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Rachel Cohen © 2004


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It is 26th of August 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the amendment entitling women to vote. To celebrate, fifty thousand women march on Fifth Avenue in New York in a demonstration named ‘Women’s Strike for Equality’. It is a defining moment. After it, the media will no be able longer portray the movement as a fringe group. It is the largest gathering of feminists and their supporters in the history of the US movement. Although women have been organising and debating feminist ideas since the mid 1960s, the next five years will mark a public high-tide of second wave feminism, the moment when it becomes the largest social movement in the history of the United States, and then, five years later, dissipates.

The radical movements of the sixties had attempted to sweep away the fear of protesting generated by McCarthyism. Many of the foremothers of the women’s movement, women like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug, devoted themselves to campaigning against McCarthyism and for civil rights throughout the 1960s. Incidentally, it’s not true that the US women’s movement was created by Betty Friedan, despite her own mystique. But she certainly helped ignite the movement with her seminal 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which appealed to a whole section of American middle class women, selling three million copies.

Alongside these professional women in their forties, marched groups of younger women in their twenties, women who were involved in the civil rights movement, the student movement, and a variety of other New Left causes. These were the women who were soon to become disgruntled at their fellow male activists who treated them as secretaries, cooks and bedfellows. ‘They liked their coffee made, their mailings done, their speeches typed and particularly their freedom to love fast and run’, observed Alix Kates Shulman. The historian and activist Sara Evans, who joined one of the first women’s liberation groups in Chicago, notes the contradictions of the New Left. Whilst alienating many of its female members with its sexism and misogyny, it also gave women new arenas in which they ‘could develop a new sense of self worth and independence’, both within but more importantly outside it - ‘young women in the 1960s arrived at their feminist consciousness through an involvement in other causes’. These younger women in the New Left and civil rights organizations began to see their situation as not totally dissimilar to the white, middle class, educated housewives of suburbia who were isolated and often stultified by their lack of economic, political and occupational freedom.

From 1961 on, northern white students began going south. They participated in the freedom rides (buses of black and white men and women would cross state lines in direct protest against segregation).Young women were attracted to the ideas of participatory democracy and non-violence that the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) preached. The pilgrimage demanded an act of transformation, requiring young people to transcend their historic, ethnic and often class boundaries while journeying across geographic ones. But this experience was soon to sour. Historian Rosalind Rosenberg notes that young women did achieve positions of importance in SNCC and limited recognition. They led demonstrations against segregation and organized voter registration. She goes on to describe how the atmosphere of democracy and camaraderie began to fall apart as early as 1964 when black men and white women, against a background of fear and intimacy, began sexual relationships. This caused anger amongst black women, and white women soon felt they were being used as ‘symbols of men’s sexual prowess’. As a group, civil rights workers were in danger much of the time, but black civil rights workers were particularly in harm’s way. This tension was exacerbated by the fact that white northerners generated more publicity than their black southern counterparts, which caused widespread resentment within the Civil Rights Movement leading to the demise of good relations between blacks and whites. Atop this lay gendered axes of power. As Rosenberg notes, ‘these tensions undermined the commitment to participatory democracy and led to a level of masculine posturing that offended many women. The women saw hypocrisy in men’s (white and black) espousal of democratic ideals, given their discriminatory treatment of women volunteers. Women were expected to do the housework and were shielded from the more dangerous assignments, while the men took an increasingly conservative role in the organisation’.

Consciousness Raising

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) weren’t treating women much better. SDS formed in 1960 and - Rosenberg again - ‘though no one appreciated it at the time, SDS helped lay the foundation for the resurgence of feminism by expanding political discussion to include the subject of personal relations’. SDS was one of the main organizations that became known as the New Left. Instead of emphasizing class oppression they prioritised a psychological and cultural domination that crossed traditional class lines. The Old Left had maintained that women’s issues were secondary to fighting for economic change but although the New Left attempted to shift this analysis, it was race in the 1960s and not gender that interested many in the SDS. When women in the organisation tried to object to their treatment by their male co-activists they were ignored and often ridiculed. It was really when they had nowhere left to go in these organisations, having been relegated to the photocopier and coffee machine whilst men spoke out against the increasing intensity of the Vietnam War that women began to organise for themselves. It all happened very fast.

Small groups sprung up in Chicago, New York, Washington and Boston. The numbers of women joining women’s liberation groups quickly increased. The women’s movements expansion benefited enormously from the amount of publicity showered on them by the media in 1969 and 1970. Mentions of the women’s movement in the national press increased ten times in the ten months from May 1969-March 1970. The media attention was not always positive, but it certainly helped to recruit many women to the cause. Consciousness raising groups became the main method for women to learn about the nature of oppression. Zane, the narrator in Alix Kates Shulman’s novel Burning Questions (1978) about a New York Women’s Liberation group, says:

‘I am sorry I can’t slip you into that first meeting and let you know each woman in the Third Street Circle, give you Faith’s story, Golda’s, Marya’s, Olive’s, and Kitty’s too-instead of only mine…I’d like you to see those faces, know how various and ordinary we were. I want you to see where we came from; our childhoods, the bitterness, our families, the sex, the demeaning jobs, all our once shameful secrets. Then you too might feel the shiver of a new consciousness…then you too might learn how that moment changed us forever’.

Yes this passage is a little rose-tinted, but the fiction of the time does capture a real sense of the how it was to be in there and to see a way out of the stark inequalities of women’s lives. Shulman herself was an early member of the New York Women’s Liberation group where women would discuss how the movement could be built and the theories of women’s liberation that were being developed. The main methods for consciousness raising groups at the early SNCC meetings involved the Maoist technique, used to great effect in the Chinese revolution, of ‘speaking bitterness’. Women would be inspired by meetings they attended and the solidarity at picket lines, and would often begin their own group amongst their friends.

On September 7 1968 a group of militant feminists from a New York women’s liberation group disrupted the proceedings of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Similar protests were held in Boston, Detroit, New York, Washington DC and Florida. It was the first mass demonstration of the movement. Shulman fictionalises the excitement and challenges of that day.

‘This was our struggle…never mind the confusing debates over which horror proceeded which or which people were more oppressed. All oppression was interconnected. Sexism was as outrageous as racism, poverty, imperialism, and every other vile injustice…if we personally did not fight for the interests of women, who would?’

This illustrates the urgency and vibrancy of the movement at its peak. Ruth Rosen recalls how the Berkeley women’s liberation group marched through the town dressed in turn-of-the century costumes to celebrate International Women’s Day. Another highly militant action occurred in March 1970 when Susan Brownmiller and others stormed the office of Ladies’ Home Journal demanding more freedom and better pay and crèche facilities for women journalists. From 1969 many radical feminist groups were formed. Among the most prominent were: The Redstockings, founded by Shulamith Firestone, WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) set up by Robin Morgan, Cell 16, and Bread and Roses, the socialist feminist collective of which Meredith Tax was one of the founder members. By the end of the 1970s nearly all schools and colleges marked the day. This was the first time women had organized and co-coordinated their own demonstrations. They were taking control of their own movement. As illustrated, many had been involved in SNCC or SDS, and political organising for many years, but men had almost always been in charge.

The personal as political

In these burgeoning consciousness-raising groups, women familiarised themselves with new languages for oppression, using concepts such as sexism to speak of the situation of women in the home, family and workplace, and to analyse the patterns that could be drawn from their experiences. Shulman’s character, Zane, comes to consciousness as a result of this appreciation of how women are collectively oppressed and how issues such as child care, sex, and abortion are all inherently political, the individuation and separation of the issues being in itself an act of oppression. Women like Zane slowly liberated themselves from certain forms of isolation and frustration that the separation of the personal and political had long caused:

The personal is political: a stunning new thought. All my life my big conflict had been the personal or the political. Whether to keep my mouth shut politely or to take a stand. Whether to act on feeling or principle. Whether to accept the sweet security of family or to live rebellious and alone. To nurse my baby or demonstrate’.

This passage sums up beautifully the dilemmas women had constantly battled with. The speaker at the meeting she attends defiantly outlines her analysis, making it clear that women should not be forced to choose.

‘There are reasons for everyone of our so-called personal problems. Political reasons. Reasons of power. Why is it that women are stuck with all the housework and all the shit work? We belong at home, right? But is that fair And why do we take the rap for all the bad sex? We’re frigid, right? And all the unwanted babies? We’re careless, right ? For being treated badly by men? We’re bitches, right? And for all our other “personal” problems? Do you think it is because women are stupid and irrational and weak-minded? No. It’s because we are oppressed! We’re oppressed by men. It’s because men run this world for their own benefit. Men have power over women. Power. That’s political’.

The last few lines are a strident example of a radical feminist perspective. The rest of the speech also offers, in clarity and anger, the contradictions and injustices of societal gender roles which, generally, all feminists agreed with.

Women’s liberation groups, particular the highly organised New York groups, published their own magazines and pamphlets designed to foster theoretical debate and galvanise other women into action. It is important to mention that in the US feminist movement the battle was essentially between the liberal feminists, for example, the National Organisation for Women (NOW), founded in 1966 by Friedan and others, (and other lobbying organisations) who campaigned similarly against sex discrimination in education and employment and the radical feminists, some of whom advocated feminist revolution others merely advocated women-only spaces. Crudely speaking, radical feminism states that patriarchy is the root of women’s oppression. There was, however, another group of women’s liberationists dubbed the ‘politicos’ who argued that it was capitalism and not men that destroyed women’s lives.

Although Friedan had called consciousness raising ‘navel gazing’, it was advocated by the most militant feminists, such as Susan Brownmiller and Robin Morgan. Consciousness-raising was, at its birth, a way of linking ideas with action; it was only later, in the 1980s, that consciousness raising, espousing only personal liberation, became a substitute for political activity, rather than a vehicle for it.

Groups like the Boston Women’s Health Collective emerged and many other groups set up crèche facilities or abortion counselling qua self-consciously political activity. Abortion soon became an important campaigning issue. Redstockings and NOW organized speak-outs on abortion and through their efforts twelve states adopted some form of abortion law reform by the end of the decade. These speak-outs became personal and emotive, with prominent women like Gloria Steinem telling of their illegal abortions. Marge Piercy’s 1982 novel Braided Lives captures the anxiety ridden time before the contraceptive pill and the fate of a woman forced into an illegal abortion. Some abortions were performed by sympathetic doctors with sterile equipment; others, however, were botched operations where no aftercare was offered with women sent home before the bleeding had stopped. Redstocking and NOW members joined forces to testify before the New York legislative committees. They came in for abuse outside the hearings, but for the first time abortion was politically conspicuous. Consciousness had been raised.

Feminist publications also gained mainstream status. Gloria Steinem was the founder of Ms, starkly different from women’s magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. Its first proper issue was published in January 1972 although a preview had been published in the New York Magazine in 1970. The first issue sold 250,000 copies, and included the now famous article by Judy Syfers, ‘Why I want a wife’, (1971) together with articles devoted to abortion and women loving women.

The mediated activities of the women’s movement were accompanied by juridical actions. Bella Abzug, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sarah Waddington and others illustrate the fights women had in Congress, the courthouses and law schools. The jewel in the crown of these struggles was the Roe v Wade case, the first abortion to case to reach the Supreme court. Jane Roe was a pseudonym for a poor, single woman in Texas. Waddington argued not favour of abortion per se but against the infringement of Roe and women’s right to privacy. The Supreme Court concluded that Texas’s antiabortion law had discriminated against Roe. By denying her a safe abortion her personal privacy had been inhibited. In January 1973 Waddington won the case.

White Feminism?

Some black women were initially suspicious of the movement especially as they were so affected by racial discrimination and did not want to be seen siding with white women against black men. Barbara Smith writing in her anthology of black feminists Home Girls (1983) tells of the familial and community pressures black women faced; black feminists, and lesbians in particular, were accused of racial treachery. After 1967, with the increasing influence of Black Power on the civil rights movement, it became even harder for black women to insist that they combated sex discrimination at the same time as racism. Black feminists struggled to separate themselves from the privilege of their white middle-class sisters. But when black women did become heavily involved in the movement they quickly made their voice heard. Black women refused to pretend that sexism did not have a profound impact on their lives. They complained at the whiteness of the movement and soon there was a proliferation of writing by women of colour exploring in fiction and non-fiction the experiences of black and ‘third world’ women. Writers and activists like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis soon raised the profile of African American feminists. It is important to state, as Smith does, that black feminists invaluable contribution to the movement included the concept of the ‘simultaneity of oppression’, a feminism that did not include comprehend what is was to be poor and black in America was irrelevant to them.

There was also a great deal of writing by other minority women: Native American, Chicano women and Jewish Americans who argued that a recognition of their differences was crucial. In part, this was a reaction to the normative white feminism that the media and the movement itself propagated. ‘The shedding of our differences’ is not necessary in order to achieve solidarity wrote Audre Lorde. And the facts bore this out: a 1976 survey of Chicano students showed many to agree with the goals of feminism. Distance from feminism by some of groups of women of colour did not translate into lack of popular support for its aims. In a 1972 poll two-thirds of black women compared to only one-third of white women, were sympathetic to the women’s movement. However it was not long before identity politics began to take over and that solidarity became fragmented. This was partly due to the changing political climate but also the issue that recognition of one’s difference began to be more important than organising and building the movement. This was not the fault of any particular group of women, as is sometimes alleged, but the fault of the movement and the difficultly it found when negotiating the questions of gender, class and race with the woman question.

The radical and socialist elements of women’s movement had always borrowed much of its vocabulary and received inspiration from national liberation struggles around the world, particularly the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. Yet American feminism, in particular, had remained fairly parochial. Women were being asked to confront questions of race and class by black feminists at home but also their ideas were being tested on the international stage. As a result of questions raised, often by third world women and women of colour, at the UN Decade of Women conferences (1975, 1980 and 1985), Israel became an extremely controversial topic. Thus, major divisions over race and sexual diversity were also met with conflicts around the global political questions of , for example, imperialism and colonialism.


Lesbian women began to speak out about the dominance of heteronormative culture within the movement. They discovered that they had to struggle not only outside but inside the women’s movement for recognition. Minority lesbians had a particularly difficult time knowing where to place their allegiances. They dealt with what one woman called ‘triple jeopardy’. This became a major area of conflict within the movement. The leadership of NOW was not sympathetic to the organizing of lesbians. Friedan was not happy with their presence the movement. Friedan and other liberal or ‘bourgeois’ feminists, as they were dubbed by Robin Morgan and others, were concerned that the ‘Lavender’ women would give feminism a bad name. The movement, Friedan amongst others believed, had fought hard for a mainstream status and this would see it marginalised once again. Feminists might be viewed as childless man-haters bent on the destruction of American family values.

The emphasis on the ‘personal nature of political action’ empowered lesbians to politicize their sexuality. There was a distinction between moderate lesbians who were keen to raise awareness about lesbianism as a mode of love compatible with heterosexuality and the more radical lesbians who preached separatism. The Radicalesbians, a group of New York feminists formed in 1970, denounced sleeping with men and proclaimed lesbianism as a political choice. Some women turned to lesbiansim as they became more active in the movement and in later life returned to heterosexual relationships. Zane (a married mother) experiences it like this:

‘She took me in her arms. And as our kisses stretched on I forgot about many things. About dominance and submission, winning and losing, concealing and exposing, protecting and sacrificing …And as my lover my sister, my friend admonished, for a while I forgot about men’.

Some women found they could be ‘out’ as lesbians and embraced a long-held sexuality, but other women simply found love, support and sexual expression with other women that they felt they could not get from their husbands or male partners. Sheila Rowbotham has summed it up well: ‘Lesbianism began to be presented as the means of discovering one’s real identity through a more fulfilling alternative sexuality..’ Unfortunately it is the case that, in some circles, lesbianism began to be seen as political in itself, to liberate one’s life, without necessarily being connected to concrete political activity. Identity got in the way of politics, especially when women who had relationships with men were ostracised. ‘Not all feminists wanted to be lesbians, not all lesbians wanted to be feminists and not all lesbian feminists agreed with separatist feminist politics… Sex was not always susceptible to political will”.

The movement had grown massively since the late 1960s with but by the mid-1970s the sectarianism, the splits between gay and straight, radical and liberal and lack of formal structure began to undermine the solidarity and imagination of the movement.

It is true, as Evans describes, that the informal structure of women’s liberation politics was an essential part of its weakness. With no structures to rely on, the movement could seem quite ‘ephemeral’. Many women had set up groups with their friends or colleagues rejecting leadership as patriarchal. There were the organisations of NOW and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) but these had become affected by leadership conflicts and not all liberationists were allied to these groups. More importantly, the demise of the women’s movement must be seen in context of the deterioration of the all of the radical movements of the period, not least the New Left. Identity politics made inter-identity collective action more difficult. The movement had succeeded in transforming itself from its localised middle class and white perspective but the debates around class, race and religion polarised the movement as it became unable to meet its these challenges. The political climate was also markedly different to that of the late 1960s. The ascendancy of the right in the USA meant the Left was now in retreat.

The colour and expanse of the movement which was clearly shown on the historic day of ‘Women’s Strike for Equality’ demonstration in 1970 had fragmented. Feminist organisations, individuals and ideas had gained a place in public discourse but the radical movement had declined. Women’s organisations and feminists were involved in all aspects of society in the way that would have seemed remarkable a decade earlier but it was no longer accurate to describe the women’s movement as a mass movement. The WLM was, I believe, a logical response to the male dominated leftist and socialist organisations. Despite the fact that it became more dominated by academic feminism in the 1980s, the theories and analyses of capitalism and patriarchy, from both a radical and socialist feminist perspective, challenged not only mainstream attitudes towards women but also, crucially, socialist and Marxist thinking on the oppression of women.




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