Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

10. The failure of success:
The women’s liberation movement in the United States



Women’s liberation returned to the agenda in the 1960s. There was now a growing challenge to Stalinism in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland and, in the West, a slowly deepening crisis of world capitalism. Women were also now taking paid employment in greater numbers than ever before, aided by increased higher education on the one hand and more effective birth control on the other. In September 1978 the British women’s liberation magazine Spare Rib wrote: “The US women’s movement is the mother of us all.” This is indeed so. It was the first on the scene and has maintained its international precedence – so our examination of the modern women’s movement will start in the United States.


The Civil Rights Movement

The modern American Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was born out of the civil rights movement. Once before, when working for justice for black slaves in the movement for the abolition of slavery in the 1830s-1870s, a handful of Southern white middle-class women had gained experience in organising collective action. They also gained a belief in human rights, which they used to justify the demand for equality for themselves. A similar process took place in the civil rights movement which reverberated through the 1960s, triggering the foundation of the WLM. The story of how the women’s movement grew is told in an exciting way in Sara Evans’s book, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. [1] My debt to her is great. Since Sara Evans is not a Marxist, however, but a radical feminist, I cannot accord with her interpretation of events.

Students were crucial in organising the civil rights movement in the Southern states of America. Their main organisation was the Students’ Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). This became involved in projects to register voters in the deep south and in mass sit-ins, involving hundreds of thousands of non-students, which aimed to end the racial segregation in such public places as restaurants, motels and bus stations. Sara Evans writes:

War with white society seemed total. In such a context ... by the winter of 1961 the SNCC staff had begun to walk, talk and dress like the poor black farmers and sharecroppers of rural Georgia and Mississippi ... From the beginning a cluster of young white women committed their lives to the revolt of black youth. [2]

Most white women who participated in the early years of the civil rights movement tended to be southerners, and virtually without exception white southern women who joined the civil rights movement came to it first through the Church. [3]

Between 1963 and 1965 hundreds of young white women from middle and upper-class backgrounds went south. However the deep differences of class, colour and sex prevented the white women who worked for the blacks from integrating with them. The SNCC acted on behalf of the blacks, and failed to build a mass movement. Without roots in a working class cemented by collective production, fissions were inevitable. The most natural was on colour lines, between blacks and whites. “The presence of hundreds of young whites from middle and upper-class backgrounds in a movement primarily of poor, rural blacks exacerbated latent racial and sexual tensions beyond the breaking point,” writes Sara Evans. One black woman said:

“If white women had a problem in SNCC it was not just a male/woman problem ... it was also a black woman/white woman problem. It was a race problem rather than a woman’s problem.” And a white woman, asked whether she experienced any hostility from black women, responded, “Oh! tons and tons ... Her sexual relationships with black men placed a barrier between herself and black women” [4]

The white women were deeply affected by their experience. A few fled immediately. Most, however, fulfilled their commitments and returned to the north seared by an experience that marked a turning point in their lives. [5]

But the conflict rending the SNCC was not only between black women and men and white women. It was also between white and black men as the latter became increasingly alienated from the concept of non-violence and of “black and white together”. By 1965 the path to “black power” was clearly signposted. “Whites were less and less welcome in any part of the civil rights movement.” [6]

There was a corresponding movement among students in the northern states. When black students in the south began a wave of sit-ins in the spring of 1960, between 60,000 and 80,000 northern students responded in support. [7] Again they were predominantly “from middle to upper-middle-class families.” [8] Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was built in response to this movement. It began organising in northern cities between 1963 and 1965, using the SNCC as its model.

Few students in the SDS were prepared for the realities of day-to-day organising. They had chosen to organise among “the Negro movement and the ... unorganised poor”, a section of society which, compared with the blacks of the south, showed no signs of self-organisation or collective consciousness. This was the section of society described by Marx as the “lumpenproletariat”. As a result the SDS style of organising became tedious, frustrating and anxiety-ridden. It consisted of going into a neighbourhood and knocking on door after door hoping that whoever answered would be willing to talk to a stranger, then looking for openings for collective action, providing personal support, earning trust. [9]

But those who the students aimed to organise – “persons whose economic role in society is marginal or insecure” – proved to be powerless and impossible to organise on a stable basis. Social revolution is not dependent merely on poverty. It also requires collective organisation, based on collective action in production, in the factories and workplaces. And this the poorest section of society, being unemployed or working in marginal jobs, lacks.

But the white, middle-class students, who belonged to the people by sentiment only, idealised the people, and above all the blacks. This idealisation showed particularly in the way the movement bowed to spontaneity. The closest thing to a theory that the movement had was the slogan on one of its badges: “Let the people decide”. The organisers were not to give a lead, but only to reflect the wishes of the people; a clear plan was considered manipulative and not in the spirit of participatory democracy. Moreover poor people were unused to meetings and did not necessarily like them. Over and over again meetings were held at which the only people to show up were the organisers themselves. [10]

The women in the SDS were far more successful than the men. While the men tried, unsuccessfully, to organise the unemployed round the slogan of “Job or Income Now”, the women concentrated on “women’s issues” – recreation, day care, schools, street lights, housing and welfare. The women “set about creating stable organisations of welfare mothers.” [11] They gained greatly in self-confidence. “For the first time within SDS women had an independent ground from which to draw their self-respect and to command the respect of others.” [12]

The separation of the men and women of the SDS into two spheres of activity was accompanied by sharpening sexual tensions. The male members of the SDS were very much influeiThed by the milieu in which they worked. The poorest sections of society are so deprived that “violence and physical aggression become a common way of life, particularly for young males.” One crucial form of this violence is machismo – sexual aggression. [13] This greatly affected the leadership of the black movement. Thus, for instance, Eldridge Cleaver, who was to become a Black Panther theoretician, describes in his autobiography Soul on Ice how in his youth he indulged in raping, first black women and then white, as a way of asserting himself. “An insurrectionary act” he called it. [14] Another black leader, Stokeley Carmichael, was responsible for the infamous remark at the 1964 SNCC conference: “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”

At the University of Washington, an SDS organiser explained to a large meeting how white college youth established rapport with the poor whites with whom they were working:

He noted that sometimes after analysing societal ills, the men shared leisure time by “balling a chick together”. He pointed out that such activities did much to enhance the political consciousness of the poor white youth. A woman in the audience asked, “And what did it do for the consciousness of the chick?” [15]

Many men in the SDS adopted this sexist attitude. Relations between women and men in the SDS came near to breaking point.



Women’s Movement rises from disintegration of Civil Rights and Student Movements

The movement against the Vietnam War grew out of the civil rights movement and spread in spectacular fashion among students. “Campuses suddenly ignited with protest” after President Johnson began to draft young men in large numbers to fight. On 17 April 1965 more than 20,000 protestors gathered in Washington to demonstrate against the war. Students saw themselves in opposition to the “system”, oppressed as students, potential cannon fodder. The SDS grew significantly, and sit-ins, learned from the civil rights movement, now broke out when recruiters for the armed forces appeared, or when universities refused to respond to demands concerning selective service ranking, tuition increases, wages for university workers, or curriculum reform. [16]

Women were very active in the mass student movement. But after 1966 they felt pushed to the periphery. The central issue was now the draft.

Men were drafted, women were not. Men could resist the draft; they burned draft cards; they risked jail. And women’s role was to support them. “Girls Say Yes to Guys Who Say No!” was a widespread slogan of the movement. [17]

Moving from the fight “for other people” to the fight for their own liberation on the campuses, the students created a “theory” that students, being trained for professional jobs in a highly technological society, were the key element in the modern working class. Students became the “surrogate proletariat” and the universities must become “Red bases”. Sara Evans writes:

Students were becoming more introspective in general ... These “hippies” ... glorified gentleness, love, community, and co-operation, and spurned competitiveness, polished professionalism in work, and materialism. Later on their trademarks became events like “be-ins”, “love-ins”, and phrases like “getting your head together” and “do your own thing”. Crucial ingredients for the future of women’s liberation lay in this counterculture’s rejection of middle-class standards and lifestyles and its focus on personal issues. It called into question basic defining institutions for women like marriage and the family, asserting in fact that communal living was superior. [18]

Thus another strand in the future WLM came into being: concentration on one’s own internal world – on lifestyle and what was later termed “consciousness-raising”.

“The Movement” in 1967 was increasingly fragmented into a multitude of groups. In an effort to unite the fragments, the New Left convened a National Conference for New Politics (NCNP) in August 1967. Two thousand activists from 200 organisations turned up, most of them young veterans of civil rights and anti-war activities. “Black power§ was at its height and the hope for unity was faint.

Black delegates at the conference needed to unleash their fury at American racism on the whites, who for their part seemed desperate for black approval to validate their own activities. Black delegates shouted “Kill Whitey!” and insisted that they should cast 50 per cent of the conference vote and occupy half the committee slots though they constituted about one-sixth of the delegates. Each time the conference gave in to black demands, the majority of whites applauded enthusiastically in apparent approval of their own denunciation.

The logic of black separatism dawned upon the women delegates to the NCNP. In extended discussions they devised a resolution requiring that women, who represent 51 per cent of the population, receive 51 per cent of the conference votes and committee representation. [19] The white men who capitulated to the black nationalists, however, were not ready to make any concessions to the women. Instead they ridiculed and patronised them and refused to allow time for the resolution. By threatening to tie up the conference with procedural motions, the women succeeded in having their statement tacked on to the end of the agenda. It was never discussed. The chair refused to recognise any of the women standing by the microphones, their hands straining upward. When instead he called on someone to speak on “the forgotten American, the American Indian”, five women rushed the podium to demand an explanation. But the chairman just patted one of the women on the head and told her, “Cool down, little girl, we have more important things to talk about than women’s problems.”

The “little girl” was Shulamith Firestone, future author of The Dialectic of Sex [20] and she did not cool down. [21]

Ridicule pursued the infant women’s movement. Ramparts, a successful would-be radical magazine, featured in January 1968 a woman’s leotard-clad torso, cut off at the neck, with a Jeanette Rankin Brigade button dangling from one breast. “Woman Power”, Ramparts titled the picture: “two tits, no head” was the general interpretation. A grossly patronising article accompanied it. Ramparts refused to publish a reply. [22]

At the January 1969 mass anti-war demonstration in Washington women had asked for and received time for two short speeches, after many objections from the men organising it. When they tried to speak they were hooted down with cries of “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” Separation from men was inevitable.

The gross sexism of the men of the American New left was certainly one of the worst examples in history of sexism by men who claimed to be “left”. It was much worse than women could expect to suffer in, say, a trade union meeting. The class origins of the New Left, plus their discounting of the organised working class as agents for change, led to all kinds of elitism, of which sexism was one form. Because they discounted the working class, their politics always pulled towards reformism, however radical their speeches might be. Their intervention in the civil rights movement was always on behalf of poor blacks, and the campaign against the draft was based on moral arguments and very individualist.

Some of the women who became feminists did so as a reaction to their treatment by the New Left. A few paid lip-service to the ideas of socialism, but because of this experience insisted on organising separately from men. Of course the whole period has become part of the mythology of the women’s movement, to be regularly wheeled out as justification for separatism.

The middle-class origins of most of the women drawn towards the early women’s movement also made it easy for them to see their problems in terms of the sexism of men. In the boom of the 1960s, with job opportunities opening up for women, the sexism of men competing for those jobs – particularly middle-class, professional jobs – could easily appear to be the main barrier for women.

These two factors created a situation where separatism was always on the cards. Both were the results of a particular historical situation, peculiar to the boom period of the 1960s and the development of a “left” movement with no links to working-class organisation.

Thus did the women’s movement grow out of the disintegration of the civil rights movement, the bankruptcy of the student movement, and in reaction to the gross sexism of the men in the New Left.

Before moving on to look at the women’s movement itself, it is worth tracing what happened to the movements from which it grew. The black movement involved millions of people. Between 1964 and 1968 hundreds of riots shook US cities. The student movement, particularly when it turned into a movement against the Vietnam War, also mobilised masses of people. But neither undermined the capitalist system which they opposed. For neither the black revolutionaries nor the student radicals were able to build at the point where capitalism can be directly and collectively challenged – in the factories and workplaces where workers create capitalism’s wealth. Both led their movements along separate paths, and both paths led downwards.

With the winding down of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, the student movement declined and the students went back to their studies. With the collapse of the left generally, the black revolutionary left collapsed too. Many black activists, particularly those who advocated the seizure of Black Power, were assassinated by the government – but far more decided that revolution was a chimera and went into traditional politics. Out of the black movement rose a substantial layer of middle-class professionals mediating between the ghettos and the establishment: social workers, community organisers, Democratic Party politicians representing decayed urban areas, impotent representatives in Congress. [23]

In the history of the American women’s movement – as of the black and student movements – one must distinguish between two periods: 1968-73, when the level of struggle was generally high, and the later period from 1974 onwards, when the level of struggle was in decline and the political scene moved rightwards.



Radical feminist theory

The central idea of the American Women’s Liberation Movement is that the enemy is man. Thus the New York Radical Feminist Manifesto declared:

As radical feminists we recognize that we are engaged in a power struggle with men, and that the agent of our oppression is man in so far as he identifies with and carries out the supremacy privileges of the male role ... We believe that the purpose of male chauvinism is primarily to obtain psychological ego satisfaction, and that only secondarily does this manifest itself in economic relationships ... for this reason we do not believe that capitalism, or any other economic system, is the cause of female oppression, nor do we believe that female oppression will disappear as a result of a purely economic revolution. The political oppression of women has its own class dynamic. And that dynamic must be understood in terms previously called “non-political” – namely the politics of the ego ... the male ego identity (is) sustained through its ability to have power over the female ego.

Juliet Mitchell, who quotes this approvingly, concludes that an all-class unity is needed:

... class differences are not what is important – it is for women to see how they are subjected as a whole that is crucial. In the home the social function and the psychic identity of women as a group is found ..., the position of women as women takes precedence: oppressed whatever their particular circumstances. Hence the importance of feminist consciousness in any revolution ... Hence Women’s Liberation. [24]

A “theoretical” backing for the view that sexual oppression is the base and the economy the superstructure is supplied by Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectics of Sex. She writes first that the roots of the family structure, with the two “classes” in it – man the oppressor and woman the oppressed – are in sexual reproduction. “Unlike economic class, sex class sprang directly from a biological reality: men and women were created different, and not equal.”

The sexual-reproductive organisation of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of economic, juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period.

The root cause of exploitation, she says, is psychosexual: “The biological family is an inherently unequal power distribution. The need for power leading to development of classes arises from the psychosexual formation of each individual according to this basic imbalance.” And “racism is sexism extended.” [25]

Firestone’s purely biological analysis makes sexual inequality inevitable. Many radical feminists draw the conclusion from Firestone’s analysis that since all class and race antagonisms grow out of the initial inequality between men and women, a strike in the marriage bed would be a blow not only against sexism but also its by-products, class society and racism.



By the middle class, for the middle class

The social composition of the American Women’s Movement and its supporters was and is overwhelmingly middle class. Thus Jo Freeman, one of the founders of the movement, describes its early composition as “white, middle-class, college-educated, professionally employed women”. Among the members of the largest women’s organisation, the National Organisation of Women (NOW), in 1974 66 per cent had degrees, and 30 per cent also had advanced degrees. [26] Maren Lockwood Carden found that “almost 90 per cent of the Women’s Rights groups’ members interviewed had at least a BA degree; a third held PhDs, MDs or law degrees.” [27]

This is a far cry from the world of the majority of women. The abyss between these feminists and working-class women was highlighted at the International Women’s Year Tribunal organised by the United Nations in Mexico in 1975. Here two worlds met. On the one side were the middle-class women led by Betty Friedan, the founder of NOW and one of the original inspirers of the women~s movement in America. On the other were working-class women, among them Domitila Barrio, a Bolivian miner’s wife and mother of seven. She had for fifteen years organised miners’ wives in struggles to aid their husbands on strike. An indication of the miners’ conditions was that their life expectancy was a mere 35 years. Domitila Barrio had organised a long hunger strike of women, and had gone to prison a number of times, on one occasion suffering a miscarriage while in custody. She bitterly attacked the rich feminists who turned up to the conference. To the president of the Mexican delegation she said:

Senora, I’ve known you for a week. Every morning you show up in a different outfit and on the other hand I don’t. Every day you show up all made up and combed like someone who had time to spend in an elegant beauty parlour and who can spend money on that, and yet I don’t. I see that each afternoon you have a chauffeur in a car waiting at the door of this place to take you home, and yet I don’t. And in order to show up here like you do, I’m sure you live in a really elegant home, in an elegant neighborhood, no? And yet we miners’ wives only have a small house on loan to us, and when our husbands die or get sick or are fired from the company, we have ninety days to leave the house and then we re in the street. Now, senora, tell me: is your situation at all similar to mine? Is my situation at all similar to yours? So what equality are we going to speak of between the two of us? If you and I aren’t alike, if you and I are so different?

The rich women, she claimed, were blind to the conditions of women like herself:

They couldn’t see the suffering of my people, they couldn’t see how our companeros are vomiting their lungs bit by bit, in pools of blood. They didn’t see how underfed our children are. And, of course, they didn’t know, as we do, what it’s like to get up at four in the morning and go to bed at eleven or twelve at night, just to be able to get all the housework done, because of the lousy conditions we live in.

She could not understand Betty Freidan’s statement that she, Domitila, and her friends were “manipulated by men”.

I felt a bit lost. In other rooms, some women stood up and said: men are the enemy ... men create wars, men create nuclear weapons, men beat women ... and so what’s the first battle to be carried out to get equal rights for women? First you have to declare war against men. [28]

She opposed both machismo and feminism.

I think that machismo is a weapon of imperialism just like feminism is. Therefore, I think that the basic fight isn’t between the sexes; it’s a struggle of the couple. And when I say couple, I also include children and grandchildren, who have to join the struggle for liberation from a class position. I think that’s fundamental now. [29]

The separatism of the women’s movement, both in the US and elsewhere, weakened the chances that working-class women would join. So separatism ultimately became part of a vicious circle, condemning the women’s movement to the ghetto of the young, educated middle class.

The milieu in which the white middle-class women active in the women s movement found themselves led many to slip into open racism. The black American writer Bell Hooks expressed her anger in her book Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, writing: “Every women’s movement in America from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on a racist foundation ... White middle and upper class women have dominated every women’s movement in the US.” [30]

The black leader Angela Davis inveighed against Susan Brown- miller in the famous Emmett Till case of 1953, for putting the wolf whistle of a 14-year-old black boy at a white woman almost on the same level as his subsequent lynching by white racists. [31]



Escapism and division

With the defeat of the black movement and the student movement the women were convinced that advances did not lie in politics or political parties, but in the development of human faculties, “the emancipation of the person”, as the Narodniks of Russia had said. [32] It took but a short time for the whole of the American WLM to turn into a collection of small groups, consisting of about eight women each, in which women talked to each other about their individual experiences and analysed them together. Jo Freeman writes that these groups “have become mechanisms for social change in and of themselves. They are structures created specifically for the purpose of altering the participants’ perceptions and conceptions of themselves and society at large. The means by which this is done is called ‘consciousness raising’.” [33]

This trend for “consciousness-raising” groups to become an end in themselves was by no means the only trend in the women’s liberation movement in its early years. Many women, especially socialist feminists in Britain, argued that consciousness-raising was important not because it improved women’s lives but because it gives women the confidence to take part in political activity. Alas, it doesn’t. You don’t build your confidence by separating yourself off from the struggle going on in the world around you. If you do, then just the opposite happens: you never get the chance to develop the skills and arguments necessary for political activity. As the experience showed, women tended to cling more and more to their small groups, and when these broke up, to drop out completely.

In a curious way, “consciousness-raising” does not challenge the prevailing ideas that the family and personal relationships are separate from society at large, ruled by their own laws. “Consciousness-raising”, after all, aims to change the ideas of the individuals concerned – m the belief that with the “right ideas” they could then go on to change their personal, sexual and family relationships. The logic of this is that personal relationships are moulded merely by the ideas which we carry in our heads, not by the real world in which we live. In contradiction to this, we will argue later that personal relationships arise from and are moulded by the total social relations of the society around us – and cannot ultimately be changed in isolation from that reality. But first let us see where “consciousness-raising” led the women’s movement.

At first the number of these women’s consciousness-raising groups grew swiftly. But they had a short life. Jo Freeman wrote that they “form and dissolve at such a rate that no one can keep track of them”. [34] Many disintegrated within a few weeks or months; some survived for two or more years; the typical groups lasted about nine months.

However much or however little participants change their ideas as a consequence of participation, they generally reach a point at which the consciousness-raising group itself can contribute little more; it has “served its purpose”. Members’ realisation of this fact marks the group’s second stage of development – one in which they try to redefine their common obiectives ... Only rarely do members agree on what they would like to do. Consequently, only rarely does the group continue through this second stage. Most commonly it disintegrates: “Everyone went away for the summer and, when we came back, we couldn’t seem to get started again.” [35]

Few of the women involved remained active. As early as 1973, Maren Carden wrote: “Participants estimate that between 5 and 15 per cent remain active in Women’s Liberation.” [36] Today probably less than one per cent of the members of the women’s groups in the early 1970s are still active in the WLM.

The groups of socialist feminists suffered an even worse fate. These were never very numerous, not very strong and not clearly distinguishable from the radical feminists. Linda Gordon, author of Women’s Body, Women’s Right, writes that “around 1974 there were a lot of attempts all over the country ... to start organisations which explicitly identified themselves as socialist feminist. All of these organisations failed, there’s not one left.” [37]

There was no co-ordination between the groups, no structure to keep them together or lead them. There was a “conscious lack of hierarchy”, as Jo Freeman says, with the result that “the movement can neither be directed, controlled, nor even counted.” Out of this diffuseness elites naturally arise.

... women who acquired any public notoriety for any reason were denounced as “elitists” ... The ideology of “structurelessness” created the “star system” and the backlash to it encouraged the very kind of individualistic nonresponsibility that it most condemned ... The groups have no means of compelling responsibility from the elites that dominate them. They cannot even admit they exist. [38]

Such a situation leads naturally to squabbling, splits, expulsions and general tension. As early as the beginning of 1970 Marlene Dixon, one of the founders of WLM, could write: “Hostility and misunderstandings have only grown more acute with time, and hostility and misunderstandings mean that women spend more energy fighting each other, or merely fighting male chauvinism, than they do organising the movement.” [39] Ti-Grace Atkinson, one of the founders of the movement, put it thus: “Sisterhood is powerful: it kills sisters.” [40]

The end result of this fragmentation was the mushrooming of “oppressions”. Black women were claiming that white feminists oppressed them on grounds of colour. Lesbians were claiming they were oppressed by heterosexual women ... and so on. This was the result of believing, in the first place, that the source of oppression was one group of individuals: men. When women in the women’s movement, now separated from men, still felt oppressed, they reacted by seeking out another group of individuals to blame. In this way you end up blaming those who agree with you and leaving the social system – the real source of oppression – untouched.

One of the bitterest conflicts within the WLM was between political lesbians and straight women. Lesbianism as a personal orientation has to be differentiated from political lesbianism. While it is fundamental to women’s liberation that the oppression of lesbians (as of gay men) should be challenged, this does not signify that lesbian relationships are superior to heterosexual or that lesbianism is a necessary means towards women’s liberation. Many in the WLM became political lesbians. Lesbianism

developed into a world view which said that women should identify with, live with, and only associate with women. From this premise it was easy to argue that lesbianism was the vanguard of feminism: that a woman who actually slept with a man was obviously consorting with the enemy and could not be trusted ... “It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other which is at the heart of women’s liberation, and the basis for the cultural revolution.” [41]

Jill Johnson, in her book Lesbian Nation: the Feminist Solution, states: “The sexual satisfaction of the woman independently of the man is the sine qua non of the feminist revolution ... Until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution.” [42] Lesbian feminism had a strong appeal because it seemed to offer a personal means of action against men’s oppression with immediate results. For the WLM at large “it was also easier to spend one’s energies on the essentially personal nature of the gay/straight conflict than deal with the harder political questions.” [43]

But someone had to pay for lesbian feminism, and Jo Freeman indicates who it was:

Those women who remained straight but did not have any other political associations went through a good deal of personal trauma, including a couple of nervous breakdowns, and dropped out of the feminist movement entirely. They could not form or join another group because their identities as radical feminists had been destroyed. [44]



The withering of the Women’s Movement

With the general political weakness of the American left, even at its high point, and the growing economic recession of the 1970s – a reality no one could deny – the WLM, composed of tiny, fragmented groups and torn by intermittent squabbles, proved powerless. Women who were not content simply to contemplate their own consciousness, but wanted some action, turned towards the respectable, conservative Women’s Rights organisations, of which the most prominent was NOW, the National Organisation of Women. In 1975 Jo Freeman wrote that “NOW was often the only feminist action organisation available, even if its image was somewhat conservative.” [45] Since those words were written the collapse of the WLM has accelerated and NOW is in effect the only women’s organisation. Its membership has grown from 1,000 in 1967 to 40,000 in 1974, to 60,000 in 1979, and 135,000 by the end of 1980. [46] The movement of women into NOW has been part of a general move rightwards urged on by the economic depression.

NOW’s mode of operation is very traditional. It leans towards the Democratic Party, urges women to rely on the courts and Congress for reforms, and indulges in lobbying as a major activity. [47] Typically members of NOW have been very involved in the campaign for the ordination of women in the churches. In three years “over 40 women have become episcopal priests”. [48] Some 15,000 women attended one of its conventions in November 1977, including three “First Ladies”!

NOW has proved ineffective not only in failing to advance women’s conditions, but even in blocking the attack on women’s rights in recent years, especially since Reagan became President. Thus, the Equal Rights Amendment, which was declared by NOW to be the “number one campaign” which it fought at the expense of all other women’s issues, failed in 1982, as not enough states could be persuaded to ratify it.

Abortion rights also suffered a backlash. In 1973 abortion became legal, but in 1976 legislation stopped federal government funding of abortion for poor women unless the woman’s life was in danger. This split the women s movement: “... middle-class women didn’t come to the aid of their poorer sisters ... All they knew was that you could still get an abortion if you could pay for one, and most of them had the money.” Another confusion resulted from the fact that a moral stand against racism within the women’s movement involved a campaign against enforced fertility control for black women. From this viewpoint abortion came to be seen more as a method of population control than a woman’s right, something to be opposed rather than demanded. The demand for the right to abortion therefore came to be seen as a “white” (in other words privileged) women’s issue.

Of course, the way out of this mess was to call for a woman’s right to choose, the right to choose to have an abortion, or not to have an abortion. But by this time the WLM was so fragmented and moralistic that “a woman’s right to choose” became no more than an empty slogan and attempts to build a campaign in defence of the right to abortion were ditched in the process. In summer 1981 a sub-committee of the US Congress approved legislation which would make abortion (and even some forms of contraception) tantamount to murder. [49]

In 1981 NOW actively campaigned for the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, even though O’Connor is anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment. [50]

The best manifestation of NOW’s further move to the right is the book by its founder, Betty Friedan, titled The Second Stage. In it she argues among other things for a coalition with “Girl Scouts, Junior League, YWCA, women’s clubs, to the religious sisterhoods, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish.” [51] When she visited West Point army academy, she waxed lyrical at seeing women training to become officers in the US army. This made her feel “safer somehow because these powerful nuclear weapons that can destroy the world ... will henceforward be in the hands of women and men who are, with agony, breaking through to a new strength.” [52]

In the field of wages women also suffered a setback. In 1955 the earnings of full-time women workers averaged 64 per cent of those of male workers; in 1970 the corresponding figure was 59 per cent, and in 1976 it went down to 57 per cent.

Some radical feminist groups have survived by devoting themselves to specific service projects, such as women’s centres for support for rape victims, gynaecological care, psychological counselling or child care.

Feminism has also taken hold in the field of publishing. The most respectable and trendy publication is Ms, which started as a monthly in July 1972 and reached a circulation of 350,000 a year later. There are a few feminist publishing houses, and a number of women’s bookstores around the country. The feminist publishers have largely concentrated on novels, which contributes to the preoccupation with individual experience and personal relations. [53]

Women’s studies became respectable. Dockard reports that by the beginning of 1974 women’s studies programs were functioning at 78 institutions, and about 2,000 courses were being offered at another 500 campuses. “Now almost every college and university offers women’s studies courses.” [54] Successful openings have thus been created for women authors and lecturers. Kathie Sarachild, one of the original leaders of WLM, complained: “As soon as someone had a little bit of success, she would go off on her own and work in that very indirect way of being a feminist writer instead of maintaining contact with the troops.” [55]

So we can see a sharp contrast between the “success” of some of the women in the movement, in making careers for themselves, and the failure of the movement itself to improve the lot of the mass of working women. The fate of the former activists of the WLM in the United States is similar to that of the majority of the Narodniks in Russia. Coming from well-off families, after a period of “going to the people”, they “settled down to research, to literature, and even more often, to business and trade.” [56]

But the analogy between Russian Narodniks and American members of WLM should not be pushed too far. The former had to face the gallows, prison and exile in Siberia, while the latter largely spent their time “consciousness-raising”.


1. S. Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York 1980).

2. Evans, p.41.

3. Evans, p.35.

4. Evans, p.81.

5. Evans, p.82.

6. Evans, p.97.

7. Evans, p.106.

8. Evans, p.105.

9. Evans, p.132.

10. Evans, p.132.

11. Evans, p.141.

12. Evans, p.141.

13. S. Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York 1975), pp.80-1.

14. E. Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York 1968), pp.11-14.

15. J. Freeman, The Politics of Women’s Liberation (New York 1975) p.60.

16. Evans, p.170.

17. Evans, p.179.

18. Evans, p.175.

19. Evans, p.198.

20. S. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York 1970).

21. Freeman, pp.59-60.

22. Freeman, pp.60-1.

23. At present (1983) there are over two hundred black mayors in United States cities, including 18 major ones (Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington DC). At the same time 45.7 per cent of the black youth and 19 per cent of black adults are unemployed (more than twice the rate of unemployment among whites). The Economist remarks: “... the militants became respectable as they grew older, feted on the lecture circuits, endowed by foundations to conduct research. Literally thousands of projects for black advancement were evolved by federal, state and local governments, more again by charitable and private institutions.” (The Economist, 15 May 1982.)

24. J. Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (London 1971), pp.51, 63-4, 73-4 and 182.

25. Firestone, pp.15-17, 20-1 and 105.

26. Firestone, pp.91-2.

27. M.L. Carden, The New Feminist Movement (New York 1974), p.19.

28. Domitila Barrio, Let Me Speak! (London 1978), pp.198-9 and 202-3.

29. Barrio, pp.203 and 234.

30. B. Hooks, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism (London 1981), pp.124 and 188.

31. A. Davis, Women, Race and Class (London 1982), p.179.

32. See F. Venturi, Roots of Revolution (London 1960), p.327.

33. Freeman, p.117-8.

34. Freeman, pp.103-4.

35. Carden, pp.71-2.

36. Carden, p.73.

37. Spare Rib (October 1978).

38. Freeman, pp.12 1-2.

39. M. Dixon, On Women’s Liberation, in Radical America (February 1970).

40. Spare Rib No.17.

41. Freeman, pp.136-7.

42. M. Evans (editor), The Woman Question (London 1982), pp.50-1.

43. Freeman, pp.141-2.

44. Freeman, p.139.

45. Freeman, p.92.

46. B. Friedan, The Second Stage (London 1982), p.238.

47. B. Dockard, The Women’s Movement (New York 1979), pp.364-74 and 395-407.

48. Dockard, pp.383-5.

49. Diane St Claire, The New Right: Wrong Turn USA, in Spare Rib (September 1981).

50. B. Winslow, Why the ERA Lost, in American Socialist Worker (July 1982).

51. Friedan, p.338.

52. Friedan, p.204.

53. Dockard, pp.388-90.

54. Dockard, p.385.

55. Spare Rib (February 1979).

56. Venturi, p.253.


Last updated on 29.8.2002