THICK WITH MEMOIRS from some 30 women, this tome recounts the early days of second-wave feminism (about 1966 through the 1970s), a time when every radical worth her soapbox belonged to a group with an acronym: the CWLU (Chicago Women's Liberation Union), BUF (Black United Front), etc. The stories of these then-prominent politicos, told 30 years after the movement's peak, describe the activism that united them in the '60s, and the balkanization in the early '80s that brought the movement's decline. Now these same women find themselves in lines at convenience stores gawking at Ally McBeal's face on the cover of Time, wondering along with the rest of the country if feminism is truly dead.
It's from this perspective that the editors speak. "Nostalgia and sentimentality for the opening gambits of the women's movement don't cut much ice for people who have to figure out what to do now, in this historical time," they write. "But ignorance of that time 30 years ago is also an odd handicap, like running a relay race with no idea of what's being handed to you from the runner just behind."
The dearth of stories available in the '60s from the first-wave, late-19th-century activists and the suffragettes inspired the editors to create this work. Yet anyone looking for a unified liberation front will not find it here, and that's what makes The Feminist Memoir Project an interesting, and at times entertaining, feminist portrait. The second wave was littered with tough contradictions: Some women were shirking traditional family norms and fighting for abortion rights; others were seeking to define themselves in the private sphere. One of the latter was artist Nancy Spero. In the Q&A titled "The Art of Getting Equal," Spero irritably responds, "Why Not?" to the question of whether it's possible to juggle her husband and children during the day and working on her art at night. And between these two lives, she acted as a precursor to today's Guerrilla Girls, protesting the Whitney museum for not equally representing both genders in the museum's permanent collection.
Naomi Weistein's account of her days with the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band (whose hits included "Papa Don't Lay that Shit on Me") is perhaps one of the most amusing essays found in the book. Not that Weistein means to be comedic, but as she relates her problems within the band, and her disgust with the other members' "militant amateurism," she sounds a bit ridiculous and self-important. "The band lasted three years and broke up in an agony of hatred and hidden agendas," she writes. "This fact is not unusual; it even happened to the Beatles."
While Weistein fights with her own ego, Barbara Omolade deals with the many fronts of being feminist and black. In "Sisterhood in Black and White," she gives a frank account of her political growth, from her involvement in Black nationalism to her work at a shelter for battered women. "Ironically, I had been one of those black women who believed that women deserved to be hit by their husbands," she remembers.
Interestingly, the editors of The Feminist Memoir Project decided to finish the book with responses to the above essays--an attempt to leave the dialogue open. "One of [the book's] original writers, hearing of this process, asked, 'What right have they to comment on my memories?' What right, indeed?" the editors ask, before answering their own question: "The story never ends there. Let there be no last word."