The Reluctant Feminists of the 1960s

The Reluctant Feminists of the 1960s

Wendell Stevenson’s campus novel Margot examines the life of a woman who initially resists the political and sexual education her era offers.

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What is historical fiction for? If you ask devotees of Michael Shaara’s Civil War books or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, you may hear that historical fiction not only lets readers comprehend long-ago events intellectually but also captures some of their emotional reality. Mantel herself said, in a 2017 Radio 4 talk, that studying history “helps us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.” Novels of the near past—that is, novels whose characters could plausibly still be living today—play a somewhat different role. Such books can, as Mantel says, help readers put our lives in context, not only by telling us whether, by comparison, we live in “good times, bad times, [or] interesting times” but also by showing us the old times we remain stuck in.

Consider the sexual revolution. In the 1960s, heterosexual sex was transformed by the birth-control pill, but heterosexual men were not. First- and second-wave feminists spoke and wrote at great length about the entitlement and misogyny that too often took over their sex lives, ruining their attempts at liberation. Sixty-some years later, many would say the same repressive mores haunt the politics of the bedroom. Journalist and writer Wendell Steavenson’s novel Margot, which is set in the 1950s and ’60s, explores the possibility that our ongoing sexual inequality originates partly in the United States’s first great burst of erotic freedom, which she presents as both a major step toward true sexual liberation and a moment when the meaning of that freedom went awry.

Margot follows a privileged young misfit from her childhood in postwar New York to a stumbling, incomplete sexual and political awakening at Radcliffe. It overflows with rage at patriarchal power. It also overflows with sex. Its eponymous protagonist approaches both her anger and her desire in a scientific spirit: She wants more data, more experience, more. This is often a frustrating impulse, for the reader and the character alike, but it sets the stage for the novel’s central conflict between the risks inevitable in sex and love and the knowledge dawning on many women in the ’60s that men were asking them to risk too much. Desire without vulnerability is not possible, and yet Margot learns—repeatedly and horribly—that, as a woman, she cannot always let herself be vulnerable and truly open. Such a lesson is messy and painful in real life, and Steavenson lets Margot be correspondingly messy on the page. In so doing, she reflects the chaos of sex in both her novel’s time and ours.

Margot begins very neatly. Its first section is set in a portion of New York society so isolated and rarefied that, when Margot arrives at Radcliffe, it is as though she’s arrived as a ghost from the Gilded Age. Her maternal grandfather, the unsubtly nicknamed Old King Vanderloep, was a robber baron remembered as “the last of the tycoons.” Although he died in 1947, the family still lives according to his wishes, which means, in part, surrounding themselves with denizens of the same class stratum. Margot is a miserable outlier in a staid and stifling world in which girls are meant to be polished and obedient and to learn charm and flirtation before their debut. For women, sex is meant to be simply a tool to gain or keep power, which, of course, they can wield only in private.

But sex is the novel’s true motor. Margot’s instincts lead her straight to it. As a girl, she’s shy and awkward, “brave when it came to climbing trees or balancing atop stone walls [but] wobbly as Jell-O in society.” Her isolation, as is often the case, turns her into a student of her surroundings, giving Steavenson the freedom to examine the precepts of Margot’s world at length. Yet she does not neglect the emotional effects of Margot’s social anxiety: She is highly vulnerable both to the regular scolding of her terrifying mother, Peggy, and to bullying from her peers. But surprisingly, sexual bullying intimidates her less than any other kind. Margot reacts with unusual equanimity when, pre-puberty, her playmate Stevie ropes her into increasingly inappropriate games of bodily exploration. She is similarly unbothered when, in one deft early scene, her handsome neighbor Trip flashes her, then, when she fails to flinch or squeal, tells her loftily not to touch his penis, acting “as if it were a great prize.” Margot is intrigued by the male body and by men, though she is not supposed to be. Yet the very first time she gets “a man’s look, sheepish and wolfish at the same time,” she not only knows what it means but wants more.

Margot is a romance between its protagonist and herself, which means that Steavenson has no reason to concentrate long on any one male character. Instead, she creates a series of attractions and encounters from which the plot twists. Many of them nudge Margot toward a sorely needed political awakening. She arrives at Radcliffe years behind her classmates on that front. She has no class consciousness, no real idea why the Vietnam War is unpopular, and although she deeply resents the expectations that shaped her upbringing, no concept of what it would mean to be a feminist. Sex teaches her. After a lifetime of feeling mortified by her very existence, the “speed and intensity of sexual intimacy” teaches Margot to be comfortable in her body and desires.

Margot does not have an uncomplicated introduction to sex. In an essay on sex with ’60s radicals, Ellen Willis, a leading activist and chronicler of the time, noted, “All of us bohemian-radical-freaks who consort with men who espouse the sexual revolution agree that something is not quite kosher about the sexual revolution.” Margot is hardly a bohemian-radical-freak, but as soon as she learns not to be ashamed of her sexuality, she learns that her life is full of men who are willing to exploit her new desires without especially caring about her pleasure. Her lab mate devalues her intelligence; the professor who runs their lab takes her home after a party; the sexy Vietnam vet who is the only man to arouse Margot’s real romantic interest keeps her at a distance.

Far more upsetting than any of this, one of her childhood tormentors rapes her. Steavenson handles the scene and its aftermath with a restraint that is at once agonizing and thoughtful. At first, Margot cannot understand what is happening outside the context of her upbringing: She “couldn’t bring herself to push him away, it would have been too abrupt, too rude.” Only the next morning does she recognize that the same ingrained mores that stopped her from pushing her attacker away are likely to mean that “if she were to tell, she would not be believed.” In order to preserve some proof, she takes and stores a sample of the rapist’s semen. She has little hope of using it, yet she knows the act will help her feel “a little better, she was a scientist again.”

But in the weeks and months after her rape, Margot finds less comfort in science than in friendship and solidarity with other women. A psychology major she knows, Vicky, tells her, “Women have been brought up to be polite, we’ve got no defense. Girls aged eighteen, nineteen, twenty are showing up in psych wards…exhibiting some of the same symptoms as the boys coming back from ’Nam.” She begins pushing herself to pay more attention to Vietnam and the civil rights movement, to experiment with drugs for the first time. The courage it takes to survive her rape, and to continue her sexual exploration after it, helps usher Margot more fully into the world.

It is crucial to understand that Margot is not an encomium to silent resilience. Margot does not derive strength from her decision not to speak; rather, the strength she has already gathered inside herself enables her to withstand that choice, to “grow stronger at the broken place.” Presumably to avoid reader obtuseness on this front, Steavenson weaves in a subplot revolving around a male survivor of sexual violence who reacts very differently than Margot does, and whose suffering only starts to lessen when he does speak out.

Margot asks readers to seriously reconsider any one-size-fits-all concept of survivorship. In doing so, it creates room for readers who have had all sorts of sexual experiences and traumas and lived through them or with them in all sorts of ways. It also asks us to look squarely at the complications of sexual politics in the era of the pill, which began with Margot’s generation and continues, of course, to this day. What is groundbreaking for Margot—the ability to have sex before marriage, the knowledge that she can have pleasure without shame—is old news today. Yet the inequalities that make her sex life risky are far from gone. Women still get coached from childhood to be polite; we have not yet defeated the idea that, as Vicky furiously puts it, “men are violent and women are nuts.” Vulnerability and openness during sex seems no safer now than in Margot’s time; indeed, as the British philosopher Katherine Angel argued in her 2021 book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent discourse too often warns women that “you are vulnerable, therefore you must harden yourself; you…must become iron-clad, impenetrable.” Such rhetoric “reveals a horror of vulnerability” that, if yielded to, will come at the price of intimacy and pleasure. Margot reminds us that today’s discussions about sex, fear, and consent stem from a not-so-distant historical moment whose legacy we are still wrestling with, whether knowingly or not. By the end of the novel, Margot’s own education (in politics and sex) remains unfinished, a work in progress, but her story suggests that the more consciously we examine the feminist past, the better. For all we know, such examination is the route to a more equitable and pleasurable future.

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