Liberation Movements: Birth and Transformation
The articulation of interests in the women’s liberation movement differs from the articulation in working-class feminism in a number of ways. Its main feature has been the construction of a collective project whose theme is the generalization of women’s struggles across different settings, relationships and areas of life. It arose on a much narrower social base but achieved an intensity of commitment and degree of self-consciousness unparalleled in sexual politics.
Much has been made of the ‘middle-class’ character of this
movement, which orthodox marxists commonly lumped with liberalism as ‘bourgeois feminism’. While there always have been working-class activists in women’s liberation, its major social base is undeniable. Most of the early activists were white, tertiary – educated, belonged to a particular generation, lived in big cities and either came from well-off families or could expect to get well- paid jobs as teachers, journalists, welfare workers and the like. The movement has continued to recruit more from students in higher education than from elsewhere, though there is now a second generation of activists. Broadly it is a movement of the intelligentsia, if that is taken to include professions and semiprofessions.
To recognize this base is not to discredit the movement, except on the crudest view of class interests. Rather it raises questions about the particular kind of articulation of women’s interests accomplished here, and the particular circumstances that allowed such a project to emerge.
The first point is the more debated. The account of women’s interests produced in women’s liberation was for the most part based on categorical theory. As Hester Eisenstein argues, this easily led to a ‘false universalism’ that assimilated the situations of Third World, black and working-class women to the situation of affluent whites. This has changed, at least at the level of movement practice. There have been attempts to address the concerns of migrant and black women in the rich countries, and to take a less imperialist view of women’s politics in the Third World. They remain an amendment rather than a reconstitution of the movement.
The impulse behind the earliest women’s liberation groups was the contradiction between the radical democracy professed by the men of the ‘New Left’ and their actual exclusion and exploitation of women. Lynne Segal convincingly argues that 1960s radicalism was more than a target. Its critique of the family and its liberal attitudes to sex had helped emancipate younger women despite the alienated sexuality and frequent selfishness of radical men. The pursuit of personal freedom and attempts to build a ‘radical self highlighted questions of emotional relationships and personality, which were shortly to become central concerns of women’s liberation consciousness-raising groups. The contrast between student activism and the workers in Cavendish’s factory highlights the importance of free time and material resources in shifting the
grounds of sexual politics. The movement has survived on a material base which working-class feminism does not have: the incomes of professional women (financing journals, films, conferences, women’s houses etc.), access to the state for the funding of women’s services, and the unpaid labour of women without young children.
The work of activists in the first half-dozen years created not only campaigns against injustices but also a political resource. The collective project was materialized, and to some extent institutionalized, in definite ways. First and most important was the allegiance of some thousands of women in each of the major cities of the rich capitalist countries. ‘Allegiance’ meant practices like CR groups, turning out for demonstrations, coming to meetings, reading and sometimes subscribing to feminist publications. It also meant a loyalty to the movement. Many participants came to define themselves politically as feminists before anything else, and to identify closely with the women who had been through the same campaigns and helped each other change their lives.
The second dimension of the resource was a network of institutions and enterprises based on feminist ideas or catering for a feminist clientele. The listings in the New Woman’s Survival Catalog of 1973 are a measure of what had been established in the United States in a few years: feminist publishing houses, art galleries, rock bands, clinics, schools and courses, rape crisis centres, businesses, legal practices, women’s centres, newsletters and magazines, theatre companies, and campaign groups of many kinds. Also growing by the mid-1970s was a feminist presence in the state, notably in the welfare bureaucracy and universities, and in political parties and unions.
Third, less tangible but also important, was the growing credibility of feminist ideas and of the movement as a representative of women’s interests; credibility both among women outside the movement and among men. Ideas spread despite the lack of mass organization. Thus Elaine Markham stated a general principle of sex equality in language undoubtedly derived from feminism, and the workers in Ruth Cavendish’s factory did much the same. We were surprised to hear, in schools like Elaine’s, a considerable number of boys also endorsing the principle of equality. The funding of feminist refuges, with some difficulties but not intense resistance, illustrates the credibility acquired with men in the bureaucracy over an issue like domestic violence.
In a sense feminist theory predicted the creation of this resource: ‘sisterhood is powerful’, women together can make things happen. But categorical theory assumed it was a resource for women at large and had little to say about which particular women did or should direct it. In the mid-1970s several developments made this issue acute. The recession squeezed state expenditure on welfare and made it progressively harder to fund feminist welfare and education initiatives. It also led to mass unemployment among younger women and made it harder to open up new fields of employment. At the same time right-wing mobilizations developed against feminism on issues like abortion rights and the American ERA. Though there are no membership figures it seems likely that in the second half of the 1970s the women’s liberation movement had either stopped growing, or at best was expanding much more slowly than the pace of the early 1970s.
In this context differences of opinion and strategy once easily accommodated were liable to harden into factional conflict. A struggle for hegemony developed within feminism whose stake was control of the political resource that the’movement had created. None of the major tendencies proved strong enough to eliminate the others. In Britain for instance the result of a deepening series of conflicts, over issues of sexuality especially, was the shipwreck of the movement’s national conferences, the last of which was held in 1978. In the first half of the 1980s the public face of women’s liberation was increasingly presented by the ‘woman-centred’ ethos of cultural feminism, and by the political priorities of radical feminism (in the narrower sense) with a focus on ‘male violence’ as the means of oppression, men’s hostility and power-seeking as the reason, and separatism as the strategic response. This strategy capitalized on resources generated within the movement and the possibility of turning it into a community, at the price of making the movement less accessible to those outside.
At one level this account reinforces a point already made, that there can be no single articulation of a structurally defined interest. The projects of socialist feminism, political lesbianism and so forth, have common ground but also cut across each other. At another level it shows the power of structural alignments once they are articulated at all. For the most remarkable feature of these events is the persistence of the movement despite sharp internal conflicts, changes of circumstance from boom to recession, changes of practice with the rise and decline of CR groups, and
an increasingly hostile political environment.
In some ways the political history of gay liberation seems very like that of women’s liberation. It emerged at much the same time and in the same metropolitan centres, used similar political tactics and rhetoric, grew rapidly in the same years, developed and factionalized in the 1970s. It too has been characterized by tension between a socialist wing and another more concerned to build a self-sustaining community and to develop gay culture. Like women’s liberation it has had a highly ambivalent relationship with the state, often attacking it for anti-homosexual laws, police violence against gays and court discrimination against lesbian mothers, but also wanting to use it for antidiscrimination legislation and welfare provision.
In other ways the story is very different. Women’s liberation developed out of a long history of women’s mobilizations, and has operated as the radical end of a spectrum of women’s organizations in parties, churches, charities and so on. While there is a history of homosexual rights groups going back to the turn of the century, among them Magnus Hirschfeld’s ‘Scientific Humanitarian Committee’ in Germany, the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis in the United States, they had always been small. Modest successes in gaining toleration, for instance through the 1958 Wolfenden Report in Britain, were achieved by alliance with liberals in the establishment, not by mass mobilization of gays. It was assumed that was impossible because of legal repression and public hostility. The ‘Stonewall riots’ that launched gay liberation were sparked by a routine piece of policing by New York’s Finest; only the response was not routine. Within a very short time the mobilization undoubtedly had brought into political campaigns more people than all previous homosexual organizations put together. Gay liberation stood alone to an extent women’s liberation never did, and at least in its early days was the only significant articulation of the interest of gay people.
The second difference is that gay liberation, an articulation of interest based on the structure of cathexis, was built across the major divide in gender relations. So far as the interests of women and men diverge, the movement has an inbuilt tendency to divide. In law reform, for instance, lesbians are more affected by the operation of marital law, such as custody issues, and homosexual men more affected by the criminalization of sexual intercourse. What constitutes them as members of an oppressed group is in
some ways different. There is much more violence against homosexual men than against lesbians, and male homosexuality has historically aroused more horror among straights. On their side lesbians suffer not only the stigmatization of homosexuality but also the social, psychological and economic penalties attached to being women. Politicized lesbians often have a stronger commitment to women’s liberation as a movement than to gay liberation. For the most part ‘gay politics’ has been gay men’s politics; the 1984 conference of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in Britain, to take one example, had five women and fifty men. It is understandable that the political relationship between lesbians and gay men has been complicated and often tense.
Third, the relationship between politics and community is different from that in women’s liberation. To some extent a gay community existed before gay liberation, in clandestine networks and around beats and gay bars. The movement brought it into the open and gave it a massive stimulus. The growth of ‘gay capitalism’ since is familiar. There is some parallel in the growth of entrepreneurial feminism but the balance of forces is very different. By the late 1970s the proprietors of gay businesses had emerged in a number of cities as an alternative leadership. They articulated the interests of gay people in a very different way, having themselves a strong interest in the consolidation of gay identities and none at all in revolutionizing sexuality in the rest of society. The early gay liberation slogan that ‘every straight man is a target for gay liberation’ meant nothing in this context except an invitation to trouble. Dennis Altman points to the tendency to reconstitute gay politics as an interest group on the model of ethnic communities, seeking accommodations with the state and other interest groups.
As this tendency has gathered strength, the socially radical thrust of gay liberation easily becomes pitted against the trends that are giving social identity and personal self-confidence to homosexual people in their ‘private’ lives. Gay liberation increasingly was at risk of losing the base it had created. This strategic dilemma has not been easily resolved. The deconstructionist debate already discussed is one consequence. Another is a turn by political activists to electoral politics and the local state, with some success in San Francisco, Sydney and London. Thus gay politics have come by a different route from feminism to the problem of maintaining a radical presence inside the state.
Movements for a progressive sexual politics among heterosexual men have been on a very small scale by comparison. The 1970s talk about ‘men’s liberation’ has already been mentioned. Most of it was based on a sex-role perspective on gender that ignored questions of power and exploitation. The group that holds predominant social power cannot be ‘liberated’. The issues about the reconstruction of masculinity raised by this beginning were real enough and keep coming back, in feminist writing as well as men’s. The difficulty of constructing a movement of men to dismantle hegemonic masculinity is that its logic is not the articulation of collective interest but the attempt to dismantle that interest. While there are good reasons to do this, some of which I listed in the Introduction, the chances of a widespread mobilization on this basis are slim.
The focus of counter-sexist politics among heterosexual men has therefore been domestic. I would guess that most energy has gone into the completely private renegotiation of relationships with feminist women in the context of individual sexual relationships and households. There has been little exchange of ideas or experience among the men involved. The exceptions to this are the ‘men’s groups’, modelled on feminist CR groups, that still exist, and a degree of networking in the left-wing community politics discussed above.