From International Socialism (1st series), No.58, May 1973, p.25.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Women, Resistance and Revolution
Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, £2.95
Contrary to the predictions of Marxist ostriches, the women’s liberation movement still exists. It gave rise to, and in turn expresses, facets of a growing consciousness among women which, despite uncertainty and lack of direction, has proved real enough to inspire two successive governments into supposedly liberal legislation aimed at women. The Equal Pay Act (actually a poorly disguised attempt to introduce aids to management efficiency via legislation) and the Anti-Discrimination Act (already a feeble flop) were both sops to a movement and to an evolving consciousness among women which undoubtedly has vast potential.
Female revolutionaries seized on the ideas of Women’s Lib eagerly – partly because it inspired self-confidence and because it began to resolve a long-standing problem for revolutionary women. Hitherto activism in the revolutionary movement meant sacrificing feminism to the unimpeachable ideals of unity and brotherhood.
As a woman one’s seriousness was judged by one’s ability to become unlike other women and, male-like, to accept the values and philosophies of a male-dominated movement. Feminists who rejected this female version of the ‘Uncle Tom’ role led themselves up claustrophobic blind alleys in which they looked to the destruction of the male sex as well as the society that oppressed them.
In their contemporary role they look to liberation via biological engineering. Valerie Solanas sums it up in the SCUM Manifesto:
‘there remains ... only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex’!
But the philosophy behind Women’s Lib actually pointed to a way out: choice between the two extremes and indeed has been responsible for reestablishing the feminist tradition in the post-war revolutionary movement. Women’s Lib taught us that women themselves can fight their specific oppression as women. We do not have to wait until someone else makes a revolution for us. We can start the battle here and now. So at last we can stop looking at women’s problems through men’s eyes and discussing them in male phraseology.
Marxist writers analysed the oppression and exploitation of women with sympathy and emotion. They concluded that the workers’ revolution will liberate us all. But what role are women to play in building the revolution that is to liberate them? Or are they to stand steadfastly behind their blokes until it is all over – cooking barricade broth while they shoot the bosses?
It is precisely this problem that Sheila Rowbotham locates – and leaves unanswered – in her book. She sets herself the task of tracing the fortunes of the feminist idea and ‘correcting the masculine bias in the story of our revolutionary past.’
This is the story of the feminist idea as it inspired and activated women in the romantic, religious and political movements. It is also the story of how women organised in association with the revolutionary movements – particularly Russia, China and the Third World.
Sheila Rowbotham has gathered together much interesting information and written a lively and highly readable history, providing an extremely credible challenge to the male view of history. She differentiates between the women of different social classes and has written their story with sympathy and involvement. Hers is essentially a book from out of the women’s movement, not about it.
But it also has many weaknesses. So many questions are left unanswered. No conclusions have been drawn from the various movements recounted and ideas about where we go from here are totally lacking.
More seriously, however, the book illustrates the major weaknesses of an exclusively feminist analysis of political systems. It is this criticism which has implications for revolutionary socialists. We have to decide how useful the feminist analysis is and how far it can stand alone. This book shows quite clearly that on its own the feminist analysis can move us to tears, but nowhere else.
Vivid stories of women organising in each era and each country provides nothing more than the conviction that women have fought and can fight. We learn of the great sufferings of female militants cut off from family, friends and often comrades as well. But this is a call to witness their misery not a call to take heart and act on their behalf and ours.
Conclusions and ideas for future action are omitted. The position of women in a society is intimately linked with politics. It would seem important, therefore, that anyone who recounts the story of women in Russia should also attempt to relate this to the overall political situation. Thus we could learn what went wrong, and whether women could have done anything about it. What is the relationship between Women’s Lib and the revolutionary party? These questions cannot be shirked – or they leave us with the impotence of sympathy unlinked to any alternative.
The same problem arises with the chapters on China, Algeria and Vietnam. Women’s role is described with clarity and feeling, but again the failure to link the story to an overall analysis leads us nowhere. We do not even know which aspects of society to avoid or which are desirable.
We need something more than this. Sheila Rowbotham and others have presented us with the justifications. Now we must draw the lessons and develop the way in which we relate our struggle to the overall task of overthrowing class society. We want to know how to fight for women’s liberation now.
Last updated on 10.3.2008