Original Publication: New York Times, June 22, 1986
FEMINISM ON TRIAL The Ginny Foat Case and the Future of the Women’s Movement. By Ellen Hawkes. 420 pp. New York: William Morrow & Company. $18.95.
GINNY FOAT’S arrest for murder in January 1983 sent shock waves through the National Organization for Women and made headlines everywhere. But by November of that year, when a Louisiana jury found her not guilty of bludgeoning an Argentine businessman to death outside New Orleans in 1965, the former barmaid who had become the president of the California chapter of NOW was not only a feminist heroine, her future career was assured. Her accuser had been the second of her four former husbands, John Sidote. On the witness stand, Mrs. Foat told the jury she was the helpless victim of his beatings. Since winning her case, Mrs. Foat has published her autobiography, ”Never Guilty, Never Free,” optioned her life story to a television producer and crisscrossed the country speaking as a representative battered woman born again through the women’s movement.
Ellen Hawkes, a journalist and a feminist who has followed the case from the beginning, spends much of ”Feminism on Trial” undermining Mrs. Foat’s explanation of her life before she became a feminist. In excruciating, sometimes mind-numbing detail, Miss Hawkes uncovers considerable evidence not brought out at the trial and offers it to cast doubt on Mrs. Foat’s definition of herself as a longtime martyr to male domination. In fact, Miss Hawkes argues that current feminist ideology, which implies that women live in a moral limbo and are not responsible for their actions before embracing feminism, does all women a disservice. Her ambition is twofold – by telling Mrs. Foat’s convoluted and contradictory story, she seeks not only to discredit her and expose the vicious internal politics of NOW but also to call into question ”the cliche of the seventies women’s movement – the woman as victim.”
As documented by Miss Hawkes, the NOW in which Mrs. Foat thrived and maneuvered would have given the Borgias pause. Paranoia about the outside world and about fellow members was rampant. At a time when the fate of the equal rights amendment hung in the balance, the women in NOW spent a good deal of their time ”trashing” internal enemies by rumormongering, lesbian-baiting, slapping, tripping, cutting off microphones. In the California chapter, Miss Hawkes reports, the lesbian faction held sway, and its members were particularly skilled trashers.