Kathie Sarachild, 64, is considered one of the founding mothers of the women’s movement. She is widely credited with helping develop the concept of “consciousness raising” and inventing the term “sisterhood is powerful.” She played a major role in the activist feminism that was forged in the ’60s and continues today as a writer, critic, and archivist for Redstockings, the radical group she co-founded in 1969. Sarachild spends half the year in Gainesville, Florida, where the Redstockings archives are stored under the auspices of Gainesville Women’s Liberation.
Q: Where and how was your activism formed?
A: My parents. Politics—what was wrong, and how to change it—was what they talked about at the dinner table. My mom was an adult education teacher; she taught English as a second language. In my school, only girls took home ec, only boys took shop, so my mother launched a one-woman campaign to change that. That’s why I took both. In 1964 I went on the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, registering people to vote. That experience—seeing this mass movement of oppressed and disparaged people organizing, standing up in the face of violence—was powerful.
Q: How did your civil rights activism lead to women’s rights activism?
A: If you’re arguing about equality on behalf of other people, suddenly you say, wait, this applies to me, too. Why am I being marginalized? Betty Friedan said, “What we need is action like the freedom fighters.” We just started talking—at hen parties, coffee klatches, networking. But we didn’t call it that. Those were the first consciousness-raising meetings. It grew out of, and then grew away from, the personal, and into the collective. As for radical—well, the word grows from the word “root.” Proposing a radical solution to a problem means going to the root of it.
Q: The “action” during the Miss America Pageant wasn’t the first one, was it?
No. We had decided that in order to protest the war, we couldn’t come together in this traditional role of weeping mothers and sweethearts, more helpmate than proactive, just waiting on the home front with no power to decide if soldiers even went over there. We had to get rid of the symbols of that powerlessness, so that we could unite with men to end the war and change the world. In January 1968, as part of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade’s participation in an anti-war demonstration in Washington, we staged a “burial of traditional womanhood.” We had a bier with a dummy of a woman on it, and we buried curlers, garters, a can of hairspray; I even delivered an actual funeral oration [read it here].
Q: Talk about the boardwalk demonstration at the pageant.
A: We planned it for months. You have to understand the role that event played in American culture at the time—the first Saturday night after Labor Day, everybody in front of the TV, the great national ritual. Until then, we’d been talking primarily to movement women; now, we were trying to get the attention of everybody else. It’s ironic that we got called bra burners afterward, because we never burned a thing. Yes, we threw all kinds of things into the Freedom Trash Can—high heels, curlers, girdles, bras—but because of that old wooden boardwalk, the police wouldn’t let us light it up.
Q: Did you feel bad for the woman being crowned Miss America?
A: I had a few moments of feeling bad for her; I never thought of her as a bad person. They were real girls, real women, decent ones, too—but part of an oppressive system that I believed turned women into meat. And it’s still happening, the beauty standards for women have gotten worse. What do little girls think, seeing size 2 actresses jeered for putting on a couple of pounds? It’s literally making us sick, isn’t it?
Q: Is contemporary feminism alive on today’s college campuses?
A: I think it is. But to be fair, young women in college are usually the last ones to come to the movement. For the most part, they’re in the most ideal situation of their lives—studying, thinking, doing the self-involved work of academia; the ideas of egalitarianism haven’t been quite tested yet. They’ll get out in the world, they’ll find out, then they’ll change their minds. Right now, the only message that’s been left from the women’s movement (or maybe from all of them) is the message of empowering the individual. But you don’t accomplish progress that way—you only do it with solidarity.