What now for the women's movement? Feminist conversations

Cynthia Cockburn reports on a lively day of discussion at the British Library at which women of the 1970s Second Wave Feminism encountered a young generation of feminist historians. Debating racism, reproductive rights, sexualities and much besides, the aim was to imagine: 'What now for the women's movement?'

Cynthia Cockburn
21 October 2013

Jocelyn Woolfe speaking at the "Intergenerational histories of second wave feminism" conference in London. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn.

Earlier this year, an archive was lodged in the British Library that contained hours upon hours of recorded voices - the rememberings of sixty elderly women looking back on our lives. We were women selected (and who knows how, out of the hundreds and thousands) as having participated in that upsurge of feminist activism from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, commonly referred to as 'the second wave'.

The archive of recordings and transcripts, titled Sisterhood and After, is the outcome of The Women's Liberation Oral History Project, a partnership between the British Library, the Women's Library and the University of Sussex.

On Saturday, 12 October 2013, ten of us old-timers were invited to take part in a series of panel discussions in front of a 250-strong audience in the British Library's conference centre. The invitation came from the History of Feminism Network, whose members Sarah Crook and Signy Gutnick Allen (both PhD students at Queen Mary College, University of London) hosted the day.

The programme was structured around five themes, each addressed in a 45-minute session wherein two second-wavers held the stage accompanied by two younger women historians with a research focus on the earlier movement. The latter posed some questions. We neatly re-shaped them into the questions we really wanted to be asked (or was this just me?). Then the discussion rolled on with issues raised from the floor. 

Here I'll touch briefly on the themes and end with a few thoughts about the final session, on 'work and class', in which I myself took part. 

The intention of the organizers had been to 'both celebrate and critically examine' British second wave feminism, and the day did indeed hear expressions of sharp divergence as well as solidarity - no surprise to those who lived through the turbulent seventies and eighties. The two historic-historians invited onto the first panel were Catherine Hall and Sally Alexander. The history of women, and history as re-told by women, have been foundational in feminist theory - and not least the works of these two. They are just as valued, it seems, by today's generation of feminists, represented on stage by Lucy Delap and Rachel Cohen, as when we first read them.

Sally Alexander speaking at the "Intergenerational histories of second wave feminism" conference in London. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn.

The consciousness-raising process in which so many of us, almost half a century ago, began to dig out a new understanding of our own personal origins and early lives often led us on to collective self-questioning about women's place in history and our absence from the mainstream record. Sally pointed out how feminism always asks questions about the individual, and values the personal voice. So 'history' for a woman is first and foremost our mothers, our grandmothers. We are the products of our lived circumstances, and our own trajectories and the bigger sweep of history are inseparable. Oral history is a natural mode for us therefore - and indeed in this respect the Sisterhood and After archival project is characteristic.

'Not the Church and not the State, women will decide their fate' we used to chant on those National Abortion Campaign marches, tirelessly renewed each time they tried to curb our rights. But in discussion with Denise Riley and Jocelyn Wolfe here at the British Library, we found reproductive 'choice' soon morphing into 'choices'. Yes, we were talking about the contraceptive revolution, defence of a woman's right to choose, and custody (especially in the case of lesbians), but also the more ambivalent issues of in vitro fertilization, surrogacy and sterilization.

Jocelyn had come to Britain from Trinidad in the sixties. She pointed out how, for black women, the contraceptive pill wasn't always an unqualified blessing. She remembered being put on the pill by her GP, without requesting it, as a cure for heavy periods. That had made her wonder, even then: would this have happened to a white woman, or is there some eugenic policy at work here? We all remembered Depo-Provera, the unsafe injected contraceptive distributed and promoted with clear political intent among the poor black population of the USA, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. From this panel discussion, involving April Gallwey and Freya Johnson Ross, there emerged a feeling that the rights and wrongs of reproductive choice were at any moment strongly dependent on the quality of current social, welfare and health provision, and that today in that respect we might well see ourselves as moving backwards.

Amrit Wilson and Gail Lewis, with younger contemporary historians Nydia Swaby and Terese Jonsson, comprised our third panel, on race and racism. There were probably few women of the older generation in the room at this event who haven't got dog-eared copies on their bookshelves even now of Amrit's Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain (1978), a long-needed work that won her the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, and Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women (1988), a warmly-welcomed volume published by Gail and three other authors a decade later.

Together these two women had broken through the racist neglect of 'race' afflicting early second wave feminism. But this wasn't just a flaw in the past. Even now it's hard, they said, to gain recognition of the fact that racism exists within our movement, not only in the world outside. Race, besides, is persistently seen as something to do with blackness: 'white' is never deconstructed. White women can perhaps evade the issue, but as black feminists they have no choice but to engage. Who will challenge imperialism, who will address state racism? And in the post-millennial decades, with the 'war on terror', anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism is rampant. Religion is often used as a surrogate.

The session on sexualities was delayed until Beatrix Campbell could leap the short distance from Kings Cross platform (delayed train) to the British Library, where she joined Sue O'Sullivan in an animated account of our loss of orgasmic pleasure in the course of those years in the 1960s when the invention of the pill and the coil signalled a shift from clitoris to vagina, from those delightful erotic non-penetrative fumblings to the straightforward disappointing fuck.

After this, the afternoon's discussion, though ably managed by Amy Tooth Murphy and Charlotte Jeffries, like our sexual satisfaction, could only go downhill. But Sue reminded us how significant had been the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves for demystifying our own and each others' corporeality - despite, as Beatrix added, being a framework in which desire and fantasy were scarcely sayable. The Women's Liberation Movement, it seems, looking back, had opened two pathways, one of pleasure - the joyful shock of falling in love with women, women-as-such, roomfuls of women - and one of profound anger and pain in a sharper, politicized consciousness of male violence and sexual exploitation of women and children.

At the end of this lively day, Lynne Segal and I were up there on stage as two women who've insisted for four decades that we are socialist feminists - while, to be strictly honest (and I think I can speak for both of us in this), having been disappointed by the rather limited productive space for feminism within actual left organizations. The questions initially posed by Kate Hardy and Bridget Lockyer, our younger discussants, had asked: what of women and employment? what did second wave feminism achieve for the working woman?

Lynne broadened the issue to class, and spoke of the devastating effects of 35 years of neoliberal politics, initiated by Margaret Thatcher, eroding manufacturing, decimating public housing, squeezing welfare, to give free reign to corporate capital, especially finance capital. With unemployment and inequality soaring, social mobility plummeting, working-class women and ethnic minorities were hit hardest by the triple whammy of lower pay, shrinking welfare, and reduced advocacy on their behalf, as trade union and support networks were weakened. Class differences between women deepened, as professional women benefited greatly from the mainstreaming of an aspirational post-feminism, even as the situation of poorer women everywhere deteriorated. Nothing could be further from the egalitarian goals of Seventies feminism, with our desire to rethink ‘work’ itself, valuing care, community building and all that lay outside market forces.

For my part, I chose to stress how the unequal and exploitative relations of class are intertwined with and shaped by those of patriarchy (or shall we abandon this tired archaism and call it phallocracy?). Employers super-exploit women, but are able to do so because women's labour market position is weakened by its prior exploitation, unpaid, by men in domestic life and in the wider provision of social care. For me, socialist feminism thus has to be a project of resistance to both capitalism and male dominance. Furthermore, and more contentiously perhaps, I believe that, in engagement with-and-in the left, socialist feminists need to go beyond economic issues to invite and expect men to organize, as men with men, and alongside women, against systemic male dominance  - including sexual exploitation and violence.

But do we need to be 'in' the left, in order to do socialist feminism? I recalled how, while struggling on in environments such as local councils and trade unions, back then, we had invented an autonomous socialist feminism too. For ten years from 1985 to 1995, Lynne and I had both belonged to a lively European Forum of Socialist Feminists that drew its membership from Western and Southern Europe and Scandinavia, and eventually, with the advance of glasnost and collapse of the Soviet Union, also from Russia and the countries of East and Central Europe.

If the concluding question of the day was, 'what now for the women's movement?' I think Lynne and I were saying: let's get a socialist feminist current rolling again. And let's interpret that as a movement that both engages with existing organizations and has autonomous expression; that doesn't renege on 'equality' but insists on transforming power; that challenges neoliberal capitalism but simultaneously sexism, racism, nationalism, militarism and religious dogma; and which reaches far beyond the borders of one country.

Anyone interested in pursuing such a vision is invited to attend a workshop titled Challenging Linked Systems of Power: Towards a Whole-istic Feminism, at the Feminism in London Conference, on Saturday 26 October 2013.

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