On American Feminism

PART IV Social Issues and Feminism: Education, Homosexuality. Race, and Radicalism

[1]In the radical feminist view, the new feminism is not just the revival of a serious political movement for social equality. It is the second wave of the most important revolution in history. Its aim: overthrow of the oldest, most rigid caste/class system in existence, the class system based on sex—a system consolidated over thousands of years, lending the archetypal male and female roles an undeserved legitimacy and seeming permanence. In this perspective, the pioneer Western feminist movement was only the first onslaught, the fifty-year ridicule that followed it only a first counteroffensive—the dawn of a long struggle to break free from the oppressive power structures set up by nature and reinforced by man. In this light, let's take a look at American feminism.

I. The Woman's Rights Movement in America

Though there have always been women rebels in history,[1] the conditions have never before existed that would enable women to effectively overthrow their oppressive roles. Women's capacity for reproduction was urgently needed by the society—and even if it hadn't been, effective birth control methods were not available. So until the Industrial Revolution feminist rebellion was bound to remain only a personal one.
The coming feminist revolution of the age of technology was foreshadowed by the thought and writing of individual women, members of the intellectual elites of their day: in England, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, in America, Margaret Fuller, in France, the Bluestockings. But these women were ahead of their time. They had a hard time getting their ideas accepted even in their own advanced circles, let alone by the masses of men and women of their day, who had barely absorbed the first shock of the Industrial Revolution.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, with industrialization in full swing, a full-fledged feminist movement was underway. Always strong in the U.S. — itself founded shortly before the Industrial Revolution, and thus having comparatively little history or tradition—feminism was spurred on by the abolitionist struggle and the smoldering ideals of the American Revolution itself. (The Declaration passed at the first national Woman's Rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 was modeled on the Declaration of Independence.)
The early American Woman's Right Movement [2] was radical. In the nineteenth century, for women to attack the Family, the Church (see Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Woman's Bible), and the State (law) was for them to attack the very cornerstones of the Victorian society in which they lived—equivalent to attacking sex distinctions themselves in our own time. The theoretical foundations of the early W.R.M. grew out of the most radical ideas of the day, notably those of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and communalists like R. D. Owen and Fanny Wright. Few people today are aware that the early feminism was a true grass-roots movement. They haven't heard of the torturous journeys made by feminist pioneers into backwoods and frontiers, or door to door in the towns to speak about the issues or to collect signatures for petitions that were laughed right out of the Assemblies. Nor do they know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the most militant feminists of the movement, were among the first to stress the importance of organizing women workers, founding the Working Woman's Association in September, 1868. (Delegates to the National Labor Union Convention as early as 1868, they later fell out over the short-changing of women workers by the— hasn't changed—male chauvinist labor movement.) Other pioneer female labor organizers such as Augusta Lewis and Kate Mullaney were in the feminist movement.
This radical movement was built by women who had literally no civil status under the law; who were pronounced civilly dead upon marriage, or who remained legal minors if they did not marry; who could not sign a will or even have custody of their own children upon divorce; who were not taught even to read, let alone admitted to college (the most privileged of them were equipped with a knowledge of embroidery, china painting, French, and harpsichord); who had no political voice whatever. Thus, even after the Civil War, more than half this country's population was still legally enslaved, literally not owning even the bustles on their backs.
The first stirrings of this oppressed class, the first simple demands for justice, were met by a disproportionate violence, a resistance difficult to understand today when the lines of sexual class have been blurred over. For, as often happens, the revolutionary potential of the first awakening was recognized more clearly by those in power than it was by the crusaders themselves. From its very beginning the feminist movement posed a serious threat to the established order, its very existence and long duration testifying to fundamental inequalities in a system that pretended to democracy. Working first together, later separately, the Abolitionist Movement and the W.R.M. threatened to tear the country apart. If, in the Civil War, the feminists hadn't been persuaded to abandon their cause to work on »more important« issues, the early history of feminist revolution might have been less dismal.
As it was, although the Stanton-Anthony forces struggled on in the radical feminist tradition for twenty years longer, the back of the movement had been broken. Thousands of women, at the impetus of the Civil War, had been allowed out of the home to do charity work. The only issue on which these very different camps of organized women could unite was the desirability of the vote— but predictably, they did not agree upon why it was desirable. The conservatives formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, or joined the sprouting women's clubs, such as the pious Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The radicals separated into the National Woman's Suffrage Association, concerned with the vote only as a symbol of the political power they needed to achieve larger ends.
By 1890, further legal reforms had been won, women had entered the labor force in the service capacity that they still hold today, and they had begun to be educated in larger numbers. In lieu of true political power they had been granted a token, segregated place in the public sphere as clubwomen. But though indeed this was a greater political power than before, it was only a newfangled version of female »power« of the usual sort: behind the throne—a traditional influence on power which took modern form in lobbying and embarrassment tactics. When, in 1890, with their leaders old and discouraged, the radical feminist National merged with the conservative American to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), all seemed lost. Conservative feminism, with its concentration on broad, unitive, single-issues like suffrage, with its attempt to work within and placate the white male power structure—trying to convince men who knew better, with their own fancy rhetoric yet—had won. Feminism, sold out, languished.
Even worse than the conservative feminists were the increasing number of women who, with their new-found bit of freedom, jumped enthusiastically into all the radicalisms of the day, the various social reform movements of the Progressive Era, even when at odds with feminist interests. (Consider the old debate about discriminatory »protective« labor laws for women.) Margaret Rhondda, Britain's leading post-World War I feminist, put it this way:

  • One may divide the women in the woman's movement into two groups: the Feminists and the reformers who are not in the least Feminists; who do not care tuppence about equality for itself.... Now almost every women's organization recognizes that reformers are far more common than Feminists, that the passion to decide to look after your fellowmen, to do good to them in your way, is far more common than the desire to put into everyone's hand the power to look after themselves.

These »reformers«, the women »radicals« of their day, were at best influenced by feminism. They were neither true feminists nor true radicals because they did not yet see the woman's cause as a legitimate radical issue in itself. By seeing the W.R.M. as only tangent to another, more important politics, they were in a sense viewing themselves as defective men: women's issues seemed to them »special«, »sectarian«, while issues that concerned men were »human«, »universal«. Developing politically in movements dominated by men, they became preoccupied with reforming their position within these movements rather than getting out and creating their own. The Women's Trade Union League is a good example: women politicos in this group failed at the most basic undertakings because they were unable to sever their ties with the strongly male chauvinist AFL, under Samuel Gompers, which sold them out time and again. Or, in another example, like so many VISTA volunteers bent on slumming it with an ungrateful poor, they rushed into the young settlement movement, many of them giving their lives without reward—only to become the rather grim, embittered, but devoted spinster social workers of the stereotype. Or the Woman's Peace Party founded to no avail by Jane Addams on the eve of American intervention in World War I, which later split into, ironically, either jingoist groups working for the war effort, or radical pacifists as ineffective as they were extreme.
This frenzied feminine organizational activity of the Progressive Era is often confused with the W.R.M. proper. But the image of the frustrated, bossy battle-ax derives less from the radical feminists than from the nonfeminist politicos, committeewomen for the various important causes of their day. In addition to the now-defunct movements we have mentioned—the Woman's Trade Union League, the National Federation of Settlements, and the Woman's International League for Peace and Freedom (formerly the Woman's Peace Party, begun by Jane Addams)—the whole spectrum of Organized Ladyhood was founded in the era between 1890 and 1920: The General Federation of Women's Clubs, the League of Women Voters, the American Association of Collegiate Alumnae, the National Consumer's League, the PTA, even the DAR. Although these organizations were associated with the most radical movements of their day, that in fact their politics were reactionary, and finally fatuous and silly, was indicated at first solely by their nonfeminist views.
Thus the majority of organized women in the period between 1890-1920—a period usually cited as a high point of feminist activity—had nothing in common with true feminism. On the one hand, feminism had been constricted to the single issue of the vote—the W.R.M. was (temporarily) transformed into a suffrage movement—and on the other, women's energies were diffused into any other radical cause but their own.
But radical feminism was only dormant: The awakening began with the return of Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from England, where she had joined the militant Woman's Social and Political Union—the English Suffragettes of whom the Pankhursts are perhaps the best known—in opposing the Constitutionalists (conservative feminists). Believing that militant tactics were needed to achieve the radical goals espoused by her mother, she recommended attacking the problem of the vote with the discarded strategy of the Stanton-Anthony faction: pressure to amend the federal Constitution. Soon the American militants split off from the conservative NAWSA to form the Congressional Union (later the Woman's Party), beginning the daring guerrilla tactics and uncompromisingly tough line for which the whole suffrage movement is often incorrectly credited.
It worked. Militants had to undergo embarrassment, mobbings, beatings, even hunger strikes with forced feeding, but within a decade the vote was won. The spark of radical feminism was just what the languishing suffrage movement needed to push through their single issue. It provided a new and sound approach (the pressure for a national amendment rather than the tedious state-by-state organizing method used for over thirty years), a militancy that dramatized the urgency of the woman issue, and above all, a wider perspective, one in which the vote was seen as only the first of many goals, and therefore to be won as quickly as possible. The mild demands of the conservative feminists, who had all but pleaded that if they won the vote they wouldn't use it, were welcomed as by far the lesser of two evils in comparison with the demands of the Woman's Party.
But with the granting of the vote the establishment co-opted the woman's movement. As one gentleman of that period, quoted by William O'Neill in Everyone Was Brave, summarized it, »Nevertheless woman suffrage is a good thing if only to have it over with«. Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont of the Woman's Party urged women to boycott the elections: »Husband your new power. Suffragists did not fight for your emancipation for seventy years to have you become servants to men's parties. M Charlotte Perkins Gilman seconded this:

The power women will be able to exercise lies with their not joining a party system of men. The party system of politics is a trick of men to conceal the real issues. Women should work for the measures they want outside of party politics. It is because the old political parties realize that woman's influence will be so negligible on the inside that they are so eager to get women to join them.

But none of this was to any avail. Even the formation of a new Woman's Party on February 18, 1921, as an alternative to the major parties that were so rapidly absorbing woman's new political strength, could not resuscitate the dying movement.[3]
The granting of the vote to the suffrage movement killed the W.R.M. Though the antifeminist forces appeared to give in, they did so in name only. They never lost. By the time the vote was granted, the long channeling of feminist energies into the limited goal of suffrage—seen initially as only one step to political power—had thoroughly depleted the W.R.M. The monster Ballot had swallowed everything else. Three generations had elapsed from the time of the inception of the W.R.M.; the masterplan-ners all were dead. The women who later joined the feminist movement to work for the single issue of the vote had never had time to develop a broader consciousness: by then they had forgotten what the vote was for. The opposition had had its way.
Of all that struggle what is even remembered? The fight for suffrage alone—not worth much to women, as later events bore out—was an endless war against the most reactionary forces in America at the time, which, as Eleanor Flexner shows in Century of Struggle, included the biggest capitalist interests of the North, i.e., oil, manufacturing, railroad, and liquor interests; the racist bloc of southern states (which, in addition to their own bigotry about women, were afraid to grant the woman's vote because it would enfranchise another half of the Negro race, as well as draw attention to the hypocrisy of »universal« male suffrage), and, finally, the machine of government itself. The work involved to achieve this vote was staggering. Carrie Chapman Catt estimated that:

to get the word »male« out of the constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign ... During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters, 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 successive campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

Thus defeat was so frequent, and victory so rare—and then achieved by such bare margins—that even to read about the struggle for suffrage is exhausting, let alone to have lived through it and fought for it. The lapse of historians in this area is understandable, if not pardonable.
But, as we have seen, suffrage was only one small aspect of what the W.R.M. was all about. A hundred years of brilliant personalities and important events have also been erased from American history. The women orators who fought off mobs, in the days when women were not allowed to speak in public, to attack Family, Church, and State, who traveled on poor railways to cow towns of the West to talk to small groups of socially starved women, were quite a bit more dramatic than the Scarlett O'Haras and Harriet Beecher Stowes and all the Little Women who have come down to us. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, freed slaves who went back time and again, with huge prices on their heads, to free other slaves on their own plantations, were more effective in their efforts than the ill-fated John Brown. But most people today have never even heard of Myrtilla Miner, Prudence Crandall, Abigail Scott Duniway, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ernestine Rose, the Claflin sisters, Crystal Eastman, Clara Lemlich, Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont, Doris Stevens, Anne Martin. And this ignorance is nothing compared to ignorance of the lives of women of the stature of Margaret Fuller, Fanny Wright, the Grimke sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Stanton Blatch, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Paul.
And yet we know about Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, and Florence Nightingale, just as we know about, rather than Nat Turner, the triumph of Ralph Bunche, or George Washington Carver and the peanut. The omission of vital characters from standard versions of American history in favor of such goody-good models cannot be tossed off. Just as it would be dangerous to inspire still-oppressed black children with admiration for the Nat Turners of their history, so it is with the W.R.M. The suspicious blanks in our history books concerning feminism—or else the confusion of the whole W.R.M. with the (conservative) suffrage movement or the reformist women's groups of the Progressive Era — is no accident.
It is part of a backlash we are still undergoing in reaction to the first feminist struggle. The few strong models allowed girls growing up in the fifty-year silence have been carefully chosen ones, women like Eleanor Roosevelt, of the altruistic feminine tradition, as opposed to the healthily selfish giants of the radical feminist rebellion. This cultural backlash was to be expected. Men of those days grasped immediately the true nature of a feminist movement, recognizing it as a serious threat to their open and unashamed power over woman. They may have been forced to buy off the women's movement with confusing surface reforms—a correction of the most blatant inequalities on the books, a few changes of dress, sex, style ("you've come a long way, baby"), all of which coinci-dentally benefited men. But the power stayed in their hands.

II. The Fifty-Year Ridicule

How did the Myth of Emancipation operate culturally over a fifty-year period to anesthetize women's political consciousness?
In the twenties eroticism came in big. The gradual blurring together of romance with the institution of marriage began ("Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage, go together like a horse and carriage ...«), serving to repop-ularize and reinforce the failing institution, weakened by the late feminist attack. But the convalescence didn't last long: women were soon reprivatized, their new class solidarity diffused. The conservative feminists, who at least had viewed their problems as social, had been co-opted, while the radical feminists were openly and effectively ridiculed; eventually even the innocuous committeewomen of other movements came to appear ridiculous. The cultural campaign had begun: emancipation was one's private responsibility; salvation was personal, not political. Women took off on a long soul-search for »fulfillment«.
Here, in the twenties, is the beginning of that obsessive modem cultivation of »style«, the search for glamor (You too can be Theda Bara), a cultural disease still dissipating women today-fanned by women's magazines of the Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan variety. The search for a »different«, personal, style with which to »express« oneself replaced the old feminist emphasis on character development through responsibility and learning experience.
In the thirties, after the Depression, women sobered. Flapperism was obviously not the answer: they felt more hung up and neurotic than ever before. But with the myth of emancipation going full blast, women dared not complain. If they had gotten what they wanted, and were still dissatisfied, then something must be wrong with them. Secretly they suspected that maybe they really were inferior after all. Or maybe it was just the social order: They joined the Communist party, where once again they empathized mightly with the underdog, unable to acknowledge that the strong identification they felt with the exploited working class came directly from their own experience of oppression.
In the forties there was another world war to think about. Personal hangups were temporarily overshadowed by the spirit of the War Effort-patriotism and selfrighteousness, intensified by a ubiquitous military propaganda, were their own kind of high. Besides, the cats were away. Better yet, their thrones of power were vacant. Women had substantial jobs for the first time in several decades. Genuinely needed by society to their fullest capacity, they were temporarily granted human, as opposed to female, status. (In fact, feminists are forced to welcome wars as their only chance.)

The first long stretch of peace and affluence in some time occurred in the late fbrties and the fifties. But instead of the predictable resurgence of feminism, after so many blind alleys, there was only »The Feminine Mystique«, which Betty Friedan has documented so well. This sophisticated cultural apparatiig was hauled out for a specific purpose: women had gotten hired during the war, and now had to be made to quit. Their new employment gains had come only because they had been found to make a convenient surplus labor force, for use in just such time of crisis—and yet, one couldn't now just openly fire them. That would give the lie to the whole carefully cultivated myth of emancipation. A better idea was to have them quit of their own volition. The Feminine Mystique suited the purpose admirably. Women, still frantic, still searching (after all, a factory job is no man's idea of heaven either, even if it is preferable to woman's caged hell), took yet another false road.
This one was perhaps worse than any of the others. It offered neither the (shallow) sensuality of the twenties, the commitment to a (false) ideal of the thirties, nor the collective spirit (propaganda) of the forties. What it did offer women was respectability and upward mobility— along with Disillusioned Romance, plenty of diapers and PTA meetings (Margaret Mead's Mother Nurture), family arguments, endless and ineffective diets, TV soap operas and commercials to kill the boredom, and if the pain still persisted, psychotherapy. Good Housekeeping and Parents' Magazine spoke for every woman of the middle class, just as True Confessions did for the working class. The fifties was the bleakest decade of all, perhaps the bleakest in some centuries for women. According to the 1950 version of the Myth, women's emancipation had already been tried and found wanting (by women themselves, no doubt). The first attempt to break away from a stifling »Creative Motherhood« seemed to have failed utterly. All authentic knowledge of the old feminist movement by this time had been buried, and with it the knowledge that woman's present misery was the product of a still-virulent backlash.
For the youth of the fifties there was an even more sophisticated cultural apparatus: »Teenagerism«, the latest guise of that persevering romanticism so bent on shoring up, by cultural fiat, a crumbling family structure. Young girls of all ages dreamed of escaping the dull homes of their mothers through Teenage Romance. The parked car, an established tradition since the era of the flappers, became an urgent necessity, perhaps the one prop that best characterized the passions of the fifties (see Edward Keinholz's »environment« of The Parked Car). The rituals of the high school dating game compared in formality with the finest of Deep South chivalric tradition, its twentieth-century »belle« now a baton-twirling, Sweet Sixteen cheerleader. The highest goal that a girl could achieve was »popularity«, the old pleasing »grace« in modern form.
But the boys couldn't take it. The cloying romanticism and sentimentality designed to keep women in their place had side effects on the men involved. If there was to be a ritual of girl-chasing, some males too would have to be sacrificed to it. Barbie needed a Ken. But dating was a drag ("Can I borrow the car tonight, Dad?«). Surely there must be an easier way to get sex. Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka crooned to teenage girls; the boys were tuned out.
In the sixties the boys split. They went to college and Down South. They traveled to Europe in droves. Some joined the Peace Corps; others went underground. But wherever they went they brought their camp followers. Liberated men needed groovy chicks who could swing with their new life style: women tried. They needed sex: women complied. But that's all they needed from women. If the chick got it into her head to demand some old-fashioned return commitment, she was »uptight«, »screwed up«, or worse yet, a »real bringdown«. A chick ought to learn to be independent enough not to become a drag on her old man (trans, »clinging«). Women couldn't register fast enough: ceramics, weaving, leather talents, painting classes, lit. and psych, courses, group therapy, anything to get off his back. They sat in front of their various easels in tears.
Which is not to suggest that the »chicks« themselves did not originally want to escape from Nowheresville. There was just no place they could go. Wherever they went, whether Greenwich Village c. 1960, Berkeley or Mississippi c. 1964, Haight-Ashbury or the East Village c. 1967, they were still only »chicks«, invisible as people. There was no marginal society to which they could escape: the sexual class system existed everywhere. Culturally immunized by the antifeminist backlash—if, in the long blackout, they had heard of feminism at all, it was only through its derogation—they were still afraid to organize around their own problem. Thus they fell into the same trap that had swallowed up the women of the twenties and thirties: the search for »the private solution.«
The »private solution« of the sixties, ironically, was as often the »bag« of politics (radical politics, thus more marginal and idealistic than the official—segregated— arenas of power) as it was art or academia. Radical politics gave every woman the chance to do her thing. Many women, repeating the thirties, saw politics not as a means toward a better life, but as an end in itself. Many joined the peace movement, always an acceptable feminine pastime: harmless because politically impotent, it yet provided a vicarious outlet for female anger. Others got involved in the civil rights movement: but though often no more politically effective than their participation in the peace movement, white women's numbered days in the black movement of the early sixties proved to be a more valuable experience in terms of their own political development. This is easy to detect in the present-day women's liberation movement. The women who went South are often much more politically astute, flexible, and developed than women who came in from the peace movement, and they tend to move toward radical feminism much faster. Perhaps because this concern for the suffering of the blacks was white women's closest attempt since 1920 to face their own oppression: to champion the cause of a more conspicuous underdog is a euphemistic way of saying you yourself are the underdog. So just as the issue of slavery spurred on the radical feminism of the nineteenth century, the issue of racism now stimulated the new feminism: the analogy between racism and sexism had to be made eventually. Once people had admitted and confronted their own racism, they could not deny the parallel. And if racism was expungeable, why not sexism?
I have described the fifty-year period between the end of the old feminist movement and the beginning of the new in order to examine the specific ways in which the Myth of Emancipation operated in each decade to defuse the frustrations of modern women. The smear tactic was effectively used to reprivatize women of the twenties and the thirties, and thereafter it combined with a blackout of feminist history to keep women hysterically circling through a maze of false solutions: the Myth had effectively denied them a legitimate outlet for their frustration. Therapy proved a failure as an outlet. To return to the home was no solution either—as the generation of the forties and the fifties proved.
By 1970 the rebellious daughters of this wasted generation no longer, for all practical purposes, even knew there had been a feminist movement. There remained only the unpleasant residue of the aborted revolution, an amazing set of contradictions in their roles: on the one hand, they had most of the legal freedoms, the literal assurance that they were considered full political citizens of society— and yet they had no power. They had educational opportunities—and yet were unable, and not expected, to employ them. They had the freedoms of clothing and sex mores that they had demanded—and yet they were still sexually exploited. The frustrations of their trapped position were exacerbated by the development of mass media in which these contradictions were nakedly exposed, the ugliness of women's roles emphasized by precisely that intensive character which made of the new media such a useful propaganda organ. The cultural indoctrinations necessary to reinforce sex role traditions had become blatant, tasteless, where before they had been insidious. Women, everywhere bombarded with hateful or erotic images of themselves, were at first bewildered by such distortion (Could that be Me?), and, finally, angered. At first, because feminism was still taboo, their anger and frustration bottled up in complete withdrawal (Beatnik Bohemia and the Flower/Drug Generation) or was channeled into dissent movements other than their own, particularly the civil rights movement of the sixties, the closest women had yet come to recognizing their own oppression. But eventually the obvious analogy of their own situation to that of the blacks, coupled with the general spirit of dissent, led to the establishment of a women's liberation movement proper. The anger spilled over, finally, into its proper outlet.
But it would be false to attribute the resurgence of feminism only to the impetus generated by other movements and ideas. For though they may have acted as a catalyst, feminism, in truth, has a cyclical momentum all its own. In the historical interpretation we have espoused, feminism is the inevitable female response to the development of a technology capable of freeing women from the tyranny of their sexual-reproductive roles—both the fundamental biological condition itself, and the sexual class system built upon, and reinforcing, this biological condition.
The increasing development of science in the twentieth century should have only accelerated the initial feminist reaction to the Industrial Revolution. (Birth control alone, for example, a problem for which the early feminists had no answer, has reached, in the period since 1920, its highest level of development in history.) The dynamics of the counterrevolution which in addition to temporal crises such as wars and depression obstructed the growth of feminism, I have attempted to describe. Because of such obstruction, new scientific developments that could have greatly helped the feminist cause stayed in the lab, while social-sexual practices not only continued as before but were actually intensified, in reaction to the threat. Scientific advances which threaten to further weaken or sever altogether the connection between sex and reproduction have scarcely been realized culturally. That the scientific revolution has had virtually no effect on feminism only illustrates the political nature of the problem: the goals of feminism can never be achieved through evolution, but only through revolution. Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle.

III. The Women's Liberation [4] Movement

In three years, we have seen the whole political spectrum of the old women's movement recreated. The broad division between the radical feminists and the two types of reformists, the conservative feminists and the politieos, has reappeared in modern guise. There are roughly three major camps in the movement now, themselves subdivided. Let us summarize them briefly, keeping in mind that in such a formative period the politics, as well as the membership, of any one group is in a continual state of flux.

1. Conservative Feminists

This camp, though now proliferating into myriads of similar organizations, is perhaps still best exemplified by its pioneer (and thus more hardcore feminist than is generally believed) NOW, the National Organization of Women, begun in 1965 by Betty Friedan after her reverberating publication of The Feminine Mystique. Often called the NAACP of the woman's movement (and indeed, because it too is full of older professionals—career women who have »made it"—it is similarly attacked by the younger liberation groups for its »careerism"), NOW concentrates on the more superficial symptoms of sexism—legal inequities, employment discrimination, and the like.
Thus in its  politics  it most  resembles  the  suffragist movement of the turn of the century, Carrie Chapman Catt's National American Woman Suffrage Association, with its stress on equality with men—legal, economic, etc., within the given system—rather than liberation from sex roles altogether, or radical questioning of family values. Like the NAWSA, it tends to concentrate on the winning of single-issue political gains, whatever the cost to political principles. Like the NAWSA, it has attracted a wide membership, which it controls by traditional bureaucratic procedures.
However, already in the young movement, it is apparent that this position, untenable even in terms of immediate political gains—as witnessed by the failure of the last conservative feminist movement—is more a leftover of the old feminism (or, if you prefer, its forerunner) rather than a model of the new. The many women who had joined for lack of a better place to go soon shifted to radical feminism—and in doing so have forced NOW into an increasing radicalism, cf., where once the organization didn't dare officially endorse even abortion law repeal for fear of alienating those who could go no further than reform, now abortion law repeal is one of its central demands.

2. Politicos

The politicos of the contemporary women's movement are those women whose primary loyalty is to the Left ("The Movement") rather than to the Women's Liberation Movement proper. Like the politicos of the Progressive Era, contemporary politicos see feminism as only tangent to »real« radical politics, instead of central, directly radical in itself; they still see male issues, e.g., the draft, as universal, and female issues, e.g., abortion, as sectarian. Within the contemporary politico category is still a smaller spectrum, which can be roughly broken down as follows:

a. ladies' auxiliaries of the left. Every major faction on the left, and even some unions, by now—after considerable resistance—have their women's lib caucuses, which agitate against male chauvinism within the organization, and for greater decision-making power for women. The politicos of these caucuses are reformist in that their main objective is to improve their own situation within the limited arena of leftist politics. Other women are, at best, their foremost »constituency«, strictly women's issues no more than a useful »radicalizing« tool to recruit women into the »Larger Struggle«. Thus their attitude toward other women tends to be patronizing and evangelistic, the »organizer« approach. Here are some (female) Black Panthers in an interview in The Movement, an underground paper, stating it in a way that is perhaps embarrassing to the white left in its blatancy, but that nevertheless is typical of (because lifted from?) most white revolutionary rhetoric on the subject:

  • It's very important that women who are more advanced, who already understand revolutionary principles, go to them and explain it to them and struggle with them. We have to recognize that women are backwards politically and that we must struggle with them. (Italics mine)

Or again, concerning an independent women's movement:

  • They lose sight of the Primary Struggle. Some special organizing of women's groups is possible, perhaps, but dangerous: in terms of turning in on themselves, in terms of becoming petit bourgeois little cliques where they just talk about taking care of the kids all the time, or become a gripe session. (Italics mine)

We have here a complete denial by blacks (and women, no less) of their own principles of Black Power as applied to another group: the right of the oppressed to organize around their oppression as they see and define it. It is sad that the Black Power movement, which taught women so much about their political needs through the obvious parallels, should be the last to see that parallel in reverse. Grass-roots organizing, around one's own oppression, the end of leadership and power plays, the need for a mass base prior to bloody struggle, all the most important principles of radical politics suddenly do not apply to women, in a double standard of the worst order.
The women's liberation groups still attempting to work within the larger leftist movement haven't a chance, for their line is dictated from above, their analysis and tactics shaped by the very class whose illegitimate power they are protesting. And thus they rarely succeed in doing more than increasing the tension that already threatens their frayed leftist groups with extinction. If ever they do become powerful they are bought off with tokens, or, if necessary, the larger group quietly disintegrates and reorganizes without them. Often, in the end, they are forced to split off and join the independent women's movement after all.

b. middle-of-the-road politicos. Working separately from, but still under the protection of the male umbrella, these groups are ambivalent and confused. They vacillate. Their obvious imitation of traditional (male) left analysis, rhetoric, tactics, and strategy, whether or not they are suited to the achievement of their own distinct goals, is compensated for by a lot of sentimentalizing about the Oppressed Sisters Out There. Their own politics tends to be ambiguous, because their loyalties are: if they are no longer so sure that it is capitalism which directly causes the exploitation of women, they do not go so far as to intimate that men might have anything to do with it. Men are Brothers. Women are Sisters. If one must talk about enemies at all, why not leave it open and call it The System?
c. the feminist politicos. This position describes perhaps the largest proportion of the anonymous cell groups of the women's liberation movement across the country: it is the position toward which many of the Middle-of-the- Roaders eventually drift. Basically it is a conservative feminism with leftist overtones (or perhaps, more accurately, it is a leftism with feminist overtones). While the feminist politicos admit that women must organize around their own oppression as they feel it, that they can best do this in independent groups, and that the primary concentration of any women's group should be on women's issues, every effort is still made to fit such activities into the existing leftist analysis and framework of priorities — in which, of course, Ladies never go first.
Despite the seeming diversity within such a spectrum, the three positions can be reduced to one common denominator: Feminism is secondary in the order of political priorities, and must be tailored to fit into a preexistent (male-created) political framework. The fear that if it isn't watched feminism will go off the deep end, to become divorced from The Revolution, gives away the politicos' fear that feminism is not a legitimate issue in itself, one that will (unfortunately) require a revolution to achieve its ends.
And here we have the crux of it: Politico women are unable to evolve an authentic politics because they have never truly confronted their oppression as women in a gut way. Their inability to originate a feminist leftist analysis of their own, their need to tie their issue at all times to some »primary struggle« rather than seeing it as central, or even revolutionary in itself, is derived directly from their lingering feelings of inferiority as women. Their inability to put their own needs first, their need for male approval—in this case anti-establishment male approval— to legitimate them politically, renders them incapable of breaking from other movements when necessary, and thus consigns them to mere left reformism, lack of originality, and, ultimately, political sterility.
However, the contrast of radical feminism, the more militant position in the women's liberation movement, has forced the politicos, as well as the conservative feminists, into a growing defensiveness, and, finally, into an increasing radicalism. At first Cuban and NLF women were the unquestioned models, their freedom idolized; now there is a let's-wait-and-see attitude. Last year purely feminist issues were never brought up without tacking on a tribute to the blacks, workers, or students. This year spokesmen on the left instead talk pompously and importantly of the abolition of the nuclear family. For the Left Brotherhood have been quick to jump in to see what they could co-opt— coming up with a statement against monogamy, at which clear sign of male-at-work, feminists could only laugh bitterly. But still, where SDS didn't care a damn about a silly woman's movement a few years ago, it now has taken to giving its women a more and more glamorous role to keep them from bolting, e.g., the Women's Militia, the »longhair army« of the Weathermen faction of SDS. There are the beginnings of the official leftist acknowledgment of women as an important oppressed group in their own right; some shallow understanding of the need for an independent feminist movement; some degree of consideration of women's issues and complaints, e.g., abortion or day-care centers; and the growing tokenism. And, as with the early stages of Black Power, there is the same attempt to appease, the same nervous liberal laughter, the same insensitivity to how it feels to be a woman, disguised under a we're-trying-give-us-a-kiss grin.

3. Radical Feminism

The two positions we have described usually generate a third, the radical feminist position: The women in its ranks range from disillusioned moderate feminists from NOW to disillusioned leftists from the women's liberation movement, and include others who had been waiting for just such an alternative, women for whom neither conservative bureaucratic feminism nor borrowed leftist dogma had much appeal.
The contemporary radical feminist position is the direct descendent of the radical feminist line in the old movement, notably that championed by Stanton and Anthony, and later by the militant Congressional Union subsequently known as the Woman's Party. It sees feminist issues not only as women's first priority, but as central to any larger revolutionary analysis. It refuses to accept the existing leftist analysis not because it is too radical, but because it is not radical enough: it sees the current leftist analysis as outdated and superficial, because this analysis does not relate the structure of the economic class system to its origins in the sexual class system, the model for all other exploitative systems, and thus the tapeworm that must be eliminated first by any true revolution.

  1. Offhand we may note that the radical feminist movement has many political assets that no other movement can claim, a revolutionary potential far higher, as well as qualitatively different, from any in the past:Distribution: Unlike minority groups (an historical accident), or the proletariat (an economic development), women have always made up an oppressed majority class (51 percent), spread evenly throughout all other classes. The most analogous movement in America, Black Power, even could it instantly mobilize every black in the country, would command only 15 percent of the population. Indeed, all the oppressed minorities together, generously assuming no factional infighting, would not make up a majority—unless you included women. That women live with men, while on some levels our worst disadvantage— the isolation of women from each other has been responsible for the absence or weakness of women's liberation movements in the past—is, in another sense, an advantage: a revolutionary in every bedroom cannot fail to shake up the status quo. And if it's your wife who is revolting, you can't just split to the suburbs. Feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, will crack through the most basic structures of our society.
  2. Personal Politics: The feminist movement is the first to combine effectively the »personal« with the »political«. It is developing a new way of relating, a new political style, one that will eventually reconcile the personal — always the feminine prerogative—with the public, with the »world outside«, to restore that world to its emotions, and literally to its senses.
    The dichotomy between emotions and intellect has kept the established movement from developing a mass base: on the one hand, there are the orthodox leftists, either abstract university intellectuals out of touch with concrete reality, or, in their activist guise, militantly into machismo, self-indulgent in their action with little concern for political effectiveness. On the other, there is Woodstock Nation, the Youth Revolt, the Flower and Drug Generation of Hippies, Yippies, Crazies, Motherfuckers, Mad Dogs, Hog Farmers, and the like, who, though they understand that the old leafletting and pamphletting and Marxist analysis are no longer where it's at—that the problem is much deeper than merely the struggle of the proletariat, which, in any case, is hardly the American vanguard—yet have no solid historical analysis of their own with which to replace it; indeed, who are apolitical. Thus the Movement is foundering, either marginal, splintered, and ineffective due to its rigid and outdated analysis or, where it does have mass movement appeal, lacking a solid base in history and economics, »drop out« rather than revolutionary. The feminist movement is the urgently needed solder.
  3. The End of Power Psychology: Most revolutionary movements are unable to practice among themselves what they preach. Strong leadership cults, factionalism, »ego-tripping«, backbiting are the rule rather than the exception. The woman's movement, in its short history, has a somewhat better record than most in this area. One of its major stated goals is internal democracy—and it goes to very great lengths to pursue this goal.

Which is not to claim that it is successful. There is much more rhetoric than reality on the subject, often disguising hypocritically the same old games and power plays—often with new and complex feminine variations. But it is too much to expect that, given its deep roots in sexual  class and family structure, anyone born today would be successful at eliminating the power psychology. And though it is true that many females have never assumed the dominant (power over others) role, there are many others who, identifying all their lives with men, find themselves in the peculiar position of having to eradicate, at the same time, not only their submissive natures, but their dominant natures as well, thus burning their candle at both ends.
But if any revolutionary movement can succeed at establishing an egalitarian structure, radical feminism will. To question the basic relations between the sexes and between parents and children is to take the psychological pattern of dominance-submission to its very roots. Through examining politically this psychology, feminism will be the first movement ever to deal in a materialist way with the problem.