Breaking the Waves

IN JANUARY, I received a package containing one twenty-dollar bill and one postcard with “thanks for being a part of the Wild Iris!” handwritten on the back, punctuated by a heart. The Wild Iris was a feminist bookstore—“Florida’s only feminist bookstore,” according to its website—and it was newly out of business. The twenty dollars was the full retail price of my self-published book; they’d sold it for me on consignment and should have kept half the cost. Giving me their ten dollars may have been a mistake, but I doubt it. Gratuitous generosity seemed to be the staff’s only mode. So few stores accept self-published books at all, but they kept mine on their shelves for over a year. Their choices, including their location, were baffling to me. What, I’d been wondering for months, was a feminist bookstore even doing in Gainesville?

As usual, my historical ignorance was showing. A little investigation revealed Wild Iris Books to be one of those counterculture institutions that, for decades, had been both resuscitated and besieged by its community. Much like feminism itself, the bookstore recycled its inventory and client base as it closed, reopened, relocated, changed names, changed ownership, and shifted focus. I will be shocked if doesn’t launch again.

The city’s enduring feminist sensibility has its anchor in 1968, when cooperative feminist activity erupted across the country, with the formation of groups like Cell 16, witch (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), and the Women’s Majority Union. New York Times contributor Martha Weinman Lear coined the term second wave in a March 10 article that focused primarily on issues of employment discrimination, as articulated by Betty Friedan, and opposition to marriage and motherhood, as articulated by Ti-Grace Atkinson, both of whom were members of the National Organization for Women (now). But the flurry of self-published pamphlets and newsletters emerging from nascent “women’s liberation” alliances revealed a far wider range of interests: men’s emotional and sexual deficiencies, the plight of women abroad, homosexuality, and the tyranny of beauty standards.

In Gainesville, two local activists wrote “The Florida Paper,” which circulated widely among radical feminists after its debut at a Sandy Spring, Maryland, gathering, where about two dozen women met to strategize. (Historian Alice Echols suggests this was the weekend when women’s liberation took hold as an organizing term.) The paper’s coauthors, Judith Brown and Beverly Jones, made such an impression that, shortly after the conference, members of the New York Radical Feminists relocated to work with Brown and another resident, Carol Giardina, on consciousness-raising. That same year, Brown and Giardina cofounded the Gainesville Women’s Liberation group, the first of its sort in the South.

Everything I know about Giardina’s history makes me like her so much; I think of her as just “Carol,” like we’re good friends. She participated in 1968’s landmark Miss America protest, and online you can see pictures of her grinning on the Atlantic City boardwalk with a sign that reads, CAN MAKEUP COVER THE WOUNDS OF OUR OPPRESSION? When she returned to Gainesville, she was fired from her job at the welfare department and told she had acquired a “permanent record” that barred her from any state employment. But she stayed in town to study philosophy at the University of Florida, and in her master’s thesis on Marxism she thanked “the present women’s liberation movement and particularly Gainesville Women’s Liberation . . . because I have depended on the collective thinking of all of us for [this paper’s] perceptions and conclusions.”

But by the time Gainesville’s first feminist bookstore opened, in 1975, Carol was gone. “I do not care if I never see another woman again as long as I live, because I am just disgusted,” she said in a 1992 interview, describing her mind-set at the time. “I am trying to forget that I ever was a feminist.” A major publisher had dropped her friend Judith’s feminist anthology, the ERA still hadn’t been ratified, and Gloria Steinem, a relative outsider whose politics were emphatically not radical, was suddenly renowned as a crusader.

To make matters worse, Carol “was ousted from her Florida group by ‘moon goddess’ worshippers who accused her of being ‘too male-identified,’ ” as Susan Faludi reported in a 2013 New Yorker article. The movement’s direction no longer made sense to the women who once constituted its vanguard. Just a few years after they’d started it all, these founding organizers were, as Carol put it, “getting pitched.”

Carol Giardina at the Miss America protest, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1968. Courtesy Alix Kates Shulman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Carol Giardina at the Miss America protest, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1968. Courtesy Alix Kates Shulman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

DISRESPECTING YOUR IDEOLOGICAL PREDECESSORS is something of a sport in modern American feminism, and it reaches varsity level when it comes to criticizing the second wave. Adherents to second-wave politics are imagined as uncool figures, angry about the wrong things, too wedded to the dated politics of their heyday (imagined as pedantic opposition to femininity and sex) to have any insight into our current moment. On social media, the term is synonymous with social conservatism, with a perverse feminism that espouses only antiwomen sentiments.

Younger feminists can be guilty of incuriosity and hubris, but when it comes to the diminishment of 1968-style radical feminism, the vanguard of the second wave, there’s plenty of blame to go around: misrepresentation and mockery in the media, sabotage and demonization from other powers that be—some New York leaders believe group meetings were seeded with bad-faith agitators—and the movement’s own errors. Animosity toward homemakers and sex symbols, for instance, was not merely an enemy fabrication. (“Listen, you, you dumb broad, you look funny. You stay home, you’re kind of empty . . . and when you get older you disintegrate,” Atkinson vented to Lear for her Times article.) And the movement was rife with anti-blackness. By far the most excruciating aspect of reading radical women’s early documents now is their propensity to analogize women’s oppression to slavery, and the apparent comfort with racial slurs that went along with it.

But today’s young feminists didn’t invent wariness toward (and shame on behalf of) the older ones. The antiestablishment attitude that dominated ’60s youth culture was virtually indistinguishable from distrust of elders (“don’t trust anyone over the age of thirty”; “I hope I die before I get old”), and regardless of whether they identified as feminists, scads of young American women were desperate to create lives that looked nothing like their mothers’. Generational and ideological tensions were baked in from the start, so much so that replicating the same divisions reads as part of feminism’s heritage.

The first notable feminist event of 1968, the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march on Washington, DC, was defined by this Us vs. Them dynamic, when several hundred women broke off from the mass of five thousand who’d assembled to petition Congress to withdraw from Vietnam. The splinter group wanted the war to end, too, but they were more compelled to protest what they saw as other attendees’ complicity in the system itself. “The so-called power of wives and mothers . . . amounts to nothing politically,” said sisterhood is powerful originator Kathie Sarachild (then Amatniek) in her speech during the Burial of Traditional Womanhood, staged at Arlington National Cemetery by some of the renegades on the evening of the march. In the words of Shulamith Firestone, the event was intended to be the “least offensive and most effective” way “to appeal to women not to appeal to Congress.” (It consisted of a funeral procession complete with costumes, songs, and “a larger-than-life dummy” in a blond wig.) Like a considerable number of her comrades, Sarachild was neither a wife nor a mother, and that surely made it easier to rhetorically separate herself from women who were. By locating “power” in sisterhood, she rejected traditional authority figures in favor of a more lateral identification; sisters—women united by a specific, shared daughterhood—were the future.

“Young, self-described radical women . . . distanced themselves from their more liberal, and often older, feminist contemporaries in order to herald themselves as the harbingers of something new,” writes Astrid Henry in Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, her thorough, fascinating investigation into the idea of waves in activism and the unfortunate reality such thinking creates. Older contemporaries were, to some extent, willing to play along with the pretense that the movement’s relevance and legitimacy should be determined by its youngest members. In “The Florida Paper,” for instance, Jones identifies as “a middle-aged female accustomed to looking to militant youth for radical leadership.” She was forty-one at the time, a mother, and married (to the academic who would name Gainesville “the Berkeley of the South”). In more substantial ways, Jones actually was the epitome of what radicals disdained. In a 1992 interview, she called herself an “authoritarian” who “never had a job” and seemed outraged at her interlocutor’s suggestion that she might feel guilty or conflicted about having a maid. Yet she was responsible for a paper that helped determine the course of this ostensibly youth-led, ostensibly radical movement.

In Henry’s convincing analysis, the wave metaphor is detrimental to the movement because it’s wedded to the trope of mothers and daughters, and therefore bound up in the rebellion, entitled intimacy, superiority, and condescension such a pairing implies. It’s hard for mothers and daughters to be peers, which is a problem because movements require camaraderie. In a hierarchy, there is no solidarity. It’s hard, too, to think of generations as other than dyadic; “We seem unable to think of generations—or even of waves, for that matter—in threes or fours,” Henry writes. This dooms us to lose the continuity of feminist spirit and instead wrongly describe its development in discrete stages, as if history were ever so neat.

Henry’s other key revelation is that women of the second wave intentionally branded themselves this way, as a distinct cohort picking up a baton left neglected for decades. According to Henry, it was radical feminists who designated “1968 to be the first year of the U.S. women’s movement of the late twentieth century,” a convenient dropping of the needle, because it allowed them to excise Betty Friedan and her formation of NOW, which they politically disdained, from the period they wanted to claim as their own. Instead of seeing themselves as indebted to or contiguous with Friedan, “second-wave feminists avoided the complications of dealing with their immediate feminist contemporaries by locating their origins [further] in the past.” For women’s liberationists, the first wave ended by 1920, and there was simply a dark, fallow period before they came along and resurrected feminism in 1968.

In the radicals’ defense, women’s history had been woefully neglected, and they—especially Firestone—were able to shape the story so completely because no one had bothered to do it before. But radical feminists’ thirst for legitimacy necessitated erasing anything insufficiently radical, like earlier feminists’ emphasis on the vote, and the racism they deployed when emphasizing the indignity of being white and denied a privilege granted to black men, and when promising that their enfranchisement would protect white interests. Radical feminists had to be aggressively selective in creating a lineage for themselves that felt worth claiming. They had to make omissions, and in doing so, they created distortions.

From the start, then, participants in the second wave practiced the sort of dismissal and ingratitude of which they’d accuse later generations. Suspicion, rebuke, and hostility were commonplace among women who might otherwise be allies. “Here are the radicals, wanting to be heard,” Lear wrote in the Times article. “Out there are the mothers’ clubbers, waiting to be alienated.” In journals like Notes from the First Year out of New York, and Chicago’s Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Vol. 1, feminists decried the January march as “futile,” “naive,” and too “moderate,” though it’s unclear what, exactly, they would have done instead. Tellingly, when they were put on the spot by disappointed participants who responded to their calls for more concrete action, they “missed an opportunity to do some valuable organizing” (Voice) and “were not really prepared to rechannel this disgust” (Notes).

While Henry is right that the mother-daughter lens is limiting, it’s a challenge to see the inchoate and almost indiscriminate anger of 1968’s radical feminists as anything other than the rage women sometimes feel toward their mothers. But that’s probably because the wave metaphor, and the familial overtones that come with it, is maddeningly entrenched in our discourse. With women so long excluded from public, professional, and political life, we have no other ready-made concept for understanding why they educate, care for, and collaborate with one another. What else can we call it when a woman confronts and challenges another woman with love if not a moment of mothering?

When Carol reflected on her 1968 radicalization, she expressed humility and awe. “I was not the person that most of the other people at Sandy Spring were because nearly all of them had been through the civil rights [movement] and had years of real organizing experience. . . . I get there and talk and interrupt . . . . I have no idea what I do not know.” The other women were “maybe two, three, or four years older” than she, so their age alone was not what made them senior. Instead, she was “profoundly impressed” by their passion, experience, and focus. She left the weekend inspired “to be like this.” What she described was not an encounter with a mother or a sister, but the discovery of a group of mentors. She had glimpsed not family but community.

Radical women’s anger was the normal, agonizing rage of all passionate leftists whose goals far outstrip their immediate capabilities, but when squashed into a domestic metaphor, those emotions translate as confused and bratty. And in spite of the fact that leftists are notoriously prone to cannibalization, feminists’ infighting was routinely highlighted in the media and, later, given historical prominence. (Pettiness is an eternal threat to the politically invested; it’s so hard to care about injustice without becoming pathological about it.) It’s always striking to set radical feminists’ sense of failure against what could be deemed the “failures” of the anti-war, or Communist, or Black Power movements—the women seem to take it so personally. But to fight for more than can be achieved in one lifetime is the plight of all radicals. Radicals are destined to die wanting.

I DON’T KNOW HOW Florida’s last feminist bookstore arrived at its name, but it feels significant that irises are perennial and remarkably hardy, and that some species are remontant. They are perpetual, regenerative, manifesting in an action recursive yet new—a little like a wave. “We’re still in this feminist fight and we’ll meet you on the front lines,” read the Wild Iris’s staff farewell, and it mentioned “opportunities behind the scenes that may lead to a Wild Iris 2.0.” (“Irises go through changes under the ground that we were not always aware of,” one iris nursery’s website says.) This process of covert and mysterious regeneration is the subject of Louise Glück’s poem “The Wild Iris.” “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried,” she writes. And yet: “Whatever / returns from oblivion returns / to find a voice.”

At the time of its closing, Wild Iris Books had morphed from a lesbian-centered space to a trans-centered one that offered support groups, access to hormones, and fittings for free breast forms and chest binders. Its final manager, Erica Rodriguez Merrell, first visited in 2007. “I had never been in a feminist bookstore, and it blew my mind,” she told Fine Print magazine. Two years later, she was a co-owner: “I had always been really obsessed that Wild Iris could not close on my watch.” Co-owner Cheryl Calhoun added,“There’s been a process of passing along what resources were left. . . . Even if we’re not successful in keeping Wild Iris alive as Wild Iris Books, it will stay alive in these other entities.”My favorite fact about Carol is that, though she left Gainesville in 1974, she came back in 1982 to be with her old friend Judy Brown. Together, slowly, they began the work. And in a few years, Gainesville Women’s Liberation had returned. It is still active today.

Charlotte Shane is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and the cofounder of TigerBee Press.