By Beth U.
I just put down poet/writer Marge Piercy’s memoir Sleeping with Cats. In it, Piercy explains that she had no role models while coming of age in the 1950s. “Resistant to sex roles,” she “wanted something larger and deeper and darker” than the lives of women she knew (67). So she became her own role model. She cast herself as “odd” and in search of “fringe types”—“others with writing ambitions, left politics—misfits and rebels and intellectuals” (89). Yeah, her search resonates with me.
I first read Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time 15 years ago for a gender studies course. It is a weird and disturbing book—a pimp successfully commits a woman to a mental hospital after accusing her of violent assault, her tongue swollen with drugs, slogging through institutional hallways—and my first foray into feminist utopian/dystopian fiction. I then consumed everything I could find of hers, scouring second-hand bookstores in Boston where I lived that summer. I remember a friend simultaneously collecting second-wave pamphlets—yellowed and curled—to cut them up for her ‘zine about body image. I remember more clearly the many muggy nights I read Piercy, a sweat-slick glass of whiskey between my fingers.
That summer I devoured Braided Lives, Small Changes, Vida, and The High Cost of Living. I drove from Boston to Portsmouth NH at 1 a.m. restless with Piercy’s words in my head because they formed characters that felt real to me. Her woman characters support one another, not perfectly and not forever, but genuinely. Women are not simply fodder for a “romantic” plot of heterosexual jealousy, or objects of a male protagonist’s desire or contempt. I walked the beach and thought, yes, I too would write somehow – no matter what else I did, I would write. And I would continue to have the kinds of friendships and relationships that Piercy describes, ones that require risk. She writes (234): “I don’t believe in magic in relationships, only in goodwill and hard work.”
Fierce determination and scholarships put Piercy through undergraduate and some graduate coursework. She left graduate school, choosing instead to write and to prioritize activist work: “The work was boring, boring, boring. My head was being stuffed with stale cornflakes. I did not want to be a scholar; I wanted to be a writer. I suspected that if I continued graduate school, I would begin to get ideas for papers for MLA conferences instead of poems or stories […] I would never be the writer I wanted to be if I continued for my Ph.D., I was convinced” (115).
Early on, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex clarified Piercy’s feelings and gave her an illuminated path to “think about being a woman, about marriage, about sex roles, about expectations, about freedom” (118). Piercy began to “use her own experience and perceptions” to write better fiction (127). By the late 1960s she was involved in feminist organizing in addition to her ongoing involvement in Left and anti-war activism. At this time, she was “struggling to invent a grammar of gender and sex roles in fiction” (218). She became friends with fellow women writers including Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich and with them had the “ability to talk about our writing in a real and intelligent way” (225). Feminism gave her “a spine” (241) and because of it she was able to put writing—literally—at the center of her life.
Piercy never wanted children or a conventional family. “Some of my friends began to have children,” she shares. “Among the writers, mostly the men went on with their work while their wives cared for the offspring. Among my female friends, having a baby seemed to spell the end of whatever they had been doing previously […] I wanted to be free to write. This further cut down on what I had in common with female friends—that and the fact that everyone seemed to come in couples, and few of the women […] were motivated to pursue female friendships that did not involve children or their husband’s careers” (174).
Eventually Piercy decides to undergo laparoscopic sterilization. She does not qualify her decision not to have children but states: “I liked many of my friends’ children as they grew older: I was a good aunt. But I never desired to possess them or have one of my own” (201). Forty-five years later, hers is still an unusual proclamation. We exalt parenthood even as we devalue childcare (parental leave, daycare workers and teachers, public school). I get at times horrified reactions when I express similar sentiments: I absolutely adore children but don’t want to birth any. Piercy also clearly identifies her laparoscopic surgery as a choice: “I have never regretted taking charge of my body. I did not want children. I never felt I would be less of a woman, but I feared I would be less of a writer if I reproduced” (216). Against mainstream insistence, Piercy chose writing over child rearing. One can choose both, of course, but she did not want to. End of story.
Piercy published her early novels more than forty years ago. Their contemporary relevance is both mesmerizing and disturbing. You only have to read Roxanne Gay’s 2014 essay How to Be Friends with Another Woman to know that Piercy’s grasp of friendship between women was revolutionary. She gets working class politics right and nuances urban Jewish life (she grew up in inner city Detroit). She also gets heterosexism right, and employs what we would now call a queer sensibility in her deft handling of feminists negotiating (sexual) relationships. She also gets choice, autonomy, bodily integrity, and solidarity right. And abortion. In light of another attempt at a national 20-week abortion ban, and in the continued erosion of access to sexual health care, Piercy’s rendering of the consequences of illegal abortion terrifies. In several of her books, women choose backstreet abortions and help each other find abortion-care through underground networks. And in Braided Lives, a character dies from a lack of post-abortion care, illustrating a consequence of illegality.
At nearly 80, the issues of Piercy’s youth and mid-age persist. Piercy still prioritizes writing, relationships, activism, and a fierce self-actualization through daily rituals of writing and homesteading. In the ’70s, she bought land in Cape Cod and cultivates a jungle of growing things there. Now, she is “trying to learn how to age, something our society seems to know little about. My body has changed, spread out, as my mind has grown more focused. I do not want to fight aging, but to find in it value and a different kind of strength and endurance—something I think particularly vital for a woman, since older women are so devalued and denigrated in our society” (329).
Piercy has published 17 novels and 18 volumes of poetry over 50 years. Last year, she released a new collection of short stories entitled The Cost of Lunch, Etc… In February of this year she published a new volume of poetry, Made in Detroit. She does not waver in her work as a writer and feminist (and a lover of cats).
She is, for me, the role model that she never had.
Excerpt from If They Come in the Night (1982)
I said, I like my life. If I
have to give it back, if they
take it from me, let me only
not feel I wasted any, let me
not feel I forgot to love anyone
I meant to love, that I forgot
to give what I held in my hands,
that I forgot to do some little
piece of the work that wanted
to come through.