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You can’t wring your hands and roll up your shirtsleeves at the same time

Sisterhood is Powerful
Robin Morgan, editor
Vintage Press, 1970

Sisterhood is Forever
Robin Morgan, editor
Washington Square Press, 2003

Review by Serene Williams

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Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan, was the first major anthology to emerge out of feminism’s second wave. First published in 1970, Morgan's collection helped launch to prominence many then-unknown feminist thinkers, including Kate Millet, as well as members of influential women’s liberation groups such as the Daughters of Bilitis and Redstockings. Until the 2003 release of Morgan’s subsequent anthology, Sisterhood is Forever, Sisterhood is Powerful was unmatched as a nearly comprehensive overview of modern feminism. (A third anthology, Sisterhood is Global, also edited by Morgan, while enthusiastically recommended, is not included in this review due to its close similarities to Sisterhood is Powerful). Reading Sisterhood is Powerful is the best way to familiarize oneself with the history of the modern day women’s movement, while reading Sisterhood is Forever is the best way to familiarize oneself with the state of the women’s movement today. Taken separately or together, Morgan's two anthologies educate us in feminist history, and compel us to take immediate action by becoming involved in the women’s movement.

Sisterhood is Powerful is more than a collection of articles and essays; it is an all-inclusive guide to then-contemporary women’s movement. In addition to groundbreaking essays and social analyses, the book, which is now unfortunately out of print included a contact list for women’s liberation groups and recommended resources. Reading these reference guides today is captivating -- it's easy to forget how difficult it must have been for feminist women outside of major cities to find each other in 1970. Where such groups did exist, they often consisted of radical cells operating far outside the mainstream of American life. Sisterhood is Powerful makes reference to the fact that before the book was published, many women tried look feminism or women’s groups up in the phone book, often only to find none were listed.

While the two anthologies are similar in structure, Sisterhood is Powerful is a much more radical book than its counterpart, largely because women fighting for liberation in the late 60s and early 70s were viewed -- and often viewed themselves -- as extremists and radicals. Sisterhood is Powerful was written at a time when women were still defined by their relation to a man and by motherhood, and before they had control over their reproductive options.

To put the radicalism of Sisterhood is Powerful into context, readers may recall that by 1970, a major rift had formed between feminist women and the men of the New Left. As the "Know Your Enemy" list offered by Morgan in Sisterhood is Powerful notes, Abbie Hoffman, a leader of the New Left, once declared, "The only alliance I would make with the Women’s Liberation Movement is in bed." Today, it's disturbing to read a quote like this from a leftist, but before women in the liberation movement called attention to sexism within the left, it was not at all uncommon. The essays in Sisterhood is Powerful articulately defined the problems women had while working in the New Left movement of the late 1960s, and why they ultimately had no choice but to splinter off and form their own social revolution.

Since feminism was largely new during this time period, it also went through a painful period of division between the two major forces: radical and liberal feminism. Sisterhood is Powerful was clearly a product of the former, while mainstream women’s organizations, such as NOW, represented the latter. Morgan addresses this split when she wrote of the need for radical feminism in her introduction:

I fear for the women’s movement’s falling into precisely the same trap as did our foremothers, the suffragists: creating a bourgeois feminist movement that never quite dared enough, never questioned enough, never really reached out beyond its own class and race. The only hope of a new feminist movement is some kind of only now barely emerging politics of revolutionary feminism, which some people are trying to explore in this anthology.

Morgan called for a radical feminist revolution, and Sisterhood is Powerful, which explained and ultimately came to represent radical feminism, and was not written to be beloved by a mainstream audience. The writers openly and aggressively challenged the fundamental structures of mid-twentieth century society, including workplace norms, relationships and family formation. As with other radical feminist works published in 1970, such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, many women in this anthology are calling for an abolition of the nuclear family and a complete overhaul of patriarchal society.

Radical feminism was a direct response to the overt sexism which permeated nearly every aspect of American life. One of the experiences Lindsy Van Gelder shares in her essay, "The Trials of Lois Lane: Women in Journalism" shows what women were dealing with at the time Sisterhood is Powerful was published: "…[M]y favorite adventure was at the New York Daily News, which operates an internship program for college graduates. I remember the editor in charge beaming over my resume….then he noticed that I was married….I told the editor I was on the Pill and planned to stay that way for some time to come. Anyway, my husband and I both believed in working motherhood. 'Honey.' The editor said cavalierly, 'that’s no way to talk. A pretty little thing like you ought to be home having a baby every year!' It was only due to the efforts of second wave activists that it is now illegal for a potential employer to ask a woman if she has children or ever plans to have them.

Sisterhood is Powerful has obviously left an imprint on feminism and our society as a whole. For those who are familiar with some of the most outspoken feminists of today, it is clear the women anthologized in Sisterhood is Powerful paved a way for their present day counterparts. For example, Nomy Lamm, the writer who discusses her disability and plus size body in many funny and radical essays, clearly has these women to thank for their style of the "in your face feminism" she has embraced.

sisterhood is forever

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