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  • Politics and the Writing of "Sitting on a Man"
  • Judith Van Allen (bio)

I wrote "Sitting on a Man" because I was angry. It was early 1970, spring in California, with much to protest and little to celebrate. The war in Viet Nam raged on, expanding to a "secret" war on Cambodia. Nixon and Kissinger continued to support the apartheid government in South Africa and the Portuguese in their colonial wars. Barely a year and a half earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr., and then Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. In 1968, the once peaceful and idealistic Students for a Democratic Society had split, with one faction forming the Weather Underground and committing itself to violence. The Democratic Party had trashed Eugene McCarthy's anti-war candidacy at the 1968 convention and sent the Chicago police against anti-war demonstrators. In December 1969, Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton, the latest in government assaults on the Black Panthers. Biafra had just been defeated. In Berkeley, where I was a graduate student, we had experienced an escalation of violence against demonstrations in the previous year. Within that context, women in the civil rights movement and the New Left were rebelling against male domination, and many of us had left those movements to form small groups and collectives within the new Women's Liberation Movement. Written in early 1970, "Sitting on a Man" was a product of the 1960s.

Starting with the Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964, students at the University of California (UC) Berkeley had been challenging the corporatization [End Page 190] of the university and its turn toward suppression of student activism. Within the UC Berkeley political science department, activist graduate students and faculty members were trying to halt the department's move away from political theory and a concern with political action. Curriculum and faculty were being changed, and the recruitment of graduate students had been shifted to favor applicants expected to be conservative. The dominant faculty had had enough of us radicals!

I was almost ready to drop out of graduate school and focus on political journalism and activism, but I was still registered for spring quarter. In April at the Western Political Science Association (WPSA) meeting in Sacramento, the UC Berkeley department set up a recruiting table, and I joined a group of male graduate students to set up a table of "counter-recruitment." Faculty and graduate students active in the Caucus for a New Political Science had panels at the meeting, proposed their own slate of officers, and tried to pass a resolution challenging conservative recruiting and hiring practices. We were part of that larger move. We did not succeed in electing our slate or in passing that resolution, but for me that WPSA meeting was life-changing because of the women I met there.

A few women graduate students organized a women's caucus, and I joined it. In Berkeley I was active in the Women's Liberation Movement outside the university, one of the reasons I was inclined to drop out of graduate school. But the women I met at that WPSA women's caucus meeting argued strongly that I should stay in graduate school, not just despite the strong male bias in political science, but also because of it. What we should do, they argued, was stay in and fight: study women, organize women, challenge our departments for their bias in recruiting graduate students, hiring faculty, and choosing curriculum. They convinced me, and that semester I wrote the first version of "Sitting on a Man" as a seminar paper. Writing it allowed me to focus my anger about all the oppressions of those years and my feelings of helplessness against everything from the Nixon government to the UC Berkeley political science department to my "brothers" in the movement who met our early requests for women's equal participation with ridicule. But I never would have written it without the strong encouragement of those women at WPSA, and I would not have gone on writing about women and gender without the support of a growing network of women scholars.

Political Theory as a Vocation

I could not have done the actual analysis and...


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