For people of a certain age and a certain background, Marge Piercy was an important writer. Her feminist utopia Woman on the Edge of Time is perhaps still read but, at least as a novelist, her star has faded. I’ve read thirteen of her seventeen novels and used to read Vida every year or two, Piercy’s book about a woman in America’s illegal political underground of the 60s and 70s, but the stream of novels seems to have ended.
Some years ago Five Leaves published two collections of Marge Piercy’s poetry. In America she is still renowned as a poet but her collections did not travel well. I met her once, prior to publishing the books. It would be fair to say it was probably not a memorable occasion for either of us. I hope I did not behave like some of her fans described in “Fame, fortune and other tawdry illusions” who expect more from Piercy than the normal relationship between an author and a writer. She writes in that chapter about the way some of her readers would over-personalise the author/reader relationship. Indeed she details the views of her academic feminist critics who thought that she was not living up to their expectations.
Yet it’s precisely her involvement in the causes she writes about that made her books important to so many people, and in this book – a set of essays – she reinforces what perhaps we instinctively knew. She describes her Jewish working-class, hardscrabble background which led her, as a writer, to give voice to women workers on whose labour, for example, universities depend. She describes the reasons she became a feminist, an essay that should be widely circulated, and she describes her involvement in the anti-war scene in America. Unusually for an American writer she also describes herself as a socialist.
Of equal importance to the historical essays are “Gentrification and Its discontents” and “Housewives without houses”. In the latter she talks about meeting homeless women, the hidden homeless of America and in the former – one of the causes of such homelessness – the way cities have become gentrified. In this essay she works her way through the cities she has lived in – Detroit, Paris, New York – talking about the rents she once paid and the rents now charged for the same flats showing how working class people and lower-earning bohemians are forced out. Even in Wellfleet, her Cape Cod home for many years, which has been famed as an artists’ colony, the area has been taken over by people with summer houses. Ironically, a committee set up to look at how to bring more year-round employment to the area had difficulty meeting as several of the committee themselves were only part-time residents.
For those of us who read Marge Piercy in the 70s and early eighties the “personal is political” strap-line mattered. And in America it still does as witnessed by the title essay in the book, “My life, my body” which is about abortion. Piercy talks about her own abortion and her active involvement in supporting women before the landmark 1973 Roe Vs. Wade case which made abortion legal in America. For the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty right abortion rights are at the cutting edge of their politics with clinics being picketed and pro-abortion doctors being attacked (and in some cases killed). At the same time as the right acts against women’s right to choose welfare is attacked, daycare is limited and Obamacare is threatened. Piercy reminds us who suffers most here.