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Oct 2001 • Vol 1, No. 5 •

Book Review

“In Our Time—
Memoir of a Revolution”

by Susan Brownmiller
Dial Press, 1999

Reviewed by Cindy Burke

Reading Susan Brownmiller’s “In Our Time—Memoir of a Revolution” certainly brought back memories for me—all of them bad. The revolution Brownmiller refers to is the movement called Women’s Liberation that arose in the 1960s. That movement is a good memory but this book is not a history of that movement. This book is a catty and self-congratulatory collection of anecdotes about the author and her associates, friends and foes alike.

The bad memories evoked by Brownmiller are of the elitist “living room feminist” wing of the movement which she and this memoir represents. While millions of women were discovering sisterhood, Brownmiller’s milieu was preoccupied with victim-hood. While most pro feminist women searched for and found allies in the general population for their fight against sexual oppression, Brownmiller and her colleagues targeted men as the enemy as in her famous quote (featured prominently on her web site) “Rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

Brownmiller’s “In Our Time” is 336 pages long yet she devotes less than 10 pages to the Women’s Strike march and rally of 50,000 on August 26, 1970 and the subsequent national and local mass actions for abortion rights. What attention Brownmiller does pay to those actions is dominated by red baiting of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). In a perverse way, Brownmiller’s attack shows that she recognizes, correctly, the important role these organizations played in the new movement.

In addition to playing a leadership role in the anti Vietnam War movement, the SWP and YSA threw their numerically small but significant political weight into furthering all the campaigns of the women’s movement but especially on the pro-choice front. The movement for women’s rights took its inspiration from the civil rights struggle of Blacks, which had begun in the1950s. The powerful mobilizations for racial equality and the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War inspired women, who were active in both movements, to challenge government imposed sexual oppression in all forms—starting with the laws prohibiting abortion.

Socialists and the feminist movement

The SWP and YSA saw an opportunity to win a victory for abortion rights amid a generalized atmosphere of opposition to government policies at home and abroad. But electing Democratic Party politicians, the strategy of official movement leaders, was not the road to winning abortion rights. So the SWP and YSA, along with like minded pro-choice activists, helped initiate the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) in the early 1970’s. Anyone who was pro-choice could join WONAAC and women and men of all walks of life did so.

WONAAC organized important national demonstrations in Washington, DC as well as in many cities and state capitols. Peaceful, legal public demonstrations helped educate the public and exposed the bipartisan opposition to abortion rights as well as all the rights that women were organizing around. WONAAC rallies included representatives of every movement for social change. Brownmiller is factually wrong and intellectually dishonest to portray WONAAC as an SWP and YSA creation. Her charge that the socialists wanted to take over the movement and were only interested in mass demonstrations so they could sell more copies of the Militant newspaper is idiotic.

There is one point I must grant Brownmiller though. She and her friends did spend much more time in living rooms and coffeehouses discussing their orgasms than the socialists did. Not that sexual satisfaction is unimportant. But orgasms are such a difficult issue to organize around, aren’t they? Where would you demonstrate? In front of the White House? It’s only recently that the public has come to associate the White House with orgasms and even today male orgasms seem to predominate there.

Working women and feminism

The Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in 1973 was a response to the general political ferment of which WONAAC and the pro-choice movement as a whole were only a part, although an important one. Concessions rather than confrontation were the order of the day in the ruling circles at that particular time. The strategy of the SWP and the YSA was to build a movement that could draw in working class and minority women—the sector of the population that had the most to gain from eradicating sex-based oppression. Demands for equal pay, abortion rights, full reproductive rights including no forced sterilization, childcare and many more caught the attention of working women and men and made sense to them in a way that demonstrating against the Miss America pageant, as Brownmiller advocated, did not.

Memoirs, even very personal ones, have an important place in movement literature. But a good memoir requires an author with a good character. Throughout this book Brownmiller trashes other movement figures in a very personal and spiteful way. Some of her targets are women whose politics I heartily disagree with. But there is something pointless and unethical, from a feminist standpoint, about her literary mauling of women who have been off the scene for decades, particularly when the main crime these women committed was their failure to properly appreciate Brownmiller’s alleged contributions. The movement would owe Brownmiller a round of applause had she chosen to criticize the Democratic and Republican party politicians who stand in our way with one tenth the salacious energy she reserves for other activists.

Brownmiller made a name for herself with her 1975 book “Against Our Will, Men Women and Rape”. That book contained the quote about rape above. In her current book Brownmiller addresses the criticism she received for a particular passage in “Against Our Will”.

On page 248 of “In Our Time”, Brownmiller defends her earlier book’s comments about the 1955 lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till, a Black youth, for whistling at a white woman. Brownmiller says, “I said that Till and the men who lynched him shared something in common: a perception of the white woman as the white man’s property.”

Brownmiller and Emmett Till

In truth, Brownmiller says that and a great deal more in her 1975 book that richly deserved, and received, widespread condemnation. But let’s deal just with her current attempt to explain herself. Incredibly, Brownmiller says the 14-year-old boy and his murderers had something in common and she cannot see why her readers had a problem with that. She couldn’t see why in 1975 and she still cannot today.

Brownmiller’s comment about Emmett Till is no different than saying when confronted with the rape and murder of a sexily clad girl: She and her killers shared something in common: a perception of women as sex objects. Wouldn’t any right-minded person denounce such a statement in the strongest language? Wouldn’t we be compelled to draw some conclusions about the mentality that such a statement reveals?

The women’s movement, like all social movements whose roots go deep in the population, brings out the best in everyday people who, through their dedication to a cause bigger than themselves, distinguish themselves in a manner which brings them public acclaim and approval. Along the way, accidental and mostly self-seeking figures, like Brownmiller, find ways to attach themselves to movements and make a career out of them. The next stage of the feminist movement will have its Brownmillers to contend with and that new movement will likely assign such persons their proper places as footnotes to footnotes in the history women will write.





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