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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Apr 24, 2011 by Phyllis Chesler

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Praise For An Unknown Soldier of Second Wave Feminism Whose Name Is Judy O'Neil


I have recently critiqued the American feminist movement for its' failure to uphold universal standards of human rights, especially for Muslim-majority countries, its demonization of Israel, its tragically simplistic anti-Americanism, its willful refusal to engage with contemporary history. Jihad is upon us, burqas, polygamy, arranged marriage, honor killings, stonings proliferate, and my generation of feminists—at least those who are still standing--and many of our descendents are largely, silent.

Nevertheless, there are many issues which still join us, many cherished memories we share. My new "political homes" are new and since I am no longer an idealist or an ideologue, no place can ever replace the experience of "home" that we, somewhat romantically and rather foolishly, believed we had with each other so long ago: Just yesterday.

And yet, come, for now, I wish to praise one Second Wave feminist who died earlier this year.

Her name is Judy O'Neil and I just spoke at her Memorial Service, a more tasteful and sober and loving a gathering would be hard to find.

We gathered together to remember Judy, to re-create her feminist community if just for an afternoon. I saw many familiar and beloved warrior faces, now wrinkled by time, some on canes, some on walkers, some sporting splints, many white and gray heads--but what an abundance of grit, clarity, humor, "toughness," eloquence, and what keen and loving memories they all had. I did not know that Judy had persuaded Bette Midler to contribute to her Women's Coffee House project—she solicited her right on the street—nor did I know that Judy played ping-pong and gambled in Atlantic City. I did know she was an avid poker player. These were subjects we never discussed.

Judy's ancestors first came here in the 17th century from Denmark and then, a century later, from Germany. She was born in a small town in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After college, Judy studied at the distinguished Max Planck Institute and became a scientist who worked on tracking data about cancer survivors. What was most important about Judy was that she was not a single issue feminist, that she was an activist, not just a talker—and that she was unfailingly kind and ethical.

The entire gathering was filmed. I'd certainly be willing to post it at my website

Other speakers included her two older brothers and her effervescent niece, feminist leaders and authors Ti-Grace Atkinson, Susan Brownmiller, organizers Evan Morley and Noreen Connell, actress Myra Carter, poets Roberta Gould and Fran Winant, and mystic and orchid specialist, Carol Dunn, Judy's partner of 38 years. Here is what I said.

Phyllis Chesler's Remarks for Judy O'Neil's Memorial Service

Darling Judy:

Oh, how I wish you were still here with us, not only as a cherished friend but as living proof that some of our generation of feminists were also great and good, noble, self-sacrificing, generous, even humble. You, together with a precious number of other relatively "unknown" feminists sustained our movement, your volunteer labor and dedication literally built our "City on a Hill," our feminist Camelot.

I do not say this lightly.

You represent the very best of the Second Wave feminist movement. You came to serve, not to be glorified; you did not use our precious, limited time on the historical stage to dominate others or to "exorcize" your own demons. Feminism was not a career move for you nor was it a hobby. It was your spirit made flesh. It was your calling, your duty, you bone-deep desire. You did the work—your eye always remained on that prize—and you did so with utter humility and generosity. You could always be counted on: To attend the meeting, join the sit-in, vote, sign the petition, do the back office work, keep the books, take the bus at dawn, attend the demonstration.

In brief: You did the "shit work" and never complained. You did not manipulate people. You did not shun anyone or engage in idle slander. You did not have a malevolent bone in your body. Oh, how refreshing this was, what a blessing this was to me personally.

Forgive me, don't be angry at what I am about to say, but in a way, you were something of a secular nun, or at least, you were pretty saintly for a scientist and beyond saintly for a feminist. You were the salty "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world." (Matthew 5:13-14).

I can't even remember when we first met but it seems like we have known each other forever. Or, as Carol might say: Perhaps we knew each other in a former lifetime too. You and Carol met in 1972 and by then we had known each other for a long time.

Did we meet at an early NOW meeting in 1967, a march in the late 1960s, after the takeover of the East 5th building in the beginning of the 1970s? It is lost in the mists of time.

As American feminists, we began counting time--real time--in about 1967. Before that we were "girls," "ladies," "wives," "women," dykes without political pedigrees, rebel girls for every group other than our own. Thus, you and I met at the very dawn of time.

I saw you in action in the mid-1970s at the Women's Coffee House in Greenwich Village: a wee bit dour, ready for trouble, ready to laugh, always responsible. You were Ti-Grace Atkinson's ardent supporter. I admired you for that. You made principled, often high-risk choices, and you remained loyal to them. I remember you at the second Women's Center, at countless readings, demonstrations, Memorial services, and social gatherings.

You were exceedingly generous to me and when I became ill with undiagnosed Lyme's Disease and Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome; you did not disconnect. On the contrary. You drew closer. For years, you helped me balance my checkbook—that must have been some task!

Let me share a few memories: Once, when you asked me to speak at a fundraiser for Ti-Grace and I happily did so—you were the first to criticize something that I'd said right out there in public. No authority, not even the possible vulnerability of a friend, could keep you quiet when you had something to say.

Judy: You were at your most impressive when you helped me organize the historic, first-time ever Speakout of Women and Custody of Children in 1986. You were not a mother. It was not "your" issue. You had never been custodially challenged nor had you given up custody of a child under pressure. But unlike so many single issue feminists (abortion is the only issue, gay rights is the only issue), you "got" it, you understood how crucial the issue of women losing custody of children was and still is and you devoted nine months of your life to helping me turn this into a reality.

The 25th anniversary edition of Mothers on Trial with eight new chapters will be out this summer. I had so hoped to celebrate it with you. I still plan to do so.

Most recently, at your suggestion, we went to see a children's movie "because they always have happy endings." We saw "Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader." Being together was like being with family.

And, you shared more personal revelations with me, more "feelings," in the last months before your surgery than you had in more than 40 years. My lips are sealed.

Look: Please put in a good word for me on the Other Side. Try not to work too hard. You deserve a small vacation. And enjoy the flight—like the angel that you now are and have always been.


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