As a writer, with a writer’s chronic need for detachment, I have avoided the ideology of gender
By Emily Fox Gordon
September 5, 2017
When the feminist movement first arrived almost 50 years ago, I found myself unable to join it. I can’t say I rejected it—it was too big and in many ways too right—but I privately resisted it, and have continued to do so ever since. Not quite immediately: for a year or so I welcomed it in a mild, distracted way. After all, I’d grown up with it. I was a feminist avant la lettre, a young woman who’d never expected to live her life according to traditional gender expectations. I’d been raised in an academic family, attended progressive schools, worn my hair chopped short like Jean Seberg in Breathless, though on me it wasn’t as becoming. To me, feminism had always been axiomatic, and at first it seemed that the new movement was only amplifying its familiar precepts.
What was it that got my back up? It was the phrase “the personal is political.” I’m not sure when I first heard or read that pregnant aperçu, but I remember recoiling from it instantly. Even then, I understood it to be an idea with a totalitarian lineage. Unlike other puffy notions in the air, this one had a hard center and a deadly specificity. It was a bullet aimed straight at me, a threat to the writer I was certain I was, but hadn’t yet become.
As a child, I hardly knew my own gender. By this I don’t mean that I “identified” as a boy, only that my subjectivity remained undifferentiated until very late. All through my early years, I found it difficult to feel like a girl. Instead, I felt like a center of consciousness. I still do, mostly. Sometimes I think I’ve never quite understood what it means to be a woman, though in recent years retrospect has enlightened me to some degree.
Growing up in a college town in the ’50s, I lived in a condition of benign neglect and wandered freely with a gang of boys and dogs. I had little in common with the carefully raised girls of that era, a subset of whom would later protest the repressive influence of the patriarchy. But neither was I one of those naturally assertive girls who even then seemed destined for a professional career—the kind who played touch football with her brothers and took advanced placement courses. Nor was I plucky enough to be a classic tomboy. I was something else again: passive, dreamy, and detached. I spent much of my childhood in the woods, mumbling to myself. By the time I reached adolescence, I was keeping an internal account of everything I saw, heard, and thought, all of it spooling out continually and subject to revision on the spot.
I was an academic failure and a schoolyard pariah, but I read widely and enjoyed great imaginative freedom. There was nothing gendered about my identification with literary protagonists: I could assume the perspective of Achilles or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm with equal pleasure. How sorry I feel for the girls of later generations, who read fiction with a socially corrective agenda, in which celebration of a feisty heroine is the didactic purpose.
From early childhood I was convinced not only that I would grow up to be a writer, but that I already was one—albeit a writer who hadn’t yet written anything. I wasn’t one of those literary prodigies who turn out precocious novels and plays; instead I put all my faith in waiting. Eventually, I felt sure, the world would see me for what I already knew I was. My unfettered reading and free wandering made an ad hoc writer’s education, and from the start I kept a writer’s distance from the world.
As an adolescent, I found it startling to be called a girl. I looked like one, certainly, a very ordinary one, as subject to the effects of the estrogens as any other. But to my ears girl was too light, too lyrical, too—girlish. How could I aspire to it? Later, I felt an even stronger shock of nonrecognition when people began to call me a woman. Such a heavy, leaden word: woo-mahn. I saw a low-slung, gravity-bound creature, all pendulous breasts and bulging hips.
My first period arrived a little on the late side—I was 13—and though my mother had briefed me on what to expect, it startled me deeply. Soon thereafter I went away to boarding school, where I first realized how many specifically feminine ways there were to act and order and recognize and respond. I remember my amazement at the sight of one roommate’s supply of cotton underpants—a different color for each day of the week!—rolled like blintzes and lined up in a shallow rectangular wicker basket. How did she know to do that?
What I needed was remedial help. What I got were snickers, clusters of laughing girls closing ranks at my approach. Eventually my three roommates saw their duty: they tossed the dirty clothes I’d dropped on the floor out the window, locked me in the bathroom until I learned to use Tampax. Their methods were harsh, but the thing about an initiation is that eventually it’s over and you’re in; by the second year my roommates had come to accept me. This was the first time I’d ever been a member of a female group of friends, and it would be the last.
It wasn’t so much that I became more like those other girls—though I did, to some degree—but that they became real to me. They were not only girls, but human beings, each with her own subjectivity—like me! And therefore I was like them—a girl! I had a happy six months with my roommates, and learned some valuable lessons about grooming and hygiene and the subtlety of people’s motives. But then, backward and wayward child that I was, I ruined it all by getting expelled.
This is how I remember the start of feminism. Its proximate motivation, at least from my point of view, was a reaction by antiwar women against their treatment by antiwar men. I didn’t move in political circles at that time—or in any circles at all, for that matter. I’d come to New York a year earlier, following a therapist. I had no skills, no experience, no college degree. I was forever late to work and short on money. After being fired from a cataloguing job at Recording for the Blind, I was hired as a file clerk and coffee fetcher by the Office of Academic Placement at Columbia, where I enjoyed a privileged view of the ongoing protests against the Vietnam War. I spent many an idle moment standing at the window of the copying room, staring down on the heads of the demonstrators who marched along the Dodge Hall walkway, half a dozen abreast. I watched wistfully as they sang and shouted and pumped their signs. What they were doing looked a lot more fun than filing.
I recognized a few of the protesters, graduate students who’d hedged their bets by keeping their curricula vitae and letters of recommendation on file with the placement office. I’d stepped over their long legs as they sat in the waiting room, looking resentful and a little sheepish. Once, somehow, I ended up at the communally occupied Morningside Heights apartment of one of these agitants. I don’t remember who he was, and when I arrived he wasn’t there anyway. He was off on the barricades, as were all the men in the household. His girlfriend was in the kitchen, along with three or four other women, cooking a meal for the troops when they came bursting through the door, fresh from the insurrection.
I remember how puzzled I was by the anachronistic tableau these camp followers made. They wore long braids and long skirts and moved around the small kitchen like sleepwalkers. It wasn’t as if they were 19th-century peasant girls, as their costumes suggested. They came from Scarsdale and Teaneck, and, like their menfolk, they were working on graduate degrees. Why, I wondered, were they standing over pots of legumes? I wouldn’t do that, I said to myself. I wouldn’t be a member of the women’s auxiliary, though a small voice told me that maybe I would, if I were enough in love with one of those men with dark curls tied back in a bandana.
The Vietnam protesters were overwhelmingly male; only a few fiery women were in their ranks. I couldn’t imagine myself among them. For one thing, this was a student movement, and I was a lowly office toiler. For another, I was apolitical. I held conventionally antiwar views, but never marched, never raised a fist. Somehow it wasn’t quite my business. I would have felt like a fraud, trying to pass off my tentative sympathy as passionate solidarity. “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” was a watchword of the movement, and I took it to heart. I got out of the way, or tried to. I’ve been getting out of the way ever since.
Detachment was my tendency, but I wasn’t detached enough to see the whole picture. Now I understand that however legitimate their protests, those demonstrators were acting out a warrior fantasy. Their girlfriends were playing a corresponding, and equally theatrical, part. Whatever the larger agenda of the protesters, it was the draft that motivated them—understandably so, though they were better positioned to avoid it than those who couldn’t claim an academic deferment. I’m sure they struggled with guilt, seeing their lower-class counterparts come home maimed, and the pacifism they espoused must have felt like a neutering. Young men fear the trial of war, but they long for it too. To march and shout slogans and occupy the university president’s office offered a kind of substitute, but was fighting against fighting really fighting? This was a draining paradox. The demonstrators required comfort and confirmation, so they and their girlfriends contrived to stage scenes in which they, soldiers returning from the fray, were received by gentle, ministering women who bound up their psychic wounds, fed them, and attended to them sexually—in some cases allowing them access to other women as well. No doubt it made them feel like heroes.
I hesitate to read history in reverse, but I believe that even as those lovely, weary young women in the kitchen of that Morningside Heights apartment were acting out what they took to be a moment from the past, they were feeling a wind blowing from the very near future. By taking part in this backward-looking drama, in which male and female roles were determined by the exigencies of an imagined state of battle, they were laying a predicate for the feminist about-face they would soon find themselves executing. This oddly theatrical behavior was a phenomenon I would notice again in the future.
As I remember it, feminism happened suddenly. One day hairy young men were throwing back their heads and shouting, “Hell no, we won’t go!” and the next, it seemed, they were walking around the campus with babies strapped to their chests.
As a young woman—which I was, of course, even if the word sounded wrong—I carried an army surplus canvas canteen container as a purse. If not for my shyness and tendency to giggle, I might have been called butch. But even if I leaned toward androgyny, I was solidly heterosexual, inclined to develop moony, idealizing crushes on certain boys while looking to others for the easy, undemanding friendships I found hard to maintain with girls.
I was congenitally wary of group identification, but in those early days of feminism I felt a small stirring of hope that the movement might loosen up the category of “woman” so that I could fit into it more comfortably. I was intrigued by some of feminism’s insights and nodded in recognition when I read that a woman who wakes up with a pimple on her chin judges herself to be less valuable a commodity than she’d been the day before. I’d recently come into the modest bloom that was all I’d ever achieve in the way of prettiness, and I’d had some experiences with men—quite a few of them, actually, though over a short span of time. These incursions into male erotic territory had advanced my gender identification in one sense, by making me feel the power of my standard-issue nubility. And they’d advanced it in another way, too, by putting me in a position to get my feelings hurt. I never felt more unproblematically female than I did when complaining to another woman about some man’s failure to call. I’d made enough developmental progress to appreciate some of the bracing truths about men and the sexual marketplace that feminism had to offer. But still I remained a step or two behind the others. My effort to catch up was a Zeno’s paradox kind of progress: as I advanced, the goal retreated, if only by steadily shortening increments, and so the solidarity with other women that the movement demands of its adherents always seemed a little beyond me.
During the time I worked at Columbia, I met and moved in with the man who would become my husband. He was a philosophy graduate student, even more emotionally backward than I was, but better at debate. This was a major developmental jump for both of us. We were well suited to each other, though we didn’t yet realize it, and ultimately we managed to make a good marriage out of our patchy alliance. But from the start we fought—loud fights in the fifth-floor walkup we shared on West 108th Street, picturesque ambulatory fights out on the sidewalks of Broadway. We were often intensely unhappy.
We weren’t the only ones. People remember the late ’60s as a vivid time, full of dangerous ecstasies, but that was hardly the experience of our cohort. The Columbia campus itself was a scene of political rage and fraternal joy, but a generally dispirited atmosphere hung over the upper reaches of Broadway. You’d see couples glumly hunched in the booths of Chinese-Cuban restaurants, shoveling in egg foo yung and black beans. How pale and grubby they looked; the girls, even the prettiest, seemed not to have washed their hair. The sexual revolution had been around for a while, sitting uncomfortably with the new feminism. The deep incompatibility of the two movements would manifest itself more fully in the ’70s, but already it was implicated in the heavy weather people made of relationships—this was an era in which the word relationship was uttered a thousand times a day.
We understood ourselves to be free, yet still we formed couples. In those days we generally skipped the stage of going out on dates: our custom was to have sex immediately, move in together, then get quickly and grimly serious. Commitment problems (the word issues was yet to be used in this context) were ubiquitous. Men felt the tug of missed sexual opportunities. Women wanted to get married, but feminism drew a particularly bright line in prohibiting the use of such tactics as sweetness and flattery and making oneself domestically irreplaceable.
All of us, men and women alike, needed shelter from the high winds of the sexual revolution, so couples clung together in conditions of anti-aphrodisiac dailiness, working doggedly on our relationships until we split apart or got married. When we did marry, the decision often had a Woman in the Dunes feeling. Marriage was a paradoxical effort to escape despair by plunging yet more deeply into it. There was little joy attendant on a wedding; couples didn’t so much announce their plans as ruefully confide them to their friends. Well, they’d say with a shrug, we’ve been together so long …
Our wedding was hastily improvised and held on the lawn of my parents’ country home in Williamstown, Massachusetts. This happened in the summer of 1972, 45 years ago. The photos that survive have an idyllic beauty that always surprises me: a low, distant shot of my husband, father, and uncle pitching horseshoes on the morning of the ceremony; a carefully composed portrait of three barefoot young women lounging in high grass during the reception, one strumming a zither; a candid close-up of 24-year-old me in my Mexican terra-cotta wedding dress and floppy pink hat, casting an ironic sidelong glance at the camera. In the midst of this pack of wedding pictures, there’s a series of a dozen color snapshots of a Japanese family smiling and waving from the observation deck of the Empire State Building—somehow they got mixed up with ours at the developers. “On a clear day,” my brother-in-law remarked when he first leafed through them, “you can see forever.”
So now I was married. Like the long-skirted women in the Morningside Heights apartment, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, but unlike them, I was alone there, and my husband was not on the barricades, but off in a classroom, teaching logic. When he returned in the evening, his mood was not triumphant but tense and bruised, and I was not gently welcoming, as those women at Columbia had been, but preemptively angry and often a little drunk. I’d gotten it in my head to learn to cook elaborate dishes from The Joy of Cooking, the kind that involved making my own beef stock. I did the ambitious cooking, and also the drinking, in imitation of my mother, but I hadn’t inherited her competence. Executive function was not my strong suit, and neither was sequencing. I would start dinner at six and serve it at 10. My husband was not grateful for the trouble I’d taken. He was hungry and irritated, baffled by the fuss and appalled by the mess I’d left in the kitchen.
We fought about the gratuitously elaborate dinners and other things as well. We were unhappy, and so, it seemed, were many other couples. Marriages were dissolving all around us, sometimes because men felt trapped in them, but more often because women had come to see the institution itself as retrograde and insupportable. It was a discouraging time to be married, but even so, my husband and I hardly needed to borrow trouble from the ideological turmoil of the moment. Neither of us was ready for marriage: we had yet to understand what our own was meant to be.
Like any powerful ideology, feminism penetrated the consciousness—or perhaps the unconsciousness—of those who resisted it. “Why,” the introjected voice of feminism asked me, “do you stay?” I had to admit it was a fair question. I knew I was hiding behind my wifely role because I could not yet see a way to connect my conviction that I was a writer to any vehicle of professional ambition. I knew I was depressed and resentfully dependent on my husband, but I also knew that mine was not the gender-specific syndrome that feminism regularly diagnosed. From the outside, my passivity looked like the kind that Betty Friedan had identified in American housewives, but it was actually a condition that had afflicted me for years: a writer’s chronic detachment.
On the narrower point of my needlessly elaborate cooking, feminism had it wrong. I didn’t spend those hours in the kitchen because I was a dupe of the patriarchy, trained to cater to the whims of men. For me, being a woman was a frustrated aspiration, not a background condition. My husband never expected me to be a homemaker, though he did badger me to be less of a slob. The marital contract we were beginning to compose in the lulls between our fights had nothing to do with cooking or cleaning. It had to do with the deep compatibility of mind that had brought us together at the start, and would reveal itself slowly as the years went by and our marriage evolved into a union between writers. My quixotic cooking was an expression of my longing to be like my mother: it was she I was answering to in the kitchen, not my husband. Perhaps she’d been a dupe of the patriarchy, but I had no such excuse.
Ten years into the marriage, I gave birth to our daughter, and for a while I was convinced that I’d finally caught up with other women. After all, I’d just brought off a feat that threw my doubts into deep shade. My new confidence survived even my inability to breastfeed, because that was a problem I shared with a subgroup of other women and was therefore not shameful. A visiting nurse who struggled to help me get the baby on the nipple told me I mustn’t feel like a failure. Actually I didn’t; I had already exceeded my capacity for self-amazement by giving birth.
For 18 months I was galvanized by the baby and my new role. Never had I been so sure what I had to do, and never had there been so small a gap between knowing and acting. I hardly knew how I felt: my consciousness had shrunk so drastically that it seemed vestigial. When I did inquire, I found I was less unhappy than I’d ever been, and also more anxious. But as my daughter became a toddler, familiar doubts began to infiltrate my newfound equanimity.
I returned to the graduate studies I’d dropped when I got pregnant, and put my daughter in daycare during the hours I worked in the library. I missed her, daydreamed about her as I read in the stacks, anticipated the scene of reunion that awaited me—the outflung arms and the roar of joy. But then there was always the matter of getting her ready to go home, which involved changing her diaper and wrestling her into her outdoor gear and boots, all under the eyes of other mothers. Did any of these women secretly feel the way I did—self-conscious, clumsy, incompetent? Apparently not. They never seemed to need help, though they accepted it gratefully from one another when offered. As they made their way through a warren of small rooms where children finger-painted or napped or sat singing in circles, their hoverings and stoopings were so gracefully coordinated as to look choreographed, their mother-talk so soft and fluent that it seemed to me they were working from a script. Where was mine? How was it that so soon after proving indisputably that I was a member in good standing of my gender, I once again felt myself to be on the outside?
Only in long retrospect can I see that in spite of all my private fears and public blunders, I was devoted to my daughter in just the way that mothers have always been devoted to their children, shocked by the power of my love for her, which overrode fatigue and boredom and compelled me to maintain a vigilance as natural as sleep. I muddled through the years of child-rearing—I had no particular talent for it—trying hard and making mistakes just as other mothers did, all the while brooding resentfully about what I took to be their smug confidence, and what could be a more common female sentiment than that?
Later still, when my daughter had grown and gone and given birth to her own daughter, menopause gave me the benefit of a clear sightline down the decades. I saw that I’d had more in common with other members of my gender than I ever thought, that many of my problems have been familiarly female ones—an inability to assert myself, to recognize my own ambition, to say no to any request. Now that my cohort and I have reached an age when we’re no longer quite considered to be women at all, I feel more like other women than ever before. Sometimes it seems to me that I’ve finally caught up. But then everyone catches up at the end. Like passengers on a plane that has just touched down after an Atlantic crossing, we turn to the seatmate whose gaze we’ve been avoiding throughout the flight and smile in belated recognition.
It was not for nothing that my writing career got underway just as my menstrual cycle was suffering the derangements that herald menopause. Something in me decreed that it would have to wait until I’d touched all the womanly bases—love, marriage, childbirth, motherhood. I had looked not to men for confirmation that I’d completed the course—how would they know?—but to other women.
I was right to believe that I was a born writer, a decidedly minor writer as it turned out, but a born one all the same. I was also right in the instinct that guided my early reading and later self-training: to stay detached and uncommitted, to resist any definition of myself that might narrow or distort my vision. And still later I was right to resist the claims that feminism made on me.
I was right because the feminist movement that arrived in the late ’60s had a distinctly totalitarian flavor. Unlike the slow-evolving feminism I’d grown up with, it demanded and produced uniformity of thought among its adherents. It wasn’t as if its requirements could be satisfied by indicating agreement with a list of policy prescriptions: it reached far deeper into the self than that. The chief tool that feminists used in these excavations was the notion of “false consciousness,” a borrowing from Marxism. Any retrograde inclination a woman might have—a tropism toward domesticity, for example, or a tendency to fantasize about rape—was to be considered not only wrong-headed but also alien, a kind of psychic implant. Patriarchy, it was said, installed in women false wishes, desires, and beliefs. The first task of feminism was to excise these.
The second was to replace them. It wasn’t enough for women to recognize that the patriarchy had limited the choices and discouraged the aspirations of earlier generations of women, or even to acknowledge its workings in one’s own psyche. One had to take the further step of aligning one’s personal history with the approved feminist narrative. Subjugation to the patriarchy, followed by enlightenment, followed by the casting off of male influence: that was the story, and in spite of differences in culture, religion, socioeconomic background, or nationality, it was expected to apply to every woman. If her construal of her own history differed from the official one, it was because she suffered from false consciousness. If she considered herself already liberated, as I did, she was directed to return to the back of the line.
What could be worse for a writer? In his 1946 essay “The Prevention of Literature,” George Orwell writes,
[T]he imaginative writer is unfree when he has to falsify his subjective feelings, which from his point of view are facts. He may distort and caricature reality in order to make his meaning clearer, but he cannot misrepresent the scenery of his own mind; he
cannot say with any conviction that he likes what he dislikes, or believes what he disbelieves. If he is forced to do so, the only result is that his creative faculties will dry up. Nor can he solve the problem by keeping away from controversial topics. There is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near to the surface of everyone’s consciousness. Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.
If Orwell had been present at the creation of second-wave feminism, he might well have taken this new movement to be more totalitarian than the communism of which he writes in his essay. From the start, it was a “soft” totalitarianism, as opposed to a hard one, but even so it was more total: an ideology of gender comprises more of human experience than an economic doctrine, no matter the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the latter. A writer who understands her life-narrative to be something other than the one that feminism requires must suppress more of the subjective feelings that to her are facts than the writer who censors his work to save himself from the secret police—though I’ll grant he has more to fear from them than she does from the sisterhood.
The advent of feminism did not affect me as a writer because, except for a self-conscious sonnet or two, I wasn’t yet writing on the page. Perhaps my backwardness served to protect me from the temptation to yield to feminist pressure to falsify the feelings that to me were facts. Inside my mind, where the flow of narrative and the counterflow of self-interrogation had been going on for years, I quite consciously registered my resistance. I could not accept the idea that the story I’d been writing internally should be relinquished to the feminist authorities. And if somehow I’d managed to hand it over, what could feminism have offered me in exchange? The movement gave encouragement and support to women aspiring to be writers, just as it did women longing to become pilots or surgeons or pipefitters, but in my arrogance I had long been convinced that I already was a writer. Unlike those others, I wasn’t a woman who wished to be a writer: I was a writer who wanted to be a woman.
Just as feminism was no help to me as a writer, it was no help in my efforts to reach an understanding with other women. It functioned as a broker of female connections—you had to pass through its checkpoint—but the path it set you on was the one that led to sisterhood. Friendship was what I sought, and to find that, I had to strike out on my own.
For 20 years after the second wave began, small ceremonies of feminist solidarity were so often spliced into seemingly apolitical moments that it was hard to know where they began or ended. Eventually I learned to feel them coming; the air went hollow, just as it does in the moment before the principals in a musical comedy suspend their dialogue and burst into song. It hardly mattered how far removed from ideological feminism the focus of a group of women happened to be; these observances were as mandatory as grace before a meal or the singing of the national anthem before a baseball game. At a regular lunchtime gathering of suburban neighbors, for example, someone would interrupt the conversation to offer a brief, moist-eyed affirmation that we were all women and we’d all come a long way. The group would go silent and swell with feeling for a moment. Then we’d resume our talk of unreliable contractors and intimate ailments.
Another group, a book club I once belonged to, never got underway without an extended session of girls’-night-out clowning around, a show of wine swilling (without much actual consumption) and a lot of guffawing and eye rolling at the mention of men. The first time I witnessed this spectacle, it rang so false I was frozen with embarrassment. Why, I wondered, were the members of this very literary discussion group carrying on like hausfraus on a bender? It took me a moment to understand that, like the pot stirrers in Morningside Heights, these women were performing a reenactment in the service of solidarity. In this case they were commemorating a time when it was only in one another’s company that women could be free to laugh and raise their voices. I bristled at the anachronism, but nobody objected when I stayed silent. I was free to exercise my right not to participate; the only penalty was my own self-consciousness and the flaring up of my chronic sense of isolation and exclusion, of forever standing outside the group.
To my relief, the solidarity ritual was over soon enough and the book club moved on to talk about books. Often our discussion would be prefaced by an appreciative reading of a particular scene—the one in Middlemarch, for example, where Dorothea, struggling to reach the self-deceived and miserable Rosamond, stammers out, “Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not?” When the reading was done, a silence followed. Everyone was suddenly shy, reluctant to be the first to speak. For the discussion to begin, somebody had to step out of the group—exactly the opposite of the move performed during the preliminary solidarity exercise. This took nerve, because now there was no script to follow, but eventually some brave soul would offer a halting, tentative reaction, and then another would speak up, and another.
Solidarity is a solid. That’s exactly what I have against it—that it contains no moving parts and that nothing can happen inside it. Talk, on the other hand, is a living thing, intricately collaborative, generating itself out of the present moment in much the way that musical improvisation does, forking this way and that, unpredictably, with no knowledge of its own future. Each contribution to our discussion was a kind of sacrificial offering, tossed into a bonfire that continually consumed itself.
Sometimes, in the clamor of book talk, I felt a sudden shift in my point of view. Suddenly I was on the inside rather than the outside, or rather there was no inside or outside anymore, only a collection of people, some of whom I could see with a new sympathy. There was no forced solidarity now: discussion had disaggregated the group, offering me, and everybody, newly angled views of the individuals who had constituted it. The one whose avid networking had put me off at the start surprised me by saying something thoughtful. The one who’d seemed so seamlessly confident revealed her vulnerability. As they spoke, those women became real to me. Human, that is. I was reminded that each of us present that night contained an inner life that no one else would ever know completely, that would remain opaque even to herself. The discussion had brought us all closer, and for as long as it lasted, I was released from my self-imposed exile. To be a woman among women, I needed first to be a human being among human beings.
I’ve managed to maintain a number of important friendships with other women, but in all my adult life I’ve never known one who lived outside feminism. A few have admitted to feeling a certain ambivalence about it—this is the most intimate of confidences, more delicate than a confession of marital infidelity—but they too have remained, at least nominally, inside the tent.
Could it be that it’s roomier in there than it looks from out here? Certainly many of the women who live inside the tent do so not because they’re held captive there by feminist ideologues, but simply because they need to feel the proximity of a like-minded group. Perhaps they just want to sit down among the others and be comfortable.
I’ve longed to join them, but I never could; my wish to be part of the sisterhood was outweighed by my resentment of it. I developed an allergic reaction to the self-satisfaction that so often accompanies a cozy sense of inclusion. One example among many: that bumper sticker I saw on the campuses of many universities—the one that read, “Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History”—always brought me to an instant high boil of irritation. How many things were wrong with this slogan? First: there was almost no chance, believe me, that the woman to whose bumper this sticker was attached was anything but well-behaved. Second: the “bad” behavior it implicitly recommended was surely of a kind well within an academic’s comfort zone—joining a march or a boycott, say, rather than a truly transgressive act, like slashing the tires of her ex-boyfriend’s new car. Third: the woman engaging in it did so not at her own risk, but under the protection of the sisterhood. And fourth: it’s true that well-behaved women rarely make history, but badly behaved ones seldom make it either.
The word woman has had an alien look to me since childhood, but 20 or 30 years ago, when my resistance to feminism was at its most intense, the very sight of it on the page could make my stomach clench. The word seemed to shoot out triumphalist rays, and the images it brought to mind were so militantly idealized that I couldn’t begin to identify myself with them. She was a great muscular goddess in the Soviet Realist style, this “woman.” She wasn’t me; she wasn’t anyone. It always came as a small shock to remember that all the female people I encountered in the course of a day—that one I often saw through a coffee shop window, for example, with the long nose and the thinning hair, staring down intently at a copy of the Daily News—were women. It was even more disconcerting to look at my own face in the mirror—a cross, I always thought, between Virginia Woolf’s and Stan Laurel’s—and remember that I was one too.
Perhaps I’ve made some progress. In recent years I’ve gotten a little less reactive. Woman remains a monolith in my imagination, but more and more women—individual women, that is—are making themselves known to me. But just as I’ve begun to consider lifting the flap of the feminist tent to join them, new forms of craziness have broken out inside. Young women are carrying mattresses around on their backs; trigger warnings and microaggressions have proliferated. I back away: the tent is no place for me.
Thoroughgoing antifeminism does exist, I know. You find it in the fundamentalist wilds, where it arises from religious bedrock. Allow me to disassociate myself from it! And let me stipulate that I understand that for most of human history, and throughout much of the world to this day, women have been genuinely and systematically oppressed—denied the vote, regarded as chattel, beaten at will by their male relatives. To repeat the litany is an exhausting exercise in defensiveness.
I am not a crank. What I am is an old-fashioned liberal of the nonleftist variety, the kind who believes in freedom of thought, equality of opportunity, and a live-and-let-live tolerance of views that differ from one’s own. These attitudes are so reasonable, so anodyne, that many of the inhabitants of the feminist tent would admit to sharing them—though at the same time, of course, they would voice support for an activist agenda that utterly contradicts them.
Over the years, I’ve kept my conflicted feelings almost entirely to myself. On only two occasions, one involving alcohol, did I speak up in public, and in both cases I suffered intense and prolonged regret—not so much regret, actually, as remorse: somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d committed an act of violence. Since the last episode, I’ve grown adept at evasive maneuvering. At parties I’ve learned to see ideological trouble coming three lines of dialogue away, and to gracefully steer my interlocutor and myself away from the approaching impact. In my writing, I’ve mostly avoided the subject. In one essay, I approached it obliquely. After it was published, I waited anxiously for reaction, but to my disappointment and relief, nobody seemed to have noticed. I’ve stayed away from the topic partly out of cowardice, but also because I believe the personal is deeper and truer than the political. A writer dives beneath the perpetually roiled surface to find stiller, clearer waters.
A few years ago, a New York writer friend introduced me to another writer, a woman about my age. As it happened, he told me, she’d been one of the founding mothers of the feminist movement. Though less well known than such figures as Kate Millett or Shulamith Fire-stone, she’d been very much a member of their company. I’ll call her “S.” When the three of us met for dinner in the city, I was full of nervous chatter, conscious of the honor the mutual friend had done me in arranging this introduction and on my guard not to embarrass him by giving away my complicated feelings about feminism. But S was reassuringly receptive, and as the evening went on, I relaxed a little. Who was it she reminded me of? Later, it came to me: it was a woman I knew as a child, an encouraging faculty wife who lent me a sympathetic ear when I most needed it. Like her, S was tall and rosy and diffusely benevolent.
In the weeks that followed, S and I met for lunch several times, and as our conversations grew more animated, I was increasingly troubled by a sense of guilty constraint. How much longer could I allow S to assume that I shared her views? Not that she ever asserted them; not that they even seemed to be at the front of her mind. Ideology was her natural habitat, but she seemed more interested in talking about books—literary style particularly—and people than in discussing politics. How sane she seemed, how subtle and measured and balanced, and what a diverting gossip. I had to prompt myself to remember that 50 years ago, she’d been right there at the boiling center of things, that no doubt she’d had a hand in issuing the directives I’d always resisted.
As we sat over the remains of lunch in a chilly garden behind a SoHo Italian restaurant, S talking expansively and unguardedly, a confession was rising in me. I was struggling to line up its parts in a plausible row when I realized that S had gone silent and was gazing at me with concern—I’d probably made some kind of unconscious noise. “You should know …” I began, and went on to stammer out much of what I’ve written in these pages, but haltingly and out of order and punctuated by long pauses. As I spoke, S nodded, registering each new blurt and “mirroring” my apparently agonized facial expression.
At the heart of my confession was an admission of my visceral fear and suspicion of other women, and my balked longing to be admitted to their society. It seems, I told her, that I can never forgive those girls who turned their backs on me in the hallway of the boarding school dorm. Were my misgivings true? Was my aboriginal resentment at the bottom of my refusal to call myself a feminist? Had I made a fundamental mistake?
But no sooner had I asked this question than I understood that of course I hadn’t. One of the disconcerting realizations of age is that one has not been wrong but right—according to one’s lights—and that one will have to live out one’s years in that knowledge.
Eventually I sputtered into silence; my confession had run aground. I was embarrassed, but S waved off my apologies. Simultaneously, we both glanced at our watches. “Well,” she said brightly as we rose to our feet, “we don’t always have to sit around and talk. Maybe next time we could see a movie.”
Emily Fox Gordon is the author of two memoirs, a novel, and a collection of essays, Book of Days. Her essay, “At Sixty-Five,” in the Summer 2013 Scholar, was selected for Best American Essays 2014.