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How did Valerie Solanas' book The SCUM Manifesto influence you?
Oh, it influenced me a lot. I have a whole story of Valerie in there. I saw her as a person who struck out in anger and it was almost like she was a martyr in my mind at the time. What had driven her crazy is the very proof of why women's liberation was needed. I identified her very closely with my own mother, who went mad. I didn't really see her, especially after I met her, as someone who could really be reconstituted. She was already 30 years old and, especially after taking such an action, you know, a criminal act, could probably never be rescued, but to me she was the kind of angry young woman that we needed to be able to bring together and say "You're right to be so angry." Most of us get so squashed at such a young age that we become passive and afraid. We needed to be able to bring angry young women together from the working class. A number of women and I formed a defense committee for her.
Have you ever read the SCUM Manifesto?
It's hilarious. It was half-ironic. She was a good writer. She also had a play called Up Your Ass. She just had an instinctive understanding of words as swords, you might say, and how to put them together in parody. I used to have a literary agent who's well known for publishing books by women. She thinks she's an important feminist, too. She has a doctorate in women's studies and wrote her dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. Anyway, I sent the manuscript for Outlaw Woman to her and she said, "I can sell this, and I can sell it for a lot and really mainstream it, but you've got to take Valerie Solanas out of there." She was not giving me advice based on the market, but on her own personal opinion. She said, "This will give a bad image of feminism to young women." And I said, "Do you want me to lie? I can't tell my story about my own feminism if I leave Valerie Solanas out. That would just be a complete lie." And she said, "Well, I'm sorry but I can't ethically try to promote this because I disagree with it so much." What kind of ethics is that – that she would promote it if it were not true? I think that really tells me a lot about the mainstream women's movement wanting to disassociate itself from lower-class, edgy women. In my personal life, I wouldn't want to have to be in charge of taking care of Valerie Solanas or other people I've known, including some of my own relatives, but that doesn't mean that you can't have compassion for what that person could have been if she hadn't been shoved aside. She was a lesbian but she became a prostitute for men and was never able to be openly lesbian. When these things happen to people, the most sensitive people suffer the worst. People who don't adjust well to social engineering. These were the people that we should be speaking to at a younger age. I look at someone like Dorothy Allison, who was a teenager when we started rabble-rousing, and how she testifies that it was woman's liberation that saved her life. Here's a person that was routinely raped by her stepfather for her entire childhood, and from the time she was about eight years old, lived in the most horrible conditions. She was the very kind of person who could have ended up like Valerie Solanas had women's liberation not been there.
What about the feminist journal No More Fun and Games? Did that come as soon as Cell 16 formed?
Yes. It was just amazing to me. We met for about three weeks and in that time decided to publish a journal. Within five weeks of our first meeting we put out a 90-page journal. We didn't name it that until the next issue.
At the time, you were confronted by a lot of groups on the left, including SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), about their concern that you were fracturing the movement. How did you respond to that?
That was their view. It was the whole movement, not just SDS, but the civil rights organizations felt it was too important that we end the war and end racism and establish a socialist society. They felt the oppression of American women was nothing compared to the Vietnamese people's suffering and the oppression of those fighting in liberation struggles, and of course African Americans living in ghettos and the suffering of Latinos and Native Americans. As women, we're always feeling guilty anyway for our social lives and are always told not to complain about our problems and to be strong and sacrifice and everything. These were very powerful attacks that I think were not very helpful. It kind of drew some of us into much more extreme positions than we would have taken and many women began taking stands against the left in general. Young women came in only to see this hostility toward them, mainly from the left. I think it distorted our movement in a way that the left hasn't completely taken responsibility for. Instead, people like Todd Gitlin write that the beautiful movement that existed in the '60s was ruined by us. They accused blacks of the same thing when they split off into black nationalist movements in the same way women had split the beautiful unity that these white boys had built up. We countered, those of us who remained leftists, that yes, of course we have to build into our women's liberation movement the absolute necessity of ending imperialism and racism and maintaining solidarity with other liberation struggles, but women have to become full actors and developers of strategy and we needed to be free from having this foot on our neck, and our souls and bodies being crushed, if we were to be in this for the long term. This isn't about just ending the war in Vietnam or winning a liberation movement somewhere. This was going to take a long, long time. By then I had lost any hope in the working class in the United States being able to come together as a working class. I felt that that movement had been kind of crushed and gutted and that there was such a powerful mechanism in place to control the 13 percent who were in unions that we had to go for the workers who were not organized in unions. These were mostly women, blacks and Latinos in service work who the unions were not particularly interested in organizing. I don't think it's ever been resolved. I think women's issues are still segregated and ghettoized and that if women aren't there to bring them up, men don't. They're not brought up. We have to be constantly vigilant. Internationally, the women's movement has grown and become terribly, terribly important all around the world.
The attacks still go on, not only against the women's movement, but against any splinter or identity politics. Do you think that there's any time at which the criticism is valid?
I think on the whole that what the so-called identity politics and the women's movement did was absolutely essential for the movement in the United States and that was internationalize it. All of these are cross-boundary issues, too. It dragged the civil rights movement out of Democratic Party reform mechanism to identifying with the fight against apartheid. In particular, that was very important in the '70s and '80s. It brought the Latino movement into opposing what happened in Chile or supporting the Cuban Revolution or, later on, Chiapas. I think the identity movements have been essential for an imperialist country – not just a nation of immigrants – but an imperialist country where the less we can identify with the state and the patriotic gore that surrounds the United States, the better, the more progressive. I think that so-called identity politics gives people a grounding with not just being existential individuals roaming around without an identity. I can do that – almost any intellectual can – but for masses of people, that's not very realistic to ask them not to have some kind of grounding, and I would prefer Mexican Americans identify with Mexico rather than the US government, or that African Americans identify with Africa and the struggles there, how can they bring to our future society in this country an internationalism and a true solidarity with other people.