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An Interview with Robin Morgan


It wasn't all that long ago, that upon completion of my college thesis I had it returned to me with a note on the top: "Please stop using the 'f'-word in your papers." I, of course, panicked and searched frantically, wondering where I had let a profanity slip. It was then I realized that the note had, in fact, been referring to another 'f'-word…"feminist." Some have claimed "feminism" is dead, a term belonging back in the 70's along with the bra burning trend. (With all the materials they are making bras out of nowadays, it's probably better that trend died down. Who knows what would happen one of those gel filled "water-bras" came in contact with a spark?) Feminism, though, was hardly a trend, but rather has been a persistent, often all too silent battle for decades. If you don't believe me, take one look at Robin Morgan's latest creation Sisterhood is Forever. You'll find every generation represented; every race; every attitude, from laugh-out loud funny, to stories that will keep you staring at the ceiling through the night. It's the first non-fiction book in a long time that actually keep me glued to the page from beginning to end and has resonated in my gut since.

I had the opportunity to speak with Robin Morgan about Sisterhood is Forever, the follow up to her two previous renowned anthologies Sisterhood is Powerful and Sisterhood is Global.

Colleen: Sisterhood is Forever is an ambitious collection of 55 feminist essays, including such names as Gloria Steinum, Anita Hill and Kathleen Hanna. At almost 640 pages it looks like a textbook, but it seems to read more like a "how-to" manual. Was this your intention?

Robin: Good, absolutely. I mean I don't think it looks like a textbook, except in that it's big. You get a lot of bang for your buck in this case and in fact we had a real quarrel, well not quarrel but struggle, to keep the price down to 18 bucks because it is 641 pages including the front matter. The Sisterhood anthologies, you know this is my third one, my 18th book, but my third anthology, do really serve as "how-to's." You are absolutely right and now it's, in a sense, even more important. The first one, Sisterhood is Powerful, came out in 1970 and some have flatteringly credited it with the birth of contemporary feminism, which of course is not true. Many things fed into that, but it's always nice to hear that. The second one, Sisterhood is Global, the international one that I did, came out in 1984. The first one stayed in print for 31 years. The second one is still in print coming up on twenty years and each time one of these comes out there is such an amazing hunger for some real facts. I mean people don't trust the media anymore, certainly not on feminism, and it seemed to me especially important now because so many, despite media myths to the contrary, younger women and in fact guys, younger guys, are either involved with, or curious about, or sympathetic to the women's movement and to what feminism really does stand for, not the myths about it. We are such an ahistoric country that it seems that it was all the more important to now do an anthology for the 21st century that not only talks about where we had been, but most important where we are now, and damn-right where we are going.

C: Speaking of the younger generation of feminists, the age range of the contributors varied from a ripe 84 year old down to two energetic fourteen year olds, Ana Grossman and Emma Peters-Axtell.

R: Yes, aren't they great!

C: First of all that was brilliant editing to keep in the pre-teen multiple exclamation points.

R: Well, you want to preserve each writer's tone whether it a very elegant literary tone like Grace Paley's, or whether it's Kathleen Hanna's wonderful Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill rock singer tone, or Andrea Dworkin's very heavy duty serious one, or The Guerilla Girls and their hilarious irreverence. I mean, I try to do that literally with every piece, so the fourteen year olds, I certainly wasn't going to "clean up their act" because it would have been boring.

C: How did you choose these two young feminists?

R: There is a magazine for girls who want equality called New Moon and I knew about it for some time and contacted them and said would any of the girls like to write for it. There's a back-story to almost every piece in the anthology. Each piece is original, written specifically for this book. It's not a collection of previously published pieces. I choose each contributor specifically for a purpose, the subject, or to represent a constituency, and pursued her and nurtured the piece to fruition and edited, etc. That particular section "A Movement for All Seasons" is really a personal favorite. When I was in my twenties and we were starting this contemporary wave everybody said to us it will never get off the ground because why? "Older women are not interested" and now, of course, the line is "Younger women are not interested" and in both cases that's flat out lies. I mean, in other words, if women do not like lacking power and agency and voice and being discriminated against, they move at any age, so it's a matter of real delicious vengeful pleasure. I knew from the very beginning, when I finally decided to do the third anthology, that I wanted a section where there were girls representing the girls movement, and where there was gen x and gen y, and then that terrific piece called "Stealth Feminists: The Thirtysomething Revolution" and the baby boomers, my generation, the long distance runners of feminism, which Eleanor Holmes Norton did a beautiful job with, and then old women because ageism affects us all if we are lucky enough to live that long. The alternative is worse! (Laughs) In many cases, it took searching for just the right contributor. In most cases, these people have been friends and colleagues for decades, whether its Gloria (Steinem), or Faye Wattleton who wrote on reproductive rights, or Anita (Hill), or Eve Ensler from the Vagina Monologues, who wrote on theater; in other words the so called big names in the book tend to be active feminists and feminist leaders and I've known them for a very long time; Carol Gilligan- who did the psychology piece. I wanted very much to seek out younger voices and surprising voices, whether on poverty, or women in prison, or you name it. There're more than sixty voices in the book, so it could be as broad a representation as possible of American women who are cranky at the current state of things.

C: In your introduction you had mentioned how great the internet has been for the women's movement, opening whole new worlds for discussion and international awareness. I'm hesitant to agree because of the internet has lead to all new problems for women's equality, one example being the abundance of misogynist porn sites. Do you feel there is a need for some sort of regulations?

R: I certainly would like to see some regulations in terms of the violent pornography assaults that we all get. I sign on the morning with my first cup of coffee and they want to know do I want to see women beating each other up; or do I want my penis to be bigger. (Laughs) Yeah, the answer is like: "forget it, no to both." I do think, like so many things, with any advance there is a boon to it and there is a bane. I don't know if you've gotten a chance to look at them yet, but at least three or four pieces in the book deal with exactly what you just said. The Gail Dines piece on pornography is almost totally focused on pornography on the internet and on ways of dealing with it. Again, back to the how-to, not just to leave everybody upset, but with what we can do about it. Then the Donna Hughes piece, which is about science engineering and technology, talks amazingly about how, in effect, many of what we consider the communications revolution, internet techniques, pop-up windows, a whole lot of things came about first in pornography. In other words, it's almost an engine that has driven the internet. So the question then begins to be, as [Hughes] puts it, how do we take it back from them. And then of course there is the cyber-feminism article by Amy Richards and Marianne Schnall of www.feminists.com which also talks of wonderful ways to use the internet for communicating and organizing with each other, but it also talks about precisely what you raised, and again ways of dealing with it.

C: Gloria Steinum, in her essay on the media, states, "by 1994, the editor-in-chief position at all the major women's magazines were held by women (a first)" If this is the case, why is it that newsstands are still overrun with covers of the anorexic implanted male ideal? Though women are editing the magazines, is it more of a question of who owns them?

R: Men definitely own the companies and run the industry and as Gloria's piece is on "The Media and the Movement," and as she points out, it depends who owns the media and the media is also largely driven, particularly but not exclusively women's magazines, by the advertisers. First, they have to sell you insecurity about your body; and the way you look; and the way you carry yourself; and the way your furnishings are; and everything about you, and guess what? They happen to have just the right products to make you feel better about yourself. If you don't feel bad about yourself to begin with, what the hell, they can't sell you anything. So it does come down to ownership a lot. I will say this much for traditional women's magazines, of whom, you might imagine, I am not overly fond. As you might know, I was editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine for some years, but that's hardly a traditional women's magazine, but of the traditional ones, I will say they have come a long way. For example, because of influences of magazines like Ms. and the women's movement, Red Book, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal regularly run pieces about reproductive freedom; about abortion rights. When the ERA campaign was at it's height they all urged their readers to petition legislators to be pro-ERA. That's a change. So in their content, I think they are trying to move into the twentieth century, now that we are in the twenty-first, but as long as they take advertising you are always going to see those images of anorexic stilt people who look nothing like you, me, or other women.

C: Grace Paley's article "Why Peace is (more than ever) a Feminist Issue" is one of many pacifist voices in the book. What is your take on the government saying one reason for us to go to war is to liberate women globally?

R: We find that pretty hilarious, in terms of Afghanistan, the cynicism and hypocrisy of saying this was done for women takes my breath away. For one thing, it had been eight years, before 9-11 that the women's movement both in US and globally were beating our fists trying to get attention to what we called "gender apartheid" in Afghanistan. Women were being slaughtered, and we couldn't even get the Clinton administration to move, because of Unocal, a major California oil company, which was laying a pine-line through Afghanistan and didn't want to upset the Taliban. We couldn't get the UN to do anything about these women because they had made it a stated priority to try and work with the Taliban to stop the heroin trade, the opium crop, which is important to stop. But meanwhile you say what about the women? We couldn't get UNISCO to move because they were more concerned about the destruction of art. Now it is very sad to see Buddha's dynamited, but what about the women? So when the Bush administration claimed after 9-11 that they suddenly (we had been trying with them ceaselessly since they came in) were doing this for the sake of women, give me a break. The lie is so transparent it's appalling. And as far as Iraq, Iraqi women, including Iraqi feminists I might add, and there are many (those of us the work in the international women's movement know that very well) they are terrified out of their minds right now, because they feel that the door's open for religious fundamentalism, as in heavy duty, as in under the Taliban or in Iran. Iraq and Syria were notable in the region for being secular and not religious governments, and unlike Saudi Arabia, which is our supposed ally, women in Iraq could vote. They couldn't change [Saddam], but neither could men. In other words, what ever limited rights men had, women had too. They could get educated. They could drive. They could get divorced. They could get custody of kids. On the hardcore, quote-unquote women's issues, they had it much much better in fact than Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or many of the gulf states. So it's a complete lie that anything this administration does is for women. What I remember saying when they were claiming they were so for Afghan women, I remember saying, "yeah but let an Afghan find herself with an unwanted pregnancy and she's in the same boat that US women are under this administration."

C: (Laughs) I guess when you think about it the Bush administration is really almost the epitome of the male stereotype.

R: Absolutely, that's right. I mean Rumsfeld is like, you and I got tipsy on wine and invented him. You know we were drinking and tossing down some red wine and thinking, well it's not John Wayne anymore who is it these days, and obviously it's "Rummy." He's got a real testosterone problem.

C: Godforbid there should ever be a draft again, do you feel women should be included?

R: Well, it's interesting, because I tend to agree with Congressman Charlie Rangel that there should be a draft; that the draft should be brought back. Simply because what you currently have, with a volunteer army, is that it is disproportionate. I think it's over 37% African-American, because when you have a disadvantaged group armed services look very good they practice de facto socialism. Where else can you get free medical care, free dental care, decent housing, higher education for free? You know it's not a bad deal. Unfortunately, you can also get very dead. The Claudia Kennedy article on women in the military in Sisterhood is Forever I found very very interesting, because I now feel that the lack of the draft has become so racist, so unfair, that you are beginning to get a warrior caste. Also, that's not good for a country, when only one person in all of senate and congress or anyone in the administration, had a child that was in the Gulf War. That makes you pause and wonder. Now granted the draft, as it used to be, always had deferments for rich people. People who had power always managed to get out of it, so it would have to be a much fairer draft, and could include women to the extent that you should have a choice of public services. You could do a domestic corp. You could do a peace corp. You can do peace keeping. The kind of very different army that Claudia Kennedy is envisioning opens the way for all sorts of other possibilities.

C: I notice a contradiction amongst the essays. Some play on the women vs. men notion, that we are so different and those differences should be commended, while others claim that women and men are basically equal deep down and should be treated that way. Which side do you tend to agree more with?

R: I certainly don't think they are equal today because we're not permitted to be equal, but you mean inherently?

C: I mean if we weren't taught when we were little girls that we were supposed to be playing with dolls and wearing pink.

R: I think both. I think we are different, but not hugely, and I think environment and education in sexually stratified societies polarizes those differences. You can look at certain cultures that de-emphasize those differences and you tend to get healthier cultures; you tend to get greater longevity; you tend to get more peaceful cultures also. It's very interesting that when the sex roles are more polarized you tend to get more belligerent war-like cultures. Tells us something right there. I think that the problem is we have not had real value-free science, as Carol Gilligan points out in her article and Natalie Angier hilariously points out in her piece on biology. We simply have not had value-free studies, and we have only begun to get them now because of 30 years of pressure from the women's movement, and because of women going into fields we were barred from before. As Pat Schroeder says on her piece on why women should run for congress, because earlier on there were not women in congress demanding that in government sponsored test and trials you have to include the other half of the population. You cannot base all of your research on men. Women's bodies are different and it was the congressional women's caucus that first passed that legislation, recently in the past 20 years, so that means that a whole lot of things are changing now even in science and the research that we are getting is much more complex and shows that there are differences between women and men, but it's not a matter of better than or worse than. It would be a matter in terms of civil society, laws, access, etc. You mandate equality and parity if the difference turns out to be really severe. I don't think it would be, but if it is, if it is something along the lines of women being remarkably more peaceable than men, we seem to see evidence of that, but we are not sure how much of that is environment, how much of that is heredity, how much of that is genetic, we don't know but let's just say that turned out to be biological, in that case doesn't it make sense that if you have half your people who tend to be belligerent in problem solving and the other half who tend to go towards decision making that is non-violent and consensual, wouldn't it make sense that women be in charge of the government? And run the world? I'm just asking here. (Laughs) My point being that even if there is a difference, there is a way of dealing with this sensibly and sanely to advance the entire species.

C: Somewhere along the line the term "feminist" seems to have taken on a derogatory meaning, being equated more with "man-hater" than with "equality seeker." Feminism isn't dying, Sisterhood is Forever is surely proof of that, but less and less women seem comfortable labeling themselves "feminists." Why do you think that is?

R: There's always been a resistance to the term. I've never figured it out why. It's terribly interesting to me. At one point, I thought it was secret homophobia or not so secret. They were assuming every feminist must be a lesbian woman and therefore they were scared or just bigots or whatever. Interestingly enough Ms. did a poll objectively, in other words, farmed out to an outside source, and found that of the three words feminist, democrat, and liberal, that of the three words feminist was in general the more liked and the more used. Now, that of course doesn't for auger well for democrats and liberals, but it shows the extent Bush administration has managed to tar both of those labels and send them out of time. It's interesting because we were sort of surprised by that and another recent study, I think done by Newsweek or Time showed that something like 67% of American women identify with the women's movement in one way or another, whether they use the term feminist or not and the percentage is even higher with women of color. I think it's 76% and sometimes they will prefer the word womanist or mujerista if it's a Latina woman or sometimes they'll do the classic "I'm no feminist but…" and everything that comes out of their mouth is feminist. So my position is, I think it's a wonderful word with an honorable history, and I'm proud to call myself a feminist and always have since I became active, but if a woman for whatever reason has a problem with the word or resists labels that's fine with me, as I say in the introduction she can call herself squirrel if she wants. I don't care what she calls herself as long as she fights for her own rights and those of other women.

C: In 1984 you edited Sisterhood is Global, the international follow-up to Sisterhood is Powerful. The world has changed so much since 1984. Do you feel there is a need for an updated edition?

R: Sisterhood is Global took 13 years, it was huge, there were over 80 countries in it. There's no real reason, in a sense, to re-do it because in 1996 the women's press came out with an updated version and I wrote an extensive updated introduction, the irony being that so many changes, as you correctly pointed out, have taken place, South Africa became free Eastern Europe the Berlin Wall went down, I mean on and on and on, but ironically, and soberingly the status of women has remained almost identical. So it is unfortunately still very timely, and has remained in print, coming up on it's twentieth year now. So as long as that's out there and serving it's purpose I wouldn't consider competing with myself. It is generally acknowledged still as the definitive book on international women's study, somebody called it the Feminist Foddor, which delighted me, and right now I'm desperate to get back to my own writing because when I am doing one of the anthologies it eats up my life. So I'm in the 14th century now, finishing up a historical novel on who the witches really were.

C: In Debra Michals essay on "Stealth Feminists" she writes of something she called "keys to awareness," an awakening of the feminist conscious. Examples she gave were one woman remembering her father mowing their lawn in a conservative neighborhood wearing a pro-ERA t-shirt; others felt empowered watching Billie Jean King trounce Bobby Riggs in 1972.

R: That's the sports piece by Barbara Finland. That's right. That's what changed her life.

C: Michals herself marked her moment of feminist awakening to her seventh grade English class where her male teacher labeled her the class "women's libber" after her request to real more female authors.

R: Doesn't it make you crazy?

C: Do you feel you had a "key to awareness," a specific moment in your childhood where you realized you wanted to spend the rest of your life, well actually you probably didn't think it would take the rest of your life… (Laughs)

R: (Laughs) No, you betcha!

C: …devoted to this struggle of gender equality?

R: I don't think there was a moment in my childhood. It was a strange and bizarre childhood. I was a kid actor. I wrote about this in my memoir that came out in 2000, Saturday's Child, which Norton published, but I do think that certainly the rebelliousness was there. Extracting to myself, not without some difficulty from being a kid actor because I always knew I wanted to write, and when I became involved in the civil rights movement. Like most, I started out being sympathetic to other people's suffering first, an "earth mother" kind of syndrome, because you are always taught it's your job to wipe the runny nose of the entire world before you dare think of yourself first, because to think of yourself is selfish. I sometimes think of the alternative to the word selfish and that is self-less and I think that is an equally hideous word, not the word but the concept. You shouldn't have to choose between having no self or being selfish. In any event, I married pretty young, so I was already a married person in my early twenties, knowing there were things wrong and being royally pissed at that, but not able, like many women of my generation, to really locate it. Then when we began to form women's caucuses in the civil rights movement thinking it was because of the sexism of a man, because they were making policy and we were making coffee, and yet we were being beaten up and arrested and tear-gased and had dogs sicked on us just the same way the guys were and it was like, "Duh? Wait a minute excuse me." So I think it probably started there, but there were many many epiphany moments, when I was raising my son. I have a terrific son who is now 33, a singer songwriter with his own label www.enginecompanyrecords.com, an indie label with his own studio. His name is Blake, and when Blake was growing up it was amazing. I thought I knew all about feminism then. I was an activist, but to try and raise a child as a non-sexist, non-racist being at the fullness of his own individual potential and joy and not "crimping their style" and wanting him to have a loving joyful childhood, when the whole world wants nothing to do with that but only that "How dare he play with a doll?" Well, he also has trucks, but today he's carrying a doll. "How dare he!" How dare he not wear blue as an infant, you will destroy him, you will turn him into a neurotic crazy…" and of course he's turned out to be this hilariously funny person with a great sense of humor and justice and tremendous talent, and it just makes you furious. So, I have always tried to make myself remember that, because every woman has days when she thinks maybe I should pick up an uzi and go after all men, you know. But I always remember this 22 inch little person, who happened to be a male human being, but was not yet tainted with the politics of this culture and the fight that my then husband and I had with the world to try and give him a chance to grow into his "Blake-ness," his humanity. So I guess there have been many moments along the way. I can tell you this: you never get to graduate. No one can hand you a degree and say "you now have perfect feminist consciousness." It just keeps on. Your consciousness keeps rising until you bump your head on the ceiling and then you have another whole floor to go up.

Colleen AF Venable

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