Twenty-six years ago, Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen gave voice to the frustrations of the generation of women that forged the modern women’s liberation movement. The novel is a satirical account of one Midwestern Jewish girl, Sasha Davis, who comes of age in the 1950s and, along the way, alternately resists and succumbs to that era’s idea of what a girl (and a woman) should be. This is how Shulman describes Prom Queen in her introduction to the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, published last year by Penguin: “My novel takes a look at a range of experiences then treated as either taboo or trivial but now, after several decades of feminism, accepted as matters of major political significance: sexual harassment, job discrimination, the sexual double standard, rape, abortion restrictions, the double binds of marriage and motherhood, the frantic quest for beauty — all painted here in their pink absurdity.”
Prom Queen was an instant hit: it went on to sell more than a million copies and became required reading in universities around the country. It was hailed as “the first important novel to emerge from the women’s liberation movement” by the Saturday Review.
Today, the novel remains in many ways as relevant as ever. Like Sasha Davis, girls today fear being branded a “slut” yet crave the attention of boys. Like Sasha Davis, women today feel pressured to marry and to carry the lion’s share of responsibility for children and housework, whether or not they have an outside job or a professional career.
Shulman was born in 1932 in suburban Cleveland. In 1953, after graduating from Western Reserve University, she fled Ohio for New York City, where she studied in Columbia University’s doctoral program in philosophy. When she married a graduate student in the English department, she did as expected and dropped out to help support the two of them. Several years later, they divorced. Shulman soon married a second time, and had two children. It was during this marriage that the women’s liberation movement erupted, transforming her life.
Over the past twenty-five years, Shulman has written three other novels: Burning Questions (1978), a fictionalization of her participation in the women’s movement; On the Stroll (1981) , an account of a runaway teenage girl and an elderly homeless “bag lady” living together on the streets of New York City; and In Every Woman’s Life . . . (1987), a portrayal of three female friends and their marriages. Shulman has also written several children’s books and two books on anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman, and has lectured, given readings, and taught writing and women’s studies around the country.
Shulman currently divides her time between an apartment in New York City (which she shares with sculptor Scott York) and a cabin on an island off the coast of Maine, where she has no telephone, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Shulman’s 1995 memoir Drinking the Rain reflects on her sense of mastery as she lives in solitude, eating from the land and sea.
Tanenbaum: When reporters from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Times asked you recently if you were married, you refused to give a straight answer. Why?
Shulman: Because it’s a question they don’t ask men. And also because there’s a legitimacy granted to a person who’s married that is withheld from people who aren’t, and I don’t want to honor that distinction. I’m happy to speak about marriage; I just don’t want to answer the question “Are you married?” in print. Might as well ask me how many lovers I’ve had.
Tanenbaum: OK, how many lovers have you had?
Shulman: [Laughs.] I don’t know. There was a moment when the world changed for me and I stopped counting; it was no longer a big deal. Sasha Davis, the heroine of Prom Queen, gives a number, but for me it stopped being an issue. That’s one of the benefits feminism had for me.
Tanenbaum: Was Prom Queen the first feminist novel?
Shulman: It was certainly one of the first novels to be written from the perspective of the second wave of feminism.
Tanenbaum: What exactly is feminist fiction?
Shulman: The feminist and scientist Naomi Weisstein says that feminist fiction is fiction that does not admire patriarchy or accept its ideology. It does not portray its male characters as naturally more exciting, more important, or more valuable than its female characters. Female characters are presented in their full humanity, whether they are villains or heroes, and sympathetic female characters are not necessarily nice or beautiful. Fiction that contains these elements challenges the patriarchal belief in the fixed and eternal nature of men and women. I like Weisstein’s description because it closely resembles the vision that inspired me to become both a feminist and a novelist in the first place. So I do call my novels “feminist fiction.”
Tanenbaum: Tell me about the response to Prom Queen twenty-five years ago.
Shulman: Actually, it started before publication when publishers’ secretaries passed around galley copies. Publishers Weekly reported that, months before its release, it already had an underground reputation. It was a controversial book that provoked two extreme reactions: either “You’ve told the story of my life!” or “It’s too strident and complaining.”
Letters from readers revealed a dispute even among those who liked it. Some wrote that the book was very sad and had made them cry; others thought it was a delicious, funny read. I meant it to be both. Either way, women said they “identified” with it. Of the few letters I got from men, my favorite is from a guy who complained, “My wife ran off with the baby, and it’s your fault.” The men who wrote found the sexual candor disturbing; the women did not.
Tanenbaum: Are you Sasha Davis?
Shulman: The protagonists of all my novels are in some sense me; yet they are very different people. So yes, but she’s only a particular slice of me. I’ve always felt free to raid my life ruthlessly for anything that might be useful for my fiction, but there’s so much more to my life than there is to Sasha’s — after all, Sasha’s life is contained in less than three hundred pages.
When the book first came out, I did some readings and lectures, and during the question-and-answer period, the first question was always “How much of this is autobiographical?” After a while, I developed a stock answer: “Only the sex.”
But Sasha’s story really represents much more than my own life. I was trying to portray the white, middle-class, female experience from a new, feminist perspective. I was lucky enough to participate in the earliest New York City feminist groups, where I was older than most of the women, who had just gotten out of college. And I already had two children. So I had both the consciousness of that intense movement, and the experience of being a wife and mother. I felt personally the connections between beauty and motherhood and abortion and power.
Tanenbaum: I’m struck by how many of the problems Sasha Davis faces continue to exist for women today.
Shulman: That’s the point. My editor, who is in her thirties, says nothing’s changed. I don’t know, because I’m not young anymore. So I have to take her word for it, and yours. Sometimes I’ll talk to a class that’s reading my novel, and students will tell me that everything is the same, only the definitions have changed a little — like what exactly is a “slut,” what is harassment, and so forth.
Tanenbaum: There are a few things that Sasha faces, though, that are no longer issues, like the problem of how to dispose of your Kotex — I don’t think anyone worries about that anymore. There’s no sense of shame about it.
Shulman: What about the red stain on the skirt, though?
Tanenbaum: [Laughs.] That will always be embarrassing. There is something else that’s not such an issue anymore: orgasms. Women know about them now.
Shulman: Yes, and oral sex, too. I read recently in the New York Times that oral sex is popular among teens today. Now it’s intercourse that’s forbidden, because of AIDS.
Tanenbaum: Oral sex is also popular because it means you can have sex but technically remain a virgin — you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Shulman: In my time, it was much worse to have oral sex. It would be your ruination if it ever became known that you did that. But I’ve noticed that these conventions vary from place to place, like whether you call an ice-cream soda a “black and white” or a “float.”
One thing that has changed in the past quarter century is the importance of work for women. Now you can have ambitions and careers without feeling that you’re out of line, or that some terrible punishment will come down on you. But this is mainly a middle-class change. Poor women have had to work all along, and the increasing gap between rich and poor only makes it worse for poor women. Most women lead double lives now: they still bear the main responsibility for children and household tasks, and they have a full-time workload, for which they get paid less. So even though women are able to work — and often must work — it doesn’t mean that there’s equality. No matter how high women rise, if men are rising at the same rate, then the disparity remains the same. Also, a gain in one area might mean a loss in another. Each factor is inextricable from the rest.
Tanenbaum: I think it’s still largely true today that women — even those who want independence — feel they should get married.
Shulman: That’s the reason I didn’t want to answer the reporters’ question about my own marital status. It’s part of that unfortunate pressure.
Women . . . still bear the main responsibility for children and household tasks, and they have a full-time workload, for which they get paid less. So even though women are able to work — and often must work — it doesn’t mean that there’s equality.
Tanenbaum: Do you think marriage is still a relevant institution?
Shulman: People are still swarming into it, so it must be relevant. Even after a divorce, people get remarried. And the nuclear family is still the preferred setting for child rearing, even though all kinds of new families are proliferating: jumbo, blended, and divorce-extended families; single parents; lesbian or gay domestic partnerships. But this proliferation doesn’t do anything to correct or even address the gendered division of labor that permeates not only marriage, but the whole society. To me, the question is not the legitimacy of marriage but gender equality — in other words, how marriage is conducted. I cheer every brave and imaginative attempt at a new form of relationship, but I keep asking, “Who will wind up doing the housework?”
Tanenbaum: Do you question whether men and women can sustain lifelong, monogamous relationships?
Shulman: Certainly. I even question whether that’s a desirable goal. People live a long time. They change. Their current mates might not be the ones they’ll wind up with. I’m talking about not only personal change, but change in family life. People might get married, have children, and discover that their mate isn’t much of a parent. So I don’t think that having a lifelong, monogamous relationship is necessarily the ideal goal, and I wonder whether it’s even in the cards for most of us.
Tanenbaum: Like Sasha Davis, you studied in the doctoral program in philosophy at Columbia, but then dropped out. Why?
Shulman: I got married and had to support my husband. He made a little money as an instructor at Barnard, but we needed more. So, after two years, I dropped out to work.
This is one area in which things are very different now. Back then, there were “Help Wanted — Male” and “Help Wanted — Female” columns. I had a great education but didn’t have any typing skills. So I became a receptionist, then a bookkeeping-machine operator in a bank, then a research librarian — really a file clerk — at an advertising agency. Then I got a wonderful job working for the New York City Board of Higher Education, testing teachers in the public schools, and later I became an encyclopedia editor.
Tanenbaum: Would you have continued working toward a Ph.D. if not for the fact that you needed to get a job?
Shulman: I did want to pursue the Ph.D., definitely. But it also had become clear to me that I wouldn’t get a job using my Ph.D., because no woman would be given a job teaching philosophy. Forget it. There were maybe two or three women philosophy professors in the country. It was impossible for women to succeed in the field. There were more women professors in English, but my ambitions weren’t there. So it was a combination of the futility of it and the need to work full time.
Tanenbaum: In Prom Queen, Sasha Davis sees her decision to drop out of the philosophy program very differently. She’s antagonistic toward her husband.
Shulman: Well, my husband was perfectly nice, but it was clear from the beginning that his academic career was more important than mine. That was one reason I’d married him — so that I could have an academic life. It wasn’t my husband’s fault. It was just a given then for practically any academic couple that the man’s career mattered more, and the woman’s job was to support that career. It was the way things were.
We divorced, and I remarried, and I had my son in 1961. At this time I started to work at home as a general trouble-shooter for the new six-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I did it while my baby napped. My daughter was born in 1963. My marriage, which had been very romantic before the children came, started to fall apart. My husband began wandering as soon as I had to stay home with the baby. So it was a stormy marriage. We had two children, however, so we tried very hard to hold it together. It was a challenge. We didn’t get divorced until 1984, but for many years we were quite distant. He worked out of town, mostly, and was seldom home. We each had our own independent sex lives. So the marriage was rather limited long before the actual divorce.
I took on little freelance jobs that barely paid for the baby sitter a few hours a week. I always knew my financial dependency made me vulnerable. There were things I wanted to do but couldn’t, because they would have involved leaving the children for an extended period. For instance, my daughter was in a Montessori nursery school, and I thought, Oh, I could be a Montessori teacher. But I would have had to train in Philadelphia for a month, and I couldn’t leave the children for that long. Finally, in desperation, I thought: I could write and still take care of the children.
I had no ambition to be a writer before that. I hadn’t studied writing. I’d never known a writer. It just wasn’t part of the world I knew. And the critics smeared women writers in those days; it was enough to make me not even want to study English. Just the phrase “lady writer” made me cringe. When we early feminists started examining, say, the New York Times Book Review, it was amazing to see the way women’s writing was denigrated — all the reviewer had to say was “typical of a woman” and the work was damned. Our deepest experiences were deemed trivial, fit only for “ladies’ magazines,” and you wouldn’t want to be published in one of those. I had no ambition to be a “lady” anything, but I did very much enjoy writing. I considered it a skill, like speaking, not a profession. Working on the encyclopedia had honed my editorial skills; I’d learned how to compress.
Tanenbaum: So how did you begin to write?
Shulman: A well-known writer had come to live with us for a month. My husband had invited him without really consulting me, but I was up for it. I was dying for access to the world. While he stayed with us, I emptied his wastebasket, and seeing what was in it I thought, Oh, I could do that. Also, I was reading my children library books every night, and about some of them I thought, I could do better than this. My first books were for children. The very first one came to me whole; it was inspired. I’ve never written anything that way again. I wrote a chapter a week, and in a couple of months it was finished. And I loved it. It was a mathematical fantasy for children. About the time I was sending out this book to publishers, the women’s liberation movement happened, and I knew I’d found something more important to write about.
Tanenbaum: Had you been politically involved before the women’s movement?
Shulman: Yes, with the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement. The CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] group I belonged to rented a bus to go to Washington for the big march in 1963, when my children were babies, and I hired a baby sitter for the march with my freelance money.
The sixties were wild. In my novel Burning Questions, I tried to capture all of that excitement. It was an important moment in history. I longed to participate more, but I felt I often had to stand on the sidelines because I had children — though I did sometimes take them with me to demonstrations.
I learned about the women’s movement through a friend. She and I used to have long phone conversations at night, after the children were asleep, when my husband was out of town. We would speak for hours about politics and life. One night, she called me up and said: “I heard on the radio about some young women who have a group. We should go to their meeting.” We went, and that was it for me. The minute I heard feminism articulated, I knew I’d found an explanation for all my puzzles. Until then, I’d felt the anguish of my predicament, but considered it demeaning to complain. It was simply my fate: I was a woman and a mother, and to complain about it would be beneath me.
But now I went to every feminist meeting I could. I was part of the group that demonstrated at the 1968 Miss America Pageant; I was one of the planners. In fact, I first got the idea for Prom Queen at that demonstration. We were crowning a live sheep Miss America when it all came together for me.
Tanenbaum: Were you, like the protagonist of Burning Questions, ever arrested at a draft protest?
Shulman: Oh, yes. I have a framed front-page picture from the December 6, 1967, New York Times on my desk: We’re all sitting down and the policemen are shaking their fingers at us. The caption reads: “In Lower Manhattan opponents of the war in Vietnam sitting on sidewalk in vicinity of induction center at 39 Whitehall Street.” That was one of the first times the conflict between my activism and my duties as a mother came to a head. It was then I started to realize that I couldn’t count on my husband. I feared he wouldn’t pay my bail because I’d left the children with him.
Tanenbaum: Did he?
Shulman: I don’t think we had to pay bail.
Tanenbaum: I know you’ve spoken out about your abortions.
Shulman: I’ve had four, but none the result of carelessness; it was always a failure of the diaphragm. I told about them at a speak-out sponsored by the feminist group Redstockings, and that precipitated my first real quarrel with my husband about my involvement in the movement. He thought the abortions were our secret.
Tanenbaum: What was it like getting an abortion before they were made legal?
Shulman: It was a very scary business. You feared you would be arrested, and you feared you would die. And where would you get the money? You had to keep it secret, of course. You’d use a false name and arrange to meet some stranger on a street corner, where they’d pick you up in a car. That was the common procedure.
I always thought abortions should be available to everybody, that the illegality was a horrible thing. Even as a teenager, I believed in free love and thought that birth control and abortion should be widely available. After I came to New York, I kept a list of abortionists and let it be known that if any friend or friend of a friend were in trouble, she could call me, and I’d tell her where to go.
I had my abortions in the fifties, before the movement started. The first was during my first marriage. I went to an abortionist in Greenwich Village, whose name I’d gotten from another woman. He was such a pig. He fondled me. I couldn’t believe it; I was at his mercy. He had me come to his gynecology office after hours, and while examining me he fondled my breasts and my vagina. Then he gave me a shot, and I was supposed to come back later and give him more money, but I didn’t go back. I went to someone else, another gynecologist who did abortions on the side. I had to bring a large amount of money — I believe it was a thousand dollars — in cash. He pulled the shades, and I handed him the money in an envelope. He counted it all out in front of me before he said OK. He had a very deep suntan. I hated that my borrowed money was probably going to pay for his next trip to Florida.
My second abortion was when I was in Europe in the late fifties. It’s described in Prom Queen. It seemed to be much easier in Europe. I didn’t even look for an abortionist. I just went to a gynecologist and told him I had missed several periods, and he gave me an abortion. But he never used the word abortion, and he never said I was pregnant, though I knew I was.
The third one is also described in Prom Queen; I did it myself, with the help of a friend. I was married at the time. And the fourth one was just before the law changed, so I was able to have it as an outpatient in a hospital that was preparing for the new law to go into effect.
The first and the third were very scary. I really did think I might die. Finding a doctor and getting the money were also terrifying. From the time you knew you wanted an abortion to the time it was completed, there wasn’t a moment when you weren’t frantic.
Tanenbaum: You’ve written that when you gave birth you abandoned your independence, but that feminism gave you back your “defiant voice,” which you felt had been lost through motherhood.
Shulman: Part of the loss came from society’s misogynistic attitude toward mothers: once you were a mother, you were sexless, a nobody. That may sound odd to people today. Now there can be something sexy about being a mother, but in those days once you became a mother you were invisible. Also, your children’s interests were always in conflict with whatever you might want to do for yourself — and mothers were supposed to be selfless. The children came first.
Ironically, when feminism came into my life, my being a mother — my understanding the world as a mother, my mother consciousness — was what made me visible again. Mothers were valued in those early groups, because there weren’t many of us. So the very thing that had diminished me suddenly made me important.
Tanenbaum: I’m a little surprised. My understanding is that at the beginning of the second wave of feminism, motherhood was not valued.
Shulman: Motherhood itself may not have been valued, exactly, but my experience was valued. I was an informant. I knew something the others didn’t. And Redstockings, in particular, did not take a position against marriage or motherhood. Some in the movement did think that if you chose to be a mother, you were giving away your life. But I already was a mother. Of course, now motherhood is valued by feminists.
Tanenbaum: In Prom Queen, you made the point that professional advice to mothers ended up making them feel guilty, and was fairly useless, anyway. Has the advice changed much over the past twenty-five years?
Shulman: No, I don’t think things have improved. Our culture remains antimother — just look at the welfare “reform” bill. I think that the guilt connected to motherhood is rampant: society blames, and we suffer guilt. I just finished reading a new anthology of first-person narratives about the first year of motherhood, and you can see the guilt in them, because this precious life is in your hands, and it’s up to you alone to care for it. When I was raising my children, a father didn’t do much. He might have done some things to help out, but it wasn’t his responsibility. So the mother had to take sole responsibility for child rearing — something she knew nothing about. And these were human lives in her hands.
I didn’t think that there was anything inherently more degrading about sex work than about some other kinds of work where a woman demeaned herself before a man. I felt that if one was going to be demeaned, one should be able to choose where to draw the line.
Tanenbaum: Your fiction is filled with characters who are prostitutes or who engage in at least one act of prostitution. How did you become interested in prostitution?
Shulman: I guess you could say I tried it once. The European doctor who gave me my second abortion had cocaine left over from World War II, to be used for “medicinal purposes.” In those days, marijuana was easily available, but nobody I knew had cocaine, and I had heard cocaine could produce orgasms. At that point, I wasn’t sure I’d ever had an orgasm. So when this attractive doctor started coming on to me, I thought, I’ll use his cocaine and sleep with him, and then I’ll know what an orgasm is. I never knew whether to count this as an authentic act of prostitution, since I wasn’t sleeping with him for money — or even for the cocaine — but for the orgasm.
Tanenbaum: And did you have an orgasm?
Shulman: Yes, but it didn’t really count, because I was drugged. It didn’t satisfy my desire for an orgasm from passionate sexual love. I didn’t have that until after the movement.
I became interested enough in prostitution to write a whole book on it: On the Stroll is about a runaway teenage prostitute and a bag lady. While I was writing that novel, I worked in a shelter for homeless women and got to know a lot of bag ladies.
In the movement, there was a big debate over prostitution. Some of the people who organized the New York Radical Feminists Prostitution Conference were eager to condemn it. Some of them were very moralistic and said to the prostitutes we had invited to speak at the conference, “Why don’t you stop being a prostitute? It’s degrading!” And the prostitutes said, “It’s good money.” And the feminists said, “Well, be a file clerk.” I thought this was an outrageous, unfeminist position, and I quit the New York Radical Feminists over that dispute. That was when I became determined to write about the experience of prostitution from the inside.
I didn’t think that there was anything inherently more degrading about sex work than about some other kinds of work where a woman demeaned herself before a man. I felt that if one was going to be demeaned, one should be able to choose where to draw the line — people should be free to make their own decisions. Also, I felt that in some ways being a prostitute gave women power over men. Anyway, who were we to judge? At that time, marriage was condemned as a form of prostitution.
Later, while I was teaching at Yale, I began to rethink my position somewhat. I had a student who was working her way through college by stripping at one of those sleazy joints in Times Square where the man puts in a coin and the curtain goes up. She was very messed up. True, you can’t change your position just because of one case, but it did make me wonder. Still, even if that kind of work does cause more psychological damage than other kinds of work, it’s not the work that’s the problem but the social attitudes toward that work. And I believe in sexual freedom for women.
Tanenbaum: So if attitudes toward sex work were different, perhaps your student’s psychological condition would have been different?
Shulman: Exactly. And I always thought it was ridiculous just to tell prostitutes to find other jobs. For most it’s the only work they can get.
Tanenbaum: How would you define feminism today?
Shulman: The definition is much broader now that feminist ideas have spread throughout the culture. I would say that anybody who wants to call herself a feminist is a feminist. In addition, there are “applied feminists” — to borrow the writer Carolyn Heilbrun’s wonderful term — meaning someone who may not call herself a feminist but who lives like one. In the early days, there was a lot of debate about who was a real feminist. At the beginning of any movement, definitions seem to matter more. In the late sixties, there was a sense that we were just a handful of people. As the movement spread, we were very worried about being co-opted. So whether or not a newcomer was a “true” feminist seemed to matter, especially if that person was representing feminism in the media; there was a lot of mistrust of the media. We didn’t want to give up on our larger ideals and settle for something less.
But one of the things I’ve discovered over the years is that there is a great variety of response to any compelling idea, and the more dialogue and variety there is, the healthier it is for the movement and for social transformation. A movement may go in various directions that aren’t mutually exclusive.
Tanenbaum: What do you think are the sources of conflict in the women’s movement today?
Shulman: The sources are the same as those found throughout society: class divisions and lifestyle differences such as marriage or motherhood. But I don’t think that conflict per se is a sign of morbidity. The women’s movement has never been a monolith. Feminist writer bell hooks and others have suggested that there is more than one women’s movement. And I think that’s true; there are tremendous disparities of interest, focus, and experience among women who consider themselves feminists. Sometimes those differences make for conflict, and sometimes they don’t. The same thing happens in every social movement. During times of great energy in the movement, divisions are put aside for the sake of accomplishing a common goal. But at other times, those divisions become boundaries around which people try to clarify their positions and ideas. I suspect this is how all free people, freely pursuing their interests, behave — finding conflict as well as commonality.
Tanenbaum: What led you to pursue your solitary island summers, which you describe in Drinking the Rain?
Shulman: I had always expected that at age fifty I would undergo a great change and start something new; I just didn’t know what it would be. Until then, I had never been alone in my life, really, so solitude was a source of fear and a challenge. That summer, to launch a Swedish translation of one of my books, I went to Europe for a month by myself, and found that being alone really enabled me to think, to just follow my thoughts. It was a heady experience. I was discovering whole new aspects of myself. So I decided to see if I could tolerate really solitary conditions. (I also very much did not want to go back to New York, where my then-husband was. My kids were in college by then.)
When I returned to the States, I went straight to the island, to a cabin with no electricity or plumbing or phone. It felt like a great adventure — if I could pull it off. When I had expected to be transformed at fifty, I’d thought it would be in regard to my political pursuits, because I had been such a political person. So it was a big surprise to find that it was more of a spiritual change.
Tanenbaum: You imply in Drinking the Rain that a major impetus for your move was the “fizzling of the women’s movement.”
Shulman: I didn’t put that carefully enough; that passage has been misunderstood. As early as 1975 we realized that the organized, radical feminist movement we had known was no longer in evidence. We started to bemoan the co-optation of the movement and how the movement had fallen apart — though its ideas hadn’t; in fact, they had spread. But by 1982, when I decided to go off to the island, people were already starting to write about the movement in the past tense. I felt like a relic of another era. And I wanted something more.
Tanenbaum: The whole book, in a sense, is a description of your growing sense of mastery and freedom, as you learn to survive on this island. It seems to me that that’s what feminism is about — gaining mastery and independence. How are these two seemingly disparate things — subsistence living and feminist politics — related?
Shulman: I think it was because I was a feminist and freedom was my goal that I was able to go to the island and be alone. I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me to try it — nor do I think I would have succeeded — if I hadn’t already been empowered by feminism.
I remember the first time I gave a speech, early in the movement: my knees shook. People had been writing to Redstockings to request speakers to discuss this new thing called women’s liberation. We had agreed that each of us would have to do every task so that we would develop a variety of skills and become empowered. At first, I was terrified. But then, afterward, I was strong. I was never afraid to speak publicly again.
This pattern of fear followed by mastery happened over and over again with each new experience. It wasn’t that I was afraid of what would happen to me; I was just afraid of stepping across the line into new territory. Each time you do, however, you conquer a fear and develop a skill that’s yours for good. So I think that my experience on the island is a product of my feminism.
Tanenbaum: How do you reconcile your solitary, spiritual side with your community-minded, activist side? Or are there even different “sides” of you at all?
Shulman: There used to be different sides of me, and I used to feel myself divided. I had a secret self, with secret longings, and a public self that didn’t acknowledge those longings. I used to believe that thinking, dreaming, reading, and even writing were private indulgences. I had to steal time to think, to read, to write. But since I overcame my fear of solitude — going off and being alone for months at a time, year after year, with no phone, electricity, or plumbing — I no longer feel there are different sides of me. Conquering my fear of solitude unified me. As I wrote in Drinking the Rain, I don’t find a conflict anymore between my contemplative side and my activist side. I think that they feed off each other, perhaps even need each other.
Solitude grants the possibility of uninhibited thought. I can’t imagine anything better for political activity and progressive movement than uninhibited, unrestricted thought. It’s amazing what turns up when you really are free to follow your thoughts wherever they go. It frees you from convention and from presuppositions. You might wind up discovering that what you care about is very different from what you thought you might care about.
Then, too, I use my time on the island to write, and I consider much of my writing to be an aspect of my activism. So, again, I see the inseparability of thought and action. Those parts of my life are only separate geographically.
The fact that I am not as much of an activist now as I was in the late sixties and early seventies is less a function of a change in me than of a change in the times. Those were activist times and these, unfortunately, are not. I do what I can, but political action is always a matter of the relationship between the parts and the whole, the people and the times.
Tanenbaum: Is spending time in isolation something more people should do?
Shulman: I know that the ability to go away for months at a time and be alone is a privilege of my profession and my family situation. Because I am a writer, I can make my living just as easily alone on an island as I can in the city; and my children are grown. So I know it’s something that’s unavailable to many people.
But there are other ways of finding time to think besides going off to a remote island. I think what’s required most is a frame of mind that honors solitude and silence. I know someone who talks all the time and, when she isn’t talking, keeps earphones plugged into her ears. I don’t believe she ever has time to think. I wish everyone could find time for thinking and reflection and looking inside.
Tanenbaum: Some people suggest that the politics of gender drives apart otherwise like-minded men and women who could be working together for common goals. What do you think?
Shulman: I don’t think the politics of gender is driving people apart; I think that people are already apart in our society, and the politics of gender offers a possibility of diminishing the distance between them — or at least bringing it to the fore, where it can be dealt with. There are probably lots of misunderstandings about the meanings of feminism, but I think that’s because those in power really don’t want to see equality.
I’ve worked with men on environmental issues in Maine, and I certainly consider many men my allies. Some men are clearly against feminism and say appallingly sexist things to me, like “I think we’ve had enough of feminism; don’t you?” But there are other men, as well as women, who genuinely want equality. It’s always a matter of awareness, and I don’t think either gender has a monopoly on that.