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Sniping at 'Sisterhood' : Author of History of Women's Movement Taken Aback by Feminists' Critique

August 04, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Sisterhood can be rancorous.

Ask Marcia Cohen, author of the new popular history of the women's movement in this country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For starters, her labor of six years--"The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World"--was napalmed in a national magazine review by one of her chief subjects as it headed for the bookstores.

Vitriol and Silence

Then, after the book was published, the former New York Daily News reporter didn't hear from anyone else she had written about. Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem, feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan, author and artist Kate Millett and several other pioneers of women's liberation didn't make it to the Manhattan party celebrating the book's appearance. They didn't call or write, either.

When she came through Los Angeles the other day, Cohen was still puzzling out this mixed reaction of vitriol and silence from the feminist quarter--although "The Sisterhood" has been widely and often favorably reviewed in major newspapers and other media.

"Look, I'm a reporter, I told what I thought was the true story," Cohen said in an interview. "I know a lot of the feminists may not be so happy with it because I think that up to this point everything has been very polemical. We all have to say the same thing and say it together and say we're all perfect and we never fight and we never have rivalries."

"The Sisterhood" began as Cohen's idea for a series of linked profiles on major figures in the women's movement that 20 or so years ago initiated far-reaching changes in the legal, social and economic roles of women.

At the urging of her publisher, Cohen said, she expanded her concept to include the highly visible demonstrations and political campaigns against bastions of male chauvinism and sexism. A sit-in at Ladies Home Journal magazine and demonstrations against the Miss America contest are among the book's prominent episodes.

Nonetheless, "The Sisterhood" is largely the story of 10 women and how their ideas, books and actions helped spur on the movement that lifted some of the restrictions on women in the workplace, at home and in politics.

Of the 10 women, four--Friedan, Steinem, Millett and Germaine Greer--are portrayed at great length. Cohen intimately details their struggles to break free of their varied but oppressive backgrounds to become famous rebels--and widely read authors--in the cause of women's rights.

The book opens, for example, with a vignette about Friedan being late for a demonstration because her husband has beaten her up. She finally arrives wearing dark glasses and heavy makeup to cover her bruises.

And Cohen seemed a little wounded this day in Los Angeles.

Chagrined Over Review

In particular she said she was chagrined over Greer's review in Vanity Fair. The review was commissioned after the magazine's editors decided "The Sisterhood" couldn't be easily excerpted in the magazine, Cohen said.

"The book is very closely woven and Vanity Fair was going to excerpt it and I know they really did try," Cohen said. ". . . It is hard because there is no one incident that stands for the whole book."

But Cohen said she was not forgiving about the choice of reviewer since, in the interest of objectivity, it is extremely unusual for the subject of a book to review it.

"In my memory that is an absolute first," Cohen said. "I've never heard of that in my life." (A Vanity Fair representative said the editors would have no comment on why they chose Greer to critique Cohen.)

In her review in the magazine's June issue, Australian-born Greer, author of "The Female Eunuch," snarled, "The book has the same relation to reality, after all, that 'Falcon Crest' (the glitzy TV series about wine-making and greed) has to the struggles of the farm workers in California. Most of the book, as for instance the account of my shabby, shaggy, half-naked and braless self, is wildly inaccurate and distorted."

Greer, who did not list other alleged inaccuracies or distortions, also accused Cohen of an "innocent, pippy-poo style" that made Greer yearn "for hair that is not flowing, and a Cartier watch that is not expensive."

(Greer's review was accompanied by a scathing sketch of another major subject of "The Sisterhood," Betty Friedan, author of the book "The Feminine Mystique," a bible of the women's movement. Recounting her trip with Friedan to Iran in 1974 for a women's meeting in Tehran, Greer portrayed Friedan as a woman who spent part of an evening "screaming" for a Cadillac limousine all her own, rather than sharing one.)

In the just-published August issue of Vanity Fair, Cohen has fired back at Greer in a letter to the editor. Among other things, Cohen notes that it is "saddening to discover--the same week this 'review' appeared--Germaine rating her sexual partners by nationality in the gossip column of People magazine."

In a follow-up telephone interview this week from New York, Cohen amplified on the letter.

'Shoots From the Hip'

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