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As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I’m thinking once again about the rabid feminism that swept through the western world in the seventies. Many women came out as lesbians and feminists in that decade, our ardor fueled by the very blatant misogyny that surrounded us in northern England, where I was living at the time. A serial rapist, known as the Yorkshire Ripper, had been on the loose for several years. The police regularly broadcast messages on TV, in the newspapers, and on the radio warning women not to go out after dark. Looking for anyone who might know the guy, they appealed for help at a football game attended by several thousand men. The voice of the cop on the loudspeaker was drowned out by men chanting, “Long live the Ripper!”
This was also the decade of Britain’s race riots, and a gang of white men raped two black women one weekend. The following weekend, a gang of black men raped two white women. Black or white, we were considered pawns.
The message was clear, and we all knew it anyway—we’d grown up with it. Forming a group called Angry Women, we organized various actions, which included attacking a man who was known to have molested a fifteen-year-old girl, and a man who had beaten up a lesbian. We burned down a porn shop, a hangout for sleazy men near the street where many of us lived. We organized a nation-wide series of protests, and all over the country angry women took to the streets. In Leeds, we stormed a cinema where they were showing The Chainsaw Massacre—a typical movie of the day, informing us that women are prey and men are predators. I will never forget the look of horror on the face of the woman in the ticket kiosk as dozens of tough-looking lesbians ran past her waving banners and yelling, “Curfew on men!” at the tops of our voices. After throwing eggs at the screen, we marched back out to maraud through the town centre, plastering it with flyers calling for men, not women, to be confined to their homes. The cops, who had no leads on the Ripper after five murders, were anxious to avoid bad publicity. They left us alone, quickly marshalling any curious men out of our way.
I doubt if any of the women involved in those demonstrations forgot that day of empowerment. The cops still didn’t catch the Ripper but there were no more attacks. I left Britain the following year to live in northern California, where women are generally treated with more respect. Recently I spent a year in Australia, where I was traveling in a car with a kayak on top. After several encounters with men “helping” me tie the kayak on the roof-rack, and putting me in danger with ineffective knots, I remembered what it was like in Britain thirty years ago, when men were trained to believe that women didn’t know what they were doing and it was their job to help them. We still have a way to go, but at least things have improved in most parts of the western world.
Some great feminist authors came out of the seventies: Gayle Rubin, Robin Morgan, Mary Daly, Joanna Russ, Andrea Dworkin, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde, to mention just a few. Those women came out with some great theory. Now is the time to tell stories.
Those of us who stood up against unquestioned male supremacy in the seventies were awesome. We laid the groundwork for very deep social change. We were extremists—we had to be, to counteract the levels of very blatant sexism that we were fighting. We couldn’t afford to be half-hearted about it. There are many untold stories of women standing up for themselves in the face of threats and ridicule.
I want to see more of us writing about those days when we really began to claim our power.