The way it feels



What is never properly understood by those who do not experience it is how deep the rage over inequality goes once it is made conscious, how far-reaching it can be and yes, how unforgiving. At the moment, the hated imbalance between women and men, the one that all men, everywhere, have exploited for centuries, is in the dock, and women in the thousands have risen up to bring charges against men of power with the crime of having looked not at them but through them for as long as any of them could remember. These women are not yet Madame Defarge knitting at the foot of the scaffold, but half a century of insufficient progress, on the score of sexual predation alone, now fills their heads with blood and leads them to lash out at its ongoing pervasiveness, branding men to the left and to the right with accusations that include acts of real evil as well as those of vulgar insensitivity. As James Baldwin might have put it, an oppressed people does not always wake up a saint; more often it wakes up a murderer.

For many of us, it is dismaying to behold, in a movement meant to correct for social injustice, the development of what can seem like vigilante politics; the dismay, in fact, is being accorded disproportionate attention, as though its existence is more important than what gave rise to it. But if we stop for a moment to think rather than react, we soon come to realize that the courageous demand that begins with a visionary’s declaration of rights can, and usually does, descend quickly into the maddened belligerence characteristic of those who cannot stop rehearsing a grievance that feels very old and reaches far into the past. That is the course history has usually taken, and for the moment, we in America are all trapped in its turmoil.

My generation of second-wave feminists discovered how hard it is to build a case for women’s rights from the inside out, how few approached with a wholeness of mind and heart the prospect of equality for women. Those of us in the 1970s and ’80s who said (and kept on saying) that the subordination of women had now become intolerable were often denounced as witches, bitches and worse: denatured fanatics staring into a vision of the future that would upend the world as we knew it. Our radicalism lay in declaring the risk well worth taking: a calculation society as a whole is never willing to act on; it must be driven to it. But we feminists were persuaded that the American democracy was not only healthy enough but also mature enough to give up the idea that men by nature take their brains seriously and women by nature do not. We were convinced that what today we saw by the hundreds would tomorrow surely be seen by the thousands, and the day after that by the millions. Only people of serious ill will or intellectual deficiency or downright political greed would oppose the obvious. And after all, how many of them could there be?

As the decades wore on, I began to feel on my skin the shock of realizing how slowly — how grudgingly! — American culture had actually moved, over these past hundred years, to include us in the much-vaunted devotion to egalitarianism. However many thousands of women continued to join our ranks, we kept hearing: “Love is the most important thing in a woman’s life; that’s just nature.” “Women can be good but never great (thinkers, artists, politicians); again: nature.” “Oh, I get it. You don’t want to marry the Great Man, you want to be the Great Man. How very unnatural.” “Whatever happened, she was asking for it.” I remember thinking: Who says such things to a human being the speaker considers as real as he is to himself? Who tells anyone that the wish to experience oneself to the fullest is unnatural? Who thinks it acceptable that a set of needs described as essential to anyone’s humanity be considered necessary for some but not for others? Who, indeed?

I soon came to feel — and I still feel — that social and political inequality is one of the worst burdens anyone can be made to shoulder. The sheer unfairness of it! The contempt inscribed in it. My own angry disbelief in those years swelled until I found myself copying out quotes from people like the Cromwellian soldier who, on the scaffold, said: I never could believe that some men were born booted and spurred and ready to ride, and others born saddled and ready to be ridden. I, too, was now willing to go to war.

It’s not necessarily true that only a social explosion can galvanize cultural change, but inevitably, in the face of the failure to act — the term “sexual harassment” is now almost 50 years old — that’s the way it feels when that rage reawakens. And the way it feels is now compelling a movement bent on making transparent (once again!) what it’s like to live, as a class of people, brutalized or ignored but either way socially invisible.

The silence imposed by that invisibility! For better or worse, only liberationist politics — loud, brash and bullying as it sometimes seems — has ever broken it. The pity of it all is that the silence returns as the inequities once again get swept under the rug, where they fester, and wait for the next moment when the rug will turn into a rock under which these wormlike suppressions have morphed into snakes that come out hissing, should the rock be turned over.