Street Fighting [Wo]man by
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Prompted By Student Activism

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Silkscreened poster from 1969 Harvard strike

“Hey! The time is right for violent revolution” sang Mick Jagger in August 1968. When I heard it, I had just come back from the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where I was tear gassed by the police. I was seventeen years old and I was ready to learn how to be a revolutionary.

The Rolling Stones replaced the Beatles as my favorite band.

Even in high school I had been immersed in the antiwar movement. Of course it was Vietnam that politicized our generation. I joined the Student Peace Union, and had little peace symbol stickers that I put on everything. I made speeches in my high school classes. I must confess that I don’t remember any of these speeches, but reading what classmates wrote in my high school yearbook, almost everyone refers to my impassioned speeches. I wanted to march on the Pentagon in 1967, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. (Okay, I understand this now, I was barely 16, and D.C. was a long way from New Jersey.) My class voted me the girl speaker at graduation — had to have one girl and one boy every year — and in my speech I said that our generation was going to change the world, and that by opposing the war we were starting already, even though we were still too young to vote.

That summer, working for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign at the national headquarters in Washington, I was introduced to real-world politics, and I loved it. I really believed he could win the election and end the war, and everything would be wonderful. Chicago taught me otherwise.

I went to college in September 1968 to study revolution. I joined SDS. I took a course in Socialism, and another one called Radical Change in America. I decided to major in Government instead of English on the theory of “know your enemy.” I marched on Washington in 1969 and 1970. Of course I was part of the SDS takeover of Harvard’s University Hall, which I have written about elsewhere. I went to New Haven for a demonstration in support of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins. It was an exciting time to be in college and be a revolutionary. We had student strikes that shut down the university two years in a row. I was sure that the revolution was imminent, and I was planning to be on the barricades offing the pigs, ready to give my life for the cause if necessary.

The revolution didn’t happen. But student protesters did accomplish some important objectives. We turned the country against the Vietnam War, forcing Nixon to end it. At Harvard-Radcliffe, our protests resulted in co-ed housing (important because the men’s accommodations were so much better than ours), and a gradual increase in the number of women, from the 20% it was then to the 50% it became by the 1990s. We got Women’s Studies and Black Studies recognized as legitimate disciplines. We got ROTC kicked off campus, with academic credit no longer given for its courses on how to make war.

*  *  *

After college came many years of not protesting, even when there were issues that I cared deeply about. I gave money and time, but there was no taking to the streets. I was working within the system. Then the so-called election of the con artist currently in the White House turned me into an activist again. The Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018 made my adrenaline start pumping like it had in the old days. Marching down Capitol Mall to the state capitol with thousands of other people, chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” at the top of our lungs, felt great!

This spring, after the horrendous shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I was awed and inspired by the articulate, passionate students who came forward to argue for gun control legislation. The March for Our Lives, on March 24, 2018, was a phenomenal experience, entirely planned and carried out by high school students. I was joined by my daughter Molly, who was home from college on spring break, and it was fabulous to march with her and chant with her and listen to speeches at the Capitol by students who were younger than she is. While the impetus for the high school student activism was terrible, I am thrilled that they have become activists. I know that they will not stop fighting until the battle is won. They give me hope for the future!

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: been there, right on!

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    A really terrific story by someone who has true student activism “cred.” Most impressive is the fact that it was not spurred by going off to an already radicalized college campus and being swept into it, as many of us were. To the contrary, as the story demonstrates, you had taken the initiative — and the obvious leadership — while still a high school student in not exactly revolutionary New Jersey (excluding, that is, the Battle of Trenton in 1776).

    I also really liked how you brought the story — and, of course, your own activism — forward to the current Women’s Marches and the March for our Lives. As you note, they give us hope for our future, something we really, really need right now. And they also reflect your own truly lifetime commitment to important causes. Brava!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks John. I had to laugh at your “not exactly revolutionary New Jersey.” Do you think there was some other state where high school students were more revolutionary at that time? I lived pretty close to NYC, and used to hang out in Greenwich Village on weekends with my wanna-be-beatnik friends.

  2. Wow! From that strike poster to your hopes for the future, you gave voice to the powerful and exciting role you played — and play — then and now. I loved the line announcing your switch in musical loyalties from the Beatles (and their apologist “Revolution”) to the hard-edged call to action from the Stones. I wonder how many of our generation made that distinction as those albums came out. I certainly did.

    You paint such a portrait of an admirable activist, pulling absolutely NO punches for your awakening. I’m so impressed that a teenager would rise to the occasion in such a thorough, determined, and passionate manner. Now we have the young gun-control activists from MSD but your account delivers such a matter-of-fact description of your own radicalization as a change that simply had to be.

    “Chicago taught me otherwise.” Such a simple line, describing so succinctly the turning point for many of us. I loved the easy authenticity of your account of the Harvard-Radcliffe student strike. I think most of all, I enjoyed the fact that you NEVER APOLOGIZED for any of your decisions, actions, or motivations! Thank you!

    • Suzy says:

      It never occurred to me to apologize, or that there might be anything to apologize for. I’ll take the appreciation, but it actually surprises me a little. And for the record, I don’t think Jane Fonda should have apologized for anything she did either.

  3. ADDENDUM: I also greatly appreciated your balanced description of the revolution’s outcome. After all, we DID win so much, as you so clearly describe. Thanks again!

  4. John Zussman says:

    You were ready to [wo]man the barricades so early it almost seems like you were born a revolutionary! Like Charles, I applaud the fact that you still believe in these ideas and never apologize for your “youthful idealism.” Do you still hope for “the revolution?” One thing I have learned is that revolution is never won but is a continuing process.

    • Suzy says:

      Right now we need a revolution more than ever! Nixon, who seemed so evil back then, looks benign now in comparison to the current W.H. occupant. But I don’t think it will happen. And I’m not up for the barricades at this age, although I would be if I were 17 again.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Very good point about activism in New Jersey, Suzy, You can certainly claim credit for The Boss. Plus, I know Mark Rudd was a Jersey Boy, too (Maplewood or Montclair). That said, when “People’s Republic of….” is invoked, it is usually in reference to Cambridge, Berkeley or Madison.

    • Suzy says:

      You’re right about Mark Rudd, John, he was from Maplewood, not so far from where I lived. Wish I had known him growing up. He is 4 years older though, so was already at Columbia when I was becoming politically aware.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, your desire for political change, and your willingness to go to the barricades (or marches) to effect it, come so naturally for you. You’ve shown us in countless stories about your strong moral upbringing and values…as well as your association with some icons of the Left through your wonderful aunt. I am not surprised that you went to Chicago in 1968, came back energized and ready to revolt, even changing from the Beatles to the Stones and working for McCarthy. It was a natural progression for you. And you’ve taken up the mantle again with the mind-blowing occupant in the WH today. So glad you could march for gun control with your daughter in March, imparting your strong beliefs to the next generation, just as the MSD high schoolers will be the political leaders of our future.

    • Suzy says:

      Belated thanks for your comment, Betsy. I enjoyed writing this story, although initially I thought I had already said all I had to say about my student activism. Turns out there is always more!

  7. Patricia says:

    Wow Suzy, “I went to college to study revolution!” When I was in HS, we had a sit-in protesting the fact that boys couldn’t wear jeans with rivets! (Because of course they scratched the desks. Not.) I was sent home once for wearing a too short skirt, even though I had on a matching pair of shorts under it!! These and many other acts of defiance were about as far as we got. Political issues were so far from our experience, you must have had an exceptional upbringing to be so clear in your objectives at such a young age. Brava.

    • Suzy says:

      Well it was totally because of my experience in Chicago. I wouldn’t have thought of being a revolutionary before that. In HS we had a rebellion when the principal said we couldn’t wear culottes, that was the most radical thing I did. But the Convention changed everything.

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