Feminist Born


I maintain I was born a feminist, although equality of the sexes was not a hot topic in Alma, Nebraska, my small hometown. 

As the second daughter in a three-girl family, I became my father’s son, mowing the lawn, helping him build a boat, dismantling and reassembling a lawn mower engine to learn how piston engines worked. I even bore my dad’s name: June, for his birth month.

I didn’t mind being a girl, either, especially if it came in handy. One summer, I tried to persuade my college girlfriends to travel around Nebraska and sell motorcycles. “We could ride the cycles, roar into town and get the local paper to write us up,” I argued. “We could claim that motorcycles are so safe ‘even a girl can ride them.’” But strong as my argument was, I got no takers.

When I wheeled into New York in 1960, a journalism major with general news reporting experience, I was not prepared for the sexist reception the town’s papers dished out. “We haven’t had a female general news reporter,” each personnel officer told me, “since World War II when there was a manpower shortage.” 

The Daily News added another comment: “We can’t have women fainting in the city room at the sight of blood.” Why The News had blood in its city room I couldn’t fathom. Nor could I imagine women fainting at the sight of it. In my family, blood made only my Dad lightheaded. I wrote my college roommate, “I feel like I’m wearing a bustle.”

Later, after I married and Good Housekeeping fired me for being pregnant, I shifted to trade journalism. First I reported for Home Furnishings Daily, a Fairchild publication, then for Haire Publications. I worked my way up until I was editor of a national magazine, Handbags & Accessories. I could go no higher. No woman ever cracked the glass ceiling to rise to the publisher’s lucrative positions above editor. 

I gave up on journalism in the late 1960’s, but sexism followed me into academia. At Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, I began to teach part-time in the English & Humanities Department. Soon I learned that no woman had ever taught full time in that department, not for the eighty-plus years of its history. I stayed long enough to watch a young man, hired after me, leap frog over the female part-time instructors to a full-time position. Enough was enough. I accepted a full-time job at Boston University.

In Boston in the early 1970s, I became an active member of my first consciousness-raising group, and finished writing my novel, Marcella, published in 1973. 

When I returned to New York in 1974, I had become a conscious feminist although not of the vintage of S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men). 

I taught again at Pratt. I’d applied after I learned that two women, including my close friend Carole Rosenthal, were now working full time. Carl Craycraft, the young man who leaped over us, was now department chair. Telling me no full-time jobs were available, he gave me a part-time teaching job. I was also hired as affirmative action director, part-time. I thought they should add up to a full-time position, but no.

Imagine my surprise when I learned, as affirmative action director, that two men had been hired full-time right after I was told no full-time jobs were available!

I sued, got a full-time job, sued again when I was denied tenure, and got that, too. After my last battle, no woman at Pratt had to sue to get full-time employment, tenure, or even chair.

These were heady times.

Meanwhile, curious about psychological fiction, I read Leon Edel’s, The Modern Psychological Novel, which described the great stream-of-consciousness writers, all male and all well-known but one: Dorothy Richardson. In her day, Edel said, Richardson ranked with Joyce and Proust, but fell out of favor with male critics who found her writing impenetrable.  I immersed myself in her five-volume novel. Loving it, I wrote and published “Dorothy Who?” a description of her work and life.

Then I invited some women friends to my apartment to hear a reading of the piece, and in doing so, helped birth the Woman’s Salon, a gathering place to hear women writers read their work, both fiction and nonfiction.

The Salon swiftly became popular, drawing audiences too large to fit most of our small apartments. Erika Duncan’s loft, ample enough to hold many, became the focal point for the Salon for years.

The Women’s Literary Salon's Archive at the University of Southern California now describes the founding of the Salon this way:























About then, literary feminists began to argue that fiction’s narrative structure was modeled on the male orgasm, the tension rising higher and higher until released into an explosive climax. To write truly feminist fiction, they said, you must not only abandon a male point of view, but you must abandon traditional plot. 

At that time, I was heatedly writing poems that would become A Cretan Cycle: Fragments Unearthed from Knossos, based on the myth of the Minotaur, a half-bull, half-man creature. Traditionally, this tale describes Theseus, its male hero, rescuing his fellow Athenians from the Minotaur, a cannibalistic creature who loved to munch on Greeks. 

As I researched, I scribbled down bits of poetry that came to me. Research finished, I sat on the floor and positioned my bits of poetry in time order to create a 15-character poem with no hero. This seemed fine. Bandanna Books in Santa Barbara, CA, published A Cretan Cycle in 1991.


"A Letter Announcing the Formation of the Woman’s Salon"
available here.  
Also see the Salon’s newsletters.
Read some of Marilyn's Feminist poems in her poetry sampler.
Inspired by the historic examples of salon women such as, among others, Mme de Rambouillet, Mme Geoffrin, Mme de Stael, Gertrude Stein, and Natalie Clifford Barney, five feminist writers of the seventies, Marilyn Coffey, Erika Duncan, Karen Malpede, Gloria Orenstein, and Carole Rosenthal, decided to create a feminist forum for intellectual discussion and for the presentation of feminist writings that would serve a new generation of women writers in the ways that the salons of the past had served the male intellectuals and writers of their times. 

Many of the writers featured in the Woman's Salon have, over the years, become prominent novelists and poets. They include Adrienne Rich, Kate Millett, Barbara Deming, Marge Piercy, Phyllis Chesler, Susan Griffin, Mae Swenson, Robin Morgan, Monique Wittig, Thulani Nkabinde Davis, Toi Derricotte, Cheryl Clarke, Michelle Wallace, Paula Gunn Allen, Alice Walker, Catherine Simpson and Linda Hogan. 

(from http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/womens_salons)

Photos by Ralph Stephenson c. 1976-78, Brooklyn, NY
Photos by Ralph Stephenson, c. 1976-78, Brooklyn, NY
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Far Right:  photo by David Loyd..