Vida, by Marge Piercy
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