This fall I heard two well known writer-activists, Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman, talk about working on an anthology, Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991. While their book isn’t biography per se, their talk touched on something I think a lot about as a biographer: the potential of life-writing for portraying history intimately—as it took place on the ground, so to speak, and in its own time—by having it unfold through the voices, and the viewpoints, of those witnessed it.
The following essay originally appeared as a report in the December, 2018 issue of The Biographer's Craft, the online member newsletter of Biographers International. It is reproduced here by permission.
In 2015, Honor Moore followed up on an idea conceived over lunch with Max Rudin, publisher of the Library America, of putting together the first comprehensive volume of prose writing stemming from the 1970s social-change phenomenon now known as second-wave feminism. Moore, a feminist poet and activist, memoirist, and biographer of the painter Margaret Sargent, invited her friend and fellow memoirist Alix Kates Shulman, biographer of Emma Goldman and the author of the classic feminist novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, to join her. Their anthology will be published in August 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the triumph of the First Wave of the American women’s movement. To judge from the description of its two editors, Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991, will provide historians, college students, and biographers working in the period with a major new women’s history resource.
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At the October, 2018 Dorothy O. Helly Work in Progress Lecture, presented twice a year at New York’s City University Graduate Center by the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, Moore and Shulman described in detail the process of documenting the three-decade rise, flourishing and decline of radical feminism—then called the women's liberation movement—through the written words of those who made it happen. For reasons of space, they decided early on that the book would consist mostly of short essays, though with an occasional pamphlet or brochure, such as a flyer announcing a mass demonstration to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant. Their chief criterion for inclusion would be the degree to which a piece contributed to the reader’s understanding of the principles and experiences of the Second Wave.
Moore and Shulman wanted their collection to be not a conventional history but “a handbook, a guide” that would help correct the gaps and misinformation prevalent among contemporary college students about a revolution that had taken place two generations in the past (for example, the widespread but inaccurate notion that the 1970s women’s movement was strictly a white, middle-class affair, with no women of color). Moore described encountering students of nearly thirty who knew about women’s recent struggles to make themselves heard but had no conception of the nature or the significance of the struggles of fifty years earlier, or of the social attitudes, obstacles, and profound resistance to change that confronted American women at the time. It was therefore imperative, said Shulman, that the selections for Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991 be not only readable, reliable, and “beautiful writing," but have the kind of power that would “fire up young people” and “get them to understand what it was like to live within this moment during this time” through the testimony of those who actually participated.
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To keep readers aware of the unfolding evolution of the Second Wave as a story told through individual perspectives—the movement’s flowering in the 1960s, its expansion and flourishing in the early 1970s, and finally its waning influence as it “came under relentless attack” from organized groups like the Moral Majority, anti-abortion and anti-gay crusaders, and the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment—Moore and Shulman decided to arrange the pieces thematically within a generally chronological, year-by-year framework. A 3,600 word introduction and interpretive head notes before each piece would provide needed background and context.
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The Second Wave was both turbulent and prolific, a mixture of passionately held, overlapping, sometimes diametrically opposed positions and theories on political, legal, workplace, and educational equality, on the importance of personal consciousness-raising, and on the need for sweeping change in everything from reproductive rights and violence against women to female sexuality, gender identity, and standards of beauty. "Pulling everything together under one umbrella," Shulman recalled, presented major logistical and structural challenges, and despite the editors' concern for balancing inclusiveness with length (Moore: “I would say ‘More!’ and Alix would say ‘Less!’”), it grew exponentially, until after two years of gathering material they found themselves with a total of 1,600 pages, which was exactly twice what their contract allowed. Faced with hard and sometimes agonizing choices (a situation with which any biographer can identify), they decided to eliminate drama, fiction, and academic essays, the last being a measure taken not out of prejudice against scholarly writing but because such writing tends to run long. By further excluding “special topics,” such as reports about innovative projects like rape crisis centers, and “actions,” like the conferences, sit-ins, marches, and mass cultural happenings that were staples of 1970s feminism, they were able to reduce the number of entries from 240 to 120.
Moore and Shulman believe that their selections for Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991 are capturing the drama of an era that, like the 1960s Civil Rights movement, ultimately “transformed the American social landscape.” “We have shocking manifestos,” said Shulman proudly. “We have rousing exhortations. We have entries that are passionate, provocative, angry, satirical, witty, reflective, visionary, cautionary, critical, instructional, theoretical, historical, [and] heartbreaking.”
The family values campaign and backlash of the 1980s reduced the words “feminism” and “women’s liberation” to insults and forced the movement’s national leaders to defend their aims instead of advancing them. By the end of the 1980s, the Second Wave had become dormant, a decentralized patchwork of individual causes and interest groups. But while women’s liberation ultimately failed as a national political force, said Shulman, the powerful changes it brought about in social attitudes have remained in force “in the consciousness, in the laws, and in many intimate aspects of women’s lives.” In the view of its editors, the Second Wave’s long-term success has been far more important than its short-term failure—not least because it is the foundation for what is going on today. “That movement,” said Shulman, “forms the backstory and the backbone of the thrilling new feminist movement led by young activists, many of color, that began in the wake of this last presidential election. Which makes our book more timely and necessary than we ever imagined when we began.”