Bread and Roses
Here is another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 12 and 13, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68. This is a bit more personal, but as it conveys ideas and feelings of the 60's period, or emergent then, it seems to fit the serialization mailings...
Bread and Roses
It starts when you sink in his arms and ends with your arms in his sink.
Being in the movement doesn’t eliminate typical day-to-day concerns. For one thing, gender dynamics are often personal—ranging from divisions of household labor and attitudes, through daily tasks, on to assumptions and methods of interpersonal behavior—as well as being about institutional patriarchy and collective feminist action.
I never got even an inkling of an inclination from my upbringing that I ought to clean anything, and I have always been, as a result, both a slob and disinclined to do anything about it. Obviously, being a slob isn’t even a significant portion of what it means to be male chauvinist, but it is often part of the picture. I am not sure if my slovenliness is my father reborn in me, or is due to a household that required no chores of me, or both. Dad was even more hopeless than I am in a kitchen or facing a pile of dirt. My mother, on the other hand, was close to nutty about cleanliness. Our living room has been, in all her homes, more like a museum than a place lived in, which didn’t crowd out living, but did sequester it into other spaces.
My allergy to cleaning is a constant bane for my partner
Surely the worst messes I have created, by far, have been while living alone, and have oppressed only me, except that I rarely if ever noticed there was something there to be oppressed about. Of course, for
The most extreme instance was an apartment I had in
I left the apartment to a friend, months later, who moved in when I was off on a cross-country journey. Later I heard that he and a bunch of other friends had to clean the refrigerator. It had become a bacteria-ridden jungle. The stench was incredible. It was one of the more onerous tasks a human being had ever undertaken, at least in their eyes, they later told me.
Another time, I lived off campus with Jeffery Mermelstein, a political friend from MIT, who later became a psychologist. Jeff was a bit like me on the cleanliness axis, and we allotted one room of our shared apartment to house garbage. We would just open the door and throw garbage in, close the door and go on about our business. It was highly efficient. Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember what became of that room.
When my father was alive and we would argue and I would urge him in this or that new direction, he would often say that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I would get furious. I thought it was a pathetic excuse for stasis. When Dylan sang “he not busy being born is busy dying” it resonated greatly with me and seemed a far more cogent and exemplary maxim to live by than “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Be born over and over. Don’t snooze like a schnauzer. Well it turns out that it is very hard, and perhaps even impossible, to be changing every facet of one’s life, in every single year of one’s life. In fact, far-reaching self-change can be great but it can also be a fool’s errand. It can swamp doing very important tasks that are far more manageable. Even just being born in enough facets to be not overall dying is a tiring task that we all, eventually, let’s face it, finally lose. Or maybe that is just my pathetic excuse for not doing better on the cleanliness axis. Either way, I have more sympathy for my father’s doggie claim as I get older. Nowadays, I like snoozing like a schnauzer every now and then.
Partly my not cleaning is a matter of my just being a lazy old exploitative dog taking advantage of millennia of sexism. Just ask
Consider eating cows or chickens or what have you. I do it.
Don’t misread the above. I see no comparison in importance between seeking to eliminate the roots and branches of sexism, and seeking to eliminate the roots and branches of violence against animals. I see no comparison in importance between how chickens are treated and how women or any humans are treated. In fact, for me the animal rights agenda resonates barely at all, and the antisexism agenda is part of my life. The message of the little story is, instead, that life is not always easy or optimal. We have to pick and choose our battles, sometimes even setting aside parts of a whole that are worth affecting, but, at least for a time, are beyond our means. It is better to be somewhat sloppy while otherwise respecting women’s full and equal rights and responsibilities than it is to focus on a minimal personal lifestyle innovation while violating women’s larger rights.
Women in the Movement
When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.
Every day in the sixties, before the women’s movement cleaned the movement house—at least somewhat—there were big gold men, big silver men, big steel men, and big lead men, and then there were little tin women. That was about the size of it. Women were pedestaled or damned. Women did tons of onerous work without which nothing useful would have happened. Women spoke but weren’t heard. Women created, amazingly, given their exclusion from most centers of dispute and debate, but weren’t respected. Women were seen but not seen. Of course nothing is universal, but this almost was.
But starting in 1967, groups of newly politicized women in Boston began to discuss women’s issues. Within two years they organized a conference at Emmanuel College. Partly, women had been inspired by the civil rights struggles at the beginning of the decade. Partly, participating in those struggles and in antiwar movements, women had been forced to ward off sexism in the movement. The energy of over 500 attendees birthed new women’s organizations in Boston, including Bread and Roses, which was one of the first New Left-style feminist women’s organizations in the post-World War II United States. Bread and Roses addressed reproductive rights, child care, equal employment, gender discrimination, and violence against women. The organization seized an unoccupied building owned by Harvard University in 1971 and held it for ten days. At their building they offered free classes and childcare. Bread and Roses later bought a house in Cambridge and opened a women’s center in 1972, now the longest-running women’s center in the United States.
As the women’s center advertised, “The struggle to gain control of all aspects of our lives—our bodies, our jobs, our social roles, and our creativity—is the struggle of every woman.” The center provided reproductive counseling and housed groups fighting against rape or violence against women, discussion groups for lesbians and others for women dealing with incest, and informational resources for welfare, career placement, and women’s issues. Diverse other projects followed in later years.
The women of Bread and Roses were committed to fighting all manifestations of sexism, both personal and institutional. They were militant and angry and often saw instances of sexism where others tended to see only commonplace circumstances. For this they were regularly called “hysterical,” “knee-jerk,” “frigid,” and “maniacal,” not only by the media, but by many leftist men. An irony of such criticism was that it was sometimes self-fulfilling. Call someone nasty names long enough and they sometimes began to act in the manner they were labeled. The condemner then took pride in being able to offer evidence of being right. This was a sad victory. Relatedly, sometimes women hid behind accusations of sexism, as blacks sometimes hid behind accusations of racism, pursuing not feminism or national liberation but personal advance or just vengeance. This did happen; to say it didn’t would be silly. But such ills were a minor sidebar to resisting ubiquitous oppressive dynamics.
Another problem in all kinds of political struggle, but particularly where such intimate features were involved, was the possibility of taking rightful insights into wrongful postures. From rightfully rejecting subordination one could move toward rejectionist behavior that contradicted movement building. Bread and Roses as an organization was autonomous but not separatist. In other words, it did not argue that women should ignore issues men related to. It did not argue that women should avoid working with men. It did not avoid struggles along with men or refuse male support. But it did argue that Bread and Roses itself was a space for women to operate free of the need to constantly deal with male sexist attitudes.
But, despite Bread and Roses’ influence, in Boston, women with consciousness were sometimes hostile toward women without consciousness and lesbians were sometimes hostile to straight women as if being ignorant were a sin and as if having sex with men was itself part of the problem. The upside of this news is that if Bread and Roses and all other organizations of the sixties and early seventies were without flaws, we would have very bad prospects for future victory. After all, all these movements fell way short of achieving their aspirations and the world we live in still needs a gigantic revolutionary overhaul. That the movements of the sixties and early seventies were fraught with problems is good news in that it says we can do better and gives insight into how to do so.
Mostly, however, I remember good things such as how Bread and Roses would confront institutions and movements demanding that men “respect women and incorporate women at every level of leadership and participation and eliminate gender hierarchy, or we will disrupt your operations until you do.” Bread and Roses confronted local radio stations, entertainment clubs, and cultural institutions, as well as groups in the New Left. They were ecumenical in choosing targets. “Women are everywhere. They are affected by everything. Therefore no institution, no project, and no person is exempt from the demand to respect women.” To call “shit-work” “women’s work” does not make it conceptual, adventuresome, or engaging, nor does it justify men not doing it or women doing nothing else. To portray women in a derogatory, sexist manner was to invite unremitting criticism. To ignore women’s opinions, relegate women to lowly tasks, or visually or verbally objectify women was to invite harsh censure and disruption of operations. To structure gender inequality into organizations was to invite militant critique.
Marriage was called into question as a patriarchal institution. The basic structure of the family was called into question. Roles associated with dating were called into question. Macho posturing, male competitiveness, and sexual objectification were called into question. Opposition to pornography (with no accompanying censoring mind-set) was part and parcel of opposition to anything that manipulated, maligned, or mistreated women’s minds or bodies or that perpetuated male behaviors that oppressed women. Child care was no longer seen as “women’s work,” and mothering and fathering were replaced, at least in some people’s hopes and sometimes in some people’s lives, with parenting. What was good in familiar male and female roles was merged to become part of women’s and men’s joint agendas. What was bad was rejected. Actions were direct and clear.
Bread and Roses was a local organization, but even in Boston its outreach was limited. It was far from the only militant feminist organization in the U.S., but others like it also had limited resources and range. The National Organization for Women (NOW), a much wealthier project, never became a larger example of this sort of committed, militant, multi-focused women’s organization. NOW had its virtues, but it was far less politically promising even in its best moments than Bread and Roses was at its worst. Nor has any other national women’s movement achieved such insight as Bread and Roses since then, I think. This absence may help explain why many women are once again emotionally and intellectually isolated from one another and why many accept that the pains they suffer arise from personal inadequacy or biological inevitability rather than from sexism. It may explain why, despite all of feminism’s gains, we are currently, it seems, not only stalled in going forward after those many major gains, but perhaps even beginning to creep backward.
Women Readjust the Left
History is the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.
The antiwar movement of the sixties had the same modus operandi as the later anticorporate globalization movement. We held large open meetings to make plans for major events. At one particular meeting I happened to be chairing, about 200 people were planning an antiwar rally and march. I was at the front of the room when suddenly the door opened, a bit to my rear and right—yes, this detail I remember—and in marched about thirty women. They spread out across the front of the room and told me to sit down. I sat. The interlopers announced to the room that henceforth the movement in Boston was going to be antisexist or it wasn’t going to be anything at all. If we didn’t comply with their demands they would boycott our antiwar efforts and soon other women would, too. It was right to meet their demands, they said, and in any event, to do otherwise would be disastrous.
The demands were straightforward and immensely important. All decision-making bodies in the Boston movement would henceforth be comprised of at least fifty percent women. All meetings would have women chairs, or cochairs, or rotating chairs with women half the time. Whenever movement members went out to give talks or make presentations, women would fill at least fifty percent of the visible and empowering positions. Finally, in all public statements and political presentations, feminist content would be included at the core. This would not be done mechanically, but with thoughtful, caring precision.
Most men in the room felt that a major antiwar session was no place for women to exert feminist pressure, since opposition to the war was too important to interrupt. Others felt there was nowhere this should be done; the demands were nonsense. Some of us were, however, prodded to realize that there would be no successful opposition to the war, much less to sexism, unless women were respected and won their equal place. But before praising male supporters of Bread and Roses for holding this worthy view, it is critical to understand that the men who realized the importance and legitimacy of Bread and Roses’ demands did so because we were forced to. Our awareness didn’t come spontaneously. Carrying through the demands was far from easy and never perfect, for that matter.
Bread and Roses told those listening that they intended to form local and regional women’s movements that would pressure all kinds of institutions by threatening to disrupt their operations unless they incorporated respect for the rights and capacities of women. Bread and Roses wanted a national women’s movement that was militant, aggressive, multifocused, and sensitive to feminist concerns. They wanted feminists playing leading roles around matters of race, class, foreign policy, government policy, and ecological preservation. Bread and Roses sought all this, and made considerable gains on many fronts in subsequent years, sometimes against staunch male resistance, more often against recalcitrant habits and expectations.
At the time, movement men realized that we obviously had no right telling women what they should be doing about sexism, but we did have a responsibility to address other men and male-dominated institutions. We had to make known our desire to support militant feminism. Even more important, we had to compel the still male-dominated institutions we were part of to incorporate at least an equal share of women’s leadership and to offer both material and organizational support for national and local women’s organizing. This was never easy. Whatever other impediments obstructed the re-emergence of militant feminism on a national scale, surely the biggest obstacle was the continuing intransigence and outright sexism of men.
For example, to choose women ahead of men who were by appearance more confident, better trained, more knowledgeable, more skilled at their tasks, and, were mostly just implicitly assumed superior required a broader understanding of what it meant to make progress. A guy didn’t have to say women belong under his thumb to oppose change. He could just say, “Tom would be a better speaker, leader, chair, decision maker, than Mary. Keep Tom. Mary can wait.” To defeat the less-obnoxious claims, you had to bring up the big picture of attaining gender balance, not just the narrow immediate productivity that Tom might, in fact, enlarge more than Mary.
More, even regarding immediate competence, we had to realize as well that the highly trained and confident and often in many ways capable men such as Tom had some horrible baggage that often compromised our seeming competency, while the less trained and confident women such as Mary brought insights and commitments about a wider range of issues that augmented their competency.
Bread and Roses was a women’s organization for women’s rights and justice more broadly. It was a powerful product of the initiative of women seeking to overcome the sexist behavior of the New Left and society. To try and explain how much was accomplished, I often suggest that if you took a young woman from Boston in 2006 and sent her in a time machine back to 1960 or even 1965 or 1968, the day-to-day experience from that time would be unbearable for her. Literally, I think young women today would be unable to bear for hours, much less for lifetimes, conditions that existed then. To have eliminated that much rot marks great progress. At the same time, the sixties rarely institutionalized its feminist gains in new modes of child rearing, family structure, and schooling, and never really had that as a prime priority. As a result, from the close of the sixties, let’s say 1975, to now, the right wing in the United States and around the world, fueled and abetted by persisting underlying patriarchal institutions, have been fighting a multi-front battle to put women back in the home, back under male thumbs.
To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances.
One day a controversial and important book came to South End Press, by a writer named Batya Weinbaum, titled The Curious Courtship of Women’s Liberation and Socialism. Curious Courtship and Weinbaum’s other SEP book, Pictures of Patriarchy, offered an original thesis. They argued that if you look at workplaces and at the economy more generally you can see the imprint of gender dynamics in its defining structural relations. Weinbaum looked into factories and saw there the imprint and even replication of the roles typical of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Similarly, she looked into families and saw in them not only kin and gender relations, but also class dynamics.
The overarching idea that I took from publishing Batya’s work matched and propelled where my own thoughts were going. I thought Marxism had many useful insights, but, among other damning problems, it was too economics focused. Marxism asserted, sometimes explicitly and sometimes just by how its practitioners approached reality, that a society’s economy emanated a field of force that critically imprinted how things occurred not only in workplaces but in households, churches, and schools.
This seemed obviously true, but reciprocally, it also seemed to me that what I called the kinship sphere of social life, and the cultural sphere, and the political sphere, likewise emanated fields of force that also percolated into all sides of life, including the economy. Batya Weinbaum made a specific case about kinship affecting economy, and I found it very convincing and still refer to it when making related claims.
Women and Revolution
In my heart, I think a woman has two choices:
either she’s a feminist or a masochist.
About ten years after the heyday of Bread and Roses, Lydia Sargent, then at South End Press, edited another centrally important South End Press book about feminism titled Women and Revolution. Lydia invited the participants, prodded their submissions, and did the introduction and editing. In the book, a controversial essay by Heidi Hartman titled “The Unhappy Marriage of Women’s Liberation and Socialism” was the centerpiece, followed by reactions from various respondents and concluding with Hartman’s reply. Women and Revolution explored the centrality of gender for social change, arguing the need to transcend struggle that highlighted only economics and class.
For the most part its insights have successfully become part of Left consciousness in the years since its publication, but the battle against sexism and patriarchy is a long way from won. We are certainly far advanced from where we were thirty or forty years ago, but if you look at popular culture, ads, and patterns of increasing objectification in 2006, not to mention possible assaults on past gains like Roe v. Wade, it is clear that a great deal that the women’s movement has won, in social organization, in laws, and even in the ideas and aspirations that reside inside people’s minds, is now under attack.
Experience has taught me that gender hierarchies have to literally be extirpated to disappear. If they persist even a little, they attempt to reinvigorate themselves at the expense of women. Part of moving forward from the present is curtailing a sexist resurgence, enlarging feminist gains, and ultimately making the world a truly feminist place to live.
Lydia and Life
Dates and Lovers
I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote
so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
In fifth and sixth grade, people’s birthday parties often included dancing. I hated these parties. I vaguely remember dancing very poorly. I remember dancing with girls a foot taller than me who were my age, but were easily a year or two more mature than me. I took no joy in that. These parties were, however, how boys, or at least many boys, were personally introduced to girls. It didn’t do much for future respect. The fact that we more familiarly met girls much earlier in our homes, in daily life, and through the media, always in patterns enforcing degradation rather than mutual respect, was an even larger problem.
Girls didn’t do what we did. We didn’t do what girls did. What boys did mattered. What girls did didn’t matter. I don’t remember the details, but they are well known from diverse accounts. I was a little boy, not a little girl. Different play, different talk, different clothes, different expectations—everything different—with every little thing stamped with a social imprint that was designed to produce men and women, two socially separated species with the former dominating the latter. That’s it. That’s young people’s gender relations in the fifties—and for many men and women even now.
Matthew was one of my best friends from grade school through high school. He was a tall, broad, handsome guy, who looked way beyond his years. He would tell me, in junior high school, of his assignations at beach clubs with married women. Matthew was a fount of gender knowledge. In high school he had a girlfriend, actually quite a few, but he and this particular one broke up after a time, and later I wanted to go out with her. Matt helped set it up.
She was a year younger than Matt and I, and was a bit beyond her years physically, emotionally, and no doubt sexually, not least from having gone out with Matt. With me sixteen or maybe seventeen, and her I guess fifteen or sixteen, she turned me down after going out once and told me why. She liked me fine and thought I was a nice, smart fellow, but I didn’t get excited enough about day-to-day life to sustain her interest.
I was surprised, but I remembered this years later and decided she was right. I don’t get excited about most things other people find engaging. My small talk is unanimated. I am boring, at many times, in many places, for many people. I am far from being the life of a party, unless it is a political party, sometimes. This young woman wasn’t interested in my interest in science, and I had only tangential interest in the day-to-day world that excited her. Right up to the present, while I can be animated about intellectual matters and issues of social change, I often have little patience for talking about the rest of daily life. I am not an optimal social package, or an optimal boyfriend or life-mate package, either.
What about sex? I remember in fifth grade, maybe fourth, Donald and I, he being my then-best friend, would be playing war or cowboys and Indians, or whatever. In the throes of creeping around, or making believe we were in quicksand, I would rub against the floor, a lot. I never thought about what I was doing. I just did it, for a while, and then didn’t do it—that way—anymore. I remember, for that matter, no talks with anyone older about sex. I don’t remember learning about it, so I have no idea how learning occurred, except by social osmosis, I guess, from friends, and practice.
Sex was everywhere in media and in life, but almost nowhere in conscious discussion. It was not noted, admitted, or openly explored, at least in my circles. This was not universal for high school, but typical for my friends. From Matthew I heard lurid stories of lonely older women. But this was not typical talk. I had no conscious calculated understanding of any of it, or of anything broader regarding gender or sex roles.
Nancy Shapiro was my first love. What picked her out for me or picked me out for her, I don’t know. It happened, that’s all. I suspect when people explain such things they just pick attributes to apply so the stories are more or less applicable. I don’t know what the conclusion of our relationship was, either. I don’t remember breaking up. My guess is it went on for one too many mornings and she went her way and I went mine.
If you go back and listen to the music of the times or view the movies or TV or read the books, you will know that we all then inhabited a world of much greater hurt for women than the one we inhabit now, which is certainly still piss-poor on that account. I have no doubt that I contributed to the injustices Nancy had to endure, and I am sorry for that, though I also know that I was never one of the boys who denigrated or tried to trick and exploit and later dump women. In fact, I tended to get into fights about such behavior. My sins were more subtle, whatever precisely they may have been.
High school was only Nancy as far as serious dating went, and then Nancy and I extended our relationship into college, too. During my freshman year at MIT, AEPi guys routinely tried to meet, impress, screw, and jettison women. They joked about and planned it endlessly. At the same time, some brothers, like me, had serious relationships, which put us largely above the wild fray. Such relationships were highly respected and even envied. Nancy was treated like royalty, as were other female partners, during that year at AEPi. This royal treatment hid the more generalized disgust involved in all our relationships in those times. Such civility has always made me uncomfortable. Royal treatment was form without substance and I like to think that it is these kinds of “sympathetic” human interactions that are missing from my life that people are referring to who call me uncivil, cold, or uncaring. I avoid sentimental displays that are, in my view, form without substance. Then again, perhaps obliterating my own elaborately constructed defense, it is said that you are what you do.
At any rate, I shared rock and roll with Nancy and we also shared my entry into MIT and hers into Simmons. But from then on we shared steadily less. For example, I can’t remember talking with her about the feelings I developed toward AEPi and my decision to leave it. That would accord with my not properly respecting her and her views, wouldn’t it? Sadly so, though I don’t remember having anything but respect. And we also never shared the politics I began to hold, which is likely why we stopped sharing everything else, too. Our ways diverged. And I guess as far as politics was concerned, it was my way or the highway. This explained, as well, the end of my ties with my best friend, Larry Seidman. He became liberal. I became revolutionary. Good-bye.
In college, after Nancy, I went out with many women, sometimes sharing only one night, other times sharing a few weeks but not longer. What I saw and learned, mostly, is that sexism did unbearably profound damage, even in its most subtle forms. Yet against this observation, there were many people in the sixties who wanted to say that sexism was horrific, racism was horrific, classism was horrific, and yet also argue that the constituencies under the stamping boot of these phenomena showed no signs of degradation. I encountered this inclination often, but I never understood it, neither then nor later.
I certainly understood that women, blacks, and working people didn’t want to be seen as terminally less than they should be. But I didn’t understand why people felt a need to deny lasting ill effects entirely. It implied that these oppressions weren’t so bad after all, if they had no lasting impact. In truth, of course, these oppressions did have very profound and painful lasting effects. People could be fighters, not victims, and still suffer the crippling effects of injustice. And if someone attained those heights, and claimed there was no great hurdle for others to overcome to do likewise, it seemed to me she was implicitly saying that others failed, rather than that they were beaten down by oppression’s residues.
I saw some extreme examples of the overt agony of sexism. A woman I went out with was sadomasochistic. She wanted me to hurt her and she wanted to hurt me. She warned me away before these traits surfaced, and then urged me away, after they defined the scene. She did not want her traits. The personal inclinations she endured that obstructed her having humane relations weren’t wired into her womanhood; they were forcefully imprinted on her. Her traits were an extreme example, but I was staggered by the insecurities and fears harbored by pretty much every woman I encountered.
It wasn’t just that they were continually trampled and violated. It was also that lifelong trampling and violating induced a lack of confidence, and in some cases even an expressed desire for male assertiveness to usurp the need for their own leadership. I learned the importance of creating conditions that no longer had these results. When I recently read Jane Fonda’s autobiography, seeing the imprints in her life, even with all her incredible advantages and accomplishments, it only made the same point more forcefully.
A second major relationship followed with a woman named Holly. On the day of the election for MIT president, I met Holly in the corridors. She was incredibly beautiful, and I was, remember, a campus star. Given the sick norms of the times, this was a perfect match. We spent the night, and were coupled for about two years. I loved her, but I have to admit it would be incredible if there wasn’t also an element of trophy-hunting involved. My guess is that Holly was probably manhandled all her life by eyes and thoughts and likely by hands and bodies, too. It was certainly constant while I knew her. Everywhere she went, she was undressed by eyes.
Holly had an army of suitors, each made to feel ignorant of the rest. Election night, our first time together, she warned me that I shouldn’t see her again. I would suffer if I did. I don’t know if she warned everyone she took up with, but, if so, I doubt that many paid attention. Blinded by the beautiful light, they, and I, jumped aboard. I think maybe the warning was truth in advertising. Anyhow, I ignored it.
Over our time together, I learned what Holly was talking about. She had a lot of secrets. Once I was up to speed, I would sometimes follow her to verify who the other guys were and that I wasn’t manufacturing my doubts. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know I knew, but we acted as if that were the case. She’d say she had an appointment, and I would take it at face value. I was Galahad. I would show her a man could love her, avoid abusing or misusing her, and this revelation would cure her of having to trap and leave man after man. I have no idea if my egomaniacal aims were met. We split, without a momentous breakup.
I remember cruising the Radcliffe library, sophomore year, after Nancy but before Holly, with Larry Seidman and Robin Hahnel. Robin had a girlfriend, Jackie, from before college, with whom he was as close as the rest of us thought any two people could get. So Robin wasn’t cruising, or not much, anyhow. Larry and I weren’t good at it. No one should have been good at it, of course, but that wasn’t our view at the time. The practice was sick, and yet, like so many other sick things, in context it was sensible.
Should people not meet? Was failing to meet girls a better option than cruising? Was it better for girls not to meet boys than to be cruised? An alternative to habituating libraries was mixers. Young men and women went but the women were on display and the men were choosing. Until the women’s movement offered a whole new spectrum of options, bad options were the only options and when young women of today think nothing has been won by feminism, they should consider the indignity of being implicitly auctioned off, not to mention gains in education, jobs, income, voting rights, and legal rights.
Lydia for Life
I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you,
Beat or cheat or mistreat you,
Lydia Sargent and I met through our political involvements. Lydia was a housewife, six years older than me, who had three young children. She was working for the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ). I was the MIT wunderkind, sloppy and unkempt, a youth about town, with unlimited confidence and able to give good talk.
Lydia was quickly moving left from a background different than most people in activist circles. She was raised upper-class WASP, expelled from her family for marrying outside the tribe beyond her father’s control, had given birth three times, and was mired in suburban life but trying to escape it. Lydia, in other words, had a lot more at stake than most people frequenting antiwar rallies. Lydia was initially horrified by me. I didn’t notice her. She was married, had kids, and was older than me. She was sensible. I was a dunce.
As representatives to the national PCPJ, Lydia and I later went to a conference in Washington DC, in her VW van, with Henry Norr. Henry was a very nice guy who decades later wound up writing about the high-tech industry for the San Francisco Chronicle and was fired for attending an anti-Iraq war demonstration, an act that allegedly violated his journalistic neutrality. Lydia berated both Henry and me for ignoring her, which we did, no doubt, because being married, she was off-limits.
For the rest of the trip, after she put us in our place, our discussion involved all three of us. I began to notice Lydia, and she began to find some redeeming features in me. Just over thirty years later, at a Z Media Institute (summer school) session, Barbara Ehrenreich was sitting next to me in the Woods Hole Theater where Lydia and her theater group were putting on a show for all the students and staff. At the end of the show, Barbara said, “Do you understand how lucky you are to be with her?” I said yes, and Barbara looked more closely to make sure I was being honest—sisterly solidarity.
I have been romantically and politically partnered with Lydia, mostly living together but not always, for about thirty years. Virtually everything I have gone through she has either gone through too, or at least been there. She was at the first Springsteen concert with me. She was next to me when I was arrested a block from the MIT cyclotron. We were arrested together at the mass civil disobedience events in Boston. She helped me make What Is To Be Undone happen, and likewise helped with every book I have authored since that first one, including helping edit most of them into whatever semblance of literacy they have had.
Lydia gets no recognition of her insight and relevance, at least outside our network of two. The same goes, it should be said, for most of the projects we have done together. Lydia’s writing style is vastly better than mine. Lydia directly helped build South End Press, Z Magazine, ZMI, and Z Video. If not for her, ZNet wouldn’t have happened either. Lydia was often the moving force behind our endeavors and is always a tireless, amazingly swift, and accurate worker. Her comprehension of political possibilities is peerless, but she gets little legitimacy, respect, or stature for it.
Being a political couple is tricky. Many times people don’t know our relationship. We are not very affectionate or possessive in public. But when they do find out we’re a couple, there is a tendency to assume that I am the initiator of all our joint achievements. People can’t easily accept that a woman is responsible, creator, designer, architect. Okay, I know it is more subtle. People know women can initiate, they just most often assume this possibility away. What’s denied is that Lydia can produce, organize, and be a driving force. In those dimensions, often even feminists doubt women. But I have seen all Lydia’s theater productions, read all her articles, and been there, for better or worse, during her thirty years too. There have been difficult times. There have been excellent times. Some of the ups and downs we endure are due to residual scars she bears from being a woman in a patriarchal world. Many are due to residues left on me from growing up a man in that same world. Lydia and I are not married. We never will be.
If divorce has increased by one thousand percent, don’t blame the women’s movement. Blame the obsolete sex roles on which marriages were based.
Marriage for Lydia, and for me too, though I have never directly experienced the condition, is an institution that is part and parcel of patriarchal hierarchy. Men own women, at least metaphorically and often overtly. What my eyes have told me over the years, from Matthew’s stories onward, is that there were better and worse plantations in the Old South and so, too, there are better and worse marriages throughout suburbia. If your only horizon was plantations, you would call some plantations bad and some good, not bothering to notice the norms by which they are all execrable. The same seems to hold for people assessing marriages. We call some bad.We call some good. We fail to notice that the whole idea is execrable.
Marriage, when I began to read feminists on the topic, was revealed to me to be state sanctioned and religion ordained, but neither Lydia nor I ever look to either the state or to organized religion for meaning. Why not just petition the devil for solace and guidance? Marriage, I read and saw, is a priori hypocritical. Everyone says “until death do us part” and everyone knows that more likely other factors than death will do you part. Marriage, I couldn’t deny, defines behavioral expectations, personality traits, and social responsibilities that become very hard to resist and in turn continually reproduce sexism.
In high school and through perhaps two years of college, I would have said sure, I will get married. By junior year, I had doubts. After a little Bread and Roses, marriage was a lost concept. Lydia’s and my attitudes toward marriage have at times created difficulties for us. It is hard to get people to understand that for us going to a wedding is like attending a dance at an overtly racist club. And it is hard to get ourselves to realize that, of course, people marry not to reproduce sexism, but to share their lives. To go to a wedding and celebrate, even if we think the bride and groom are great people and that their relationship is wonderful, is for us to celebrate something we find profoundly disturbing. On the other hand, it isn’t the people. It is the institution.
By the same logic, then, why don’t Lydia and I refuse to see someone at their capitalist-defined workplace, or to celebrate someone getting a new job? A site of wage slavery—why not boycott it? Why don’t Lydia and I refuse to go to the local bank and deposit our paycheck or later write checks on it? The bank, after all, is a site of imperial domination. Why tell Lydia’s children that we’d rather they not marry, and we would prefer not to attend any weddings, but not tell them to never work for a boss or to never use banks? For Lydia, as for me, marriage is not entirely coerced and, more so, is often welcomed and celebrated as a virtue rather than being merely put up with as an imposition.
When I thought closely about this, before talking about it to Lydia’s kids, I realized it is one thing to marry because you believe it is a more wise and safe choice for socially imposed material and legal reasons. I understood that, though I thought the insight often underestimated the downside of marriage. But I also realized one could marry for that reason without making believe what had happened was an outgrowth of one’s deepest longings, and without acting as though the wedding day was the most important day of one’s life. I decided that when you spend a half a year’s income on a wedding, when you think your wedding day is the most important day of your life, when you see the wedding as the lynchpin of all potential happiness and as a key determinant of mortal and moral success, that’s a slippery slope toward gender hierarchy. Deciding to marry, celebrate, etc. is not a sign you are sexist; it is a step that tends to lead toward sexism even against one’s better aspirations. Thus, Lydia and I resist celebrating marriage per se. The bigger the day is made, the worse we expect a marriage to be.
It is one thing to suffer the limitations of society. It is another thing to search out limitations and savor them as windfalls. Why partake of a gigantic Stockholm Syndrome? But trying to explain all this to other people, including relatives, is not so easy. As to Lydia’s children, Andrew, with three children of his own, married Sarah, with two of her own, not long ago, for legal reasons. Eric is not married but lives with Maureen and they have three children. Andrea, living with Joey and his son from a prior marriage, is also not married.
On what people think is the flip side of this issue, during my thirty-odd years with Lydia I have had women friends but no other lover. Is that due to loyalty or to morality? It is due to neither. I do not advocate monogamy in principle. I wouldn’t bet that monogamy will be a majority lifestyle in a desirable future society—but I also wouldn’t bet against it. Back in the early days of my personal relations with women, there were a couple of periods when I seriously dated two women at once. The dynamics were debilitating. It involved duplicity or, if not duplicity, tension. I didn’t like it so I didn’t repeat it. I didn’t veto affairs on grounds of principle—save for the honesty part. I just vetoed them as a lasting preference.
Women Know More: Yes and No
A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.
Sometimes uncanny predictive accuracy is a selection effect. We live in a world where a lot of bad shit happens. If you always predict bad shit happening, you will have a very high batting average. That kind of predictive success is not very useful, nor does it indicate cognitive talent. What is useful in a nasty world is to predict not the bad shit, but when worthy stuff will or could happen, and to help make it so. Some people refer to “women’s intuition.” Obviously, there is no such thing, yet what people are referring to is a capacity that I have certainly encountered often over the years, including Lydia having it in great abundance. She says this is what’s going to happen. She has no sequence of reasons to offer. She just concludes. But she is very often right. This makes people talk about “women’s intuition” when the conclusion is about social relations. People talk about genius, when the conclusion is about anything else.
Even very young, I knew the capacity had nothing to do with female genes. There was no women’s gene for leaping to correct conclusions about social relations. I knew we all had what is called women’s intuition, male and female alike. I knew it was a capacity to feel evidence and indicators and to tease out a prediction without a sequence of logical steps and without even consciously knowing what the hell we were doing. As I got older, I realized scientists did this all the time to propose a hypothesis about natural patterns and sometimes even to describe the result of a calculation before grinding through it.
Still, try as I might, when Lydia’s social prediction goes against my calculations, I just can’t seem to say to myself—hey, there is another piece of evidence that ought to enter my logic before I assess Lydia’s outrageous prediction. Her batting average is so high that I should count what she predicts as highly probable even if it is different than what I otherwise expect. So what are women doing when they exert what many people call women’s intuition? They are doing the same thing men do, but perhaps with a socially conditioned radar more sensitive to subtle indicators in words and demeanor. That’s it, but the attentiveness of women to social cues seems uncanny to men who have had the capacity largely wiped out as part of becoming sexist.
When we consider that women have been treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our own children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton
When Lydia and I were first going out, her then-husband Gary didn’t know about me. The kids didn’t understand who I was. They were quite young. I went once or twice to Lydia’s house and played with them, waiting to leave for some event or other. Later, Lydia moved out. A little later, Lydia and I moved in together.
At some point I sat in a room, I remember, on a bed, with Andrew, Andrea, and Eric, and tried to establish with them who I was for them and vice versa. I can still see the scene, unlike nearly all the rest of the past. I made no claims then, nor since, to be a parent. I don’t think I ever acted like a parent, either, or even like an uncle, say, or like a relative at all. Rather, I told them I loved their mother, Lydia, and that Lydia and I were going to be together for a long time which meant I was going to see a whole lot them, too.
I told them I wanted to be their older friend. I wanted them to feel they could talk with me about anything, though I was not another parent. They had parents, and now they also had a good friend who lived with their mom. The boys got a new rough-and-ready playmate, which they seemed to feel good about, though I am sure the divorce downside was difficult even though Lydia and Gary remain friends. About half the time marriage fails, divorce occurs, and the condition of kids is complexified if not made horrible. I was certainly not what Lydia’s kids were used to, since I often wound up being about as silly as them, having to be berated for food fights with them, etc. Andrea was more distant toward me than Eric and Andrew, and remained that way for a long time, but, I think, no longer. I don’t think I affected Lydia’s kids as much as I might have affected children of my own for whom I had greater responsibility and toward whom I had no feelings of restraint, but who is to say? I might have bollixed my own.
In any event, I am happy to report that Andrew, Andrea, and Eric are very progressive and humane. Eric works with Z full-time. Andrea edited my most successful book, another book that followed after that, and now has edited this one, too. Andrew has had more travail in his life than Eric or Andrea, including a debilitating separation from the mother of his first two children. He has had more ups and downs with Lydia and I, too, but all three of Lydia’s children, I think, are closer to me in many respects than I was to my own father, and are closer to Lydia, in many respects, than any older kids I have ever seen are with their mothers. So I guess Lydia’s divorce and my presence wasn’t a debacle and can arguably be called a success.
Andrew, in turn, is the birth parent to three boys, and parent, by his marriage to Sarah, to two other boys. Eric is birth parent to two boys and a girl with Maureen. Andrea is, by partnership with Joey, a parent to one boy. The grandkids are delightful and show all kinds of inclinations, but their lives are ahead and essentially unknown. Divorce and disruption aside, Andrew, Andrea, and Eric, and their spouses, have emerged as wonderful parents. It is a big family. I am privileged to enjoy it.
Here is another oddity. I do not remember making a self-conscious decision about all this. I never sat down, looked in a mirror, and said to myself, do you really want to take up with a woman who is six years older than you and who has three children? Can you handle hearing about their birth and their early childhood—they were six, eight, and nine when I met them—over and over, for a lifetime, having not been a part of any of that, which has indeed been a real cost of the choice? Can you handle not passing on genes—which hasn’t been a real cost, since I find that concern sort of silly. Can you handle being friend, not dad?
The point is, like becoming an activist rather than remaining an academic, like becoming a media worker rather than becoming a physicist, for this decision too, the result just happened. I didn’t second-guess myself. I didn’t even first-guess myself. I just followed my instincts when logic wasn’t definitive. I hate brainstorming about things that brains can’t elucidate. I don’t know if that is typical or not.
The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents
and the second half by our children.
I am fifty-nine, which is not seriously old. Maybe I will write another memoir sometime down the road and lay claim to being more expert in elderliness. But even in the late prime of life, I know that confusion about aging is rampant. My father, for example, used to love a poem by Rupert Brooke that I would hear him recite periodically. The key lines were, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” This was self-delusion or, more gently, perhaps it was trying to make the best of a bad situation with a big fib. More years, I have found, can bring greater wisdom, skill, and opportunities, but aging also dissolves one’s physical and mental faculties, and that’s not good. To lose hearing, to creak, to have less motion, to not remember, to calculate less quickly—it’s a drag. Sclerotic synapses. Fixed ways.
We can mitigate losses, sure, but years per se don’t convey wisdom. Experiences, well considered, convey wisdom. Plenty of lessons we accumulate turn out to have been wrong. Also, lessons can stop accumulating due to no more room or no more flexibility, and can be greatly missed. I doubt that I will be a better person, morally, socially, intellectually, or physically twenty years from now than I am right at this moment. I may be, and I hope I will be, but if I am it will be a rare accomplishment, not a typical byproduct of the normal attributes of aging. Even at fifty-nine, I am less flexible and jovial than I was earlier. I have less mental might than earlier. I can’t run as fast as earlier. I get immobilized by back spasms now, not earlier. My digestion isn’t as robust. There are cracks in the crannies.
Yes, I know many things that I didn’t know years ago. But for many purposes, I’d take the younger me, not the current me, as an ally. Growing old is a mixed bag, and only with a whole lot of effort and considerable luck do we go out of adulthood more worthy, worldly, and productive than we entered it. “Grow old along with me,” is fine. “The best is yet to be,” is wishful thinking.
Living Radical and Socializing
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’,
I just might tell you the truth.
One of the personal problems of being on the Left is living life. Different people conduct their social lives differently in different times. When I was in high school and college, and for some years thereafter, I had a lot of people to socialize with whose values and inclinations were congenial to me and vice versa. That’s what we usually find in a community of friends. But for a revolutionary in the United States, this often doesn’t exist.
There are some venues, I suppose we might call them, where a person with revolutionary beliefs and commitments can operate without undue derision and discomfort. I used to play Go at a club in Boston. Interactions there overwhelmingly centered around the game. If the topic turned to events of the day, there were a couple of people in the club I could relate to, more or less, but not the rest. Most of the people there had unadmirable views and I would either have to accept hearing them without commenting, or I would have to rebut them. I didn’t want to be constantly educating people. It certainly isn’t what I mean by socializing. It isn’t congenial. It’s organizing. There is nothing wrong with organizing, of course, but there is no point calling it a social life.
In Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where I have lived since 1992, I am basically a hermit. To be friends with lots of local people, for me, would mean having to dispute, debate, and otherwise interact about people’s conservative, or, often worse, liberal, comments. Soon I would be either an oddity or a lecturer, and neither is my idea of a relaxing time. It is one thing to organize while organizing. It is another thing to organize while trying to be friends. It might be different if I worked with local folks. But I work at my desk, alone.
What makes me hermitic in Woods Hole is part of what causes the Left to become insular. We, like everyone else, want to spend time among people who we like and who we can talk to without worrying about offending them or being offended. But in that case, how do you reach out?
My main income-generating and political work is ZNet, along with a lot of speaking and writing. All that is no problem, because the people involved, who I mostly interact with at a distance, regrettably, are like me. I can socialize in those realms, or I could if the people I work with lived where I do, that is. In my off time, however, what little off time I have, I don’t want to be teaching, organizing, or defending my views. So other than socializing with family and far away friends, I watch TV, read novels, play Go online, and kayak, but I avoid sustained contact with people from the local community. TV doesn’t talk back. TV doesn’t get offended. And TV doesn’t offend me, or rather, when it does, I change the station. And the same goes for books that I choose to read, or for playing Go, or for kayaking, or eating, for that matter.
Lydia, in contrast, loves acting, writing, and directing theater. In Boston, years back, she produced and acted in shows with political content. In Woods Hole, however, she pretty much has to work with a little group that is mostly caring liberals. The people, in other words, are in no sense radical, much less closely similar to Lydia in views. In such a group, as compared to a Go Club, it is harder to avoid stressful differences. Things that offend Lydia while meeting with fellow theater folks can be completely imperceptible to others in the group. For example, when Lydia’s theater group wants to accept funds from a consortium of companies that are seeking, in return, ads and sponsorship rights for theater events, for Lydia it is a horrendous situation but for the other theater members, her concerns appear outlandish and she seems to be from Neptune.
Smaller examples happen weekly. This is not pleasant on one’s off hours, when one is trying to relax, or to be creative. And, of course, Lydia’s theater buddies don’t want to be organized while trying to enjoy theater in their leisure. Nor does Lydia want to organize them while trying to enjoy theater in her leisure. But the differences that exist aren’t the kind that friends have that spice up life. These differences are instead immense, fundamental, life-defining, morals- upholding, cutting-edge, in-your-face, in-your-soul, chasms—at least for Lydia. Lydia struggles, often with huge personal dislocation and pain. I avoid the whole problem. Vive hermitude. Both approaches debilitate. Revolution is the only complete solution, as usual.
I suspect the above-described dynamics may have a good deal to do with why so many people enter but later leave the Left. If I go to a party and someone expresses views that horrify me, do I tell the person that what they are saying is tantamount to fascist violence and brutality? Do I let them know I think their morality has disappeared and their stance is, however far from their intentions, objectively barbaric? Do I let them know what I really think about their words and beliefs? Do I try to break through their smug complacency that the war is far away and who gives a damn? Or do I just say, hey, how’s the weather, please pass the chips, how’d the Red Sox do yesterday?
I used to confront differences, but it was when I was attending parties where the chasms in beliefs were only gaps and lots of folks were traversing the same broad path I was. I tried to ignore differences at parties where I was traversing a path far removed from others. I didn’t like either option. So now I just don’t go. I am not saying this is ideal. I am not recommending it. There are better compromises, I am sure, and ones that are more productive, too, if one can hack them. I am just reporting the facts.
Lydia in contrast, goes to parties, and talks about all kinds of popular culture that deflects away from problem areas, and every once in awhile, makes some headway, even at parties, regarding things that matter, and of course, also, now and then, all hell breaks loose. Lydia grins or frowns and bears it. I neither grin nor bear it. The personal dimensions of political life are multifold. Navigating such matters gets easier, however, like many other complexities, when there are more revolutionaries and we are doing better.
There is another side to this: what it looks like to people outside. In short, to many, my life and the lives of people like me look demented. We should realize that it seems to many who view us that we are addicted to a cause and blind to all else. But I know a little about addictions. My brother Eddie stuck with his early-life gambling, becoming mostly a professional poker player, but also a world-class gin player. As a pro, Eddie played in Las Vegas as well as other casino towns, and finally in Florida. He frequently depended on parental help and married and divorced repeatedly.
My parents’ great hope was to break Eddie of his gambling addiction. I think my mother was more accepting of it than my father, and also more aware that the battle against it was hopeless. First they tried unrelenting support, which was their most natural approach, year in and year out. Then they tried tough love, though they weren’t as good at that. I still don’t understand gambling as an addiction. Eddie doesn’t get withdrawal symptoms when he can’t gamble, even for months on end. How can gambling be an addiction like heroin, cigarettes, or alcohol, if withdrawal has no physical impact? In his more recent days, Eddie was, however, addicted to painkillers. Take those away and anyone could easily see the physical withdrawal he endured.
It seems to me, then, that Eddie was no more or less addicted to gambling than I am to reading mysteries, keeping up with popular science, or watching favorite TV shows, much less than I am to revolutionary involvement—or than my sister Anita is to art, say, or than Lydia is to theater or revolutionary involvement. But people look at Eddie, and because he gambles so much, and they don’t get it, they call it addiction. Well, people look at me, and because I work all hours and am singularly focused on political calculations, and they don’t get it, they think I am addicted.
What is wrong with gambling, I think, is not that it is addictive, whatever precisely that might mean, but that it destroys social solidarity, induces dependency, and makes catastrophe likely. When you gamble and you win, things move along swimmingly and you start to spend effusively. You throw around money as part of the gambling lifestyle. But if you have a losing spell (and the vagaries of statistics make that very hard to avoid) you may get all the way down to zero and even into debt. This makes gambling a fragile career. Eddie was very talented, ingratiating, and social, and even capable of generosity and kindness, but all this is now buried under the hide he has needed to develop for his craft, and under the impositions of real addictions.
Being a revolutionary, regrettably, has some things in common with being a gambler, and of course some things quite different, depending on the person and the societal context. For me, being a revolutionary means being committed to working to replace oppressive defining institutions of social life with new ones that meet far higher moral standards. In being a revolutionary, among so many people who are not, I find I have developed a thick and often bristly hide, but not, I hope, a callous or uncaring one.