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Second-Wave Soundings | The Nation

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Second-Wave Soundings

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But in our view the more fundamental reasons for the erasure of the history of the recent women's movement are political. Studies of the New Left neglect the women's movement, often treating it as divisive and a diversion from issues of primary importance. The media and the scholars who have constructed the dominant definition of the New Left or "the sixties" have created a map that puts white-male-dominated SDS at the center. They fail to see feminism as an extension of the New Left's commitment to democracy and of its complex analysis of how power is constructed, maintained and used.

About the Author

Rosalyn Baxandall
Rosalyn Baxandall is the editor, with Linda Gordon, of Dear Sisters: Dispatches From the Women's Liberation Movement (...
Linda Gordon
Linda Gordon is professor of history at New York University. She is the author, among other works, of The Great Arizona...

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Within this erasure lies another erasure: the disproportionate lack of attention to the most challenging aspects of women's liberation: radical and socialist feminism. ("Radical feminism" in the early seventies identified a strain of the movement that considered sexism the primary and most influential form of domination; "socialist feminism," by contrast, tried to integrate sex, class and race into a holistic analysis.) Although today most Americans associate feminism with NOW and abortion-rights organizations, in fact the major feminist programs and ideas came from the larger multi-issue, left-wing, decentralized women's liberation tendency.

These silences are surrounded by a larger amnesia about social movements. Journalists typically take the easier path of featuring leaders and experts rather than the uphill climb of dramatizing participatory activism. A New York Times article this spring on the thirtieth anniversary of the New York State abortion legalization law managed to narrate its history without discussing the feminist picketing, lobbying, testifying and demonstrating that gave rise to the reform.

Both Susan Brownmiller and Ruth Rosen chose the uphill path. Both provide the reader plenty of vivid personalities while avoiding the confessional mode, but neither conceives of the movement as driven by celebrities. Both manage the challenge of writing from experience as participants but also from extensive research, especially interviews. Although Brownmiller's is the memoir of a leading activist and Rosen's is the work of a historian, the works are similar in emphasis, voice and scope. And both have similar deficiencies, as they unwittingly replicate the failure to analyze women's liberation as a social movement, and as a left-wing social movement in particular.

Susan Brownmiller's memoir In Our Time makes two particularly important contributions, which derive from her double position in the feminist movement. As a journalist who has written for the Village Voice, the New York Times and other major publications, Brownmiller is a superb interviewer and passionate storyteller. Her insider knowledge of journalism enables her to show how feminists were able to exploit the mainstream media in disseminating feminism and how they changed journalism in the process. As a feminist theorist and writer about rape and pornography--author of the influential Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975)--Brownmiller highlights the pioneering activism on those issues.

But her position as journalist and theorist of women's sexual victimization begets also the book's limitations. Brownmiller's story disproportionately features a network of New York City feminist journalists--of course, since this is her memoir and New York City is the media center of the United States. And she argues most strongly her point of view as a radical feminist who considers pornography and sexual violence feminism's top priority. These ideas were first advanced in Brownmiller's earlier book, which argued that rape functioned to terrorize and subordinate women. The fact that rape has been recognized as a war crime in the year 2000 is owing in part to Brownmiller's contribution.

Against Our Will was controversial from the moment it was published. In it Brownmiller advances the theory that rape is biologically determined. Because she called attention to anatomy as the basis of rape, she was accused of letting men off the hook, and, more recently, her work has been picked up by conservatives to undermine the antirape movement.

This biologistic thinking also underlay parts of the feminist case against pornography, of which Brownmiller was an architect. (The reader of her memoir might underestimate Brownmiller's leadership in this campaign, because she is not at all self-promoting.) Already in her 1975 rape book she had identified porn as a contributor to the climate that tolerated rape, and she challenged the ACLU "to pull off its blinders and acknowledge the danger in a virulent ideology that portrayed females as dehumanized objects to be used, abused, broken, and discarded." Following the lead of California feminists, Brownmiller helped initiate the New York campaign against porn in 1979. In New York, Women Against Pornography, supported financially by the League of New York Theater Owners, led tours of the Times Square commercial porn district. In the eighties this campaign veered from direct action to demands for censorship, following the strategy of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who drafted legislation that would have made porn ipso facto a form of sex discrimination, allowing women to sue its producers.

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