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Ironic Feminism, Empathic Activism: Robin Morgan's Saturday's Child

A child actor, radical Leftist feminist, founder of the global women’s movement, poet, writer, lesbian, and mother, Robin Morgan gives us a story we have and haven’t heard before in her memoir Saturday’s Child. At times tender, at times tongue-in-cheek, Morgan’s exploration of her own childhood-in-the-spotlight and adulthood-on-the-frontlines-and-at-the-podium tells not the history of the feminist movement so much as a history of Robin Morgan’s feminism, and her connection to the larger women’s and feminist movements.

Saturday’s Child spans an impressive fifty-odd years. Extensively exploring her complicated relationship with her mother, Morgan writes about a childhood spent starring in I Remember Mama, at benefits, and in the public eye. She writes about the struggle for her own voice, and about finding that voice both as a writer and as an activist. She writes about her marriage to Kenneth Pitchford, and about the politics they created as a (presumed) heterosexual woman and a (self-proclaimed) gay man raising a son. She writes of two major relationships with women that affected her writing, her feminism, and her life. She writes through her experience in Leftist radicalism and the early feminist movement, the compilation of Sisterhood Is Powerful, her editorship of Ms. Magazine, and the founding of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute.

Morgan offers an episodic, image-laden history of the great events in feminism in which she participated, as well as some revealing nuggets: Morgan’s creation of the universal symbol of the women’s movement, the woman’s symbol centered with a raised fist; her coining of the term “herstory.”

For Morgan, communication and politics alike would be worthless without irony—that ability to see and hold and recognize the incongruities between what is and what should be. And communication and politics (both lifeblood for a writer and activist, or writer/activist) are hollow without empathy—the self-aware and unpretentious ability to inhabit the experience of others.

Robin Morgan learns about irony and empathy at an early age; the reader witnesses this precocious ability to identify the incongruent when sneaking a peek at an 8-year-old Robin Morgan’s diary. With a wisdom beyond her years, the young RM (by this time already one of the most famous girls in America) notes the irony in being told to write about herself, and in being scolded for including her feelings toward the “little Negro girl,” Roberta, who lives next door in a lot dotted with unstable shacks. The empathy Robin feels for Roberta is not a self-righteous desire to “fix” Roberta’s unfortunate situation, but a righteous anger at the injustices Roberta suffers, and a desire to gain a friend who, without exposure to television, might take Robin at face value, and cherish her as a friend, not a TV star.

An older Morgan calls empathy a “subversive emotion” that has nothing “to do with fatuous pretentions of self-sacrifice”(423). She writes of meetings with women around the world- Zulu women who traveled miles from their villages to meet with Morgan about the unjust practice of “virgin tests” and the rape of young girls by HIV positive men, noting her own tears to the reader. Morgan’s tears, and her inclusion of them in Saturday’s Child, are not intended to exonerate her for living in a privileged nation, or to evoke admiration, but to illustrate the personal, emotional motivation and connection Morgan experiences in and through her feminism.

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