Forty Years of Defying the Odds

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

Sheila Michaels

MY WORK AREA is a shambles. Projects I’ve been meaning to get to for forty years tumble from wherever I’ve shoved them.

Last year an announcement floated down, circa 1970, for a New York Radical Women/Domestic Workers Union demonstration. I was not at that planning meeting, but I can imagine the agonies over condemning exploited women who exploit other women and whether to condone domestic work.

It reminded me that — however doctrinaire we were — we acted with a clean idea of the purpose of Feminism.  As “The Feminists” button said, it was “Freedom for Women,” not an equal right to compete within our class. All women’s choices were narrowly circumscribed then, but the aim was to open the way for all women whether they cared to join our struggle, or not. Lightheaded, yes, and giddy with our dreams.

I was out of the country for the first time in my life, in 1968, when the Miss America Pageant Demonstration was staged. I was in Istanbul, Turkey and stopped at a newsstand to look at the International Herald Tribune. I was with two Socialist bookstore owners/publishers I had recently met, who were lately released from five years in prison. They had come along to meet a young man who had invited me on a date: to see if he was trustworthy (he was).

“S—”, I muttered, when I saw the article. “They’ve started the Revolution without me!” I told my companions. (They doubted that, and said consoling things.)

When I returned to New York, almost a month later, two friends gave me the address and time of the meeting. Phyllis Cunningham and Patricia Yorck were in my Freedom Summer project in Hattiesburg, in 1964. Neither was interested in a woman’s movement — both were living with Black men and felt a woman’s movement would detract from the struggle — but both were sick of my talking about the need for one, and as Pat said, “now you can shut up and do something.”

I was working and taking evening classes up at Columbia Monday through Thursday, and came down and across by subway, so I was pretty exhausted. I don’t think I ever got to the first hour of anything. One movement had followed another for me, for eight solid years, and I was uninterested in theoretical underpinnings. I saw no value in ideas not hammered out in praxis.

I always carried my knitting. I cannot recreate the arguments we had, but I had sweaters. (My friend Nancy Siraisi said one looked to be “the national costume of a country not yet discovered.”)

The whole world was in motion in 1968, but women’s roles were unchanged. Although I had never been as free in my life as I was in the Civil Rights Movement, there had been no follow-through in the world I returned to. After over two years in the Deep South, I had come back like a soldier to find a world little changed for me.

Moreover the Civil Rights Movement, which had freed me, was transformed. It was not only refusing to work with whites, but was increasingly rejecting women’s contributions. SNCC, CORE and SCLC had all been started by women, or built on the work of women, but the subsequent leadership had been claimed by and freely given to men.

The work available to me when I returned offered little opportunity or satisfaction. As an organizer for Local 1199, I was hired at their minimum wage, $75 a week, and expected to drive five hours daily, to and from Southampton, to meet both shift changes and put in a day’s work there.

When my partner and I asked — separately — for raises, I was told that it wouldn’t be fitting for me to make more than a Black man, and he was told that he shouldn’t be making more than a Jewish college grad. I asked for a raise for him, too. It never occurred to him to speak up for me. And we had been asked to spy on each other’s affairs.

When organizers tried to organize an organizers’ union, I was the one fired — though I had just won an election and had one pending — as minority men were important, women weren’t. (Soon, one of those male organizers moved on, to edit Mohammed Speaks and, as an amends, named me its theater critic.)

In the anti-War movement women were treated very shabbily. A typical view was on that poster of Joan Baez and her sisters: “Girls say ‘Yes’ to men who say ‘No’.”

The Student Movement seemed to be all posture and noise. Protesters had shut down Columbia over (among other things) the university’s work with the Institute for Defense Analysis and its infringement onto Morningside Park. When I came from work in office clothes, no one would speak to me. It was okay for me to be part of the cordon against the police charge of Low Library (in heels), but only student dress merited confidence.

I ran into Mary Lovelace O’Neal, a Mississippian, a founder of SNCC’s Nonviolent Action Group at Howard (histories never include her, somehow), and manager of the Free Southern Theater, then taking her MFA. One of the Black students occupying Hamilton Hall, with no idea of her background, was preening for her, and we went for a beer. She told him that Stokely Carmichael (her former longtime companion) had been up to speak to the students and would support them. He panicked, saying that was too extreme (we folded in laughter).

During the strike, the cafeteria workers went out, looking to form a union and get better pay. Supporting them was one of the keynotes of every speech. I still remember Ingrid Bengis at a rally, telling the students she had been sitting with the cafeteria workers who said none of the students had talked with them, and they had no idea they were being “supported.” She was booed off the stage: removed from it, as I remember.

From Civil Rights to “Ms”

I was extremely disturbed by the noisy, shallow, chaotic state of the political landscape, which was exhausting itself, to no end. My “career” was also problematic. I was writing press releases that bore the name of my superior, so I was not building a portfolio. I was, at 29, training an intern who was earning the same salary I was (more than I’d ever made in my life), because that’s what they had to offer a man for starting pay: women interns received half that.
I knew no woman who had risen above copy editor in publishing or department head in public relations. And in Mississippi women were still supporting families on $3 for a full day’s work.

My expectations had risen in the Civil Rights Movement. I had come to it via the Young People’s Socialist League. Sandra Feldman [the late president of United Federation of Teachers — ed.] — then an office mate at a ghostwriting firm — had recruited some of us to join YPSL. No one paid any attention to women’s opinions there, and male members were particularly hard on Lucy Komisar, because of her objectivity. Even Bayard Rustin, YPSL’s mentor, suffered sexism when a proffered visit to Cuba excluded homosexuals.

The one satisfaction I had (aside from the social life) was our work on behalf of Congress of Racial Equality. It occurred to me that I should work with CORE rather than YPSL. When I was in Mississippi in 1962, I found that CORE and SNCC were one there, and eventually I became a SNCC Field Secretary: one of only six women out of 90.

Even in the Women’s Movement, I had trouble finding my voice; I could not explain myself or my ideas, such as “Ms” as a neutral honorific title for all women. I created the term in 1961, from what I thought was a typo on my roommate Mary Hamilton’s subscription to News & Letters.

It resolved a dilemma for me, having been born as a bastard [a category in orthodox Jewish law — ed.] who “belonged” to no man. That is, my mother’s husband was not my father. I have his name, Michaels, but he did not contribute to my support after they divorced when I was three. When I was 14 I was to be introduced to Ephraim London [famous civil liberties, anti-censorship attorney — ed.] and began to realize he was my father. I adored him (unrequited).

Knowing this clarified so many people’s actions and motives. It was a struggle, thereafter. Everyone acted like it was my fault and my secret, not theirs, and made me feel it too — yet it was a relief to have some kind of clarity.
No one wanted to hear about “Ms,” and to this day Susan Brownmiller tells me she still thinks it’s silly. It finally became current when a friend of Gloria Steinem heard me, filling a lull during a WBAI interview with “The Feminists.” When I went to get a copy of the interview, the guys who had, of course, recorded over women’s liberation crap, hooted me out of the station. It would still be a dead item if Steinem’s friend hadn’t suggested it as the name of the experimental feminist magazine supplement.

Like everyone, I cycled through a dozen new groups and consciousness-raising circles. Every group broke up when we started reading Engels’ On The Origin of the Family. Oddly enough, I finally found my voice, and the ability to speak in and to groups, later in Al-Anon, which requires that all attendees speak, and keep it to two minutes.

It heartens me lately to see that people are finally prying the political process away from the death grip of the professionals, and doing actual footwork. In the very hard times ahead, only the weak and eccentric, working together, will be able to defy the odds.

ATC 133, March-April 2008