I am remembering the signs we made so often at your loft. One year you wanted a certain color. When asked to describe it, you said, “Prada green,” and I thought I should know what that was, and I found it in a magazine. One time in the ’70s I was on a panel you organized, maybe at the Gay and Lesbian Center on 13th Street, and to introduce us, you said we believed in “the social construction of gender.” I had not heard that phrase before. I said, “What’s that?” and you looked at me with compassion for my ignorance and said, “Oh, it means we don’t think biology determines our lives. We think people make up ideas about masculinity and femininity that can be changed.” I said, “Oh, yes. I believe that,” and you moved onto your next thought.
Last night I was talking with our mutual friend S, and she said, “I always wanted to hear what Ann would say. She would listen to others present arguments, and then, when it was her turn to speak, she would find the beautiful bits in what she’d heard and put it all back together in a way that was brilliant and original and made people think she was extending their ideas.”
I googled you after you died, and a piece popped up about Shulamith Firestone, in which you are quoted calling her “incandescent” and saying “it was thrilling to be in her company.” That’s so like you. Pretty much everyone else in the essay says how difficult she was, and the piece is depressing to read, not only because Firestone went mad and died one of those emaciated-bag-lady feminist deaths, but because it described the awful fractiousness in the early days of the women’s movement, where, if you signed your name to a piece of writing, other women called you an egomaniac and worse, said you were acting like a man.
The piece brought back that time, which lives still in our current wave of hall monitors and head girls, picking at terms and prefixes as if separating peas from fried rice. The piece brought back that time because it had drifted into the mists. When I think about the meetings, and marches, and seminars, and fund-raisers I’ve attended in the last four decades, mostly at the center is you, a woman who thought more was more and who scorned only the concept of scorning. I was a punctuation mark or a Zelig figure in your world, watching the pageant of your feminist life glide along.
I entered the women’s movement when I entered adult life. They are the same thing to me. Kate Millett was my teacher at Barnard, and she swept me into her orbit, not me especially, all of her students, but some of us lingered around her office and were invited down to her loft on Bowery and First Street, where she cooked us steaks.
The minute you become a feminist—and I think it takes a minute, don’t you?—all the language used to describe everything in the world sounds false. It sounds thin and wrong, and what are you going to do? Argue with every word? I would, honestly, but the language of argument is kind of boring to me, so you have to figure out a way to exist in the world that to you is bizarro world, while your world, the world shared by other feminists, is the real world hardly anyone knows about. The way to live in bizarro world and not go nuts or waste your existence in rage is what you gave me a map for—me and every other person who fell under your spell. You said: Come. We will do things and eat something. We will drink something and talk about how to create more space in existence for women, and that is how we will get through life.
You called me darling. You called everyone darling. I took it personally. I showed up at your place with friends who knew you. I showed up with the girls from The Village Voice—Ellen Willis, Karen Durbin, Cindy Carr, Sonia Robbins, Alisa Solomon, Erika Munk. In the group that was called “No More Nice Girls”—formed in the 1980s during the feminist sex wars and the larger war on women’s bodily sovereignty—we marched against goodgirltis. After one Iraq war or another, we formed “Take Back the Future” for street actions and “Feminist Futures” for reports from the front of gender studies. Always, you were laughing your smart laugh at the dilemma at the core of feminism: that women were a thing devised by false understandings of them and yet, banded together to question this category mistake, they became a thing of their own devising.
I showed up for you, attracted by personal chemistry and a pressure to remake all understandings. Feminism was the great romance of our lives. A year ago at your loft we sat together and talked. You had thrown a party to celebrate a poet friend’s new book. You said you wanted to spend the time you had left finishing your book about the Network of East/West Women, the organization you founded, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in order to open a conversation with women in that part of the world. We were on the roof in the garden. Walking up the stairs was not easy for you. You were telling me about the trees and plants blooming around us. You looked beautiful.
Children ran up, and you cooed at them. Other friends tried to draw you away. I wanted your attention. I still believed in the radical vision sketched by Shulie Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1968): “The end goal of feminist revolution must be . . . not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital difference between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” I think you believed this as well, but you stayed in conversation with people who thought feminism was about securing better tampons and preserving virginity for as long as possible. You rolled your eyes describing the mansplaining you witnessed at Occupy Wall Street meetings, and still you went.
Some things have been rattling in my head I wish I could talk to you about. In the past, when we went into the streets, it felt like we were engaged in dialogue with a government, however repugnant its policies. We thought we could actually produce change, and we did. Johnson decided not to run again. Nixon resigned. Abortion became a legal right. Now marching feels like running the old game with the old rules when none of this exists anymore. It feels like accepting some kind of framework where oligarchic feudal terrorism is considered a government and we stand for that government’s tolerance of protest. I kind of know what you would say. You would say, “I see your point, darling, but we have to do it, anyway,” and then you would sigh one of your luxurious Weltschmerz sighs.
Your absence is not the loss of a single person. It’s the loss of a wave, a home for the wayward and unanchored, a form of doing politics that is the same as doing the rest of life. You were very smart and funny, and I thought you could see right through whatever falseness was in front of you but didn’t have the time to waste on not loving what there was to love.
That day in your garden, the sun was on your skin. You were worried you wouldn’t get your book done. My sister’s death was fresh. I said, “You will finish your book.” The other day your friend P recalled the way you dealt with the phone. You would wait to hear who was calling, then pick up if the person was someone you needed to speak to. The rest you would call back after 4 PM, if you wanted to call them back at all. You didn’t watch TV. I said to P, “What was she doing instead of talking on the phone and watching TV?”—two of my favorite activities. P said, “She was reading, writing, preparing her classes, doing all the organizing, and organizing and organizing.” You thought there was never enough time to do the things you wanted to do, and you were right, and still I wanted to keep you in your chair, talking to me.