On September 23, 1969, a group of women, conspicuous among them a tall, patrician blonde, handed out mimeographed leaflets to passersby and newlyweds alike at New York City’s marriage bureau. Rather than wedding-day platitudes, the pamphlets offered incendiary prose: “Do you know that you are your husband’s prisoner? … We can’t destroy the inequities between men and women until we destroy marriage. We must free ourselves. And marriage is the place to begin.” The tall woman handing out leaflets was TI-GRACE ATKINSON (born 1938), former president of the New York chapter of NOW, and a founding member and de facto leader of THE FEMINISTS, the radical organization behind the marriage bureau action. To Atkinson, any contact with men — even those who claimed solidarity with the women’s movement — was an act of collaboration. At various times during her career, the New York Times described her as “softly sexy,” a “tigress,” and the “haute thinker” of the women’s movement. But while the press loved Atkinson’s combination of good looks and militant rhetoric, many of those who worked directly with her were less affectionate. Atkinson “wanted chaos,” according to the first executive secretary of NOW. To feminist critic Susan Brownmiller, Atkinson was “bad news through and through.” Even author Kate Millett, who respected her long after she had become a pariah to others, eventually called Atkinson “too elitist to join the elite.” Atkinson knew she was considered uncompromising and unreasonable. But she also knew, as she put it in her 1974 essay collection, Amazon Odyssey, that “the only way to reach people on feminism is to go for their jugular.”
A longer version of this essay appeared in Hermenaut #16.
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