The Life of a Radical Feminist Pirate

L-R, Cathy Brennan, Sally Tatnall, Alix Dobkin, 2012.

 “Ever since childhood, I have been honing my skills for living the life of a Radical Feminist Pirate and cultivating the Courage to Sin,” she wrote in the opening of “Sin Big.” …The word ‘sin’ is derived from the Indo-European root ‘es-,’ meaning ‘to be.’ When I discovered this etymology, I intuitively understood that for a woman trapped in patriarchy, which is the religion of the entire planet, ‘to be’ in the fullest sense is ‘to sin.’ “ – Mary Daly.

I first met Sally Tatnall in the early 1990s through one of my best friends, who happens to be related to Sally. In the early 1990s, I lived in Buffalo, New York, where I attended law school at SUNY Buffalo (yey state schools and affordable tuition!) We drove the three hours to Cleveland to visit the city and Sally, who lived in a huge collective house of women.

At the time, I didn’t think much about radical feminism. I knew “radical feminism” existed, and I had read Gyn/Ecology in college because it was required reading for a philosophy major friend, and I agreed with what I could understand of it (as most Women do when they honestly think about it) but I was a Baby Dyke, still trying to decipher what being a Dyke meant in the early 1990s.  I was more concerned with organizing around AIDS than I was for Women’s Space. So, if I am being honest with myself, I did not fully value the gift I received in being introduced to Sally.  Here I was – a young, ignorant Baby Dyke – in the presence of a Lesbian who had been fighting for Women and living the Life of a Radical Feminist Pirate, and I did nothing with that gift, did nothing to ask her as many questions as possible, did nothing to ask her to mentor me.

What a stupid asshole I was!

Baby Dyke, 1994. Also, don’t smoke.

Fast forward twenty years. I am having dinner with two twenty-something Gender Queers who strongly reject the word “Lesbian,” who say that they want “Intergenerational Organizing,” and who write me emails like this about Gender Identity:

The answer is not to hamper down and segregate our bodily-function public spaces even more… it is to explore creative ways to protect each other. Maybe that is gender neutral bathrooms where every stall has a door – a lock – and some easily stashed pepper spray (i’m only kinda kidding about the pepper spray) — maybe it is making sure every public space has bathroom watchers– I mean, why not?, the economy is tanking let’s create some fucking jobs by having bathroom monitors that make sure people are safe in public spaces — and I immediately realize that this suggestions could do down a nasty path of abuse of power (and the economy tanking doesnt sound terrible to me…) — and that’s why we mad need to up our game on education. I really believe that two things need to happen at once: we make the immediate move to do the thing that is necessary – desegregating bathroom spaces — and we need to do mad mad mad education. Because I think only these two things in combination will work.

Still with me? Ok.

These Gender Queers wanted to have a sit-down with me to “understand” where I was “coming from” with my “transphobia.” Because clearly, there must be something wrong with me, something “Intergenerational Organizing” (their word, not mine) could fix.   I have since come to learn that “Intergenerational Organizing” means Younger People telling Older People how it is while simultaneously disregarding that (1) Older People used to be Younger People and (2) maybe Older People know some thangs and Younger People might listen, occasionally, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

So here we are, 2013. We are at a moment in time where we Lesbians and Women have lost touch with our Radical Feminist roots. Women are taught there’s no value in Radical Feminism (man hating dykes, etc.) and there’s certainly no value in Older Women.

This is Intentional.

This is Purposeful.

This is Shameful.

This is Reality.

I don’t expect “this,” that is, the “Women not talking to each other and thus constantly losing the Plot” issue, to change in my Lifetime.

Sally was in my town recently for a conference and asked if I’d like to have dinner.

HELLS YEAH, I said. Now in my 40s, I have finally realized the VALUE in actually talking to Women who are older than me and who, yanno, might actually KNOW things I need to know.  Because I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Because I am tired of having the same conversation over and over. Because I am angry at how fucking lazy some people are that they cannot be bothered to read what Women before them have written and take a lesson from it.

Because I have learned in my 40s what I wished I had learned in my 20s: Listen to your Mothers.

So I arrive at the hotel where Sally is staying and she tells me that Alix is joining us for dinner.

And Alix Dobkin walks in.

I am embarrassed also to admit that I haven’t spent a lot of time listening to Women’s Music. This has everything to do with my internalized misogyny (the idea that “Women’s Music” isn’t good, which is horseshit).  However, I know Alix Dobkin as a fierce Radical Feminist and Lesbian who tells the truth and was double starstruck to be lucky enough to dine with Sally and Alix.

Alix was kind and gracious as I admitted how stupid I was. She gave me two CDs of her music and her book, My Red Blood. But the most important thing Sally and Alix gave me was REASSURANCE.

Doing “Radical Feminist Activism” is crazy making. You can feel Crazy because you will get attacked from the Right, the Left and the GLBTWTF.  You will also be attacked by other Radical Feminists. Being Attacked constantly makes one feel, well, threatened. It also makes you question:

What if I am wrong?

What if “everything is fine”?

When I said this to Sally and Alix, they laughed.

Been there, done that.

Indeed, just yesterday, Alix sent me a package of news clippings she wrote from the 1990s, saying the same things about the mess we’re in that we are all saying now!

Alix Dobkin Columns: read ’em and weep.

alix dobkin2 alix dobkin1 alix dobkin

So, no, sister, You Are Not Crazy (well, at least not for adopting a Radical Feminist analysis, you *might* be crazy for other reasons).

This past year has been the best year of my life, in large part because of the Women who have been gracious to me with their time, thoughts, intellect, wit and wisdom.  Women like Sheila Jeffreys, Lierre Keith and Kathleen Barry, all of whom are Geniuses. Women like Julia Long, who has an amazing vision of a world free from Porn.  Women bloggers like FCM, CBL and others, because they write the truth and Women’s Lives without apology.  And other Women who check in with me from time to time to let me know what’s going on in their world, and to see if I am ok in mine.

Thank you.

Women, we need each other. We need each other to know where we’ve been and to know what we’ve done. We need each other to keep the train on the tracks.  We need each other to ensure that we don’t lose the Plot. Because, goddamn it, the World is deadset against what we are trying to accomplish.

Do not lose the Plot, sisters. Leave those Maps for Women to find. Write down your analyses and give them to other Women. Ask Women to write down their histories, to give their perspective on decades that are fast become “history” instead of “My (or “Yours” or “Our”) Life.”

I am thankful for you Being, sisters. I am thankful for your honesty. I am thankful that you love Women.

And I am thankful for days off.


  1. …”I have finally realized the VALUE in actually talking to Women who are older than me and who, yanno, might actually KNOW things I need to know. Because I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Because I am tired of having the same conversation over and over. Because I am angry at how fucking lazy some people are that they cannot be bothered to read what Women before them have written and take a lesson from it.”

    I have nothing to add to this but vehement head-nodding. Also, your definition of Intergenerational Organizing, as it actually plays out, is correct.


    2. Lorena Matthews · ·

      Hi…just saw a posting of your blog on Rabid Feminists’ FB page, took a look and just want to tell you, it is inspiring and women need to look beyond the accepted always. You so remind me of me when I was in my latter teens in the 1960s and I began reading about the Suffrage movement and such. Back then, I could and did seek out and find old Suffragettes all over new England and in NYC just to listen to and learn from. And now I am an old fart feminist and pirate as well. The Women’s Movement in my time – well it was the last one, sadly – got the stuffing knocked out of it by internecine fighting about such stupid things like whether you could be a feminist and still be lovers with or married to or friends with men and the death of the ERA Amendment. Sure would love to see that initial zeal we all had back before that when we were all so fully of enthusiasm and giddy with the sense of our own collective power, starting rape crisis centers, helping to start abortion clinics and all. Good for you! Will be checking in now and again.

  2. Beautiful. Thank you.

    1. Thank YOU. I am so lucky that I found YOU.

  3. Carolyn in Baltimore · ·

    Thanks for sharing these Cathy. All the lost wisdom and herstory that we are in danger of losing entirely.

    1. Thanks, and thanks to Alix. I will scan all of the columns she sent and upload.

      1. yay. Maybe you could convince her to shop them around as a book.

  4. Anonymous · ·

    Sweet story, thanks.

  5. You *were* a femme?!?1?! 😉

    What a wonderful, heartening post – thank you.

    1. Ha. No. I’ll tell that story another time, but for now I will say “controlling girlfriend.” I did have long hair though.

      Also thank you.

  6. I am thankful for you Cathy. Really.

    1. Thanks. And thanks for stopping by.

  7. Great post and thank the goddess (Shekinah) for Alix Dobkin

    1. Thank you and I agree. Life saving.

  8. the trans and MRAs didnt ruin your year? best year ever? ok, but they gon be disappointed.


      1. if richard nixon and “coach” had a baby, he would look like that dood. i prefer to imagine patrick swayze singing his part. jennifer warnes is great!

      2. Is there a guy in that video?

        No, but seriously, YOU ARE RIGHT.

  9. LOL, nixon and coach guy. But when I watched him opposite jennifer warnes, I thought of CBLs recent post. You can see it right there, the Y chrom.

    1. i was thinking the same thing wordwoman.

  10. I have updated this post with a link to a pdf of all of the columns Alix sent me, enjoy!

  11. Anonymous · ·

    Also, the photo at the top. What beautiful vibrant women.

  12. I turn 50 this year and I came out with Alix Dobkin’s music and concerts as my baby Dyke soundtrack. I really needed to hear Lavender Jane Loves Women but just didn’t know it! Thank you:)

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