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LIKE MOST literature that has a complaining tone, women's liberation magazines don't appeal strongly, at first, to anyone who can't join in the complaint. Especially when the complaint is. "We women are unhappy with our sexual and social role," most readers tend to make a detour around this literature, if they don't jeer and throw tomatoes at it.
No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation, an informal collection of essays that was published last February, addresses itself specifically to women who feel they are oppressed. Its authors, Roxanne Dunbar, Dana Rensmore, and Betsy Warrior, seem to be exhorting a loyal army rather than trying to persuade new women or the general public. Their language, often desperate and obscurely telegraphic, is reminiscent of communications between comrades under fire.
Some people call us obsessive. We are. The elements of our oppression, the invisible bars on our cages, are everywhere, and there is no escape. But the obsessive, uncompromising exposure of the oppression is our way of heading toward liberation. And that is what we want.
Evidently, the Journal is to serve as a manifesto and handbook for potential women liberators. Its opening editorial tells, step-by-step, what action a woman must take to liberate herself. Among these steps are: meet regularly with a group of women for education and support: learn judo or karate; don't get married or have babies; live completely alone if possible or in a female commune), and finally, don't wear cosmetics or sexy clothes.
Liberation seems to require the secluded and self denying life of a nun. But the withdrawal is necessary only temporarily, until women strengthen themselves individually. As individuals, they should concentrate on liberating the "female principle" in themselves. Roxanne Dunbar explains:
I use the term "female" rather than "woman" to denote a principle. When I say female liberation, I mean the liberation of the female principle in all human beings-the world view which is maternal, materialistic, and peaceful (non-competitive).
This world view does not belong exclusively to females, since Roxanne Dunbar describes Che Guevara as maternal (protective, caring), but she takes for granted that a greater number of women than men share this world view. "Female liberation" here sounds like familiar Christian ethics.
UNFORTUNATELY, this explanation of the "female principle" does not appear until late in the Journal. Before it appears, the magazine seems to be a messy collage of radical cliches. Articles like "The Oppression of the Male Today" and "Contemporary Capitalism; Drag Queen Intellect" are bitter, weary laments against the system. Only later does one see that the problem is not the system so much as the absence of the female principle. There is the usual set of articles, too, that talk about how degrading the female role is, or about how women are not intellectually inferior ("The Slave's Stake in the Home." "On the Temptation to Be a Beautiful Object," "Sex Roles and their Consequences: Research in Male and Female Differences").
Only a few articles hint at the meaning of female liberation. Betsy Warrior, in "Man as an Obsolete Life Form." by condemning man (not the species) for his aggressive, destructive tendencies, implies that the "female principle" (peacefulness, non-competitiveness) is what she values. But her vehement put-down of men sticks more strongly in one's mind: "Like the tyrannosaurus, man is blocking evolution.... Until he gives up existence, there will be no relief from suffering nor any moral progress on this planet." She is smiling slightly, we hope, even though her tone is grim. But she is serious. Her anti-male attitude is a big facet of the Journal's version of the liberation movement.
Roxanne Dunbar, in "Who Is the Enemy?", has an anger of her own. It is directed at the ruling class, the rich elite. She considers the enemy the human tendency to compete with, oppress, and kill others. So far, so good Morality. The "female principle." But she sees the tendency to compete and oppress as the exclusive attribute of this ruling clite. So, "female liberation" is popped into a political bag.
Radical rhetoric shows up throughout the Journal, giving the impression to an uncareful reader that female liberation is just the female branch of the movement to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism. But these three women don't want just to change the political structure. They want to transform human (more than man's) nature, since they see men, regardless of class, as historical enemies to the "female principle." In "American Radicalism: A Diseased Product of a Diseased Society," Betsy Warrior severely criticizes the members of the movement for having, under an idealistic disguise, the same competitive mentality as other Americans. This article shows most clearly where the Journal's "female liberation" diverges from radicalism-and how its "female liberation" ulfimately is individualistic and moral, rather than political.
MORE CLEARLY apolitical, another women's liberation magazine aims at a wider audience than the Journal Aphra, published this fall for the first time, is a small literary magazine that proposes to "give outlet to the feminine consciousness." Its preamble says: "The emphasis will be on art, not on ideology." The consequence is: a collection of bon voyages for the magazine's maiden trip from literary "friends" (Anne Sexton and Simone de Beauvior included) ; two entirely didactic (unproduceable) plays; two laborious poems; two light-as-whippedcream poems: two remarkable short stories; and a list of "Aphraisms" -quotations relating to women, such as "I'm tired of ?iptocing around the male ego." (Anne Sexton, 1969.)
Though the art forms are present, art, for the most part, is not. The general failure of the literature is akin to the failure of socialist realist literature. Art and ideology are not incompatible when either the art is crafty enough to slip the dogma in unobtrusively, or the ideology is sufficiently original and interesting to justify being dramatized. But in Aphra. the writing doesn't shine, and most of the ideas just aren't new.
Despite this, and other failures. Aphra is saved by one poem, one short story, and one play. The poem, "New Year's Inventory" by Barbara Harr has light, suggestive humor:
I have no lover but eight pet cats and one mad friend and one who thinks (ha ho) I am his wife.
Myrna Lamb in her play is painfully, unrelentingly didactic, but one has to admit she uses a very original, if very weird, dramatic idea. She wants to show that pregnancy, especially the accidental kind, is terrible, and that men don't usually realize it. On stage is a woman doctor who has implanted an impregnated ?terus in her old lover, who got her pregnant and deserted her to pursue a legal career fighting abortion. The horrors of pregnancy are outlined as he protests against his condition ("I don't believe it. I can't believe this nightmare."), while the woman in curt, but vivid, medical language-describes what pregnancy does to the body.
Aphra probably succeeds in showing at least an aspect of "female consciousness," but the picture it gives is somewhat bleak, since creativity is swamped by dogma, or self-pity, or trivialny.
UNLIKE the Journal, which despairs at the human condition, or Aphra. which makes us despair at its literary attempts, Women: A Journal of Liberation, also new this fall, offers hope: it is a carefully organized magazine with big, shiny, frequently illustrated pages. Numerous authors (including men) have contributed articles to it, based on meticulous research or personal experience. Specific examples of women's problems replace the generalizations that fill the Journal. Also, Women gives detailed information about women's liberation groups all across the country.
The articles revolve around the question: Is "femininity" the result of cultural conditioning or inherent nature? Most of them discuss either how women are conditioned, or how conditioned women behave.
Children's textbooks and story books, the great religions, kindergarten. Hollywood movies, popular literature, TV, female school teachers, Christmas presents, and Greck mythology are all conclusively proven guilty of conditioning women to fit female stereotypes.
For example, one author quotes this section of an Orthodox Jewish prayer: "Blessed art thou, Oh Lord, that I was not born a slave. Blessed art thou, Oh Lord, that I was not born a woman." Another author describes a story in a recently published children's textbook:
"The story ... is about Wendy Wheat, a smiling face on a wheat stalk, Wendy's ambition is to be made into puffed wheat. She is harvested, sold, bought, stored in a grain elevator. Finally, she is processed into puffed wheat. . . . A picture shows her smiling as she slides out of a cereal box into a bowl of milk, ready to be consumed . . . all along the way men are responsible for her fate."
Could the smiling wheat stalk have been called Wally Wheat? The author thinks not.
The magazine gives no editorial answer to the question it poses: cultural conditioning or inherent nature. But the reader can conclude from the articles that sex role conditioning pervades this society, and that anyone who blames a woman's actions on her sex might just as reasonably blame society.
The women in the environment, judging from the personal and liberation group letters printed in Women, do blame society. Many of them believe that liberation is impossible under capitalism. (The next issue of Women will cover this topic.) Most of them adopt the usual radical line with a few differences: they want women's liberation to be an autonomous movement, since male-dominated organizations subordinate women's struggles (for new birth control and abortion laws and for day-care centers) to their own struggles.
Maybe Women: A Journal of Liberation coolly triumphs over No More Fun and Games and Aphra as an appealing advocate of women's liberation because it is less ambitious. Each of its contributors handles just one limited topic; the authors of No More Fun and Games want to save the world; the authors of Aphra want to create art.
Also, Women: A Journal of Liberation, written by many individuals, remains consistently objective. Each of the other two magazines gives the impression of having been put together by a small group of friends who have spent too many late nights talking together.
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