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Vida, by Marge Piercy

June 22, 2013

Vida, by Marge Piercy. New York : Summit Books, c1979.

A sweeping, gritty novel about the people involved in the radical movements in the USA in the 1970s, told from the perspective of a woman.

 Marge Percy wrote Vida in the late 1970s, the same period in which the book’s action takes place and a time when activism was under aggressive attack by government forces.  Flashbacks provide insight into what the American Movement had been like a decade earlier when the various protests had been non-violent and participation could sometimes be more relaxed.  While political and public affairs are critical, Piercy’s focus is on how and why individuals had changed over the past decade as their world changed around them.

The book centers on Vida, a dramatic woman who had managed to attain a minor leadership role.  At the time of the book, she has been living “underground” for years in order to avoid being imprisoned for her involvement in violent actions against corporations. (Never against people, she’s quick to point out.)  The mood of the book is shaped by her need for absolute secrecy about everything she does.  She sees those with whom she has worked getting killed or arrested or giving up activism, but continues to seek a life where she can meaningfully oppose economic and political domination which she sees as corrupt.  Vida is also driven by her sexual passions, especially for the man she had married in a different, earlier time.

What is unusual about Piercy’s book is that it writes about the Movement as it was experienced by women.  Such a perspective was even more unusual when the book was written.  While none of the characters, male or female, are heroic or even positive, readers can empathize with Vida and see the disdain with which women were treated by the male leaders. Piercy seems to be reprimanding the men who were literally risking their lives for greater equality for all, but refused to treat women as equal human beings.  Vita and the other women were assumed to be the ones who cooked and cleaned and earned money and whose leadership positions were most fragile.  More disturbing was the way in which the men expected women to be available for sex whenever they wanted and with whomever wanted them.  We are reminded that before AIDS, sex on demand was considered good, at least by the men.

The women did not rise up or even protest their use by the men.  That they could or should doesn’t seem to occur to most of them.  They were the daughters of the 1950s.  Vida’s sister, my favorite character, does begin to hold women’s meetings where the women share stories, and readers can see the beginnings of feminism among a few of the women.  Vida herself, however, argues with her sister about the need to pay attention to “women’s issues.”  Vida maintains that the rape of women in the movement is not important and will end when the Revolution is achieved.

Vida is one of Piercy’s early novels.  Although I enjoyed it, I would not rank it among her best.  Her later books, such as City of Darkness, City of Light, about the French Revolution, and Gone to the Soldiers, about World War II do a better job of blending personal and political stories.  Her Woman on the Edge of Time is among my favorite feminist novels.

I recommend Vida to a variety of readers, especially those interested in radicalism and the emergence of feminism in the USA

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2013 5:29 pm

    Interesting! I can relate to the sexist theme, as I was a child of the 40s. Without saying anything about my marriage, after I separated, I lived alone in Sydney for a few years, and at first, before I made some good male friends, was on the fringes of the university crowd and the Balmain Push, and stray men crossed my path. All, with a few exceptions, expected sex on demand, without the responsibility of a true relationship. I avoided the Push as much as I could, because I had little respect for the men (some of them well known writers, activists, film makers) who were divas, had homoerotic (and sometimes homosexual) relationships with other men, and treated their women as servants and sexual slaves.

    As for Piercy, I haven’t read her other books, but I too, loved Woman on the Edge of Time. It’s years since I read it, but it stays in my mind.

  2. June 23, 2013 7:52 am

    Thanks for adding your validation. Her story was certainly true here. I really like some of Piercy’s novels, especially the two historical ones I mentioned. She does well integrating personal and political themes.
    But what was the Balmain Push?

  3. Jennifer Rolfe permalink
    June 23, 2013 8:46 pm

    I read Vida not long after it was first published and it resonated so much with me at the time. I was part of that political radical group in Sydney (as Christina above also mentioned but also kept my distance from the Balmain Push) but married one of the ‘radicals’. I believe Piercy portrayed the role of women within this group extremely well and I am now inspired to re-read it. I too loved Woman on the Edge of Time not so much Summer People but have made a note to read the two historical ones. I should leave Christina to answer your question about the Balmain Push but I will start by saying Balmain is an inner suburb of Sydney. Up until the 1960’s it was a staunch working class suburb with 22 hotels where men only drank and talked union politics. It was colonized by the overflow from nearby Sydney University and some of the hotels allowed women in the doors. Not sure where the term ‘Push’ came from.

  4. June 24, 2013 4:59 pm

    Ah, Balmain. Hello Jennifer. We may have crossed paths without knowing it. I was there in the 70s, when it was becoming yuppified, but I loved the seams of different cultures, with the gritty working class residents the core of it. The Balmain Push was an offshoot of the Sydney Push, which emerged in the postwar years from the Freethought Society at Sydney University, an offshoot of Professor John Anderson’s radical realist philosophy. The Push practised libertarian and anarchist views in a faux bohemian lifestyle centred around pub symposia and sexual freedom (which was free for the men but I have to say, less free for the women). As for the Balmain Push, they were led by the novelist Frank Moorhouse, who edited the anthology Days of Wine and Rage, reflecting the Push writers and lifestyle. Frank, when I met him, let it be known via an acquaintance that he fancied me, but as he was already in a relationship with a woman and was bisexual, I avoided him. I’m sure I”m long forgotten by him. I haven’t read anything of his except The Americans Baby, which I enjoyed. He’s now best known for his trilogy Grand Days, Cold Light and Dark Palace; the latter won the Miles Franklin award in 2001. The trilogy is based on the history of the League of nations.

    • Jennifer Rolfe permalink
      June 24, 2013 5:24 pm

      Thank you for your excellent summary of the Balmain Push. I too have met Frank but at the time was quite in awe of him. The only book I have read of his was Tales of Mystery and Romance but think I will follow your recommendation and read the trilogy. Yes, I agree, no doubt we have probably ‘breasted the bar’ together at some stage possibly at the ‘Forth and Clyde’. I enjoy this blogsite and thank Marilyn for her reviews. My ‘to-read’ list expands every week!

      • June 25, 2013 3:17 am

        Would that we had a second chance to revisit those scenes! I’m sure I’d be far more confident, less in awe of people like Frank Moorhouse, and Michael Wilding, who was (briefly) my supervisor, and who conducted a serious literary (I know nothing of the physical) flirtation with Frank. Days of wine and rage indeed! Many reputations were ravaged by wine, excess, and sexism, and some were rebuilt.

  5. June 26, 2013 10:34 am

    Wonderful!!! Thanks for sharing your memories. It sounds like Australia was more like the San Francisco Beats than less like the more political protests elsewhere in the US–which shifted into cultural protest from initial concerns for civil rights and ending the VN War. Was there a politic aspect in Australia as well? And I still don’t understand about Push.

    • June 27, 2013 1:33 am

      I can’t tell you much more about The Balmain Push, as I was only ever on the outer fringes of it. There’s a Wikipedia article on The Sydney Push: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Push
      and a google book called Literary Sydney: a Walking Guide: books.google.com.au/books?isbn=0702231509, which has a page or so on the Sydney and Balmain Push.
      As for politics, it didn’t seem to me a political activist period, but once again, I was on the fringes, not an activist. There were lots of protest about the Vietnam War. But I don’t think Australians were as activist as Americans and Europeans.

  6. Jennifer Rolfe permalink
    June 27, 2013 9:02 pm

    Thanks for pointing out the Wikipedia article Christina which mentions many of the people involved in the ‘Push’ even though it doesn’t explain the use of the word ‘push’. I was more involved in the political anti-war activist movement rather than the socio/sexual movement of the push but did spend time hanging around the late Bob Gould’s leftist bookshop especially the Sunday evening movies where we saw lots of radical cinema including the great pre WWII social justice ones from America. It was all part of our political education at the time.
    The article mentioned some names who were in the forefront of the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s here in Australia and no doubt they will be experiencing the same feelings of grief that I am feeling today in the light of the demise of the wonderful Julia Gillard. Misogyny has really raised its ugly head BIG TIME!!

    • June 28, 2013 3:56 pm

      I think that book on the literary history of Sydney explains ‘push’; you can google it. I can’t recall what it said bout that.

      I agree it is very sad about Julia, but I don’t feel it can all be explained as misogyny. It is more complex than that. But we only see what the media allow us to see. I admire Julia but don’t think she was a wonderful prime minister. But then, it’s a long time since I thought that about any of our leaders

  7. June 28, 2013 10:51 am

    Woman on the Edge of Time is one of my all-time favorite books (for many reasons, not least of which is the use of the gender-neutral pronoun “per”). I’m saddened to see her earlier book doesn’t measure up to the same level, but it’s also understandable! I may have to give this one a go just to see.

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