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Book Review: Two Women of the Sixties

by Jo Freeman

America's Child: a woman's journey through the radical sixties
a memoir by Susan Sherman
Curbstone Press, 2007, 239 pp.
 
Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman
by Cathy Wilkerson,
Seven Stories Press, 2007, 416pp

 
The Sixties was a revolutionary decade, but it was not the same revolution for everyone. There were many revolutions; some pleasant, some painful; some successful; some not. Sherman and Wilkerson grew up on different coasts and trod different paths through the Sixties, though both ended up as feminists and as teachers in New York City. Comparing their journeys illustrates some of the complexity of that tumultuous decade and the one that followed.

These books are very dissimilar, as are the women who wrote them. Sherman is a poet. Her Sixties was that of the counterculture. Her writing is personal, introspective, lyrical, and impressionistic with detailed descriptions of her experiences with different kinds of sex and drugs. Her book is best read after knowing some Sixties history to provide a context for what she did and what she thought.

Wilkerson is a political person; she wanted to make the Revolution (with a capital R). Instead she made the FBI’s most wanted list after surviving the explosion of her father’s Greenwich Village townhouse. Three comrades (including her lover) died in the blast while trying to make a bomb that was intended for an Army base. Wilkerson describes in detail what it’s like to be in the middle of an explosion and the boredom of being a fugitive. Setting her personal story into the larger social context, she explains how events at home and abroad convinced her and other Weathermen that violence was the only way to be heard. Her book is history.

As another child of the Sixties I can testify how different were the worlds of the counterculture and the political protesters. The popular image of Sixties rebels has fused multiple rebellions into one, but the reality, as reflected in these memoirs, was very different. The worlds overlapped — Sherman did some political actions and Wilkerson experimented with sex and drugs — but they were not the same.

Wilkerson was born in 1945, raised on the east coast, went to Quaker schools and to Swarthmore, and was politicized by the civil rights movement. Sherman is six years older, was raised in Beverly Hills and went to UC Berkeley. Her first demonstration was the May, 1960 protests against the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in San Francisco (1). Born Jewish, she was strongly influenced by her Christian Science grade school.

Christian Science and Quaker(ism) have long provided the troops for social justice movements, as have strains of Judaism. While neither author specifically attributes her values to her religious upbringing, the links are there. Wilkerson’s mother was also important in imparting her values to all of her daughters, though she probably regrets the lengths to which Cathy took them. Sherman did not like her mother and stepfather but apparently inherited her artistic sensibilities from them — though not her politics.

It’s less certain that the views of these women were shaped by their college years though both schools graduated many like them into radical activity. Rather it was their encounters with "the system" that convinced them that fundamental change was necessary.

Wilkerson tried electoral politics and concluded that it was not the way to stop the war in Viet Nam. She turned to organizing for SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and when it disintegrated in 1969 joined the Weatherman faction. Although she often doubted the path it took, she still had enough confidence in its leaders to subsume her doubts to the need for immediate action.

Sherman found her voice through poetry and plays in the New York coffeehouse scene. Supporting herself with a variety of clerical jobs, she published a magazine of counter-cultural art and literary criticism. As the War progressed the content became more political. However, her lesbianism was not yet political in an era when her left-wing political colleagues still thought that this was bourgeois degeneracy.

While these two lives were very different, there are some commonalities. Black protest and the War in Viet Nam was the backdrop of their activities and provided the standards against which they measured themselves. Third World revolutionaries, especially those under attack by the U.S. Government (i.e. Castro and the Viet Cong) were their heroes. At home, they put the Black Panthers on a pedestal. Both were influenced by the emerging women’s liberation movement, though neither was among its founders.

Both women attracted a major interest on the part of the FBI. Having followed SDS at least since 1964, the feds opened a file on Wilkerson after she became the SDS regional organizer in Washington, DC in 1967. Sherman’s file was opened the following year when she attended the Cultural Congress of Havana, where she met Fidel Castro and became a pen pal with his personal physician. The FBI did more than take notes; it tried to undermine their activities, even the strictly cultural ones.

In an era in which "security" is used as an excuse for government to intrude more and more into our lives, it is good to remind ourselves that it did this before, to the detriment of the very values it is supposedly trying to protect. As is clear from reading these memoirs, repression didn’t stop the protesters or keep their views from spreading. It just increased the cynicism.

(1): To find out what those protests were about you’ll have to read pp. 39-40 of my book At Berkeley in the Sixties because Sherman doesn’t really tell you

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