Published 19 March 2010
The first National Women's Liberation Conference was a thunderous
affair. Forty years on, Clancy Sigal considers its impact on him.
When I made a decision to get married (or, to be more precise, find a
wife), I had no one in particular in mind. I put the problem as
analytically as possible to friends who I hoped knew me better than I
knew myself. At last, the feminist scholar Catherine Hall suggested
that, to avoid wasting more time, I should focus on a woman suitable
to my political history, and it logically followed that the first
stop should be the next weekend's debut National Women's Liberation
Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford. So, on a cold and drizzly
late February day in 1970, off I went.
"Women in labour keep capitalism in power. Down with penile
servitude!" ran graffiti on the college walls.
I have never been so excited or scared as during that thunderous,
exuberant, foot-stamping meeting at Ruskin - not even when I was
caught in a New Orleans police shoot-out or swarmed by drunken
Everton supporters while wearing Liverpool colours. Although some
later observers claimed that a fair number of men were sprinkled
among the 500 or so women, I doubt there were more than a few.
Perhaps I miscounted because, like me, they were trying to make
Many of the women at the conference, drawn from Marxist history
workshops and local discussion groups, had that certain look I was
scouting: middle-class, straight, a kind of academic intensity, long
hair, ankle-length velvet coats, sometimes over crocheted miniskirts,
faces flushed with exaltation and obstinate assurance. I listened to
their demands from floor and platform - for equal pay, abortion on
demand, community-controlled nurseries - with only half an ear,
because I had to stay alert for my wife-to-be.
My mother, a flame-haired union organiser and single mother in the
American Midwest, had habituated me to smart, militant women with a
mouth on them, as had snarly, defiant movie queens of my youth such
as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. But the buzz at
Ruskin - and then at the Oxford Union, where the conference was moved
to accommodate a large crowd - was so awesome, it almost knocked me
down. It was like being at the Finland Station in 1917 when Lenin's
train chugged in to kick-start the October Revolution.
Trouble and strife
I'd had this feeling before, riding along with the brave young hearts
of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee in rural
south-west Georgia on their dangerous midnight voter registration
drives, and later while I worked for Malcolm X's Black Power movement
in Detroit. In the most intense and transforming moments of the civil
rights struggle, with the front-line fighters risking their lives to
break the colour line, you felt yourself losing aspects of your
whiteness - ironically, at the same time as angry members of the
movement were demanding that "whitey" be banished.
So it sounded eerily familiar when women at the conference insisted
that any males present, especially journalists, should be kicked out.
My bacon was saved when Mary Holland, a former colleague of mine on
the Observer, successfully argued to keep us few men.
Happily, in the face of scornful denunciations of the male patriarchy
from the platform, and despite the palpable rage that ran like an
electric current through the hall, I met very little personal
hostility down on the floor. Some women even seemed to take pity on
me: "You poor lad." They seemed to know instinctively what it was
like to be shoved aside and made fun of at meetings.
Two things happened as a result of the Ruskin conference - many women
who had considered themselves mad came away feeling sane, perhaps for
the first time in their lives; and I found a wife-to-be. I was
slouched in my chair, a nervous spy in not entirely friendly
territory, guiltily examining my macho, male psyche so at odds with
the atmosphere in the hall, when this stunning brunette smiled -
actually smiled! - at me. "Don't take it personally," she said in a
deep, rich voice. "I wish we were as tough as we talk." My heart swelled.
Thus, I became a camp follower of women's liberation, a reprobate
drawing energy from other people freeing themselves from my bondage.
Entering a serious relationship with a smart, fully committed
feminist who had her sense of humour intact was an adventure in
acclimatisation and self-censorship. Watch where your eyes stray,
guard your mouth. Because my parents had had a passionate and
turbulent relationship that ended badly, I was determined to make a
better job of it. With this secret proviso to myself: under no
circumstances would I, could I, make myself over into a "liberated
man". Some of the post-Ruskin "new men" I would run into, lovers and
husbands trying their best, struck me as enfeebled by guilt. And the
one meeting of a men's support group I attended in a gloomy Camden
Town Hall was so grimly depressed that it reminded me of a back ward
in an asylum I'd once worked in. Being a "new man" did not come
naturally to me.
Because I didn't possess XX chromosomes, by definition I couldn't be
an equal partner in an all-women's movement. This was a loss - along
with my unfortunate XY male chromosomes, I'd inherited an activist's
instinct. But it was also a relief as, selfishly, I needed all my
time to write. On the other hand, I could not not participate. So I
did the next best thing: pry and peek in the best private-eye
tradition. When Jill held male-excluded, consciousness-raising
meetings at her place (where I'd moved in), I would place an empty
water tumbler to my ear and press it against the wall to pick up
gossip through the plaster.
Mixed in with the discussions of how to help the cleaning women's
campaign for higher wages and plans to disrupt the oncoming Miss
World contest was exuberant chat about orgasms and penises. My ears
burned when, amid whoops of laughter, they exchanged Chaucerian tales
of their men's sexual shortcomings in some anatomical detail. How I
envied the women's free and easy sisterhood - most men in my
experience didn't do this.
Eavesdropping on women can be devastating to a healthy male ego.
Their sexual sniping hurt less (though it stung) than their blithe
ignoring of men. Although there was much talk about the male
patriarchy, they simply weren't all that interested in us as men.
I was lucky because Jill had a coolly ironic view of the women's
movement while also being intensely committed to it. Even so, I had
to tread cautiously. Some of her friends took such a hard line that
one of them angrily slapped her face because she had chosen to live
with a man. Self-defence karate tested my nerve to the max. One night
at a north London gym, another guy and I watched from the sideline as
"our" women, in sports bras and shorts, violently threw each other
around, practising kung fu-style kicks and parries, part of their
Jill, kicking high and punching the air, was glowing with exertion
and exhilaration. The man and I grinned nervously at each other.
Session over, the women streamed into the locker room to change, and
my new friend and I started to leave. But his girlfriend, stripping
naked, just laughed: "Don't be such fogeys, you two. Stay." We didn't
know where to look . . .
A lot of the women I met through Jill and the women's movement were
tough, difficult and, like my mum, sassy. But such is the moth's love
of the flame that I was enchanted - in the original sense - by their
uprising power and sheer joie de vivre. It was fun being around them,
absorbing their positive vibes, borrowing their energy.
Best of all, Jill and her friends demanded nothing of me. I was
nearly invisible, and at that early stage of the "second wave" there
wasn't much of a party line. It took getting used to, this being
ignored and looked through as if I wasn't there. But then came a
surprise: if nobody cared what a man felt or thought, not really, I
was free to concentrate on what they thought, and this turned out to
I made plenty of missteps, of course. Jill hated it when I mentioned
her attractiveness. "You still don't get it, Clancy. Being called
'beautiful' is just another put-down." The flour bombs and rotten
fruit hurled at the stage during the Miss World contest at the Royal
Albert Hall in London were only weeks away.
Today, I live in a different time on a different planet called Los
Angeles. Most of the women I meet, and often those for whom I work,
are skilled professionals who are the spiritual daughters and
granddaughters of the Ruskin College revolution and its American
counterparts - if only they knew it. They take coolly, forgetfully,
for granted what the women in that draughty old hall in February 1970
spoke up for, some for the very first time in their lives. But I
remember. Did my shallow immersion in the women's movement change me?
No, not much. Did it change my outlook? Fundamentally.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist.