My Favorite Feminist Tract. [UPDATED]

January 31, 2010 at 6:06 pm (By Amba)

UPDATE: Delighted to have this piece published on Boston arts forum Big RED & Shiny!

Surprised that I even have a favorite feminist tract?  Read on.

Back in the heady early days of the second wave, feminist theorists poured forth torrents of words about the male monopoly on public power — economic, political, religious, cultural.  If you had grown up in a world where the politicians, doctors, lawyers, novelists, scientists, artists, ministers, bankers, and entrepreneurs were overwhelmingly male, and where such aspirations on the part of a girl were not only against all odds but officially (by the reigning Freudians) ruled unnatural — hard to imagine now, half a century later — these scalding exposés and analyses couldn’t help but strike a chord, especially at first.  They gave a word, a name — Patriarchy, rule of the fathers — to the wall of maleness that loomed all around you in the public world and the near-exclusive femininity it walled into the soft home-heart of that world.  Before that, you wouldn’t have been able to find words for it.  It was just the way things were.

Soon, though, as the wall was breached and women began to pour into the public world, feminist tracts became, to many of us, increasingly strident, doctrinaire, and tiresome.  There was still resistance, there were still barriers, inequities, prejudices, condescension — but the focus shifted to proving ourselves, which we were now free to do, with an optimistic sense that merit and resolve would prevail.  And they have — with remarkable rapidity, considering the weight of millennia on the other side of the scale.  Some areas of the culture still remain tougher than others for a woman to break into and excel in.  I’ve heard the art world is one of them.

Jo Ann Rothschild is an ambitious abstract artist who often paints on a large scale.

AFTER CHICAGO 2009  oil on canvas  96″x66″

Jo Ann is also my oldest continuous friend.  I moved to her street when we were about four, and I still remember her throwing a hammer at the back fender of my bike as part of my initiation into the neighborhood.  She was tough.  I toughened up.

If I was a tomboy — climbing trees and catching spiders — what to call Jo Ann?  When we played Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (*blush*), she was always Roy.  When the boys played football, she was always devastated not to be allowed to play.  She hated being dressed up in frilly girl clothes (although she later came to appreciate little black dresses) and saddled with the nickname “Missy,” bestowed to highlight the contrast with her older brother.  Following stereotype you might deduce that she grew up to be a lesbian; you’d be wrong.  She is the only female in her immediate family (husband, son), including the dog.  She just thought the things the boys were doing, back then, were the really interesting things.

Like, art.

[At the Boston Museum School in the late 1970s] (Jo Ann writes), [a]n overwhelmingly male faculty taught an overwhelmingly female student body.  The chief Boston art critic Ken Baker wrote almost exclusively about male artists.  When he wrote about women artists his tone seemed snide.  As a trial lawyer’s daughter I began to document, in a statistical way, the gender bias of the Boston art scene.  In 1982 Art New England published my findings.  They had to be edited because I was so shocked and angry.  This created a little space for me.  Not the publishing of the stats but my discovery that this is the world I live in, work in.  This is what I’m dealing with.

I remember Baker’s calling one of my MFA classmates, Ralph Helmick, a “genius.”  I had a show at Helen Shlein’s gallery around the same time and couldn’t even get a negative review.  The ICA had an exhibition of Boston Artists that had only men.

Jo Ann could’ve remained “shocked and angry;” allowed bitterness to wither her work, or turn it polemical; blamed The Patriarchy for all her career disappointments (being an abstract painter in the ’80s wasn’t trendy, either).  However, unlike some of the theorists I’ve cited above, she had . . . a sense of humor.

Sometime after [the all-male ICA show], I had the thought that the penis, this is the difference. . .

I thought about that until it seemed funny.

And so Jo Ann began to pen my favorite feminist tract:

I have loved this little book from the moment I saw it and have held onto a battered Xerox copy for many years, but now at last it’s in print, thanks to micropublisher Pressed Wafer and Small Press Distribution (SPD).  Why do I love it?  Because it’s funny.  Because it says everything that needs saying about the other P-word in almost no words at all.  Because the vulnerable hand-drawn line and iconic shape almost make the satirical edge caressing instead of cutting.  Because it is so absurd (an all but one-gendered public world was absurd!) that it finally becomes endearing.

I am sure some of my readers will be offended by this little book, and by my love for it.  How would you feel, they’ll say, if the types and roles of women were caricatured by cartoons of your genitalia?  (I think it actually has been done, but with less class.)  How is this a constructive contribution to relations between the sexes?  Aren’t the religion parts downright blasphemous?  Isn’t this trying to rekindle a war that’s over?

To them I can only say:  please, try not to be as touchy and humorless as some feminists can be.  (Note also that the book’s publisher, and the eminent museum curator who calls it a “little masterpiece” in his afterword, are male.)  Indeed, this is a salvo in a battle that’s won in principle, if not yet over (and that could still be lost in many parts of the world, like Afghanistan).  Indeed, Rothschild’s drawing of a phallic “Saturday Night Special” is aimed at a target that for us is largely in the past:  at the likes of Norman Mailer, who, in Ancient Evenings (via a reviewer — I’d rather quote The Prisoner of Sex directly but can’t access it), asserted that “the Egyptian word medu . . . means both word and stick (or penis)” and equated “speech and storytelling . . . with male ejaculation.”  Mailer was certainly one of those who qualified, by his own hand, for my old friend’s most piquant distinction:


  1. karen said,


    i so LOVE it, amba and i covet it like you cannot know.

    When my ex left me and i had been on my own for two yrs, even moving back into his hometown area– i had the funniest thought one day. There was a lot of construction going on and all the guys wear hardhats and i just had the funniest thought: penis(es)- oh, ok– dicks- w/the tips as hardhats and me going ~why do they all look alike… must be the hats!~

    I’m not anywhere a feminist- i always say i’m a womanist. I believe it is really a term. That’s how i see Palin, btw. So, there you go. Shocked?

  2. karen said,

    “the Egyptian word medu . . . means both word and stick (or penis)” and equated “speech and storytelling . . . with male ejaculation.” Mailer was certainly one of those who qualified, by his own hand,…”

    By his own hand– lol:0).

  3. amba12 said,

    I’ve heard the term “womanist” and I like it. I think Alice Walker used it for a while? But a wide spectrum of people did. I might be one myself.

    Karen, I’ll send you a copy! Have you moved back home yet??

  4. Icepick said,

    How would you feel, they’ll say, if the types and roles of women were caricatured by cartoons of your genitalia? (I think it actually has been done, but with less class.) How is this a constructive contribution to relations between the sexes? Aren’t the religion parts downright blasphemous? Isn’t this trying to rekindle a war that’s over?

    Much can be forgiven if done with a sense of humor.

  5. amba said,

    Perhaps the single most important tool of survival our creator (super- or natural) gave us.

  6. Nance said,

    Thank you, thank you! I’ve just found the perfect 65th birthday present for my oldest and dearest friend! And thank you for the post-feminism re-cap; we must not let our daughters and granddaughters forget. May not always agree with your positions, but I love your ambiance.

  7. amba said,

    Aww. Thank you!

  8. Icepick said,

    Oh, and my first thought when seeing the title was to think of one of my wife’s books (from her grad student days) called “The Reign of the Phallus”. We’ve got some strange books!

  9. pathmv said,

    Interesting timing on this post. Last night I was unpacking books and found my copy of a Doonesbury retrospective collection. One of the early story lines involved Joanie Caucus as a teacher, explaining principles of feminism to a bunch of young girls who all assumed they would grow up to be mommies, not work. In one of the strips, though, she’s shown having to comfort a girl who’s crying out: “But I don’t wanna be a building contractor!”

    The Penis book looks hilarious. I’m going to order a copy.

  10. amba12 said,

    It will make you burst out laughing in many places.

  11. amba12 said,

    Icepick: that sounds like one a them there feminist tracts!

  12. Icepick said,

    It may be. It’s on the shelf with some French philosophy of more recent vintage. On the other hand, it’s also on the shelf with some of Kim’s books about medieval medicine and anatomy. The original title for her Master’s thesis was “The Siren’s Rotting Womb”. My wife is definitely a keeper!

    (Good thing, too – she’s carrying my child!)

  13. amba12 said,

    Did you catch that, guys?? Icepick’s sub rosa announcement???!!!?!?!?!?!

  14. karen said,

    YEAH to ice and kim!!!!!!!!!!

    Amba- we are trying to figure out exactly how to do this- i’m the one that believes timing is everything and now i want to rush home. It’s looking like we will begin in the middle of March and start living there in April.

    You know- so much is sad about this situation and i feel badly about it. We have been way more than fair- have a lease and pay everything(taxes,insurance,they have a house to live in @no cost to them- in terms that our rent to them covers their mortgage). I should feel no guilt about leaving and not buying…

    We will move the herd we decide to keep back home in May- pasture time. I’ll milk them and the other herd will be Allan’s responsibility down here. The thing is, they don’t seem to be advertising the farm& we said we’d stay no later than Oct- but, if we can get a decent offer before that on our remaining animals that will cover the loan we took out to purchase said animals… we would be crazy to let the opportunity pass by.
    I’ll really, really miss this high speed internet- the videos are so important to my ability to absorb info- Reason tv, anyone :0)?

    One of my favourite rock bands is Tool, btw.

  15. pathmv said,

    Yay, Icepick! Congratulations!

  16. Icepick said,

    Thanks guys. I didn’t really think of it as a sub rosa announcemnet, though, as I had poisted it on my blog. Of course, only three or four people read my blog ….

  17. Icepick said,

    Kim informs me that her favorite title (on our shelves) is The Ovary of Eve. (Apparently Eve had just one ovary.) She tells me she hasn’t read it yet, though.

  18. Melinda said,

    Icepick, congrats to you, Kim, and the little Icepick!

    Amba, the title of the book reminds me of that Saturday Night Live sketch at the nude beach where everyone keeps saying “penis” and someone picks up a guitar and everyone sings “I once heard a penis sing to me its penis penis song.”

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