(WOMENSENEWS)–Historian and journalist Ruth Rosen was active in the women’s liberation movement in the ’60s and early ’70s in the United States. She pioneered women’s history at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis, where she won a distinguished teaching award. A former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, Rosen, 59, has authored three books.
She was recently featured in the documentary "She is Beautiful When She is Angry" along with several others female activists and women’s groups who were at the heart of the early women’s movement in the United States.
This interview, for Women’s History Month, is part of a series that taps activists from the 1960s through today, for a sense of the diversity of those involved. It was conducted by phone and some of Rosen’s remarks have been edited down.
It seemed preposterous that they were looking at the women’s movement because we weren’t making bombs and we weren’t engaged in any violent actions or anything that threatened national security… I would say that I was surprised at the extent of the surveillance. If you read what they did they basically just sat in consciousness raising groups and they [female informants] listened to people talking and when they listened then they would send reports about what had been discussed. They were not paid as full agents because Hoover refused to hire women but these women would send material to their local FBI agents. It surprised me a lot that there were so many letters written by women who simply were sitting and listening to people talking about some of the most personal and intimate aspects of their lives.
The letters that were being forwarded to Hoover would describe how the women are just talking about how unhappy they are, about how they are treated by their bosses or by their husband or by the people in school they work with. There was nothing to surveil. There was no reason to keep following this because the women were simply describing the way some were unhappy as women and there was nothing threatening to national security. In each case, Hoover would write back to the male FBI agent to say "continue surveillance; women’s liberation is a threat to national security."
Was I surprised? Not completely because it was in the air that this might be happening everywhere but I couldn’t see anything with the exception of a few crazy women who were mostly not part of the women’s movement but in other groups that were more violent . . . They [FBI] were worried that there were socialist or communist groups and that women might be part of them… What I ended up concluding is they were looking for revolutionary behavior and violent behavior and the really revolutionary thing women were doing was talking to each other and telling each other about their lives.
If you would have asked me this in 1999, I might have said I don’t see why. But at this point in 2015, after 9/11, I have no idea what is going on. The [Edward] Snowden material has certainly made me realize more surveillance is happening than I could ever imagine.
A lot of women are not so much involved in the women’s movement but a lot of them are leaders of the current change in the ecological movement, many of them are involved in movements that are trying to get minimum wage and trying to get better conditions like paid maternity leave and paid sick leave. I don’t know more that you do except that the atmosphere clearly after the Snowden material came out tells us all that when we write an email and we are on the phone, we should be aware of the fact it is very possible in this atmosphere trying to balance national security with civil rights that we have underestimated how much surveillance is going on.
There is no question that the issues of the younger women in the movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s had to do a lot more with white, middle class women than any other group . . . but one of the things that most people don’t realize is that the National Organization for Women actually was so active in dealing with problems that all working women dealt with. For example child care, they filed suit for the women who worked at ATandT and those included women of color, those included working class women.
There is a second point to be made: A lot of women in the women’s movement had worked in the South and were really aware of what had gone on in the South. They were very dedicated, devoted to the civil rights movement. So they were not ignorant.
Another point that has to be made is that the assumption was, in my view, that most of the women who were involved in the beginning years must have been white and middle class and what I realized is that definitely they were white, but they were not middle class. Most of the women–Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, me, and other people–came almost all from working class families. But when a woman goes to college and graduates and has had years to be educated, even though she may be the very first person to have gone to university in her family, she looks poised, she knows how to write and so the presumption was how could [these women] come from a poor family? And that was true for most of the leaders of the women’s movement; they really came from working class families and there were many of them. Most of them were the first members of their families to even go to college.
And then one more point has to be made. Women of color had a real serious problem within themselves and that they had to confront which was very difficult for them. The men in their liberation’s groups, particularly the Black Panthers group and nationalist groups, were telling the women that if they had anything to do with the women’s movement they would be dividing the black nationalist movement and so a lot of these women felt very uncomfortable being part of any kind of women’s movement. They felt they would divide it.
The story is more complicated than it seems on the surface. All these years, everyone has been aware that the media has described the women’s movement as white, middle class movement without even bothering to notice that most of its leaders and most of its early agitators were from working class homes. And then the question of race was never out of our mind because most of us were so involved in the civil rights movement. Yet, it is true that when the movement entered popular culture and the women’s magazines and television and films, everything was always white with the exception of very clearly identified race magazines.
I don’t know how to answer that question but when the film ["She is Beautiful When She is Angry"] premiered, a number of us were there to answer the Q&As [post screenings] and we all said that we really didn’t know that talking to people in one-on-one groups had a really powerful impact on our lives. Now most of us don’t spend that much time doing Twitter or being on our Facebook or even reading the online feminist magazines. So how I can really answer that when I don’t participate in it? Now if a young woman in Los Angeles is reading an online feminist magazine from New York, how does she get affected? One woman on the panel said, "Well I think sometimes you are feeling frozen, you can feel almost nothing because she is just reading words, you are not really talking with another human being." I say I don’t really know how to answer that because I am not in my 20s and I don’t participate in the social media world and so I don’t know how it affects people. Certainly, it draws people’s attention to issues, for example the SlutWalks, I am sure it would not have got the attention that it is getting now had it not been on social media. It is a different time and there are different groups of people. One group coming out of the anti-war and civil rights movements and another group now living in 2015 in very different world that is very electronically connected. I am just glad that there are so many online discussions among young women, who are feminists or who care about women’s issues, racism, minimum wage, paid maternity leave and demand real equality.
The kind of antagonism that we experienced is so different from what happens today. Today, people who are really prominent can get stalked and be hideously treated online without anyone being within 100 miles from them. When we were treated badly we were treated badly in person. People yelled at us when we gave speeches. Even in the early 2000s when I was a full-time editorial writer and columnist, I wrote about a lot of feminist issues and what was there for people available to be hostile was just emails. That was all. So I got hundreds, sometimes thousands, of emails when I wrote about various issues but that’s all there was.
Now I am talking to younger women who are really teaching me what they go through, the kind of stalking, the kind of horrible things that go on. Through Twitter, rumors about their reputation can be made that people could actually believe.
This is a completely different world. There is such an opportunity to destroy people online now in a way that never existed when we were young. You could try to do it in person but think how difficult it was to yell at people and have them yell back at you. That is different from the distant, anonymous, trolling. I don’t know if the government is doing anything to help people about this. I read a lot of young women asking what should I do, who I should contact, who I should go to. I am not sure what the right answer is but it is becoming a real issue for a lot of young feminists.
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