MIA: Subject: Women and Marxism

Marlene Dixon 1977

The Sisterhood Ripoff:

The Destruction of the Left in the Professional Women’s Caucuses

While specifically concerned with women’s caucuses, the following article is applicable to any progressive movement within the petty bourgeoisie.

Address given as part of the Women’s Studies in Sociology colloquium series, York University, March 13, 1975, Downsview, Ontario and published in the Bulletin of Women in Canadian Sociolog (Femmes et Sociologie Canadienne), Vol. 11, No. 2, April, 1975.

In Canada we have learned to our sorrow that the Canadian government has proved an apt pupils of its “big brother” in the United States when it comes to the theory and practice of co-optation coupled with judicious repression. Both the Canadian student movement and the Canadian women’s movement have suffered because the Canadian government, while two steps behind the USA, was at the same time two steps ahead of progressive forces in Canada. Indeed, no sooner had the Canadian women’s movement gathered its forces than the government began its program to drown the movement in mountains of paper and oceans of verbiage. Of course, the devastation of entire forests to produce paper full of worthless promises and pious intentions has resulted in not one significant improvement for women. However, if the government can use the United States as a school of what to do to assure that no significant change ever occurs, it follows that progressive forces in Canada can also learn from the United States-and most often can learn from the U.S. left what not to do. In the interests of learning what not to do we shall concern ourselves with a generalized scenario of the repression of the left in professional women’s associations as it was played out in the United States.

Women’s caucuses in professional associations within the United States began as part of the agitation for radical and critical social science. Many of the women involved in radical and critical social science were also part of Women’s Liberation – when it was still a radical movement. In the course of calling for special sessions and meetings on the issues of critical social science, meetings to discuss the institutionalized discrimination against women in universities and colleges were also called. Thus, the original women’s caucuses were in most cases part and parcel of the radical student movement represented by graduate students and junior faculty. The early caucuses were characterized by the militance, impudence, and radical calls for change that were characteristic of the rebellious mood of the late sixties. For this reason, “respectable” and highly professionalized career women shunned the radical caucuses, often condemning them openly in order to assure the men who controlled their professional careers that they were loyal women who wanted no part of these “uncouth” and unwashed heretical goings-on.

However, as the women’s liberation movement gained momentum and the issue of discrimination against women gained legitimacy, the attitude of professionalized women changed. Once it was relatively “safe” to approach the issue of injustice towards women it also became apparent to these women that distinct advantages and economic improvements might be gained through their espousal of “equal opportunity” for women. Professionalized women (genuine “career’’ women) began to attend caucus meetings. The result was a two-line struggle that rapidly emerged within the caucuses. (At this point we shall confine ourselves to sociology, with the proviso that the scenario in sociology was quite typical of the general process that unfolded in most other disciplines.)

We may term the two lines as Careerist and Radical. The Careerist line was essentially a call for economism, that is, to limit agitation and demands to career and salary issues or “equal opportunity.” The economist line of the Careerists implicitly called for strategies to limit competition with men (usually by staking out exclusively female programs and topics) and the rejection of programs that went beyond minimal reformism. Calls to combat discrimination were coupled with a heavy ideological emphasis upon “sisterhood.” In this context, “sisterhood” functioned very much like nationalism does for a national minority: that is, this appeal called for the unity of women essentially as a “status group, I in the sense that all women had womantude in common. The result of the “status group” approach was to blur class lines and real conflict of interest and ideology – with disastrous results for the left, as we shall see.

The Radicals were actually a much more heterogeneous group than the Careerists. While the Careerists had career ambitions as the real basis of their unity, the Radicals had little in common except militance. Perhaps the principal dividing line within the Radical group was between radical feminists (men are the principal enemy) and socialists (capitalism is the principal enemy). What the Radicals had in common, despite their ideological disunity, was a genuinely radical (as opposed to reformist) call for cultural and social transformation of society as essential to the liberation of women. They called for democratization; they opposed the professional hierarchy; they behaved with consistent bad taste toward the professional mandarins; they called for revolutionary women’s studies programs; they wore their hair long and often did not bother with brassieres.

The conflict between the Radicals and Careerists led to acrimony and stalemated meetings. At the same time, the antics of the Radicals were a constant threat to the image of the Careerists who feared being identified with the radical activists. Attempts to use “sisterhood” as a means to get the Radicals to change their ways and accept leadership from the Careerists were met with denunciations of “elitism” (from the radical feminists) and “reactionary” (from the socialists).

The failure of the Careerists to establish control over the original radical women’s caucuses led them to form their own organization, Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS). The formation of the careerist SWS spelled the defeat of the left and the formulation of the oppression of women in purely economist and reformist terms.

The formation of the SWS along liberal-reformist lines opened up communication with the professional oligarchy.

Indeed, the corporate-liberal oligarchs were eager to deal with the Careerists as a means of containing the radical threat posed by the earlier women’s caucuses (and their repellent connections with the radical student movement). The Careerists were the sort of people the oligarchs could deal with: “reasonable” reformers amenable to “rational debate.” In other words, the professional oligarchs could feel confident that the Careerists would settle for minor concessions, relatively meaningless reforms, pious declarations of support and other cheap variations on tokenism, delay and the avoidance of any significant change. In short, the “rational” and “reasonable” Careerists were manageable.

The “recognition” and minor concessions granted to the SWS were touted as proof that liberal-reformist and decorous academic styles were superior strategically, that they “produced results.” This undercut the position of the Radicals, who could be charged with “irresponsibility” and unwitting sabotage with their uncouth manners and “unrealistic’’ demands. With the Radicals frozen out by the collusion between SWS and the male-dominated professional leadership it became possible to define women’s agitation along strictly professional and reformist lines.

The scenario played out in the profession also took place within individual colleges and universities, particularly around women’s studies programs. Usually women’s studies programs arose as a demand of Women’s Liberation as the women’s arm of the student movement for democratization and reform of the university. Where that was the case, the woman students fighting for women’s studies wished for an organization, curriculum and staff that reflected the progressive demands of the student movement. Early women’s studies programs tended to bring in staff who were progressive; this in turn alarmed university and college administrations. The result was a dual tactic of financial strangulation and staff purges until a highly professional staff could replace the progressives and a professional curriculum and organization could replace the early innovating programs. Careerists were as eager for this event as were university administrations because women’s studies under Careerist control provided an area free from male competition. A Careerist could pursue mainstream social science so long as it touched in some way upon “women’’ (as if women were bizarre creatures who could be studied in isolation). Women’s studies thus became a “secure base area” for female careerists, offering jobs, promotions, salaries, forms of special recognition – all blissfully secured from male control and competition. Equally, the radical women’s liberationists who posed a threat to professional careerism were also safely driven out of the Careerists’ new compound. The fact that these very same Radicals had taken the risks, fought the battles, and organized the movement which the Careerists now so eagerly exploited became a forbidden topic. The Careerists pretended that the “man-hating crazies” and the “wild-eyed radicals” had simply been an impediment to the progress of professional women. What bitterness it still invokes! Professionalized career women who had virulently attacked the early agitation now flocking greedily to devour the spoils and destroy the women who had set the table and spread the feast![1]

The purely economist and reformist programs and policies of organizations like SWS stripped women’s agitation within the professions of its radical content. Women’s studies in most cases became nothing more than a special subject area limited to liberal-professional styles of work. The imposition of professional hiring criteria and professional hierarchical structures served to assure that women’s studies programs would present no threat to the dominant corporate-liberal professional hegemony. Women’s studies was in this manner reduced to reflect the general bankruptcy that professional liberalism produced in the social sciences. If corporate liberalism represented failure in analysis, intellectual content and policy implications for the poor, for national minorities, for the American working class, could it be expected to serve the intellectual needs of women’s liberation? The triumph of professionalism was the defeat of the intellectual and theoretical development essential to the generation of adequate analysis of the oppression and exploitation of women. The threat was indeed contained.

The rise of SWS and the co-optation of women’s studies was part of the general purge that was being carried out against radicals and radical activists in North American universities and colleges. The prof essionalized Careerists’ “sisterhood’’ song suddenly evaporated when the opportunity to purge the radical opposition presented itself. Women who had built careers in the context of liberal professionalism were as hostile to the intellectual and social challenge of the radicals as were their mate counterparts. Sisterhood had progressed from bad joke to obscenity.

We have presented a generalized and abstracted analysis, not a specific history. We can now note that there is a typical sequence to the scenario of repression and cooptation, a scenario that was enacted not only in women’s caucuses, but in many radical caucuses as well. The virtue of the history of women’s organizations is the clarity with which the entire play unfolds:

Scene I: Left progressive youth (graduate students, junior faculty) begin agitation by raising radical critiques, demanding potentially radical changes, documenting injustices, engaging in direct actions until such time as they are perceived as a real threat by the professional Establishment.

Scene II: Left progressives have created a real threat and achieved some degree of legitimacy around issues of’ discrimination and injustice. The liberal progressives hop on the bandwagon to form a Center. The Center provides an alternative to the Left and provides respectability. With respectability the more conservative Careerists are willing to join the Center, but only if the Left can be purged or operatively divorced from the “respectables.”

Scene III: The Center (progressive liberals) and Right (conservative careerists) form a separate organization. The organization solves the problem of control by organizing itself along professional-hierarchical lines (cf. the many critiques of “elitism” being raised against the SWS). The Left may join (as rank and file) the Center-Right Coalition organization, but its undemocratic structure and behind-the-scenes decision-making assures that the Left will remain an impotent opposition, no more than a general annoyance at plenary meetings.

Scene IV: With the Center-Right Coalition firmly in control of the new organization, the redefinition of “women’s struggle” is effectively – and publicly – carried through. “Equal opportunity” and a respectable-professional image dominate the organization. It is now possible for the leadership of the Center-Rjght organization to carry out an attack against the legitimacy of the original Left progressive agitators. The Left progressives are presented as unprofessional, incompetent, irresponsible. The attack escalates. Th t progressives are not only unprofessional, incompetent and irresponsible, they are also communists, disruptors, man-haters, lesbians, dominating male-identified castrating maniacs. The result of these assaults is to provoke the Left progressives (those who have been foolish enough even to remain in such an organization) to shrill defense and counter-denunciation. The outcome is the increasing isolation of the Left progressives.

Scene V: The Center-Right Coalition organization is acceptable to the professional (male-dominated) Establishment and to university administrations. It is even happily embraced by federal agencies and funding sources. The Left progressives are frozen out and starved for funds and recognition. The stage is now set for co-optation, as negotiations are undertaken between the Establishment and the Center-Right organization.

Scene VI: The result of the negotiations between the Center-Right organization and the professional Establishment are a series of co-optive minor concessions and token representation covered by a great deal of hypocritical liberal-high-flown verbiage about “justice” and “equal opportunity” and “equality.” Close analysis will show that most of the concessions are in fact career rewards to the leadership of the Center-Right organization – the pay-off for their effective containment of the “radical threat.” These concessions are paraded as “successes” and touted as signs of better things yet to come under the leadership of the Center-Right organization. These “victories” serve to validate the Center-Right leadership for the trusting rank and file (who are in most cases sincere liberals which, by definition, means that they are completely incompetent politicians). As a result, the remnants of the Left still hanging-in are further discredited. The Center-Right leadership is now able to argue that the Left progressives actually jeopardize the hopes of “equal opportunity” gains which the Center-Right leadership promises will result from their ability to negotiate (reason together with) the professional Establishment.

Scene VII: The Left is by now completely defeated. However, the Center has gone down with the Left. The legitimacy of the Center rested upon their role as an “alternative” to the radical threat. During the period of respectability and negotiation (Scenes III to VI) the Establishment, university administrations and government agencies have been busily promoting the right-wing of the organization into pay-off positions of influence and prestige. This undermines the progressive liberal Center. With the purging of the Left, the Right no longer needs the Center, which now shifts into opposition. The Center, which participated in the destruction of the Left, now becomes, operatively, THE Left. After a road of betrayal and self-promotion, the “virtuous” Center now assumes the martyrdom of Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

Scene VIII: We have now arrived at the present. Equal opportunity for women is respectable. The radical threat is contained. The Right leadership keeps it contained-for like George Meany, if they cannot keep the troops in line they will lose their pay-offs. The rank and file withers away in a state of apathy and general disillusion – although like all liberals, they cannot understand what happened and why the fine days of sisterhood have passed away. Corporate-liberal professional hegemony is safe from radical and from female attack. The “professional reformers” carry out “negotiations” with various interested Establishments and occasionally bother to report “progress” and make “promises” to a listless rank and file. The professional association, the profession, the university administration remain oppressive and male-dominated, studded with a black or female token here and there. Nothing has changed. “Reformism” has triumphed again. Paternalism is replaced by maternalism and the Republic and the Profession are safe from the unwashed masses.

One must point out that the defeat of the Left -which was never marked by political or ideological coherence – has been greatly facilitated by both the illusions of “sisterhood” and “radical feminist” politics. The ideology of sisterhood in many cases was successfully manipulated to contain real criticism or a real challenge to the political manueverings of the Center-Right Coalition. The self-interested careerist motivations of these women were effectively blurred by the assumption of unity and sisterhood. Sisterhood combined with the radical feminist phobia against men-in-general led the non-socialist Left into alliances with the Center (often together against the “male-dominated” female Left). The irony, of course, is that the simple-minded politics of the radical feminists made them easy prey to the Center-Right coalition that was in fact selling out the real interests of women in return for rewards from the male-dominated Establishment! The radical feminists made it easy for the Center-Right coalition to claim the ability to control the “radicals” – and the ability to control the radicals was the only bargaining power that the Center-Right reformist coalition had! Their pay-offs were dependent upon their perceived ability to “keep the women in line.”

Such is the sorry history of the radical women’s caucuses. We are left without real gains for the equality of women. We are left without an intellectual enterprise capable truly of analyzing the oppression and exploitation of women. We are left without a Left – the universities and women are back in 1952. The lessons are certainly clear: liberalism and reformism hold out no hope to women, nor any hope to any oppressed and exploited sector of North American society. The only way that the repetition of the co-optive scenario can be broken is through the development of both political sophistication and theoretical adequacy. This requires that the Left be a genuine Left-that it be organized, that it be founded on a basis of ideological, analytical and organizational unity. The purge of the U.S. universities has been so devastating that it is unlikely that recovery is possible in the near future. Canada may yet remain in question. Let us hope Canada may be saved from the dismal scenario of betrayal and self-interest that devastated the United States.


1. The author, it should go without saying, is not referring to those women who have consistently stood for genuine women’s studies and other progressive action to ameliorate the devastating effects of institutionalized discrimination against women. The tone of revulsion is directed at those opportunists who have purged, betrayed, and hopped on the bandwagon purely in their own career interests and whose programs, organizations and actions are antagonistic to the real needs of women in education. After all, we did not organize Women’s Liberation to maximize the career opportunities of reactionaries and flunkies.


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