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Feminism Regendering the Left


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Regendering the Left

in  early  1969, women organized a session on  women’s  liberation  during  a  “revolution- ary festival” at Essex University. The occasion was tense. Men, as well as women, were pres- ent  and  responded  by  dismissing  the  issues.

“At various times it seemed as if the meeting would go over the edge and end in acrimony and ridicule”:

For a moment the women’s resentment focused on a man who’d made a speech about political priorities. He said very self-importantly that in a revolutionary movement you couldn’t waste time on trivia, and the fact was that women sim- ply weren’t capable of writing leaflets. In the smaller meeting we held later a girl

[sic] hissed venomously through her teeth, “I always change his fucking leaf- lets when I type them anyway.”1

Such stories fill women’s accounts of 1968. If young women were clearly present in dem- onstrations and sit-ins, marching in CND and opposing  the  Algerian  War,  they  were decid- edly  not  on  the  podium.  In  1968,  girlfriends and wives were present with their men. They made the coffee and prepared the food, wrote the minutes and kept the books. They handled the   practical   tasks,   while   decision-making, strategizing  and  taking  the  limelight  stayed with  the  men.  Flagrantly  contradicting  the antihierarchical and participatory ideals of the

1968 movements,    this          taken-for-granted status  soon  led  to  anger:  “We  really  have  to battle  to  have  a  turn  to  speak,”  one  French woman               militant    complained,    but    “when

we’ve finished, we might as well not have bothered, they haven’t even been listening.”2

Sometimes there were public clashes, most notoriously at the Frankfurt

Congress  of  the  West  German  student  movement  SDS  on  13  September

1968.  Fed  up  with  the  male-sidedness  of  the  West  German  movement’s taboo-busting  sex  radicalism,  a  West  Berlin  Women’s  Liberation  Action Council began advocating radical childcare arrangements (Kinderla¨den, or storefront   daycare   centers)   to   begin   democratizing   relations   between women  and  men.  At the SDS  Congress, Helke Sander now demanded at- tention  to  “the  specific  problems  women  face,”  so  that  “problems  previ- ously hidden in the private sphere” could become “the focus for women’s political  solidarity  and  struggle.”  She  then  challenged  SDS  leaders  to  ac- knowledge their own alienation. The links between the strain of continuous public  militancy  and  private  unhappiness  had  to  be  addressed:  “Why  do you  talk  about  the  class  struggle  here  and  about  the  problem  of  having orgasms at home? Isn’t the latter worthy of discussion by SDS?”3

The  all-male  podium  responded  with  ribald  belittlement,  whereupon Sigrid  Ro¨ ger,  the  leadership’s  token  woman,  pelted  one  of  them  with  to- matoes.  By  November,  when  the  SDS  Congress  reconvened  in  Hanover, eight  autonomous  women’s  groups  had  formed.  They  turned  the  move- ment’s antiauthoritarian axioms against the sexism of its own political cul- ture.  “Liberate  the  socialist  stars  from  their  bourgeois  pricks,”  urged the Frankfurt  “Broads’  Committee”  (Weiberrat)  in  its  so-called  lop-them-off leaflet. The accompanying cartoon showed a woman proudly reclining with an  axe.  Mounted as  hunting trophies on the wall were two rows of idio- syncratic penises, each bearing an SDS leader’s name.4


These stories say two things. First, Women’s Liberation Movements, some- times  called  the  Second  Wave  after  earlier movements petering out in the

1920s,  were  dramatically  linked  to  1968.  The  West  German  movement crystallized  inside  SDS.  Various  small  Parisian  groups  converged  in  the French Mouvement de Libe´ration des Femmes during 1967–70, including Feminism-Marxisme-Action; Nous sommes en marche; Antoinette Fouque’s and  Monique Wittig’s group, which became Politique et Psychanalyse, or Psych  et  Po;  Les  oreilles  vertes;  and  the  Thursday  Group.5   In  Italy,  the Movimento  de  Liberazione  della  Donna  launched  in  Rome  in  June  1970 was  linked  to  the  Radical  Party  and  open  to  men,  while  other  groups— Collettivo della Compagne in Turin; Il Cerchio Spezzato in Trento; Rivolta Femminile in Milan; Lotta Femminista—formed directly in the crucible of

1968–69.6   Second, the moment of feminist truth was an infuriating expe- rience with Left misogyny, the shock of the sexist encounter.7

This  brought  a  dialectic  of  inspiration  and  anger.  The  British  revolu- tionary  newspaper  Black  Dwarf,  launched  by  socialist  academics,  poets, and activists amid the volatile intermixing of counterculture and New Left in  June  1968,  exemplified  the  tensions.  Sheila  Rowbotham  ran  a  theme issue on women’s oppression in January 1969 containing articles on single motherhood,  contraception,  women  in  unions,  Marxism  and  psychology, and  sexual  humiliation,  with  a  centerfold  manifesto  called “Women: The Struggle  for  Freedom.”  Yet  the  newspaper’s  designer  (“a  young  hippy,” radicalized via the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign) initially “overprinted [the manifesto]  on  a  naked  woman  with  the  most  enormous  pair  of  breasts imaginable.”  The general  response of the editorial collective to the theme was patronizing. One “left man” said “he supposed it had helped me ex- press my personal problems.” But it had “nothing to do with socialism.”8

Nevertheless,  change  was  afoot.  Rosalind  Delmar  went  to  her  first women’s meeting at the London School of Economics in summer 1968: “A male trade unionist came in and started telling us what to do. We told him to  go away, no  one  was going  to listen to him. There had always been a tendency  on  the  student  left  to  defer  to  industrial  workers  because  they were  felt  to  be  more  strategically  important  than  anyone  else—certainly more  than  women.  I  was  very  impressed  with  what we had  done.”9   Like Delmar, many came to Women’s Liberation through the student movement and  its  internationalist  campaigns,  further  pushed  by  the  seeming  irrele- vance  to  women  of  many  established  labor  movement  concerns.  In  the setting of embittered divisiveness produced by the student movement’s dis- tinctive politics, as Old Left politicians arrogantly disparaged direct action, participatory  democracy,  and  the  ethics  of  commitment,  younger  women who were tired of being disregarded easily looked elsewhere.

Thus 18-year-old Aileen Christianson entered politics in 1962 by march- ing with CND to Glasgow. After five years of university education in Ab- erdeen, she moved to a research position at Edinburgh University and dur- ing 1969–70 became radicalized through the Defence of Literature and the Arts  Society,  antiapartheid  direct  action,  and  the  campaign  against secret files. She was inspired by reading Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch in De- cember 1970. She helped run a local election campaign “on a platform of grass  roots  democracy”  and  laid  the  foundations  for  a  Residents’ Associ- ation. Then in 1974, she briefly attended the Edinburgh Women’s Libera- tion Conference.10

Born in 1937 from a working-class background, with a grammar school and university education, Audrey Battersby was a social worker living on her  own  in  Islington  with  three children. She went with a friend to Juliet Mitchell’s course at the Anti-University and helped form the Tufnell Park women’s group.11  My socialism . . . was totally male-dominated. I always took a back seat, I rarely said anything. I went, and did, and demonstrated and  whatever,  but  I  was  still  the  little  woman.”  Her  older  loyalties were now  remade:  “I’d  always  been  a  socialist,  anti-nuclear  marcher,  anti-

apartheid, that sort of thing, but this was different because it was our own struggle.”12

The first National Women’s Liberation Conference met in Ruskin Col- lege, Oxford, on 27 February 1970, drawing five hundred women (plus 60 children, 40 men) from around the country. They came from the handful of  London  groups,  Coventry,  Birmingham,  Nottingham,  Sheffield,  Leeds, Bristol,  and  elsewhere;  from  International  Socialism  and  Trotskyist  and Maoist sects; and from the National Joint Action Committee for Women’s Equal  Rights.  It  was  a  convergence  of  many  individuals,  mainly  in  their twenties, primed by immediate political experiences, personal biographies, and countercultural incitements for breaking away. Accounts agree on the newness, the empowering sense of an unexpected and clarifying collectivity. Some  participants  brought  a  wealth  of  cosmopolitan  backgrounds  in Europe and North America, while others “felt a bit like young girls from the  provinces.”  Another  strikingly  different  feature  was  the  presence  of children: “there were all these children, and there was going to be a creche, run by men.” For Sally Alexander, one of the organizers, the event was a

mind  blowing  experience,  which  brought  dispersed  “bits  of  myself . . . more together.” There was a general feeling of breaking through: “And I never went back to—or was ever remotely interested in—those sorts of bits and pieces of male left politics that I had picked up on and had seen a bit of.”13

The  practical  outcomes were a  National Women’s Coordinating Com- mittee and the Women’s Liberation Movement’s Four Demands: equal pay; equal education and opportunity; 24-hour nurseries; and free contraception and  abortion  on  demand. The first  national women’s march was planned for  International  Women’s  Day  next  year,  and  the  Conferences  now  met annually until 1978, when factionalism supervened.14   But the movement’s real presence lay in the local groups and campaigns. The London Women’s Liberation Workshop was a loose federation of small groups in the 1970s, for example, with 80 affiliates at its peak. It was antihierarchical and de- centralized, deliberately contrasting with “the traditional Left from which many of us had come.” It registered the passionate desire to rethink what politics involved: “We wanted to redefine the meaning of politics to include an analysis of our daily lives.”15

The  founders came through  the  student movement and similar experi- ences but were alienated  by  the gendered culture of militancy. They were often isolated by motherhood, highly educated but undervalued. They had professions  in  education,  health,  media,  and  the  arts.  They  were  mainly born in the 1940s. Of 10 founders of the Belsize Lane group still active in

1979, seven were aged 26–33 in 1969; seven were already mothers or preg- nant;  eight  were  in  the arts (theater, film, photography, writing, pottery); all had a profession (two social workers, two health workers, two writers, an  acupuncturist-photographer,  a  potter,  a  film  editor,  an  academic).16

There  were  no  links  to  earlier  twentieth-century  feminism.  There  was  a

sense of “all these people who were really new to politics [being] suddenly released to express themselves.”17

The Ruskin Conference came in a wider cluster of events.18  The earliest had  the  strongest  old  Left  links—the equal  pay  strike  at Ford Dagenham on 7–28 June 1968, where women sewing machinists demanded wage par- ity  with  welders,  metal  finishers,  and  body  repair  workers.19   This  strike provided the impetus for the National Joint Action Committee for Women’s Equal  Rights,  whose  campaign  culminated  in  the  Trafalgar  Square  Equal Pay  rally  of  May  1969.  Second,  Anne  Koedt’s  mass-circulated  pamphlet, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (1969), brought women’s sexuality into politics,  distinguishing  it  from  reproduction, separating pleasure from the penis,  and  converting  individual  “problems”  into  political  ones.  Thirdly, the  Tufnell  Park  group  leafleted  the  Ideal  Home  Exhibition  in  the  spring of  1969  to  reach  women  “in  their  roles  as  housewives,  consumers,  and mothers.” The action raised issues of housework, childcare, family, and the sexual  division  of  labor  via  critiques  of  consumerism  and  advertising.  It questioned the Left’s assumed “real” priorities—the “frozen notions of the proletariat and/or point-of-production politics.”20

Especially notable was the disruption of the televised Miss World pag- eant in November 1970. Women demonstrated outside the Albert Hall and infiltrated the audience, storming the stage at a prearranged signal, throw- ing smoke bombs and bags of flour. Four women stood trial for the action, using the dock as a platform. In 1969, protestors had worn sashes saying

“Mis-Fit Refuses to Conform,” “Mis-Conception Demands Free Abortion for  All  Women,”  “Mis-Fortune  Demands  Equal  Pay,”  “Mis-Treated  De- mands Shared Housework,” “Mis-Nomer Demands a Name of Her Own,” and seven similar slogans. This 1970 action mixed creativity, anger, direct action,  and  mass  media  in  turning  the  spectacle  of  women to spectacular use.  It  expressed  1968’s  typical  hostility  against  consumer  capitalism—

“Graded,  degraded,  humiliated. . . . Legs  selling  stockings,  corsets  selling waists, cunts selling deodorants, Mary Quant selling sex. . . . Our sexuality has been taken  away  from us, turned into money for someone else.” Ab- solving  the  contestants,  they  attacked  “our  conditioning  as  women,  and our acceptance of bourgeois norms of correct behavior.”21

The  national  demonstration  of  March  1971  brought  all  this  together: the Four Demands; links to working-class women and the labor movement via  the  campaign  for  equal  pay;  critiques  of  women’s  confinement  in  the family; public voicing of sexuality and politicizing of the body; attacks on consumerism,  commercial  exploitation,  and  public representations; an in- ventive  political  style.  Childcare campaigners parodied the nursery rhyme with  a  12-foot-high  Old  Woman’s  Shoe;  another  float  showed  childbirth

bedecked with strings of cardboard cut-out babies and sanitary towels”; banners  displayed  cosmetics,  bras,  and  corsetry,  “appropriating  the  ad- man’s appropriation of the movement”; women danced to Eddie Cantor’s

“Keep Young and Beautiful” on a wind-up gramophone on wheels.22


For British feminism, defense of the 1967 Abortion Act was the most salient national campaign. Women’s slow, uneven progress in unions was another. After  the  Ford  equal  pay  strike  came  the  protracted  night  cleaners’ cam- paign from the autumn of 1970. A women’s rights conference of the Na- tional Council for Civil Liberties at the TUC in February 1974, with 550 union  and  Women’s  Liberation  delegates,  was  the  first  explicit  coalition. The campaign for the 10-point Working Women’s Charter grew from grass- roots alliances of feminists and local union branches, often coordinated via trades councils. In 1975, the TUC incorporated these demands into its own Charter  for  equal  pay  and  opportunities,  maternity  leave, nondiscrimina- tory tax laws, and social security, later adding a proabortion statement and universal  childcare  in  1978.  The  TUC’s  official  march  for abortion rights in October 1979 mobilized one hundred thousand people.

But the Women’s Liberation Movement’s real center of gravity was the small  consciousness  raising  (CR)  group  (with  30–50  varying  participants in its weekly meetings), often attached to a women’s center, around which circulated many other actions—community childcare initiatives and drop- in  centers, claimants unions, squatting and housing campaigns, family al- lowance campaigns, women’s health groups, wages for housework, Work- ing Women’s Charter groups, links to individual unions, National Abortion Campaign  groups,  women’s  therapy  centers,  groups  on  nonsexist  educa- tion,  women’s  literacy  classes,  newsletters  and  local  newspapers,  and  of course study groups, all of them with leafleting, public meetings, research, and  direct  actions.  Feminists  agitated  other  contexts, from local meetings of  national  campaigns  (including  the  Labour  Party)  and  Women  and  So- cialism  events  to  new  initiatives  like  Women’s  Aid  for  battered  women, Gingerbread  for  single  parents,  Under  Fives  community  nursery  groups, and  so  on.  There  was  a  big  multiplier  effect:  “Every  action  taken  leads outwards,   has   wider   repercussions.   For   instance,   those   members   of consciousness-raising groups live in families, belong to unions or political parties, talk to the neighbors, take children to school, post letters, ring up friends. Ideas get around.”23

What was distinctive about this new feminism? The small Consciousness Raising group was the quintessential Women’s Liberation form: an ideal of unstructured, decentralized, nonbureaucratic association. For the British pi- oneers, who were often young mothers isolated from the public worlds they desired, this reflected everyday needs; neither workplace and profession nor parties  and  public  institutions gave usable supports. The CR group made the personal political, building collective identity around matters that pol- itics conventionally ignored—children, daycare, schooling, careers, health, housing,  loneliness,  and  of  course  husbands,  boyfriends,  and  partners.  It

encouraged expression of feelings and thought, the finding of voice. It was where the most difficult issues were aired. It was the ur-democratic form, where every member could speak and be heard.

This small-scale, participatory basis of Women’s Liberation expressed a vital  1968  legacy—the  revival  of  direct  democracy  and  direct  action,  the critique of alienation, the interest in self-actualization. This was a new vol- untarism,  a  politics  of  subjectivity,  making  personal  change  the  key  to emancipation. It also meant extraparliamentary politics, beyond the frame- works of electoral and party action, usually on a local footing. The “per- sonal”  meant  less  an  individualistic  private  domain  than  the  contexts  of everydayness—the  quotidian  and  the  local.  This  politics  was  profoundly contrary  to  old  Left  thinking  about  “the  party.”  Plurality  and  flexibility were the rule: ‘movement’ implied dynamism, adaptation, lack of rigidity, while ‘organization’ implied hierarchy, immobility, fixed structures.”24

Women’s Liberation also practised a subversive and exuberant political style.  It  meant  taking  the  culture’s  trappings  and  symbols,  its  most  cher- ished beliefs, and disordering them, playing with them, turning their mean- ings around, in acts of public transgression. It was a calculated acting-out, a  purposeful  disobedience,  a  misbehaving  in  public.  It  was  a  questioning of national institutions, designed to startle the complacencies of the largest public—like the laying of a wreath “to the unknown wife of the unknown soldier”  at  the  Tomb  of  the  Unknown  Soldier  in  Paris  in  August  1970.25

Street theater and agitprop were essential, from the Electronic-Nipple Show at the 1970 Miss World protest and the general parodying of conventions to the flourishing of feminist theater, as troupes like Monstrous Regiment and  Gay  Sweatshop  brought  new  themes  to  the  stage.26    In  the  Italian unions,  feminists  stepped  outside  the  time-honored  ritual  culture:  “They carried multicoloured banners (instead of the obligatory red), shouted fem- inist slogans, and publicly celebrated sisterhood where the traditional terms were fraternity.”27

Women’s Liberation was separatist. In Britain, the Skegness Conference of September 1971 showed that men’s participation wouldn’t work, a les- son repeated in small groups (“We met with the husbands at first, but they took over, so we had to stop”).28  Broader coalition building often mattered less than giving  women  a  separate political space. In France, abortion re- form was carried by Choisir, formed in April 1971, the French branch of International Planned  Parenthood, and the Mouvement pour la libe´ration de  l’avortement  et  contraception,  an  umbrella  federation  formed  in  April

1973, while Women’s Liberation itself preferred women-only small groups, producing  parallel  campaigns  also  found  in  Britain  and  elsewhere.  This principle  of  autonomy  brought  a  stronger  separatist  logic  toward  radical or revolutionary feminism and thence often to political lesbianism. Radical feminism  became a generalized stance against male power, not capitalism or bourgeois society. By the mid-1970s, this had a new edge. Radical fem-

inists attacked heterosexuality as such, dismissing straight women for sleep- ing with the enemy.

In  excluding men from its new center in Covent Garden in November

1973, the London Women’s Liberation Workshop forced socialist feminists onto the defensive.29  Its newsletter serialized “The Clit Statement,” an ex- treme polemic against heterosexual women by New York radical lesbians in summer 1974. Sheila Jeffreys’s pamphlet The Need for a Revolutionary Feminism in 1977 advocated overthrowing the ruling power of men. Leeds Revolutionary Feminists made political lesbianism the rule in 1979: “men should be avoided not because of sexual preference but as a political duty

. . . all  men  were  regarded  as  potential  rapists  and  heterosexual  women were  branded  as  collaborators.”30   Separatists’  rising  intolerance conflated feminist authenticity with sexual orientation. It narrowed Women’s Liber- ation’s organized framework just as it was taking off, sending socialist fem- inists and nonaffiliated women to other settings.

Still, expanding the Four Demands to include financial and legal inde- pendence  and  calling  for  “[a]n  end  to  all  discrimination  against  lesbians and a woman’s right to define her own sexuality” was a vital change. “Sex- ual  liberation”  was  big  in  the  counterculture,  which  wanted  sex  “out  in the open, an all-pervasive element of daily life: No boundaries, no taboos, no deviants, no hostages to guilt and repression; more sex, better sex, dif- ferent sex was on the agenda.” But Women’s Liberation made this an egal- itarian ideal, “committed to extending knowledge about the body and be- ing frank about female physiology,” while bringing women’s sexuality and erotic desires into public voice.31  It claimed the “private” sphere for change, seeing family and sexuality as key sites of power. Orgasm, contraception, abortion, body knowledge, control of sexuality, all joined the agenda. This body  politics  differed  from  that  of  the  1920s  and  1930s:  rather  than  ra- tionalizing  sexuality,  it  stressed  experimenting  with  female  agency  in  an ethic of choice and personal change, while questioning accepted definitions. In the early 1970s, these ideals converged with gay liberation. Despite much embitterment, the gain was huge: not only was lesbianism affirmed but the complicated factors shaping masculinity and femininity were brought into the political arena, as was the question of pleasure.32

With  the  radicalizing  of  separatism  into  political  lesbianism  came  a stress on violence against women. The first British battered women’s refuge was created in Chiswick in 1972: when the National Women’s Aid Feder- ation was launched in 1975, there were 111 similar groups, and by 1986 there were 179. Women Against Rape was formed, with Britain’s first rape crisis  center  in  North  London  in  1976;  by  1985,  there  were  45  centers nationwide.  Both  areas  displayed  the  feminist  dualism  of public lobbying and grassroots e´lan—bringing guilty secrets into the open, agitating opin- ion,  pressing  government  for support; yet organizing women for self-help in locally grounded collective action.

“Take Back the Night” actions pushed this further, attacking the climate of fear restricting women in public—red-light districts, porn shops, X-rated cinemas, men-only bars, violent and demeaning imagery in advertisements. Women marched rowdily through the streets of London and other cities on

12 November 1977, demanding freedom “to walk down any street, night or  day,  without  fear.”  This  progression,  from  exposing  physical  violence to  attacking  violent  representations  in  culture,  was  spurred  in  Britain  by public   sensationalism   and   police   sexism   surrounding   the   serial   rape- murders  of  the  “Yorkshire  Ripper”  in  1977–80.  On  27  November 1980,

10  days  after  the  thirteenth  killing,  Women  Against  Violence  Against Women  (WAVAW)  was  founded  in  Leeds:  “women  demonstrated  outside cinemas, glued up the locks of sex shop doors, smashed windows of strip clubs,   daubed   angry   messages  on   walls  (‘MEN  off  the  streets’),  and marched to ‘Reclaim the Night.”33

For WAVAW, male violence was a single system of control: “Sexual ha- rassment at work . . . rape and sexual assault . . . sexual abuse in the family

. . . obscene  phone  calls,  pornography,  rape  in  marriage  (unrecognized in law),  gynecological  practice  which  violates  women’s  bodies . . . we  dis- cussed them all.”34  This campaigning captured big public space for feminist ideas  and  by  1980  also  linked  to  the  new  peace  movement.  “Take  Back the Night” grew from the International Tribunal of Crimes against Women in Brussels in 1976, which made sexual violence a call to action: one hun- dred thousand women joined the Italian marches in fall 1976, and the first West  German  marches  occurred  shortly  thereafter.35    The  first  German

“Women’s House” for battered women opened in West Berlin in November

1976; by 1979, 14 cities had shelters; by 1982, there were 99. These and other initiatives had the British mixture of local militancy, public agitation, and city funds. But in West Germany, foregrounding violence also made it easier to form coalitions. The Declaration on “Violence Against Women” issued by the Democratic Women’s Initiative in Du¨ sseldorf in October 1979 explicitly linked this to “structural violence” elsewhere, in work, the arms race, and the environment. The Women’s Congress against Nukes and Mil- itarism in September 1979 made the same connections.36

Women’s  Liberation  also  changed  perceptions  of  work.  Not  only  by campaigning  on  low  and unequal pay  but also by demanding that home- work,  casual  service  work,  and  housework  be  valued,  feminists redefined the  very  category.  Wages  for  housework  drew  the  most  publicity.  Lotta Femminista’s Manifesto of Housewives in the Neighborhood (1971) in Italy demanded state payments to men and women, linked to neighborhood serv- ices, housing reform, and reorganizing the working day.37  While unrealistic when the welfare state was under attack and as likely to entrench as subvert existing sexual divisions of labor, this manifesto proposed expanding con- trol  over daily  life in  precisely  those “community” matters that the Left’s traditional  focus  on  the  factory  neglected,  like  housing,  transport,  town planning,  childcare,  worktime  and  leisure  time,  and  public  services.  This

new approach connected with contemporary transformations of class. Not only women’s growing presence in the workforce but also a new awareness of  the  sexual  division  of  labor  and  a  changing  grasp  of  what  counted  as work  upset  traditional  left-wing  assumptions  about  what  working-class politics should contain.

Women’s  Liberation  created  a  new  feminist  public  sphere.  First  came newsletters  linking  local  groups,  like  Shrew  for  London  Women’s Libera- tion  Workshop  (originally  Bird,  then Harpie’s Bizarre, from the spring of

1969),  followed  by  national  magazines—Spare  Rib  in  Britain  (launched

July 1972 by Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe); Le Torchon bruˆle (1970–

73) and its successors in France; Effe (1973) and Quotidiano Donna (1978) in  Italy;  Courage  (1976)  and  Emma  (1977)  in  West  Germany.  Women’s centers  followed. In  London,  these  ranged from the main gathering point at Covent Garden from 1973 to more improvised local centers. In Islington, the  York  Way  Women’s  Center  (1972–73)  was  followed  by  Essex  Road

(1974–76) and a third in 1978; each time a women’s health center, child- care arrangements, local campaigns, legal advice, research and writing pro- jects,  and  a  simple  meeting  place  were  the  main  goals.  Activity  in  the Netherlands crystallized around cafe´s and bookshops, Consciousness Rais- ing groups, and women’s education classes: in 1977, 37 Dutch towns had centers; by 1982, there were 160.38

British Women’s Liberation created the National Information Service in Leeds for the huge volume of queries and contacts outside London, with a bimonthly newsletter from 1975, which developed into WIRES (Women’s Information, Referral, and Enquiry Service). GLIFE was the equivalent in France from 1975, plus a 24-hour emergency hotline, SOS Femmes Alter- natives.  Feminist  publishers  began  with  Virago,  Women’s  Press,  Only- women Press, and Sheba in Britain; Edizione della Donna, I libretti verdi, and La Tartaruga in Italy; the Munich Frauenoffensive in West Germany; and  De  Bonte  Was  and  Sara  in  the  Netherlands.  Feminist  networks, like the  British  Women’s  Film,  Television  and  Video  Network,  formed  in  the media.  By  1980,  women’s  studies  had  gained  a  foothold  in  universities. Early grassroots activity became an elaborate feminist scene of alternative bookshops, publishers, magazines, Women’s Summer Universities, women’s studies research centers, ongoing campaigns, and safe houses, plus broader subcultures  of  self-help,  medical  self-care,  and  women’s  heath  networks. This  activity  recalled  the  social  democratic  subcultures  after  the  1880s, though without the centralized resources of national parties and unions.


Women’s  Liberation  movements  coalesced  nationally  via  abortion  cam- paigns.39   In  France,  this  was  dramatized  in  April  1971  by  the  “Whores

Manifesto” signed by 343 women in Le Nouvel Observateur declaring their experience of illegal abortions, a tactic repeated in West Germany in July, with 374  names  and  photographs appearing in Stern (plus another 2,345 women over the next six weeks, with 86,100 declarations of support). The French action achieved the freeing of four working-class women in Bobigny accused  of  procuring  an  abortion  for  a  teenage  daughter.40   In  West  Ger- many, the campaign built from the first National Women’s Conference in Frankfurt in March 1972; 1971 surveys showed 71 percent of women sup- porting  legalization,  rising  to  83  percent  in  1973.  In  Italy,  the  Collective of 6 December emerged from a 1975 rally to coordinate the campaign, and eight  hundred  thousand  signatures  were  collected  for  a  national  referen- dum.41   When  laws  were  passed  (France  1975,  West  Germany  1977, Italy

1978), they did not provide for free abortion on demand and usually reg- ulated  access  with  time  limits,  counseling  requirements, and sociomedical conditions.  But  the  campaigns  had  decisively  shifted  public  climates.  In both  Britain  and  Netherlands,  abortion  had  been  legalized  in  1967.  The National Abortion Campaign (NAC) and the broader Coordinating Com- mittee in Defense of the 1967 Abortion Act then worked to neutralize the backlash  in  Britain,  as  did  We  Women  Demand  and  its  successors  in  the Netherlands.

Abortion  campaigning  displayed  the  full  repertoire  of  Women’s Liber- ation politics: “big splash” events like demonstrations; subverting the law by  self-help  and  lay  provision;  and  lobbying  inside  the  system.  Women’s reproductive  rights  meant  control  of  sexuality  and  languages  of  auton- omy—Our Bodies, Ourselves, in the title of the universally translated hand- book, or “My Belly Belongs to Me,” in the West German slogan.42  Abor- tion  rallied  a  gender-based  collectivity  of  women  from  all  backgrounds, ages,  and  classes.  Campaigns  consistently  linked  abortion  to  economics, social rights, equality in households, sexuality, and family, all in critiques of  male  domination.  Thereby,  feminists  escaped the abstract sloganeering against  “capitalism,”  “bourgeois  society,”  and  “women’s  oppression”  to more concrete ground, where links to other issues were preserved. Feminists

“transformed abortions from being a civil rights issue into a struggle over how  power  was  being  exercised  in  society,”  involving  “not  just  the  state or the Church as institutions, but the ‘micro’ relations of power in everyday life.”43   Demands for controlling one’s body grounded more general claims to political identity. “Abortion” redefined the boundaries of politics per se rather  than  remaining  an  issue  by  itself.  Reproductive  freedom  issued  a challenge  to  society’s  dominant  values  by  questioning  existing  religious, medical,  and  political  authority.  It  brought  the  “body  politic”  itself  into question.44

Internationalism was essential, in a shared mobilization across not only Western Europe but also the Atlantic. United States Second Wave feminism predated European events. From the early books like Betty Friedan’s Fem- inine  Mystique  in  1963  and  the  creation  of  a  national  women’s  lobby  in

NOW  (National  Organization  of  Women)  from  1966  to  the  radicalizing collisions  with  the  sexism  of  Student  for  a  Democratic  Society,  Women’s Liberation happened first in the United States.45   But transnational circuits remained  active.  Young  American  women  were  in  the  earliest  Women’s Liberation  groups  in  London.  West  German  SDSers  were  also  in  London in  1968–70.  Helke  Sander’s  speech  of  September  1968  circulated widely, while translations, like Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex, Kate Millett’s Sexual  Politics,  and  Germaine  Greer’s  Female  Eunuch,  as  well  as  Anne Koedt’s pamphlet, were common. British Reclaim the Night marches were directly inspired by West German predecessors. After the transition to de- mocracy  in  1975–77,  Spanish  Women’s  Liberation  deployed  precedents from Britain, West Germany, and France. The publication of New Portu- guese Letters by the so-called three Marias in 1973, and the authors’ sub- sequent trial, became an international cause ce´le`bre.46

There were important crossnational differences, however. The strongest Women’s  Liberation  movements  were  in  Britain,  France,  Italy,  the  Neth- erlands,  and  West  Germany.47   Each  grew  from  “1968,”  while  angrily  re- jecting its sexist and gendered limits. They had a common pattern—small localized  groups,  with  a  participatory  ethos  of  direct  action,  evolving  to- ward  separatism,  with  sexual  politics  ever  more  primary,  and  achieving through  national  abortion  campaigns  wider  mobilization  among  women and  broader  alliances  in  the  Left.  As  national  movements,  Women’s  Lib- eration crested with these 1970s campaigns. But as conflicts opened along the  fundamental  divide  between  radical  or  revolutionary  versus  socialist feminisms, the momentum was dissipated.

Interestingly,  Scandinavia  lacked  distinct  Women’s  Liberation  move- ments in the 1970s. In April 1970, 12 Danish women (so-called Redstock- ings) organized a public protest against fashion and makeup called “Keep Denmark Clean,” which was followed by other small groups. In Norway, the  first  battered  women’s  helpline  appeared  in  Oslo  in  1977,  producing the  first  refuge  in  1978,  with  53  shelters  and  three  thousand  activists by

1991.48  But the broader framework of separately organized feminism didn’t coalesce  for  various  reasons:  legal  equality  within  marriage  had  already been achieved in Scandinavia by 1929; civil equality was matched by un- usually  high  female  employment;  relatively  “depatriarchalized”  welfare states offered positive citizenship for women; and the right to an abortion was already won.49

In  Austria,  Belgium,  and  Switzerland,  conservative  gender  regimes  in- hibited strong women’s movements. Smaller-scale feminisms focused either on  winning  the  vote,  as  in  the  Zurich  Manifesto  of  the  Swiss  Women’s Liberation  Movement  in  June  1968,  or  achieving  civic  equality,  as  in  the Austrian family law reforms of 1975–78 or the later Swiss counterparts of

1988. Women’s movements emerged via the democratic transitions in Por- tugal, Spain, and Greece in 1974–75 but were more attuned to parliamen- tary politics than Women’s Liberation per se. In Eastern Europe, there were

no  comparable  feminist  movements,  whether  in  the  Prague  Spring  or  the

Polish and Yugoslav student movements. By 1979–80, Women’s Liberation was running out of steam. Movements had  divided  over  sexuality  and  separatism,  over  political  alliances,  over organization. The conflicts of radical versus socialist feminists were a main case,  but  in  1972–74  British  socialist  feminism  too  became  divided,  as women from Marxist sects sought to capture the agenda, alienating others by  their  tactics  and  trying  to  corral  the  women’s  movement  into  a  single mass campaign focused exclusively on abortion, coordinated via a central committee.50  Gaps opened between theorists in universities and activists in the  trenches,  and  by  1978–79  unity  was  gone.  Black  British  women  also held  a  separate  conference  in  1979, attacking  Women’s Liberation for ig- noring race. In October 1983, the Reproductive Rights Campaign seceded

from the NAC to place black and Third World women at the center. In Italy, fragmentation took a dramatic turn. The Communist leadership simply dissolved the UDI at its Eleventh Congress in May 1982, converting it from “a formal, centralized, hierarchical association to a loose network of  local  women’s  groups.”  UDI  had  become  a  gathering  point  for “every type  of  autonomous  women’s  initiative  ranging  from  gymnastic  classes, handicraft cooperatives, and holistic medical groups, to women’s legal aid collectives.” But this was a huge strain for its leadership—beholden to po- litical  strategy  decided  elsewhere  by  the  PCI,  used  by  the  wider  women’s movement as a default resource, yet with dues-paying members whose out- look fell far short of the new self-actualizing Consciousness Raising ideals.

“The  old  model  of  militancy  no  longer  holds  up,”  the  UDI  leaders  now insisted  and  withdrew from  an  impossible  situation.51   In one form or an- other, disunity overcame Women’s Liberation politics throughout Europe.


Second Wave feminism failed to institutionalize itself nationally, and in the case of the  UDI a  major existing  movement specifically sacrificed itself to build  e´lan  from  the base.52   The “tyranny of structurelessness” was a par- ticular  problem.  The  desire  to  overturn the  Left’s calcified proceduralism, where  podiums  ruled  meetings  and  executives  set  agendas,  was  basic  to Women’s  Liberation,  counterposing  the  egalitarian  democracy  of  face-to- face groups, where all had a voice and decisions crystallized by consensus. But the resulting free-for-all allowed hidden leaderships to form, and “the anti-institutional, directly participatory perspective created real barriers to continuity,  communication,  and  critical  analysis.”53    Women’s  liberation thrived on its spontaneity. But the same quality vitiated its staying power as  a  cohesive  political  force.  Creativity  flashed  brilliantly  and  then  dis- persed.

One response was to enter the Left’s mainstream. Feminists found niches in  the  Left’s  existing  frameworks.  One  place  was  local  government,  via funding  and  facilities  for  childcare,  legal  aid,  women’s  health,  and  adult education. Legislation and labor movement traditions provided links—via public services in Scandinavian social democracies or the PCI Red Belt of the  Po  Valley  and  industrial  cities  like  Turin  and  Milan.  The  Italian  150

Hours movement—work-study release first won by metalworkers in 1972—

became  a  key  area,  as  were  publicly  funded  free  women’s  clinics  from

1975.54   Similar converging of Women’s Liberation with Left local govern- ment  occurred  via  Labour  in  Britain,  as  in  the  campaign  of  the  Women’s Action  Committee,  formed  in  1981,  for  party  recognition  of  women’s is- sues,  or  the  projects  of  the  Women’s  Committee  of  the  Greater  London Council and other Labour-controlled cities.

Left parties dealt with new feminisms unevenly, to say the least. “What do you want to do that for? To discuss Lenin’s views on lingerie?” was the Labour  Party  secretary’s  reaction  to  the  forming  of  a  women’s  section  in Newcastle  East.55   The  two  largest  CPs,  the  French  and  Italian,  suggested the  poles.  Both  had  the  classic  record  on  the  “Woman  Question”—econ- omistic stress on women as workers, plus broader campaigning on mater- nity, social issues, and consumption, within movement cultures of sexism. Feminism per se was seen as a bourgeois diversion. Both parties sought to break  these  habits  in  the  Eurocommunist  turn  by  integrating  the  new women’s  movements.  Yet  if  Italian  Communists  responded  in  good  faith, the  French  instrumentalized  the  women’s  movement  in  1976–78  only  to shed  feminist  garb  when  the  Union  of  the  Left  was  gone.  At  the  PCI Women’s  Conference  in  February  1976,  Geraldo  Chiaromonte  used  “lib- eration” affirmatively, pledging the PCI to a feminist course. In Paris South, one of the PCF’s strongest Eurocommunist sections, a feminist influx sus- tained a Women’s Commission with regular monthly attendance of 50, but once the party resumed a strong workerist line in 1978, Women’s Libera- tion  motifs  became  squelched,  militants  left,  and  by  1979  the  Women’s Commission was dead.56

Socialist  feminism  had  very  low  success  in  transforming  existing  Left parties. These addressed women’s issues in old-style institutional ways. In France, Mitterrand’s 1981 Socialist government created the Ministry of the Rights  of  Women  under  Yvette  Roudy,  and  some  laws  were  eventually passed,  like  Penal  Code  revisions  on  sexual  harassment  in  1992.  But  the French  Socialist  governments attended more to equality-style lobbies, like Choisir or La  Ligue des  droits des femmes—to the “representation of in- terests” rather than a Women’s Liberation politics of “collective identity.”57

In  Spain,  the  PSOEgovernment  created  the  Institute  of  Women  in  1983, with  regional  institutes  in  Andaluci´a,  Valencia,  the  Basque  country,  and Catalonia  and  smaller  ones  elsewhere.  This  gave  the  women’s  movement access to resources, influence in the Ministry of Social Affairs, and elaborate public responsibilities—for coordinating equality policies and public cam-

paigns, running programs for employment and training, health and social services, culture and education, generating research, and funding projects.58

The  Socialist  government’s  longevity  gave  feminist  policy-making  an  im- portant continuity from 1983 to 1996.

Women’s Liberation did assure greater visibility in the public sphere. By the early 1990s, women’s parliamentary presence was still languishing be- low 10 percent in Greece, France, Britain, Portugal, and Belgium; in Italy, it actually declined from 16 percent to 12.9 percent during the 1980s and to a mere 8.1 percent in 1992. On the other hand, Spanish women’s share of  ministerial  posts  and  parliamentary  seats  rose  from  5  to  13  percent. Quotas became one way of improving women’s presence: French Socialists finally gave women one-third of party lists and government posts in 1997, and  the  PSOEadopted  a  target of  25  percent in  1988.  For the first time, the  Italian  Communists  also  moved  in  1986–87  to  a  system  of  women’s quotas in party positions.

In  Norway,  such  progress  was dramatic. An  early  campaign of 1967–

71 reduced the prevalence of all-male municipal councils, boosting women’s representation  in  nine  large  cities  to  parity.  The  Socialist  Left  Party  used quotas  from  1974,  copied  reluctantly  by  Labor  in  1984. Women  held 36 percent of parliamentary seats by 1989 and 42 percent of government posts in 1995. By the 1990s, women’s parliamentary presence was high elsewhere in Scandinavia—33 percent in Denmark, 38.1 in Sweden, and 38.5 in Fin- land—followed  by  the  Netherlands,  Austria,  and  West  Germany.59    By

1992, women in the main parliamentary delegations of the Left varied from roughly parity in Norway and Sweden through 18–35 percent in Denmark, the Netherlands, West Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain and down to less than 10 percent in Greece, Belgium, France, and Britain.60

Thus several continuing patterns of feminism emerged. Autonomous ac- tivity remained vital—intellectually and culturally, socially, and in myriad local forms—though rarely as a centered women’s movement with national organization.  Spectacular  actions  and  national  mobilizations also still oc- curred—usually  to  defend  existing  gains,  such  as  the  efforts  in  1979  and

1982  to  defend  abortion  in  France.  The  most  impressive  was  in  Iceland, where feminists called a  general strike for equal pay and other antidiscri- minatory  demands  in  1975,  bringing  90  percent  of  all  Icelandic  women out; this was repeated on the tenth anniversay through the Women’s Alli- ance,  which  in  1987  went  on  to  win  six  parliamentary  seats.61   Where socialists governed, as in France, Spain, and Scandinavia, and in many cities across  Europe,  women’s  interests  were  pursued  more  conventionally  via funding, legislation, and institutional supports, inflected with Women’s Lib- eration radicalism.

Above all, the new feminism devolved onto civil society—onto multiple sites,  sometimes  inside  the  distinctively  feminist  public  sphere, sometimes in  the universities,  media, and arts, sometimes in professionalized spheres of  healthcare  and  social  services,  sometimes  in  the  world  of  unions  and

work, and sometimes in varieties of social activism. This was a variegated ground  from  which  politicals  could  begin,  intermediate  between  formal politics  and  the  everyday.  It  was  not  often  connected  to  traditional  Left mobilizations, through socialist or Communist parties organizing via elec- tions to form a government. More often, a sympathetic government—na- tionally,  in  cities,  in  small  communities—gave  resources and an  umbrella for  decentralized  action,  as  in  many  Italian  examples.  This  politics  built from the ground, seeding possibilities for a still undefined future.


Mary  Kay  Mullan,  born  in  1950,  was  an  18-year-old  student  at  Queen’s University  Belfast  when  she  joined  People’s  Democracy  in  the  Northern Irish  Civil  Rights  Movement.  After  a  year’s  frenetic  agitation  (“marches, meetings, pickets, leafleting, sit-ins, traffic disruption, and all types of non- violent public direct action”), she marched with People’s Democracy from Belfast  to Derry in January 1969, when the brutality at Burntollet Bridge radicalized the civil rights struggle into a 30-year civil war.62

After traveling abroad in 1972–75, she returned to Derry to teach, fo- cusing  her  feminism  in  a  Consciousness  Raising  group  and  a  course  on

Women  in  Irish  Society.”  She  helped  found  a  Woman’s  Aid  Refuge—

squatting, negotiating, publicizing, fundraising, learning about Social Se- curity, housing laws, and laws affecting women’s status . . . organizing pe- titions,  lobbying  MPs  and  Ministers.”  She  helped  organize  campaigns against  rape,  domestic  violence  and  sexual  abuse,  while  coming  out  as  a lesbian. In November 1978, inspired by Centerprise in Hackney, East Lon- don,  she  opened  Bookworm  Community  Bookshop  in  Derry  city  center, which flourished into a workers’ cooperative. By 1988, activity had diver- sified  still  further:  a  women’s  health  collective;  the  Rape  and  Incest Line; the  Family  Planning  Association  branch;  the  Women  in  Trade  Unions group; Women’s Aid; creche campaigns and playgroups; study groups; as- sertiveness  classes;  the  monthly  Derry  Women’s  Newssheet;  and  a  set  of connections to Sinn Fein and Prisoners’ Relatives Action Committees, from an independent feminist standpoint.63

This  example  eloquently  makes  the  point:  by  the  1980s  feminism had not  “transformed  society,”  but  the  utopianism  of  Women’s  Liberation—

its wild wish”—had redefined “the scope and conceptualization of what is politics.”64  As politics moved right, this changing of categories happened increasingly   in   the   private   zones—in   personal   relationships,   in   small groups,  in  alternative  spaces,  and  in  fashioning  new  cultures,  away  from the main throughfares of party and state, although still shaped and enabled by larger structural changes in employment, social policies, education, pub- lic   health,   family   organization,   and   popular   culture   much   as   before. Women’s  Liberation’s  distinctive  arguments remained urgently relevant to

how those changes could be handled—“for rethinking work, time, the so- cial forms of technology, the utilization and distribution of resources and power, the role of the state, the bringing up and educating of children.”65

Feminist  insistence  on  politics’  relationship  to  ordinary  living,  on  the  im- portance of sexuality, on the interconnections of body and mind, on pleas- ures rather than disciplines, consumption rather than production, has trans- formed the starting  points  for thinking about political change, expanding the Left’s assumptions about what the category of politics contains. “The personal is political” gave individual autonomy new meanings. It brought principles  of  equality  and  democracy  into  human  relationships  in  new ways.

In reaffirming and simultaneously recasting feminism’s historic goals of women’s equality and emancipation, the new women’s movement had also effected a remarkable public breakthrough. In spearheading the growth of democracy in the earlier twentieth-century reform settlements of 1917–21 and  1945–47,  socialist  and  Communist  parties  had  certainly  brought women’s  demands  into  the  political  foreground.  But  political  and  civil equality  was  always  compromised,  and  often  badly  undermined,  by  the persisting  systems  of  gendered  economic  discrimination  and  welfare state innovation, whose dominant maternalist presuppositions continued to as- sign women a dependent and subordinate place. Whenever the socialist Left came  close  to  power,  it  seemed,  established  gender norms invariably pre- vailed,  from  the  imposing  municipal  socialisms  of  the  1920s  through  the Popular fronts to the reforming social democracies after 1945. During that era,  once  the  suffrage  was  won,  feminisms  observed  the  same  dominant strictures:  motherhood  was  the  appropriate  foundation  for  citizenship claims; the family was the primary referent for women’s political identity. It was this powerful framework that Women’s Liberation broke apart. Through  the  anger  and  tumults  of  the  pioneering  years,  initiated  by  the courageous and determined acts of small groups but broadening into mass campaigning around issues of reproductive rights, safety, and health, public political agendas became unsettled, fractured, and then unevenly but last- ingly  recomposed.  At  the  center  of  this  feminist  political  process,  for  the first time, was an unequivocal critique of the family. By shifting the burden of  women’s  emancipation  onto  the  family’s  importance  in  the  shaping  of personhood,  Women’s  Liberation  opened  a  space where  questions of sex- uality,  child-raising,  gendered  divisions  of  labor,  ideologies  of  the  family wage, the tracking  of  girls into feminine futures at school and work, and the  generalized  masculinity  of  the public sphere could all be addressed in new  ways.  Feminists  compelled  the  Left  to  reconsider  its  assumptions re- garding the coordinates of democracy and the good life. Henceforth, public policy  was  to  be  judged  not  just  by  its  contribution  to  the  provision  of basic  social  goods,  vital  those  these remained, but also by  its role in per-

petuating or changing gender relations.

How  exactly  Left  politics  would  be  affected,  given  the  crisis  of  social democracy,  the  failure  of  Eurocommunism,  the  changing  composition  of class,  and the dissolution  of the postwar settlement, remained to be seen. The  force  of  these  developments,  which  placed  the Left so  powerfully on the  defensive  in  the  1980s,  diminished  the  divisiveness  of  the  conflicts within feminism. While the heyday of Women’s Liberation was over, fem- inists found ways of cooperating both with each other and in overarching frameworks of the Left. The ascendancy of the Right—Thatcherism in Brit- ain, Kohl and Christian Democracy in [West] Germany, the DC and Craxi’s Socialist Party in Italy, and the variegated hegemony of neoliberal policies throughout Europe—overrode differences for the purposes of common ac- tion. The rise of the new Cold War, the threat of nuclear destruction, and the growing consciousness of the world environmental catastrophe all gave impetus to feminist convergences within the Left. The transnational Peace Movement and the rise of Green politics supplied the practical terrain on which new alliances could begin.


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