Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Margie Stamberg, Guardian staff correspondent

SDS deals with the woman question

Published: Guardian, June 28, 1969. 
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Men and women alike tossed women’s liberation from caucus to caucus in competition for votes throughout SDS’s ninth annual convention here last week.

At the end of five days of debate, with sessions beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at midnight, the student organization had the following record: it had granted a total of three hours of time for women to caucus; refused to adopt five principles of unity, one of them calling on women to struggle against their oppression; elected a slate of national officers whose program was attacked by women in the majority caucus as male supremacist; and national offices.

By and large the issues which have spurred the enormous growth of the autonomous women’s liberation movement in the past two years were not considered relevant for discussion by SDS men or women. Debate on the question of whether women should do their radical work in or out of the existing male-dominated left movement was not permitted. During the one afternoon given women to caucus (a period in which convention delegates were having their credentials certified), the meeting was effectively sabotaged by women voting to allow men to participate in the caucus.

This approach to organizing women was challenged only once during a plenary session, when a woman from New York WITCH argued that the male left must adapt its theory to the realities of women’s oppression, not bend the reality to the theory. It was also challenged, once, in a women’s caucus when approximately 20 women left to hold a separate meeting following the vote to allow men’s attendance.

At the convention a large gathering of women met during lunch and dinner breaks. These meetings, however, were open only to women who “supported revolutionary youth movement politics.” This meant they were closed not only to women in the Progressive Labor party and the worker-student alliance, but also to women in the autonomous feminist movement, anarchist groups, the Independent Socialist Club, Communist party, new people and all other tendencies, organized or not, in SDS.

Women’s liberation issues were raised–in plenary sessions, caucuses and women’s caucuses–in terms of how they fitted into the overall strategies of competing tendencies in SDS. Within all such tendencies and caucuses, analysis of women’s oppression was achieved by applying the group’s particular revolutionary theory to “the woman question.”

Panel discussion

SDS’s various perspectives on organizing women were outlined on the first evening of the convention in a panel discussion of women’s liberation. Panelists included: women from the Progressive Labor party, supporters of the “weatherman”[1] proposal, supporters of the second wing of the revolutionary youth movement tendency, and a woman from the autonomous women’s movement.

The PL position on women, analagous to its position on black Americans, is that women are not especially oppressed but are superexploited as workers; that male chauvinism is an attitude which can be fought on an individual basis both in and out of the movement. PL believes that the real basis of male chauvinism in contemporary capitalist society is profit made from the superexploitation of women workers. PL states that “most existing women’s liberation groups organize women to discuss their personal problems about their boyfriends–but have never shown women how to defeat their male chauvinist attitudes.”

This position was argued on the panel by Frinde Maher, a PL member from Cambridge, Mass.

Speaking as part of the weatherman wing of the revolutionary youth movement was Barbara Reilly of Columbia SDS. The weatherman proposal stresses organizing working-class youth on the streets, in gangs, in bars and poolhalls and where young people gather during the summer months. Most women in the weatherman tendency, while supporting its overall strategy, are critical that the program seems to exclude women.

“We can’t organize street gangs,” said Reilly. She stated that she feels organizing women directly around male supremacy is not correct. “We must organize women around the primary contradictions–anti-imperialism, antiracist issues. In these struggles women’s particular oppression will have to come out.”

Supporting RYM politics, while critical of it, was Barbara Marden from California. “There are not separate women’s struggles,” she said. “We must attack male supremacy in all of our struggles, for many women can be brought into the movement around the issues of male supremacy.” Male chauvinism in the movement is also impeding the development of communist collectives, she stressed.

Naomi Jaffe from New York WITCH argued that instead of applying left theory to the women’s movement the left must integrate its theory with the reality of the special oppression women face. Women’s struggles against their own particular oppression are anti-imperialist in themselves, Jaffe argued. “The basic unity of women’s oppression is in the home, and the family is the basic unit of imperialism.” Women are superexploited as workers, she agreed, but superexploitation as wage-laborers grows out of women’s primary source of oppression–the family. Women can be used as a reserve army of labor because of their position in the home.

A problem in on-the-job organizing, she explained, is that women in the labor force are skewed, centered largely around service industries and clerical work–areas which have been strongholds of non-struggle.

Tied to the home

Because of women’s ties and responsibilities to the home, there is a huge amount of job turnover among women. They are hardly in jobs long enough for organizing to be effective. Struggles on the job must be extended beyond that point, Jaffe argued, because most women’s primary identification is not with a job.

Jaffe offered a critique of the revolutionary youth movement program, stressing that in essence it created a women’s auxiliary to the RYM. “RYM says, that if street gangs are important to work with, then women organizers should organize street-gang members’ wives. This is wrong.”

During the day devoted to credential examinations, some women tried to organize a women’s caucus to last the full day, either boycotting or simply ignoring the goings-on of the plenary session. This proposal was defeated.

Following the separation of SDS from PL, members of RYM 2 put forth five principles of unity under which those who would expel PL could unite. Point two was a statement of support for women’s liberation reflecting an enormous change of RYM’s position on women: “Oppose male supremacy, support women’s liberation. The proletariat cannot achieve complete freedom without achieving complete freedom for women. The struggle for women’s liberation is a powerful force against U.S. imperialism. We are dedicated to fighting male supremacy, destroying the oppression of women by men and to the achievement of full equality of women in every sphere of life.”

Equality of women

“We will fight for the equality of women in job status, wages and education, by launching campaigns to open up ”male jobs,” for equal pay for equal work and for open admissions for women in technical schools and all educational institutions.

“We support the struggle of women for control over their bodies and demand legalized abortion and free birth control for those who desire it.

“We struggle against the subjugation of women in the home, demand that society provide day-care centers, public and free laundries, food centers and other facilities necessary to free women from their status as household drudges.

“We oppose male chauvinism and will fight for the placing of women in positions of leadership of people’s organizations and take the specific measures necessary to guarantee that women can serve in leadership.

“We demand complete legal equality for women, and oppose existing marriage and divorce laws, prostitution laws and other legal reinforcements of the subjugation of women.

“Recognizing the courageous historical struggle of black women against the triple yoke of capitalist white male oppression, we seek to join hands with it to support it as a front line of the struggle of the liberation of all women.”

Statement attacked

Presented to SDS by Noel Ignatin on behalf of supporters of RYM 2, this statement of principle was attacked by supporters of the weatherman tendency (RYM 1). And on the basis of their criticism, all five proposed statements of principle were not ratified.

Barbara Reilly and Howie Machtinger (RYM 1) objected to “struggling for equality with men” and argued that no change in the status of women could occur until socialism was achieved. They objected to fighting for day-care centers of increases in welfare allowances, saying that fighting for democratic rights–even if these rights were seen to be serving real needs of the people–was not sufficient.

No one apparently felt it necessary to remark that the Ignatin statement identified men as oppressors of women–the issue around which most RYM women in RYM have refused to support the autonomous women’s movement, dubbing it a collection of apolitical “man-haters.”

Thus what many women felt to be the most radical assertion among the five statements of principle caused little if any stir, and no debate. Possibly it was because the principle had little relation to the reality of SDS practice.

One RYM woman remarked, “In women’s liberation, we know that some of the worst male chauvinists in the movement can rap down the best line on women’s liberation.”


[1] “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”–Bob Dylan. The “weatherman” group is one of two in SDS who support the revolutionary youth movement politics.