Reviewing Gyn/Ecology for off our backs

Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978) was bigger than a bombshell in the feminist world. It was more like an asteroid crashing into the ocean, creating a tsunami. I was a newcomer in the D.C. community, and not yet well grounded in feminist theory, never mind feminist theology, so it’s a bit of a wonder that I got to review Gyn/Ecology for off our backs.

off our backs, known to its friends as oob, was the hometown newspaper of D.C.’s feminist and lesbian communities, but it was also a national and even international publication. It was run by a collective, but every month the two-room walk-up office off Connecticut Ave. NW, opened up for layout weekend. By that point most of the writing and editing had been done and it was all hands on deck, supporters as well as collective members, to do the typing and paste-up necessary to produce the next issue. The rush to deadline made comrades and colleagues of us all. Everyone who helped out was listed among the Friends on the staff block for that issue.

My visual memory of the oob office is of a crowded, no-frills workspace whose walls were papered with posters from recent feminist history and covers from previous issues. I remember picking up the phone once — when the phone rang during layout, whoever was closest grabbed it — and it turned out to be someone I knew from Martha’s Vineyard who was involved in the women’s health movement. My worlds sometimes collided in interesting ways.

I did the typing and probably the layout for my Gyn/Ecology review, and for most of the articles I contributed to oob over the years, mostly interviews and book reviews. My typing ability came in handy, as did my facility with presstype. Here is what the layout looked like:

Apart from ads that came in camera-ready, all copy was produced on IBM Selectric typewriters. Veteran typists of the era will recognize the typeface as Letter Gothic, a popular Selectric sans serif option. Note that book titles are underscored, not italicized, even though we clearly had access to an italic typeball. Swapping typeballs in and out slowed you way down and often got ink on your fingers, so italics were only used for larger chunks of text — in this case quotes from the book being reviewed.

In those days, oob always put bylines at the end of stories, a characteristically feminist strategy to keep readers’ focus on the text instead of the author. I wasn’t the only one who would sometimes read the first few lines of a long story then skip to the end before deciding to continue.

Headings were done with presstype. This one is pretty good, but it’s hard not to notice that the baseline wobbles a little and that the space between “of” and “radical” is twice what it ought to be.

Typing was done on ordinary bond paper with margins set to the paper’s column width. If you caught a typo while you were typing, you fixed it with correction tape, which was preferable to correction fluid (like Liquid Paper or Wite-Out) because it didn’t have to dry. The newer Correcting Selectrics had a correction ribbon built in, parallel to the ink ribbon. I can’t remember if off our backs had any of them when I was involved.

Once completed, the typescript was sprayed with silicone to keep the ink from smearing, then cut with X-acto knives, waxed with a hand waxer, and pasted up on layout boards. The boards from the previous issue would have been stripped for reuse; they were reused until they wore out. Once in a while a page would go to print with the folio (running head) from the previous issue, meaning the date at the top of the page was wrong, but considering the intense, barely controlled chaos of layout weekend and the fact that most of us were amateurs, the gaffes were remarkably few.


Reading the first paragraph of my Gyn/Ecology review for the first time in at least 35 years confirms my memory: while writing it, I was terrified that I couldn’t do the book justice:

“I have been living with Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism for about four months now–reading, rereading, reflecting, rejoicing, growing impatient with my fear of taking on such a magnificent, vast and tightly-woven book. Gyn/Ecology is written to us, for us, from our experience, about us, the untamed, the Hags, the “women reluctant to yield to wooing”. It is a process that aims to transcend the limits of writing, to break down the walls between the writer and reader and the  usual distinction between the creating and the product. Gyn/Ecology is breath-taking in its reach, astonishing in its power–yet it is also intensely personal and has exacted from me an intensely personal response. I write, therefore, to review not the book alone but the part it has played on my own journey into woman-defined space.”

Gyn/Ecology is grim in its exploration of misogyny across cultures and across the centuries, but when it comes to language it’s also immensely playful. As its title suggests, it breaks words apart and prompts one to look at them in unexpected ways. Does “recover,” for instance, mean to regain or to cover up again? Or maybe both at the same time?

From my copy of Gyn/Ecology

In the last paragraph, I write that “Gyn/Ecology, this wonderful, brilliant amazing Hysterical book, spins itself beyond the words that Mary Daly wrote.” It spun me well beyond writing the review. Though then as now I was happier playing first lieutenant than instigator, I led an ad hoc group — we called ourselves, of course, the D.C. Hags — to bring Mary to town. The SRO event was held in a lecture hall at George Washington University on March 23, 1979, with a book signing at Lammas the next day (I know that because the dates appear at the end of the review).

Then, in early April, a friend and I took the Night Owl train from D.C. to Boston to attend “We Have Done with Your Education,” a rally supporting Mary in one of her frequent battles with Boston College. Since BC, like Georgetown U., is Jesuit-run, I found it borderline miraculous that she got tenure and thrived there as long as she did. Not till 1999 was she forced to take early retirement because she insisted on keeping her advanced women’s studies courses women-only. (She would tutor privately any men who wanted to take the course.) The rally, held at Boston University, was held on April 8, 1979 — I know that because it’s on the T-shirt. Its title was based on a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (Daly embraced Woolf as a foremother):

“And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this “education”!’”

As a daughter of educated men, I might well have been dancing round the fire. The less predictable part is that my mother, Chiquita Mitchell Sturgis, might actually have been leaning from the upper windows. At the time, she was a clerical at Beacon Press, Unitarian Universalist–affiliated publisher of Mary Daly and many other essential feminist, liberal, and progressive writers, so requesting a Beacon book or contacting a Beacon author often meant working with my mother. What she made of Mary’s books I’ll never know, but she liked Mary and we both liked having something in common that had nothing to do with family or hometown.

Mary died on January 3, 2010. My obituary for her was published in the May/June 2010 Women’s Review of Books. Unfortunately it’s not available online, but fortunately (wonder of wonders) I still have the print version. Rather than focus on (obsess about?) Mary’s forced retirement from Boston College, which the mainstream media were covering ad nauseam, I started off by summarizing the “far more intriguing . . . story of how a nice Catholic girl from Schenectady, New York . . . transformed herself into a ‘revolting hag’ whose advice to posterity is ‘sin big.’”[1]

“Daly’s searchings were wild, exhilarating, infuriating, inspiring,” I wrote. “But I didn’t become a Daly groupie. As a reader, a writer, and a thinker, I’ve always been a pick-and-choose synthesizer. A few of Daly’s protégées, including Janice Raymond,[2] took her insights and tools and created powerful work with them. In less able hands, though, those insights and tools became little more than parlor tricks.”

My mother worked at Beacon Press, publisher of Mary Daly and other essential feminist writers, from the mid-1970s to the late ’80s.

When I wrote that obit for Mary Daly, I’d been an editor for more than 30 years, so it’s not all that surprising that I contributed to the Women’s Review of Books blog a post titled “Beyond God the Style Guide: Me? Edit Mary Daly?” Could I have done it? The mere thought was daunting, “even though,” I noted, “I’m the kind of copyeditor who argues with the dictionary, cheerfully makes exceptions to Chicago, and lets my authors do pretty much what they want as long as it makes sense and will (probably) pass muster with the publisher.”

Being a writer and a feminist as well as an editor, I went on: “From Church and the Second Sex onward, Mary Daly was continually improvising words and imagery to convey what hadn’t been conveyed before, and to examine ideas taken for granted for so long that they actively resisted exploration. Breaking trail is demanding and exhausting work. Being among the first to follow in a freshly broken trail isn’t exactly like traveling a paved road either.”

And that’s what editing Mary Daly would have been like: “following in a freshly broken trail.” Would I have been up to it? At the time Gyn/Ecology came out, almost certainly not. A few years later, fully fledged as an editor and more flexible than I’d been as an apprentice, I think I could have done it, though not without the terror that gripped me while I was writing that review.

notes

[1] Sources were Mary’s Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) and “Sin Big,” in The New Yorker, February 26, 1996. To explore, or revisit, Mary’s work, check out The Mary Daly Reader, edited by Jennifer Rycenga and Linda Barufaldi (New York University Press, 2017).

[2] My interview with Jan Raymond appeared in off our backs for October 1979.

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This is the photo that appeared with my obituary for Mary. No credit was given, but if you know who the photographer was, please let me know and I’ll add it in. I can’t tell you how much I love this picture.