The Guest Room: The Radical Roots of Feminism

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the guest ROOM: The radical roots of feminism

With memories of the Battle of Seattle still dancing in our heads, and thoughts of the World March of Women later this year beginning to take shape, it is a good time to think about how social movements actually develop. In this age of celebrity worship, it is hard to remember that most social movements begin with the actions of a small group of radicals working outside of the glare of media scrutiny. A good reminder, not to mention a delightful read, is Susan Brownmiller's new book, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution.

You will remember Brown-miller as the author of Against Our Will, probably the most important book on feminist theory of rape. She has now taken her skill as a researcher and journalist and looked back on the early days of the second wave of the American women's movement. What's remarkable about her book is that it introduces us to the women who were really the pioneers of second wave feminism, and in particular, radical feminism. She talks about the women whose names are familiar, like Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Rita Mae Brown, but reveals their role inside the movement, not always in flattering terms.

She also tells us about women whose names we don't know. Carol Hanish, for example, invented the phrase "the personal is political," and came up with the idea for the Miss America protest, the first action of the burgeoning women's movement. Anne Koedt wrote, "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm," which was circulated in mimeographed long before it was reprinted in books. And Kathie Sarachild coined the phrase, "Sisterhood is Powerful."

One of the delights of Brownmiller's memoir is her meticulous research into the origins of almost every feminist legend, at least those which began in the United States. The other is that she credits the radicals for many of the new ideas of the movement. She points out, for example, that famous feminists like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer were more transmission belts of these ideas into the mainstream than originators.

One of the most interesting chapters to me was on the media. Brownmiller makes it clear that it was women working inside the media that helped to connect the ideas of a handful of radicals in various American cities to the masses of American women who were suffering from what Betty Friedan called "the problem with no name." I don't remember the sex discrimination complaint filed by the women at Newsweek in 1970 to correspond to the timing of the Newsweek cover story, "Women in Revolt. …