Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 18, 2002


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Thanks to all you cloudy-minded - okay, clear-headed - readers who suggested that I didn't quite "make the point" last week (#326) when I tried to show the epiphany that awaits readers of Estelle B. Freedman's new book, "No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women" (Ballantine; 446 pages; $26 and worth every penny).

As you may remember, I had asked Freedman some hot and timely questions that I thought were straight out of the headlines, believing that the latest controversies about feminism urgently needed addressing

But after reading Freedman's book, I discovered that (and here is what I meant to say) it doesn't really matter whether 1) young women hate the word "feminist" or 2) "remasculinization" programs on TV are showing men sitting around with cigars and half-naked babes to talk sports or 3) "Sex In the City" can be perceived as a pro or con feminist program.

All that stuff has passing relevance, I realized, but really, it's just superficial media fodder - fun and gossipy maybe but unremarkable compared to the huge, history-making phenomenon that Freedman describes in "No Turning Back."

True, I think we should all be concerned that Bill Maher's news debate program, "Politically Incorrect," has been replaced with "the joyous chauvinism" of Jimmy Kimmel from "The Man Show" and his famous promise that "every show ends with girls on trampolines."

But on the larger scale of things, as Freedman indicates, this kind of transitional phase is just a blip on the landscape of monumental change. The women's movement has transformed the lives of millions of men and women, she says, and the future of women is going to knock our socks off.

A professor of history who co-founded feminist studies at Stanford and who has written several acclaimed books on women's prison reform and sexuality, Freedman shows how the movement for women's equality has so profoundly affected every culture that indeed, there's "No Turning Back."

For me, the best thing about this book is Freedman's invitation to us all to get our heads out of our own troughs and embrace an international, multi-racial perspective. Here are just a few of the things we learn:

  • I mentioned last time that so-called "Third World" women - poorer, less educated, less sophisticated, less "cultured" - are reflecting new truths to women in the West. For example, for all our cries in the Western world about the "barbarism" of Middle Eastern governments that force women to wear head-to-toe burkahs, our own methods of limited freedom have not gone unnoticed: Some Muslim women in Islamic countries believe cosmetic makeup on American women, rather than enhancing facial features, constitutes "a postmodern veil."

  • "Microlending," which once made no sense at all to Western bankers, has been so successful in South Asia that it has now spread to over 50 countries, says Freedman, including Guatemala, China, Bangladesh and India.

    "A $50 loan to an Indian textile hauler," Freedman explains, "allowed this hardworking grandmother to purchase a handcart. Because she could haul twice as much cloth than she had been able to balance on her head, her profits more than doubled." In Bangladesh, "a group of five women may apply for small loans (on average about $150) to help them establish income-generating enterprises. Every member of the group is responsible for all five of the loans."

    Such women have set new precedents in paying money back - "90 percent of the borrowers repay their loans." And as a result, local communities have responded with less hostility toward women. Because of women's business, says a Bangladesh villager, people have "received sanitary latrines, and violence against women has gone down."

    Thus has "microcredit become a world movement" extending to the United States, Freedman tells us. A credit union in Brooklyn, New York, has "formed a Sisters in Lending Circle to help women on welfare gain economic independence."

  • Let's go back to burkahs and other heavy veils or hoods worn by women in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Peru. They're a form of imprisonment, of course. They also protect women from assault, Freedman notes, because they make women wearing them "eminently respectable."

    Obviously, the price one pays for such safety is horrible to Westerners' eyes, but by the same token, one wonders if the time will ever come in the United States when women can walk in the streets day or night without fear of assault, as can veiled women in other countries.

    I'm not saying Americans should or ever could adopt the practice; I'm saying women in other cultures who are forced to wear heavy veils know a lot more about ways to take advantage of "barbaric" laws than we do. Freedman's book indicates that the more we stop pitying women in underdeveloped countries, the more lessons we can learn from them.

  • Female genital cutting (FGC) of some 2 million girls every year continues in countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan (as well as, through migration, other countries in the Middle East, Europe and North America).

    Western campaigns to stop or slow the practice have not lived up to expectations because, Freedman points out, they emphasize that women who have endured such surgical procedures are forever denied sexual pleasure.

    But here's another way to look at the matter: "Families practice FGC because they fear that their daughters will not be able to marry otherwise," Freedman writes. In poor regions, if these girls don't marry, they will starve.

    Missing this point has been a big mistake on Western feminists' part. A more respectful and effective way has emerged from a Senegalese women's organization that "discussed the health of girls and human rights" within "the context of literacy classes," Freedman writes.

    "The village women participating in the workshops gradually began to question genital cutting. They enlisted their husbands and male religious leaders in the pledge not to cut daughters or have their sons marry women who had the procedure.

    "After several villages pledged to stop, they brought their cause to the Senegalese parliament, which in 1999 banned FGC and established educational programs to ease the cultural transition."

    Freedman's point is that women in such circumstances are learning to solve problems from the grassroots up, which is often a more effective way than seeking to override public opinion from the top down.

  • The Western ideal of a "universal sisterhood" is probably a myth; the reality in most countries is that "a diversity of feminisms" are emerging to create "innovative cooperative structures" rarely seen in the West.

    Freedman points to Domitila Barrios de Chungara, the wife of a Bolivian miner and mother of seven children. She "first became involved in politics in 1961 as a housewife when local women protested the arrests of their husbands during a strike. After the women staged a nine-day hunger strike outside the prison, the miners were released."

    However, when her husband opposed her wish to participate in the formation of a women's union - the Housewives Committee of Siglo XX - Barrios de Chungara "staged her own work stoppage in the house," Freedman writes. "He soon realized the value of her labor and accepted her decision."

    The Housewives Committee, then, was able to monitor the prices of consumer goods, demand adequate medical supplies at the local hospital and force government officials to bargain with them by blockading the roads.

    Barrios de Chungara herself became a national leader, one of the first women internationally to identify two kinds of feminism: At the UN conference in Mexico City in 1975, she testified: "One type involves those who think women will only be free when they equal men," while the other consists of "women being respected as human beings who can solve problems and participate in everything - culture, art, literature, politics, trade-unionism - a liberation that means our opinion is respected at home and outside the home."

    Barrios de Chungara's politics "foreshadowed a critical shift in emerging transnational feminisms," Freedman observes, "from a focus on rights and entitlements to a struggle for empowering women as agents of change."

  • Today especially in the United States, many of the doors that have opened for women athletes are slamming shut as photos and ads in sports magazines and on TV "perpetuate aspirations for a thin, white female physique." Even a series on Olympic athletes "that featured the heavyset U.S. weightlifter Cheryl Haworth obscured her size in a storm of fluffy white feathers," Freedman writes.

    This tension between the possibilities that lie ahead for women and the obstacles barring the way remind us that "feminism is a movement based on contradictions," Freedman explained in a recent interview.

    "It's not that market economies, or wage, labor and democratic ideas automatically free women," she said. "On the contrary, it's the limits they impose on women that create a need for feminism as a social movement."

    To understand how vacuums are created in society that call for feminist movements, we need to "monitor stories in the media through the lens of gender," Freedman says. It's an obvious, key idea, but it might never have have surfaced back in the '80s at Stanford because Freedman, a respected historian whose tenure was approved by colleagues in the history department, was denied tenure by administrators outside her field.

    "I think there were some who believed that feminist studies was a political and not an academic enterprise," Freedman recalls. "One dean was quoted as saying that founding a program in feminist studies counted as much as founding a campus chapter of the National Organization for Women!

    "This was insulting to say the least. Here was a wonderful new program that was full of people producing cutting-edge articles and books - people who brought feminist scholarship into their teaching and who won national grants along the way - and this man was calling the entire program an 'extracurricular activity!' "

In the end, Freedman had to file a sex discrimination grievance, which she won, to gain formal tenure and begin teaching Introduction to Feminist Studies or FS101, which she now describes as her "signature course.

"It's interdisciplinary, it's extremely rewarding, and it's very rare that as a teacher you get to see so much intellectual and personal growth take place before your eyes."

Thank heaven the same applies to all of us who read "No Turning Back," a landmark work that is certain to raise the standard in feminist studies throughout the country.


Now we come to the final chapter in Dorothy Bryant's serialized ebook - one that I must confess causes me as much nervousness (because I'm in it) as pride.

Chapter 7 is about Dorothy Bryant herself - her life as a dedicated teacher, author and self-publisher who endures a modern-day literary lynching when a novel she writes, "A Day in San Francisco," stirs up quite a bit of controversy in the gay community of 1982-3.

The novel is set - and was published - just before the AIDS crisis hit San Francisco like the plague that it was (and is). All Dorothy's protagonist knows is that her gay son is coming down with one illness after another (hepatitis, venereal disease, etc.) at a time when sexually transmitted disease is seen as an unfortunate but treatable side effect of gay men's liberation.

In this chapter, Dorothy explains that her own son had given up everything - his graduate studies, his future career - in order "to express my sexuality" by moving into the city's predominantly gay Castro district and finding work as a typist.

With increasing desperation, Dorothy recalls, she tried to warn her son about health hazards that already perplexed doctors (who called such problems Gay Bowel Syndrome). At the same time she became increasingly alarmed herself by the link between what she saw as "the worship of youth and triviality in the Castro" and "the avid focus on sex that (to me) more and more resembled the worst values of macho heterosexual men."

"A Day in San Francisco" was the first novel Dorothy had written that was even remotely autobiographical, but perhaps because she had lived it so passionately and had steeled herself to researching the subject so exhaustively, it burst onto the scene as a cry of the heart that was, and is, devastatingly accurate.

My role in Bryant's story was a minor one. I was book review editor at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time and, while I didn't know Dorothy Bryant well, I had reviewed and admired several of her previous books. I saw "A Day In San Francisco" as that rare treasure - an intricate and inventive, beautifully written novel that was controversial enough to demand front-page coverage with not one but two (opposing) reviews.

What happened next to Dorothy is something that even now, having prepared for it from the six examples of "Literary Lynching" that precede Chapter 7, baffles me to this day.

Looking back, I remember how crazy the times were - how my friend and colleague Randy Shilts used to visit my cubicle to show me the blemishes he was sure were going to kill him one day; how the closing of gay bathhouses seemed as anti-civil libertarian as the invasion of bookstores and libraries by FBI agents seem today; how the gay liberation movement, which so many believed was saving lives, would become a hospice movement almost overnight.

But in the early days - "when penicillin was king!" as they used to say - a warning voice that insisted upon being heard was Dorothy Bryant's. Perhaps that's why the attacks that came would be so searing, so indelible - and why, nearly 20 years later, Bryant would struggle to uncover a pattern of literary lynching that might help to explain what happened to her.

The tough part is - well, shoot: Chapter 7, "Right Under Our Noses," brings to an end this fantastic experiment in epublishing that I know has entertained and informed many a reader. Maybe if we're lucky, Dorothy, who retired from publishing books under her own imprint, Ata Books, some years ago, will find a way to get it published in bound form, and we can all read it again.

Meanwhile, you can find the last chapter by clicking here.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your story on the sanitizing or deletion of literary excerpts in test exams as a result of pressure from the Christian Right:

OK, Pat, now how much stuff was removed because of the Far Left? Or isn't there a Far Left, just a Far Right? I wonder if "A Pilgrim's Progress" is still read in schools or is it too Christian?

Holt responds: I grew up thinking that people on the Left oppose censorship on principle so you don't have to worry about 'em like you do people on the Right. Not true? Read on.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Censorship comes in all forms and from both the Left and the Right. My fear concerning the emphasis placed on altered or deleted passages from tests is that the passages will be restored on the tests, but not necessarily in the libraries and school curriculum.

It's well known that California, Texas and Florida, which are textbook adoption states, basically control textbook content for the entire country. The success or failure of an educational textbook publisher hinges on winning the adoption process in those States.

Even back in the late '70s-early '80s, the development of a reading or math basal textbook program could cost $20 million. I shudder to think what it costs today, and it doesn't surprise me that publishers want to minimize risk when they make such an investment.

The problem has always been that the adoption committees want one kind of textbook, but once the adoption is won, the teachers want another.

I remember cases, where, for example, publishers were reluctant to include portions of "The Wizard of Oz" because a group in Tennessee would sue over the supposed endorsement of witchcraft, as well as the fact that Dorothy found within herself the ability to return home, rather than asking for God's help. Even nuisance lawsuits cost a lot to defend.

And I once produced an audio version of "The Three Bears" where we had to have two large bears and a baby bear because it couldn't be implied that the mama bear would be physically smaller than the papa bear.

And yet, parents do sometimes have legitimate concerns regarding content. I remember being a bit upset once when my 10 year-old daughter borrowed a "children's" book from her private school library which included a relatively explicit sex scene between two teenagers. (I didn't ask the school to remove or limit the book I simply asked my daughter to defer reading it for a few years.)

Martin Brooks

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I love your newsletter, and I'm about as liberal and anti-censorship as a person can possibly, but I feel compelled to add my two cents to the whole New York standardized testing debate, a point-of-view I still haven't seen expressed in the media: this isn't a case of "political correctness" run amok. It is simply an effort to make standardized tests non-biased. When compiling a standardized test, the last thing you want is to have a strong emotional reaction on the part of the testee. For example, how might a Muslim child react to passage that refers to "Jews"? How might a conservative Christian child react to a character imbibing alcohol, or being put in a sexual situation? There might be a very interesting discussion to have after reading a particular piece of literature, and of course, a strong emotional reaction is the point of literature in the first place. But it's not the point of a standardized test; in fact, a strong emotional reaction is exactly the kind of thing that can corrupt the results, depressing scores of the testees who offended by a particular passage.

Hey, I don't think standardized tests are the be-all and end-all. But I can see what the authors of this test were trying to do, and it isn't censorship per se. The place to have provocative discussions is in the classroom, and I'd be concerned if teachers were censoring classic works there. That simply isn't what's happening here. It's like that phony "Ebonics" controversy a few years back, when conservatives were saying that certain schools wanted to teach certain slang words as proper English, when in fact, they simply wanted a consistent, language-like dialect acknowledged as such so they could qualify for certain federal funding. Likewise, in this case, people simply don't understand the basic facts of this situation.

Brent Hartinger

Holt responds: I asked Fran Claggett, primary facilitator of the development of the CLAS (California Learning Assessment System) tests (more about Fran on in Friday's column) to reply to Brent Hartinger's letter. Here's her answer:

"In reference to the altering of literary texts in the New York Regents exams, Brent Hartinger wrote, 'this isn't a case of "political correctness" run amok. It is simply an effort to make standardized tests non-biased.' I would argue that this is exactly what 'this' is ... a case of political correctness run amok. The entire premise — that any person, organization, state — has the right to alter copyrighted literary works is not only faulty, it is illegal. But, that fact aside, to sanitize literature so that critical contextual words are eliminated so as not to offend — that is reprehensible.

"I know this situation well; as a teacher involved in selecting texts for a statewide test (a million students in three different grade levels), I was constantly looking at works that might be 'suspect' by any one of about ten different groups. Those of us constructing the test looked first for quality literature that would lead to insightful interpretations. (Note the 's' on that word.) Then we looked to see how controversial the text would be. In some cases, we opted simply not to use an otherwise good text (there is no dearth of good literature); in others, we opted to rely on the 'bias committee' to weed out objectionable (in their eyes) texts. IN NO CASES did we ever even consider altering the text. We were teachers. We respect the authors. We respect the literature.

"As many of you know, the CLAS test did not survive the onslaughts in which our critics found something objectionable in even the most sensible, clean, text. What it truly did not survive, however, was that we were asking students to THINK in response to reading a work of literature. (That was a blatant criticism, by the way; the critics wanted a test that had correct answers that could be taught, no interpretations of literature.)

"So what are test committees to do? First of all, I would say, disband. Give it up. Leave assessment where it belongs, in the classroom. But I am not so naive as to think that will happen any time soon. So I would say, select texts that can test what you mean to test (whatever that is) and do not alter them in any way. A reading test should not be limited to multiple choice; it should involve responding through writing. This kind of test is possible; it has been done. It can be scored fairly and reliably. There is no such thing, in our society, of a bias-free, large-scale, standardized test."

Fran Claggett, author of "A Measure of Success: From Assignment to Assessment in English Language Arts" (Heinemann, 1996)

And Gloria Pipkin, author of "At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom" (Heinemann), who's also featured in Friday's column, replies as well:

"Brent Hartinger gets it right when he says that evoking a strong emotional reaction is the goal of literature, but he goes badly astray in concluding that it's okay to strip literature of some of that power in order to render it bland enough to fit into standardized testing schemes.

"Standardized tests on literature send the wrong message about what reading is. We don't read poems and stories and plays to 'find the best answer.' Even suggesting that there *is* One Right Answer flies in the face of decades of literary criticism. As we now understand it, the act of reading is a transaction between reader and text - a transaction influenced by the reader's experiences of class, race, gender, ethnicity, geography and more. The poem I make when I read Yeats's 'The Second Coming,' for example, will differ in many ways from the meaning another reader constructs from it.

"To base important decisions (sometimes life-altering ones) on how a reader constructs meaning from literature is a kind of Inquisition-by-Standardized-Test."

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the use of asterisks in email messages to indicate italics:

In the early (pre-Macintosh) word-processing programs, asterisks before and after a word *thus* would cause the text to be printed in boldface by most of the better dot matrix printers; underscores fore and aft _thus_ would cause the text to be printed in italics.

This archaic usage has been retained in some text-only venues, such as Usenet and e-mails. We aging compugeeks still try to maintain the distinction between these two modes of emphasis (how often do you use boldface in _your_ documents, compared to italics?); but the newbies seem to think that the asterisks look *kewl, dood!* and underscores look geeky and DOS-like.

Michael J. Lowrey

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I just wanted to add my experience with asterisks in email. I usually see it being used on either side of a conversational element that has no literary equivalent. Such as when someone sighs.

i.e.: "I was laid off today" *sigh*


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was reading Barbara Kingsolver's latest collection of essays, "Small Wonder," and thought of your column when I got to one piece on the loss of independent booksellers entitled, "Marking a Passage." In that essay, she writes:

"It's not only starving artists who should care about what we're losing when an independent bookstore dies. This is not about retail; it's about people who serve as community organizers in places where you can always find kindred spirits, a good read, maybe even love behind the spine of Virginia Woolf. A store where you can be sure no one will say to you, as happened to someone I know when he went into a place I shall not name, asking for 'Catcher in the Rye':

"'Um, check the sports aisle?'"

Moira Devereaux

Holt responds: Of course I'll never forget the time I was going to expose a chain bookstore for that kind of problem by asking for a book of obscure Rumi poems and was waited on by a clerk who not only loved the book but said she had read it in the original Farsi. Vat a lesson: Very good booksellers do end up working for dreaded chain bookstores but as Kingsolver notes, it's independent bookstores that encourage the free flow of ideas and of books that stimulate the health of the greater community.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Blair Moser writes in issue #323:

"I have no idea what Amazon's 'paying click through partnership' actually pays to the State of Iowa (if anything), or whether Jeff Bezos simply forwards a percentage of each book sale to the treasury (needless to say, he doesn't pay Iowa sales, payroll and property taxes, the way Prairie Lights has for decades). Nor do I have any concept of what a similar partnership might cost bookstores like Prairie Lights."
Amazon does not "pay Iowa sales, payroll, and property taxes" because they don't have to. They're not in Iowa. And why should Amazon do such? Should L. L. Bean pay these taxes? Check mail order catalogs and see how many of those folks collect sales taxes for states where they have no physical presence. I believe you may find the number to be . . . zero, zip, naught. Depending upon the state Blair lives in, Blair is probably responsible for "use taxes" for anything mail ordered. And a number of states are placing the "use tax" payment on the annual income tax form - y'know that thing you sign saying it's all true?

The situation regarding interstate commerce and state sales taxes is a complicated issue - there's no need to throw in these red herrings. Really.

I know of one organization that does have a "paying click through partnership" with Amazon, and though the checks may not be large, it is essentially found money.

As Pat Holt has mentioned before, it's real estate that's killing bookstores - most recently Coliseum in NYC and the Georgetown location of Olssons. Not Amazon and taxes.

Sorry about being so cranky.

Michael Walsh

Holt responds: Whoa, whoa, Mr. Cranky. Do I perceive a twisting of words (usually my territory)? Blair Moser is saying that because Amazon, located in Seattle, takes its profits out of the state and doesn't pay employees or own property in the state, Iowa might have considered giving its business to a bookstore located in Iowa, and that bookstore would then have given the State a commission for every book sold, paid its income taxes and collected/paid sales tax to boot. As I certainly HAVE said before, if Amazon with all its Wall Street money hadn't contributed to the loss of independents before, its unfair advantages (not charging sales tax is one) sure adds another layer of problems to independents now.

(NOTE TO READERS: Excuse me for running this last time, before Estelle Freedman could see and reply. I include it again with Estelle's pithy response.)

Dear Holt Uncensured:

Regarding Part I of "No Turning Back," Estelle Freedman's book:

Ms. Freedman's answers to the talk show questions are indeed impressive, with one exception. She writes:

**"If feminists were in the White House and represented half of Congress, we would already be living in a different culture, perhaps substituting our 'wars' on drugs, poverty, cancer and terrorism with the kinds of far-reaching programs that get to the roots of these problems in racial discrimination, environmental pollution, and economic injustice."
This is the part as a man I struggle with, largely because I have seen precious little evidence of that so far. The women who succeed in politics are much too much like the men they replace, committed to their campaign donors like everyone else, with politics that don't differ much, and leadership qualities that differ even less. There are exceptions of course (Barbara Lee and Cynthia McKinney among others), but the vast majority represent an unpromising similarity to male politicians.

I can't escape the conclusion that I have been coming to more and more in the last several years: if there is a way to human liberation, stewardship of the planet, and justice for all, it lies beyond identity politics, in some ways, far beyond.

Robert Wicke

Estelle Freedman responds: I agree with the writer, it is not being male or female that tends us towards progressive politics. Rather, my comment was that if FEMINISTS were a majority in Congress, we'd have a different social agenda. That means male and female feminists, of course.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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