By most accounts, the first generation of underground newspapers was overwhelmingly misogynistic. Many of these articles began to appear between 1964 and 1967, just before Second Wave feminism took hold. Even though most of these papers were socially progressive on the Vietnam War and racism, the majority were blind to gender inequality.
In Typewriters that smoke: the underground press of the 1960s and the rise of alternative media in America, historian John McMillan writes on the division of labor in the otherwise democratically organized underground newspaper The cloth (Austin, TX): “Predictably, women were more likely to take on the more laborious folding and collation tasks, typing items, and running the Multilith printing machine. “
Rampant sexism in newspapers has led women to Rat, an underground New York newspaper, to revolt and ultimately take control of the newspaper. In January 1970, an issue on sex and pornography by Rat drew criticism from feminist groups. The women of Rat responded by publishing their own special issue. In it, feminist Robin Morgan wrote an article titled “Goodbye to All This”, which argued that Rat “Must be taken care of permanently by women – or Rat must be destroyed.” Morgan “says goodbye” to the “white men ‘responsible for the destruction of human life and the environment on the planet today'” and to “‘the hip culture and the so-called sexual revolution, which has worked for women’s freedom as did the Reconstruction to Former Slaves. ‘”
Women are the real left. We rise up, powerful in our unclean bodies; brilliant madman shining in our lower brains; flying wild hair; wild eyes, wild voices screaming… We rise with a fury older and potentially greater than any force in history, and this time we will be free or no one will survive. Power to everyone or none. All the way down this time.
Morgan and other women from Rat took permanent control of the newspaper and continued to publish for two years. At that time, underground feminist newspapers, magazines and journals flourished across the country. It may well be that underground publishing was an important medium for feminist concerns, not only because underground publishers had pioneered a means of publishing alternative perspectives, but also because the chauvinism of first underground newspapers called for a response.
Despite widespread sexism among the early underground newspapers, women contributed as columnists and authors. One was Sheila Ryan.
Ryan was a civil rights activist who began her career in the underground press in Washington Free Press, from Washington, DC, in 1967. She reported on the resistance movement and student activism.
Later that year, Ryan was sentenced to six months in prison for participating in a White House sit-in. Ryan and his fellow protesters intended to secure an audience with President Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss the police brutality that had occurred days earlier during Selma’s famous civil rights march in Montgomery, in Alabama, in 1965.
After being released from prison in early 1968, Ryan returned to writing for the Washington Free Press and soon the Liberation News Service (LNS), which provided articles to underground newspapers across the country. Because the majority of underground newspapers subscribe to LNS and print many of the stories included in its packages, Ryan has gained a national audience.
Ryan’s work mainly covered topics of national interest: conscription, international protests, racism, and organizational and government efforts to quell youth resistance. But in 1968, she helped transform the underground press.
A national meeting of underground editors and writers was held in July 1969. The meeting took place on a farm owned by a collective known as Trans-Love Energies United. It was tumultuous. Participants were paranoid that they were being infiltrated by the FBI and CIA and that local police would blow up the meeting and send many of them to jail on trumped-up charges. Their fears were not entirely unfounded because, according to an underground author, police officers armed with hunting rifles arrived, allegedly looking for a young woman from the region. Seed (a Chicago newspaper), who had been arrested for possession of marijuana.
In response to the then well-known chauvinism of underground publications, Ryan introduced a three-point resolution. According to McMillan, he said: “(1) sexism should be eliminated from the content and advertisements of underground newspapers, (2) underground people should publish articles about the oppression of women, [and] (3) women should have full roles in underground newspaper teams. The three-point plan initiated a transformation (albeit a temporary one) in the Berkeley beard, who for a time stopped printing the sex ads she had become well known for, and probably helped in the efforts of women to Rat who ultimately requisitioned the publication.
Although he worked in a remarkably misogynistic era of underground publishing, Ryan was an active participant in the underground press. His work has found its way into newspapers across the country. It has been published in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Atlanta, New York, Austin, Ann Arbor, Chicago, and more. In addition to writing for LNS and the Washington Free Press, Ryan has served on the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) Board of Trustees, participated in and made significant contributions to national conferences and actively worked to keep LNS listening to the political challenges it faces. . Ryan came to Washington Free Press as an activist and quickly gained national prominence as an author and leader of the underground press.
Shelia Ryan’s works are available on JSTOR in Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices Collection.
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