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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

Montage
by Robin Morgan

The following is an excerpt from Saturday's Child: A Memoir by Robin Morgan (W.W. Norton Publishers).

From the book jacket:

ROBIN MORGAN is known as a prize-winning author, political theorist, and a founder of the contemporary Women's Movement. These adult accomplishments eclipsed an earlier fame. "Saturday's child has to work for a living," and Morgan has--since age two. She was a tot model, had her own radio show at age four, and was a child star on TV, including on the popular series "Mama." Unlike most child actors, she emerged to reinvent a life filled with literary achievement and constructive politics. Here Morgan tells the whole story--years as a child so famous she was named "The Ideal American Girl," her fight to become a serious writer, marriage to a fiery bisexual poet, motherhood, lovers (male and female), decades working on civil rights, the radical underground, and global feminism--the intensely personal story, behind the scenes.

Excerpt from Chapter 13 of SATURDAY'S CHILD: A MEMOIR: "Montage"

It's impossible to negotiate this period--roughly the Seventies, with cusps on either side--in a linear fashion, as if one event neatly followed another in discrete or even overlapping continuity. Living unwraps more like a piece of music, in layers, in folds: melodies, counterpoint, motifs, syncopation, dissonances, harmonies. Certain periods of everyone's life are even more so rapidly they virtually coexist, more like a painting: revealing in detail, but with perspective, viewable entire--immediate, whole, out of time, everything happening at once. extreme, surpassing music which, after all, moves sequentially through time. Such periods erupt in simultaneous, vivid images displacing one another so rapidly they virtually coexist, more like a painting: revealing in detail, but with perspective, viewable entire--immediate, whole, out of time, everything happening at once. But our medium here is language, and words require sequence and progression in being spoken, written, or read; they exist in time. A compromise form, though, might be borrowed from film: the montage . . .

* * *

Although women all over the Third World carry their babies in slings, in 1968 Snuggli pouches are not yet common in the United States. Being ahead of one's time can flatter one's ego but apparently challenges other people's manners and finally exhausts one's own patience. Older women on the street feel free to stop and berate me for "warping the baby's spine by carrying it that way." Since Blake isn't garbed in blue or pink (then the only options other than white), but rather in a home-tie-dyed layette of bright jewel-like vegetable colors, every passer-by, of either gender and any age, feels compelled to inquire as to his sex and seems actually hostile to the child until they get an answer. All this stopping and chatting makes Blake crabby. It makes me even crabbier. After enough of these interrogations have turned every stroll into an ordeal, I develop a repertoire of brisk responses deliverable while not breaking stride. These efficiently discourage sidewalk chit-chat, though they earn me a nutty-lady reputation in my neighborhood:

"Girl? Boy? Dunno. Never looked."
"Both."
"Oh, dear no, it's not human. An alien, you know."
"Don't care, so long as it's a healthy, happy homosexual."

But the women who nightly patrol our streetcorner of Third Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan are different. They think I'm amusing, they coo adoringly over Blake in his pouch. they watch out for us protectively when I return from evening meetings with the baby asleep like an infant marsupial. We get to know each other. I invite them in for coffee breaks when the weather turns cold. They each have searing stories of why they're in the life, why they detest it. They all have dreams of getting out, but they're also quite clear about their lack of options. One is a single mother of a little boy with a cleft palette, hustling to raise money for an operation for him; she's a college graduate but knows she can only earn the kind of cash she needs quickly by hustling, not by office work. From these meetings comes the first attempt to form a prostitute's union--which founders when two of the women are murdered by their pimps.

* * *

At first, I had been avoiding speaking to the press about the burgeoning women's movement, encouraging others to pick up the mike and run with it. My own skills in this area felt tainted by having been learned in a context I hadn't chosen, so in fleeing my child-star working kid history I'd also disdained the tricks of my old trade. But it soon becomes clear that no one else in our activist group wants to handle the press--or, more accurately, everyone wants to, but is scared witless. No problem, I think: I can be useful here! It's skill-sharing time! I start informal, free, media workshops, first for a few women in my own small group, later expanding to any women interested. We desperately need articulate spokeswomen, yet almost everyone is scared of facing a microphone, TV camera, or audience. I explain terminology--boom, take-outs, slug, segment, sound bite. I construct exercises to build confidence: "Imagine you're looking into the lens. Inside it, imagine a tiny woman wearing a housedress, her hair in rollers, standing by her ironing board, watching TV. She wants and needs to hear from us, so look through the lens at her, talk to her," or "If you're nervous facing an audience, close your eyes for a second and un-dignify them. Visualize them sitting not in auditorium seats but on rows and rows of toilets, pants down around their ankles, butt-naked. Now really, what's to be afraid of?"

Finally, they're ready. At the next demonstration, I stand back like a proud stage mother--and watch them clam up, stutter, go blank, fall silent. What's been programmed into my bones to regard as anathema happens: dead air on live radio, glassy stares from a picketing spokeswoman during a live remote TV feed; collective foot-in-mouth disease while talking to print reporters. I know the only cure for their fright is experience, but in order to do it they have to do it--a Catch-22. I try not to be intolerant, and I work hard to hide my judgmentalism, but my background and characteristic impatience make me unable to grasp the depth of their terror. They want to give up, but of course I won't hear of stopping. So we do the training all over again, longer, more carefully. With the same result. Twice. At last, they convince me to speak to the press; they promise they'll watch, learn, and "join in." So, starting with the Atlantic City protest, I do it. Since I've been brought up to do it well, I do it well. Idiotically, I think my sisters will like me for doing what they asked me to do.

* * *

Naming. Young radical white women begin mimicking a trend in the black community to adopt "freedom names," as opposed to the slave-names left over from Reconstruction days or, in the case of women, the patriarchal names of one's father or husband. I appreciate the importance of renaming, but most of the names chosen seem to me coy, derivative, unintentionally comical, or plain hypocritical (especially when used only in movement circles but not out in the "real world"). Some women, like Laura X, choose what strikes me as a path too imitative of black male militance for comfort, especially questionable for white women to be treading. Others try for a matrilineal approach and adopt a form of their mother's first names; Kathie Amatniek becomes Kathie Sarachild, which comes across as ersatz Amish. Some drop the patronymic and resort to a first and middle name, as does Judith Weston Duffett in our group, becoming Judith Ann; this last seems to me the most tasteful solution. But it's a brightly ironic day when I realize I already have a matronymic, as Faith, my mother, had invented Morgan and legalized it for her and for me. Morgan: half-bowdlerized (and Anglicized) from my father's name but half-based on Fata Morgana, the powerful female character with whom Faith identified. What in my adolescence had weighed on me as a mortifying negative turns out to be a feminist convenience.

* * *

Feminism--and motherhood at age 28--reinspire me to try to truly connect with Faith. I don't yet understand that the last person in the world you can organize is your mother. You suddenly see her in a new light: she's an oppressed woman! she's a sister!

She still sees herself as your mother.

Faith cannot understand why, now that I'm a mother, I'm still: (A) writing poetry, (B) working as an editor, (C) going to meetings, demonstrations, and marches (forgodsake Robin!), (D) living on the Lower East Side ("that slum!"), and (E) returning to karate class--where I am about to make brown belt but have slipped behind, having had to fudge it and avoid front falls when I become pregnant and then stop class in my fifth month. My sensai is not amused that I dropped out to have a child. My mother is not amused that I returned and have a sensai. At least my child enjoys imitating my kiah yells when I practice my kata at home.

I'm trying to learn I can't please everyone. I fail at that, too.

* * *

I've been shifting from free-lance editing to in-house work in publishing. Having been a "slush-pile" reader of unsolicited manuscripts at various literary agencies and publishing houses, as well as an itinerant proofreader and copyeditor, in 1968 I begin a steady editorial job at Grove Press. It seems ideal. The office is walking distance from our home, and at first I'm assigned books by radical authors--Regis Debray's book on Che Guevara, Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Since as a free-lancer one of my jobs had been constructing Sammy Davis Jr.'s so-called autobiography, Yes, I Can! from taped transcripts, these new assignments are a relief.

Once Blake is born, I shift to part-time: half-days. Kenneth manages to change his status at Funk & Wagnalls to part-time, too, plus we both resurrect our free-lance editing contacts to compensate for the financial cutback. Between us we construct a job routine around Blake: a five-morning work-week for me, a five-afternoon work-week for Ken, a prompt changing of the guard at lunchtime. Both our employers consider the arrangement odd, but since we're underpaid for our skills anyway (and are both perfectionists about the quality of our work), it's not a bad deal for them, either. For us, this solution involves financial sacrifice as well as being bone-tired most of the time, what with the baby, publishing jobs, free-lance work, movement activities, housework, and trying to find any spare second in which to write. Yet we know we're privileged to be able to forge such a solution, and we feel incredibly lucky. Blake gets both of us. And we both get to be there for the wonder that is him, golden, growing.

* * *

When the small women's groups meet in monthly coalition, it's clear that leadership battles, power struggles, and ego fights are upon us. Shulamith Firestone announces to Redstockings that she is a Great Thinker and therefore cannot be forced to take turns sweeping the floor at their temporary storefront headquarters; this is NOT received as a sign of sisterhood. Ti-Grace Atkinson purges certain members of The Feminists, who in turn pronounce her a Stalinist. Barbara Kaminsky (now calling herself Barbara Susan) confronts Kathie Amatniek (Sarachild) over Kathie's flirting with her husband, Hank Kaminsky (whose name remains Kaminsky); this come-on is embarrassing Hank and upsetting Barbara. To the alarm of all present, Kathie concedes her flirtation and further proclaims that although she is pro-monogamy, there are too few men with any feminist consciousness around, so their wives ought to be willing to share them in the name of sisterhood. Being an excessively fair person, Barbara actually considers this but then declines, remembering that the reason Hank has any consciousness at all is because she's labored to develop it. Meanwhile, a well-known British Marxist-feminist and Freud-defender (which should have warned us), goes chirpily to bed with the husband of one of our New York Radical Women colleagues--while a house-guest in the New Yorker's apartment and while her hostess is in the hospital giving birth to her host's child.

This is pretty odious stuff. "Sexual revolution" casualties litter the ground like the last-act cast of Hamlet.

We work hard to keep these troubles out of the press, because we know the freedom to fail is one of the freedoms we assuredly lack. Where political differences among male activists are covered with respect, the slightest disagreement among political women is regarded as a "cat fight"--and if word were to get out about any sexual scandals , the reporters would have a field day. So we whisper and hiss among ourselves, but having to conceal our altercations while engaging in them seems to make them more intense.

All things are relative, and we in WITCH (saucily named Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) consider ourselves by comparison fairly sane. We don't always succeed, but we try to avoid what we call "horizontal hostility," try to take out our ire in actions undermining patriarchy, not each other. We're a tightly knit cabal, ferociously loyal and snottily proud of our risk-taking, high visibility, and humor. We snitter among ourselves that because we are "more together" than Redstockings (and have a sense of humor) we should call our group Pantyhose. We in WITCH consider ourselves the incarnate quiddity of revolution--blending female rebellion with Leftist revolt. We will suffer our own casualties in years to come, but for now we love each other, trust each other, laugh helplessly in curative recognition at our C-R meetings, offer each other dinners, solace, and Kleenex, baby-sit for each other. We are mostly white, mostly young--in our twenties and early thirties. We are ready to change not only the world but to do what we don't yet know is harder--change ourselves.

There is a core group in WITCH, plus outriders who come and go. Judith Ann is our calm rock of integrity, her quiet, unsought authority, our center; what Kenneth calls her "sword-steel eyes" can gleam a warning nobody wants to mess with. Peggy Dobbins, a Southerner trained as a sociologist, is our resident political analyst; she is nursing her son Jeb at the same time I'm nursing Blake; we sometimes switch babies during meetings, hoping to make them "milk brothers." Florika--she of the cappuccino skin, wild gypsy mane, keen mind, and love of puns--has survived being a child-prodigy violinist in Europe; she never touches the violin now; she and I understand one another in private ways. Bev Grant is our singer-songwriter-guitarist; Page, a would-be filmmaker, heaves her cumbersome 1960's video equipment along to our actions; Marcia is our graphic artist, in between doing her own woodcuts. Barbara Susan comes to us, a welcome refugee from Redstockings. Sue Silverman/ Silverwoman is our youngest member, in her late teens; Lynn Laredo is our den mother (maybe all of forty, which is ancient); Cynthia Funk is our resident wit, with beauty (she gets irked when men ask why she "needs feminism").

All of these women seem so damned wise. Each is an expert--on her own life, certainly, but that in turn relates to all our lives. Each has a special slant to contribute. The revelations I experience in an atmosphere of safety, support, and laughter among these women make me want to shout to the world how amazing this politics is.

I want to help them back, to help other women help other women. I want millions of women to connect with this consciousness, not just those we try to reach by handing out our smudgy mimeographed papers on streetcorners. If only there was a practical use for writing and editing skills! If only . . . it hits like Newton's apple falling on my head.

* * *

My brain goes into overdrive. In the middle of the night, I sit in the rocking chair, baby at my breast, notepad and pencil in my lap. Young women's voices, high-school students--have to be represented! And women in medicine, the military, the media! What about how psychology creates the norm of what's then considered "natural"? There must be an article on mothering! And statistics--have to have statistics! And those basic early documents we've been handing out: the NOW Bill of Rights, the Redstockings Manifesto. . . .

We'll need a big appendix, listing sexist sayings and fight-back sayings--I'll call it Verbal Karate--and oh! there has to be a listing of groups to join, with addresses and contact people so readers can act, and as complete a bibliography as can be assembled, so people can study more, think more. There should be poems, too, and songs for demonstrations. The book should be a primer, a key. The book should be alive. The book should be an action.

I begin to play with titles. I'll call it Women in Revolt. No, I can see the reviews--"a book on revolting women." I'll make up something funny, like The Hand That Cradles the Rock. No, best to go with something simple, like a slogan we use on marches but also whisper to each other when our spirits sag. Something plain and true. Something like "Sisterhood Is Powerful."

* * *

The men in relationships with the women in our group are not happy. They are just discovering that this consciousness pertains to sex. And housework. And money. We women are not happy to discover that our men really and truly are just discovering this. Big scenes. The men storm about. Some leave, some return, all of them complain of being depressed. They have no friends anymore, their old male buddies sneer they're "pussy-whipped," and most of the women they know are interested in being friends with each other, not with men. They are lonely for us, envious of the fun and energy we generate for each other. We women joke that our men need a play group more than our babies do. We try to reassure them that this is all in their own self-interest. They're having a hard time seeing the act of ceding power as being in their self-interest. Among ourselves, we defend them, feel guilty when we defend them, feel guilty when we don't.

Our men decide to form a men's group. They will be each other's friends! They will meet weekly, cook together and eat together, share their problems! They're elated. We're uneasy but can't locate why. Don't we want them to challenge and support each other in changing? Don't we believe in solidarity? Of course we do! Why are we so jittery?

It takes only a few months to explode in our faces. John wants to know why he has to do the laundry when it turns out that's not one of George's tasks. George wants to know why John gets off with laundry, a once-a-week task, when he's stuck with dishwashing and drying, a three-times-a-day task. Kenneth and Hank quarrel over whether it's a one-upping, masculinist, elitist gesture to bring Haagen-Daaz ice cream to a group dinner. There is competition about who is the most anti-sexist revolutionary man. There is competition about who knows his Engels better and who can quote most from "Resistances to Consciousness." There is competition about which man is more sensitive, about who cries more. There is serious discussion about whether they should all "turn gay" as a political statement of support for not pestering women.

We women are in a stupor of disbelief. We're being set against one another. First only two of the Witches spend hours hours on the phone mending fences over their men having traded private sexual stories; soon all of us are spending hours on the phone doing damage control. We decide that at this moment in history, men in groups bond to reinforce their power, not to divest themselves of it. We march together to disband their next meeting.

Things are pretty sullen in everybody's home life for a while.

* * *

Random House will publish the anthology. John Simon, a politically engaged person and a senior editor, will be its shepherd. But he is a man, and white to boot--a combination virtually required to hold power in the publishing world at the time. In a leap of principle, I proclaim that John can be the titular editor but that all hands directly involved with the book must be women's, even if women at Random House are mostly assistant or junior editors. To my surprise, he graciously concedes--but I learn later from these women that he thinks me terrifying. I don't feel terrifying. I don't think it extreme to want the first anthology on women's liberation to be in women's control.

Meanwhile, back at WITCH, several women are uncomfortable with the idea of the book. They worry that it will make me rich and famous and that they're not in it. I explain that the advance doesn't even cover the permission fees, that I've already been famous and found it overrated, that I'd be delighted for us to do the book as a collective, and/or that I'll gladly put them in it so what would they like to write about? Silence. But the majority supports the book. I'm grateful, because I suspect I'm so far gone into it by now there's no turning back. This is the first time I've dared "defy" anyone in our own tight group, so I'm a wreck with the stress of losing even one woman's approval.

Meanwhile, Random House is pressuring me to deliver the manuscript ahead of schedule. They worry "this women's lib fad" is peaking and will soon decline, so if we don't get the book out fast, we'll miss the boat.

* * *

CONTINUED-->

The above is an excerpt from Saturday's Child: A Memoir by Robin Morgan (W.W. Norton Publishers, 2000).

 

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