Review by: Kim Wells

May 2003

Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement
by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Editors
ISBN: 046501707X

Cover of Dear SistersI first heard of this book on a listserv for women's studies resources to which I was subscribed. The "sub" subtitle lists it as containing "broadsides, cartoons, manifestos, and other documents from the twentieth century's most influential movement." A quote on the cover from Susan Brownmiller says the text will "open the eyes of a younger generation untutored in the breadth, scope, and audacious creativity of a vigorous popular movement that succeeded in transforming the world." The dedication on the inside reads "to the feminists of the future, may you learn from our achievements and our mistakes." So I bought this book, ready to see what I missed, and grateful that these texts are not being lost. Dear Sisters does contain a lot of those promised artifacts of second wave feminism, even if I am still left with a longing for more.

Wonder Woman with SpeculumFavorite parts of the text for me include "Wonder Woman with a Speculum" (123) and "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe" by Yolanda M. Lopez (1978, p 309) where the "Virgin" is no modestly blushing saint, and strides, smiling confidently, short-haired, in tennis shoes, with very muscular, boldly exposed legs towards us, dangling serpent (perhaps no greater representative of patriarchy than the devil banished) clasped firmly in hand, starred cape of the sky tossed jauntily over her shoulder. I wished desperately this text had been in color, because I would have liked to see what I assume were the vibrant tones in this artwork. (The editors state they left the text in black and white to make it more financially accessible-- but since the text really comes out to be more a reference text than something most folks would pick up for casual reading, I think the trade-off in price would have been justified). I also liked the quiz by Jayne West titled "Are Men Really the Enemy?" which includes the following questions:

1. Most rapes are committed by A. women; B. children; C. men (perverts); D. I am unable to distinguish rape from ordinary sexual relations.
and
10. If I could do away with anything I wanted, the first thing I would do away with is: A. the family; B. the state; C. private property; D. menstrual periods; E. all of the above.

I was bothered by the way the choice on "C. men" seems to imply men/perverts are interchangeable terms (having come to the conclusion over time that men aren't "really the enemy," and knowing that this sort of thing only makes men feel like they can't even be feminists-- a faulty assumption). I realize that's the way a lot of women felt, then, though, and that's not Dear Sisters' fault. This assumption did remind me in a new way of the rage the writer of that quiz and women of the time felt against a male establishment that allowed us to be "unable to distinguish rape from ordinary sexual relations"-- an establishment in which the legal system argued that a man could not actually legally rape his wife. ("Cause he owns her, right?" went that twisted logic). I thought of the emotional student I once had to comfort when she told me she had missed several classes because she had been date-raped, (she was actually worried I would penalize her grade for the missed days. I was glad that TODAY we have come far enough that there is a network of support for women who can and do distinguish between consent and non-consent--even when it's not a stranger in a back alley-- and grateful for the women who pushed those changes through (and sadly wondered if a professor of those early days would have docked her points). I also loved the dark humor implicit in the quiz's language-- the pairing of doing away with periods with the abolishment of private property and the state certainly places the most "personal" of "women's issues" right up there with the "political" in an unexpected way. (And, joyfully enough for some women on certain forms of birth control, menstruation is actually optional nowadays!)

I would have to say my most consistent favorites, throughout the text, were the cartoons and broadsides. I think this is what I wish the book had concentrated on more, including a more diverse, widely spread-out over time sampling. I found myself skimming some of the textual sections, paging eagerly ahead to the graphics. My reason is while all this material is so transient that anything preserved is a good thing, the more casual and temporary "on the fly" nature of the posters that would have been tacked up on walls seems to me much more revealing of the everyday grassroots organizational advertising that would have drawn just-any-old women into the fledgeling women's movement. I imagine seeing "Using a Natural Sponge" from 1976 posted on a bulletin board in a women's health clinic, and a young woman (perhaps one of those women who today seems so sure of herself as she strides to a senior faculty meeting) reading it over curiously. I also imagine why (as the editors wryly tell us in a note) the natural, messy sponge "did not catch on." Many parts of the text (and not just the section dedicated to "Bodies") bring home the way the early women's movement was often very grounded in biology as a source of pride. Like the "black is beautiful" moments of Civil Rights, items like the "Brochure from the Feminist Women's Health Center" on "a NEW Milieu for Gynecological Examinations" drive home the way early feminists strove to turn what had been turned against them (their biology) into a powerful force for change and empowerment, through togetherness and familiarity with their bodies. It also makes me painfully aware that here is a place much change still needs to happen-- when women and girls in "mixed company" still cringe uncomfortably and go for the "mute" button when a tampon commercial comes on TV and most of us accept a TV murder without blinking.

There seemed to me a little bit of repetetiveness in some of the selections; I would have liked to see a wider sampling, across a longer time, and perhaps not as much of the same thing presented in a slightly different way. But this is being nit-picky. I guess what I'm really saying is I wanted a whole lot MORE than this one book can possibly give me. What you do get in the text predicts a ton of the issues that are still very relevant. A (really) short list gives you an idea of the diversity of subject matter that is there, though:

Mother's Day Demonstration--Lesbianism and Feminism--Angry Notes from a Black Feminist--American Foot Binding--Free the [Black] Panthers! Pissed off About the War in Cambodia--What We Do at Meetings--What Men Can do for Women's Liberation--Women of La Raza Unite!--What is a Woman?--Fourth World Manifesto--You are not My God, Jehovah--Fat Chance Performance Group--Why Day Care?--Does Your Boss Know You're Gay?-- Every Mother is a Working Mother--TWA Stewardesses on Strike-- 59 Cents, A Woman's Dollar--Wages for Housework--Women's Studies as a Pledge of Resistance.

This text, and any other like it, is important. Every college library (and hopefully public library) should have a copy of it. I wholeheartedly recommend that every women's studies course look through this text as an introduction, and then find more documents to collect for future reference. The generations of young women who have grown up in a society where, thanks to easily accessed, safe and convenient birth control like Depo Provera, some of these issues are almost casually dismissed as "normal" need to know it hasn't always been this way. (Lest we forget and lose the rights). These documents can help create an understanding of what has been gained in a mere 30 years. A society where an all-too-young intern can be sexually harassed (does it really matter from a legal precedent standpoint that she thought she was in love?) and have few people publicly announce it as a setback to harassment policies needs more reminders. (I mean, imagine the field day defense attorneys could have with that: "Your honor, s/he didn't really sexually harass dozens on his/her staff cause they all admired and respected, even loved, him/her?. That sounds too much like the "can't rape her cause she's your wife" argument to me.)

What the text really drove home the most for me was the lack of this sort of crucial documentation of important historical documents, and the loss if we don't collect more. This text just isn't enough. More of these documents need to be collected, published and promoted. The women's movement is STILL ALIVE, despite what different pundits like to declare every few years. Yet this text is limited only to one quick decade (it starts in 1970 and 1978 is the latest date I found). In the introduction, the editors state this limitation of dates is "because this was the period of the most yeasty ferment, creativity and mass participation" (1). The implications of this statement make me think about a couple of things. Despite good intent, this seems to make an assumption about young feminists who ARE still participating in "creative" mass movements (all the "yeasty" work is over and done) those of us back here in the "younger generation" still struggling with issues like reproductive freedom on a truly personal (as opposed to intellectual) level. Perhaps it looks different than it did back then (maybe today it's a listerv, or even a website?). But it's there, and one book about one decade is like draining the ocean a thimbleful at a time.

I would like to see a collection of texts by, say, the Riot Grrrrrl movement of the 1990's (which I am certain produced its share of documents that could have expanded our defintion of feminism and shown that no, feminism isn't dead). I would like to see more info on body-image advocates I'm sure are out there. Maybe something on the ties between health/fitness and women's power that come out in the 1980's.

Even in this text I would have liked more.....of an acknowledgement that there have been lots of new feminist acts since 1978, when I was 8 years old (Flyers or something that equivalent of Madonna grabbing her symbolic "balls" in that video, perhaps). Often with work identified as "second wave," sometimes I feel like "we young feminsits" are being preached at a bit, rather than invited to participate. But I'm probably just being overly sensitive, and in my desire for MORE of this kind of stuff, not properly pointing out that this is a first text to look at these sorts of documents, and therefore a groundbreaker.

When I asked Dr. Gordon for permission to use the Wonder Woman graphic above, she replied to my query that she didn't "know of anything in the works." Perhaps the most important thing I can do instead of just complaining is call for some sort of online, searchable database of this kind of stuff. Surely this would be worthy of some big government grant.

Anybody ready to write the proposal? I'm on board for the HTML!


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