feminism

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goldman.jpgIn the spring of 1914, a few months before the beginning of what would be called the Great War, Emma Goldman set out on a national lecture tour, speaking to crowds on various “radical” topics, from birth control and unemployment to something that had come, in recent years, to occupy much of Goldman’s attention: the modern drama, which she believed would prove a compelling vehicle to bring radicalism to bourgeois audiences. As the tour kicked off, she published a small volume on The Significance of the Modern Drama, based on a stenographer’s notes on a six-week lecture series at the Berkeley Theater, near Times Square. “In countries where political oppression affects all classes,” she wrote in the volume’s foreword, “the best intellectual element have made common cause with the people, have become their teachers, comrades, and spokesmen.” In America, by contrast, the only ones who seemed to wind up in prison–or tarred and
feathered–for their politics were “the ‘common’ people.” Something was needed, then, “to arouse the intellectuals of this country, to make them realize their relation to the people, to the social unrest permeating the atmosphere.”

Goldman’s interest in modern drama was not new; as early as 1897 she had lectured on George Bernard Shaw to an audience of coal miners. In 1905 and 1906, a period when she had withdrawn from the public eye in the wake of a presidential assassination for which she was blamed by some, she had served, under the name “Miss Smith,” as a tour manager for a Russian-speaking Paul Orleneff theater troupe, with stops in Boston and Chicago. The group, which
included the future film star Alla Nazimova, is sometimes credited with introducing modern drama to American audiences; the group also staged a benefit
performance to help fund Goldman’s fledgling Mother Earth. As the Village personality Hippolyte Havel wrote in a 1910 biographical sketch of Goldman, working with the Orleneff troupe granted Goldman access to “various polite functions” among the “aristocratic ladies of Fifth Avenue,” who “had not the least inkling that the amiable manager who so entertainingly discussed philosophy, drama, and literature at their five o’clock teas, was the ‘notorious’ Emma Goldman.”

Though Goldman’s conceptions of what was vital about modern drama did not always square with the ideas of her Greenwich Village intellectual friends, many of whom were helping to usher in a political “little theater” movement at almost the same moment, the convergence of these theatrical obsessions was productive in its own time and can serve us–as I’ll argue at greater length in a chapter of the cultural history Cyrus and I are writing–as a particularly clear window onto the production of literary personality in the early twentieth-century city.

I thought about Goldman yesterday afternoon at the closing performance of the Metropolitan Playhouse‘s production of George Middleton’s Nowadays, written and published in 1914 but never staged because producers feared it would be insufficiently “commercial.” Goldman devoted The Social Significance of the Modern Drama primarily to major works by Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov and others, but she also called for a new program in American dramatic arts: “My only regret,” she announced in the preface to her volume, “was that my own adopted land had to be left out [of the book]. I had tried diligently to find some American dramatist who could be placed alongside the great Europeans, but I could discover no one.” She did mention in passing as “commendable” works by American playwrights like Eugene Walter, Butler Davenport, and–yes, George Middleton–but her complaint was clear: an American “dramatic master … was not yet in sight.”

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I’m not sure if Goldman ever addressed Nowadays in her lectures on American drama; if she read it, though, I’m sure it must have worked for her. The play’s technical weaknesses correspond directly to the limitations Margaret Anderson identified in EG’s criticism: Goldman biographer Alice Wexler quotes Anderson on EG’s “intrusion of dogma and platitude into the discussion, the wearying insistence upon ‘the moral’ of each play, the uncritical acquiescence in the veracity of each dramatic picture of life.” Certainly Middleton’s previously-unstaged play suffers from similar problems. The story of a mid-Western family torn apart (but ultimately reunited and strengthened) by a fiery young daughter’s desire to leave home and make it as an artist in New York, Nowadays plays to exactly the kinds of bourgeois-radical concern Goldman hoped to play in her effort to recruit middle- and upper-class intellectuals to the causes of anarchism and feminism. (One wonders if Middleton realized that the newspaper story he uses to open the play–“Eight Million Women Support Themselves by Working”–probably didn’t refer to middle-class women who struck out on their own to be modern artists. Goldman certainly would have known it.)

The play’s most unique plot twist–the mid-Western mother’s decision, two-thirds of the way through the play, to follow her daughter to the city, where she’ll pick up her own youthful enthusiasm for
painting–seems simultaneously far-fetched and, at the same time, extraordinarily heartfelt. It makes plain that Middleton’s target audience was not a generation of bohemian intellectuals in the Village but their parents. The play’s most riveting moment comes at the end of the second half, when the Victorian wife confronts her patronizing husband and tells him she’s going to the city to join her daughter, with or without him. The real force of the drama, then, isn’t the satirical social comedy that opens and closes the play but the tragedy of a woman whose life as a good wife and mother has forced her to sacrifice her own development as a human being. (Unlike her daughter, she doesn’t quite make it as an artist once she’s struck out on her own.)

Middleton, who participated in early public discussions of feminism in the Village, lived until 1967. He published an autobiography in the mid 1940s. Even though he remained somewhat well-known in the theater world during the first half of the twentieth century and had his works censored by church and state for advocating liberal divorce laws, Middleton remains virtually unknown today, a mere Wikipedia stub, perhaps because his cultural politics trumped artistic subtlety. (It’s no mistake that Goldman’s known for her politics rather than her role in American dramatic history.) Perhaps more productions like the Metropolitan’s Nowadays will return some attention–at least from cultural historians of feminism and the American stage–to someone Goldman once thought might develop into a great American playwright.

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While I was writing yesterday’s post about the Women’s Strike for Equality, I tried to find out more about what had actually gone on in Duffy Square, the site of the mock ceremony for a future statue of Susan B. Anthony.

The only thing I could come up with was this poem, posted on the website of a group called Veteran Feminists of America, which seemed to offer a few more concrete details about the event. (It’s also the page where I found the photo I used in yesterday’s post.)

Statues for Women
by Elayne Snyder

What we did, we did
at Duffy Square
on that island in the
middle of
Broadway
between blinking porno
pictures –
a robber’s run from
Forty-second Street.

We …
we did a dastardly thing
a hundred of us –
maybe more than a hundred …
having marched there –
burdened, but singing
with sparklers in our hands.

We came with purpose
and permit and police.
We walked there from
Seneca Falls
from suffrage
and
from out of the skin
of our private experience
to raise the statue of
a feminist
high above our heads,
A symbol.

We watched silently
as the sculptor,
her arms around the
paper mache skirt,
shimmied up over
old Duffy’s bronze body
and gently … breathlessly
placed
the hollow statue
at the crossroads of
the world.

Triumphantly stepping down,
she was arrested.

Minutes later, the statue …
Susan B. Anthony
was recklessly toppled to the ground
– stomped, kicked, crushed
and
completely destroyed
by chuckling pigs.

There are, however, four, perhaps five
statues of women
still standing in the city of New York:
Mother Goose
Joan of Arc
Mother Cabrini
Mary Poppins
and Alice in Wonderland.

February 12, 1972

This morning I found an item in the August VFA newsletter that suggests the papier-mâché statue wasn’t part of the 1970 event but happened a couple years later in 1972. The article in the newsletter is in the first person but isn’t by-lined. It’s not individually linked, so I’ll just give you the whole below. I’ll try to track down the author’s identity and report back later. The anecdote’s a good one, though:

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In 1972, as president of NYC NOW I was planning the Eastern Regional Conference to take place at the old Commodore
Hotel near Grand Central. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a march after the end of the conference?
And we could place a statue of Susan B Anthony near Father Duffy’s on Times Square!”

So I called artist Suzanne Benton and asked her to make us a papier maché of Susan B for the event, but
Suzanne was in midst of planning an exhibition so couldn’t do it. However, she was so inspired that she later sculpted
a beautiful cast bronze statue of our foremother which she brought along to feminist events for years. Later, the
original welded steel Susan B. from which the cast was made was sold to David Miskin, who later moved to Paris
and recently donated it to the American Embassy there. Vivien Leone bought the second cast and it is now at the
Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester, NY.

Meanwhile Kate Millett, whom I’d also asked to make us a statue, got young architect Lorna McNeur in on it. Lorna
not only made a huge one of the great Susan B, but at the demonstration suddenly scuffled up Father Duffy and placed
our statue on his head. The policemen who were “protecting” our demonstration watched her, and when she
slid down they arrested her. JoAnn Evansgardner, in from Pittsburgh, rushed up. Stretching her 5-foot 2-inch frame,
addressed the officers, “What’s
wrong here? I’m Dr JoAnn Evansgardner. May I help?”
But they ordered her into the patrol car to take her to the station with Lorna. By this
time JoAnn’s husband Gerry rushed up to help her, and he too was carted along.

Among the witnesses to this brouhaha was 90-something Jeannette Rankin and our own Emily Goodman, a deceptively
quiet young pioneer feminist lawyer.

A few weeks later we met at the courthouse downtown, Emily, JoAnn, Lorna (shaking with fear) and me. I’ll always
remember tiny Emily standing before the judge seated several feet above her. He listened to the story and talked
to her in a gently patronizing manner. When he set a date. Emily said, “We want the hearing on August 26, your Honor.” “OK,
August 26,”
he agreed.“And we’d like a woman judge, your Honor,” Emily continued. “What!” came
the thundered angry reply, “I’ll
tell you, young woman, you’d have a better chance with me!”
(There was only one woman judge then, and a rather unsympathetic one, as were most successful
women in the man’s world as it was then). Quietly and firmly, Emily said, “You’ve just disqualified yourself, your honor.” The judge rose in fury and stalked out and the case was dismissed. (In that wonderful era
of feminist activism, our mayor John V. Lindsey and most New Yorkers were sympathetic to almost anything feminists
did.)

And, by the way, this was just one of the cases young Emily, now Judge Emily Jane Goodman, handled so beautifully
and so successfully for feminists.

According to the newsletter, which credits Bettye Lane with the photo, Lorna McNeur is now an affiliated lecturer on architecture at Cambridge University.

I’m kind of becoming obsessed by this Susan B. Anthony story. Wouldn’t it be cool if an actual statue were placed there? Next time I’m near Times Square (who goes there on purpose? zoiks!) I want to try to find the statue of Father Duffy.

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THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

[Cross-posted to one of my favorite blogs, The Edge of the American West — the folks from whom we stole the “This Day in History” idea in the first place.]

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On August 26, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the notorious feminist author and activist Betty Friedan, out-going president of the four-year-old National Organization of Women, led tens of thousands of women in a march down Fifth Avenue toward Bryant Park, where, packed on the lawns behind the New York Public Library, the crowd heard addresses from Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Kate Millett, among others.

The Women’s Strike for Equality, as it was billed, called on women to withhold their labor for a day as a way to protest unequal pay — roughly 60 cents to every dollar a man made at the time — though the march itself didn’t begin until after 5 pm in case potential marchers elected to stay on the job. Organizers also asked housewives to refuse work: “Don’t Cook Dinner — Starve a Rat Tonight,” a typical sign read. The Equality march even included some who were old enough to have paraded for women’s suffrage over a half century earlier, and some marchers demanded complete constitutional equality under the Equal Rights Amendment, which, once it passed the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1972, would spend the next decade being debated, ratified (and in some cases rescinded) by states, yet ultimately refused.

(August 26, 1970, also happens to have been the day I was born, across the continent in the rural Southwest, a world away from New York City and Women’s Lib alike. A few years later I would ride with other children on a July 4th parade float, dressed as a tree holding a stop sign that read: “STOP THE ERA!” But I digress.)

The Times coverage seems by turns both excited by the prospect of the women’s movement and bewildered by the day’s spectacle, noting the support of state and national political figures for commemorative celebrations as well as the apparently surprising fact that the Bryant Park rally was uninterrupted by hecklers. The article also reports on oddball moments: for instance, a smaller crowd had gathered earlier in Duffy Square (Broadway between 46th and 47th), where one “Ms. Mary Ordovan, dressed in cassock and surplice as a ‘symbolic priest,'” consecrated the spot for a statue of Susan B. Anthony, which would replace the one of Father Francis Duffy, a WWI chaplain and Hell’s Kitchen reformer. Crossing herself, Ordovan called on the name of “The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Granddaughter. Ah-Women, Ah-Women.”

In a brief aside, the reporter then explains that “‘Ms.’ is used by women who object to the distinction between ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ to denote marital status.” (Within a year Ms. magazine would be founded by Steinem.)

I first came across this Times article — which was itself my introduction to the history of the Women’s Strike for Equality — a decade ago when, as a grad student in American Studies, I had the chance, by an odd set of circumstances, to teach several semesters of U.S. Women’s History. The experience was rewarding and humbling for several reasons — not least because the classes often included one or two elderly women who spent their retirements as “evergreen” students, taking a class a semester in topics that interested them. Their presence initially made me somewhat uncomfortable once we’d reach the 1940s and I’d realize that from here on out some of my students had lived — as women — through the very history I had to lecture on, as a 28-year-old male.

But the courses were also made challenging by the advent of what was just then being called “post-feminism,” a fact that made me somewhat uncomfortable when I’d inevitably realize that a lot of my younger students thought they had no need for feminism in their own lives. To them the world as all a hold-hands-and-sing Coca Cola Christmas commercial; they thought gender inequality belonged to the past or to distant cultures whose traditions, short of female circumcision and slavery, needed to be respected. When I asked them to recall Hillary Clinton’s controversial “stay home and bake cookies” moment during the 1992 campaign — after all, it had happened only five or six years earlier — they reminded me that they had been in middle school at the time; such things were as remote to them as playground bullies and kickball.

Only a quarter-century after the Women’s Strike for Equality, as we were routinely told in the late 1990s, the television series Ally McBeal had driven the last nails in the movement’s coffin. Remember that Time Magazine cover? Looking back, it also seems like a watershed moment when feminist studies in the academy gave way to cultural studies of feminism; rather than argue about what women had or hadn’t gained, how they’d done it, and when, we’d henceforth talk, for better or worse, about how feminists exploited or were exploited by celebrity culture and mass media. Was the Equality march really a landmark event in American women’s history? Or had Friedan’s media tactics simply ensured it would be remembered that way?

Either way, what those 50,000 women had done — their march spilling over from the police-approved single lane, filling the Avenue from curb to curb — seemed almost impossible to imagine, not so much because their feminism seemed outdated, but because so many younger women had become politically apathetic, appeased by a modest set of gains that masqueraded as equality. The media were full of stories about younger women who bought the line that feminism had done them wrong, powerful women who decided to quit their jobs, once they’d begun to reproduce, and give traditional stay-at-home motherhood a chance. And voila! We have contemporary Park Slope, Brooklyn, and its hordes of organic, free-range — but highly monitored — children.

At 3pm on August 26, 1970, according to the Times,

Sixty women jammed into the reception area of the Katherine Gibbs
School, on the third floor of the Pan Am building at 200 Park Avenue,
to confront Alan L. Baker, president of the secretarial school, with their
charges that the school was ‘fortifying’ and ‘exploiting’ a system that kept women in subservient roles in business. Mr. Baker said he would ‘take a good look’ at the question. About 10 members of NOW, starting at 9 A.M. and continuing on into the afternoon, visited six firms, business and advertising agencies, to present mocking awards for allegedly degrading images of women and for underemploying women.

Among the businesses they visited, the article concludes somewhat dryly, was the New York Times itself. Who knew that NOW anticipated Michael Moore by all those years? Too bad they hadn’t taken more cameras with them.

Betty Friedan, the “mother of modern feminism,” died in 2006 on her 85th birthday; her landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, reductively credited with jump-starting the movement, is now generally considered quaint — even offensive in places — if surprisingly compelling.

Gloria Steinem, on whom I developed a mad, Harold-and-Maude style crush on hearing her speak in the early 90s, is now in her 75th year; during the recent primary season she endorsed Clinton and wrote in a Times op-ed that gender, rather than race, remained the bigger obstacle to equality in American life.

Bella Abzug wore big hats and talked refreshingly brash talk until she died in 1998; I hope she was spared the debate about Ally McBeal‘s impact on the movement.

Kate Millett, who in 1970 had just published her excoriating if wooden Columbia Ph.D. dissertation as Sexual Politics (the only really exciting parts are the summaries and quotations from dirty, sexist books) survived years of troubled relations with media outlets and, more recently, Bowerydevelopers; though her Christmas tree farm has gone the way of her downtown loft, she continues to run an upstate artist’s colony for women at age 74.

Can anyone name four feminist leaders of their stature — or even their celebrity — today? If not, whose fault is it?

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I’ve spent the better part of the last few months finishing a chapter on the early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown for the forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel (not to be confused with the Cambridge History of American Literature, the multivolume project Cyrus had a hand in producing).

brown_charles_brockden.jpgWorking on this piece reminded me again of something I was struck by while writing my dissertation (later revised as Republic of Intellect): that most critics and biographers have treated Brown as a Philadelphia writer, even though the majority of his best-known works — his gothic novels Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Arthur Mervyn — as well as his first magazine venture, The Monthly Magazine and American Review, were produced (if not always published) in New York. Brown may have come from a Philly Quaker background, that is, but he stands as an early example of an American writer who came to New York to launch his career. (Warning: the prior sentence risks anachronism, since New York was by no means established as the center of American publishing in the 1790s.)

Brown’s first book, the philosophical dialogue  Alcuin, or the Rights of Women, recounts a series of conversations in a New York parlor, where the title character, an impoverished schoolmaster, carries on an exchange with the metropolitan salonierre Mrs. Carter on topics ranging from women’s education to politics and the rules of polite conversation between the sexes. Here’s a taste of the scene-setting, which reveals some of the narrator’s insecurities as he anticipates the “scene” of conversation. Although the conversation itself is rather high-minded, think of these anxieties as an early version of Lou Reed’s “New York Telephone Conversation.” Alcuin narrates:

I looked at my unpowdered locks, my worsted stockings, and my pewter buckles. I bethought me of my embarrassed air, and my uncouth gait. I pondered the superciliousness of wealth and talents, the awfulness of flowing muslin, the mighty task of hitting on a right movement at entrance, and a right posture in sitting, and on the perplexing mysteries of tea-table decorum.

An early Woody Allen? Certainly there’s room here for a comedy of manners. If you want to see how it unfolds, you can nab a used copy of the dialogue here, or find the Bicentennial Edition of Brown’s works in your local library. That or shell out for volume one of the forthcoming Wadsworth Anthology of American Literaure, eds. Jay Parini and Ralph Bauer, which includes the dialogue in full with a headnote by yours truly. For more on Brown, visit the site of the Charles Brockden Brown Society.

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THE COLLOQUIUM FOR UNPOPULAR CULTURE presents:

NO, NOW, NEVER: RADICAL NEW YORK CINEMA

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BORN IN FLAMES (dir. Lizzie Borden, 1983), 80 minutes

WHEN: Tuesday 5 February 2008, 6pm

WHERE: 53 Washington Square South, Room 428

All Welcome. Refreshments provided.

“The right to violence is like the right to pee: you’ve gotta have the right

place and the right time.” One of the headiest, most fiercely out-there

independent films of the 1980s, BORN IN FLAMES is an unclassifiable mash-up

of science fiction, post-No Wave docudrama and exercise in radical

dialectics. Set ten years after the Social Democratic War of Liberation, it

depicts a tumbledown, self-proclaimedly Socialist New York in which

competing groups of women, when they’re not pedaling across the city on

their bicycles in order to attack macho idiots and discontented hard-hats

hitting on their sisters, fight for a braver, more combatively feminist new

order.

BORN IN FLAMES is a seething, combustible and strangely joyous time capsule

of a film, populated by black separatists, vigilante groups and brusque FBI

agents, that was inspired in part by the Italian free-radio movement of the

1970s and 1980. It features a range of downtown luminaries – Adele Bertei

(The Contortions, The Bloods), Kathryn Bigelow and, in his first screen

appearance, Eric Bogosian – and is accompanied by a terrific soundtrack of

post punk, art rock and hip hop. A feminist classic, a piercing critique of

the media structures that pervert and betray social reality, as well as a

bulletin from the frontline of a still-raging set of ideological conflicts,

its scene of the World Trade Center being bombed alone makes it an absolute

must see.

The screening will be introduced by Asad Raza, writer and PhD candidate in

the English department at NYU.

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