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International Socialist Review, January-February 1970


Evelyn Sell

The Literature of Women’s Liberation

Review Article


From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.1, January-February 1970, pp.45-57.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Over the past three years women’s liberation has been developing and circulating written material detailing the oppression of women past and present, theorizing how and why this oppression came about and still exists, and formulating programs and activities to combat and decisively change the role of women in society. Boston’s female liberation movement has been the major producer and circulator of this literature which encompasses about thirty pieces, ranging from a one-page statement to a journal of 128 pages.

Most of the material has been written by women active in the liberation movement on the East Coast (Boston, New York) but there are contributions from Chicago, Seattle, Nashville, Florida, and Great Britain and Canada. Some of the contributors are students, several are black women, others are: a research assistant in psychiatry, an artist, a graduate student in sociology, a psychology teacher; of the two most often printed contributors, one comes from a poor white Southern family and the other is currently a welfare mother working in the Welfare Rights Organization. Although biographical information about the writers is not always given, most of the contributors appear to have first become active or deeply affected by New Left groupings – a genesis which is reflected in their perspective of social revolution, their use of Marxist terminology, and their bitter critiques of male chauvinism in radical groups like SDS.

The outstanding theme repeated throughout this liberation literature is rejection of the institutions, ideologies, and practices of capitalist society. The goal of female liberation is not women’s equality within present-day society but a complete transformation of this sick and dying social order.

A short article written by three Chicago women states, “There is no contradiction between women’s issues and political issues, for the movement for women’s liberation is a step toward changing the entire society. Women are not seeking equality in an unjust society, rather from an understanding of the basis of their own oppression they are developing programs for overall social change.” (3) [Numbers in parentheses refer to book list at end of article.]

Laurel Limpus, from women’s liberation in Toronto, explains,

“Since the problems that face women are related to the structure of the whole society, ultimately our study of our particular situation as women will lead us to the realization that we must attempt to change this whole society.” (14)

The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) National Resolution on Women, adopted in 1968, declares,

“... the fight for women’s liberation is a concretization of the struggle for the liberation of all people from oppression. It doesn’t stand apart from the fight against capitalism in our society, but rather is an integral part of that fight.” (22)

In Female Liberation as the Basis for Social Revolution, Roxanne Dunbar writes,

“Ultimately, we want to destroy the three pillars of class and caste society – the family, private property, and the state – and their attendant evils – corporate capitalism, imperialism, war, racism, sexism, annihilation of the balance of nature.” (7)

A paper written for a conference of Canada’s Student Union for Peace Action states,

“... the liberation of women is a revolutionary demand in all its aspects, for it demands the most complete restructuring of the social order. The realization of this would mean in fact human liberation.” (1)

A San Francisco liberation group put it this way:

“... there is no personal solution to being a woman in this society. We have realized that if we do not work to change the society it will in the end destroy us.” (30)

In highlighting those aspects of western society that are destroying women, women’s liberation writers present a criticism of cherished capitalist institutions and myths. The family, marriage, child rearing and romantic love are dissected, derogated, denounced and in some cases dismissed, as valid pursuits for today’s women.

Beverly Jones and Judith Brown knock the family and marriage.

“It is in the family that children learn so well the dominance-submission game, by observation and participation. Each family, reflecting the perversities of the larger order and split off from the others, is powerless to force change on other institutions, let alone attack or transform its own.”

In marriage a woman “is locked into a relationship which is oppressive politically, exhausting physically, stereotyped emotionally and sexually, and atrophying intellectually. She teams up with an individual groomed from birth to rule, and she is equipped for revolt only with the foot-shuffling, head-scratching gestures of ‘feminine guile.’” Marriage “is the atomization of a sex so as to render it politically powerless. The anachronism remains because women won’t fight it, because men derive valuable benefits from it and will not give them up, and because, even given a willingness among men and women to transform the institution, it is at the mercy of the more powerful institutions which use it and which give it its form.” (10)

Juliet Mitchell, writing from England, describes women’s role in reproduction and the socialization of children in harsh terms. No glow of rosy motherhood here!

“At present, reproduction in our society is often a kind of sad mimicry of production. Work in a capitalist society is an alienation of labor in the making of a social product which is confiscated by capital. But it can still sometimes be a real act of creation, purposive and responsible, even in conditions of the worst exploitation. Maternity is often a caricature of this ... The biological product – the child – is treated as if it were a solid product. Parenthood becomes a kind of substitute for work, an activity in which the child is seen as an object created by the mother, in the same way as a commodity is created by a worker ... The child as an autonomous person inevitably threatens the activity which claims to create it continually merely as a possession of the parent. Possessions are felt as extensions of the self. The child as a possession is supremely this. Anything the child does is therefore a threat to the mother herself who has renounced her autonomy through this misconception of her reproductive role. There are few more precarious ventures on which to base a life.” (18)

Psychologists’ ideas about the “true” nature of women are attacked by Naomi Weisstein, a psychology teacher at Loyola University in Chicago. She quotes Bruno Bettelheim’s idea that women “want first and foremost to be womenly companions of men and to be mothers”; Erik Erikson’s idea that women’s “somatic design harbors an ‘inner space’ destined to bear the offspring of chosen men, and with it, a biological, psychological, and ethical commitment to take care of human infancy”; and Joseph Rheingold’s idea that

“anatomy decrees the life of a woman ... When women grow up without dread of their biological functions and without subversion by feminist doctrine, and therefore enter upon motherhood with a sense of fulfillment and altruistic sentiment, we shall attain the goal of a good life and a secure world in which to live it.”

Weisstein cites clinical experiments indicating that it is social context and not individual sex dynamics that decisively affect individual behavior. She concludes,”Present psychology is less than worthless in contributing to a vision which could truly liberate – men as well as women.” Further, “one must understand social expectations about women if one is going to characterize the behavior of women.”

“How are women characterized in our culture? They are inconsistent, emotionally unstable, lacking in a strong conscience or superego, weaker, ‘nurturant’ rather than productive, ‘intuitive’ rather than intelligent, and, if they are at all ‘normal,’ suited to the home and family. In short, the list adds up to a typical minority group stereotype of inferiority ... In a review of the intellectual differences between little boys and little girls, Eleanor Maccoby (1966) has shown that there are no intellectual differences until about high school, or, if there are, girls are slightly ahead of boys. At high school, girls begin to do worse on a few intellectual tasks, such as arithmetic reasoning, and beyond high school, the achievement of women, now measured in terms of productivity and accomplishment, drops off even more rapidly ... In light of social expectations about women, what is surprising is not that women end up where society expects they will; what is surprising is that little girls don’t get the message that they are supposed to be stupid until high school; and what is even more remarkable is that some women resist this message even after high school, college, and graduate school.” (26)

In Sex Roles and Their Consequences, Betsy Warrior describes the stereotype female as passive, submissive and obedient.

“The rigidity of this stereotype makes for maladjustment and mental illness. Research shows that women who conformed were more popular and less neurotic than non-conforming females. Also, conservative girls who were willing to go along with accepted standards, even if they thought they might be wrong, were happier and better adjusted than liberal girls who had a tendency to think for themselves.

“This is damning evidence that if females don’t buckle under, they’re broke. The females who accept their roles are just as damaged. These females have given up using their own minds. Even though sex-role concepts do not fit actual human beings, any deviation from them incurs subtle psychological punishment, if not a more overt type. Many people argue that this isn’t so any more. Females were treated as inferiors only in bygone days ... The oppression of women is still a fact in the twentieth century.” (19)

One tendency in the women’s liberation movement, represented by Cell 16 in Boston, the Feminists in New York and others, favors total separation between men and women, politically, socially and sexually, and economically. In On Celibacy, Dana Densmore of Cell 16 states,

“One hangup to liberation is a supposed ‘need’ for sex. It is something that must be refuted, coped with, de-mythified, or the cause of female liberation is doomed ... Sex is not essential to life, as eating is ... The guerrillas don’t screw.”

Sex is

“inconvenient, time-consuming, energy-draining, and irrelevant ... This is a call not for celibacy but for an acceptance of celibacy as an honorable alternative, one preferable to the degradation of most male-female sexual relationships ... Unless you accept the idea that you don’t need them, don’t need sex from them, it will be utterly impossible for you to carry through, it will be absolutely necessary to lead a double life, pretending with men to be something other than what you know you are ... An end to this constant remaking of ourselves according to what the male ego demands! Let us be ourselves and good riddance to those who are then repulsed by us!” (4)

In Sexuality, Densmore affirms,

“Sex is pleasurable, but not that pleasurable; erotic energy is easily transformed into creative, meaningful activity; and most of what passes for sex need is need for attention, affection, ego gratification, security, self-expression, to win a man or conquer a woman, to prove something to somebody ... Happy, healthy, self-confident animals and people don’t like being touched, don’t need to snuggle or huggle and curl up in someone’s (Mama’s) arms. They are really free and self-contained and in their heads.” (23)

In addition to psychological and sexual oppression women’s liberation writers are concerned with economic exploitation. Lyn Wells, in American Women: Their Use and Abuse, outlines the condition of women in America from the time 24 Pilgrim women landed at Plymouth Rock, through the industrialization of the country and into the era of today’s “New Woman.” In pre-revolutionary America, female colonials “generally faced exhaustive workloads and gross humiliation as a contributor to the good of the community. She shared all of the hardships and none of the privileges of men.” After independence was won from Great Britain, industrial growth brought women and children into the developing factory system.

“The typical working day for the factory girl lasted from sun-up to sun-down, and sometimes until after ‘lighting-up time.’ The hours ran from 12 to 15 or 16 a day ... Women’s wages, always lower than those of men on similar work, ranged from $1.00 to $3.00 a week ... It is estimated that in 1833 women earned about one fourth of the wages earned by men.”


“Women’s position has changed some, but improved little ... Women are in the crap jobs of society. Five and one-half million women are among the workers still unprotected by the Federal minimum wage standards, like cooks and maids ... We are secretaries, maids, the lowest paid factory workers ... Modern industry by its very nature draws women into the labor market. Constantly seeking levers to use against the prevailing wage rates and job conditions in its search for profits, it creates and maintains minority groups. These minority groups (e.g., Blacks and women) find themselves in a state of super-exploitation. They are exploited at a higher rate (more profits extracted) than other workers. To keep a minority’s identity clear, attitudes – such as male (or white) superiority or chauvinism are perpetuated.” (27)

Joan Jordan’s pamphlet The Place of American Women concentrates on the economic exploitation of women in modern times and is loaded with statistics which reveal the role of women as super-exploited workers and as a reserve labor force, to be manipulated in and out of factory and home as it suits the needs of the capitalist economy. Average yearly income figures broken down by race and sex reveal that

“Sexual exploitation is greater than color exploitation. Women, white and Negro, make less annual income than men, both on a national and state level.”

In the last twenty-five years,

“The age level of the woman worker has shifted and more than half of the women between the ages of 35 and 54 are working. One third of the mothers of children under 18 are working. Four out of ten women, married and living with their husbands with children over six are working today. The vast majority of working women are married as compared to single in 1939. One out of every ten families has a female head. The double burden of home, children and work press down upon the American woman.”

Jordan refutes rationalizations used by businessmen to justify super-exploitation. The old myths are presented: Women are not as well prepared for jobs as men and therefore deserve less pay; women can’t be promoted because both women and men refuse to work under a “lady boss”; women are absent from work more often than men; men are really the family breadwinners so women don’t really need as much pay. Jordan answers each with a formidable array of studies and statistics. The coup de grace:

“During the Conference on Equal Pay, in 1952, when an employer was asked why he employed the women workers in his factory at less for a given job than he paid the men, he replied, ‘Tradition, I suppose ... anyhow it’s cheaper.’” (11)

Exposing the dimensions of oppression in capitalist society as it affects women is one aim of female liberation literature; working out a program and a strategy for combatting and erasing sexism and seeking allies in their struggle are other aims. Diverse counterattacks are proposed and they are often amorphous. The movement is in the process of clarifying and codifying its basic assumptions and its organizational concepts. In searching for a program, a set of tactics and allies, writers have drawn heavily from socialist literature, from their experiences in the Xew Left and the student movement, and from their involvement in and sympathies with the struggles of other oppressed groups.

A general tendency in women’s liberation literature is to identify with the exploited and oppressed groups at home and abroad: workers, Afro-Americans, Third World peoples. There are constant references to the similarities between the oppression of blacks and women. Cordelia Nikkalaos presents the analogy this way:

“Like Black people, this group could never ‘pass’ because they can’t change the way they look. Like Black people, they have been taught to think of themselves as inferiors, servants, persons without enough brains to do important work. Like Black people, they have been made to understand that they have a place, and must stay in it. Many jobs are not open to them. Certain restaurants and ‘clubs’ keep them out. The Law of the Land did not let them vote, either, until they fought for and won that right. In some states they still cannot serve on juries. Newspapers have a separate section for their activities. The Man speaks of them as ‘our Women.’” (23)

There is a marked influence of Marxist thought in women’s liberation literature. The application of Marxism varies, however, in relation to the writer’s identification of the enemy. Some writers see the enemy as society or, even more specifically, capitalism, while others identify the enemy as men. Use of Marxist terminology, in the latter case, can prove quite confusing.

Female liberation activists from Chicago explain,

“The first step in building a movement is to see that the problems are that men as individuals are not ‘the enemy’; rather ‘the enemy’ is those social institutions and expectations perpetuated by and constraining members of both sexes.” (3)

Laurel Limpus defines the enemy as society and its repressive institutions.

“Men and women are mutually oppressed by a culture and a heritage that mutilates the relationships possible between them ... the mental repression that stifles [women] stifles at the same time the men who on the surface appear to be their oppressors ... The problem of sexuality again clearly illustrates that men and women are oppressed together in an institutional framework which makes inhuman demands of them and inculcates destructive beliefs about themselves. I want to stress, though, that we women shouldn’t become obsessed with freeing ourselves from sick male sexuality. It is more important to free ourselves from the structures which make both male and female sexuality sick. The male definition of virility which makes women an object of prey is just as much a mutilation of the human potential of the male for a true love relationship as it is of the female’s ... We must both be liberated together ...” (14)

Nancy Mann presents the same basic approach in Fucked-Up in America. “I’m sure it’s no coincidence that so many people in this country have bad sex. It goes along with the general disregard for human pleasure in favor of the logic of making a profit.” She reasons that it is wrong for women to blame poor sexual relations on men or vice versa; what is needed is a united effort of both sexes to change the total situation.

“Sex, work, love, morality, the sense of community – the things that have the greatest potential for being satisfying to us are undermined and exploited by our social organization. That’s what we’ve got to fight. If you can’t get along with your lover you can get out of bed. But what do you do when your country’s fucking you over?” (16)

Anti-male arguments are often liberally sprinkled with quotations from Marx’s The German Ideology and Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. There is frequent use of the term “class,” but it is often used incorrectly as a sex category rather than to define a person’s or group’s relation to the means of production as Marx intended. Irene Peslikis writes about male supremacy as both a psychological privilege and a “class privilege with sexual and economic benefits.” (20)

Dana Densmore warns, “it won’t be easy for women to dump the oppressor off her back. He’s at once the individual men who abuse her and ridicule her and ignore her, and the system they’ve built to perpetuate and institutionalize the arrangement.” She accuses “successful women” of class collaborationism. “There is a complete identification with the ruling class, coupled not only with a rejection of their own class, but with an insistence that the pressures, influences, and conditioning that forced women into their oppressed situation did not exist.” Women who have made it “are identifying with the men. To have sympathy for women is by implication to condemn the circumstances that oppress them, and those circumstances are the male power structure. But the elitist women cannot afford to criticize the male power structure even by implication because they are so busy currying favor from men to maintain their own ‘success.’” (4)

Beverly Jones and Judith Brown declare,

’”We are a class, we are oppressed as a class, and we each respond within the limits allowed us as members of that oppressed class. Purposely divided from each other, each of us is ruled by one or more men for the benefit of all men.” (10)

The class concept of sexism is repeated in Kitty Bernick’s article from Women’s Liberation Newsletter.

“Because our oppression is an integral part of our society, nothing short of a revolutionary change of the society will change the role we play in society. The women’s liberation movement that we see surging all over the country is only an indication that women are receptive to learn about their history, to gain a consciousness that they are indeed a class that can effect a revolutionary change of society: of both economic and social institutions.” (30)

Don’t cross class lines! Don’t join organizations that include men! is the message that comes through Maureen Davidica’s Women and the Radical Movement:

“This is a call for separatism, for radical women to dissociate themselves from male-oriented, male-dominated radical organizations and join together in Women’s Liberation groups as the most effective way to achieve their own independent identity and the liberation of all women, and to bring about the truly total revolution – the establishment of a radical society without oppression.” (23)

Whether they believe men are the enemies of women or whether they believe the social order is the enemy of both men and women, all women’s liberation writers advocate the formation of special all-female groups to work out women’s demands and act on women’s behalf. “Because the woman question is a dual problem, because they suffer special forms of discrimination and exploitation in addition to being workers, there is need for special organizations and special demands to meet their needs,” Joan Jordan explains. (11)

Lynn Wells writes,

“In order to insure our own interest in a major power change, we must be organized for our own self-interest ... This cannot be accomplished through ‘women’s auxiliaries,’ groups of women simply following or supporting programs that are defined by men. We must organize ourselves for our own goals. We must also be a part of groupings that are fighting for the revolution.

“On a local level, this would mean that every radical woman would belong to a woman’s group. Much of her organizing time would be spent working with other women, both on issues of Female Liberation and general problems. But she would also belong to groups that are working for total change (such as SSOC, SDS, poor white community groups, etc.). It is important that she not only be represented but be an integral part of revolutionary and radical organizations. In major radical groupings, women would not only play a part in decision-making but also determine the position of the radical movement on women’s questions.” (27)

A major factor that convinced women of the need for independent female liberation groups was the treatment they received from males in New Left organizations such as SDS. Bitter and demoralizing experiences with male supremacy and chauvinism from men who termed themselves “revolutionaries” contributed heavily to present liberation organizational forms and the conception than man is the class enemy.

West coast female liberation activists describe how

“the promises of the left proved empty. The white-male radical movement only mirrored the greater society in its refusal to accept women in other than traditional service roles and in its inability to understand and deal with the oppression inherent in this society’s basic methods of personal relationships ... We once sought meaning in the politics of the left. It was in the ‘movement’ that we had our last measure of hope. We believed that they were going to ‘make the revolution’ for themsevles, for us, and for all people. Again, we were disappointed. We were used by the ‘movement’ – our bodies as sex objects, our labor as shit workers; again we weren’t allowed to be full human beings. ‘The movement’ didn’t fail us to any greater extent than the rest of society, it was only because we put so much of our hope in it that as a result wehavecome out of it bitter and frustrated.” (30)

Roxanne Dunbar writes,

“We resent most the hypocrisy of those who call themselves revolutionaries. Women are asked to help out, and even die machine gun in hand, helping their men, but ultimately they will be invited (forced) back home to raise children to be men. The young white radical likes very much the ‘new girl’ who is half-liberated – just enough to be willing to go to bed at any time with any one of them, and ask no questions. Democracy. A sort of free prostitution serves a busy politician’s irritating sexual needs, and the girl will usually cook as well. She wants to serve the cause, and her man tells her that she can best serve by doing what she does best.” (23)

Beverly Jones and Judith Brown sum up a prevalent view in female liberation circles:

“For their own salvation, and for the good of the movement, women must form their own groups and work for female liberation ... Radical men are not fighting for female liberation, and in fact, become accountably queasy when the topic is broached ... they expect and require that women – their women – continue to function as black troops – kitchen soldiers – in their present struggle ... for a time, at least, men are the enemy, and ... radical men hold the nearest battle position.” (10)

With such disappointments in their own personal backgrounds, it is not surprising that some female liberation writers express suspicion toward any and all male motives and distrust any and all male-supported activities and programs. They are sensitive to any signs of sexism and are quick to print quotations from Marx, Castro and Che to prove that even great revolutionaries are riddled with male supremacist attitudes about the proper place of women in a revolution or in a “new society” or in their own personal lives. “The only position for women is prone” has been heard all too often in “radical” movements.

Female liberation insists that women will define their role in the revolution. Such a definition, however, can only come after women go through a consciousness-raising process. The point is made again and again: the first step to change the existing order is to gain deeper insights into the forces controlling and programming them as women; this can only be done within female groups where women can be free to express themselves openly and fully, to speak out their bitterness and their grievances; through such group discussions each participant will arrive at the understanding that her problem is not unique or personal but is social and tied into the fundamental institutions and modes of thinking of the entire social order. After shaking loose from the myths encumbering them, women will be able to engage in meaningful action.

Action to gain what demands? Although there is diversity of opinion about the means of winning, there is general agreement on the basic goals: female control over their own bodies in terms of sexual relations, child-bearing and appearance; a complete revamping of marriage, family and child-rearing forms; the end of all manifestations of sex discrimination so that women can develop their full human potential in all spheres of life.

These are the same fundamental concepts revolutionary socialists have been fighting for since the founding of scientific socialism one hundred and twenty years ago by Marx and Engels. The women’s liberation and the revolutionary socialist movements have a mutual interest in exposing the truth about the capitalist system and its vicious oppression of human beings. Basing themselves on biological research, psychological experiments, anthropological evidence, historical studies and personal experiences, women’s liberation writers have torn into the generally accepted notions of femininity – and in doing so have laid bare the diseased bones of fundamental capitalist institutions.

List of books mentioned

Abbreviations: NEFP – New England Free Press

(1) Sisters, Brothers, Lovers ... Listen ... by Judi Bernstein, Peggy Norton, Linda Seese and Myrna Wood. NEFP, Fall 1967.

(2) Women – The Struggle for Freedom, Black Dwarf, NEFP, January 10, 1969.

(3) Toward a Radical Movement by Heather Booth, Evi Goldfield and Sue Munaker. NEFP, April 1968.

(4) Sex Roles and Female Oppression by Dana Densmore. NEFP, (undated).

(5) Poor White Women by Koxanne Dunbar. NEFP, (undated).

(6) Students and Revolution by Roxanne Dunbar and Vernon Grizzard. Mimeograph, (undated).

(7) Female Liberation as the Basis for Social Revolution by Roxanne Dunbar. NEFP and Southern Student Organizing Committee, (undated).

(8) Caste and Class by Roxanne Dunbar and Vernon Grizzard. Female Liberation – Cell 16, (undated).

(9) Are Men the Enemy? by Roxanne Dunbar and Lisa Leghorn. Mimeograph, (undated).

(10) Toward a Female Liberation Movement by Beverly Jones and Judith Brown. NEFP, June 1968.

(11) The Place of American Women: Economic Exploitation of Women by Joan Jordan. NEFP, 1968.

(12) Man-Hating by Pamela Kearon. Mimeograph, (undated).

(13) The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm by Anne Koedt. NEFP, (undated).

(14) Liberation of Women: Sexual Repression and the Family by Laurel Limpus. NEFP, (undated).

(15) The Politics of Housework by Pat Mainardi. NEFP, (undated).

(16) Fucked-Up in America by Nancy Mann. NEFP, (undated).

(17) Sexual Politics by Kate Millet. NEFP, November 1968.

(18) Women: the Longest Revolution by Juliet Mitchell. NEFP (reprinted from New Left Review, November-December 1966).

(19) No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation. Cell 16, February, 1969.

(20) Resistances to Consciousness by Irene Peslikis. Cell 16, (undated).

(21) Poor Black Women by Patricia Robinson. NEFP, (undated).

(22) National Resolution on Women. Students for a Democratic Society. NEFP, (undated).

(23) Journal of Female Liberation, (undated).

(24) Females and Welfare by Betsy Warrior. NEFP, (undated).

(25) The Quiet Ones by Betsy Warrior. Mimeograph, (undated).

(26) Kinde, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female by Naomi Weisstein. NEFP, (undated).

(27) American Women: Their Use and Abuse by Lynn Wells. NEFP and Southern Student Organizing Committee, 1969.

(28) Consumerism and Women by Ellen Willis. Cell 16, (undated).

(29) The Politics of “Free” Love: Forced Fornication. Women’s Liberation. Female Liberation – Cell 16, June 1969.

(30) Women’s Liberation Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2. (undated).

Women’s liberation literature can be obtained from: New England Free Press, 791 Tremont St., Boston, Mass., 02118, and 371 Somerville Ave., Somerville, Mass. 02143.

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