Second-Wave Soundings

Second-Wave Soundings

The women’s liberation movement, as it was called in the sixties and seventies, was the largest social movement in the history of the United States–and probably in the world.


The women’s liberation movement, as it was called in the sixties and seventies, was the largest social movement in the history of the United States–and probably in the world. Its impact has been felt in every home, school and workplace, in every form of art, entertainment and sport, in all aspects of personal and public life in the United States. Like a river overflowing its banks and seeking a new course, it permanently altered the landscape.

In fact, contrary to the punditry, which claims that the women’s movement is dead and that the public has turned against it, public-opinion research shows the opposite. In 1998 a Time/CNN poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe that feminists have been helpful to women; 53 percent of women that feminists are “in touch with the average American woman.” A separate poll among blacks found that 65 percent think black feminists help the black community.

The movement’s impact cannot be easily encapsulated. Its judicial and legislative victories include the legalization of abortion in 1973, federal guidelines against coercive sterilization, rape-shield laws that encourage more women to prosecute their attackers, affirmative action programs that aim to correct past discrimination–although not the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in 1982, just three states short of the required two-thirds.

But the most salient accomplishments occurred not in law but in the economy and the society, involving an accumulation of changes in the way people live, dress, dream of their future and make a living. Feminists turned violence against women, previously a well-kept secret, into a public political issue; made rape, incest, battering and sexual harassment understood as crimes; and got public funding for shelters for battered women. Because of feminist pressure, changes in education have been substantial: Curriculums and textbooks have been rewritten to promote equal opportunity for girls, in the universities and professional schools more women are admitted and funded, and a new and rich feminist scholarship has, in some disciplines, overcome opposition and won recognition. Title IX, passed in 1972 to mandate equal access to educational programs, has worked a virtual revolution in sports. As regards health, for example, many physicians and hospitals have made major improvements in the treatment of women; about 50 percent of medical students are women; women successfully fought their exclusion from medical research; and diseases affecting women, such as breast cancer, now receive better funding thanks to women’s efforts. In supporting families, feminists organized daycare centers, demanded daycare funding from government and private employers, developed standards and curriculums for early childhood education, fought for the rights of mothers and for a decent welfare system.

Feminists have also struggled for better employment conditions for women. They won greater access to traditionally male occupations, from construction to the professions and business. They entered and changed the unions and have been successful at organizing previously nonunion workers such as secretaries, waitresses, hospital workers and flight attendants. As the great majority of American women increasingly need to work for wages throughout their lives, the feminist movement tried to educate men to share in housework and childrearing. Although women still do the bulk of the housework and childrearing, it is also commonplace today to see men in the playgrounds, the supermarkets, PTA meetings.

Considering the enormity of these sea changes, astonishingly little has been published about this now thirty-five-year-old movement. Well-researched analyses of the movement can be counted on one hand. Part of the problem may be the movement’s very success: Its achievements–the work women do, the treatment women expect, the way women express themselves–have become the very air we breathe, so taken for granted as to be invisible, and so we do not ask how they came about. Furthermore, the largest and most grassroots part of the women’s movement is difficult to study precisely because it is so big, so decentralized, so varied and its records have not been systematically collected. Its lack of organizational structures and formal leadership have made it harder to appreciate the force of the movement.

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.

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.

The porn campaign provoked ideological war among feminists. To her credit, Brownmiller respectfully acknowledges the feminists on the other side, who pointed out that most porn is nonviolent, who opposed censorship and who objected to the antisexual attitudes of the antiporn groups. But she does not do justice to their critique. She does not explain the argument that male sexuality is socially rather than biologically determined, that men can change, that there might be nonsexist pornography. Since she considers sexual violence the root of all women’s subordination, it is reasonable that her memoir neglects a range of other campaigns that have been central to the women’s liberation movement: for affirmative action and comparable worth, equity in wages and benefits, for support for poor parents and children, for feminist art and culture.

Brownmiller’s conviction that sexual oppression is primary is consistent with her inadequate attention to issues of racism and class inequality. In her valiant 1975 denunciation of the trivialization and denial of rape, she underestimated the racist use of false accusations of the crime against black men–surprising, given that she had worked for civil rights in Mississippi. She is right to resist the scapegoating of feminism for its racism, in contrast to male-dominated New Left organizations such as SDS, which rarely receive critical scrutiny on this issue. But in her memoir she does not consider what made women of color so often feel alienated from the white women’s movement, nor does she investigate black women’s own feminism. Although Brownmiller is herself from a working-class background, she is similarly uninterested in the class politics of feminism. She does not consider how the women’s liberation movement was shaped by its racial (white) and class (professional middle-class) composition.

Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open is not a memoir but a history, in which the author rarely appears as an actor; to its credit the book does not focus on New York, as a disproportionate number of studies have done. Rather, the strength and weakness of Rosen’s account is its national scope and span of time. Beginning in the fifties, with the cold war’s imposition of conformist, conservative gender values, the book ends with the nineties conservative backlash and the integration of women’s emancipation into a global human rights agenda. Ambitiously, Rosen covers both the liberal feminism associated with NOW and the left women’s liberation movement. She traces the movement’s struggles, integrates the lasting gains feminism has bequeathed to all women and does not shy away from discussing internal conflicts. Because the book is so inclusive, one can use the index to find material on many different feminist projects and campaigns. In addition, there is a detailed chronology of developments and an excellent bibliography.

Rosen’s most striking contribution is a chapter on FBI surveillance of the women’s movement. Using the partial FBI file on women’s liberation in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, Rosen is the first author to examine the spying on and infiltration of the movement, in a discussion that shows that there were numerous informers in cities and even towns throughout the country. The New Left’s and feminism’s commitment to openness and direct democracy turned infiltrators’ work into child’s play, while the decentralization of the movement made agents’ reports bewildered and often bizarre, as well as exaggerated. The FBI labeled the journal Off Our Backs armed and dangerous. Although Rosen calls this chapter “The Politics of Paranoia,” in fact the movement was not wary enough of surveillance, provocation and deliberate use of misinformation.

But the breadth of the book is not accompanied by a coherent point of view, generalization and analysis. One anecdote follows another, and every story gets equal weight. Former participants in the movement like ourselves may enjoy finding quotations from friends, but non-insiders may find it difficult to make sense of the movement’s larger dynamics. The book has no unifying arguments and, although inclusive, does not help the reader to differentiate political and regional tendencies within the movement: For example, it does not identify the difference between NOW and women’s liberation, between socialist and radical feminism. By talking so reductively to readers, Rosen does not serve them well.

Yet the book does have biases, albeit not explicit. Like Brownmiller, Rosen concentrates on sexual issues, an emphasis that perpetuates conservative stereotypes of feminism. Her most substantive chapter takes up core feminist issues–sexuality, abortion, lesbianism, pornography and health–but the book does not give comparable weight to housework, equal wages, equal jobs, unionization, childcare, welfare, family or feminist theory and organization. The World Split Open goes out of its way to praise and defend Ms. magazine and Gloria Steinem, both against Betty Friedan and against the radical-feminist criticism of Steinem for knowingly participating in CIA-funded youth activities.

Another bias is a lopsided hostility to the New Left. Rosen’s criticisms–its macho posturing, its uncritical attitude toward violence and its dismissal of injustices toward women–are justified, but she does not acknowledge adequately the role of SDS and SNCC in providing vital education, skills and theory for early feminism. Furthermore, she portrays women’s liberation exclusively as a break, a walkout from the New Left, when in fact large parts of the movement continued to think of themselves as part of the left and to work intensively in anti-Vietnam War, anti-imperialist, antiracist and working-class community activism. Women’s liberation added a feminist analysis to the left’s analysis of all these movements–the problem, as Rosen recognizes, is that most of the New Left could not learn.

The limitations of these books are not surprising considering the rudimentary state of research on the women’s movement, and studies like Brownmiller’s and Rosen’s will add to the basis of future work. Still, Sara Evans’s Personal Politics (1979), Myra Marx Ferree and Beth Hess’s Controversy and Coalition (1985) and Alice Echols’s Daring to Be Bad (1989) remain unsurpassed as analyses of a social movement, because they make political arguments about movement trajectories. Brownmiller and Rosen depict the movement’s failures primarily as matters of emotional conflict, thereby replicating an alleged female inability to think in theoretical or structural frameworks. The radical-feminist insight that the “personal is political” was revolutionary in recategorizing issues like rape, housework and women’s underachievement as politically created, but the slogan is often misunderstood: The political becomes treated as personal, as in TV confessionals and therapy groups, rather than understanding the personal as politically constructed.

What kind of history of second-wave feminism is needed? The historical context of feminism needs to be recognized, not only in explaining the movement’s origins but also in analyzing its structure, ideology and limits. The movement’s continuing relationship to the left, and now to the revival of conservatism, requires more intensive scrutiny. The perspectives of working-class women and women of color need to be integrated, not merely added, into the account, considering both the autonomous activism of these groups and the source of their feelings of alienation and anger toward white middle-class feminism. Women’s liberation needs to be examined as a social movement, its victories, conflicts and failures understood not only as individual power struggles but as part of the challenge facing mass movements to exert political power and create leadership without sacrificing democracy.

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