A few years ago there was a conference in Minneapolis on “Feminism and Rhetoric.” I went as a doctrinaire, whiny feminist. The focus of my rant was directed at younger feminist theorists who were using an arcane language that I found an obstruction to my understanding. I thought not only was it arcane, it was an act of cowardice because they were talking in such high falutin’ language no one knew what the fuck they were saying!
So I did my rant about how, if you people don’t clean it up, we’re lost — you can’t keep talking in this language that none of us understands. I just laid into them. Then, feminist theorist Judith Butler gave her talk, and she changed how she spoke — it was as if she were doing a consecutive translation. For every one of those marvelous words she used, she provided an alternative that I actually understood! I did have to, like, listen really close, but I got it, and I followed along! Afterward, half-a-dozen young philosophy students went up to her and, being incredibly nasty and critical, tore her apart for the way she had delivered the talk.
Since then, I have made a study of language. I can actually understand what they’re talking about when they say “normative.” It’s true that sometimes I have to make notes and go look up shit. It’s also true that I have to drink a lot of coffee and Diet Coke. And I have to, like, focus. If you let your attention wander for an instant, you’re into an entirely different philosophical category!
The specificity of the language is sometimes necessary because quite often the subjects being discussed are notoriously complicated, frighteningly dangerous and self-revelatory. Let me assure you that when our feminist scholars, philosophers, speculators and thinkers use this language they’re not always talking about a distanced subject but about their specific lives. The sex act they may in fact have committed, enjoyed, desired or refused. They are standing naked, and the only thing holding them up, in some cases, is that complicated language.
What I don’t hear at conferences is what did in fact bring me to feminism. So let’s go back, let’s begin: Rubyfruit Jungle, Riverfinger Women, Meridian, Wise Blood, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, True Story of a Drunken Mother, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law, The Girl, The Salt Eaters, A Woman Is Talking to Death, Edward the Dyke, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, The Bell Jar, Big Blonde and authors like Judy Grahn, Elana Dykewomon, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Carson McCullers, Audre Lorde, Lillian Hellman and Joann Ross.
What was the first feminist book you read? Not Our Bodies, Ourselves or The Feminist Mystique. No, take me back. All the way back. Take me back to the trashy books you read. Take me back to the stuff that you read and that you wanted to be. I’m 54 years old. To quote “Sex and the City,” I’m abso-fuckin’-lutely tired. I read theory. I read to train my language and to sharpen my mind. But I write fiction. I write fiction for a specific, deliberate, reasonable, old lesbian purpose. The world I love is not on the page. The world I understand is not reflected on the page. What made me a feminist were occasional glimpses of my real life on the page.
We can talk a lot about mother-daughter transgression and generational resentment for a good couple a million decades, but I came to feminism as a lover. Feminism for me was a love affair. I came to feminism as an escaped Baptist. Feminism for me was a religious conversion experience. I came to feminism as a hurt, desperate, denied child, and I would’ve killed for the feminist mama who would take me in her arms and make it all make sense. And I’ve been running after her ass ever since.
I do not necessarily believe that someone can make it all make sense. I am, in fact, in love with the feminist ideal of “get used to being uncomfortable, you’ll learn something.” That is what I need, want, ache for, and I believe absolutely in the future of feminism.
I do not construct feminism as an ethical or moralistic system. When I talk about justice, I am talking about institutions that have ground me and my kind, right down to rock so far back that they owe me. They owe me as a working-class girl. They owe me as a queer girl. They owe me as a raped child. They owe me as a writer who had to raise money and who couldn’t write for years because she had to raise money. Yet, I also know that that voice saying “They owe me” is the most dangerous bone in my body. It is a part of me that I have to resist. It is a bone I cannot stand on, feel or shape. Instead, I owe you, my feminist sisters.
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“Do you have a utopian vision of the future?” you ask me. I got a fucking utopian vision of the present! I live in Sonoma County. It’s true; I live in the low-rent district of Sonoma County and, it’s true, west of Napa. You know what they do with the poor people in San Francisco? They give them a bus ticket to my town. We have more social services than anything else. I live in Guerneville, a small town in northern California where people say a third of the population is queer. And more than a third of the population is dying. Not of AIDS, no, AIDS has actually gotten a little smaller in our town. What’s killing us is cancer and drug addiction. And methamphetamine labs blowing up, because contrary to rumor, the return of cash to the capitalist system of America ain’t happening in Sonoma County. Now methamphetamines — that’s immediate cash. And people are dying because they’re brewing it in the back of their trailer parks. My town, between tie-dyed T‑shirts and methamphetamines, it’ll keep going. And I confess, I buy as many tie-dyed T‑shirts as I can stand. And I hold writing workshops for working-class kids. I like it that way. They’ve got to write short essays about why they identify themselves as working class. I still haven’t gotten over the child who described herself as working class because she doesn’t have access to her inheritance until she’s 30 — but I took her in!
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All my friends down in San Francisco keep calling me and saying, “Get your ass down here and get married!” I put a message on my phone machine. “I’ve pierced her tit; I have tattooed her left thigh. I’ll be god damned if I’m gonna marry her ass!” I became a feminist because I wanted answers that were not easy moralisms. I became a feminist because I had been a Baptist. And let me tell you, when you leave Baptists, you are leaving some serious shit.
But when I got up in the morning and watched old George Bush on television talking about how he wants a constitutional amendment, I’m like, “Oh Shit. We gotta go get married.” And I noticed something, in a phrase he used four times in his talk from the Roosevelt room: “activist judges.” How many of you know an activist judge? No, no, I’m serious — I know three. They’re all dykes. One’s from Colorado and two are from California. But I don’t think that what I think of as an activist judge and what George Bush thinks of as an activist judge has any relationship to the same category.
Why do you become a feminist? Why do you grab hold of every book that speaks to your heart? Why do you want desperately to believe that there is a future? I have evidence in my own life that activism is an effective engine for change. I’ve got a banner: “Everything has been remade. Nothing has been remade. Everything is different. A little bit is different.” It’s complicated.
In 1981, I was almost fired from my job in New York City because someone from the Columbia University campus called my boss and said: “Do you know what she does at night? I can send you pictures!” My boss, an old red diaper baby, said: “Send them; I’d love to see some of that! And I’m not firing her ass!” He kept that attitude when the same people called the people who had hired him. It was all part of the tumult associated with the 1981 “Sex the Scholar” conference but we didn’t know that we were participating in a historical event. We only knew things were complicated for a while.
Things change, things stay the same, things are always in turmoil for people like us. Think back to the first book that gave you the notion that you could change your world. Whether you define your world as George Bush’s world or your neighborhood or your family or your ex-girlfriends and the new ones you’re looking at, I guarantee the book that you picked up that “empowered” you and gave you a sense of authority in the world was almost surely a feminist text. A narrative of revolution. A piece of someone’s soul in which they spread their legs, took a strong stand and stubbornly shared with you how they had changed their own life or endured their own life or made new the life they had been handed.
Last week, because the river rose and we got cut off, we all watched TV. And it made me think, what the fuck is it gonna look like when they make the movie of our life? Let me be clear about what I envision as the future of feminism. When they come around to make the movie of your life, when someone comes around to write the biography of you, as that feminist icon or that revolutionary, world-changing activist you are about to become, for God’s sake, make it more than anything small or pretty or over-romanticized. Make it as revolutionary as this tradition in which we speak has been. Make it so dangerous that people will be scared and unnerved when they read it. Take risks. Make illegitimate children. Get lots of lovers. Try some stuff! Make some difference. Without that courage, without that outside agitation, there will be no future of feminism. There will be no change in this country.
Oh, and along the way, read some novels.