The literary scholar Viktor Shklovsky once attributed Tolstoy’s success as a novelist to the “energy of delusion.” The Russian writer was committed to constant trials and experimentation. He had a seemingly endless capacity to put himself in the position of what the Russians like to call a “holy fool” and look at the world as if through a child’s eyes.
Journalists also frequently adopt the attitude of holy fools. They are so often out of their depths and must rely on others to provide them with the information and contacts that sustain their work. It doesn’t help a journalist to assert knowledge – or feign knowledge – in an interview when the objective is to obtain as much information as possible.
In truth, this “energy of delusion” is an important ingredient in any significant enterprise. If we knew how much effort a project would ultimately require, we would not likely undertake the initiative in the first place (as in: if I’d known how long it would take to transcribe and edit 300 interviews, I might never have committed to such a project).
This applies all the more to any effort to change the world. To counter the cynics and naysayers who dismiss attempts to improve on the status quo – by pointing to the failures of the past or the supposedly insurmountable obstacles of the present – activists must almost by definition assert a willful ignorance.
Ann Snitow is a well-known writer, teacher, and activist. She has been one of the key movers behind the Network of East-West Women (NEWW), a group of women’s movement activists on both sides of the former Iron Curtain that continues to be active today from its office in Poland. She began her engagement with East-Central Europe in the mid-1980s. NEWW grew out of a desire to exchange information and experience with women who grew up in “the other Europe.” But to get the initiative off the ground, it was necessary to adopt some attributes of Tolstoy’s “energy of delusion.”
“The advantage of being a stranger who is stupid and doesn’t know anything is that you can sometimes move around in ways that your ignorance enables,” Snitow told me in an interview in New York in November 2013. “Yes, we were naive and ignorant and you shouldn’t do this this and this in the founding meeting. But we would never have done the meeting at all if we’d known all these things beforehand.”
Humility is an important element behind such enterprises. Many people went from West to East on missions: to spread the light to the ignorant natives. That light might have been democracy or capitalism or religion or proper English. In many cases, there was pull as well as push. NEWW certainly provided many books about feminism to women in East-Central Europe who were eager to get their hands on materials that had been scarce to non-existent before 1989. But NEWW was more about an engagement of equals, of mutual understanding, of the West learning as much from the East as vice versa. It had a gendered element as well. There was no mansplaining here. Instead, there was an honest admission that we can all benefit by holding our tongues, admitting our ignorance, and listening.
In her upcoming collection of essays, The Feminism of Uncertainty, Snitow addresses precisely this acknowledgment of ignorance – of language, culture, history. “I’m writing about this and apologizing about the distance that can’t be bridged and the things I’ll never know,” she told me. “And then I found myself writing a paragraph that said, basically, that maybe I like not understanding. Otherwise I might have the illusion that I do understand. It also defines a distance that can never be bridged.”
We talked about debates over pornography and abortion, about divisions within the region, about teaching feminism in Albania, and about a member of NEWW, Agnes Hochberg, who died at a young age (a summary of my interview with Hochberg in 1990 follows at the end).
What was your first contact with Eastern Europe?
I was in Eastern Europe briefly with my husband Daniel Goode, because he had a concert in Budapest. We were there in 1984, and I’m so glad I had that moment because I had no thought of going to Eastern Europe. It never occurred to me, and there we were. We saw the bullet holes in the walls, and you couldn’t get food. We stayed in a student hostel from hell, where there was a speaker system that announced things in the bedroom and could not be turned off. And we were thinking, “Oh my god, it’s true, it’s hell!”
And that was one of the nicer places. The happiest barrack they like to call themselves.
The friends we were visiting were very sophisticated musicians for whom the current regime was of course anathema. I wouldn’t say they were dissidents because they were musicians. There were quiet refuseniks. We went to the May Day parade thinking: “My god, we people of the Left, a May Day parade! How exciting!” Our hosts were so withering about our decision to look at this parade. They lived very successfully outside the system. They’d built a little apartment on the roof. They were definitely people who were trying to live as so many people did, outside the orbit of the controlled spheres. I was very impressed by this, and interested in them.
But they were utterly withering about feminism. I spent one evening with a bunch of them and their wives, and they produced the kind of hatred and contempt for feminism that I came to know so very well in so many different ways. They produced the whole package in one evening. I remember thinking, “Oh, here’s a new thing to worry about!” Bringing feminism into conversation in Eastern Europe had never occurred to me. I considered it a completely hopeless location. I was a leftist. I wasn’t about to go criticize. I wasn’t with the dissident crowd that wanted to spend their time on anti-Communism. But we went through the checkpoints and visited Berlin, and the differences between East Berlin and West Berlin were nauseating and frightening. And at the same time I was so angry at having every magazine I had with me taken away lest I contaminate the people of the East. I thought, “This surely can’t work.”
And was I ever right! You couldn’t keep quiet about what was happening in the West. Though later, when a Russian woman became part of the Network of East West Women, she came with real trepidation to America, where she was going to be doing some stuff for us. And we slowly discovered that she was from a poor background, and she was terrified to meet Americans. So the propaganda did also work. She thought we wanted her dead, that we hated Russians unto death.
When it came to the early gifts of books and things like that, it was amazing how little they had and how much they wanted. Sometimes the Network was accused of being imperializing.
“What?” I said. “Imperializing?”
“Yeah, you gave them books.”
And I said, “True, there was a lot of demand. They told me what they wanted to read. We bought the books and we sent them.” Of course you can’t even do that anymore. There are no more Airmail M-bags. Nobody wants them that way anymore. It’s all over. Our book and journal project is completely different now. But in those days Mihaela Miroiu said to me, “I’m 25 years behind!”
And I said, “No, no, that’s not the right way to think of it.”
She started to cry, and she said, “Yes, it is the right way to think about it. I’ve never seen any of these books!”
So, there was a lot of angst and absurdity around that separation. It was a weird mixture of isolation and separation. But of course, the east-west distinction is crumbling, crumbling, crumbling. I think of it completely differently now that we’re all in this post-Communist situation.
In terms of the problems for the Left, I first saw them in 1984. And then, I heard about Slavenka Drakulic’s talk at the Socialist Scholars’ conference in the spring of 1990 when she held up a tampon. I think it was actually a pad, anyway this big visible object, and she made sure the men in the room knew what it was. She said, “Communism failed in part because it couldn’t provide us this.” I’m so sorry I missed it, but her talk was a wild sensation. Katha Pollitt and Barbara Ehrenreich and a couple of other people said they would like to meet with her, and they invited me along, and that was it.
Slavenka said, “Why didn’t you help us?”
And we said, “We should help you.”
She said, “Oh, the men help build up the men so much, you never did anything for us.”
And I thought, “My god, guilt I never even knew existed!”
That’s what we’re here for. To discover new sources of guilt.
And so I said,” Well, what could we possibly do? What can we do now?”
And she said, “We’re all so isolated, all of us feminists.” You know, she’d written an article for Ms where she’d tracked down people who called themselves feminists throughout the region. It was an interesting project. And she said, “We’re all isolated, nobody knows about anybody else.”
And it’s true, that once the Network got going I would get these letters from Romania saying, “I’m the only feminist in Romania!” So she wanted us to support the project of their meeting.
And I said, “Well, why would we be relevant to that?”
And she said, “You have Xerox machines and postage stamps and telephones. You have all of these civil society riches. We don’t have those things. Why don’t you just help us get together and then we promise not to listen to you once we’re in a room together.”
And I’m writing this now in this little book called Visitors, and I say at this point: “This seems to be the kind of invitation that I can’t resist.” It’s just totally alluring. I was very deeply intrigued by what was happening and how fast it was happening. It was such a question mark, what the women’s situation was going to be. What kind of changes were going to happen? Was gender even going to be a category? And it soon became clear that it would be an organizational category in the sense of who works, who doesn’t work, who gets social services: everything. And it was all going to be done very fast. I was totally intrigued. I agreed to work on the conference. I spent the year raising the money. I visited in March to put things together with Slavenka and her assistant.
I visited Zagreb, I visited Belgrade where Sonya Licht was (whom I knew already), and I visited Krakow, to give Slawka Walchewska the money to come to the conference. I was carrying cash to give to the people who were going to travel to the conference because it was really hard to send money at that time. There was no banking, so everything was hard. And we couldn’t have done the conference without the black market rate! I brought all this cash under my dress, which I gave to Slavenka and she changed it on the black market so we got 20% more. That’s how we managed to raise the money.
If you think nobody’s interested in Eastern Europe now, you should have seen it then. It was the year of the Gulf War. People said to me, “You want to raise money so that feminists can have a conversation? Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
I thought, “Uh, yes. You can say that actually every minute of every year. There’s no reason to ever do anything for women because there’s always a war on!”
Anyway, I had a terrible time raising the money. And there was just a handful of us doing it on the Western side with Slavenka and her assistant Alenka doing the organizing and finding people using the snowball method.
In June 1991, just two weeks before the war [in former Yugoslavia] began, we were told not to go – to Dubrovnik for the conference — by the State Department. And we said, “After a year of planning, we’re going!” And 70 people showed up. Two weeks later you couldn’t really go, the war had already started. And then of course a couple of months later the place where we met was bombed. And we got charred pages in the mail from their library. Everything was happening very fast.
There were many Yugoslavs at our meeting in June 1991, and they didn’t know how to name themselves. They’d say things like “Yugoslav” and then they’d say “Ooh, so sorry, I’m a Croatian.” And there was embarrassment. People who were naming themselves at that moment were very confused about what this was going to mean. And there was a great desire to be separate from Serbia, no question. But there were Serbs there as well. One woman from the Czech Republic said, about a Serbian woman who had just spoken, “that Serb, that Serb.” There was suddenly this nationalist craziness and intensity in the region at that time, and it all broke out in the meeting itself. But there was also very clearly a desire to have an international connection. I got totally obsessed, fascinated, and committed in ten minutes. And that’s the answer to your question about how it all started for me.
You mentioned it was difficult to raise money on this side. What was the reaction you got from the feminist community outside of Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt and the people who interested at the very beginning in Slavenka Drakulic?
People unknown to me came out of the woodwork who were interested in the region for various reasons: people who were scholars of the region, a Bulgarian at NYU, people who had lived there, Eastern Europeans who were living here. Nanette Funk is a perfect example, somebody who really knew a great deal about East Germany and helped a lot. Or Joanna Regulska. So it suddenly turned out that there was a community of people who cared about this that I hadn’t encountered in my local feminist work. Slowly they formed around the Network. For the first couple of years this room where we’re sitting was where women from all over the region and American women who were interested in them would meet quite often. Sometimes there were 70 people in here.
That era has passed. Someone said to me recently, “Why don’t we have those parties anymore?”
I said, “It passed.”
But at that time there was a hunger, a sense of intensity, a great deal of curiosity that we had about each other as well as the anxiety we had about each other. All of these people were arriving on their first trip to the United States – or the first trip abroad. And then there was our desire to meet with those people. Did you ever know Agnes Hochberg?
I did, yes.
Well, she died. We were devastated. She was at the conference. And she sat right there and said, to this large room that was half American and half Eastern European, “I think the best thing we should do is get rid of abortion. Abortion has been horrible. Feminists should get rid of abortion in Hungary.” And all the American women in the room had a nervous breakdown! But that was an absolutely necessary conversation. The conversation that followed was about how could we make these rights our own. We talked about genuine social services — contraception, sex education, abortion free and on demand — the feminist program that we’d had for decades. But to Agnes, it just sounded like: once a year, me or my friends will have an abortion, without anesthesia. It was one of those moments when you understand that you don’t know anything, which is a good slap in the face.
Agnes was a perfect example because she was so lively and creative about thinking what feminism should do. She said, “I’ve seen that you have all these anti-pornography campaigns. You know, I think we could do that.”
Other people from that region said that to me too, and I said, “Lente, lente. You’ve just gotten rid of certain kinds of censorship. You don’t want feminism to be identified with the return of censorship, do you? Could we talk about sexuality some other way?”
Agnes was wonderful. She said, “Oh, you think it’s a repressive discourse.”
And I said, “Absolutely, around here it’s very contested and we’ve been having terrible fights about this from the early 1980s.” That part was just coming to an end actually because the Supreme Court decided that the anti-pornography ordinances weren’t constitutional. It was not exactly the way you want to win a fight, but it was convenient because those ten years of arguing about whether or not we should censor and punish pornography were exhausting. I told Agnes, “You don’t really want to say that men’s sexuality is defined by pornographic scripts. Maybe it is the only way to find out about sex if you’re 14. But given our current culture, the idea that men are just dangerous, lusting, rutting beasts and we have to protect ourselves from them and from their sexuality, I don’t think that’s a progressive way of constructing our situation or our struggle.”
And Agnes said, “Oh, okay, let’s not do that.” I loved her for it. You know, you’re not supposed to have undue influence. So, if this was the right campaign for them, then go for it. It galvanized a lot of energy here, no question about it. But the danger of cordoning feminism off as this righteous purity movement to save women from the depravations of man and their images really frightened me. This represented a return to the defensive and an indication of an inability to make the culture that we want. It was a discourse of disappointment and rage that came when feminism was slowing down and it was harder and harder to think you were getting anywhere. So, in the end, I persuaded her.
It’s an interesting story, and what I’ll do is I’ll send you my interview with her from 1990, and maybe…
What did she say?
I don’t even remember because I didn’t reread it because I couldn’t re-interview her. But I’ll send it to you and if, because I didn’t interview you in 1990, we can put her interview at the end of my interview with you.
That would be interesting because 1990 was way before our discussion. We were talking in 1991, 1992, 1993. I hope I’m not claiming those conversations more than I should, but they meant a lot to me. The idea that I could change so much what abortion meant to them just made me totally rethink the issue. I still thought they should have free abortion but obviously not the way it had been, and I could see how the whole medical social support system had been a deep pain and insult to everybody. It was just so important to have that change. And then I felt that it was a kind of reciprocity. I said, I don’t think this will work for you in the long run, and I just felt we were – and this was my dream for the Network of East-West Women — trading cards back and forth.
It’s interesting because you started by saying that there was an invitation for you to come, but they were not going to listen to you. But here is an example where there was an exchange of ideas. Was there a time that you were sitting there and thought, “I want to say something, but I shouldn’t”?
After a short while, I was no longer in the room. The Network set things going that I frequently wasn’t part of. We had board meetings where we thought about how things should be structured, what would be most democratic, how do we empower the Eastern Europeans. But the projects themselves went galloping off, and in a way we weren’t in the room anymore. We got a Ford Foundation grant to put everybody on e-mail. And once everybody was on e-mail there was no privileged voice, and there were conversations and exchanges. But I don’t think American women were telling people what the subject should be.
The only other instance I can think of was when a Romanian judge said, “We should make divorce illegal, because it’s only men who use it. Women are too disgraced to use it. What should we do about the inequality that crops up around divorce? Women don’t get anything, they’re suddenly without any support, they’re stigmatized if they divorce. And men are just using it to get out of responsibility. Since 90% of all divorce initiations come from men, we should make this illegal.”
And this was another case, like abortion, when I thought, “You can’t just take something like divorce out of context and say it’s good. You have to think about what it means to women and how it will work.” Even though again, I didn’t think that making divorce illegal would help women in the long run, I remember thinking, “I can’t say anything about this. It has to do with the failure of local culture and structures for women to have any kind of independent life outside the family. Whether divorce is legal or illegal, the point is that there was no place to go.” You had to have a feminism that created spaces, and there was no shortcut for that. She was trying to make a shortcut and save women from the depravations of men who leave.
It reminded me a little bit about my sympathy for New Right women who felt that we feminists were destroying marriage, and marriage was the anchor to make sure that women kept men there but that if they left, they had to pay. What feminism needs to do is make places where people can go and lives that people can have, to create ways of changing the family, changing the woman’s situation in the family, to allow for divorce and remarriage or to be in a lesbian couple. In American society, this is what we expect: so many consumer options, so many choices. There was nothing like that in Eastern Europe. So, I just realized that our American ideas about divorce were, in the Eastern European context, naive and not helpful. We often came up often with examples of our own naiveté and foolishness. We made mistakes, but the conversations continued.
For two years we had meetings here, and it was almost always someone from the region presenting what was happening, and then Americans and other Eastern Europeans questioning that person. That was the structure: the speaker from the region and the encounter in the discussion that followed. And I think that pretty complicated things went on. I wouldn’t characterize it as us telling them or them telling us. The best part of it was the back and forth.
I remember one time a woman from Romania was giving us a talk. She hated American anti-consumerism. She was withering about it. She gave a great presentation about how great it was that now you could buy things that you couldn’t buy before. It was like lipstick feminism. Once Fran Olsen came to talk to my class and she told all these Europeans, “You know really, you don’t need as many colored lipsticks as we have in American culture. It’s just obscene. You don’t want that.”
And they almost killed her. “Don’t tell us we don’t need so many lipstick shades,” they said. “You have them, so shut up.”
That’s a very important kind of exchange. But anyway, this Romanian woman was here, and she was standing right here where we are, talking about what was happening in Romania. At one point she started to climb out the window, and I thought, “My god, my East-West conversation is collapsing. We haven’t said anything yet to her, she’s still giving her presentation, but she’s about to start down the fire escape!” No, it was that she was so horrified by how she wasn’t allowed to smoke in American locations, and she was so desperate for a cigarette that she had stepped onto there to start smoking while still talking through the window.
And I said, “But in my apartment, anyone can smoke. That’s part of what we do in the Network of East-West Women. If people want to smoke, they can smoke.”
And she said, “Oh, okay.” She came back in and she continued talking and was smoking and we gave her an ashtray. It was a cultural collision about freedom. She was furious that this was supposed to be a free society but Americans didn’t let you smoke everywhere. She also thought it was ridiculous that we complained about consumerism since we obviously all delighted in it. Being a great shopper myself, I completely agreed with her about that.
So, you ask whether I chose to be silent or not silent. But the main issue was not silence or no silence, self-restraint or no self-restraint. It was: did a relationship get formed? Was there a kind of back and forth where everybody moved around? In the early days, that definitely happened, and also there were people who changed what they had to say very fast.
Hana Havelkova, for instance, once began by saying how disgusting she thought the other people were on her panel. “You’re all just liberal democrats,” she said. “I’m a person of the Left, and the Left rhetoric is disappearing. The West is bringing in this horrible discourse. Please, just leave us alone. We’re on our own path.” That’s what she said from year one, and I respected it very much. I thought she gave a brilliant talk.
But then a year later she said, “Well, I’ve actually been rethinking that. It actually turns out that we’re becoming you and you’re becoming us, and the split that I was talking about a year ago really doesn’t exist anymore.”
This was a function of people living at a rapid pace. I saw her recently at a conference in Brno. I embraced her and said how much her writing meant to me. I reminded her how each year she had a different construction about what our relationship might be, and that that had been a benchmark for me: watching her capacity to rethink the relationship and rethink what was happening geopolitically so fast. She keeps moving like that. She’s now studying the Communist period and what kind of feminist moves were actually possible during those years. It wasn’t just this metaphor of frozen time and then came the melt. She got a big grant to treat this frozen time as a time when lots of things happened. She has a bunch of researchers working on it. And I thought, “If you had said to her in 1992 that she was going to want to discuss the Women’s Union under Communism, she would have said, ‘That’s just you Americans being romantic about Communism.’” And there’s some truth to that as well.
It’s the same with curators in the region. If you’d said back in 1990, “Hey there’s all this interesting public art from the Communist period,” they would have said, “Please, put it in a park somewhere on the outskirts of town.” And now many of them find that work very interesting. But on the question of the Women’s Union, I’m curious about how that complicated the encounter with women in the region. Back in 1990 when I was in the region, people had bifocal vision. There were folks within the official structures and people in the unofficial structures, whether it was women’s issues or peace issues or whatever. There wasn’t a lot of grey area in between. How did that affect your discussions in the Network?
I’d almost have to go country by country with that, because there were very different relationships that people had. I knew independently those who had been underground or disempowered because they were lesbians. Those are the people I knew. Those were my friends with whom I formed these long-term relationships that mean so much to me. I didn’t really encounter the official stuff. The way you’re putting it is that to them separateness from any official structure was a high value. If you proposed, for example, to get more women into parliament, that would be the moment when they would say, “Are you crazy? Politics is dirty. There’s no way of controlling it. It’s disgusting.” Now it’s just four or five percent. This nice woman, I don’t remember her name, just sent me a chart. The number of women in parliament under Communism was almost zero. Now they’re going up a little again, and a couple of countries have come out with quotas. Serbia and Poland have quotas, which is extraordinary: I didn’t think that would happen. I was just in Serbia talking to the new women parliamentarians. There was a lot of disdain among my friends at the university for me going to parliament and talking to them. I said, “I’ve always believed in insider-outsider strategies. These are new women in parliament, I’m interested in them, and we’ll see whether they’re interested in anything I said. It’s worth a cross-border conversation. Even now people felt that it was hopeless, so imagine how it was earlier.
The place where I encountered what you’re talking about is when I would criticize the idea of feminism as an enclave, separate from the society. It’s a place of refuge, a place where we can all be together, a place where there’s no homophobia. All of that was really important to people and to me because that was my world. These were the people I wanted to talk to. I wanted to support their projects, their cultural efforts with books and journals, their flyers for Manifa in Poland. I was also interested in what women were going to do in the power structures. Who were they? Were they left over from the old power structures, and they just moved over to a new situation? Now there are some rich businesswomen in Poland, and they fund the Kongres Kobiet (Women’s Congress), and I have friends that won’t go there. But other friends say, “What’s the matter? 300 women from all over the country converge? Let’s talk.”
I gave a talk at the Congress about the dangers of neoliberalism. And some people hated that talk. “We want these things,” they said.
It goes back to the old consumerism question. I said, “Well, for us it isn’t working out that well. There’s been a downside to neoliberal economic arrangements, not just for women but for everybody.” So there’s this constant conversation about insider-outsider strategies. And there are problems raised about “purity” that definitely happen the same way in the United States. There are also tensions between Warsaw and Krakow, between the center and the periphery, between “radicals” and those who are “compromised by fancy jobs in the university.” These cleavages are completely familiar to me from the American women’s movement. I wish I could say it’s exotic over there, but it’s the same problems connected to institutionalization. The further they move toward having a civil society that opens up spaces, the more this comes up.
And of course with grant money these questions came up around the issue of legitimacy. There was more pressure over there than even here to be legitimate because you had to register. Slawka registered eFKa, her women’s foundation, already when I’d met her. She’d just done it around 1990-91 because she knew that if she was going to perform as a public feminist in this new situation, she needed to be legitimate and be registered as a public entity. We in the U.S. women’s movement never thought about such a thing. We had this huge movement, but nobody registered anything. It just proliferated in this mushroom effect. Why would you register? Of course I now know how important it was for her independent entity to have that protection. You could give it money; nobody could assail it; it had certain protections. And registration didn’t really stop it from doing radical things.
These problems of “old stuff” and “new stuff” or “insider stuff” and “outsider stuff” don’t go away. These contradictions just keep rolling along. Recently in Poland, I along with the current director of the Network of East West Women Malgorzata Tarasiewicz, who is a very radical feminist, received an invitation to visit the old Women’s Union in Warsaw. We spent the evening with them. We were given cakes and roses and this formal presentation. It was amazing. It was another world, full of congratulation and celebration. The women there were all of the Left, and they were really hated by some of the feminists in the town: really patronized and hated. And there I was. The advantage of being a stranger who is stupid and doesn’t know anything is that you can sometimes move around in ways that your ignorance enables. Yes, we were naive and ignorant and you shouldn’t do this this and this in the founding meeting. But we would never have done the meeting at all if we’d known all these things beforehand.
So you were the holy fool.
That’s it. And I write about that in an introduction to this collection of essays I’m putting together. I write that without naiveté and grandiosity, there’s no activism. Otherwise it’s too difficult and you make immediate mistakes.
When was that meeting in Warsaw?
Two summers ago.
Two summers ago? So the Women’s Union is still around 20 years later…
The apparatus is still in place. They were women wearing the clothes of that other time.
And they are of that generation?
They have more space from the state than any other women’s movement — in Warsaw, Krakow, or anywhere else where they had space during the Communist period. It’s all theirs: room after room in this space in Warsaw. We met in a big fancy room. There was the food, the roses, the ritual, and the texts that I’d written that had been translated into Polish.
And they pointed to one of the texts and said, “We don’t like the way you say this.”
And of course I was thrilled! Imagine: somebody is reading you, what a joy! So I listened and then I said, “What is it you don’t like about this?” It was actually a misreading. It had something to do with whether or not there were women’s movements in Central Europe. They thought I was saying this it was not just hard to do but impossible. So I said, “Actually what I’m talking about here is something else. This article is about the 12 reasons why it’s hard to have a women’s movement in this part of the world. I think of it as a sympathy statement.” I had to really talk it through with them. Of course that was horrifying, that misreading. But I could see how a list of twelve negatives could make people depressed, though other people were very heartened by this and said “Yes, this is what we’re up against. There is hopelessness for this movement and dangers about where it might land.”
Then they forgave me, and the conversation rolled along. I felt a lot of warmth for them. They’re all people of the Left. They’re all trade unionists. Trade unions? That never comes up in other feminist conversations I have. On the other hand I could see why some of the other women I know there are deeply offended by people who created a niche for themselves in the official world of Communism. They are seen as being instrumental, perhaps even betrayers.
One of the first things you said was the division between east and west has largely been smudged out. And I feel the same way. In this recent year of travel, many of the things that I thought were stark contrasts are no longer that way. But every so often you come across something that reveals that substantial differences still exist, whether it’s a function of culture or history. On this last trip of yours to Poland, were there other times when you came up against these persistent differences?
My friendly acquaintance Ewa Charkiewicz has been much criticized in the women’s movement in Poland. On her website, which the Network helped her set up, you can read radical articles about feminism that include economic analysis. She’s a thoroughgoing feminist leftist, and her argument is that Communism has been so demonized that you can’t even go there in your thoughts or your institutions. You can’t visit those people. I found that helpful because what it says is that real differences have been buried and obscured by the prohibition on saying anything about Communism – or, in Yugoslavia, saying anything about Yugoslavia. Do you remember the anti-Yugonostalgia movement?
If you said anything about what you were losing, you were anathema. Yugoslavia was totally demonized. I remember thinking back then, “So instead we’ve got ethnic cleansing? And now of course we’ve got seven small, poor countries that can’t do anything and aren’t even in the EU yet — and they were first in line for membership as Yugoslavia. Isn’t it interesting that we weren’t ever allowed to say a word about that or that anything was good under Communism.”
I like the formulation of Eva Toth, a Hungarian: no envy, no pity. “Since you don’t know what we have and you don’t know what we didn’t have, you can’t understand our particular construction of rage about the past,” they were telling us. “You project onto us your own notions – either that we had more than we did or poor us we had nothing and Communism was horrible.” You couldn’t say that under Communism for some years people had more. Occasionally I was able to say, “Look at this new poverty, this steep class system that was created in five years: what a triumph.”
When you ask about difference, I feel there’s buried material. It’s buried partly by trauma. Forty years is a long time, and the differences lie deep. And certain assumptions, certain wishes, certain constructions of the world are surely much more different than people are even aware of. People who can’t move fast enough are falling behind. Marcy Shore writes about some man who kills himself because he can’t make it in the new order. Those stories are in some sense repressed. You’re not supposed to be dealing with this stuff. You’re supposed to be in motion. And if you’re not in motion, you’re depressed, marginalized, suicidal, hanging onto things because you’re a peasant. When the Communists won the elections again in Poland, for example, my friends were furious. “It’s all these peasants!” they said. “The ones who lost their rights to this pension or that pension. So they’re bringing back the Communists.” And I remember thinking, “Well, they have a point.” But of course the post-Communists didn’t do anything for them either.
Or were worse.
Or were worse. But to answer your question, people are slowly going to look at those 40 years to assess what could and couldn’t have happened, to determine what’s been gained and what’s been lost. This whole world is just crumpled up and disappeared. But something is left still in people. These oral histories that everyone’s been doing — there have been several big projects and yours fits in wonderfully with all of that — to interview women in depth. Jirina Siklova did one in the Visegrad countries. Slawka’s done one with Moldovans and Bulgarians. There’s been a huge mobilization to interview people about their years under Communism. Then we’ll see how people really felt about that time and what they’ve had to do to put it behind them.
Nobody talks about trauma. When I first went there, everything was changing. A shop had been there for 50 years and now there was a new shop and then another new shop and I said, “Does this confuse you?” And they’d say, “Oh no it’s wonderful. People are building. Your can hear the banging of hammers all day, it’s wonderful.” And nothing else was said about that. Who knows: maybe it’s much more wonderful than it is destabilizing. But one thing I know is that there have be some traumas buried in there because of having to change everything so fast at the last minute. And what that all meant depended a lot on your age. So, to answer your question, not only would you have to go country by country in terms of how much has changed and how fast, but also generation by generation. The students I had in Krakow in 1992 had grown up under Communism, and the students I had two years ago in Wroclaw were born in 1989. Are these two groups estranged? Do they talk to each other? I think they do. They still have mutual support systems within the family. But how do people manage that pace?
I think you’re absolutely right: any discussion of the region has to go country by country, sometimes even town by town. I’m also curious also about these hierarchies that have emerged in the region. There was the northern tier – the Visegrad countries — that was, as countries or a region, expected to be more economically advanced or go further. Yugoslavia of course was initially expected to go much further and then it went to the back of the line, so to speak. Did those hierarchies play a role as well within the Network?
One of the big issues for us for a while was when it became clear that the Visegrad countries were going into the EU soon. We decided that the region was being split down the middle. Some countries were going into Western situations and polities and support systems, and this other group was going to be really marginalized because they were no longer part of a shared condition. We tried to theorize that. We tried to do projects that had to do with linkages, encouraging people in the Czech Republic to talk to Bulgarians. As the Network we thought it would be useful to bridge the innies and the outies. Now did we actually do it in some meaningful way? Certainly we did in terms of the flow of information, which was the main thing we were doing. We spread the word about conferences, where to apply for money to go to this or that meeting. And there was talking about this as a problem. We provided linkages, but we didn’t have the infrastructure to do much more.
Every now and then we get a weird grant. My favorite one is the Baltic Crescent. How do they think of these things? The north of Poland, one or two Scandinavian countries, and Kaliningrad. For a few years people were shuttling back and forth between these three countries. There were a couple of anomalies because actually Kaliningrad is part of Russia, and they don’t want Poles coming and going so they charge a lot for visas and the grant didn’t include any money for that. Crossing the border actually has enormous consequences. It was an EU grant, and the idea was to link people who weren’t linked at all. I liked the idea, but I would have been more enthusiastic about connecting Warsaw with Bucharest.
So, let’s put it this way: we were very aware of this new line. We had meetings about it and we talked about it and we tried to make sure that events from all locations were available to everybody. That has been a minimal achievement, but at least it shows self-consciousness that this was a new problem.
With the emphasis on joining the EU, was there a shift in the women’s movement away from American feminism and towards a Western European or simply European approach that may or may not have been different from the preoccupations of feminism here?
From the very beginning Western Europeans said, “What do you mean, U.S. women and women from Central Europe?” I’m afraid the answer was very primitive. I live in New York and Nanette Funk lives in New York, Shana Penn lived in Washington DC and Joanna Regulska was at Rutgers.
It was the Network of East Coast – Eastern Europe Women.
It was absolutely ad hoc in that way. There was also a Canadian at the meeting and a Greek. But Western European women’s movements were highly organized. Some of them did work in Eastern Europe, but we weren’t part of those networks. We worked with AWID, the Association of Women in Development. But the problem occurred at every level. What about mostly white women going to Central Europe when friends in the Czech Republic said that Black women’s writings about feminism were more relevant to them? And I thought, “I can see why that would be. There are many feminisms and you’re absolutely right that you have to pick and choose the feminism that you want.” And certainly there are some really interesting people in England who work on the region whom I admire very much.
But it’s simply that we started as an American organization that was registered here as a 501c3 so we could get money, which we only got for the first couple of years, and then it was over. We received the Ford grant that put all these people on e-mail. We did the legal project, which didn’t work as well because Shana left and there was nobody to run it. But then the money was over, so we became a network of information and conversation and exchange. We never were a foundation. We never had any money, and that was an advantage and a disadvantage, although I’m coming to believe now that it was more of an advantage.
Some western European feminists, for example West German feminists, have had extraordinary reach into various countries in the region, particularly Poland. The Frauenstiftung funded half of the things I knew, and I worshiped them. This was progressive money that came from the Austrian government. And my friends very urgently got on that gravy train. They spoke German much better than English. Our Network was a small thing, just a bunch of people. We briefly had a West Coast branch, a DC branch, and a New York branch. Now mostly it’s the East Coast. We were a bunch of women in our situation who wanted to reach out to feminists who were trying to figure out what to do in their situation — through information and conversation exchange. It’s small. Sometimes people interview me and ask, “Why didn’t you do x? Why not connect to Western Europe?” Absolutely excellent idea, I’d think, maybe next week when some time opens up. I didn’t know the Western European movement well except by fame. I had friends who were active in some exciting academic networks of which I was an admirer. But it’s also true that places like France didn’t have a mass movement like the United States. England had a great socialist movement and a number of brilliant feminists as well as great people who related to Eastern Europe. But these are different movements. The East Coast was our base, and we had a lot of feminist contacts around here. I wouldn’t like to make a principle of it. It was really just a de facto situation.
How has your own thinking on feminist questions and women’s issues in general been changed by your experience in the region? Can you give some examples of different inflection points where your thinking went off in a slightly different direction as a result of your conversations?
I don’t know how much you follow the American women’s movement, but I spent from the early 1980s to the early 1990s very much engaged in the sex wars in feminism. Even more in retrospect as I’m gathering the essays I wrote from that time, I now realize how deadly the split in feminism was on this issue. It was also a meaningful split that one really had to fight about. I never thought that we should fight as liberals versus radicals. I thought that we needed everybody, some working inside and some working outside. Many splits in the women’s movement struck me as just proliferation. But in those 10 years I would say the situation was very deadly.
I’ve done Powers of Desire, a collection about sexuality from 1983. I’ve written an article about Harlequin romances as a kind of pornography for women. I was trying to talk about women’s sexual pleasure in 1979. Suddenly I had to spend a lot of time on this issue, and I did it willingly because I felt that it really would be sad if feminist women became moralistic and on the defensive. Young women were coming into feminism and the burning exciting thing they encountered was organizing against violence, which was dear to my heart. But anti-pornography organizing was a way to express our rage about rape and domestic violence. It made sense that people were very angry. But I thought it was so misguided.
Leonard Boudin was a friend of my parents, and I remember once having dinner with them. I said, “Leonard, I have to talk to you about what’s happening in my women’s movement.”
And he said, “I’m not going to be able to discuss this with you. I’m against any kind of anti-free speech thing.”
“Leonard, stop right there. You assume that all feminists galloped off in that direction. But I’m terrified! It’s like somebody’s stealing my movement.”
It was very unedifying to fight brilliant, passionate feminists on the other side. They said we weren’t feminists. They thought we were fascists and Nazis and didn’t care about women. They said terrible things about us. But we never said things like that about them. We said, “We completely disagree with your strategy. We don’t like the way you think about sexuality and pornography, but we never said you’re not feminists, because that would have been ridiculous.” They were passionate feminists. So to be fighting people like Catherine MacKinnon, whom I absolutely believe is passionate about feminism and has a sense of the injustice that women suffer that goes right through to her bones, is no pleasure.
By the late 1980s I was pretty burned out. I continued to do stuff around abortion. At that time I was very busy trying to create a gender studies program at the New School, which was an uphill battle that took eight years. It’s hard to believe but true. Liberal resistance is the worst. It’s like swimming in treacle. They’ll say, “That’s a good idea, we should get around to it one of these days,” or they’d say, “Oh it’s so parochial, can we redefine it?” And I remember thinking “Sure, let’s start a gender studies program and let’s redefine everything.” It wasn’t like I had this narrow program for what gender studies should be, but it was so hard to even name it. Agnes Heller, our beloved and famous Hungarian, said it was all biopolitics like the Nazis, and I remember thinking, “Agnes, I adore you, but you don’t know what you’re saying!” Anyway, it took eight years. And there was the enormous number of hours that went into that and into the sex war stuff.
I was totally embedded in American feminism. It was the center of my life from 1969 onwards. So it was 20 years when, in 1989, I entered this new world. I was so excited to know nothing, be ignorant, be curious, to have people challenge me on grounds I never even dreamed anybody would even contemplate. One Czech woman said to me, “Because you’re American and I’m Czech, your life expectancy is seven years more than mine.” And I thought, “Of the many things that I’ve been accused of, this is a totally new way of facing who I am, who she is, what the world is like, what my privileges are, what my problems are. What it would it be like to have a feminist conversation with her?” I was totally fascinated, and I fell in love with the people — by no means with everyone, but with a lot of people. I met people who were in really complicated situations that were different from anything that I knew and that moved me and inspired me to think freshly and join with them.
I can sympathize with that enormously, having gone off to work in Korea. It was an opportunity to re-experience the world as a child experiences it.
It’s wonderful that you put it that way, because I’ve been writing about how I never learned how to speak Polish. I’m very ashamed about that. But I’m slightly dyslexic, and I have bad hearing. Now I’m forgetting everything, so it has become even worse. I have absolutely no talent for languages, and I only spend a few weeks there a year. And I go to other countries too. I haven’t learned Romanian or Bulgarian or Serbian either. You could make a long list of the languages I haven’t learned. So I’m writing about this and apologizing about the distance that can’t be bridged and the things I’ll never know. And then I found myself writing a paragraph that said, basically, that maybe I like not understanding. Otherwise I might have the illusion that I do understand. It also defines a distance that can never be bridged.
I describe 10 of us having pizzas in Krakow, and everybody’s chattering in Polish. I don’t understand a word. I don’t even know what they’re talking about. Often they’re very thoughtful and they speak in English and they translate for me. But we’re eating pizza and they’re chattering about who knows what, and I encountered this pleasure in not understanding. And I realized that even if I literally understood, I wouldn’t really understand. It was like being a child again. The adults were chattering all around me, and I could be ignorant since I was ignorant.
But now you’ve been involved in these issues for so long, it’s a little bit more difficult to maintain one’s childlike innocence. What is it like to combine the two worlds, the world of expertise that you’ve developed over the years and then this new world of information that is completely different? If they are two different weather fronts colliding, what do they produce?
It’s interesting that you ask me that now because I just decided to put into the book a piece about a day I spent in Shkoder in Albania. I’m a teacher above all. I’m not a proselytizer. I want to incite questions and exchange consciousness about the gender variable in people’s worlds. And in this Albanian city, I felt that what I should say was: in the texts I’d read and in the situations I’d encountered, people didn’t really think of women as people in the same way that men are people. That, to me, is what feminism is: to assert that men and women are both people in the same sense. I told a few stories about how that could be imagined and why it’s so hard to imagine it. One of my examples was housework, how it’s taken for granted the way women serve men. This wonderful girl in the back spoke up. How brave she was, because girls almost never talk there, it’s almost only men who speak on these public occasions and there were 100 people there. “I do everything for my brothers,” she said. “They tell me what they need done and I do everything. I couldn’t imagine not doing that.”
I said, “Hmmm, what would happen if you said ‘No, I’m busy, I can’t do that now.’”
She said, and she was just vibrating, “They would hit me.”
“Would they hit you hard?”
She said, “No, no, I’m putting it wrong. They wouldn’t love me anymore.”
It was like waves inundating my head. I told her, “The one thing I know in this life about feminism is that it should not be about losing these brothers. Love is love. You don’t give up the brothers.”
She said, “They send me to school, they protect me, they care about me, and I take care of them.”
“It’s a very old bargain you struck, and there is nothing in the feminism I care about that would involve your not maintaining the depth of this relationship with these brothers. The only thing I can say is that Albania is changing so fast that some of these relationships are breaking down. People are leaving, going to Western countries. A quarter of the population is away at any moment, and 30 percent of the people who are leaving are now women. So this bargain that you signed on to as a child when you were born with these brothers is under strain and under negotiation because of all these cosmopolitan elements. The other thing is that at some point you may have a family and have children, and it’s at that moment that you can think about this bargain and what would be best for both the boys and the girls that are in your family.
She’d assumed that I was going to say, “Down with those brothers.” But I said hang onto those brothers. Love is love.
Then some guy got up and said, “What about the penis?”
I said, “Good question, let’s talk about biology.” It was a very interesting and fun group of people. They were about to be social workers. When it was all over, the penis guy came up and gave me his CD of ecstatic music. He said, “I understand feminism is good, I didn’t mean to tease you.” I said, “It’s fine, you were very much on point.” And then the young woman came up. We both had tears in our eyes. We embraced, and I felt we would remember each other our whole lives.
Your question is to what extent did I change and what is the exchange like now? It’s all in motion in this region, and that’s very exciting. I dip in and out. I’m bringing stuff that I taught in America there, and stuff that I learned there back here. My teaching practice is very much interrogative. I don’t have a message other than: consider feminism.
It’s funny because in the early days when I was a teacher in these countries, I was treated with great rudeness and hostility. I’ve written about that too, and that was exciting too. I never suffered. I always thought, “This professor refuses to see me even though I’ve been invited on special grants, sent all the way from New York and this university that he admires, and he refuses to even see me. He sends a lackey who tells me how awful it is to be a lackey because now he actually has to sit through this feminist lecture, and he hasn’t even heard a word from me yet.”
And then the boys in the class would make all these insulting remarks about feminism. They thought they were going to get a lecture about feminism, but instead I was asking them, “What do you think about this or this or this.” So the faculty leaves, because they didn’t get the fancy lecture about feminism or the PowerPoint that they wanted. And the boys are suddenly set free, their professors have left, and the subject is feminism. It was fascinating and fun. This doesn’t happen anymore at home, where people are jaded but ignorant. I was like, “Okay, keep going boys.” I even goaded them a little. And then, at some point, I started to notice the girls looking at the boys. They’ve never heard misogyny like this because it’s taken for granted. At one point some of the tougher girls started to yell at their male friends. “What? Are you kidding?! That’s what you think?” They started calling the boys out by name.
There’s been this enormous body of experience built up in this engagement, this conversation, and I’m curious whether anybody at any point suggested bringing Cuba or China into the conversation?
You’ve interviewed Elzbieta Matynia, yes? She’s a genius and also a great organizer through the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. We started out with a sense of urgency that a bunch of young people in Central Europe didn’t have any access to interesting educational discussions, so we sponsored a civil society exchange about what was happening that was not available to them in their universities. For the first five or six years, these discussions focused on Central Europe. But then she set up the school also in South Africa and started to invite South African students to Krakow, and Krakow people were going to South Africa. Then she brought in some Mexicans, some West Germans, some people at the periphery with completely different cultural experiences, like people from Kurdistan. These additions were really exciting. And it was very challenging to us professors.
I remember a wonderful class that David Plotke gave. At one point he was talking about citizenship and access to institutions in a society, and he asked the Mexican guy to give the court instructions in Spanish. And nobody understood. I think maybe one or two people in the class could speak Spanish. And it was such a perfect dramatization of the blankness of not understanding and how unrepresented in American institutions are people with real differences: how hard it was for them to participate, to vote, to get a license when they don’t speak English and have no idea what these institutions are. I was so moved by this exercise. It was one of those teachable moments, like you said. It was wonderful. And out of that came very rich discussion.
When people hear “Network of East-West Women,” they think China or Malaysia, and I get invitations from China, Malaysia, India, and Korea all the time. And I’m always a little regretful to have to say that this was the name of a historical moment connected to the fall of the Berlin Wall and East Central Europe and to some extent the former Soviet Union. So usually we say no, and the Network doesn’t connect to other regions as part of it’s structure. But anybody can come to the website and see what’s happening with feminism in East Central Europe.
I thought you were going to ask about the former Soviet Union. There were very interesting members in the former Soviet Union and conversations about new repressions there and the gay and lesbian issue and all of this. We’re less important for them; they have their own universe over there. At the beginning we weren’t allowed by Slavenka Drakulic to invite Russians. She felt the region needed to pull away from Russia. We argued with her, and she won in the end. She said, “We Central Europeans don’t want to listen to Russians anymore.”
“But these are feminists!”
“I don’t care,” she said.
Very soon, however, we said, “This is ridiculous. The former Soviet Union is definitely a part of the conversations we want to have.” And lots of Russians were part of the network for some years, but less so now and I think that has to do with another border we haven’t discussed.
I was thinking more in terms of feminist issues in state-dominated societies, like Cuba or North Korea or China.
My friend Carol Vance had just come back from China, and she’s having conversations there about sexual politics and what we were thinking in the sex wars. There are some very interesting Chinese queers who really want that conversation with us. The gay and lesbian issue became very prominent very early in the Network. Now that the issue has become global, we are still part of supporting what’s going on.
When you think back to the way you looked at the world circa 1990 or around the time of Slavenka Drakulic’s presentation at the Social Scholars Conference, what has changed in 23 years? What has shifted in terms of how you look at the world?
I’ve been reading over the symposiums that Dissent has sponsored every couple years. It’s a way of seeing how the discourse rolls along. Certainly the different meanings of globalization keep shifting, and so has what you can and can’t do in international movements. The Occupy movement meant a lot to me, because in the run up to Occupy, the discussion here about resistance to big money was so stuck, so dead-end. So, how could I go to Eastern Europe and say, “Hey, why don’t you resist neoliberalism?” I had some nerve! But then as soon as Occupy happened, I gave a bunch of talks and I wrote a piece for Krytyka Politczyna about what a difference this was making. When there was absolutely no resistance here, I couldn’t say forthrightly that I think you’re really failing to resist the new poverty and it’ll come back and bite you. I just didn’t feel that I had the authority. So I would say that there have been shifts in what I think we should be thinking and writing about because of opportunities like Occupy.
Some people say Occupy is dead. And I say, “How do you know? People have been saying that feminism is dead all the time.” Maybe in that particular form it’s dead. But the truth is that there was a huge upsurge that changed what we could say and the connections we could make. Feminism is in that mix, but it’s not the only thing in the mix. Occupy was a big moment for me. It enabled me to talk about radical discourses in Eastern Europe standing on a chair in Zuccotti Park.
Last question: I’m writing an article on Krytyka Politiczyna, so I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you what impact do you think Krytyka has had?
I don’t know them very well, but I really admire them. It’s really exciting that there is such a journal, and a couple of my radical students went right into Krytyka. I don’t speak Polish, so I can’t possibly measure who’s reading this, but it’s a location now as well. There’s the bookstore and other locations. It’s ambitious and feminism wanders in and out of there, I mean Slawek Sierakowski isn’t exactly a feminist, as he told me when he visited me here. He said, “Yes, yes, we have many women, but I am the chief.”
He’s changing his tune. I interviewed him just a month ago and he insisted that Krytyka is a women’s organization, that it is successful because of the women.
You see, change happens. I love them and I care for them and I feel connected to them and I want to have those conversations with them. And the fact they he would say this to me and then say that to you is truly delightful. And I like him and I like their effort. I like their energy and the idea that they’re the first people who are not apologetic about Left positions.
Interview with Agnes Hochberg (1990)
Hochberg visited England two years ago, met feminism there: “I came back with these ideas and wanted to talk to everyone about them,” but there wasn’t anyone to talk with. An English feminist that she had met there came to Hungary and “they tried to keep each other’s spirits up.” Together they started to talk to some other women who were part of an anarchist group. One day, they had a discussion about pornography. Some women, including the English woman, started to meet together. They decided to approach the official women’s organization. Hochberg is a member and had gone to their Congress last year. In the fall of this year, “we told them we were going to launch a women’s movement in Hungary.” The official women’s organization agreed to provide a room at their building for a tea party/meeting.
Hochberg and others discussed what topic would attract the most people and decided on “beauty.” They wrote a statement, posted it many places. The meeting, which took place on November 17, 1989, was successful, Hochberg related, though the turnout was not as high as she had both hoped and expected. The group of women who had organized this meeting then had difficulty getting the official organization to agree on another date for a meeting. So the small group met separately in various places.
At the same time, from February to May, there was also a course on women’s issues at the university–lectures on women’s psychology, witchcraft in the 16th century and so on. When the Women’s Network began to meet at the beginning of the summer, drawing on the organizers around Hochberg, the numbers were swelled by the participants in this seminar. Some women from abroad came to the initial meetings. A woman from West Germany, for example, stressed the importance of official registration: legality allowed recognition and assistance from international women’s groups. Now, registered, the Network would like to do a number of activities, but at this early point, is rather disorganized. Hochberg though that one meeting a week was enough simply to get to know one another, not actually to start organizing work. The Network would like to establish a center including a library of women’s books and periodicals; begin to analyze women’s issues in the press; publish its own newspaper; establish a crisis hotline; translate the basic feminist literature perhaps with its own publishing house; engage in legal intervention and planned parenthood counseling; initiate public debates around the country. “Since nothing has been done in Hungary, there is so much to do,” Hochberg said, though she admits that not all of these activities can be done. But at least if the Network places these activities on its agenda, other women might be inspired to take up these projects.
The official women’s group still exists–Hochberg thought that it would really change, but it hasn’t. This organization has a nice new center: most of the same people are working there, are still travelling around and not really doing anything. There is, Hochberg admits, a lot of prejudice against the formerly official organization: “Personally, I am at a loss: to believe or not believe.” Meanwhile, the official women’s paper has become independent.
On the topic of pornography: even “respectable” weeklies resort to pornography to attract readers, Hochberg said. She and some friends did some actions against newsvenders: spraypainting anti-pornography slogans and distributing leaflets. She tried talking personally with these newsagents but really didn’t get very far.