Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘odalisque revolution’

Gloria Steinem — My Life on the Road

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on December 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm

I gave a speech in New York earlier this year in favor of female supremacy. At the end of it, I told the men in the audience to hand over all their cash to the women in the audience. There wasn’t universal compliance on the night, but some money did change hands. It was my first experience of this kind of activism and boy was it fun! So I can almost see how, once you get the bug, you can’t stop.

Gloria Steinem can’t stop, and that’s a great thing. She was the right person at the right time: flexible, modest, tolerant, indefatigable, determined and canny enough to weave her way past the ramparts. She calls herself a wandering organizer, and this book has a wandery form of organization too. Part memoir, part campaigning history, it mirrors Steinem’s keen antipathy to all forms of hierarchy. Unhampered by chronology, its chapters are almost interchangeable. So among her other achievements Steinem has helped liberate the memoir form.

It’s an inspiring political chronicle, illustrated by personal anecdotes and a few statistics, in the style of many a Steinem speech no doubt – which she deliver anywhere from subway stops, bowling alleys and bagel shops, to school gyms, flatbed trucks, YWCAs, churches, bookstores, college campuses, and backyard barbecues. Much of it is concerned with the patient business involved in getting bills passed, candidates selected and elected, consciousnesses raised, and enemies thwarted (Betty Friedan was one; the Pope another). It can get personal, and moving, but she’s not going to dish the dirt on her love life if that’s what you were hoping. She mentions merely a handsome boyfriend in high school, her engagement to a ‘good’ but ‘wrong’ man in college, one amorous tryst in a taxi, and her misguided attempt to fundraise in Palm Springs among her rich boyfriend’s rich friends, one of whom was Frank Sinatra, who seemed more interested in showing off his hangar full of miniature trains. ‘I try not to think about how much all this cost’, Steinem ruefully remarks. ‘In three days of talk about how to make money, I haven’t been able to insert one idea about how to use it.’

In the 1960s, Steinem wrote: ‘If men could menstruate…[they] would brag about how long and how much.’ My Life on the Road may lack that kind of sparkle, but it too has its moments. There’s the time she gave a speech on institutionalized sexism at a Harvard Law School banquet, nearly reducing one professor to apoplexy (a pity she restrains herself from making this scene as funny as it could have been). When writing an article in 1967 in defense of Ho Chi Minh, she needed to fact-check so she sent Ho a telegram. Finding his address wasn’t easy, and then he never got back to her – must have been busy. She also reveals that Bella Abzug once injured her vocal chords yelling at Friedan.

As well as co-founding New York magazine and Ms, Steinem wrote abundantly about presidential campaigns. She notes here Nixon’s excruciating attempts to ingratiate himself with members of the press at the back of the plane, by spouting some totally out-of-date personal detail about each reporter. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern both disappointed her: McCarthy for his aloofness, and McGovern for his reluctance to openly support abortion rights. Robert Kennedy would have been better, she feels. People doubted whether Geraldine Ferraro could ever be ‘tough’ enough to press the button, but ‘they didn’t ask male candidates if they could be wise enough not to’. She notes that the response to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 fight for the democratic nomination was way beyond rude, with nutcrackers made in her image, T-shirts that said ‘BROS BEFORE HOS’, and Rush Limbaugh banalities such as “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older on a daily basis?” and his comparison of Hillary Clinton’s legs to Palin’s. (How about his legs?) Steinem comments, No wonder the misogyny toward Hillary was almost never named by the media. It was the media.

We follow the growth in Steinem’s thinking about sexual politics from the early it’s-not-fair stage, through her adoption of Gandhian tactics in India, to her fascination with the Iroquois Confederacy, ‘the oldest continuous democracy in the world’. The real narrative that emerges here is Steinem’s increasing involvement with Native American culture and prehistory. She was helped in this by Wilma Mankiller, the first woman ever to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation. Steinem was stunned by witnessing how Native American activists hold meetings: ‘It took me a while to realize, These men talk only when they have something to say. I almost fell off my chair.’

The best character here is Steinem’s father, whose marriage proposal to her mother was, “It will only take a minute.” His letterhead said, ‘It’s Steinemite!’ and he spent his life in the car, continually on the move, selling antiques to roadside stands. His ‘idea of childrearing was to take me to whatever movie he wanted to see, however unsuitable; buy unlimited ice cream; let me sleep whenever and wherever I got tired; and wait in the car while I picked out my own clothes… [T]his resulted in such satisfying purchases as…Easter shoes that came with a live rabbit.’ Steinem didn’t go to school until she was 10, and learnt to read by studying roadsigns, with their helpful illustrations of hotdogs and hotel beds. She was thus ‘spared the Dick and Jane limitations that school then put on girls’. But there’s a sense here that her mother, who’d once been a newspaper reporter, sacrificed a career, a life in New York, and her sanity, in order to have children. Steinem has been ‘living out the unlived life of my mother’ ever since – when she isn’t traveling, in imitation of her father.

Steinem is hooked on travel, and urges us all to do more of it. It is a bit silly for women to stay at home, when that’s where (statistically) they’re most likely to be murdered. For Steinem, travel has been a compensation, a compulsion, and a political tool. It’s the communal aspects of it she craves, not the glamour. She doesn’t drive, and reviles the isolating effect of private cars and private jets, or taxis with window barriers between the driver and passenger, that make her feel like she’s ‘ordering French fries’. A whole chapter is devoted to taxi drivers she’s met, including a racist she had to ditch mid-journey, a vocal (female) advocate of tantric sex, and a guy abjuring all forms of media so as to live in the real world. “I’ve been clean for eight months,” he proudly reports.

My Life on the Road downplays the assault on the female psyche that was ’60s America, but there are glimpses of what Steinem endured as punishment for being smart, good-looking, ambitious, angry and politicized. During Robert Kennedy’s New York senate race, she was sitting in a taxi between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. Talese suddenly leant across her to inform Bellow: “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Steinem didn’t erupt (neither did Bellow), but she admits that it’s been trying, having her success continually attributed to her appearance.

Steinem’s other major obstacle in becoming an organizer was her dread of public speaking. She found a way around it by teaming up with partner speakers. These included Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Margaret Sloan and Florynce Kennedy, African American activists who brought with them, as an extra bonus, a more diverse audience. It was a breakthrough for Steinem. Florynce Kennedy even tried to cure Steinem of her statistics addiction, by saying, ‘If you’re lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle…you don’t send somebody to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it off!’ It didn’t take – Steinem kept her journalist’s weakness for numbers, but she still became an engaging if not flamboyant speaker. A firm believer in the power of talking circles, her biggest thrill is when people in the audience start answering each other’s questions, leaving the her out of the picture.

Early in her career, when she tried to get journalism assignments to write about women, she was told that articles about equality would have to be ‘balanced’ by ones in favor of inequality, for the sake of objectivity. Things have perhaps moved on. But Steinem’s still stuck trying to persuade people up and down the land that reproductive freedom is essential to gender equality. Curiously, she’s not in favor of matriarchy, and argues that it’s ‘a failure of the imagination’ to have one group dominating another. Now, this I resent. Equality’s the failure of imagination! It might do, in a pinch, but female supremacy would be a lot more fun. Men are too keen on money, oil, plastics, beef and golf. Only by restraining them can we hope to reverse the social and environmental damage patriarchy accomplished over the past five thousand years. And in this revolution, men can lick the envelopes and make the sandwiches.


A version of this review appeared in Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2016.



“Feminism and Family” (Edinburgh Book Festival Debate)

In Recent Articles on August 21, 2013 at 5:16 pm

(What follows is a slightly extended version of LE’s speech at the debate on Aug. 20, 2013, at which Alan Bissett also spoke. Chaired by Kate Mosse.)

‘Marriage,’ Stevenson wrote, ‘is an institution recognized by the police.’

The home was originally constructed to protect and perpetuate the species. Birds do it. Bees do it. Caring for offspring is considered by most creatures their most important task, often coming before self-preservation. Think of salmon painfully jumping up waterfalls, or mother bears risking all for their cubs. But in our society domesticity and motherhood have been downgraded to the lowliest of pursuits. We are all supposed to neglect our children now in favor of work, work, work. The kids are offloaded onto childminders, who are ill-trained and ill-paid. Or grandparents, who have to  give up their retirements to provide free childcare. Women get their little maternity leave, men even shorter paternity leave, and then you’re on your own.

In the patriarchal system, founded on war, domesticity is denigrated, while bombs and guns are revered: in other words, anything that can DESTROY a home is okay.

Women earn less but spend more, on clothes for work, and all the cosmetics, beauty treatments, gym membership and plastic surgery they’re supposed to buy into in order to appeal to men. But do men appeal to women? There used to be an understanding that men would pay for stuff, because women had less money. Men used to pay for the drinks at least. Sometimes with a string attached. Now women have to pretend they’re above needing men’s money. But the thing is, they do need it and they deserve it. Being a woman is so expensive. Men should pay for everything. They own the world, they made it the mess it is, they should pay!

How about Nigella Lawson, refusing to take any of Saatchi’s cash? What was all that about? Okay, she has her own money, but why not take his as well? What sort of example does that set? Saatchi owes her big-time, after all those years of alleged temper tantrums. After all those cupcakes, and picnics on planes!

Men are really very little help to women anymore. They don’t support them financially. Their contribution to pregnancy is ludicrous. Okay, fathers sometimes change nappies and handle the barbecue. Big deal. Women are forced to become single parents, because men are so lazy or unfeeling or violent or insolvent. Men seem to have NO responsibilities, while women have them all. And then single mothers get demonized by the government, and men form hooligan gangs called Fathers4Justice. There’s no ‘justice’ in any of it.

We have all been persuaded that work will save us, that women must infiltrate the workforce. But doing two jobs, at home and at work, hasn’t helped women’s status one bit, it’s just made them more exhausted and more compliant. Why should women have to work so hard anyway? In prehistory, so-called because it predates the history of patriarchy, people worked a three to four-hour day, leaving plenty of leisure time. Prehistoric women had time to invent agriculture, astronomy, medicine, spirituality and the arts. Now we just slog for men in dead-end jobs and head home to do the washing-up.

Working-class women have always worked, that’s nothing new, and where did it get them? It’s slavery. Women don’t get to do anything the way they want, and have to look pleasant about it at the same time! Where are the advantages, where are the thrills, what’s in it for the woman as she hoovers and yells at the kids and sorts out the bills, while the man’s upstairs watching his requisite five hours of porn or football or curling and skittles?

We’ve tried doing everything the male way, and it’s brought life on earth to its knees. So I don’t think feminism’s dead. But I think it’s in its infancy. Young women act like the word ‘feminism’ is naughty, like ‘socialism’ or ‘asylum seeker’. Feminism Lite makes it all seem friendly and apolitical. But sexism really can’t be separated from every other kind of hideous injustice: racism, anti-semitism and homophobia, capitalism, sadism, the despoiling of the earth, the mistreatment of animals, genocide. They are all of a piece, the stuff of brutes. And we have to do something about it – urgently. We can’t just sit around on our plump little incomes, or not so plump, and let men wreck everything.

I’ve seen enough misogyny for a lifetime. I baulk when I hear about unequal pay and unfair housework rotas and twitter rudeness. I can’t take any more wife beating and family annihilations – when men kill their whole families, in the ultimate form of punishment within the domestic sphere.

I’m sick of porn, sick of page 3, and nit-picking about the different ‘types’ of rape. I’m sick of the obsession with looks and the self-mutilation that comes with it. I’m sick of watching women ruin their ankles in high heels on cobbled streets to please men who ignore, discard and undervalue them. I’m sick of children not being able to play outdoors. I’m sick of the way women are treated in the arts too, and in the literary world, where male writers are still considered the Real Thing.

I’ve simply had it with men’s disrespect for women. It’s obscene, it’s shameful, and it’s ruinous for human civilisation and the natural world. I’m no longer trying to understand it, I’ve had it! Judges saying little girls asked for it when exploited by 40-year-old men. Men throwing acid in women’s faces. The threats made against Criado-Perez, for getting Jane Austen’s head on a banknote. Or the way Marion Bartoli was treated, for daring to win Wimbledon.

While writing Mimi, I compiled scrapbooks. Cuttings from newspapers, just from one year, 2011, on rapes and murders of women. Another on family annihilation. Another on war. Torture. Gun rampages. One on all the non-violent forms of sexism. I needed two books to cover all the murders!

Let me describe a little utopia:

Living by a lake is a thriving and contented community. They base their family life on women and women’s sexual pleasure. All money and property are handed down the female line, and women never marry. At puberty, girls are given their own bedrooms and there they conduct their love lives. Sex is only consensual, and male partners arrive at night and leave by the morning. Men make no claims on women, and any offspring are brought up by the mother’s extended family.

The women are not ashamed of their sexuality, no big issue is made of virginity, and no one denigrates women for having several partners, or for having children by different men. The women in this community enjoy a rare freedom of action, being in complete control of their sexual and procreative lives. And … everybody’s happy.

The thing is, this isn’t made up. This utopia exists. It is the way things are run in the Mosuo culture, which was featured in the Guardian today (Aug. 20, 2013). 40 or 50,000 people still live this way. As an anthropologist points out on Wikipedia, the Mosuo traditions challenge a lot of handy assumptions we have in the West about family life:

1, that marriage is a universal institution
2, that marital harmony profoundly affects the stability of children
and 3, that parents who have multiple partners jeopardize their kids’ development.

Not so. Unmarried parents living in a misogynistic culture may well jeopardize their kids’ sense of stability and security, whatever they do – but Mosuo parents do not.

One of the last matrilineal societies in the world, the Mosuo system fits right in with the simple solution I offer in Mimi.

As I said before, it’s time men did something to help us. Women have done enough. We’re tired. We want to put our feet up. We don’t want to take out the trash, only to be treated like trash ourselves, like witches and bitches. Why can’t men do something? I’m sure there are a lot of men out there who are equally sick of women getting raped and murdered, men who don’t like sex slavery and don’t approve of the capitalist usurpation of every last resource. Men who would rather not have to worry about their lovers and sisters and mothers and daughters coming to harm through misogynistic acts. A lot of men want a happy home!

(We can deal with the less amenable ones later. And Fathers4Justice.)

Here’s what I think we should do. Men have run the world with money. So give women the money. If each man gave his money to one or more women, wealth would eventually lie in female hands. I think this is the only way for women to get both the respect and the down-time they deserve. I call it the Odalisque Revolution, because it will allow women to relax, to become centers, beacons even, of pleasure-seeking. And once women own all the land, all the houses, all the schools and hospitals and offices, it will become unthinkable to violate them.

Wouldn’t it be a great joke on the male death wish if we could accomplish this peaceful revolution behind the scenes, merely by moving money around?

Well, I said I believe there are men who’d like to do something to change the sexist culture we’re all stuck in. Yet not one has written to me since the book came out in February, asking for his Mea Culpa Declaration to be stamped, which would allow him to join the Odalisque Revolution. This surprises me somewhat. Where are the men who truly want to help women, and humanity? Where are the heroic men who will save us? All they have to do is sign this:


I, the undersigned, confess to having, consciously or not, overtly or not, been part of a worldwide terrorist conspiracy that has constrained women’s lives through centuries of violence, repression, distress, and discouragement.

I recognize that this treatment of women has been a ploy in a power game, the result of male cowardice, stupidity, perversity, and corruption; and that the status of men has been artificially exalted by it.

I acknowledge that vast numbers of women have been unfairly treated throughout the period of male rule. I therefore apologize for any tyrannical behavior of my own, and that of other men, and pledge to do my utmost to prevent such injuries, insults, and injustices from occurring ever again.

I apologize for stubborn male resistance over the centuries to women’s ideas, thoughts, decisions, and remarks—in the home, at work, in business, in the arts, in education, and in government. In light of this loss of female input over centuries, I now agree to abide by the decisions women make, without resorting to mindless criticisms, meaningless reflex contradictions, and senseless derision, no matter how wacko or whimsical the ideas expressed by women may seem to me to be.

I renounce male power and privilege, on the grounds that they were unsportingly won. I wish to relinquish all remaining economic, social, and political advantages I may have obtained either as a mere consequence of being male, or because of my active participation (now regretted) in misogynist acts of terror.

In aid of this, I have transferred and/or will transfer, and will continue to transfer, my financial resources to a woman or women, with no strings attached.

By such means, I hope to foster a more humane environment, in which women are less likely to be mistreated and maligned.

It is my hope that the hand-over of power and property to women will ultimately lead to a transformation of society, benefiting people, animals, and the natural world, as well as insuring a future for human culture, and the preservation and continuation of artistic endeavors.

I believe in the pleasure principle, and therefore renounce the male work ethic, an indecency imposed by men who wished to profit from subjugation. I hereby attest the inalienable right of all creatures to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.




Enough tweaking of the sexist hierarchy here and there, enough promises of equality. Equality just won’t do it anymore. It doesn’t work. What we need is female supremacy. The only answer to male domination is ZERO TOLERANCE.

(copyright: LE)

Magnum Oh Puss

In Reviews of Our Books on June 28, 2013 at 11:39 am

Mimi — reviewed by Suzy Romer 25.5.13

There is a fire in this book but that´s not what makes it incendiary. There are doctors in this book but that´s not what makes it healing. There is a glorious love story at the centre of this novel but that´s not why there should be a copy under every woman´s pillow. There is sex (good!) and violence (bad!) depicted as they should be, but that´s not why men should read this book just before bedtime.  This is a roaring beast of a text which prods us and shakes us out of our media-induced TORPOR of fake modernity ( or modernist fakery?). It takes us on an emotional adventure of epic proportions and then invites us to take arms against a sea of terrorists (the mad, bad old men) by giving women lots of money and sex. Sound crazy? You bet your ass it´s crazy but you´ll love it.

Our narrator is Harrison Hanafan, a plastic surgeon who LITERALLY falls head over heels for the angel-faced Mimi, one of the great literary creations of the century. She is a professional speech writer and coach and has opinions on everything which are as refreshing as they are extreme and thought-provoking. “Mimi on power suits: Power suits don´t work. Power works,” (p.95) or, on another occasion,“Quilts are stitched with loathing. That´s what´s good about ´em!”(p85) Harrison is more or less over his newly ex-girlfriend Gertrude although she has not entirely finished with him. We are treated to delicious dollops of juicy information about her rich, pretentious and ultimately hollow life. I want to read the full numbered list of reasons she bugged Harrison! My favourite is no.224: “Gertrude likes to come across all scatterbrained and laid-back, like she was just some simple goose girl who leaves things to chance. Like hell.” One of her most despicable moments is as an influencial arts administrator who ignores Harrison´s sister in favour of good-looking male artists. All the arts grants go to them while Bee Hanafan, a talented sculptor, is obliged to cross the Atlantic to end up in Canterbury in order to make a living. In his solitude, Harrison meets Bubbles the cat who befriends him and teaches him the essential aspects of love and affection so that Mimi can build on firm foundations. To my joy, Mimi has the wisdom that Anita Loos (Red Haired Woman, The Women) and Dorothy Whipple (Someone at a Distance) among others have tried so hard to impart to us. Many men are not invincible when it comes to sex and a momentary weakness with a determined rival should not necessarily be condemned unconditionally by the woman at the cost of love and sexual partnership.

Ellmann´s style and thematic material is pleasingly familiar from previous books – she is sweet and shocking at turns, there are lots of lists, there are enough words in italics, there are unpredictable catastrophes, and a love-hate relationship with society – but in Mimi there is a melding of championed themes which come together in exquisite harmony (definitely more Shostokovich than Mozart), an appropriate metaphor for a book which is punctuated by musical extracts which have significance for Harrison. For this reader at least, this book is her magnum opus.

This book made me write all over the margins (it´s my own copy). At first I wrote as if I  were making university notes for an essay. As the book went on, however, I started using my most beautiful handwriting to decorate the margins and added drawings to illustrate the text, much as members of religious orders were inspired to do centuries ago. There is something that primitive about the impact of this book. Reading it as a woman of 37 (who knows Persephone and Virago), I cannot understand why I have never read anything so immediate and stirring before now. Ellmann applies common sense and logic to many aspects of modern life and comes up with terrifying and thrilling facts all over the place. She addresses simple questions I have never even formulated before. These range from the seemingly frivolous to the deeply disturbing. Why is liking cushions a gender issue? What do I reply to someone who says “You´re not one of those feminists are you”? Why have I always undervalued the ability to sew and make jam? Why am I frightened to walk home alone at night? Why do I regularly cry when I hear national and international news about men, women and children being abused and killed? Ellmann identifies enough everyday misogyny in myriad aspects of modern life (pop music, advertising, fashion, the “beauty” industry, porn) to knock any so-called post-feminists off their high horses.

There are very dark moments in this book (I won´t be going back to Canterbury soon) but after identifying the problems, she reminds us of the positive presence and achievements of women throughout the ages. There are so many symbols (egg, moon, heart, butterfly) which I have always loved but now they have been re-identified as symbols of womanhood and femininity, a set of “girl guides”, as it were, to navigate the male universe I´ve grown up in and accepted for so long. Ellmann rescues the traditions of quilt-making and jam production, everyday cooking, cleaning and the creation of coziness and peace from their scorned corners and gives them the credit and praise they deserve. She also reclaims great sex for women and reminds us of the importance and potential of pleasure for everyone if we could just wipe out the stereotypical norms of the media and porn industry.

If only Harrison had given his speech at my graduation ceremony where the female speaker lamented contemporary society and said that “problems like drug use and homosexuality will not go away” (enough said?). Harrison demands respect and money for women on a world level so that they can use their new status and power to save and rebuild the world. He argues convincingly that his proposals are no less strange than leaving the world in the hands of the men who are exploiting and destroying it for their own ends. The book finishes with a real call to action, a revolution of values and actions with plausible benefits and tremendous possibilities. I may have to brush up on my pre-history to learn about the full benefits of matriarchies before I cut out and send off my membership form.

I have given this book permanent residency on my bedside table. Initially, this was while I read it from beginning to end. Now, it is staying on as a general reference work and moment of solace from my future bedtime reads which won´t always provide the blast of fresh air which this book does. My suggestions for future editions is to include a system of chapter numbers and verses for quick reference use, maybe an index, and a few more blank pages at the end for one´s own lists.

“Who made world history? Not the most reasonable people, the madmen. So if painting is the mirror of a time, it must be mad to have the true image of what a time is.”
Max Ernst,on Monitor, BBC, 1961

(copyright: Suzy Romer)