Sinister Wisdom 15: Winter 2020

Wendy Judith Cutler 

Feminism has always been about resistance to me. Being a lesbian and a feminist means I will always resist all forms and manifestations of oppression as I envision a world of liberation. I have always liked the term “women’s liberation movement” because it is true to its radical, at the root, origins and its connections to other liberatory movements that it either came from or spawned. As an open and out Jewish lesbian feminist since turning twenty-one in 1973, I have lived resistance. We lived in a universe that never recognized us, to which we were basically invisible or marginalized and, if acknowledged, only critically and negatively. I could never have survived without resisting any number of things: conformity, heterosexist and sexual norms, and the pressures of patriarchal culture and society. This was despite my class, race, and educational privileges, which meant that those without these privileges were even more vulnerable and punished by the interlocking systems of oppression. 

If the women’s liberation movement had not availed itself to me, I may never have discovered this path. Lesbian feminism embodied resistance and was an almost natural progression from my hippie-radical-feminist-socialist identities. Despite rejection from my parents, the larger culture, and world, I felt proud to be part of this movement for change and transformation. My life would never be the same and neither would it be for thousands upon thousands of us. And for that I am full of gratitude. 

When I was twenty-one, I discovered Robin Morgan’s poetry book, Monster, which I purchased at A Woman’s Place Bookstore in Oakland, California, the first feminist bookstore in North America. I had already devoured the essays and stories in Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Morgan, the first women’s liberation anthology many of us found searching for feminist inspiration in the early 1970s. 

Morgan’s poem, “I Want a Women’s Revolution” begins: 

I want a women’s revolution like a lover. I lust for it, I want so much this freedom, this end to struggle and fear and lies
we all exhale, that I could just die with the passionate uttering of that desire.

 (Robin Morgan. Monster. New York: Vintage Books, 1972) 

I read this aloud to myself in my upstairs bedroom in the collective women’s household I shared with three other women on Hillegas Street in a small brown cottage behind the main residence on a tree-lined Berkeley neighborhood south of campus. We had moved to the cottage from another house on the corner of Grant and Hearst, across from what was then known as People’s Park Annex, which I frequented with my dog, Djuna. 

It was called that during the People’s Park uprising that erupted in the spring of 1969 when the university decided to turn an empty lot, which was being used as a community park, into a parking lot. The playground equipment, benches, and free box were brought there during the National Guard occupation. 

I, too, wanted a revolution, craved change, real change. I had read about earlier revolutions in China, in Cuba, in some Latin American and African countries, but none of these were spearheaded by women, even though women were de finitely part of these transformations and served as inspirations to many of us. Then I read about women’s herstories and the plethora of publications of all kinds about this women’s revolution, lesbian liberation that would radically alter how we think of everything. I, too, lusted for this sisterhood. 

Just once in this my only lifetime to dance
all alone and bare on a high cli under cypress trees with no fear of where I place my feet.
To even glimpse what I might have been and never never will become, had I not had to waste my life fighting for what my lack of freedom keeps me from glimpsing (Monster

Truthfully, in looking back, I didn’t know what I was up against. Had I known, I may have prematurely surrendered. I was not raised to be a rebel of any sort. I was unprepared for the battle I would be waging against my upbringing, my biological family, requirements and restrictions, what seemed like the entire world. 

Possibilities emerged as never before. Rebellion glowed in the foreground. I was so carried away by the passions and purposes of this women’s, and later lesbian feminist, revolution. 

I had tasted the sweet nectar of resistance. Women soon became my world, my sustenance, my passion. I joined an anti- rape collective and was falling in love with my best friend. 

Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) was founded in 1971 by two activist feminists, the first rape crisis center in North America. I joined the collective in 1973. During my first anti-rape collective meeting, I sat in a circle on the floor with fifteen other women, some lesbians, some straight, some bi-sexual, mostly young, college-educated, and white. I had never been to a meeting like this, but had secretly, even from myself, yearned for this: a circle of women, a sisterhood. Luck and feminist activism brought me to this collective of women. I found my place among women working for change, changing the laws, changing our lives, changing other women’s lives we hoped, we visioned. This is the political yet very personal work of feminism, this women’s liberation movement. 

It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other which is at the heart of women’s liberation and the basis for the cultural revolution….As we feel this growing solidarity with our sisters. 

From Radicalesbians,“The Woman-Identified Woman” in Women: A Journal of Liberation, Winter 1971. 

Once I started to be part of this anti-rape collective, I saw rape everywhere. Violence was perpetrated against women without regard to age, race, class, education, or sexuality. As soon as I recognized that rape existed everywhere and it served as a warning, punishment, an aspect of control and power to keep women down and in their subordinate places, I understood what was meant by the need for a complete transformation of society. 

This living rape and embodying feminism was enthralling and also taking its toll, a rollercoaster dynamic of highs and lows. Embracing feminism meant continual awareness of sexism, not theoretically but personally. The meetings I sat through, my shifts on the rape crisis line, the radical classes I was taking, the books I was reading—all of it added more fuel to my anger at the misogynistic world I lived in. There was no escaping the conspiracies foisted on women. I wondered if it would ever stop. 

While I may not have understood everything about the significance of placing myself on the floor in this particular meeting, I was joining this collective, this movement of women. I felt solidarity with many other movements, collectives, projects, and organizations that were resisting many forms of oppression. I understood the need for major transformation in order for any real change to occur in our lives, our laws, our relationships, our futures. I truly believed this, and it is still my vision of this world that we are trying to change. While I was not ready to join the underground and pledge commitment to a militant organization, 

I felt a sense of connection with those who occupied the radical fringes of these revolutionary movements. 

When a small package arrived when I opened the door of the BAWAR o ce to begin my shift, I was surprised. The package had been hand-delivered, not mailed, and was a red soft-covered, over-sized book titled PRAIRIE FIRE: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, Political Statement of the Weather Underground. On the title page were written the words: “Printed Underground in the U.S. For the People” with the Weather Underground insignia and its dedication to “Harriet Tubman and John Brown; to all who continue to fight; to all political prisoners in the U.S.” I brought the book home to my household, and we sat on the porch reading aloud to each other. Inside we read the words from “The Rising of Women”: 

. . . rape—a massive, brutal system of terror perpetrated on women by men . . . The oppression of women perverts the cultural values of the whole society . . . The women’s movement has reached into every home, awakening women’s potential and challenging our subjugation . . . Lesbianism has been an affirmation of unity and a challenge to the partnership of sexuality and domination . . . We support the right of all people to live according to their sexual preferences without discrimination or fear of reprisals.  

From Weather Underground. Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, 1974, pgs. 128-129 

I wrote in my journal on July 31, 1974: 

Filled with chills, clouded with the beginning of tears, our chests heaving with joy and despair, the joy of reading the words of our life struggle, the despair of our toil and tears spread throughout the years of our history, the history of our pain that has been conceived from the time of our birth. 

We need to realize our joyous despair and relish in the faith of our strength.