Reflections of a revolutionary moment

What is the legacy and future of women’s liberation today? Kathleen B Jones reports from a conference in Boston where scholars, activists and artists met to re-examine the revolutionary years of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Kathleen B Jones
6 May 2014
 Women march behind 'March for Equality 1971' banner, while women at front raises her left fist

In March, 2014, a two-day conference was held in Boston, organized by the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program of Boston University under the leadership of Deborah Belle, WGSS program director. "A Revolutionary Moment:  Women's Liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s" brought together scholars, activists, and artists to explore the legacy and the future of women’s liberation. As Belle noted in her opening remarks, the conference was originally conceptualized to bring together “6 or 7 experts in the field to give talks on their work.” But when historian Linda Gordon suggested broadening outreach with a call for papers, the organizers were stunned “when proposals began flooding into [their] inboxes, ultimately over 150 proposals for panels, roundtables, individual papers, poetry readings, film screenings, and song.” Clearly, Belle noted, the time was ripe for re-examining those revolutionary years. More than 700 people attended panels and talks, film screenings and viewed exhibitions about “the movement: its accomplishments in so many domains, its unfinished business, and its relevance to contemporary work that is advancing women.”

Conference presenters included many well-known activists—Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kathie Sarachild, Ros Baxandall, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz among others from early movement days—as well as historians, artists, and political theorists. Topics ranged over and beyond the scope of issues most salient from those times, often with commentary about their continued relevance today: wages for housework, consciousness-raising, sexual violence, abortion, race, sexuality and class dynamics in the movement, among others. Although there was a diversity of perspectives about the meaning and impact of women’s movements for change, a common thread at the conference was the emphasis on this period of time as “a revolutionary moment,” lasting more than a decade and with a decidedly more mixed and nuanced set of theories, strategies and actions for radical social change than more recent representations of the history of this period had credited.

 Venus symbol with raised fist within

In her opening keynote, Sara Evans urged demythologizing this history. “Why has the women’s liberation movement been a minor footnote in the history of feminism?” she asked. This always decentralized, diverse movement comprised of often localized actions (sometimes bursting onto the national stage, as in the August 26, 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality) “got subsumed into myths and theorizing; it became a foil,” Evans said. In the 1980s and 90s, she argued, “mostly literary and theoretical feminist scholars fixed the women’s liberation movement as white, self-centered and anti-sex.” Both the media and movement opponents added to this mythology. Evans called for rewriting this revisionist view of the movement’s history by correcting the image of it as a white, middle class movement that occurred only in cities or only in the U.S., as well as by emphasizing the radically utopian effort to rethink the very concepts of “male” and “female” at their roots. Many panels at the conference contributed directly to the demythologizing process.

Responding to the charge of “essentialism” that had been levied against 70s feminists, Dana Densmore, one of the original members of Cell 16, noted in her presentation that “if these analyses and tracts [of 70s movements] spoke of women and men, the point was not to assert some inherent dichotomy of gender but to recognize social realities...These categories were made for us, and we were largely occupied with resisting and undermining them and their consequences for our lives.” Several panels documented the impact of the participation of women of color, lesbians, and working class women in movement actions on shaping the theory and practice of liberation. At the same, time, Robyn Spencer called for a fuller accounting of radical Black women’s lives: “I await the holistic biography of a radical Black woman whose subject is revealed to have both politics and sex.”

The women’s liberation movement conceptualized itself as a mass movement of women, often excluding men, which embraced radical thinking and supported radical action to end the oppression of women. In contrast to more reformist efforts to achieve equality for women by integrating women into mainstream institutions, women’s liberation aimed to change the existing structures and principles organizing life in both the private and public realms. As Kathie Sarachild wrote in a 1978 essay explaining consciousness-raising, movement women had “the idea of doing something politically about aspects of our lives as women that we never thought could be dealt with politically.”

Women’s liberation became a goal in itself. If liberation also enhanced progress for all, that was a side benefit, but not the prime justification for ending women’s oppression. Part of the reason to demand an end to women’s oppression without attaching it to utilitarian arguments about wider social benefits was to avoid subordinating women’s demands to secondary status, relegating women once again to the role of “social housekeepers.” But if there was agreement on the goal to end women’s oppression, there was little agreement about either the root causes of that oppression, or the best strategies to overcome it.  Consciousness-raising returned at the conference as a subject of study and an important tool to reintroduce in the 21st century.

In 1969, the New York based group, Redstockings, argued that women’s oppression was “total, affecting every facet of [women’s] lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor.” They identified men as the agents of oppression: “All men have oppressed women...We do not need to change ourselves, but to change men...” Understandably, many disagreed with this analysis. Socialist feminists traced the causes of women’s oppression to the combined effects of the capitalist class system mixed with the male dominance of the sex gender system of patriarchy. Feminists of color criticized the white privilege evident in some feminist analysis. As the Combahee River Collective of black feminists wrote in its manifesto in 1977, “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” Theirs was one of the earliest formulations of what is now termed “intersectionality” analysis in feminist theory.

Such differences as these were represented in the variety of panels and dialogue about them that followed. One particularly disturbing event occurred following the well-attended panel moderated by Kathie Sarachild of the still functioning Redstockings. “How to Defang a Movement,” included some interesting presentations by early activists Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kathy Scarborough and Carol Hanisch, each of whom, in different ways, bemoaned the retreat of feminist activism into feminist theory. But in the Q & A that followed significant tensions emerged over the ways the presentations represented “sex class” oppression as primary, separated LGBTQ politics from feminist struggles, and emphasized sex as the primary root of women’s oppression. Old divisions were resurrected and reinforced. Then, when a young woman working with an abortion rights activist group took to the floor, Kathie Sarachild tried to silence her before she even asked a question. “Your group has already had ample time. You cannot speak now.” “You don’t even know what I am going to say,” the young woman protested. Sarachild insisted she couldn’t speak. Shamed, the young woman sat down and would have remained silenced had another commentator from the audience not ceded time at the microphone to her. It was a sad reminder of some of the ways women, even movement women, can exercise power abusively.

In the 1960s and 70s, women’s movements quickly spread in many communities in many forms, and several panels at the conference documented the breadth and variety of them from efforts to end urban hunger to the work of the Boston group Bread and Roses, which eventually helped launch the book Our Bodies, Ourselves. By the end of 1970, as Gail Collins reported in When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, “four out of five Americans told pollsters that they knew something about the movement.” In an era before the rise of social media and electronic networking, the visibility the women’s movement achieved is remarkable. Contributing to this visibility was the development of women’s studies courses and programs on college campuses, creating what was then called the academic arm of the women’s liberation movement. In 1970, the first department of women’s studies was established by a collective of students and faculty at San Diego State University in San Diego, California.

Although the U.S. Civil Rights Movement has been well documented in both narrative and documentary film, the Women’s Liberation Movement has not received anything like the same attention. Several presentations introduced the conference audience to new documentaries designed to fill the gap in our history.

A sense of exhilaration mixed with nostalgia and worry as I attended various conference events. The exhilaration came from seeing such large numbers of people of different ages and backgrounds interested enough in the subject to make the trek to Boston from places far and wide. The nostalgia was fueled by seeing many people I had known only in name still involved in the movement that changed all our lives. And the worry? Would we be able to bridge the generational gap? Or the gap that I sense to be growing between academic feminism and the wider women’s movements? And, most importantly perhaps, would we heed the warning in Hester Eisenstein’s presentation: “The agenda of the women’s movement in all of its varieties has been cleverly and diabolically shaped by the dominant cultural and economic engines of capitalism, narrowed down into the most widely recognized and accepted meaning of feminism, namely, paid work for women, along with access to the levers of capitalist power for an elite few....[T]his form of feminism has received widespread plaudits and acceptance as part of a broad imperialist agenda of cultural and economic domination by the United States and the other rich countries.”

With Eisenstein, I hope “that younger generations will be suspicious of this paradigm, and will continue to ask how feminists can build a tradition that points away from neoliberal capitalism and toward another world altogether.”


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