Saturday, May 2, 2015

Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy by Judith Schwarz

Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy is an optimistic, informative and regrettably short record of a women’s bi-weekly gathering in Greenwich Village. It was founded in 1912 by Mary Jenny Howe with the intention that “it would be a place where social constraints and conventional politeness were outweighed by the sheer delight in honest disagreements and differences which opened the mind to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, living, being” (Schwarz, p. 5).  This club’s attendees were among the most creative, accomplished, independent and well-educated women of their age. They supported each other personally, regarding occupational pursuits and life trials. Outside of the organization, they networked regarding a range of feminist activism from birth control to the vote. Though being a self-defined feminist in the early 20th Century was difficult, these women found a way to make the road less rocky and lonely.

While the author unreservedly loves her subject, she is not incognizant of this social group’s flaws. Reflecting the prejudices of its time, Heterodoxy was largely white and privileged in its composition. Few working-class women attended meetings. Only one member was African American. Also, this was not an activist organization per se. Though community activists for women’s rights became members or spoke at gatherings, the group did not have a political wing. For example, “Margaret Sanger was angry at Heterodoxy members for not becoming more involved with her birth control work,” whereas Mary Ware Dennett, founder of the Voluntary Parenthood League, was a member (Schwarz, p. 65).

Judith Schwarz does an excellent job of revealing the sanctum of Heterodoxy meetings and lives with scant primary information. She published this book in 1982, when the Women’s Movement was still prominent, but under attack by the New Right. As a result, Heterodoxy contains scattered comparisons between the two times and two groups of women in hostile territory. “Like those of us who have gone through ‘C-R’ sessions, Heterodoxy women must have often been startled that despite the differences in their backgrounds, most of them had received the same sort of messages and expectations as children” (Schwarz, p. 16). Sometimes her informality is playful: “a large number of the women in the photographs were also astonishingly tailored, or, as my mind instantly reacted: ‘butchy looking’” (Schwarz, p. 5). Schwarz presents a style of writing that is largely eschewed by feminists of the academy.

Scholarly style aside, history can do more than inform about the past. It can provide us with directions for the future and understandings of human nature or situation which we find relevant to ourselves. Though it is more common for feminist historians to restrain comparison of past and present, the reader or activist is under no such constraints. For those who favor equality and are facing opposition, (whether that opposition is the conservative cross-fire of the author’s 1982 or the numbing phase of feminist political dormancy of the early 21st Century), a book like this can offer support and inspiration. In Judith Schwarz’s words “we have a lot to struggle both for and against, and years of hard work ahead of us. In the meantime, take hope. Marie Jenney Howe and her merry ‘band of willful women, the most unruly and individualistic females you ever fell among’ did indeed ‘start something’ which still has relevance for us, their political descendants” (Schwarz, p. 82). Perhaps what we need today is a new generation of heterodoxy clubs as spaces for women to gather against the storm.

Schwarz, Judith. Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy. Lebanon, NH: New Victoria Publishers, Inc., 1982.