Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review: The Labrys Reunion by Terry Wolverton

I had put off reading and reviewing The Labrys Reunion because I knew it was gonna get to me, big time. Flipping idly through the novel, I could see that Wolverton was attempting an authentic examination (even if in a fictional setting) of some of the tensions between second and third wave feminists, as well as a thoughtful look back at the halcyon days of the feminist movement; a time of collectives, feminist theory, direct action, brainstorming and art like The Dinner Party.

Ohhhh goodness mercy, I thought. Am I ready for this?

I wasn't.

And then, a few days ago (see humongous, unpleasant thread of a few days ago, not linking), I found myself in the mood. There I was, wondering (once again) what the hell had happened to feminism and why so many women are scared to identify with the word, or even worse, show actual hostility to the label.

I experience this phenomenon, always, as my hard work being rejected, all while the younger women benefiting from my work take full advantage of it. (I always want to say something exceptionally snarky, like--Next time, hope they make you ask your hubby's permission before you get a credit card!) They really have NO IDEA, I figured out some time ago. Civil Rights pioneers are frequently honored for their prescience; feminist pioneers are mostly shit on.

And this is one way we know how far we have to go.

I grabbed the book on my way out the door to get my car worked on this week--which is usually a several-hour affair. It was, and I buried myself in Wolverton's story, devouring it in one sitting. After being tarred and feathered by other women, I was in the perfect mood for it.

Loved it.

Yeah, she is telling our story, straight up. For example, this paragraph, which nobody could ever improve upon:

The antiwar movement was riddled with factions, but it was in the women's movement that she'd seen hand-to-hand combat. Down south, in that summer of 1965, no one had called her racist, because the pernicious face of racism had been only too clear, but at Labrys, white women who'd organized nothing more than their plane trips to get there felt free to level that charge against her. "Racist" because there were so few women of color at Labrys; "classist" because it cost money to go there; "anti-mother" because the child care facilities were seen as inadequate; "exploitative" because the child-care workers felt underpaid; "oppressive" whenever she took a stand that someone didn't like. It wasn't that she hadn't agreed with some of the charges; there was no more unanimity within the organizing collective than outside it. But how had the original purpose of Labrys--to train women in the skills of political organizing--become obliterated by the expectation that in the span of eight weeks Labrys would create a feminist utopia?

Indeed, what were we thinking?

Wolverton has reminded me.

In the story, Labrys was a 70s feminist school/collective, which could stand in for all of the feminist collectives that exploded into life during the 70s. Mine were radical feminist newspapers (which I mentioned here) and ostensibly feminist communes/households (and I briefly mentioned getting kicked out of mine here) ... for some feminists, there were dance collectives, music collectives, art collectives, teaching collectives, writer's workshops, you name it. Wolverton brings it all back. (What happened to all of that? Did all of us morph into feminist bloggers or Hillary Clinton?)

The Labrys women's "reunion" is somewhat contrived: someone has died. (NOTE: "The Big Chill" has already been done.) One of the feminist-powerhouse types has lost her daughter, a feminist-artist protege, to rape and murder. The women return in "reunion" mode to support her during this difficult time:
She'd wanted witnesses. She hadn't been able to live with the idea that her daughter's death might go unnoticed, unmourned, that Emma might pass from this world as if she'd never been. That's why, Dana reminded herself, she'd invited all these people. That's why she found herself sitting with them after all these years in a loft on the Lower East Side.
In her acknowledgments, Wolverton admits that Charlotte Sheedy told her to "put a murder in it"--and unfortunately, it does read that way, like a murder was DROPPED into the story. I would have preferred a setting like the Democratic convention, or some other progressive event where the women might have run into each other, then set up a "reunion party" of sorts. But of course, this would not have the purpose of bringing the most radical women into the story-setting, which helps to provide the fireworks.

Those of you who saw my recent Feministing comment (I do not know how to link to just one comment in a big long-ass thread, she admitted, embarrassed)--in which I became angry when a young woman wrote off GIRDLES as no big feminist issue (and I wonder how many times she had her young body crushed by one?)--will appreciate how much I identified with the older character of Peg, who rips young Kendra a new one when Kendra haughtily instructs Peg to "move on":
"You think because you're twenty-four years old you know everything?" Peg spat the words into the girl's sneer. "What do you know? Nothing! Your generation got liberation handed to you on a platter--choices, opportunities, lifestyles. When I was your age there was just one choice--marriage and motherhood, that was it. And if you didn't want that, if you had a brain and wanted your independence, you were a freak, and it was too damn bad."

Pouches of flesh swayed beneath her arms as she translated her rage into gesture. "The happiest day of my life was the day I threw away my girdle. Twenty years I wore it, every day, even if all I was doing was cleaning the house. My mother told me it was indecent not to wear it. And now I open up the pages of the newspaper, and once again they're being sold to women. 'Bodyshapers!' It's like we're going back in time!"

She hovered in front of Kendra's chair, commanding the young woman's eyes to meet hers. "And your generation says, 'What's the big deal? If we wanna wear girdles or push-up bras or lipstick--we're free to choose.' How am I supposed to feel when you celebrate the things that kept me in slavery? You spit on the symbols of my liberation! And then you tell me I'm humorless."

As determined as Kendra had been to keep the defiant smirk plastered to her lips, she could no longer maintain it in the face of Peg's outraged lamentation. She could not recall ever having felt so fervently about anything, and she felt a bit embarrassed for the older woman at the same time as she envied that intensity.

Oh wow. Ohhhh my goodness! Wolverton has been picking through my idle thoughts; how did she DO that?

And just when you think she can't get any more accurate, holy shit, she has one of them going to AA.

The sizable feminist defection to AA/NA (Narcotics Anonymous) in the 80s, was remarked upon in several feminist books, as well as (see link above) the once-indispensable Off Our Backs, but has otherwise been mostly forgotten. Wolverton, again, reminds us--and she is dead-on:
One hundred voices were already midway through the Serenity Prayer as she clattered down the steps into the musty basement that housed the AA meeting. A cluttered room crowded with folding chairs under the greenish glare of fluorescent bulbs: it felt like home.


The room held an assortment of people who would come together for no other reason: men in exquisitely tailored suits sat elbow to elbow with punk girls in skull earrings and black tights full of runs. Women with elaborate coiffures and perfect aerobicized figures applauded the stories of grizzled guys with trembling hands.

There, no one cared what she looked like, if her hair was lank with rain, her shoes waterlogged. No one judged if her politics were imperfect, or what the Senator from North Carolina thought of her artwork. No one minded how crazy or scared she felt--they'd all been there.


When Gwen had first come into these rooms, she'd fought so hard against the notion of being "powerless." She had already been a feminist for a decade, had dedicated herself to overturning women's conditioned and enforced passivity and helplessness. She remembered speaking up at one meeting early on, "I am goddamn well not going to admit that I am powerless. And don't even get me started on that God 'he' thing!" She'd had enough youth and enough arrogance to think she would bring the feminist revolution to AA. Everyone had just smiled and urged her to "keep coming back," which only pissed Gwen off more.

But she had kept coming back because she'd grown tired of waking up every morning with her eyeballs aching; she didn't know how else to stop drinking. It took her more than a year to understand that "powerless" didn't mean defenseless and victimized, but was a recognition that there were things that she could not control or will away.
These are the perfect tiny snapshots and vignettes that make this book worthwhile and wonderful. I don't want to ruin the "mystery" of the murder-plot--but it is interesting (while not entirely unexpected). As always, the women argue all through the novel, validating and not-validating each other. As feminists always have.

Don't miss this one, particularly all you feminists over 40. Certainly, one of these carefully-and-lovingly-drawn heroines is you.

The Labrys Reunion by Terry Wolverton, Spinsters Ink, 235 pp.


Note: This review is dedicated to the feminist who saved my life, Kathy. I wish she could have read it... I kept thinking how much she would have enjoyed it.

I miss you so much, dear one.