A Brawl on a Boat

Circle Line Boat on the Hudson River

“I’ve got tickets to the Ms. party tomorrow night, but I’m not going,” Phyllis told me. “They’re yours if you want them.”

I did. It was July 1973, and the first anniversary of Ms. Magazine. They’d rented a Circle Line boat for the celebration. Phyllis Chesler was a big name in the feminist literary world—Women and Madness had been reviewed on the front page of the NY Times book review section—and rated a pair of free tickets. My contributions to radical left and lesbian periodicals didn’t put me in that league, and my friend Connie (not her real name) wasn’t a writer at all. However, I was always up for a party where I could meet other writers, while Connie was always up for a party.

The Circle Line operates a fleet of sightseeing boats that ply the city’s waterways including, of course, circling Manhattan. They hold up to 500 people. Since the Ms. affair was scheduled at night, we wouldn’t be gawking at any sights. Our boat would just cruise up and down the Hudson River for a few hours.

Connie and I arrived at the pier around sunset. I’d shed my blue jeans for the occasion and wore a red pants suit, the color of blood that has just started to dry but isn’t quite there yet. I was 5’4”, with dark brown curls. Connie was 6’ tall, stocky, and blonde, wearing a blue shirt and trousers. We weren’t lovers, but we certainly looked like a butch-femme couple when we walked up the gangplank and handed in our tickets.

An attendant directed us to one of the large oval tables on the upper deck, with maybe a dozen people. Much to my delight an old friend, the playwright Myrna Lamb, was seated on my right, while another feminist—Vivian Gornick, in my hazy recollection—sat next to her. Connie was on my left. I didn’t recognize any of the other men and women.

The waiters served the usual rubber chicken dinner with a bland white wine. They kept our glasses full. The one memorable course was the whole pineapple they brought out for dessert—memorable because the man sitting opposite us shoved it at Connie, along with the carving knife. “Here,” he snapped. “You want to be a man? Cut the pineapple like a man!”

Connie had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, with a couple of brothers as large as she was, and had learned how to keep peace without taking shit. She replied mildly and proceeded to slice into the fruit. The man—probably in his early 50s and shorter and smaller than Connie—repeated his remark and elaborated on it. I jumped up and hurled the contents of my glass into his face.

The woman next to him (who was obviously his wife) screamed at me and Connie and perhaps at the other feminists as well: “You’re nothing but a bunch of cunts!” Myrna Lamb stood up, saying that since dinner was over, we should go elsewhere, and the three of us walked away.

By then I had realized that the really important guests were the ad men and investors, and the writers were there only for decoration. However, we were stuck on the boat until it returned to the pier, so we might as enjoy the rest of the party. Part of the upper deck had been set aside as a dance floor, and an all-woman rock band was playing. Connie and I danced until the band took a short break.

As soon as the music stopped another man stepped out of the crowd. He was younger and taller than the guy at the table, and had a drink in his hand. He stared down at me, his eyes shooting venom. “Why don’t you go hang yourself!” he snarled. I suppose he picked on me because Connie was even taller than he was, and I seemed like a safe target.

I stepped forward and shoved him in the chest, hard, with both hands. He must have been wearing leather-soled shoes. The deck was slippery metal, and there was a metal staircase right behind him. I hadn’t noticed it. He went down backwards, all the way to the bottom, and only saved himself from injury by grabbing the handrail. Oh, and probably being slack-jointed with alcohol.

I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed—relieved that I would not be carted off to jail for assault or even manslaughter, but disappointed that he wasn’t lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood.

Patricia Carbine, the managing editor of Ms., was at my elbow immediately. She began chewing me out. I tried to tell her what he’d said, but she was having none of it. She said that if I wanted to fight with people I should wait until we were off the boat.

The next time I saw Phyllis Chesler, she said someone from Ms. had called her. She shouldn’t have given her tickets to anyone else, and no one would be allowed to do so in the future. And I, Martha, was banned from their future events.

I actually didn’t mind. The hatred that I’d experienced on that boat was hazardous to my health. Despite the 1970 Lavender Menace action, which impelled the National Organization for Women to include lesbian rights in their platform the following year, homophobia was still rampant in the movement. Too many women were terrified of being labeled “man-hating dykes” if they spoke up for their rights. And we lesbians were expected to suck it up when men insulted us, or our lovers.

After that evening I swore that if I ever found myself at a party where straight men were present—men that I didn’t know personally—I wouldn’t drink. Not a drop. Happily, I’ve kept that vow.


3 Responses to A Brawl on a Boat

  1. Connie O Byrne December 8, 2020 at 8:53 am #

    Sadly even in 1981, after starting a local NOW chapter in Southern Indiana and becoming the Recording Secretary for Indiana NOW, I found the sentiment of keep the dykes out of sight was pervasive. As I’m sure you know, that attitude prevailed for a number of years after that. Ironically, Eleanor Smeal, who became the President of NOW, was a lesbian from Louisville, KY. She was definitely out in our region, but quietly so elsewhere, especially at the national level…at least to my best recollection.

    For me, the best part of being a part of the NOW community was meeting many strong dykes, lesbians in polite society, who I not only admired, but drooled over from time to time. The one woman I still vividly remember was wearing coveralls because she had just gotten off work…working for the city’s and riding on a garbage truck…and not as the driver…lol. She was a big boned butch dyke and I thought she was to die for.
    That was also when the national convention of NOW was held in Indiana. I also heard what has ever since become my mantra….”name it, claim it”. It was a time when women involved in the Women’s Rights movement were called “bra burning dykes”. Our response was “if being a dyke means I love other women, my mother, my sister, my friends, then go ahead and call me dyke!” It was a badge of honor for many of us. It also took the power of what was sent as an insult and put it where it belonged, rolling off our backs. And that’s why I proudly call myself dyke, not a polite lesbian, but dyke.
    And too bad the ass who got in your face didn’t bleed all over the deck after falling backwards down those steps! Hurrah for you!!

  2. Perry Brass December 8, 2020 at 8:43 pm #

    This is such a wonderful story, and such a part of that period, when liberation seemed really possible, even immanent, but it was surrounded by the usual stiff-necked, dumb-ass violence—that is, when the dumb-ass violence wasn’t killing us. I’m so proud that you threw a drink in that shit’s face. I would have applauded you. You could have said something cutting back to him, but sometimes these people just trigger a direct response, and you react on it—and that is what you do.

  3. Martha Shelley December 8, 2020 at 9:22 pm #

    Thank you, Perry. Having a couple of glasses of wine under my belt certainly helped trigger that response.

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