I'm not entirely sure why I went to a lecture that night, though odds are good that it involved raiding the hors d'oeuvre table. It was late in the '90s, and college was a world that I still didn't understand yet. The sheer expense of everything staggered me -- the books, the food, the bunk in the small dorm room that my roommate had plastered with Janis Joplin posters. I found myself lying awake at night, paralyzed with terror that I wasn't learning enough to justify participating in this strange cultural rite. I found that eating as much cheese as I could in the evening calmed this anxiety, and so I made a habit of attending literary events.
The guest that evening was Susan Brownmiller, who was promoting a book that she'd written about being a feminist in the New York of the 1970s. The thing that historians had failed to notice about second-wave feminism, she said, was that it wasn't just consciousness-raising and looking at your vagina in a hand mirror. There were goals. Women went to law school and ran for political office so that they could change laws, state-by-state, that determined things like when rape was considered a crime and how it was prosecuted. If anyone in the audience was considering being a feminist, she suggested starting with some concrete, achievable steps toward making women's lives better.
The speech did not go over well. A young woman in the front row raised her hand and said that she was getting the impression that Brownmiller was not very interested in other types of feminism -- ones that looked outside the fossilized power structures of contemporary society and sought something more non-hierarchical and balanced with the earth's rhythms. Brownmiller replied that that sounded right: She wasn't interested, even a little, in discussing the earth's rhythms that evening. Several other arms shot up in the front row, and it became clear that Brownmiller had just pissed off an entire women's studies seminar that had traveled to the lecture together.
I didn't agree with everything Brownmiller said that night, but I've thought about that talk often as I've covered politics and watched issues like marriage equality and immigration reform work their way through our culture, courts, and legislatures. I thought about it again when I recently read Martin Luther King Jr.'s interview with Alex Haley in 1964.