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From Town Bloody Hall to 2023: A Tale of Two Debates on Women’s Liberation

Avoiding these truly current, red hot issues, the women speak past each other.”

In April of 1971, a large crowd gathered in New York City’s Town Hall for a panel on the women’s liberation movement. The footage from that night, released in the documentary Town Bloody Hall, struck me as foreign, raised as I was in the age of Twitter (sorry, X), in which hot takes are fired only from behind the anonymity of the screen. It is full of what might now be labeled “hate speech”—witty zingers flying from all sides, ad hominem galore, and plenty of audience heckling. There is little doubt in my mind that journalist Bari Weiss hoped to emulate that evening over half a century later during The Free Press’ recent live debate titled “Has The Sexual Revolution Failed?” 

Tale One: Town Bloody Hall

Town Bloody Hall is a fun watch, but for those who do not have the two hours to spare, this is how it went down.

First, Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), takes the stand. She comes across as straightforward with her neatly bobbed hair and conservative suit, and her statement matches her outfit. She makes a plug for NOW, calls for compensation for housewives, and demands better work opportunities for women.

Germaine Greer, bestselling author of the recently published The Female Eunuch, uses her time to paint a sly portrait of the male artist, clearly intended to cut at the panel’s moderator, Norman Mailer, who had recently drawn fire from prominent feminist Kate Millett for glamorizing violence against women. She then critiques the culture for expecting a woman to be both the goddess of love and of menial drudge. Standing six feet tall, her slender form sheathed in a black dress and fox fur, it is clear she knows which feminine trope she has chosen to embody. Around her neck, framed by the white triangle of skin above her decollete, hangs a heavy pendant in the shape of the Venus symbol.

Next, Jill Johnston, dance critic for The Village Voice, saunters up to the microphone in a patched denim jacket and with a goofy grin on her face. She removes her shades. Nobody knows what is coming. Then, the bomb drops as she lets loose a long, free-form, stream-of-consciousness poem that makes clear that her ideal world is exclusively female and that all women are (if they only knew it!) lesbians. 

Our final panelist is Diana Trilling, a literary critic for The Nation and respected New York intellectual. She looks and acts every bit the establishment literary critic, with her hair beehived and her makeup minimal. Maintaining a sort of centrist approach, she rambles a bit. And her final point is that she considers herself an individualist and, as such, cannot accept the feminist movement wholesale.

Town Bloody Hall had all the makings of a feature film. Conflict and controversy were baked into its very setting, the early 1970’s, when civil rights were at the forefront of the American cultural consciousness. Although the panelist kept matters relatively light-hearted with laughs throughout, the audience was a live wire, and things got heated quickly. Furthermore, the power to silence the women panelists had been vested in the hands of a man—and not just any man but the very author whom Millett had labeled a chauvinist. Mailer was consciously provocative in his role, needling his female antagonists with comments like, “As usual, you don’t understand what I’m talking about.” Added to this antagonism, there was even a little romance: Greer and Mailer’s sexual chemistry dominated the stage. If Greer were an Eliza Doolittle at Ascot breaking out of the Queen’s English to brawl in Cockney, Mailer played the consummate Henry Higgins—supercilious, condescending, quick-talking, rude. And a circus act topped it all. If Ceballos and Trilling were admittedly rather dull, a tipsy Johnston compensated by not only overrunning her time in a beat poetry plea for universal lesbianism but also by rolling on the stage with two besotted audience members. 

Tale Two: The Clash of the Female Titans

In some ways, things have not changed much since 1971. The posters are similar. Both discussions, 50 years apart, included a call for government-sponsored maternal stipends and some giggling about sex. Both panels were populated by the cultural elite, women who had faced minimal socioeconomic obstacles to reaching positions of cultural influence. And, adjusted for inflation, the $25 ticket price of Town Bloody Hall was about equivalent to the highest ticket tier of The Free Press’ event at $165. 

Besides these surface details, the two events were quite different. There is a sense that each woman on the 1971 panel was focused on a vision of the future. Fast forward to 2023, and the women on the stage are stuck in the past, debating a resolution that is more factual than ideological in its formulation. The resulting “debate” is not as much a debate as a series of disengaged soapboxes. And the soapboxes are not even that controversial. 

The night opens with stand-up comedy about transgender surgeries (yeah, it got graphic), priming the audience for hot takes and impassioned argumentation. Yet, intersectionality is not even touched upon in the ensuing speeches. It appears that now (as in the days of monarchy) the only one who dares touch controversy is the court jester, who is still (as in the days of monarchy) a man. 

Avoiding these truly current, red hot issues, the women speak past each other. Throughout the evening, Ex-Muslims of North America founder Sarah Haider doubles down on her defense of a narrow definition of the sexual revolution—“giving women control over their own fertility”—which goes uncontested, leaving her remarks sounding unnecessarily pugnacious. Meanwhile, Louise Perry, author of The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, champions traditional normality—“we are very, very weird…the argument I’m making is that we be just a bit more normal”—but declines to delve into any controversial specifics. Anna Khachiyan, co-host of the humorous Red Scare podcast, was billed to argue that the sexual revolution had failed. Instead, she immediately concedes its success, merely complaining that with women’s new-found freedom, “there’s no one left to blame but yourself.” Her ironic tone makes it unclear exactly what she means to say (if anything), and it is difficult for the other panelists to engage. When asked to rebut Khachiyan, the final panelist, futuristic music producer Grimes, admits she is at a loss: “Uh, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be rebutting.” She spends the remainder of her time on social engineering and artificial intelligence (AI) girlfriends, predicting that “everything we’re talking about now might be obsolete in five years.” 

Overall, The Free Press’ event reminded me of one of the impromptu parliamentary debate rounds my friends and I would run during our time at Hillsdale College. Our deliberately frivolous resolutions like “Resolved: Leggings are pants” demonstrated that our main motive for participating was listening to the sound of our own voices. Similarly, here, perhaps due to the debate’s retrospective framing, nobody seemed to have much of a stake in the matter. 

Grimes alone seemed to have an animating vision for the future. After listening to Perry, Haider, and Khachiyan, Grimes agrees that we are worse off in some ways but retorts that the sexual revolution is only an intermediary stage on the way to a better world. According to her story, the technological advances of the late 20th century rendered sexual mores obsolete, creating the need for corresponding advances in what she calls “social technology”—a catch-all term for cultural practices, from religion to monetary currency. Here, she and Perry seem to agree that the current disorder surrounding sex is the result of “a rushing in to fill the gap” (Perry’s wording) left by the sexual revolution’s technological advances. 

Far from despairing at this chaos, Grimes seems to find the possibilities exciting. She gestures to the other women on the stage: “We are all rebuilding the culture right now. We are four young mothers debating in the public square because we were able to plan our families around our careers.” She points out that our own individual actions will determine whether this world is a better place than the world our grandmothers inhabited: “Culture doesn’t just happen to us.” Her final remark is simple and universal: “We’re very smart, and we should make things better.”

By focusing on individual agency, Grimes brings some freshness to an otherwise stale discussion. With Internet platforms such as TikTok and YouTube and with the advent of powerful AIs, individuals are empowered to educate themselves and connect with (and influence) others. And, each of us has agency in the private sphere, thanks to the freedoms upheld by our democracy. Considering the widespread mistrust of mainstream media, the shared culture seems to be falling apart, fragmenting into niche internet subcultures. Yes, there are women on TikTok pushing the #girlboss #riseandgrind agenda on 20-somethings. But for each career woman, there is a golddigger instructing others how to live pampered lifestyles as  “stay-at-home girlfriends.” A quick Google search can find one a community no matter what lifestyle one lives or what kind of a world one wants to make. More than ever, the power to shape culture belongs to you and me.

Who Won?

Ultimately, the 2023 event was significantly less iconic than that of 1971, and Kerry Howley at New York pinpoints the reason why: “A debate requires a pose, a character, a strong narrative presence separate from the speaker’s well-armored sense of self. It’s a performance, not a reveal; theater, not therapy. What would Paglia say about this soft chthonic inability of four women to disagree with one another?” 

Town Bloody Hall was originally advertised by the innocuous title “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” But as the strong personalities on stage began to clash, it turned from a “dialogue” to a debate. When Trilling dismissed her interpretation of Freud, Greer got snippy: “One of the characteristics of oppressed people is that they always fight among themselves.”

If we take Greer’s maxim as truth, then perhaps the ostentatious absence of clash during last month’s “Clash of the Female Titans” is the most obvious marker that the sexual revolution has, in fact, succeeded.

No debate.

Amelia Buzzard, a recent graduate of Hillsdale College, is a writer in Upstate New York. 

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