Swans Commentary » swans.com January 15, 2007  



From Innocent Rebellion To Militant Feminism


by Karen Moller





(Swans - January 15, 2007)   The early fledglings of the feminist movement at the end of the Sixties in Britain were very self-aware and amusing, much less antagonistic, and more united than in other countries. It carried much of the color and vivacity of swinging London with it. Not least the humor, as evidenced in one of the first newsletters titled, Harpies Bizarre, before it changed its name to Shrew.

Nova, the precursor of this publication began in the mid Sixties, and was the first of its kind. The pretty girls with long hair and short skirts shown in that new type of fashion magazine for the emancipated girl were another kind of dolly bird, but ones able to make their own choices. In fact, Nova captured an audience that was moving away from the Beat and hippie to the sophisticated feminist. Its features on drugs, racism, childbirth, women's rights, sterilization, and sex made it a vitally important magazine and helped build feminist foundations which sowed the seeds that flowered Women's Liberation.

By 1967, Britain had made more social changes that affected women than any other advanced country. Already, that country had legal abortion and freely-available contraceptives, with new laws on divorce and equal pay about to be enacted. Throughout the permissive era of the Sixties, the general easing of the restrictions gave women more control over their lives, yet it was evident that there was still a lot of ruthless sexual exploitation going on and not the least of it in the Underground. Compulsory promiscuity was endemic and the cries of "don't hassle me, don't bring me down" were prevalent at the least sign of "women being possessive and selfishly monogamous."

The dolly bird was the female symbol of the age. Anybody could be one. She was accessible and symbolized everything that was new, liberated and risky. At the same time, that liberated and independent dolly bird was subject to a strange ambivalence. She worked and managed her own life, yet she was presented as a sexually passive, overgrown child. She was there for a man; she was sexually experienced and, since she took the pill, there was no fear of consequence or threat to a man's independence.

We all aped the dolly bird, but in fact this new image of womanhood was no more self-empowering than the previous one, which was often just being the backup for a man. Even in those liberated times, often the biggest compliment a male hippie gave a woman was, "She's great, far out, never makes waves." In those so called liberated times, the real dream dolly bird, as men termed it, was "a good fuck." She did it with anyone and with enthusiasm. She gave great blowjobs and was there to make tea and clean up afterwards.

The penny only dropped in the slot of awareness for a lot of women after the publication in 1970 of Germaine Greer's book The Female Eunuch. Greer cut through feminist rhetoric and gave simple and straightforward reasons as to why we needed female autonomy and what we needed to do to get it. Greer touched a sensitive nerve with a large majority of women and I remember thinking she really knows what she is talking about. It wasn't as if she was saying anything particularly new, but the socio-economics of the late Sixties were very different from the past, and women were ready to listen.

Although Greer was Australian, she had become a fully-fledged member of the London counterculture, and one of the leading lights of a highly talented intelligentsia. She first hit the headlines for her tongue-in-cheek article in OZ, entitled "A Groupie's Vision." The cover featured Greer (a groupie with a Ph.D.) unzipping the fly of the leader of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band. Even more scandalous was the photo of her, a lecturer at Warwick University with her blouse undone with nothing underneath, playing a guitar. Of course it wasn't just the way she thumbed her nose at the establishment that attracted attention, she was also an excellent writer and a great publicist. Her wit, beauty, and style turned the media's mocking, negative caricature of feminists as sexless, hairy-legged, saggy-breasted lesbians into appealing, fun-and-man-loving people that women around the world could identify with.

The immediate result of this upsurge in feminist consciousness was the proliferation of feminist magazines. The most interesting was Spare Rib, created by Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe. Although it was not the first or last of its kind, the combination of those two women brought something original to women's publishing. Rowe, another Australian, had the pioneer attitude of "let's do it," while Boycott, indefatigably positive, had, to my mind, the protestant attitude of "just push steadily onwards, things will happen."

Spare Rib was terrific and, with its large underground input, had plenty of interesting articles to sink one's teeth into. Its readership of about 50,000 was, compared to later feminist publications, very modest. It straddled many horses and by not being too radical, it appealed to the mass of ordinary frustrated women who had probably responded positively to reading The Female Eunuch. To my mind, the magazine got it exactly right. Not all women wanted to turn the world upside down. Often they recognized that the problems lay with their inability to confront the potential of their own lives.

Spare Rib owed a lot to Nova, despite the fact that Nova was a consumer-oriented magazine as opposed to political feminism. At first Spare Rib seemed to say little more than, get up and help yourself, stop being helpmates, change the way you live, start creating your own work. Nevertheless the male mocking was fierce. It seemed men were happy to relinquish the total financial burden for the home, to have decent childcare and not too many children, however parity in the job market or in the sexual area was quite another matter. Men said, "Women are trying to get above their station. They have their role, now they are trying to take ours."

Like many of my friends who lived and worked outside the normal perimeters of society, I could not be bothered with what other people thought. Mostly I got on with my work and ignored the restrictions that didn't suit me. Nevertheless, I found it particularly insulting that the alternative society ridiculed our simple desire for more control over our lives when they were advocating equality for all. It was obvious that, despite all the radical talk, women in the Underground were still doing the menial jobs, the backup jobs, and not getting any credit for it. Equality was only for blacks and the underprivileged, not for women, it seemed. And men wanted it to stay that way!

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to suggest that had the Underground accepted that women had a right to be equal or at least listened to us, we would have protested not so much against men but against traditional society. Instead, in an effort to underline the injustice being done to women, even as men began to claim they were relinquishing their power, the feminist movement was pushed into becoming more radical.

I had spent much of the Sixties fighting to improve our environment, protesting against the bomb and the massive spending on war. Here, finally, was something closer to home that I felt I could be part of in a direct way. Greer's writings reminded me of listening all over again to Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl and discovering an underground brotherhood. Now, however, and even more exciting, I had discovered an underground sisterhood. That thought led me to wonder why women hadn't thought of getting together before and to an even more puzzling question: how had women ended up in a situation where they had so little control over their own lives?

Paradoxically, it seems likely that the world started with women as the center of the family unit. Perhaps I take too much for granted because I assume that men's peripheral position in the early primitive unit pushed them to create religion and then write the rules for society to give themselves a role. Women might even have thought it a good idea. Very likely they were too busy having babies and gathering food to realize they were being excluded from decision-making and power until it was too late. Too late, because as it turned out, men could soon pass laws and deprive women of all their rights.

Once men had power, the goddess figure became a male god; and man, God's representative on earth. Women changed from the givers of life to the embodiment of original sin. Pretty sneaky, if you ask me. Especially as men began to claim that their superiority was legitimized by God and proved by science. When I mentioned this in 1970 to Cyclops, my life-long friend and confidant, he replied, "Anyway, who knows what actually happened? It's easy to prove something. It's simply a matter of being selective and using fact-finding tests. Repeat the theory often enough and people start to believe it."

Cyclops always struck me as rather macho, as if deep inside he felt threatened by women. Even now as we talked, Cyclops seemed to be on the defensive. With a toss of his head he leant over confidentially and said, "I have a story for you."

According to Cyclops, the IQ test was first given to equal numbers of men and women from all levels and social classes. When women tested twenty percent higher than men did, all the questions where women had done better were removed, "on the grounds of fairness!"

"Oh sure," I said. "And if the men had tested twenty percent higher?"

"Exactly," he said, laughing in his abrupt, English way.

Feminism helped women to take control of their own lives and now young men accept women's right to do that. That's a long way from the Sixties, when only a few men became aware of their chauvinist attitudes and, at least in words, advocated women's liberation.

Of course, many of today's youth think that apart from pop music and lifestyle changes the Sixties were primarily about women fighting for equal rights. In fact the fight only began at the end of the Sixties, almost an afterthought, when women realized that even in the alternative society equality was limited and women per se were not included.

Today the rights we fought for are taken for granted with little or no awareness of how difficult the fight was or how easily women could lose them. I often hear young women say they are not feminist because they like men, as if one excludes the other. Even my daughter complains that her generation hasn't time to go out and change the world because they have the burden of trying to be Superwomen. The implication is that Feminism gave women the double burden of a full-time job plus care of the house and children. In fact, they have the privilege to choose. Freedom may be a burden, but it's hard to live without it. My daughter chose to have it all: her own design studio and three children.

Militant Feminism gave Feminism a bad name because it became associated with lesbianism. Once the militants accused women of "with sleeping with the enemy," women refused the label. Today women hesitate to call themselves Feminists, yet the Feminist movement changed the way women in Western society see their own potential. That is without a doubt a major change and one of the successes of the Sixties.


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About the Author

Karen Moller is the author of Technicolor Dreamin': The 1960's Rainbow and Beyond (Trafford Publishing, 2006, ISBN: 1-412-08018-5) and a fashion designer who lives half time in Paris, France, and the other half in Venice, Italy. Here is more about her, in her own words:

I was born in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada and attended art school in Calgary. In 1959, in my third year of college, I read Kerouac's book On the Road. It changed my life by recasting the American myth, Go west, young man; freedom is waiting for you, to Go, young woman and forge a new identity. With that book I set off for San Francisco, the beatnik heartland just as hundreds of other young people were to do in the years that followed. That was only the beginning of the adventure with next stops New York and Paris where I had the luck to hang out with the little known but soon to be famous avant-garde. In 1962, I arrived in London, a city alive with political activity and the anti-war movement. Yet, even then there was little to indicate that England was on the threshold of a cultural revolution. That transformation began in earnest in 1965 with the Wholly Communion: the seven thousand strong poetry reading at the staid Royal Albert Hall. Unlike the later 14 hour Technicolour dream, which was a truly magical hippie event, the significance of the Wholly Communion lay, not in the poetry but the meeting of the influential figures of the cultural Underground. Those enterprising odd balls, many of which I counted among my friends, were the link between the old Beats, the Rock world and London's intelligentsia. They transformed the angry youth culture of the beatniks into a fun-loving, optimistic and idealistic hippie movement of carefree days and unashamed utopianism where we fought for just causes, made love, and made merry while living on innocent dreams of being a revolutionary. I shed my beatnik clothes for the multicolored petals of the emerging hippie counterculture and with money borrowed from friends opened a boutique to sell the clothes and textiles I designed. The seventies made my fortune and my international reputation in fabric design. In 1976 I moved back to Paris where I added "fashion futurist" to my activities. I now live between Venice and Paris with my soul mate companion, Alain Arias Misson, the well known American writer and artist.

You can read more about Karen Moller on The Paris Blog, a group blog about Paris, France.



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Published January 15, 2007