Juliet Mitchell 1971

Women’s Estate

Juliet Mitchell

Source: Juliet Mitchell. Women’s Estate. Penguin 1971. 182pp. pp 60-75 only, reproduced here, without footnotes and references;
Fair Use: all rights remain with the author;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Concepts of Women’s Liberation

The political organization of Women’s Liberation as an all-women movement based on maximum collective work and minimum domination by ‘leaders’ has produced (and has itself been produced by) certain concepts. These concepts are, on the one hand, its initial contribution to the development of its new politics, or, on the other, an expression of the understanding of the oppression of women. Into the first category comes ‘consciousness-raising’, and ‘no leaders’ and ‘non-elitism'; into the second comes ‘sexism’, ‘male chauvinism’ and ‘feminism’. In either borrowing or originating these concepts, Women’s Liberation makes the first move towards transcending its own beginnings (the first ‘complaints’ that women made) and towards organizing itself as a political movement.

(1) Consciousness-Raising

Many liberationists see consciousness-raising as one of the most important contributions of the movement to a new politics. Women’s Liberation is crucially concerned with that area of politics which is experienced as personal. Women come into the movement from the unspecified frustration of their own private lives, find that what they thought was an individual dilemma is a social predicament and hence a political problem. The process of transforming the hidden, individual fears of women into a shared awareness of the meaning of them as social problems, the release of anger, anxiety, the struggle of proclaiming the painful and transforming it into the political -this process is consciousness-raising. A paradigm that is often given is of a small group of women one of whom decides to describe all her feelings connected with an abortion she has had; in turn, people follow suit. If they haven’t had abortions, then their fears, social-moral attitudes, etc. In this way a personal incident that was condemned to the oblivion of privacy is examined as a manifestation of the oppressed conditions women experience: the personal is seen to be a crucial aspect of the political.

Detractors deride consciousness-raising sessions as ‘group therapy’. The accusation is more interesting than it is meant to be. It reveals both inaccuracy and prejudice. One might well ask why, in a country like the United States, with a middleclass urban population that is virtually besotted with the need for psycho-therapy and psychiatry, there is (a) anything wrong with people imitating ‘group therapy’ and (b) why they don’t know what group therapy is? In a Women’s Liberation consciousness-raising session there is, quite simply, no’ impartial’ therapist: all are involved and at stake. But why, if it were the case, would it be a slur? Of course, the apparent denigration of therapy is really only a concealed put-down of women: oh, they're moaning again, gossiping their complaints, having a nag ... what they need is a good therapist (twentieth-century parent-surrogate punisher).

In fact, the concept of ‘consciousness-raising’ is the reinterpretation of a Chinese revolutionary practice of ‘speaking bitterness'- a reinterpretation made by middle-class women in place of Chinese peasants and in a country riddled by psychotherapeutic practices. These peasants, subdued by violent coercion and abject poverty, took a step out of thinking their fate was natural by articulating it. The first symptom of oppression is the repression of words; the state of suffering is so total and so assumed that it is not known to be there. ‘Speaking bitterness’ is the bringing to consciousness of the virtually unconscious oppression; one person’s realization of an injustice brings to mind other injustices for the whole group. Nobody suggests that this revolutionary practice could be imported wholesale from the conditions of peasants in pre-revolutionary China to Women’s Liberation Movements in the advanced capitalist countries. But there is a relevance which doesn’t insult the plight of the Chinese peasant. In having been given for so long their own sphere, their ‘other’ world, women’s oppression is hidden far from consciousness (this dilemma is expressed as ‘women don’t want liberating’); it is this acceptance of a situation as ‘natural’, or a misery as ‘personal’ that has first to be overcome. ‘Consciousness-raising’ is speaking the unspoken: the opposite, in fact, of nattering together’.

Speaking the unspoken is, of course, also the purpose of serious psychoanalytic work. Unfortunately, it is not the prevalent purpose. The concept and practice of ‘consciousness-raising’ has suffered a debasement by its development in a country sold over to debased psychotherapy. The spread of the Esselin methods and of ‘encounter-therapy’ has had its effects on many aspects of radical politics. Ostensibly evoking the unspoken (more normally the ‘unspeakable’ in its restricted sense), provoking the unholy (enforcing taboo – sensual, sexual and soulful ‘touching’ between ‘untouchable’ strangers), this ‘therapy’ has taught us the scope of our inhibitions – but only for the sake of it. Brought up in a society that inhibits us,

as inhibited individuals we go to an encounter-therapy session to meet other inhibited individuals. We break our inhibitions, ‘make contact’ and . . . become uninhibited individuals? Maybe – for what? Do we thus gain inner peace, strength, ‘togetherness'? For what? From inhibited individual, through the group, to the uninhibited individual. The circles of the mind. Revolutionary politics is linear – it must move from the individual, to the small group, to the whole society.

Some of the Women’s Liberation ‘consciousness-raising’ groups have suffered the fate of the whirlpool. Individual small group – individual. Lonely women have left home and gone back home. Never moving out of the small circle, the fervour of the Chinese peasant has become the fashion of the middle-class American. Women’s Liberation knows this, as it knows that the ability to articulate is a privilege that is easily abused:

Women in the group also felt that consciousness-raising should be a means to the development of a politics and not as an end in itself. Women in the group also felt that consciousness-raising was particularly suited to the highly articulate women of the middle and upper classes and that these women were able to gain ascendency over the group through their proficiency in this central activity of the Group.

(2) Male Chauvinism and Male Supremacy

‘Male chauvinism’ is being too much of a man. Either the male chauvinist has internalized the domination of men within our society and, in his individual actions and attitudes epitomizes this ‘supremacy’ or, as radical feminists believe. this attitude pre-exists any specific social formation:

... 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. Man establishes his ‘manhood’ in direct proportion to his ability to have his ego override hers, and derives his strength and self-esteem through this process. This male need, though destructive, is in that sense, impersonal. It is not out of a desire to hurt the woman that he dominates her and destroys her; it is out of a need for a sense of power that he necessarily must destroy her ego and make it subservient to his ...

The radical feminists postulate psychology as the primary determinant of male chauvinism. Socialists see the social formation as shaping individual behaviour and psyche. Whichever analysis is offered, the term, as it is descriptive and not analytical, has the same implications: it means a man who takes up a position, either consciously or instinctively, of domination (and egotism), over and against women, by virtue merely of his status as a man.

(3) Sexism and ‘Patriarchy’

‘Sexism’, as a term, has gained increasing currency, as ‘male chauvinism’ (as a term) has somewhat declined. The concept is a clear analogy with ‘racism’ and indicates the inferiorization (attitudinal and actual) of one sex by the other. A society divided, divisively, along sex lines. Where male chauvinism is mostly used of individuals, sexism describes a whole society and social culture. One of the fullest explorations of the concept is Kate Millet’s ‘theory of sexual politics’ or her ‘notes towards a theory of patriarchy’ in her recent book Sexual Politics. ‘Patriarchy’ is used – slightly loosely – to mean not the rule of the father but, more generally, the rule of men. Kate Millet establishes that ‘patriarchy’ is a ‘universal (geographical and historical) mode of power relationships’ and domination.

She establishes that within ‘patriarchy’ the omnipresent system of male domination and female subjugation is achieved through socializing, perpetrated through ideological means, and maintained by institutional methods. Men are dominant by habit (the effect of psychology, socialization and ideology) and when necessary by force (they control the economy, the state and its agents, e.g. the army, and they have a monopoly on sexual violence). According to this thesis ‘patriarchy’ is all-pervasive: it penetrates class divisions, different societies, historical epochs. Its chief institution is the family: having the shakiest of biological foundations, ‘patriarchy’ must rely instead on ‘inherited’ culture and the training of the young. It endures as a power system because it is so well entrenched that it hardly needs to be visible, invoking the ‘natural’ it claims to be irrevocable. Different societies have never offered real alternatives: ‘Perhaps patriarchy’s greatest psychological weapon is simply its universality and longevity. A referent scarcely exists with which it might be contrasted or by which it might be confuted.’ Patriarchy endures because it endures.

‘Patriarchy’ then is the sexual politics whereby men establish their power and maintain control. All societies and all social groups within these are ‘sexist’ – not in the sense that one could maintain ‘all societies are racist’, but in the far more fundamental sense that their entire organization, at every level, is predicated on the domination of one sex by the other. Specific variations are less significant than the general truth.

(4) Feminism

Feminism has been variously defined and is currently loosely used to indicate anyone who strongly supports the rights of women – to emancipation, liberation or equality. A stricter definition is the one negatively postulated by Simone de Beauvoir in her autobiography Force of Circumstances.

I never cherished any illusion of changing woman’s condition; it depends on the future of labour in the world; it will change significantly only at the price of a revolution in production. That is why I avoided falling into the trap of ‘feminism’.

Today, it is, I believe, only ‘liberal feminists’ who ‘cherish the illusion’ that social equality can be achieved in a democratic capitalist country without a revolution; ‘radical feminists’ believe that it can be achieved nowhere without the feminist revolution being paramount. But liberal feminism and radical feminism do share the position that women’s oppression can be fought independently of other oppressions, whereas Women’s Liberationists who follow a materialist analysis, as does Simone de Beauvoir, believe it is a central, and yet intrinsic part of a larger revolutionary struggle for changing the dominant mode of production from capitalism to socialism and finally communism. Radical feminists are now inclined to re-establish this distinction as they establish their theory, so that we can say ‘feminism’ is the belief that women’s oppression is first, foremost, and separable from any particular historical context.

Chapter Three
The Politics of Women’s Liberation: 1

The Past and the Present...

As we saw in Chapter One, there are crucial links between the Youth Movements and Women’s Liberation: both groups are embattled on the ideological plane where, as the middle-class agents and objects of the consumer ‘sell’ and future fabricators of the necessary consensus, they are in a position to be most aware of its meaning. But after this initial similarity women find themselves on very different terrain. Their struggle cannot remain (or even be preoccupied) with ideological issues alone but must extend to an attack on all the ramifications of oppression. Economically, women are the most highly exploited group; they are also the most psychically determined as inferior. This is, of course, their position within each race or class. But as a sex, despite national, racial or class differences, they share an overall inferiorization which is total.

The main thing to stress at this juncture is the complexity of the political attitudes and actions that have to match such an inclusive problem. When one has to contend with oppression in every sector, there is room, initially, for all forms of political groups or attitudes to move in. Although it is developing its own politics of liberation and feminism, Women’s Liberation includes within its somewhat shadowy circumference most political positions developed during the sixties and before.


The ‘politics of experience’ initiated its own particular cults and saw to a recrudescence of previous political forms. Anarchism, for instance, had a further hey-day in the sixties.

Anarchism, in its fight for the freedom of every individual from any form of organization (hierarchic or ‘democratic’) has ‘always given a generous place to women in its undifferentiating movement. Its overriding belief in the individual allows this. Every anarchist validates his or her revolutionary politics in his or her private actions and in every aspect of his or her personal life. People think of anarchism as chaos. This is too crude; but within this stress on private liberation and individual freedom there is a necessary randomness which aims a blow at anything in its way. No political system is better than any other for all are ‘systems’ and therein lies the error. This belief clearly has a strong appeal to women: privatized in their isolated family lives, individual freedom seems the natural horizon for which to strive. Liberation, in anarchist terms, expresses itself as a release of all one’s dammed-up psychic energies: probably no one feels the need for this more than a woman. Anarchism’s inclusive and random aspect qualifies everyone and legitimizes everything that is counter-system: there is no need to try to work out the whole oppression of women, no need to organize.... Individuals and a number of small groups within Women’s Liberation are testing the possibility of these politics. Certainly it frees them personally from the cultural constraints of bourgeois society: they are brave and violent, without a care for the opinions of others – the obverse, in other words, of the nice ‘true’ woman.’


The activities of the anarchist groups coincide in some respects with those of tightly organized ‘terrorists’. These groups are a band of closely-knit militants aiming at symbolic violent action (in other contexts, kidnappings and isolated bombings). Certain feminist groups are based on comparable concepts striking a blow when and how one can at the institutions and expressions of male chauvinism.


A line runs from the subjectivism of the ‘politics of experience’ through the subjective ‘terrorism’ of the anarchists to the objective terrorism of the ‘terrorists’. This line is a belief in spontaneity, whether the spontaneity of ‘feelings’ or the spontaneity of violence. Spontaneity is a mode which women are particularly liable to develop. On the one hand, bourgeois society has always allowed them, as the guardians of the ‘natural’ and of the ‘proper’ emotions (or what have you), precisely to be spontaneous – it is an assertion of beautiful femininity to burst (with seeming or seemly irrelevance) into tears, to show one’s feelings by never being calculating, to intuit where men comprehend.... On the other hand, spontaneity (as a political concept) allows precisely the overthrow of all this in the same terms. In extremities of random violence or in the breaking of cultural taboos, feminists turn femininity on its head. The danger is that tossing a coin a second time one may land up with the same side one started with.

Spontaneist-terrorists model themselves as rocks to throw at the walls of bourgeois society. Their actions are good in so far as they never allow women to underestimate themselves and their potential: but they are bad in so far as they definitely underestimate the strength of the walls.

Furthermore, it is precisely in spontaneism that the movement reveals the dangers still inherent in its own class-nature. It is nearly always middle-class intellectuals who become infatuated with the type of personal, individual liberation which takes this form, who find the seductive opposite to their own repressed or sublimated lives in the outbursts of violence or ‘offensiveness’. We can see this in that it is so often the ‘outlandish’ features of Women’s Liberation itself that capture and titillate the intelligentsia of the left.

This infatuation with passion can be seen to take several forms at the moment. In New York, where some Women’s Liberation groups are collecting money to pay the fines of the women incarcerated in the House of Detention, a liberationist friend said to me, with irony, ‘This is to be the year of the prisoner.’ Many feminists claim that as society oppresses women, all women ‘criminals’ are political prisoners. It is not belittling the plight of prisoners if one points out that they certainly don’t see themselves as such. After all, politics is, in part, a question of political consciousness. The reasons why women are in prison, and their conditions there, are clearly matters for Women’s Liberation to concern itself with; the maximalist analysis of their so-called political status does not follow from this. The intellectual passion for the enrage (criminal or terrorist) is also to be found in its attraction to the ,outrageous’. Sexual exploration and the assertion of sexual freedom, particularly in the realms where it is prohibited, are clearly crucial to any expression of liberation from the sexual dimension of the overall oppression. Homosexuals are clearly discriminated against socio-morally and still, to a great extent, legally. Gay Liberation is an extremely important movement. It is crucial that, as women, and an oppressed group, we comprehend how capitalism oppresses many varied groups: our solidarity with Gay Liberation -gay sisters and brothers – is of paramount importance, as is their solidarity with us. But there is a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, solidarity and the release of the bisexual or homosexual possibilities within all of us, and, on the other, a coy flirtation with its picturesque ‘outrageousness’. There is nothing particularly joyful about being an oppressed group, or one that is discriminated against. Genet’s plays and novels make clear the nightmare qualities of homosexual life in a society which forbids it. Being ‘turned on’ by prisoners or gay people glamorizes the painful predicament and loses sight of the function of a Liberation Movement.


But if these are illustrations of some of the pitfalls of spontaneism, instances of the traps set up by rigidity are no harder to find. Women’s Liberation, like all the new movements of the left, is subject to the mind-forged manacles of sectarianism. Recently, in Chicago, at an open Women’s Liberation meeting, a young man asked me how we, in Britain, reacted to the support shown for us by ‘certain left-wing organizations who have always had a good line on the position of women’. These Trotskyists have ‘always’ been there, because they have never been there. There is a sort of expansive tolerance in their position, a timelessness which makes room for everything – except another sect, or an actual revolution. Their stress on ‘going to the working class’ (and their recent awareness that there are some women there) leads them into typical economist pursuits. As far as the women’s caucuses (or independent Trotskyist Women’s Liberation groups) go, at least in England, they stress above all the importance of the struggle for equal pay. There is no doubt of the significance of this issue; indeed, it may be the most crucial ‘right’ to press for at the moment. However, its tactical dominance over other issues should not develop into its theoretical splendid isolation.

If the Trotskyists are open-armed, the Maoists (in England at least) are tight-fisted. Their tactic seems to be to shift their entire movement wholesale into whatever political struggle holds the vanguard position at any given moment, and from there maintain their grasp by clasping their fists over the tabernacle of ‘the true position’. Their definition of themselves, is their condemnation of any other group. The other day, at a public meeting of the Women’s Liberation Front, Mr Manchandra (nicknamed ‘the Chairman Mao of England’

and sweetly referred to by comrades as ‘Man’ for short) got up and announced himself as a leading member of the Women’s Liberation Front. Today, all that group of Maoists are Women’s Liberationists, as yesterday they were ‘Revolutionary Students’. The gray timelessness of Trotskyism is only to be matched by the eternal chameleonism of Western Maoism.

In their Women’s Liberation policies there is nothing in either group to justify ridicule. They bring with them previously developed political energies; and their newly prominent personnel – the women – are bringing fresh insights to a fresh problem – women’s oppression. It is just that as sects, definitionally, they always have their theory prepared and thus there is a tendency within each to seem to be waiting for any revolutionary orphan to try on their proferred garments.


Reformism’ is a difficult concept when it comes to Women’s Liberation. There is no revolutionary theory or strategy that accords a distinct place to women’s oppression and liberation. It has traditionally been held on the left that women can get ‘equal rights’, in a bourgeois revolution, under capitalism, and, as nobody can hope for a transcendence of this concept of equality till the achievement of socialism, political demands that women make can ‘be accommodated in the prevailing system, and hence are reformist’. In other words, the idea that women ‘must wait till after the revolution’ has, if anything, a yet more pernicious side; what you are asking for now are just reforms and you can get these fairly easily. This position is a mirror reflection of how women’s issues are seen within the bourgeois society itself, i.e. as not the real issue. Nixon can welcome the idea of a vast increase in nursery schools, abortion laws are liberalized without strain... But for the left to accept tokenism as evidence of the weakness of the demands and not of the strength of the system is a serious error. Women’s demands have always been presented as reforms; whether or not they are so (or whether or not some are so) cannot be judged in the abstract, nor even in the context of the past, but only in their new context of feminist politics. The left position that maintains unquestioningly that they are so, not only apes the attitude of bourgeois society, but also seriously underestimates the role of reformism in revolutionary politics:

Revolutionary Social-Democracy has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities. But it utilizes ‘economic’ agitation for the purpose of presenting to the government, not only demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) the demand that it cease to be an autocratic government. Moreover, it considers it its duty to present this demand to the government on the basis, not of the economic struggle alone but of all manifestations in general of public and political life. In a word, it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as a part of the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and socialism. [Lenin, What Is To Be Done?]

Only when a revolutionary theory and strategy of women’s oppression is developed that challenges our ‘democratic’ governments can we decide which issues are reforms and subordinate them to the struggle for freedom and socialism. In the absence of such a strategy, these ‘reforms’ may well turn out to be its first stepping-stones.

There are, of course, in all countries a number of groups who maintain that the granting of these reforms, the giving of equal rights, would liberate women without there being necessarily any change in the socio-economic structure. Most of these groups pre-existed radical Women’s Liberation proper and, indeed, were one of its sources. Important aspects of Women’s Liberation developed out of, and in growing opposition to, ‘equal rights’ campaigns, much as Black Power grew out of and away from the Civil Rights movements. Reformist groups of this sort, even if they direct their attention mainly to the problems of middle-class women in jobs, or to the legal dimensions of discrimination, have a place. All women are oppressed and raising the consciousness of all to this awareness is an important task. In this sense alone, at this stage, class differences are not what is important – it is for women to see how they are subjected as a whole that is crucial. Reformist groups document and protest against this subjection.

Chapter Four
The Politics of Women’s Liberation: 2

The Present and the Future ...

In the last chapter 1 described the influence of some of the earlier prominent political theories on Women’s Liberation and their re-deployment within it. But the need clearly is for a specific theory of women’s oppression. There are currently two tendencies within the movement directed towards this aim: Radical Feminists who are developing a new theory of sexist society; and those socialists who recognize the inadequacy of past socialist theory of women’s position, but who believe in the viability of its methodology for providing this analysis and for whom the class theory of society and the demand for revolution (based on this theory but giving unprecedented prominence to women’s oppression) is paramount.

The size of the ‘absence’ of women in socialist theory and practice is immense. Where analysis has been offered clearly it has been inadequate, for the resulting practice has seriously failed to match it. In 1966, writing for a Marxist magazine, I tried to describe some of the failings within the most obvious classical texts of socialist literature. I am re-presenting this account here, as I feel it still holds good, and illustrates that though we cannot, in Women’s Liberation, in any sense rely on previously developed analyses – we may be able to use them, to modify and extend.

Further Reading:
De Beauvoir | Kate Millett | Firestone

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