A half century ago a fascinating dispute about the then-embryonic feminist movement happened on The Dick Cavett Show. The combatants were Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and feminist writers Susan Brownmiller and Sally Kempton.
You can immediately sense currents of vague alarm from Hefner and to some extent even from Cavett, and a certain patronizing tone from an avuncular psychiatrist who was sitting next to Hefner on the couch. Hefner blew himself up early on by addressing Brownmiller and Kempton as “girls” — so clueless.
A good deal of what Brownmiller and Kempton said during this segment is so conventional by present-day standards and not even approaching controversial.
Imagine if Brownmiller or Kempton had said to Cavett, “Just wait…50 years hence we’re going to have such a strong and compelling narrative that the older male establishment will be trembling…there will be a thing called ‘cancel culture’ that will have certain abusers shaking in their boots.”
Brownmiller: I think most of the marriage laws are very discriminatory. Against women.
Cavett: Except in California with alimony, apparently. [to Kempton] Would you accept alimony if you were divorced?
Cavett: You wouldn’t.
Kempton: Except I would think that a woman who has spent her whole life being a housewife and mother should [accept alimony]. I think that in such cases alimony is really the price that men pay for women’s oppression.
Cavett: How do you explain the Margaret Chase Smiths and Helen Gurley Browns and Bess Myersons…women who’ve somehow fought through the system.
Brownmiller: Society always allows a few to get through. There are always loopholes.
Cavett: You speak as if there’s a conspiracy to keep women in their place.
Brownmiller: There is a conspiracy.
Cavett: But not a conscious one. You don’t think I go around consciously oppressing women, do you?
Brownmiller: No, I don’t think so. Watching your shows, I really wouldn’t think [so]. You seem to like intelligent women, and you’re not afraid to have strong, intellectual women on your show. You’ve had marvellous intellectual discussions with Beverly Sills…
Cavett: That’s because I’m weak and like to be dominated.