Remarks on Naomi Weisstein by Jesse Lemisch and Naomi Weisstein
(Editors Note: This narrative was originally a 1997 speech by Jesse Lemisch, husband of Naomi Weisstein. Naomi was a founder of the CWLU and is a major contributor to the CWLU Herstory Website Project. The picture shows Naomi in 1969 at a Chicago women's liberation conference.)
Naomi sends her love to all of her sisters, and she particularly congratulates you for your decision to meet in -- an armory. We appreciate the organizers' invitation to me to speak in Naomi's place. She can't be here because she has been totally bedridden and under 24-hour nursing for thirteen years now, suffering from Chronic Fatigue & Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. Naomi can't write a response to Jacqui Ceballos' questions about her involvement in Women's Liberation, so I'm going to give you my report as historian/spouse, but it is informed by lots of talk with Naomi, and you will hear her voice as well as mine in it. Naomi was already deeply a feminist when I met her and fell in love with her in 1963. Part of her feminism -- only a part, but an important part -- came from growing up in a family where she survived only by teaching herself that it was they who were crazy, not her. This strength was to give her feminism a solid grounding in her character.
She grew up in New York. Her mother had been a concert pianist before Naomi's father had killed her career. Naomi went to Bronx High School of Science, then defied her father about going away to college --Wellesley. Naomi won, and still cherishes the supportive female environment of the place.
Harvard, where Naomi went for her PhD starting in 1961, was a different story, as so many women who went there in those years have reported. Sometimes there seems a direct correlation between the prestige of an institution, and the depth of its sexism. Naomi has been a pioneer in the revolution in brain science -- at Harvard she did a dissertation on parallel processing, which is now, thirty-six years later, a hot topic. When you hear that the brain is creative and active and shapes reality, you may be hearing someone who is building on Naomi's discoveries. But the male supremacist zealots who ran Harvard, people like Jerome Bruner, wouldn't let her use the experimental equipment there -- since she was a woman, Bruner felt, she would likely break it.
With resourcefulness and resiliency, Naomi said goodbye to Harvard, and took herself to Yale in 1963, used the equipment there, and got her degree from Harvard, first in her class, in three years. Then she couldn't get a job. The horror of these events is masked by her comedy in her article (in Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels' Working it Out), "'How Can a Little Girl Like You Teach a Great Big Class of Men?' The Chairman said, and Other Adventures of a Woman in Science."
Naomi knew that if she was to advance the revolution in brain science, she must face down her difficulties with math. In one of her many courageous acts, in 1964 she took a post-doctoral fellowship at the Committee on Mathematical Biology at the University of Chicago, and after much struggle, learned what she needed to know, about Poisson distributions, Reimann surfaces, and so on. Her math teachers started praising her analytical gifts. At visual cognition conferences, they began to call her Miss -- not yet Ms. -- Miss Fourier Transform.
But not at the University of Chicago, where, long before the important work by Nancy Henley on touch, we learned that at faculty parties there was a politics of eye contact, with colleagues addressing Naomi by looking at me, as if to say, "We Tarzan, she Jane." I began to learn to deflect their gaze.
At Chicago, great faculty liberals, yes even radicals, put their hands on her knee and urged her to have babies (David Bakan); voiced the suspicion that her radicalism stemmed from insatiable sexual lust (Milton Rosenberg); refused to grant her library privileges (College Master Donald Levine); and introduced her as, "Naomi Weisstein: she hates men" (Dean Wayne Booth. Naomi thinks it's important to name names.) Then they fired her, in 1966. Then she bargained hard with Loyola University in Chicago, having no leverage other than her passion for truth; driven by the Fates, and knowing that she had a mission, she demanded experimental space and equipment and got them. It floored me, as have so many things she has done. Again and again, when rejected for a grant, or for something else, she would conscript my gentleman's verbal skills and my sense of how the system works, challenge me to devise a script that she might use as a basis for an appeal, and as I was busy contriving an argument that I would never have had the courage to deliver for myself, she would grab it out of the typewriter, and would be on the phone to 202-land. Radical to the core, she educated me in refusal and resistance in ways that have helped to keep us afloat in more recent years, against dreadful and seemingly insurmountable forces.
Having been members of Women's Radical Action Project at the University of Chicago in 1965, in 1966 and 1967 Heather Booth and Naomi taught the first course on women at Staughton Lynd's University of Chicago summer course for organizers. In the fall of 1967, Jo Freeman, Shulamith Firestone, Heather, Amy Kesselman, Naomi and others began the Westside Group -- from which, Naomi has felt now for some time with regret, Jo Freeman was eventually excluded. Out of this group came, in the fall of 1969, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, the non-sectarian city-wide organization. In 1968, Naomi had been one of the organizers of the Lake Villa Conference outside Chicago, the first national meeting of independent women's groups. (Naomi was also active in Chicago SNCC and, earlier, in New Haven CORE.)
Naomi is also a musician and a comedian -- she had come this close to running off with Second City in the 'sixties -- and in March 1970 she organized the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band. With their sister New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band, they put out a record with Rounder Records. This was the beginning of women's music, a brilliant attempt to escape the old agitprop conventions of left music, to speak to the rising generation in a language that made sense to them, in ecstatic performances that mixed comedy and tears. They traveled all over, and Naomi recalls flying into Toronto with a joint in her pocket and totally unable to recall the name on the youth-fare card in her wallet. Who, she wondered, was this "Susan" that the Mountie was interrogating? Naomi sees a direct line from the Chicago and New Haven bands to Ani DiFranco and Riot Grrls today.
The band also assumed equality of talents, or that everyone could be trained to the same level of expertise. It was part of the magnificent utopian egalitarianism of the day. So was the speakers' bureau of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. In the early anti-war teach-ins, Naomi had spoken with a quavering voice. Then, as she says, the women's movement gave her voice, a combination of reason and passion. She began to speak to hundreds, even thousands, with a comical but racked, egalitarian call-and-response rhetoric that brought women to their feet and reminded me, especially at the Yale Law School in February 1970, of the black churches at the height of the civil rights movement. They danced in the street that night. (The Yale talk was the one in which she allied with Rita Mae Brown in support of lesbian struggles, at a time when the rightward-surging Friedan was denouncing the "Lavender Menace.") CWLU's speakers' bureau, of which Naomi was the principal architect, was an attempt to teach these skills to other women. It failed, as did the band. Yes, as historians are noting, there was trashing directed at leaders and the highly skilled, and it was awful, and, yes it was Stalinist. But let's remember that the trashing was the underside of the utopian egalitarianism; next time, let's build a better non-hierarchical egalitarian movement while acknowledging differences in skills. But let's not forget the glory of this effort for equality, one of the most radical parts of radical feminism, deserving an honored place in the centuries-long struggle for true democracy.
Believing so much in equality, Naomi colluded in her own silencing as her group told her to stop speaking publicly lest her talents establish her as a heavy. What a waste! Then, three months after Naomi left Chicago in 1973, the Band collapsed; they put out --in the mystico-spiritual and ultimately dishonest style of the day -- a statement that the band's death was merely a higher stage of life.
Meantime, Naomi had become the leader of the anti-war movement at Loyola -- a small Jewish woman from New York, called "Dr. Weisstein," taking on the Jesuits. She did karate, and came home black, blue, yellow, and, sometimes, even green. She went to pistol ranges in Chicago to master what she thought were necessary skills for women's defense. She went on guerilla missions with her secret group, from el station to el station, pouring glue in Playboy centerfolds. I didn't know from night to night whether she would make it home.
Along with Phyllis Chesler, Joanne Evans Gardner, and others, in August 1970 Naomi founded American Women in Psychology, now Division 35 of the American Psychological Association. Almost single-handedly, Naomi feminized the Mother of all gonadal conferences, the annual meetings of the Association for Research in Vision and Opthalmology, where her impact is felt to this day. Later, she co-founded Women in Eye Research of ARVO. In 1968, Naomi first presented her landmark paper, "Psychology Constructs the Female," an attack on the sexism that dominated psychology, since reprinted more than forty times around the world, and the subject of a special 1993 commemorative issue of the British Journal Feminism and Psychology. This paper, scholarly yet combative and liberating, received enthusiastic responses, and it took her a while to realize that when people stood up at the end of her talks, it didn't mean, as she thought at first, that she had somehow fucked up and they were headed for the exits. The intersection between Naomi's skills and the rising movement regularly brought ecstatic standing ovations. She did stand-up comedy on rape, first in support of Charlotte Sheedy's lawsuit against Zabar's for sexual harassment, and later on tour around the country.
Naomi moved ahead in her research with neural symbolic activity, actually finding the visual neural channels that responded to indicate that the brain was filling in parts of objects that the eyes could not possibly have seen. Think of the wonder! Her standing in her field increased, but there were terrible obstacles. The editor of a leading journal, a looter and plunderer, tried to steal the ideas in a paper she had submitted. She felt like she was in a free-fire zone. All this was bound to take its toll, and it would. Meantime, Loyola was generous, but it could not provide the facilities and technical support necessary for advanced research in cognitive neuroscience. Naomi needed a better job. I had been fired and fired again and blacklisted. It was hard times. We toured two countries looking for work, and were denounced by Canadian sectarians. Finally, in 1973 the dream seemed to come true: two good jobs at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
But when Naomi arrived in Buffalo, some of the men who had wanted to get the great Naomi Weisstein there were ill prepared for the reality. They were self-advertised bastards, psychology professors who looked like Long Island building contractors, with their hairy chests displayed, and sharks' teeth around their necks. In the larger world, her reputation continued to rise; at Buffalo, her lab was a model of democracy, like the band had been at its best. (She skate-boarded the long hallway from her office to her lab, and responded to the President's query -- had she said "fuck you" to a student who attacked her for this unseemly behavior? -- with an homage to Brecht: "Would I, a Professor of Psychology, say such a thing?") But down the hall were the sharks, colleagues debriefing and demoralizing her graduate students, denouncing her research (Naomi would find that the fair play of colleagueship was not extended to women), and excluding her from their conferences. And she would not join in their Tuesday night poker games.
It was to be almost the death of her. By the fall of 1979, when we came to Greenwich Village on Naomi's Guggenheim, the day-to-day combat with the sharks had almost destroyed her. My sisters and I spent the first day there being driven by Naomi to install ghastly alarm systems that would go off like firebells when the faintest breeze blew. She was building a fort against the previous horrors. And she had to stay in shape for the endless combat, so when the disease hit, she continued her ferocious exercising -- exactly the wrong thing to do when this disease hits. She had come to New York, gloried in the Village's celebration of deviance after the repressiveness of Buffalo, and had been racked but happy. "Here comes the happy lady," they said at the gay xerox shop on Bleecker and at Balducci's, as she strode by on her long legs, looking like Freewheelin' Franklin. But now she was to be struck down, a fallen hero, a direct victim, I think, of body-punishing struggles against grotesque male supremacy. Too little has been made of the costs to women's health of such horrendous struggles.
By 1981 she needed a wheelchair. By 1983 she was bedridden. She lived the nightmare that she had written about in "Psychology Constructs the Female," as an insane and sexist medical profession offered psychojunk to explain a woman's illness. The sharks now morphed into greedy drug companies, and medical insurers that wanted Naomi dead because she was so expensive. We fought and fought and continue to fight.
Naomi has remained marvelously in touch, though she lives in a darkened room with her eyes covered against the light, rocked by terrible vertigo. The lab she had fought so hard to build went down the drain in 1987, after she had nearly died of esophageal hemorrhage and pulmonary embolism, and spent six weeks in St. Vincent's. The nuns crossed themselves to cover their fury when they found it impossible to throw me out of intensive care. But, with all this, Naomi has remained comical, hip, outrageous and sharp. She has continued her scientific work through collaboration, and is working on the notion of the brain as active agent. People read scientific manuscripts to her, and she sits on the editorial boards of Cognitive Psychology and Spatial Vision. She dictates feminist pieces, about the limits of mysticism, women's rock, women's humor, Madonna, primates, power, resistance and science, the beginnings of the women's movement, and consumerism. The spirit of the band lives on in the nursing staff: Naomi has taught them to sing "Avanti Populo."
After fourteen years in bed, Naomi is deteriorating. Two teeth broke off in a week. Her diabetes is worse, with frightening hypoglycemic episodes that make her shake. She wonders why the drug company won't give her the Ampligen that might save her, before all these secondary effects do her in. And she thinks about what a mean and barbaric time we live in. She knows that her life depends on an attack on the profit system, on medical care as it exists today, and on challenges to the standing order in every area.
Most of all, Naomi longs for a rebirth of her movement, a new radical feminism. She has always respected multi-level struggles, but she is tired of civility and subordination, and doesn't have time to wait for gradualist schemes and pomo and other academic rackets. She wants a movement that will express her rage and the rage of other women. She wants protests and mobilizations, and fierce responses to the mean and diseased culture which now floats over the country like a poison cloud, largely unchallenged, choking women under it. She wants this movement to be both passionate and reasonable, ecstatic and utopian, hostile to hierarchy and to unequal power in every form.
Finally, Naomi asked me to read from a poem by Gerrard Winstanley, as quoted in Christopher Hill's history of seventeenth-century English radicalism, The World Turned Upside Down. Winstanley, the old Digger, looks at the world around him and what it has become, and wishes that the movement would come again. He says:
Truth appears in light, falsehood rules in power; To see these
things to be is cause of grief each hour.
Jesse Lemisch and Naomi Weisstein can be reached at:
890 West End Avenue, 8b
NY NY 10025
phone: (212) 222-6649;fax (212) 222-1624
Copyright by Jesse Lemisch 1997