Over the past few years, the Second Wave has had a second coming. Feminist performance scholar Jill Dolan delivered a gorgeous meditation on women’s music of the 1970s at Cornell’s “Resoundingly Queer” Conference in the spring of 2012, and later published an essay version in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. As she remembers it,
“1970s lesbian feminist cultural and political activism [was] vital, lustful, intellectually acute, and more culturally diverse than it’s been described during the last twenty or twenty-five years of US academic and activist discourse.”
Sara Warner’s Acts of Gaiety (2013) looks back at 60s and 70s feminist activism, arguing that it was at once playful and deeply politically engaged performance. Last spring, The New Statesman did a series called “Rereading the Second Wave,” in which authors evaluate critical feminist texts from a millennial vantage point. My own research demonstrates how today’s queer and feminist experimental performance embodies feminist theories of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, making them over into a politics I call “post-wave pop feminism.”
I don’t remember the exact origin of the project—I suppose the seeds were sown when we wrote and recorded “Back to the Land,” a satirical analysis of Brooklyn’s glorification of co-ops, communing with nature, and DIY aesthetics, which lesbian feminists advocated decades ago. Soon after, my band mates and I started working on covers of music from the women’s movement. To our surprise, we discovered that much of the material has a spirit similar to that of our own songs. We are a queer folk band that sings catchy, funny songs about living and loving in New York City. Though 70s lesbian feminists have the reputation of being humorless, the lesbian feminist music of the era is fabulous: often funny and irreverent, sometimes angry, always inspiring. As we conducted research at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, watched documentaries, and dug deeper into the catalog of womyn’s music, we realized that just a song or two would not do. We decided to give the work the consideration it deserves and develop an evening-length exploration of the songs of the Second Wave.
The result is “Womyn, Wimmin, Wymin,” a piece of practice as research, embodiment as scholarship. As we thought (and fought) about which songs to include in the performance, we encountered some politics that, from our millennial perspective, are problematic. The assumption of women’s universal experience, the transphobia of some of the musicians, the use of slave imagery to describe women’s condition, for instance, all make us uncomfortable. But we decided not to censor the songs and to let the performance embody the divisions in the movement and the tensions between our position and those of the women we channel. We were dismayed to find out that Alix Dobkin maintains an anti-trans stance, so we follow her classic “View from Gayhead”—the chorus of which asserts that “any woman can be a lesbian”—with the hilarious “Ballad of the Oklahoma Women’s Liberation Front” by Beth Elliott, a transwoman who was excluded from women’s music festivals because of her identity. With such juxtapositions, we hope we capture the multivocality of a movement that is often depicted as monolithic.
Every time we sing through these songs, I am struck by both how radical and how relevant they are. I sing Maxine Feldman’s “Angry Atthis,” a dark ballad about her frustration at having to hide her lesbian identity. The minor key expresses her sadness, and the way the melody rises throughout signals her growing rage. Feldman was a groundbreaker; she wrote the song months before the Stonewall riots of 1969. It is hard to imagine today, but she was banned from performance venues and kicked out of college for being a lesbian. In “The Battle Hymn of Women,” Meredith Tax calls out a society that “said the only work for women is to clean, and type, and file”—a sentiment that resonates less today after the strides made by Women’s Liberation activists like her. We all initially balked at the lyrics to Holly Near’s rousing “Fight Back,” which assumes a universal female subject, erasing differences between women. “Women all around the world, every color, religion, and age,” she sings, “one thing we got in common, we can all be battered and raped.” But the song offers what could be a contemporary critique of our culture of sexual violence, and a powerful message of resistance. She begins, “For as long as I can remember, a lady don’t go out alone at night,” before launching into the chorus, which proclaims, “We’ve got to fight back in large numbers . . . Together we can make a safe home.” We open the show with the stunning a cappella “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. The song starts with the heartbreaking lyric:
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.”
In the wake of Ferguson, the chorus—“We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”—feels all too apt.
The process of creating the performance piece has provided me with new perspectives on my critical work. Singing the songs of the Second Wave makes visceral the political stakes of the period. Re-making this music, we mark the distance between the dreams of 1970s lesbian feminism and the realities of today. We honor what was achieved, acknowledge the long way we have come, and map out how far we still have to go.