, she announced that women would no longer participate in a revolution that doesn’t call for the end of male privilege.
Firestone continued, for those who could hear, “We women often have to wonder if you mean what you say about revolution or whether you just want more power for yourselves. This time we aren’t going to wait for your revolutionary clarity…we’ve learned better.”
Writing about this moment, feminist author Ellen Willis, who was part of the women’s liberation movement in that tent on that day, notes that the sound the men made was “like a spontaneous outburst of rage.”
Dellinger told Webb to “shut Shulie up.”
Writing about that moment, Alice Echols notes, “The Counter-Inaugural was a traumatic experience for virtually all the women involved in organizing feminist action.”
For Willis, it drove home the point that women needed their own movement, at least until radical men were sickened by sexism. “This will not be accomplished through persuasion, conciliation, or love,” wrote Wilis reflecting on that moment, “but through independence and solidarity: radical men will stop oppressing us and make our fight their own when they can’t get us to join them on any other terms.”
After that moment, Willis and Firestone started their own group, Redstockings. Firestone wrote in a letter to the Guardian about the event:
“We have more important things to do than to try to get you [i.e., men] to come around. You will come around when you have to, because you need us more than we need you.… The message being: Fuck off, left. You can examine your navel by yourself from now on. We’re starting our own movement.”
Webb, who later founded off our backs, a feminist publication, received a warning phone call from an anonymous person. If she or anyone else ever gave a speech like that again, “we’re going to beat the shit out of you wherever you are.” The voice was a woman’s voice.
I think about this moment a lot. About the struggle to make women’s rights not ancillary to any movement, but part of the movement. Of the surprise of misogyny of the men who are supposed to be good. The correcting force of other women and their anonymous threats.
Fifty-two years later, and not much has changed.
In the past few weeks, aides and employees of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are speaking out, describing harassment and the toxic work environment of his office, which was all under the guise of progressive politics. In an article for New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister writes:
Those beaten down by the vicious workplace were also depressed that none of their misery was in service of effective governance or better policy. In fact, many told me, there was little interest in policy. “It was policy-making like paint-by-numbers,” said one former staffer. “The goal was superficial, as opposed to changing people’s lives. It was heartbreaking.” That didn’t mean that policy didn’t get enacted, she said, but it was second to and in service of optics. “Someone from the inner circle would call and say, ‘The governor wants to go to Orange County. What can we announce?’”
What strikes me about this story is how Cuomo used the bodies of women to make him look good, both as a man and as a politician. How the policies and progress and reality of women were just window dressing. Good for optics. And women on his staff relentlessly bullied and enforced gender norms on other women.
Defenses of Cuomo remind me of the defense of Bill Clinton by feminists in 1998, although a lot less glib. Then, as now, women defended him for what he could do for them and criticized other women who complained about his methods. In a conversation of white feminists moderated by novelist Francine Prose, Prose pointed out the difference between Clarence Thomas and Clinton as simply a matter of politics: “I mean, I wanted Clarence Thomas out of there. You know, so I was willing to go with Anita Hill. Even though I thought, you know, What’s the big deal about someone making a joke about pubic hair on your Coke can…who cares about that? Whereas I don’t want Clinton out of there. So you know, bless little Monica…”
The whole conversation is glibly disgusting, revealing just whose body is crucified on the altar of progress. Whose bodies are inconvenient truths to the matter of progress? Whose pain is silenced in the pursuit of politics? Assault, abuse, this has never been about party, only about power.
Two months ago, I spoke to a woman who accused a progressive politician in Iowa of sexual harassment. He was going to run for governor at the time she spoke out, and now she worries whether maybe she should have been quiet. Iowa has failed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, over five thousand people are dead. She wonders if maybe a more progressive man had won… I tell her that’s not true. I point to Cuomo; I tell her what a mess he’s made of things. “People who abuse power, always abuse power,” I tell her.
Traister writes, “And so this kind of power could be petty, corrupt, threatening, skeezy; it could be handsy at weddings and harassing at the office; it could lie and cover up and be sent to jail and still it would be our norm and all we had to turn to in a storm, through a pandemic. We had to pin our hopes on it as a refuge from other, worse brutal white patriarchs. And so we learned to love it, to tune in to its daily briefings and allow its self-assuredness to wash over us.”
For so long, we’ve valorized the pain of women. America is a society based on the silent suffering of an entire gender. As mothers, our suffering makes us more holy. As wives, our suffering keeps our relationship intact. As daughters, our complicity and silence make us special to the fathers we love. But there is nothing you can ever do that will be good enough to make the white patriarchy see past the truth of your body. No lipstick bright enough to dazzle. No black sweatshirt big enough to hide.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that day in 1969 and all the women who sat in the muck and watched as a slew of angry good men screamed for them to get fucked. Their shock, disappointment, and then anger. And how from that one moment, a radical movement unraveled. And others emerged. I think about those who were conciliatory. Those who said fuck off. How things are different but always still the same. Past is present.
The myth of the “One Good Man” has been embedded into politics. It’s what brought down the fight for the ERA, and it's why even progressive men still cry “Not all men” at the critical frustrations of women in America. Sure, some men are bad, but not them, surely not them, they say furiously, typing a barrage of tweets until the woman they disagree with exhaustedly relents. Our politics are held hostage under a perpetual conservatorship of white male patriarchy, and we are expected to be grateful when they don’t hurt us and silent when they do.
Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad : Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. University of Minnesota Press. 2019.
Faludi, Susan. “Death of a Revolutionary.” The New Yorker. April 8, 2013.
Simpson, Craig. “ The 1969 Nixon Inauguration: Horse Manure, Rocks & a Pig.” Washington Area Spark. Jan. 9, 2013.
Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America, Revised Edition. Penguin Books. 2006.
Willis, Ellen. The Essential Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press. 2014.
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