By Professor Yxta Maya Murray
From "You're Creating New Categories:" Anglo-American Radical Feminism's Constitutionalism in the Streets, to be published Spring 2012 by the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal
On September 7, 1968, a battalion of the feminist group New York Radical Women bombed up the Garden State Parkway in their VW buses to make a ruckus at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At a "consciousness raising" session (essentially a rap group session) several weeks previous, they had discovered that patriarchal beauty standards -- and their expressions in the meat markets that were beauty contests -- had damaged their own self-images and liberations. Thus enraged, they leapt off the buses, crowding around the boardwalk in front of the Atlantic City Convention Center, hoisting picket signs and papier mache puppets. They crowned a sheep -- a proxy, of course, for Miss America herself - and sang out bawdy songs that poked fun at the pageant organizers and the contestants. A dark ops group within N.Y.R.W., having "dressed up" to look like "normal women," purchased tickets to the Center. Once inside, these rebels unfurled a banner that read Women's Liberation, and some of them set off stink bombs. They were promptly nabbed by the police and shoved outside. The radical feminists did not resist arrest -- but, as they mostly hadn't seemed to really break any laws, only one stink-bomb thrower would be charged with "releasing a noxious substance." Jubilant at the success of their action, the rest of the feminists jumped back in their love buses and went back home.
It was pretty heady stuff, and seen by many as ushering in the new era of second wave feminism - but as it turned out, it was nothing compared to the riot that occurred two years later in London.
On November 20, 1970, an assorted group of radical British feminists arrived at the Royal Albert Hall in London with plans to sabotage the Miss World pageant. Though a radical anti-capitalist group called The Situationists had set off a bomb outside of the Hall earlier that morning, the feminists were not deterred from executing their raid on this fleshly fiasco. Having come armed with flour bombs (small sacks of flour that would detonate in a fluffy cloud upon impact), ink bombs, plastic mice, rotten produce, whistles, and rattles, the London rads' first acts of anti-beauty-pageant resistance was to camp outside the Hall, crown a stuffed cow, hoist placards, and scream "You poor cows!" and "They're exploiting you!" when the contestants arrived to London by bus and skittered inside the amphitheater. Once the Miss World pageant began, the Londoners (taking a cue from their U.S. sisters) snuck inside using the same transgender tactic of dressing like middle class, feminine women. Now in the Hall, they let it rip. The host for Miss World was Bob Hope, the famous comic of the "Road" movies fame, and the feminists rushed up to the stage, flinging flour and ink at him and shrieking. Old Bob ran away. The feminists turned to the audience, throwing the plastic mice, squirting tuxes, and bapping gents with grotty tomatoes. One protester, Sally Alexander (now a history professor at the University of London), stubbed out a cigarette on a policeman. There might have also been some biting. The women hollered profanities with glee. Five of them were arrested, while the others escaped. The jailbirds wound up doing star turns at their media-frenzied trials several months later. Ultimately, the charges against them were dropped.
Why were the American radical feminists so low-key as opposed to the British? And what does that have to do with law? According to Yale Law Professor Reva Siegel, certain political protesters operate within "constitutional culture," (1) that is, a "field in which citizens and officials interact." (2) These dissidents' spectacles not only may change constitutional meaning, but also "enable the forms of communication and deliberative engagement among citizens and officials that dynamically sustain the Constitution's democratic authority in history." (3)
Using Professor Siegel's work as a starting point, I first study the protests themselves as constitutional culture "actions." I particularly query why the U.S. feminists were so wary of breaking the law, and of using violence, whereas the British rads merrily committed assault. I find that the reasons for this divide between U.S. and British feminism can be traced back to the early 1990's, wherein a similar - if far more dramatic - divergence in the use of violent protest methods may be discovered in the case of the early 20th century suffragists. That is, there is an amazing history of British suffragists (also known as suffragettes), who coalesced around the mercurial and dangerous Christabel Pankhurst. Pankhurstian suffragettes used literal bombs, acid, window-smashing, and suicide as tactics to protest against the denial of the woman vote. Stateside, U.S. suffragists followed the model of Quaker pacifist Alice Paul, who authored the Equal Rights Amendment, and who only allowed her followers to picket, burn effigies, march, and hiss at male politicians who refused to back what would become the 19th Amendment.
These histories (as well as other factors) created a lineage of U.S. and British feminisms - one rowdy and peaceable, the other rowdy and violent - which could be felt half a century later in Atlantic City and London. In my analysis of the constitutional meanings of these (relatively) peaceable and violent protests, I conclude that the U.S. feminists may have taken the better tack if legislative change was the feminists' aims. Though Phyllis Schlafly would cite antics like N.Y.R.W.'s in her successful lobby against the E.R.A. (which failed ratification in 1982), N.Y.R.W.'s audacity and consciousness-raising would later inspire "abortion speak outs" - group actions where women spoke publicly, and painfully, about their abortions - that influenced legislators. In addition, the emotion and suffering expressed at the speak outs would later be felt in the empathetic tone and holding of 1973's Roe v. Wade.
The British feminists seemed to be less successful, however. Roundly criticized for their behavior at Miss World, they were never able to raise the same kind of energy and awareness in legislative and judicial circles. Though British radical feminists would lobby in favor of child care and expanded abortion rights, they were largely disappointed. It is possible that their garbage-throwing and cigar-stubbing efforts had less impact on issues concerning women and motherhood, in part because "crazy" violent ladies demanding even more control over their bodies and lives were simply too scary. Though this is an annoying conclusion for me to come to (even as I favor the nonviolent methods used by the U.S. feminists), one lesson learned from this study of constitutionalism in the streets may be that violence as protest method is more likely to backfire than not.
(1) See Reva Siegel, Constitutional Culture, Social Movement Conflict and Constitutional Change: The case of the Defacto ERA, 94 Calif. L. Rev. 1323, 1323 (2006).
(2) Id. at 1325.