Regendering the Left
in early 1969, women organized
on women’s liberation during a
“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
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
CREATING MOVEMENTS: FEMINISM OF THE SECOND WAVE
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
and Monique Wittig’s group,
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
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
Born in 1937 from a
her own in Islington with three children. She
apartheid, that sort of thing, but this was different because it was our own struggle.”12
The first National Women’s
“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
alienated by the gendered culture
professions in education, health, media, and the arts. They were mainly born 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
WOMEN’S LIBERATION AND THE NEW POLITICS
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
producing parallel campaigns also found in
inists attacked heterosexuality as such, dismissing straight women for sleep- ing with the enemy.
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.
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 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
July 1972 by Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe); Le Torchon bruˆle (1970–
in Italy; Courage (1976) and Emma (1977) in West Germany. Women’s centers followed.
jects, and a
simple meeting place were the main goals. Activity in the
British Women’s Liberation created
FROM WOMEN’S LIBERATION TO FEMINISM
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
ulated access with time limits, counseling requirements, and
conditions. But the campaigns had decisively shifted public climates. In both
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
NOW (National Organization of Women) from 1966 to the radicalizing collisions with the sexism of Student for a
Democratic Society, Women’s Liberation happened
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
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.
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
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
“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.
THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT AND THE LEFT
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.
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
the Po Valley and industrial cities like
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.
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
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,
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—
titions, lobbying MPs and Ministers.” She helped organize campaigns against rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse, while coming out as a lesbian. In November
don, she opened Bookworm Community Bookshop in
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,
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.
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