Ann Valliant – “‘No,’ we said to him, ‘you can’t do that,’”

This is my version of these events and others who were there surely would tell it differently. This is true of even ordinary things. This is not a story of an ordinary thing. It is a story of a pivotal moment in the community of three feminists who later moved to San Francisco and Oakland and became active in the Bay Area lesbian community.

It was around 1970, in Bloomington, Indiana. We had our second Women’s Liberation House by then. The first had been a big rented apartment. The current house was owned by a former assistant professor in the English Department at Indiana University who lost her job and her marriage when she came out as a feminist. In both places, two or three or four women lived and dozens more of us gathered for women’s liberation support groups, political meetings and hanging out around the kitchen table telling the truth about our lives. Most of us were political activists, veterans of the Civil Rights, Free Speech and anti-war movements, a racially mixed community.

Tina burst into the Women’s Liberation House kitchen one morning, pale and tear-streaked. Early that morning her husband had locked her in their bedroom and had just now freed her after several hours. I forget what his excuse was, something to do with her not having done something he wanted. She was afraid and humiliated, especially because her father was visiting and had done nothing to help her get free.

As I remember it, as soon as the three of us at the kitchen table heard her story someone exclaimed that we had to stop him and we rose as one to go have a talk with him. I remember some conversation on the short walk to their house about what Tina wanted us to accomplish on her behalf, but we definitely were more in avenging angel mode than planning a carefully thought out approach to raising his consciousness.

We swept into the house past Tina’s apprehensive father and up the stairs toward her husband. He took one look at us coming and launched himself toward us blocking his escape route. We kept coming, backing him toward the bedroom as we declared that we’d come to talk with him about locking Tina up. He fled into the bedroom. The key was still in the door lock and my first reaction was to try to lock him in. He successfully blocked the door from closing so we forced our way into the room with him. You can see, can’t you, that this had become a volatile situation?

We explained a bit forcefully that we had come to tell him that he could not treat Tina like that. He was contemptuous; Tina was his wife and he could do what he wanted to her. Instantly I leaped onto him, both of us flying onto the bed. Determined to kill him, going for his throat, I became aware of women screaming at me to stop and I did.

Shaken, we left him choking on the bed and Tina’s father cowering in the corner downstairs. We had barely made it back to the Women’s Liberation House before vivid descriptions of the implications of my killing rage filled the air. I had put Tina in a worse position than ever. Our reputation as reasonable instead of hysterical women was destroyed. We were workers for peace; nothing in our politics supported bloody revenge.

I, full of adrenaline-fueled, single-pointed lucidity, watched my sisters pull away from me and my lover standing silently beside me. I saw their fear of us. They were afraid of my working class lover who had made me a lesbian and who continually tried to lead feminist conversations toward class analysis. And they were really afraid of me, the one who insisted, based on irrational visions and mystical insights, that we should not work for equal rights with men since we were all one being and thus needed instead to change all the ways of thought that defined “us and them,” now revealed to be capable of attempting bare-handed murder.

The recriminations had about died down when a couple of our friends burst into the house, straight from the IU Student Union. Tina’s husband had immediately gone there with his tale of being attacked by a group of women when all he had done was lock his wife in their bedroom. Remember, this happened around 1970; men could unselfconsciously say such things then.

But a powerful thing happened. Although Tina and all of the rest of us were still vulnerable to what men could do to us, the possibility that furious women might descend on an outrageous man brought a useful change to the interactions between men and women in our political circle. Some women who heard the story gained strength to pull away from dependence on men. Some men, still grappling with the shift from the nonviolent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Power Movement and most of them still trying to avoid getting drafted and sent to the war in Vietnam, began to deal with women objecting to their ways.

That’s what I remember over forty years later. I’m sure it was uglier than I’ve described it. We weren’t very gentle then. Even the women most trained to be nice, and especially those of us trained to be convinced that our survival depended on quietly accepting awful things that men did to us, were increasingly unpredictable. Open conversations about domestic violence and incest and rape and the healing of that were still years in the future. One never knew in those days what woman might fling herself on a man, fingers digging into his throat, ripping away her respectability and his certainty.

© 2011 by Ann Valliant

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