Sex and Socialism

[The 1976 Rag newspaper cover shown above celebrates International Women’s Day.]

by Alice Embree

August 25, 2017

Is sex better under socialism? Apparently, according to an August 12, 2017 New York Times opinion piece. Did women from the United States find fulfillment in revolutionary Russia? Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia makes that case. As socialism continues to gain traction with millennials, it may be time to consider what that can mean in the bedrooms as well as in the body politic.

“Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” was a theme of the 60s rebellion. After all, the Baby Boomers came of age when birth control pills did. Then women’s liberation added an entirely new spin to sexual liberation.

Women’s consciousness-raising groups began reading the revelatory pamphlet, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” Feminists in the Boston Women’s Health Collective and the Women’s Health Organization in Austin informed women about their bodies from a woman’s perspective. In 1973, the Roe v. Wade case legalized abortion. The Gay Liberation movement brought same sex relationships out into the open.

Sexual pleasure outside of marriage and procreation has always rankled the religious right. Anita Bryant brought her rant about homosexuality to Austin in 1977, drawing a large counter protest on Auditorium Shores. We still are fending off bathroom bills in 2017 and trying to keep Planned Parenthood from becoming extinct.

At the rate things are going, it may take revolution to gain reproductive justice – decent sex education, family planning, abortion rights, pre-natal care, post-natal care, and child-care. Addressing the structural inequities, particularly for women of color, to reproductive healthcare will demand far more from all of us than defending legalized abortion. Does it require socialism?

Women born slightly before the raucous Baby Boom found themselves in the 60s with less “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” and more diapers, baby rattles, and Dr. Spock (the pediatrician who wrote the Bible on childcare during that era). For those women in 1963, Betty Friedan posed a question in The Feminine Mystique, “Is this all?”

The question has a quaint, middle-class Leave it to Beaver feel in today’s world. Friedan was speaking as a woman of privilege about the isolation of motherhood in suburbia. Her comments resonated among many women who helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW).

But, for those of us who began to knock open employment doors for women in the 70s, we faced an entirely different question when we had children. The question was: “Isn’t this too much?”

The scramble to work full time and negotiate lives around childcare schedules, afterschool programs and summer camps was, in fact, daunting. And what we faced in the 80s seems quaint now. Childcare costs alone have tripled.

In what we called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 70s, we envisioned a world in which women’s work outside the home would benefit everyone. There would be shared responsibilities at home, shorter workweeks, time to relax and even time for sex.

We envisioned a quality childcare system that would be affordable and accessible. In a forgotten footnote to history, the U.S. Congress passed a Comprehensive Child Development Bill, aimed at universal childcare in 1971. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing against a communal approach to child-rearing that would weaken family life.

Our vision ran contrary to the capitalist vision. As women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 70s, employers found a way to use the expanded labor force to flatten wages and work families to the breaking point. Middle class aspirations began to require dual incomes. Single parents frequently worked more than one job to make ends meet.

This is where life under socialism provides an important contrast.

Kristen R. Ghodsee’s piece, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism” appeared in the August 12, 2017 New York Times. She writes:

“Some might remember that Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care. But there’s one advantage that has received little attention: Women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure.

A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.”

Ghodsee quotes a 65-year-old Bulgarian woman who worries about her daughter born in the late 70s:

“’All she does is work and work,’ Ms. Durheva told me in 2013, ‘and when she comes home at night she is too tired to be with her husband. But it doesn’t’ mater, because he is tired, too. They sit together in front of the television like zombies. When I was her age, we had much more fun.’”

The same New York Times article tells the story from the perspective of a German woman in her 30s, responding to her mother’s pressure to have a baby,

“She doesn’t’ understand how much harder it is now – it was so easy for women before the wall fall [referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989], They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract and don’t have time to get pregnant.”

While Ghodsee draws a comparison between East Germany and West Germany, University of Texas professor Julia Mickenberg shines light on the motivations that propelled women from the United States to Russia after the 1917 revolution. Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia describes what Russia had to offer.

Russia had granted suffrage to women in 1917, three years before women in the United States got the right to vote. Furthermore, a new Family Code legalized divorce, allowed women to own property, eliminated the category of illegitimate children, and made family leave available. (Did you hear that last one, Ivanka Trump? One century earlier!) There were publicly funded child-care centers, public laundries, and cafeterias that made working outside the home easier to integrate with family life.

U.S. women seeking adventure found a range of possibilities in revolutionary Russia — working in factories and agricultural collectives, editing newspapers, and contributing to the cultural renaissance in dance and film.

Mickenberg’s writing reveals a story rarely told, a U.S. exile community similar to the one that thrived in Paris. It is not the more familiar story of Ernest Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, but the story of women attracted to the revolutionary frontier of Red Russia.

In 1934, African American actress, Frances E. Williams, visited Russia drawn to opportunities in film and theater. Her impression of childcare and college without debt has a current resonance. Mickenberg writes:

“Because her mother had worked since the age of five as a laundress, Frances E. Williams found Soviet attention to children profoundly moving: ‘Schools were available for your children, even nursery schools or pre-primary things were planned so that they were near, if you worked in a factory or wherever you worked… And you didn’t have to again hoard your money and know all the right people to get your children into college and be in debt all your life.’”

It is now 2017, 100 years after the Russian revolution. Many of us in the United States have been inspired, as some of us were in the 70s, by the vision of democratic socialism.

When 13 men huddled in the U.S. Senate to concoct a healthcare bill that, among other things, would eviscerate Planned Parenthood, opponents didn’t just say, “No!” They began to demand universal health care.   To this demand, we must add many others.

For women, for families, for children, for everyone, we need universal health care that provides for all aspects of reproductive health. And, we should add demands for paid family leave and universal childcare. With the present in dire straits, it is definitely time to re-imagine the future.

The New York Times article skips from a study on orgasms to the societal support systems that made life easier for women in East Germany. Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia gives a more nuanced view of women’s experience in revolutionary Russia – exploring affairs of the heart as well as those of the collective.

Let no one doubt that revolutionary fervor is a powerful aphrodisiac. It can provide the spark, but that spark needs to be nurtured. Societal support systems don’t sound quite so sexy– family leave, universal child care – but they can be quite exciting when they translate into less stress and more time.

The author is an Austin writer and activist.  She contributed to Sisterhood is Powerful, writes for The Rag Blog, and is a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

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‘Fierce Women’ March in San Antonio

By Alice Embree | The Rag Blog | March 5, 2012

SAN ANTONIO — For the third year I traveled south from Austin to San Antonio to take part in their International Women’s Day march with others from CodePink Austin. It was the twenty-second annual Women’s Day celebration in that city, which has kept the faith better than any city I know of.

The march did not disappoint. A blustery wind whipped against our banner, “Women Say No to War,” when we left from the Grand Hyatt on Saturday, March 3. But the wind died down as we made the now familiar trek to Milam Park and the Plaza del Zacate. CodePink Austin invoked various “Supershero powers” as the contingent marched in costumes, adorned with capes and crowns, and accompanied by a prison-garbed and shackled “war criminal.”

The International Women’s Day celebration was organized by a coalition of “fierce mujeres” from community and social justice organizations — union organizers for nurses, hotel workers, and domestic workers, advocates for reproductive choice and LGBTQ rights.

Graciela Sanchez of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, her mother, Isabel Sanchez, two women from Fuerza Unida, and a former councilwoman carried the leadoff banner for the march. Other banners and signs displayed the diversity of causes and issues, calling for an end to NAFTA and to war, defending immigrant rights and decrying the border wall.

The generations ranged from Girl Scout participants and the youth of the Martinez Street Women’s Center to the elders like Graciela Sanchez who have kept this tradition alive for more than two decades. Indigenous dancers and a calavera (skeleton) -clad duo were reminders of the Native American and Mexican ancestry of South Texas.

San Antonio displayed once again its ease with crossing boundaries of race, age, class, national origin, and sexual orientation. The call for the march proclaimed:

We, like women and girls all over the world, are the voices of conscience, the roots of change, and the leaders of local and global movements. We seek healthcare, housing, education, environmental justice, and fair wages, not just as women, but also as people of color, as youth and elders, as immigrants and indigenous people, as lesbian, bisexual, intersex, two-spirit, transgender, and queer women, and as poor and working class people.

We oppose all forms of violence. We advocate for reproductive choice. We call for an end to war, genocide, and occupation. We claim our own voices and come together to share them in public space. We march in solidarity with women and social justice movements around the world.

I hope that we in Austin will again see such a diverse coalition of fierce women. As the Republican primary candidates attempt to dial us back to the 50s, as women’s basic healthcare comes under attack, as women are advised to “hold an aspirin between their knees” as cheap birth control, as Rush Limbaugh hurls accusations of “slut” and “prostitute” at a college student defending access to birth control, the need for outrage and ferocity grows.

Austin musician Marcia Ball is “seeing red” and calling for women (and men) to join her wearing red on the Capitol steps each of the next three Tuesdays — March 6, 13, and 20 — from noon until 2 p.m. On March 9 at 7 p.m., a presentation at Austin’s feminist bookstore, BookWoman, will remind us of the beginnings of the women’s movement, with clips from an upcoming movie, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.

Time to let the rage out of the bottle, sisters. I guess it’s the only thing Rush and the two Ricks can understand.

[Alice Embree is a long-time Austin activist, organizer, and member of the Texas State Employees Union. A former staff member of underground papers, The Rag in Austin and RAT in New York, and a veteran of SDS and the women’s liberation movement, she is now active with CodePink Austin and Under the Hood Café. Embree is a contributing editor to The Rag Blog and is treasurer of the New Journalism Project.]

Celebrating The Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper

Thorne Dreyer, Alice Embree, and Richard Croxdale edited this tribute to Austin’s underground newspaper, The RagIt was published in October 2016 in conjunction with the Rag Reunion and Celebration of The Rag’s first publication.  Celebrating The Rag is available for purchase in three formats: paperback, hardcover and  e-book.

 

Austin Women Workers

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The following text is taken from a 1975 leaflet of Austin Women Workers.

What is Austin Women Workers?

Austin Women Workers is an organization of women from all backgrounds who have come together to analyze and act on those problems in our society which most directly affect our lives. We are all workers although some of us are in the role of unpaid mothers and housekeepers.

We know that the struggle for women’s liberation is a revolutionary struggle because the realization of our demands will bring about a basic transformation in our society. We cannot settle for less than the possibility of engaging in meaningful and creative activity: the opportunity to develop those skills which will enable us to do useful work; adequate compensation for what we do; free, loving care for children; control over the reproductive processes; sexual self-determination for all women and especially for lesbians; the development of personal relationship based on mutual responsibility; and the power to make decisions about all areas of our lives. There will not be a revolution until these changes are made.

We also know that the liberation of women will not occur until all people are free. We do not intend to gain a greater degree of independence at the expense of other oppressed people. Therefore, we struggle against all forms of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. Our most important work is the creation of a society in which every person is provided with the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter; every person participates in the decision-making process; and every person is able to expand his or her consciousness to the fullest extent.

The first activity of Austin Women Workers was to join with women all over the world in celebrating International Women’s Day. We also worked with other local organizations in planning the demonstration against Rockefeller. Since that time we have organized around the issue of prostitution, distributing educational material and encouraging people to attend prostitution trials held in Austin. Another project has centered on organizing women in various workplaces throughout the city. We offer legal classes, distribute literature, and help women form ongoing organizations. Still another activity has been the formation of a women’s theater group which is currently performing Sugar and Spice and Nothing Nice and put on several performance of The Independent Female or A Man Has His Pride. Recently a lesbian caucus has formed with AWW whose initial activity was the formation of a consciousness-raising group.

Women’s Health Organization: 2nd post

In this second post about the Women’s Health Organization (WHO), I am sharing what my friend Alyce Guynn wrote about her experiences with the organization.  The featured artwork is by graphic artist Nancy [Collins] Simons.

Alyce Guynn:  One of the first things I did on return to Austin after several years of sabbatical in San Francisco was join the Women’s Health Organization. We, tongue-in-cheek, referred to it as WHO, same as the World Health Organization. It was going strong when I came along.

Carole Jones was one of the founding members, hosting the weekly meetings in her living room, where in 1974 she welcomed me back to where I belonged, and generously and enthusiastically invited me into WHO.

Our Bible: the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves.   Our number one goal: to help women take control over and responsibility for their own bodies. Our method: teach women how to do self-exams, self-exams that extended beyond breast and reached the cervix. Our tool: the plastic speculum.

The first person I remember dropping her drawers to demonstrate a self -cervical exam is Allison Nash. Her name, to me, is synonymous with women’s health, although she is also associated with the Bertolt Brecht theater group. She exuded a confidence, a relaxed attitude about the body, its functions. Unabashed, unashamed. I learned so much from her. Years later, I paid tribute to Allison when I named my only daughter.

My interest in women’s health originated, in part, from a criminal case I’d worked on working in the San Francisco all women’s law firm of Cumings & Jordan. Ann Flower Cumings and Susan Jordan were defending a group of Santa Cruz lay midwives when I joined the firm as an investigator/legal assistant.  I don’t remember the resolution of the case, but what I do remember is that it was through my association with these experienced, dedicated midwives that I learned about home birth, heard about Ina Mae Gaskin. Here, my passion for working with women concerning women’s health took root.

So, coming home, I was more than delighted to find a ready-made organization where I could bring my passion into fruition. How I miss those collective efforts. The feeling of making progress. The sisterhood of working with groups of women toward better lives.

It was in those weekly meetings, some of us sprawled on Carole’s floor, where women opened up about their health issues. One woman confessing her botched breast implants, several of us telling about our illegal abortions. All of us, eager to take what we learned and share it with other women in the community.

Our resident artist, Nancy Collins, created a drawing of Super Woman brandishing a plastic speculum with the slogan “At Your Cervix”. We were nothing if not audacious.   We held workshops where we demonstrated self -exams. We kept a binder of anecdotal material about local OB/Gyns, a reference/ referral book. One nurse wrote about an arrogant Gyn who went on a rampage in the operating room and threw a sharp instrument, narrowly missing one nurse’s foot.

We encouraged women to take a friend with them to doctor appointments. We encouraged them to take notes, ask questions, to insist on answers. To demand to be treated as intelligent, inquiring adults, not little girls incapable of making our own decisions.   One of our suggestions was to throw off the sheet that covered a woman’s body so that the doctor only saw her genitals and force him to see the whole woman, not just body parts. We taught women to do regular self-exams so each would know what was normal for her cervix, as it changed during various cycles.

Like lawyers, female OB/Gyns in Austin were then few and far between. Most women patients had to see male doctor: male doctors who had no personal experience with periods, or missed periods, with miscarriages, with birth.

All of that, but the heart of it was sharing among women. The regular meetings where women felt safe, not only to show their cervices, but also to share their histories, fears, frustrations. A place to find support, hope for change.

And have fun doing it. We sang a lot. We laughed a lot. We felt at home.

 

Austin Movement History

On November 19, 2013, I wrote about Anne Lewis’ website, Austin Beloved Community.  Read the entire post in The Rag Blog.

Austin Beloved Community brings movement history alive in a digital collage of collective memory — audio, film, photos and maps, and a rich diversity of local recollection.

Anne Lewis came to Austin in 1998 and teaches film at the University of Texas at Austin. She hardly limits herself to teaching. She can often be seen behind a camera at marches or demonstrations or without a camera holding a picket sign.

This website is the history of the struggle for social justice told by participants who know that the struggle isn’t over.

 

Austin Women’s Movement in 1975

In October 1975, a two-page spread in The Rag featured the wide range of activities taking place in Austin’s women’s community: a Women’s Community Calendar, Cyclar, (image is featured above); a peer counseling center, Womenspace; a women’s printing collective, Fly By Night Printing Collective; the Women’s Health Organization; Common Woman Bookstore, and a Women’s History in Texas calendar by People’s History of Texas focused on the untold history of Texas women.

For the full article, visit the digital archive in the Independent Voices collection of Reveal Digital.  Over three hundred issues — not quite the entire run — are scanned at this site.  The articles are on pages 9-10 of the October 24, 1975 issue at the Independent Voices site.

The Rag article announced that the Common Woman Bookstore Collective would open its store in December 1975 at 2004 ½ Guadalupe, and had taken its name from lines by Judy Grahn, poet and member of the Women’s Press Collective, Oakland, California.

The same article described the Fly By Night Printing Collective as a one-year-old alternative press collective with four women printers, and plans to maintain regular hours at 901 West 24th Street, accepting any and all non-sexist and non-racist printing jobs.  Plans to move to the Bread and Roses Center were also announced.  Fly By Night was the predecessor of Red River Women’s Press (featured in a separate post on Collective Impressions).

The Women’s Community Calendar, Cyclar, was described as a collective effort to give a sense of the emerging women’s community and further develop the meaning of “women-identified women.”  Photographer Robin Birdfeather and artist Rita Starpattern were credited with conception, design and direction.  Cynthia Roberts and Melita Abrego of Fly By Night Press were credited with layout, publicity, and printing.  The Rag article says, “In fact, this calendar has been put together by women from scratch to finish.”

Women/Space was described as a peer counseling and referral center for women in the Austin community. “As a feminist group we believe that women in this society share common pressures, problems, and feelings, and that exploring these with other women is a valuable way to expand self-awareness, get in touch with personal resources, and find alternatives to life situations. Women can find strength and support in other women.”  Women/Space was described as having a three-fold thrust.  Individual, non-sexist counseling – including abortion, birth control, and lesbian counseling – was available free, on a walk-in basis, every weekday evening in the Women/space room at the University Y.

The Rag article described the Women’s Health Organization, (see separate post), this way:  “W.H.O. in Austin has encouraged women to use knowledge as a major weapon against fear by becoming familiar with various diseases and conditions in the vaginal area, and when professional care is necessary, to insist on better treatment from the male-dominated medical profession.”

The Women’s History in Texas calendar, described in The Rag article, was the first project of People’s History in Texas, a non-profit that has gone on to produce film documentaries on Texas history.  The calendar explores women’s role in Texas history (i.e., Black women in Texas, women in the Texas labor Movement, Chicanas, pioneer women in Texas, and women in athletics), with original historical analysis, artwork and photography.