The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century: Overviews

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SOURCE: Ferree, Myra Marx, and Beth B. Hess. "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Defending Gains, 1983-92." In Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement across Three Decades of Change, rev. ed., pp. 159-93. New York: Twayne, 1994.

In the following essay, Ferree and Hess explore key developments affecting the women's movement between 1983 and 1992, noting changes in strategy used to preserve gains in the areas of reproductive rights, employment law, and political life.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the national political agenda shifted markedly toward the Right. In the following decade, under both Presidents Reagan and Bush, many fronts on which feminist gains had been realized in the 1970s came under direct attack. Outspoken anti-feminists were appointed to the judiciary and placed in charge of civil rights enforcement; social programs benefiting poor women were cut or abandoned; and reproductive choice was openly opposed. For the New Feminist Movement, the major challenges of the 1980s included maintaining public approval for positions that a popular president and the federal government no longer supported; resisting efforts to reframe feminist concerns in hostile language; and defending feminist organizations and their members from direct, sometimes violent, attack.

In this chapter, we argue that the hostile climate in which the New Feminist Movement existed in this period led to major changes in organization, strategy, and emphasis. We call this decade one of "defensive consolidation" because much of the movement's efforts were directed at defending feminist perspectives and programs, and because such efforts required more extensive consolidation among feminist organizations regardless of their specific form of feminist perspective (radical, socialist, liberal, or career) or organizational strategy (educational/political, direct action/self-help, or cultural/entrepreneurial). Much of this consolidation occurred along substantive lines. That is, whereas in previous decades one could more easily speak of "the" women's movement, there now appeared to be many specific movements—the battered women's movement, the reproductive rights movement, the antirape movement, the pay equity movement, to name just a few—and these specialized movements drew on the organizational strengths and individual skills of feminists in a variety of social locations to effect progress on specific issues.

For example, the battered women's movement came to include the following: openly feminist public officials and legislators working on this issue; managers, employees, board members, and volunteers at community-based shelters; people who turned out for demonstrations or wrote checks or letters of support for programs; community activists and educators; supportive law enforcement personnel and lawyers. The variety of their efforts meant that laws were passed, implemented, and monitored for effectiveness; programs were funded and staffed; public consciousness was raised. Thus, the movement that consolidated around a specific issue—ending woman battering—engaged an enormous variety of feminist activists at all levels from grassroots to federal with strategies that ranged from institutional to confrontational.

Because this was already the third decade of the active mobilization of the New Feminist Movement, it is appropriate to speak of it as a mature movement. Maturity does not imply that the movement has ceased to grow or develop, but rather that many of the early organizations were now institutionalized, that is, they had developed regular patterns of interaction with individuals and groups in their environment. In contrast to previous decades, the movement's energies were at this time less directed to founding new groups (organizational proliferation) than to accomplishing unfinished goals. Many activists had a base of experience in a variety of feminist organizations on which they could draw for both good ideas and bad examples. Some of the organizational problems facing the movement in this decade included recruiting new generations of activists into existing organizations and passing on the lessons learned in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the first section of this chapter, we examine three specific struggles waged by feminist organizations in this period of defensive consolidation: reproductive rights, sexual violence, and economic justice. These issues dominated the political agenda of the 1980s, and each issue posed both serious threats and new opportunities for mobilization. The second section looks at how changes in the political environment affected recruitment among young women, and how the defensive demands of the period shaped the organizations and strategies of the movement.

Old Problems, New Issues

Gains made in previous decades combined with the resistance to change by the New Right and the federal government placed feminists in the position of having to defend what they thought they had already won. In many cases, this led to a broadening and deepening of alliances, but it also made feminism more of a reactive movement—that is, one that responded to threats rather than setting its own agenda for the future (proactive). These threats came in a variety of forms. Each of the three issues considered in this section posed different types of dangers in equally varied arenas. The battle over reproductive rights has been waged largely in the courts and on the streets; the struggle over sexual violence has been carried out largely in the media; and the conflict over economic priorities has been played out primarily in state and federal legislatures.


In the Courts

As we saw in chapter 6, by the early 1980s, the abortion issue had been radically transformed by the mobilization of anti-choice constituencies at both the grassroots and the national level, supported by the White House and many friendly state governments of both parties. The initiative now passed to those seeking to limit severely or totally ban abortion, placing reproductive rights activists on the defensive. Feminists could no longer rely on a protective Supreme Court, as justices supporting Roe v. Wade were replaced by justices selected precisely for their antiabortion views. By the late 1980s, a majority of the Court was ready to undermine the premises of Roe, if not overturn it completely. Three major decisions between 1989 and 1991 eroded women's right to reproductive choice and spurred reactive mobilization among feminists.

In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), the Court left standing a Missouri statute that barred public hospitals and employees from performing abortions, required physicians to test for fetal viability, and stated that human life "begins at conception." In effect, the Court invited other states to enact ever more restrictive legislation. Many states, mostly in the South, but also Pennsylvania, Utah, and the Territory of Guam, responded immediately with laws that raised obstacles for women and health-care providers, including the mandate of a twenty-four-or forty-eight-hour waiting period after the woman was informed about fetal development and the requirements that a minor secure permission from one—or even both—parents and that a married woman inform her husband.

The first of these increasingly restrictive state statutes reached the Supreme Court in the case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, decided in July 1992. A bare majority of justices upheld the basic right of a woman to control her reproductive life but nonetheless left standing virtually all of the Pennsylvania law. The Court also enunciated a new standard by which to judge the constitutionality of similar statutes: whether the restrictions constitute an "undue burden" on the woman. The practical outcome will be a wide disparity among the states in the availability of legal abortion, depending in part on how effectively feminists mobilize in each state to resist these laws in the future.

The Reagan and Bush administrations also issued regulations that subverted the intent of laws they were charged with carrying out. One such rule barred workers in family planning clinics receiving federal funds from even mentioning abortion as a possible option for their clients. In Rust v. Sullivan (1991), the Supreme Court upheld this regulation, declaring that the government had no obligation to "support" speech of which it disapproved. Despite the decision's implications for free speech in all areas of public life, its practical effect was limited, since this regulation was rescinded in early 1993 by newly elected President Clinton. Clinton also reversed policies that banned abortion in military hospitals, denied Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women, and barred approval of the abortifacient drug RU486, although Congress has the power to restore such barriers.

Clinton's first appointment to the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, reflected a commitment to reproductive rights that may guide lower-level judicial appointments as well. But because it will take many appointments to reverse the conservative tilt of the federal judiciary, pro-choice advocates have shifted their attention back to Congress in order to seek protection of reproductive rights. In 1991, a Freedom of Choice Act was introduced by 32 Senators and 132 Representatives but had made only halting progress toward enactment by early 1994. NOW and some feminist legislators withdrew their support from the bill when limitations on abortion funding were added, since this would mean fewer reproductive rights for poor women than for the middle class.

On the Streets

Antiabortion forces have not depended solely on the courts or the federal administration to achieve their goals. Demonstrations and protests at hospitals, clinics, and physicians' offices escalated throughout the 1980s, so effectively harassing providers that most hospitals and doctors no longer perform the procedure. By the end of the 1980s, only 10 percent of all abortions were performed in hospitals, compared to almost half in 1974. This was originally considered a positive trend by feminists who favored the more client-centered and less expensive treatment offered in free-standing clinics. However, as the practice of abortion became isolated from the medical mainstream and localized in the hands of a few providers in separated facilities, antiabortionists were able to concentrate their attacks on these small and relatively unprotected sites (Beam and Paul 1992). At the same time, medical schools and residency programs stopped training students in the techniques of safe abortion. As a consequence, in the United States today, abortion services are not available in 80 percent of counties, especially in the Rocky Mountain states and in the South (Henshaw 1991; Lewin 1992).

The aggressive confrontational mode of the antiabortion movement began in 1984 with the first "Action for Life" training conferences, which evolved in 1987 into an organization called Operation Rescue (OR), under the leadership of Randall Terry and Joseph Scheidler. Operation Rescue employs coercion and intimidation to close clinics, harass health-care personnel, and deter women from seeking abortions, as vividly illustrated by its 1988 "siege" of family planning facilities in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Democratic National Convention.

A typical OR performance includes obstructing clinic entrances with a human chain of protesters (often locked to doors and to each other), laying down (or telling their children to lay down) in front of cars, aggressively confronting clinic clients and personnel with threats and moral condemnation, and resisting arrest by going limp and refusing to give their names. Despite obvious differences between some of these tactics and the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement, antiabortion protesters have successfully framed their actions as borrowed from this tradition. Other protesters may follow clients or providers to their homes, threaten their families, make harassing phone calls at all hours, and throw bricks through their windows.

In the five years between 1987 and 1992, there were over five hundred blockades at hundreds of clinics around the country. Other, more violent actions over the decade included 390 cases of criminal vandalism, dozens of burglaries, physical assaults on providers and patients, and hundreds of fires, bombs, and noxious gas attacks (National Abortion Federation 1992). Physicians who provide abortion in their private practice have also been harassed at their homes as well as at their offices. Even before the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn, one of the few physicians serving family planning clinics in Florida, fewer and fewer doctors were willing to perform the procedure. As anti-choice violence escalated, so did the cost of insurance and security, forcing some clinics out of business and other providers to decide that this was too risky and unpleasant a way to practice medicine (Hyde 1994; Simonds 1994). The result is that the availability of legal, safe abortion has been substantially curtailed. By 1991, only 7 percent of rural counties had even one abortion provider (Beam and Paul 1992).

The successes of the anti-choice mobilization activated all sectors of the women's movement to defend clinics and their clients. An alliance was also forged between feminists and the family planning network, despite the latter's initial concerns about their public image and tax status (Staggenborg 1991). The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) and Planned Parenthood are now strongly allied with NOW and the women's policy network, and feminist organizations at all levels have placed the defense of reproductive rights at the top of their agenda, diverting valuable resources from proactive fights on other issues.

At the local level, feminists have responded creatively and energetically to Operation Rescue by training crisis intervention teams to defend clinics and to provide protective escorts for clients. These countertactics have proven successful in turning back OR assaults in many cities, but once the immediate crisis is over and the national media have left the scene, lower-level harassment continues day after day, week after week (Simonds 1994). Involvement in ongoing clinic defense have thus become an important form of feminist activism. New defensive organizations have sprung to life, such as Students Organizing Students, founded after the Webster decision and already counting 150 campus chapters in 1991 (Kamen 1991).


In the twenty years since Roe, regardless of national administration, public opinion has steadily favored the pro-choice position (see chapter 4). Such support is not without its nuances and ambiguities. While endorsing a general right to choose, many Americans make distinctions among the reasons women have for terminating a pregnancy. Although 80 to 95 percent favor the right to a legal abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, or threat to the mother's life or health, only about half support legal abortions for reasons such as being poor, unmarried, or not wishing to have another child. However, 43 percent feel that a woman should have the right to choose under any circumstance, compared to under 20 percent who would deny abortion in all cases. Polls also indicate that most Americans do not support the obstruction of family planning clinics, nor do they wish to see Roe v. Wade overturned (Schmittroth 1991). In fact, pro-choice organizations received a record number of contributions in the months immediately following the Webster decision, and membership in NARAL doubled (to 400,000).

At the same time that most Americans support woman's right to legal abortion, many also express strong personal reservations. In her re-analysis of national survey data, Scott (1989) found women are more likely than men to express moral reservations but equally likely to endorse the legal right. While individuals may be ambivalent, the public debate has become polarized. Feminist scholars' efforts to hear women's voices and represent their complex decision-making processes (e.g., Ginsburg 1989; Gilligan 1982) are drowned out by the anger and violence of the confrontation. Thus the simple need to defend choice rather than a proactive and inclusive vision of reproductive rights (e.g., Petchesky 1984; Rothman 1989) has dominated women's movement politics in this decade.


While the struggle over reproductive rights has often been physical, the battle between feminists and the New Right over sexual violence has been a war of words. Both sides are actively engaged in contesting the media's framing of the issue. One significant achievement of feminist organizations in the 1970s was the building of a substantial consensus in the United States that women ought to be able to walk the streets in safety and to feel secure in their homes and workplaces. Over the past decade, feminists have offered new labels, arguments, and strategies addressing various behaviors on the continuum of sexual violence: workplace harassment, physical abuse in the home, rape, and incest. At the same time, the antifeminist backlash has attempted to trivialize these issues with claims that date rape is a myth and that women are "whining" about outcomes that they have either invited or imagined (e.g., Roiphe 1993). Debates over whether women or men are to blame for the undeniable prevalence of sexual violence have intensified, and the feminist attempt to build a consensus that would hold men accountable for their actions now seems in danger of slipping away.

Sexual Harassment

This term covers a wide range of behaviors that were viewed as the inevitable result of "natural sexual attraction" until the late 1970s. Even though "sex discrimination" as a broad category was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1963, it took almost two decades for sexual harassment to be reframed as an actionable form of unlawful discrimination.

The first cases claiming that workplace demands for sexual favors constituted sex discrimination were filed by African-American women in the late 1970s (MacKinnon 1987, 60-65). In 1980, the EEOC ruled that harassment on the basis of sex was a violation of the Civil Rights Act. Among the actions so defined were unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors; other verbal and physical conduct when submission is either explicitly or implicitly made a condition of employment or the basis of employment decisions; conduct that interferes with an individual's work performance and creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment (Seals, Jenkins and Manale 1992). In 1986, the Supreme Court affirmed the illegality of sexual harassment in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.

Although the language of the statute is gender neutral, the great majority of the victims are women for several reasons: women are still perceived as legitimate targets for male attention and aggression; harassment is part of the "normal" working conditions of many sex-typed jobs such as waitressing and nursing; male co-workers can use sexual harassment to defend their turf from women trying to enter male sex-typed jobs; men are more likely than women to be in supervisory positions with the power to harass subordinates (Martin 1989).

Most feminist attention has been directed toward raising awareness of the issue in the courts and among victims. The well-publicized confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas as Justice of the Supreme Court in 1991 greatly raised consciousness on the issue, but the hearings also revealed the obstacles to bringing a successful sexual harassment suit. Anita Hill, a law professor who had worked for Thomas both at the Education Department and when he directed the EEOC, charged that he had created a hostile environment and engaged in unwelcome sexual conversations. Her claims were ridiculed and her character and sanity attacked. According to public opinion polls, the hearings initially left women as well as men more convinced by Thomas's denial than by Hill's testimony. However, as the television images faded, opinion dramatically reversed, with a majority in 1992 believing Hill (Gallup October 1991 and December 1992). In effect, the hearings were a national consciousness-raising session on sexual harassment, demonstrating how sexist assumptions affect a woman's credibility and how she is treated by authorities, as well as the personal costs and political significance of speaking out (Morrison 1992).

Anita Hill was blamed for not reporting the behavior of her boss at the time it happened (when it was not clear the courts would treat it as illegal), but her response was more typical than not. A survey of federal government employees found that 42 percent of the women (but only 14 percent of the men) said they had been sexually harassed, yet only 5 percent took any kind of formal action (Tangri, Burt, and Johnson 1982). Similarly, a national poll in 1991 found that four out of ten women had experienced unwanted sexual advances at their workplace, but only 4 percent reported the incident (Kolbert 1991). Use of legal remedies is inhibited by cumbersome reporting procedures as well as a lack of clear-cut penalties (Seal Jenkins, and Manale 1992), a situation that feminists are attempting to remedy through their unions and state legislatures. At the urging of the women's policy network in Washington, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1991 included explicit penalties for sexual harassment, but they were relatively mild compared to penalties for other infractions.

Feminist organizing on college campuses in the 1980s has focused on sexual harassment, with the goals of raising consciousness among actual and potential victims and changing administrative codes and penalties. One study of college women found that 30 percent had experienced sexual harassment from at least one male instructor during their undergraduate years (Dziech and Weiner 1984). Peer harassment in college is also common, ranging from acts such as loudly "rating" the attractiveness of women passers-by to physical attacks (Paludi and Barickman 1991). Because the courts have held that the absence of a specific antiharassment policy implicitly condones such behavior, institutions of higher learning are attempting to define standards of inappropriate conduct. For example, in 1993, after much controversy, the University of Virginia instituted a policy forbidding instructors to have any sexual contact with students under their supervision.

The general public and school authorities often view sexual harassment and assault as somehow caused by the woman or girl. "Boys will be boys" and "she must have asked for it" are still common responses (American Association of University Women 1992), as was evident in reactions to well-publicized sexual attacks on school-mates by young men in New York, New Jersey, and California in the early 1990s. Given the pressures not to report such incidents, most feminists believe that these practices are far more widespread than the few highly visible cases suggest—that is, that these are not the extreme or unusual events that the public and press have assumed, but everyday reality for young women.

In another well-publicized case, the 1991 convention of an organization of U.S. Navy fliers known as the Tailhook Association, several hundred officers assaulted more than eighty women. Although previous conventions were characterized by similar levels of sexual violence, this one came to public notice when one of the women, a naval officer herself, reported the incident to her superiors who in turn began an investigation. By this time, thanks to years of feminist organizing in the military, investigative procedures and penalties were in place that made it possible for the officer to seek redress; still, top Navy personnel attempted to hush up the scandal and excuse the perpetrators.

While there can be little doubt that the well-publicized Hill-Thomas hearings and the Tailhook Association orgy raised public awareness of the pervasiveness of the problem, they also stimulated backlash. Antifeminists claim that statutes and policies against sexual harassment violate freedom of speech; that what women perceive as sexual advances or a hostile environment are merely men doing "what comes naturally," and if women are offended by it, they should stay out of the places where it occurs; and that men are now so afraid of being falsely accused that their rights are being violated. Yet the feminist definition of sexual harassment seems to be holding up against this attempt to reframe the issue.

In the Democratic primary elections of 1992, unexpected victories were won by half a dozen candidates whose campaign was largely based on reaction to the Hill-Thomas hearings, and several of these candidates went on to win national office. Sixty-two percent of the public agrees that if more women had been in the Senate, the Hill-Thomas hearings would have been conducted very differently. As MacKinnon concludes, "if the question is whether a law designed from women's standpoint and administered through this legal system can do anything for women—which always seems to me a good question—this experience (with sexual harassment cases) so far gives a qualified and limited yes" (1993, 146).

Domestic Violence

The women's movement of the 1970s defined violence against children and wives (and partners in unmarried unions) as battering, a form of illegitimate and illegal abuse, and provided alternatives such as shelters for women attempting to flee such attacks. Prior to that point, domestic violence had been largely veiled by the curtain of privacy drawn around the nuclear family. Breaking through this shield of secrecy was a difficult task, and it is still far from complete. Many Americans continue to support a man's right to coerce obedience or sexual compliance from his wife, and because women are expected to keep the peace within the home, wives are often blamed (and blame themselves) when men erupt in anger. Although gender-neutral language has become customary in speaking about the problem, much of the violence is clearly predicated on gender-specific expectations of authority and submission.

This has not prevented an ongoing debate over the prevalence and gender distribution of violent acts in the home. The most commonly used estimates of the frequency of assault come from the National Family Violence Surveys of 1975 and 1985 and suggest that 16 percent of all couples (married or not) experience at least one episode of violence a year. These data are widely criticized, however, because they indicate that men are as likely as women to be assaulted, information that antifeminists have seized upon to minimize the extent of wife-beating as a social problem. Feminists point out that even if both strike out, it is the wife who is more likely to be seriously injured, and she is typically responding defensively to a history of spousal violence (Brush 1990; Kurz 1989; Yllo and Bograd 1988). Department of Justice data show that women are three times as likely as men to be violently assaulted by someone with whom they are intimate (Harlow 1991), and that between 22 and 35 percent of women treated in hospital emergency rooms are victims of ongoing abuse (National Coalition against Domestic Violence 1991).

In the 1980s, feminist organizations began to devote more attention to the problems of women who actively defend themselves against further assaults. Not fitting the stereotype of the passive and innocent victim, such women often end up in prison for their attempted self-defense. One television docudrama, "The Burning Bed," did much to raise consciousness of this issue. Focusing on the actual case of a long-term battering victim who finally killed her husband while he slept, the dramatization may have helped the general public to grasp a point that was being raised by feminist legal scholars: under a "reasonable woman" standard of self-defense, women in constant fear of their lives are not acting with excessive force when they strike back, even against a disarmed or sleeping man (Smith 1993). Not all juries have accepted this defense, but the feminist reframing of the issue has persuaded several governors to commute the sentences of women who killed their batterers. Although there is evidence that the presence of resources for battered women—shelters, hotlines, legal aid—reduces the likelihood of killing an abusive partner (Browne and Williams 1993), such resources are neither universally available nor sufficient to stop the abuse. The numerous cases in which ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends have killed former wives or girlfriends after years of stalking and harassing them, often when protection orders issued by the courts barred them from contacting the victim, indicate the depth of the problem.

In sum, despite adopting the less political language of "domestic violence" in the 1980s, feminists have continued to frame issues of battering in ways that make men's responsibility for these assaults understood. Although women are still far from secure from assault by family members, feminist organizations have developed consciousness of the problem and of a woman's right to self-defense when society fails to protect her.

Rape and Sexual Abuse

Against the force of custom and renewed efforts by antifeminists to define sexual assault as a harmless game, feminists have continued to frame sexual assault, even between intimates and family members, as a crime. Victim blaming assumed new dimensions in the 1980s, as attention has shifted from assaults by strangers in dark alleys (the stereotypical but much less common case) to attacks by acquaintances, friends, and even fathers. The issues of incest and date rape that have become prominent in the 1980s evoked a conservative response aimed at discrediting the victims by suggesting that adult survivors of incest are victims of "false memory syndrome," and that women who are raped in dating situations are "asking for it" (Estrich 1993).

In all rape trials, including those with celebrity defendants such as William Kennedy Smith or Mike Tyson, the jury's verdict still largely depends on whether the victim is successfully presented as a naive innocent or as a sexually experienced woman, as well as how threatening the alleged perpetrator looks to the jurors. Press coverage plays on these themes, and there are additional biases based on the race of both victim and defendant. The media sensationalize the rare instances when a white woman is raped by a nonwhite man, giving support to the popular myth of the minority rapist and obscuring the reality that most women are raped by men of their own race and class. Conversely, the media's tendency to ignore rapes, even serial rape-murders, of women of color creates the illusion that these women are not victims (Benedict 1992; Hall 1983).

The press often stereotypes rapists in terms of class, race, and ethnicity instead of focusing on the gender violence of the crime. In the 1980s, several well-publicized rape cases made this particularly evident. Coverage of a 1983 gang rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts, (dramatized in the movie, The Accused), denigrating the Portuguese-American rapists on the basis on their ethnicity, succeeded in mobilizing their ethnic community to defend the men (and blame the Portuguese-American victim). Similarly, the institutionalized racism of the mainstream press in the Central Park Jogger case led to their portraying the African-American teenagers as wild animals and blaming the perpetrators' brutality on their family structure, social class, and the ghetto culture, while ignoring the similarities to cases of gang rape by white men and boys. The African-American press responded by redefining the boys as innocents being lynched (Chancer 1987; Benedict 1992). In both cases, race and ethnicity diverted the media from covering the basic issue of sexual violence.

Press treatment of victims continues to discourage women from reporting rapes. In the 1980s, the policy of not printing the name of rape victims (unless another paper has done so first) came into question, with some feminists arguing that anonymity perpetuated the idea that rape was shameful and others claiming that it merely acknowledged the fact that the coverage was often demeaning and shaming. Silence about rape continues to create uncertainty about its prevalence. In 1991, the Department of Health and Human Services funded a broad-based survey of American women in which respondents were asked about both attempted and completed rapes in the past year and at any time in their lives. Extrapolating to all American women, their estimate is that 680,000 women were victims of forcible rape each year, over 12 percent had been sexually assaulted at some time, and that 60 percent of sexual assaults occur in childhood (National Victim Center 1992).

Other data confirm the frequency of sexual assault in American families. For example, a survey of sixth-through twelfth-graders in a middle-class Los Angeles school district found that nearly 20 percent of the girls had experienced an unwanted sexual encounter, almost all involving an older relative or family friend (Erikson and Rapkin 1991). Antifeminists cast doubt on the credibility of children's accounts but also refuse to believe adult survivors, returning to Freud's claim that such numbers must represent fantasy and false memory rather than real experiences.

The most extensive debate has been generated by feminist attention to acquaintance rape in general and date rape on campus in particular. As more young women define sexual encounters that included force or threats as being rape, antifeminists blame the women's movement for having changed the rules of the game—for having imposed a "politically correct" sexuality that takes the "natural" excitement and risk out of dating (Paglia 1990; Gibbs 1991; Roiphe 1993). Camille Paglia, an academic favored by conservative intellectuals, has used the media effectively to propound her view that men do indeed suffer blue balls and only a naive or stupid woman would allow herself to be raped. Women college students are apparently not persuaded; many have organized in their collective defense (from using bathroom graffiti to identify potential rapists to holding demonstrations demanding harsher penalties than the college administration had imposed). Along with improved lighting and locks, educational programs for male students about what "no" means are being provided on many campuses, usually through the college's women's center or committee on the status of women. The infrastructure of feminist organization created on many campuses in the 1970s is responding vigorously to the challenge of date rape in the 1980s.


Patricia Smith (1993), a noted legal scholar, concludes that in all three crimes of sexual violence—harassment, battering, and rape—great social change and legal progress for women has been seen, but that the pervasiveness of these abusive practices attests to the continuing sexism of society. Police and prosecutors, judges and juries, reflect the attitudes of the general public and continue to minimize the harms done to women. Changes in the law achieved in this decade are only a small part of a broader social challenge to norms legitimating male violence and male domination that will surely take many decades to accomplish.


The Republican administrations of the 1980s cut back social services and reduced the real income of welfare recipients and low-wage workers while providing massive tax cuts and transfer payments for businesses and wealthy Americans on the theory that the benefits of elite investment would "trickle down" to create prosperity for all. Vast military expenditures created both a short-term economic boom and a quadrupling of the federal debt but failed to trickle down to women, then as now on the bottom of the economic ladder. Instead, the gap between rich and poor widened, and many women's basic economic survival was placed at risk (Amott 1993). Conflict between feminists and the New Right on this issue played out primarily in the legislative arena, where social policy is set, and where the recession brought on by the national economic policy in the 1980s greatly reduced revenues available for social programs.

Affirmative Action

Despite the gains made by women professionals and college graduates in the 1970s in entering high-prestige male-dominated occupations (see chapter 1), almost half of the female labor force, especially women of color, remains concentrated in the low-paying service sector. Comparing the median incomes of year-round full-time workers in 1991, women earned 74¢ for every dollar earned by a man (up from 60¢ in 1979), but a good proportion of the decline in the size of the wage gap was due to a fall in men's wages rather than a rise in women's incomes. Studies continue to indicate that sex and race discrimination play a major role in income inequality (Baron and Newman 1990; England 1992).

Such discrimination had been the target of civil rights legislation and executive action in the 1960s, which sought to redress the effects of decades of preferential hiring of white males. Executive Order 11375, issued in 1967 under President Lyndon Johnson, required that companies receiving federal contracts take positive steps ("affirmative action") to recruit and train women and minority men, to set goals and timetables for compliance, and to demonstrate that they were making good-faith efforts to meet these objectives. Affirmative action policy does not require setting quotas for hiring, nor does it mandate preferential treatment of unqualified or less qualified candidates. That most Americans are misinformed about these points is due in part to media carelessness and in part to an intentional effort by conservative politicians to win votes from working-class white men by playing on their anxieties about unemployment and job competition.

The media failed to distinguish "affirmative action" from "affirmative relief," which is a court judgment that finds that a particular employer has actively discriminated and orders a remedy in the form of accelerated hiring or promotion of the affected category of workers. In carrying out affirmative relief, a judge may set a quota and timetable to remedy a past pattern of illegal actions, just as back-pay awards are made to offset the effects of salary discrimination. Between media misrepresentation and conscious efforts by conservative groups and politicians to depict all affirmative action as "reverse discrimination," the continuation of patterns of discrimination against women and minority men has not been seriously challenged for over a decade.

Throughout the 1980s, not only did the Justice Department withdraw from even minimal enforcement of equal opportunity statutes, but it argued successfully before the Supreme Court that more of the burden of proof should fall on the victims of discrimination. Evidence of a pattern of disadvantage was no longer enough to shift to employers the burden to provide proof of a nondiscriminatory cause for the pattern; plaintiffs had to show evidence of "malicious intent." Such evidence of a frame of mind is extremely difficult to find, especially since most employers today know better than to put their discriminatory thoughts into writing.

In addition, in the Grove City case, the Court ruled that higher education institutions receiving federal funding could discriminate in programs other than the specific one being funded; for example, the chemistry department was free to indulge in discrimination if only the financial aid office got federal money. Presidents Reagan and Bush personally campaigned against affirmative action, referring to employment targets as "quotas" and remedies for past discrimination as "reverse discrimination" against whites, and suggesting it was difficult to find more than a few "qualified" white women or persons of color.

In response to these attacks, the women's policy network joined with other civil rights groups to press for an act of Congress reaffirming the original intent and interpretation of the 1963 Civil Rights Act. After civil rights and feminist organizations spent several years energetically lobbying for it, the Civil Rights Restoration Act passed Congress, only to be vetoed by President Bush. Although Bush eventually signed a much diluted version of the law in 1991, the final version was so weak on remedies for gender discrimination that many women's organizations withdrew their support for it.

At this writing the stance of the Clinton administration is still unclear, but twelve years of failure to enforce equal opportunity policies already jeopardizes the labor force gains women made in previous decades. Discrimination cases are harder to win, and more costly to bring. Regulatory mechanisms have been dismantled, and incentives for true affirmative action are virtually nonexistent. Although the backlash movement would like to blame feminists for women's economic struggles, feminists are committed to convincing the general public that the remedy for their problems in the workplace is more equality, not less.

Pay Equity/Comparable Worth

Because of sex segregation, women and men rarely hold the same jobs, and the work historically done by women is paid much less on average than that performed by men. The concept of pay equity, or comparable worth, is based on the principle that people who do jobs that (1) require a similar level of skill and effort, (2) take place under similar working conditions, and (3) involve a similar level of responsibility should receive similar paychecks. The 1980s saw major battles, primarily in the public (government) sector, to reevaluate all jobs and set wage scales based not on the historic gender of the occupation but on its comparable worth to the employer (Steinberg 1987; Acker 1989). By the end of the decade, many state governments had made adjustments in their wage-setting policies, and a number of local governments were engaged in conducting comparable worth studies or had already implemented some pay equity proposals. The outcome was typically a compromise among unions, employing agencies, feminist lobbies, and state legislatures that stopped well short of full equity but nonetheless established the principle of cross-gender comparison and improved wages for employees in female-dominated jobs (Acker 1989; Evans and Nelson 1989). By mobilizing union women in particular, the pay equity movement highlighted the relation between gender and class and raised feminist consciousness among working-class women (Blum 1991). Although elite women have been important sponsors of comparable-worth legislation, their interests lead them to try to limit the cost of settlements, to advocate technocratic rather than democratic decision processes, and to defend managerial control over wage-setting (Acker 1989; Blum 1991).

Not only has the pay equity issue enhanced the potential for working-class feminism that the career feminism of earlier decades slighted, but it has encouraged cross-class alliances among feminists and others concerned with economic justice. For example, the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE), a lobbying and information clearinghouse, is a coalition of religious, labor, civil rights, legal, professional, and women's organizations in the United States and Canada. Other new groups include the Women's Economic Agenda Project in California, the Women's Agenda in Pennsylvania, and the Women's Lobbyist Fund in Montana. These organizations held their first national conference in 1987. With Clinton's election in 1992, one Washington lobbyist noted that "the faxes are flying" among women's groups that are trying to formulate a national agenda on economic justice for women, with pay equity as a crucial element.

The backlash movement has attacked comparable worth in the same ringing tones it applied to the ERA and reproductive rights; Clarence Thomas, while still head of the EEOC, called it "the looniest idea since loony tunes." But these denunciations do not appear to have found much resonance among the general public, where strong majorities favor some sort of pay equity measures (National Committee on Pay Equity 1992).

Family Policies and Poverty

Beginning in the late 1970s, feminists concerned with economic justice directed attention to the fact that the majority of Americans living in poverty were women and children, and this phenomenon came to be termed "the feminization of poverty" (Pearce 1978). They highlighted several causes of women's impoverishment, such as divorce, low wages, and declining opportunities for blue-collar jobs.

Studies in this decade showed how often divorce drove even middle-class women to welfare for a few years, and how the lack of alimony and minimal levels of child support left single mothers penniless (Weitzman 1985; Sugarman and Hill 1990). Judges had been quick to turn the feminist claim that women should be economically independent into a myth that women actually were financially self-sufficient and so required only the most modest levels of transitional support.

Feminist responses included organizing displaced homemakers—midlife women divorced after a long period of full-time homemaking and child rearing. The National Displaced Homemaker Network coordinated efforts by similar networks on the state level to direct funds for job training to centers for displaced homemakers (e.g., twelve such centers were operating in 1992 in Connecticut alone). To date, very little federal support has been forthcoming, although some states have imposed a fee on marriage licenses to pay the costs of programs for battered women and displaced homemakers, a formal recognition of the risks women face in conventional marriage.

Another response to the poverty of women and children was to seek more energetic enforcement of court-ordered child-support payments from absent fathers. However, the means that state legislatures have used to implement such programs have often led to invasion of the privacy of divorced or unmarried women and to defining women in terms of economic dependence on some man. These policies also do very little to raise the standard of living of most single mothers. In some states welfare benefits are cut by the amount collected from absent fathers. Feminist opinion is increasingly divided on the merits of even lobbying state legislatures to experiment with such programs.

But many women are poor even if they are not divorced or out of the labor force, and this is particularly true for women of color. Many women have critiqued the "feminization of poverty" concept, arguing that women of color had always been poor, and that neither marriage nor a job was a reliable route out of poverty. Men of color also have low wages and high unemployment, and the jobs available to women of color themselves often pay such low wages that even year-round full-time work (itself hard to find) is inadequate to bring a family out of poverty. In 1992, a full-time job at just above the minimum wage provided an annual pretax income of less than $10,000. Feminists have thus joined a wider coalition arguing for a higher minimum wage, an earned income tax credit, universal health insurance, and an expanded Headstart program for preschoolers as practical steps to bring many women out of poverty and to reduce its effects on their children (Bergman 1986).


The framing of economic justice as a feminist issue grew throughout the 1980s. The need to defend reproductive rights is, however, a competing concern, and the drive for gender equality in the workplace is also increasingly presented as a "family issue" rather than one of feminism (Spalter-Roth and Schreiber 1994). Most feminist organizations see poverty as a women's issue, and many activists have targeted women's poverty as their primary focus in legislative lobbying (Boles 1991). Although those career feminists who had a narrow vision of economic opportunity were able uncritically to applaud gains made by a small number of professional and managerial women, most feminists found much to criticize in the limited opportunities and growing poverty of a large segment of the female population. The national administration in the 1980s was so apparently indifferent to the needs of real families and real children, while trumpeting support for "family values" and "unborn children," that many feminists made defeating these politicians a major goal. The change of administration in 1993 was thus most welcome, but the achievement of actual changes in policy remains a challenge for the coming decade.

Political Strategies and Dilemmas

Although feminist organizations were put on the defensive by the backlash movement, issues such as reproductive rights, equal opportunity, violence against women, and the welfare of the family increasingly came to be the main lines of political and cultural conflict (Freeman 1993). Both the high salience of feminist issues and the reactive position of feminist organizations played a major role in shaping the nature of the women's movement in this decade.

In this section, we look at how the "culture war" over feminism has shaped public perceptions of the movement and particularly the orientations and activism of young women. We see it especially manifest in what we call "the myth of the post-feminist generation." We then turn to an analysis of the defensive transformations of organizations and the continuation of proactive strategies throughout this decade.


As we saw in chapter 4, about 30-40 percent of all Americans now define themselves as "feminist," a historically impressive percentage. Nonetheless, critics have rushed to proclaim (yet again) the "death" of feminism and the advent of a "postfeminist generation" (e.g., Bolotin 1982). This new generation is described as (1) disillusioned with what they perceive to be the feminist promise of "having it all"—a fulfilling career, a happy marriage, and accomplished children—and (2) worried that to be labeled "feminist" is also to be seen as "unfeminine." In the late 1980s, news magazines and advertisers hailed the dawn of a postfeminist era characterized by a return to conventional patterns of marriage and domesticity. This conclusion was based largely on anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking; the public opinion data reviewed in chapter 4 show instead a continuing trend toward more feminist opinions and higher levels of self-identification with feminism. Susan Faludi argues that this presentation of feminism as passé or dangerous was a part of a media backlash (1991), but there are a number of additional reasons why the image of feminism was changing in this decade.

One change is the baseline for comparison: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, journalists assumed feminists were wild-eyed fanatics with whom few if any women would identify; whereas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many media pundits seemed puzzled that not all women were feminists. The label "feminist" was still felt to be somewhat risky, implying a person who was angry and "shrill," but the disavowal of feminism also seemed dangerously behind the times, suggesting a lack of awareness of discrimination and/or a repudiation of equality as a goal (Kamen 1991). Somehow, the ideal seemed to shift to being "feminist" (in the sense of being enlightened about and emancipated from past forms of subordination) but not "a feminist" (in the sense of being angry about continuing inequality). As Stacey (1989) documents, many of the assumptions of feminism have passed into the common wisdom; the life that even conventional young women expect to live today is not that of their mothers or foremothers.

A second change is in the visibility of criticism of the movement by academic women, both feminist and not. The media were quick to publicize economist Sylvia Hewlett's (1986) charges that the New Feminist Movement was to blame for the failure of American institutions to correct the conditions that disadvantage and impoverish single mothers. More recently, the media has celebrated the deeply misogynist views of art historian Camille Paglia (1990). Paglia, who has been warmly welcomed into the conservative establishment and funded by its foundations, claims that male domination, including sexual assault, is natural, necessary, and secretly desired by women. Also, blaming women and the feminist movement for women's failure to achieve full equality has become commonplace among journalists.



The backlash is at once sophisticated and banal, deceptively 'progressive' and proudly backward. It deploys both the 'new' findings of 'scientific research' and the dime-store moralism of yester-year; it turns into media sound bites both the glib pronouncements of pop-psych trend-watchers and the frenzied rhetoric of New Right preachers. The backlash has succeeded in framing virtually the whole issue of women's rights in its own language. Just as Reaganism shifted political discourse far to the right and demonized liberalism, so the backlash convinced the public that women's 'liberation' was the true contemporary American scourge—the source of an endless laundry list of personal, social, and economic problems.

Faludi, Susan. "Introduction: Blame it on
Feminism." In Backlash: The Undeclared War
Against American Women,
1991. Reprint, p. xviii.
New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1992.

Susan Faludi was hailed as the leader of a new generation of feminists with the release of her debut book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction. In 1991 she won both the Pulitzer Prize and a John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business and Financial Journalism for "The Reckoning," an exposé about the 1986 leveraged buyout of Safeway Stores, which appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on May 16, 1990. Faludi's best-seller, Backlash, grew out of a sensational 1986 Newsweek cover story about the bleak prospects for single, professional women in America. Faludi maintains that the Newsweek article is just one of many insidious media creations that prey upon the fears and insecurities of liberated women, and argues that the gains toward equality earned by the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s were systematically eroded in the 1980s. She singles out the regressive influence of advertising, the film industry, politicians, academics, the religious right, the men's movement, the news media, and conservative "pro-family" organizations whose resistance to social change has undermined women's independence. Faludi concludes that the gains made by the women's movement are fragile and easily lost; however, through a unified and concerted effort, and armed with a healthy skepticism toward the media, the rights won can be preserved and extended.

As Faludi (1991) also documents, motion pictures and television programs began to portray unmarried women with professional careers as homicidally dangerous while celebrating what the media claimed was a "trend" toward well-paid professional women throwing over their careers for full-time motherhood. Although individuals can always be found to exemplify a purported "phenomenon," there is no statistical evidence for such a general tendency. Biased and uncritical reporting of the supposedly low probability of marriage for unmarried women in their thirties or the high level of infertility of women who defer childbearing, and of a myriad of other dangers of careerism undoubtedly affected how younger women thought about their future.

Such a negative view of feminism in the media was, of course, nothing new: solemn proclamations of the editors' wishful thinking that the movement was dead date back to 1971 (Ms. "No Comment" 1982). But if young women were actually rejecting feminism, where did all the enrollments in women's studies courses come from? One conservative response was to label the trend toward more inclusive curricula on college campuses as a conspiracy of "political correctness," in which faculty pressured or mandated enrollment in "intellectually shallow" courses (Bloom 1987; D'Souza 1991). It was evident to these critics that there could be no intellectual merit in courses focusing on women, ethnic minorities, or others whose works had been traditionally excluded from the conventional curriculum.

Ironically, it was the newcomers, such as women's studies programs, who were declared to be intolerant, ideological storm troopers, imposing their perspective on the university's "impartial" and "apolitical" decisions about who and what should be studied. The backlash refrain was to label women's studies and ethnic studies programs "victim studies," mocking the oppression and exclusion these groups had endured. These intellectual attacks spilled over into an increasingly intolerant and nasty mood on campuses toward people of color, feminists, lesbians, and gays. Physical attacks and campus hate crimes increased.

In this climate, it hardly seems surprising that many college women are hesitant to express their feminist views in class or in peer groups (Schneider 1988; Kamen 1991). However, attitude change among college women and men has also gone less deep than many feminists expected. College women continue to expect their husbands to earn more than they do (even while saying they believe in equal pay for women and men); they still expect to compromise only their own careers in order to raise children (even while they endorse shared child rearing in principle); and they expect to be supported by a man's income for some portion of their life (even though they assert the value of economic independence for women) (Machung 1989).

Some observers see parallels between the resistance to feminism in the early part of this century and the claim that young women are less feminist today, and argue that the women's movement is once again "in abeyance" (Taylor and Whittier 1993). Although feminism was expressed in a strong and well-organized social movement in the 1920s, its organizational strength withered in the following decades. Few young women born in the 1920s or 1930s were exposed to feminism as a coherent or comprehensive perspective. Observers soon noted that the average age of women identified as feminists was relatively high and rising. Feminism was perceived as something "old-fashioned" and feminists as out of touch with modern "emancipated" women and the new realities of expanding opportunities and more egalitarian marriages.

This pattern led Alice Rossi (1982) to suggest that feminist accomplishments are achieved in a repeating, two-phase multigeneration process. The first generation, chafing at the limitations clearly imposed on them as women, struggles for structural change. The modest changes they achieve are part of the social environment of women of the second generation, who are able to explore opportunities and experience freedoms that are still new and perceived as remarkable progress. The third generation then takes such accomplishments for granted but again experiences the limits and restrictions that remain and, chafing against these boundaries, becomes another first generation mobilizing for change.

Rossi argues that changes on the structural level are not sufficient for lasting progress; only when changes are assimilated into women's everyday life can the need for further changes be known. Her argument is based both on the historical record and on the theoretical premise that feminist demands arise from women's daily experiences and that without such resonance, feminist claims will fail to awake a supportive response. When change is rapid, however, "generations" could be very short.

From a different perspective, Gloria Steinem (1983) argues that the apparent conservatism of some young women ten years ago was a reflection of their stage in the life course. Unlike men, for whom youth can be the period of radical experimentation ultimately tempered by the responsibilities of work and family, women are more likely to be radicalized by age. It is misleading to extrapolate a universal pattern from the male model, because it is women's direct experience of marriage, motherhood, employment, divorce, and aging itself that underscore the difficulties of being female and transform conventional women into feminists. The status of women—and their rewards for accepting the male-defined criteria of value—may be highest when they are young. As Carolyn Heilbrun (1988) has also argued, women may only realize their radical disagreement with the status quo as they discover themselves living a life for which they never had models and no longer seek others' approval. The women who seemed conservative a decade ago may have already been radicalized by the events of their lives.

Does this add up to an authentic "postfeminism" in the current generation? Although anti-feminist opinions are more evident in the media, the attitudes of young women remain just as feminist as their mothers' views (see chapter 4). Moreover, the increasing numbers of young women in established feminist organizations, as well as a proliferation of new organizations focused on mobilizing the younger generation of feminists, suggest that the complacency of the late 1970s has already been replaced by an urgency and anxiety to defend gains already won. Many established feminist groups have "young feminist" networks (e.g., NOW's Young Feminist Conference and the Center for Women's Policy Studies' Feminist Futures Project). Some of the organizations founded by and for this younger generation have contributed to the revival of grassroots, confrontational feminist politics in the later part of this decade (Kamen 1991). Other young feminists are seeking academic degrees that will enable them to pursue a career in feminist law or community work or education, as seen in the continuing expansion of women's studies-inspired graduate programs in fields as diverse as public policy and theology. Young feminist professionals in Washington have organized their own Women's Information Network (WIN) for both career networking and political support (Kamen 1991). Women's studies is also a means by which activists can pass on the organizational lessons they have learned from their past decades of experience to the women—regardless of their ages—who have not shared that history.



In my first days of activism, I thought I would do this ("this" being feminism) for a few years and then return to my real life (what my "real life" might be, I did not know). Partly, that was a naïve belief that injustice only had to be pointed out in order to be cured. Partly, it was a simple lack of courage.

But like so many others now and in movements past, I've learned that this is not just something we care about for a year or two or three. We are in it for life—and for our lives. Not even the spiral of history is needed to show the distance traveled. We have only to look back at the less complete people we ourselves used to be.

Steinem, Gloria. "Far from the Opposite Shore."
In Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, pp.
361-62. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

Gloria Steinem is known as one of the most vocal and influential leaders in the American feminist movement. Born in Toledo, Ohio, Steinem earned scholarships and fellowships to several universities, and spent her graduate school years in India, where she became socially and politically active in fighting injustice. She returned to the United States in the 1960s, worked as a freelance reporter, and helped found Ms. in 1972, the first national magazine operated by women for the advancement of women's causes. Some of Steinem's works are collected in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983), an anthology that ranges from her early, notorious "I Was a Playboy Bunny" exposé, to the later, more feminist theory-based articles she contributed to Ms., including the comical yet incisive "If Men Could Menstruate." Although some critics and activists have faulted Steinem for representing only the more pleasant, non-threatening elements of the feminist perspective in her writing, she has received popular and critical acclaim for her evocative, entertaining prose style, investigative reporting abilities, for working to raise both women's consciousness and their self-esteem, and for making feminist issues both accessible and familiar to the public.

A major challenge facing the feminist movement in the 1990s is moving from the reactive stance of the 1980s to a more proactive vision of the future. If that vision is to find resonance, it will need to incorporate the concerns of women born after the New Feminist Movement had already mobilized and made its mark. Rather than "postfeminists," this cohort could be appropriately called "second-generation feminists." Some call themselves the "Third Wave" (Manegold 1992). Their lives are not as restricted as their mothers', but they face an abundance of challenges and obstacles to achieving political and social equality and self-determination. The perspectives and issues of the second-generation feminists who become activists will play a major role in shaping the agenda and priorities of feminism in the coming years; the hard-won lessons of inclusiveness and diversity are part of the legacy on which they will have to build (Pfister 1993).


The reactive, defensive stance feminists adopted in the 1980s also had organizational consequences for the movement. First, the hostile political climate encouraged the development of broad coalitions, since allies were necessary to prevent erosion of significant employment and reproductive rights. Second, when all were under attack, differences among varieties of feminism became far less significant and similarities more important, so that ideological conflicts declined sharply. Because the New Right was trying to make feminism an unspeakable "F-word," variations in feminist identity became less defining of individuals or organizations than ever before (Heilbrun 1988). Indeed, varieties of visions for the future are primarily important for proactive movements; when feminist priorities are centered on defending gains already won, such visions are increasingly irrelevant. As Hyde (1994) points out, ideology does play a part in defensive movements by suggesting a preferred strategy and providing a network of past allies to mobilize against attacks; in the struggle to survive, some feminist organizations she studied became more conservative and professional, and others became more embedded in broad political resistance movements.

But to a greater extent than ever before, in the early 1990s there was a single feminist community, characterized by strategic cooperation of direct action/self-help, political/educational, and cultural/entrepreneural groups in activist networks organized to target specific issues such as women's health, battering, or reproductive rights (Boles 1991). The proliferation of feminist organizations in the 1970s reached a stage in the 1980s in which institutionalization and long-term survival rather than growth dominated the agenda, a stage of movement maturity. Part of the price of this necessary institutionalization was specialization—that is, the increasing autonomy of "submovements" with specialized concerns such as the battered women's movement, the antirape movement, the pro-choice movement, or the women's health movement (Tierney 1982; Matthews 1994; Morgen 1994; Staggenborg 1991).

In fact, these different "submovements" had by the 1980s established unique sets of relationships—whether hostile, supportive, or mixed—with the funding agencies, foundations, and local communities with which they routinely dealt. They also competed for the scarce resources available from the government, and for the time, energy and commitment of individual feminists. Over the 1980s, involvement with specialized sub-movements became increasingly important in defining the identity of feminist organizations and activists. Gelb (1989) shows how the American form of politics (weak parties and a strong lobbying system) encouraged this development; whereas Boles (1991) argues that the emergence of broad coalitions at local, state, and federal levels also reflects the principle of federalism embodied in the American system. Much policymaking important to women is not centralized but requires coordinated efforts at all levels to be effective.

We further argue that the hostility toward feminism expressed by the national administration in the 1980s encouraged an organizational shift toward state-level, coalition politics. As we saw in the previous chapter, the original focus of feminist organizations was on grassroots direct action and women's community building at the local level, or on bureaucratic organizations lobbying for political gains on the national level. In the 1970s, the long, bruising struggle over the ERA gave birth to a third level of organization—namely, in the individual states, since the amendment needed ratification by state legislatures (Mathews and DeHart 1990; Berry 1986). As the federal climate became increasingly chilly in the 1980s, feminists turned more of their attention to the state legislatures to defend gains and pursue goals other than the ERA.

By 1989, feminists in forty states had created ongoing and diversified coalitions to address women's issues; one of the first such networks, the Wisconsin Women's Network (founded in 1979) is supported by sixty-seven dues-paying member organizations and over a thousand individual members and has two paid staffers and over a dozen policy task forces (Boles 1991, 46). In several states, such coalitions produced policies and laws that expanded women's rights well beyond the national baseline, although in others, feminists simply struggled to resist increasingly punitive and restrictive laws. The variation between states in feminist strategies and successes is a topic that requires further research.

Within each submovement, state-level coalitions connected direct action service providers with each other and with politicians, administrators, and educators concerned with each specific issue (Boles 1991). Because states are relatively small, their emergent women's policy networks depended heavily on the local direct action groups and feminist cultural community, as well as on formally organized political groups (Taylor and Whittier 1993). By 1990, there were over two hundred local-level commissions on the status of women, which Boles describes as "quite similar to the small groups of the radical branch of the women's movement, but with a difference: much of their activity now is undertaken in cooperation with governmental bureaucracies" (1991, 47). Thus, boundaries also blurred between self-help groups, political organizations, and individual entrepreneurs and professionals.

At the same time, it became increasingly clear that feminist commitment was not for a brief battle, but for a lifetime of struggle. Change would not come easily or soon. Mature feminist organizations were faced with the challenge of making sustaining a career in feminism possible, both emotionally and financially (Daniels 1991; Whittier 1994; Remington 1990). In the face of an increasingly angry and violent countermovement, abetted by the inaction of federal and many local authorities, problems of emotional burnout were heightened (Simonds 1994). Great financial strains were created by the federal government's efforts to take funding away from women's health centers (Hyde 1994). Individual activists needed not only adequate income but also interpersonal support and opportunities for personal growth in their work—requirements that not all feminist organizations could meet (Morgen 1994; Remington 1990). Nonetheless, the women's community forged by cultural/entrepreneurial groups in the previous decades had become strong enough to sustain the commitment of those engaged in direct action/self-help and political/educational activities in the 1980s (Taylor and Rupp 1993). Lesbian feminists have always played a major role in maintaining this community, and their efforts were increasingly central to many feminist organizations (Whittier 1994).


The wide reach and increasingly integrated structure of mature feminist submovements defensively addressing issues high on the public agenda should not conceal feminist mobilization in other areas. Although when under attack from the Right, organizations' success could often be measured by sheer survival, the New Feminist Movement also developed strategies for change. Some of the feminist initiatives that bore fruit in the 1980s and early 1990s were the result of decades of earlier mobilization; others represented a return to styles of feminist activism that were more characteristic of earlier decades. We look here at three types of proactive feminist politics: unobtrusive mobilization within institutions, electoral politics, and the new grassroots direct action groups that formed in this decade.

Unobtrusive Mobilization

As examples of what she calls unobtrusive mobilization within institutions, Mary Katzenstein (1990) examines the development of feminist consciousness, organization, and strategy in two improbable contexts: the U.S. military and the Roman Catholic Church. Although both institutions are large, bureaucratic, strongly hierarchical and male-dominated, they nonetheless experienced substantial internal feminist activism that indelibly changed their structure and practices. Such unobtrusive mobilizations occurred in other institutions as well; we also look briefly at the judiciary and academia.

In the case of the military, the introduction of the All Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973, with its competitive wages and career opportunities, brought an influx of female recruits. In the first few years, the expansion in women's numbers and rights was dramatic: the percentage of women serving in the armed forces tripled between 1972 and 1976; ROTC and the service academies were opened to women; mandatory dismissal for pregnancy was ended; and dependents' benefits were extended to their families. By 1980 the backlash began to be felt, as military leaders announced a need to "pause" in recruitment efforts and reassess the role of women (Stiehm 1989). Although women increased from 2 percent of the military in 1972 to 11 percent in 1992, this increase represented less than the increase projected in the 1970s. The coordinating body for women's affairs, the Defense Advisory Commission on Women in the Service (DACOWITS), began to exert pressure on the separate services to remove obstacles to women's rising through the ranks, most particularly the rules barring them from direct combat. The gains made, as evidenced by the greater visibility of women in the Panama and Desert Storm campaigns, further convinced the public that women can and do serve with distinction in all roles opened to them. Lobbying by women overturned the congressional prohibition on women in combat, and in 1993 the Clinton administration shifted the burden of proof to the military to demonstrate why a particular job should be closed to women and dropped most restrictions on women in aerial and naval combat roles.

DACOWITS has also focused on developing enforceable procedures for responding to cases of sexual harassment; when the Navy's own procedures were not followed, the assaults at the Tail-hook convention became a public scandal. The integration of women in military roles also opened up a broader discussion of military values, sexuality, and gender stereotyping. "Witchhunts" directed against women—accusing them of being lesbians and threatening them with dishonorable discharges—had often been used to punish women for counterstereotypical behavior or for refusing men's sexual advances. Such accusations increasingly invoked an active defense from women's organizations such as WEAL and raised consciousness about the damaging effects of anti-homosexuality policies on both men and women in the military, fostering a wider debate on sexuality and the double standard (Stiehm 1989).

In the Roman Catholic Church, women's extremely limited access to formal positions of leadership encouraged Catholic feminists to concentrate on changing the way women think about hierarchy and status (Katzenstein 1994). For some, the answer lies in "woman-church," small nonhierarchical groups of women reclaiming the church as a house-based community of believers (Ruether 1986; Farrell 1991). The long-term decline in the number of men in holy orders opened up some ceremonial and administrative church roles to women at the parish level, but the more profound change has come as both nuns and laywomen have rethought conventional answers to why the church is so male-dominated. Debates over inclusive language have led feminists to discuss more inclusive practices and to speak out strongly on issues of social justice. In some cases, this outspokenness has led to a visible split with the male hierarchy, which often places a higher priority on antiabortion activities than on ministering to the poor (Katzenstein 1994).

In the judiciary, change is evident as over half the states have at least one female justice on their highest court, and in Minnesota women constitute a majority on the state supreme court. Both as individuals and as members of the caucus of women on state court benches, these judges have spurred nearly every state to conduct a serious review of practices in the courtroom and in the law that constitute gender bias. Training programs have been set up in many states to help male judges become more aware of ways in which they may be discriminating against lawyers who appear before them, plaintiffs and defendants in the cases they hear, jurors they empanel, and staff they employ (Gender Bias Task Force Reports from Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York are good examples). Moreover, law schools have gone beyond merely admitting more women to recognizing the importance of feminist issues in the law. Between 1986 and 1992, the number of law school courses focusing on women has grown from 30 to 145, and nine law schools (including Harvard, Yale, and Chicago) publish journals devoted to feminist jurisprudence (About Women on Campus 1993, 9).

In academia, there is probably no discipline, from accounting to zoology, that has not been affected by unobtrusive mobilization over the past two decades. It is projected that by 1995, 40 percent of all doctorates will be awarded to women, compared to 14 percent in 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1993, 172). With the increased representation of women in all fields of study, feminist caucuses and task forces in many disciplines have actively directed attention to gaps in knowledge, the gendered nature of course content, and the chilly classroom climate for future generations of scholars.

Feminist caucuses and task forces are also concerned with the status of women within the profession as a whole. Although in 1992 women constituted 27 percent of America's higher education faculty, they remain clustered disproportionately in lower ranks, less prestigious institutions, and in stereotypically feminine fields. Furthermore, the research topics pursued by feminist scholars are not typically those that receive the highest rewards in their discipline, where the "canon" of worth is still monopolized by a predominantly upper-middle-class, heterosexual white male elite. This can be seen in publishing patterns in sociology, for example, where female scholars and gender issues remain marginalized, though less so than in the past (Grant and Ward 1991; Ferree and Hall 1990).

The feminist struggle within academia, therefore, is not just over jobs and promotions, though these basic needs have been difficult enough to attain. The financial costs and personal difficulties of bringing a sex discrimination suit, the veil of secrecy around much academic decision-making, the falsification of records, and the lack of administrative accountability have often made pursuit of job equity an exercise in futility (Theodore 1986; Pleck 1990). But the challenges to women in academia also include gaining greater control over standards of evaluation of scholarship, input into decisions about curricula and requirements, and better conditions for professional development for both faculty and students.

In conclusion, we can see that there has been a mobilization of feminist pressure groups and caucuses within a variety of institutions. The focus of such groups has not been restricted to achieving the personal advancement of their members alone, as some observers of career feminist initiatives in the early 1970s would have predicted. In many diverse institutional contexts, feminist mobilization has also challenged the standards and practices of parent organizations in fundamental ways.

Electoral Politics

The 1980s backlash mobilized a feminist response at both national and state levels, which included an increase in the number of women running for political office. The heightening of gender consciousness in the general public and the salience of specific issues such as sexual harassment and reproductive choice also increased the chances of electoral success among women candidates in the early 1990s. Funding, traditionally a problem for women candidates, grew substantially when the Hill-Thomas hearings starkly illustrated the overwhelming control of men in congressional committees. Organizations raising money for pro-choice women candidates in 1992 reported record donations. EMILY's List, founded in 1985 to support pro-choice Democratic women, was a major contributor to some campaigns. By 1993, women constituted 20 percent of all state legislators, 11 percent of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and 7 percent of the Senate—still not impressive numbers, but a substantial increase from 1971, when women constituted a mere 5 percent of state legislators and fewer than 3 percent of members of Congress.

The 1980s saw the emergence and spread of a gender gap in voting behavior; women were significantly more supportive of Democratic candidates than were men. Beginning in the presidential election of 1980s, in which women were 6-9 percent less likely to vote for Ronald Reagan, the gap grew throughout the decade, reflecting women's negative experiences with Reaganera policies. Thus in 1988, most men saw their fortunes as improving (52 percent), while most women did not (56 percent reported that their lives were getting worse or staying the same). Reagan's appointments were also more male-dominated than the previous administration's: whereas 15 percent of President Carter's appointments to the federal bench were women, the proportion of women among Reagan's appointments fell by half, to 8 percent. Top policymaking appointments show a similar pattern: 18 percent were women under Carter, 12 percent under Reagan, and a slightly lower percentage under Bush (Tillet and Krafchek 1991). The early appointments by President Clinton show a sharp reversal: There are highly visible women in top posts in the Departments of Justice, Commerce, and Environmental Protection, as well as Health and Human Services.

The increasing importance of women in politics reflects in part their growing strength as voters. Before the reemergence of feminism, women had voted at a significantly lower rate than men, but by 1980 women matched and then exceeded the turnout of their male peers. Because adult women outnumber men, women voters hold the key to electoral success: In the 1992 election, women accounted for 54 percent of all voters. Women's priorities on average differ from those of men; women are more interested in heath, education, welfare, and the link between work and family, and they are less concerned than men about national defense, taxes, and foreign affairs. The voting strength of women as a constituency surely played a role in the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, for example, which Clinton signed after two years of Bush vetoes. The lobbying for this law was led by the Council of Presidents, a coordinating body for the heads of forty-nine different Washington-based women's organizations, first founded in 1985. Passing this law is thus a significant long-term proactive victory for the movement.

The 1992 election also tripled the number of women in the Senate. Women's share of the House rose to forty-seven seats, a tiny percentage, but nearly twice the share held in 1990. At state and local levels women also ran well, capturing twenty-one major state offices and increasing their representation in state legislatures from 18 to 23 percent in just one year. Many of these candidates had shaped their campaigns to highlight issues raised by the New Feminist Movement; several anti-choice referenda were also defeated at the state level.

Not only has a crucial corner been turned, so that the presence of a woman candidate is no longer a novelty in itself, but the increasing visibility of women as a voting constituency has brought salience to some previously ignored issues. Although not all women elected to office are feminists, and not all politicians will support a more woman-centered agenda, there are now certain key prerequisites in place for feminist political influence to grow over the next decade. The parental leave bill enacted in 1993 was only the first item on the Council of Presidents' Women's Agenda, which includes issues such as child-care, health care, pay equity and reproductive rights.

Grassroots Direct-Action

In addition to electoral victories and mobilization within institutions, the New Feminist Movement also made gains in the 1980s at the local level, producing new forms of direct action at the grass roots that often engaged young activists. To an extent that surprised the media pundits who are so eager to declare the death of feminism, radical direct action groups actually increased in this decade. The Women's Action Coalition (WAC), formed in January 1992 in New York City, was soon followed by similar groups in Minneapolis, Houston, Toronto, Los Angeles, and other cities. As one member put it, "Anita Hill was our founding member.… [T]he catalyst in large part was seeing an all-white-male Senate Judiciary Committee grilling a black man and a black woman. There was this feeling of 'I'm going to take it to the streets. I'm angry'" (Saltpeter, cited in Hoban 1992). A "Guide to Direct Action Groups," published in Harper's Bazaar, brought an avalanche of letters from women throughout the country who were looking for a way to express their outrage over the Hill-Thomas hearings and anxious to found local chapters (Sheppard 1992).

Composed primarily of women in their twenties and early thirties, WAC has turned media attention to issues as diverse as nonpayment of child support in the United States and the widespread rape of Muslim women in Bosnia. WAC tactics include street theater, demonstrations, and other public protests reminiscent of the zap actions of the 1960s. New York's WAC has its own Drum Corps for marches, and a snappy logo—an eye, with the slogan "WAC is watching. We will take action." In the words of one activist, "We are oppressed but we are not going to be victimized" (Murray, in Hoban 1992). WAC has targeted family law courts for protests on Mother's Day, challenged Operation Rescue in front of abortion clinics, marched in front of court-houses where rape cases are being tried, demonstrated in front of museums that do not show women artists, and held regular vigils in front of the United Nations to protest the systematic use of rape as a terrorist tactic in the former Yugoslavia (Hoban 1992; Manegold 1992).

Although WAC is the most visible sign of the "new" grassroots energy of feminism, it is not the only one. WHAM, the Women's Health Action Mobilization was formed in 1989, taking its inspiration for street protests from the demonstrations staged by the radical AIDS protest group ACT-UP. Within a year, WHAM had a mailing list of three thousand names and held dozens of local meetings on issues from herbal medicine to abortion rights. Most of the members are under age thirty, and many are willing to risk arrest for their cause (Manegold 1992). Guerrilla Girls, founded in New York in 1985, calls itself "the conscience of the art world" and uses anonymous hit-and-run tactics to highlight sexist practices in museums, advertising, and media in general. Their posters, stickers, and street theater (in which they don gorilla masks and leather jackets) are aimed at art shows that virtually exclude women artists (Withers 1988). Direct actions, such as Take Back the Night marches, which were first held in San Francisco in 1978, spread to working-class communities such as Waukegan, Illinois, where four hundred people turned out for the 1990 march organized by their local coordinating council against sexual assault (Kamen 1991, 299). Such marches are virtually institutionalized on many campuses.

Other local direct actions may not be coordinated by an ongoing group but spring from the desire to protest specific actions dramatically. For example, Taylor and Whittier (1992b) report on a group of feminists in Ohio who sent pig testicles through the mail to a judge who had said that a four-year-old rape victim was "a promiscuous young lady." Other dramatic forms of public protest are also invented. For example, in Arizona, after charges of acquaintance rape against a basketball player were dropped, women protesters were arrested for outlining their bodies on the sidewalk in chalk with the slogan "rape is not a sport" (About Women on Campus 1993).

Third Wave is a new organization of "twenty-something" African-American and white feminists that has attempted to bridge the gap between spontaneous local protest actions, ongoing direct action groups, and more conventional forms of political action. Drawing on the language of the Civil Rights movement, Third Wave sponsored "Freedom Summer '92," a voter registration drive for pro-choice young people (Manegold 1992). Similar goals characterize the Fund for a Feminist Majority (FFM), founded by former NOW President Eleanor Smeal, and attracting a less age-specific membership. FFM provided an alternative to NOW when NOW's own leadership seemed to be abandoning the electoral arena in the mid-1980s. Both Third Wave and FFM—and increasingly, NOW—are committed to combining the "insider" strategies of lobbying and voting with the "outsider" tactics of taking to the streets.


In this chapter we have examined the issues and organizational changes that characterized feminist activism in the period of defensive consolidation. During the openly hostile administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush, the feminist agenda was dominated by struggles to preserve reproductive choice, to combat sexual violence, and to protect poor women from some of the worst economic consequences of "trickle-down" economics. Despite a sense of shared adversity and some limited successes in broad coalition building, the major thrust of this period was specialization, that is, organizing around specific issues. Feminists of very different perspectives and organizational affiliations were able to unite around particular policy concerns, raising funds and activating networks toward this goal, creating a vast web of submovements. In some ways, opposition strengthened the movement, creating a need for state organization and shattering some young women's complacency about gains already won. But constant defense took a toll as well, both in individual burnout and organizational collapse.

Unobtrusive mobilizations within many institutions changed organizational practices and challenged conventional thinking on many issues. Increased victories in electoral politics in the 1990s and a rebirth of direct action tactics at the grass roots provided the foundation for further mobilization in the coming decade. The new burst of energy and activism from second-generation feminists suggests that they are already defining their own agenda for the future of feminism. In the final chapter, we survey the accomplishments and unfinished agenda of the past three decades.


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SOURCE: Echols, Alice. "Nothing Distant about It: Women's Liberation and Sixties Radicalism." In Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader, edited by Cathy J. Cohen, Kathleen B. Jones, and Joan C. Tronto, pp. 456-76. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

In the following essay, Echols points out how the ideology and methodology of 1960s political radicals, especially their linking of the personal and the political, directly supported and served as a model for the women's liberation movement.

On 7 September 1968 the sixties came to the Miss America Pageant when one hundred women's liberationists descended on Atlantic City to protest the pageant's promotion of physical attractiveness and charm as the primary measures of women's worth. Carrying signs that declared, "Miss America Is a Big Falsie," "Miss America Sells It," and "Up against the Wall, Miss America," they formed a picket line on the boardwalk, sang anti-Miss America songs in three-part harmony, and performed guerrilla theater. The activists crowned a live sheep Miss America and paraded it on the boardwalk to parody the way the contestants, and, by extension, all women, "are appraised and judged like animals at a county fair." They tried to convince women in the crowd that the tyranny of beauty was but one of the many ways that women's bodies were colonized. By announcing beforehand that they would not speak to male reporters (or to any man for that matter), they challenged the sexual division of labor that consigned women reporters to the "soft" stories and male reporters to the "hard" news stories. Newspaper editors who wanted to cover the protest were thus forced to pull their female reporters from the society pages to do so.1

The protesters set up a "Freedom Trash Can" and filled it with various "instruments of torture"—high-heeled shoes, bras, girdles, hair curlers, false eyelashes, typing books, and representative copies of Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Ladies' Home Journal. They had wanted to burn the contents of the Freedom Trash Can but were prevented from doing so by a city ordinance that prohibited bonfires on the boardwalk. However, word had been leaked to the press that the protest would include a symbolic bra-burning, and, as a consequence, reporters were everywhere.2 Although they burned no bras that day on the boardwalk, the image of the bra-burning, militant feminist remains part of our popular mythology about the women's liberation movement.

The activists also managed to make their presence felt inside the auditorium during that night's live broadcast of the pageant. Pageant officials must have known that they were in for a long night when early in the evening one protester sprayed Toni Home Permanent Spray (one of the pageant's sponsors) at the mayor's booth. She was charged with disorderly conduct and "emanating a noxious odor," an irony that women's liberationists understandably savored. The more spectacular action occurred later that night. As the outgoing Miss America read her farewell speech, four women unfurled a banner that read, "Women's Liberation," and all sixteen protesters shouted "Freedom for Women," and "No More Miss America" before security guards could eject them. The television audience heard the commotion and could see it register on Miss America's face as she stumbled through the remainder of her speech. But the program's producer prevented the cameramen from covering the cause of Miss America's consternation.3 The television audience did not remain in the dark for long, because Monday's newspapers described the protest in some detail. As the first major demonstration of the fledgling women's liberation movement, it had been designed to make a big splash, and after Monday morning no one could doubt that it had.

In its wit, passion, and irreverence, not to mention its expansive formulation of politics (to include the politics of beauty, no less!), the Miss America protest resembled other sixties demonstrations. Just as women's liberationists used a sheep to make a statement about conventional femininity, so had the Yippies a week earlier lampooned the political process by nominating a pig, Pegasus, for the presidency at the Democratic National Convention.4 Although Atlantic City witnessed none of the violence that had occurred in Chicago, the protest generated plenty of hostility among the six hundred or so onlookers who gathered on the boardwalk. Judging from their response, this new thing, "women's liberation," was about as popular as the antiwar movement. The protesters were jeered, harassed, and called "commies" and "man-haters." One man suggested that it "would be a lot more useful" if the protesters threw themselves, and not their bras, girdles, and makeup, into the trash can.5

Nothing—not even the verbal abuse they encountered on the boardwalk—could diminish the euphoria women's liberationists felt as they started to mobilize around their own, rather than other people's, oppression. Ann Snitow speaks for many when she recalls that in contrast to her involvement in the larger, male-dominated protest Movement,6 where she had felt sort of "blank and peripheral," women's liberation was like "an ecstasy of discussion." Precisely because it was about one's own life, "there was," she claims, "nothing distant about it."7 Robin Morgan has contended that the Miss America protest "announced our existence to the world."8 That is only a slight exaggeration, for as a consequence of the protest, women's liberation achieved the status of a movement both to its participants and to the media; as such, the Miss America demonstration represents an important moment in the history of the sixties.9

Although the women's liberation movement began to take shape only toward the end of the decade, it was a paradigmatically sixties movement. It is not just that many early women's liberation activists had prior involvements in other sixties movements, although that was certainly true, as has been ably documented by Sara Evans.10 And it is not just that, of all the sixties movements, the women's liberation movement alone carried on and extended into the 1970s that decade's political radicalism and rethinking of fundamental social organization, although that is true as well. Rather, it is also that the larger, male-dominated protest Movement, despite its considerable sexism, provided much of the intellectual foundation and cultural orientation for the women's liberation movement. Indeed, many of the broad themes of the women's liberation movement—especially its concern with revitalizing the democratic process and reformulating "politics" to include the personal—were refined and recast versions of ideas and approaches already present in the New Left and the black freedom movement.

Moreover, like other sixties radicals, women's liberationists were responding at least in part to particular features of the postwar landscape. For instance, both the New Left and the women's liberation movement can be understood as part of a gendered generational revolt against the ultra-domesticity of that aberrant decade, the 1950s. The white radicals who participated in these movements were in flight from the nuclear family and the domesticated versions of masculinity and femininity that prevailed in postwar America. Sixties radicals, white and black, were also responding to the hegemonic position of liberalism and its promotion of government expansion both at home and abroad—the welfare/warfare state. Although sixties radicals came to define themselves in opposition to liberalism, their relation to liberalism was nonetheless complicated and ambivalent. They saw in big government not only a way of achieving greater economic and social justice, but also the possibility of an increasingly well managed society and an ever more remote government.

In this chapter I will attempt to evaluate some of the more important features of sixties radicalism by focusing on the specific example of the women's liberation movement. I am motivated by the problematic ways "the sixties" has come to be scripted in our culture. If conservative "slash and burn" accounts of the period indict sixties radicals for everything from crime and drug use to single motherhood, they at least heap guilt fairly equally on antiwar, black civil rights, and feminist activists alike. By contrast, progressive reconstructions, while considerably more positive in their assessments of the period, tend to present the sixties as if women were almost completely outside the world of radical politics. Although my accounting of the sixties is in some respects critical, I nonetheless believe that there was much in sixties radicalism that was original and hopeful, including its challenge to established authority and expertise, its commitment to refashioning democracy and "politics," and its interrogation of such naturalized categories as gender and race.

Women's discontent with their place in America in the sixties was, of course, produced by a broad range of causes. Crucial in reigniting feminist consciousness in the sixties was the unprecedented number of women (especially married white women) being drawn into the paid labor force, as the service sector of the economy expanded and rising consumer aspirations fueled the desire of many families for a second income.11 As Alice Kessler-Harris has pointed out, "homes and cars, refrigerators and washing machines, telephones and multiple televisions required higher incomes." So did providing a college education for one's children. These new patterns of consumption were made possible in large part through the emergence of the two-income family as wives increasingly "sought to aid their husbands in the quest for the good life." By 1960, 30.5 percent of all wives worked for wages.12 Women's growing participation in the labor force also reflected larger structural shifts in the U.S. economy. Sara Evans has argued that the "reestablishment of labor force segregation following World War II ironically reserved for women a large proportion of the new jobs created in the fifties due to the fact that the fastest growing sector of the economy was no longer industry but services."13 Women's increasing labor force participation was facilitated as well by the growing number of women graduating from college and by the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960.

Despite the fact that women's "place" was increasingly in the paid workforce (or perhaps because of it), ideas about women's proper role in American society were quite conventional throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s, held there by a resurgent ideology of domesticity—what Betty Friedan called the "feminine mystique." But, as Jane De Hart-Mathews has observed, "the bad fit was there: the unfairness of unequal pay for the same work, the low value placed on jobs women performed, the double burden of housework and wage work."14 By the mid-1960s at least some American women felt that the contradiction between the realities of paid work and higher education on the one hand and the still pervasive ideology of domesticity on the other had become irreconcilable.

Without the presence of other oppositional movements, however, the women's liberation movement may not have developed at all as an organized force for social change. It certainly would have developed along vastly different lines. The climate of protest encouraged women, even those not directly involved in the black movement and the New Left, to question conventional gender arrangements. Moreover, many of the women who helped form the women's liberation movement had been involved as well in the male-dominated Movement. If the larger Movement was typically indifferent, or worse, hostile to women's liberation, it was nonetheless through their experiences in that Movement that the young and predominantly white and middle-class women who initially formed the women's liberation movement became politicized. The relationship between women's liberation and the larger Movement was at its core paradoxical. If the Movement was a site of sexism, it also provided white women a space in which they could develop political skills and self-confidence, a space in which they could violate the injunction against female self-assertion.15 Most important, it gave them no small part of the intellectual ammunition—the language and the ideas—with which to fight their own oppression.

Sixties radicals struggled to reformulate politics and power. Their struggle confounded many who lived through the sixties as well as those trying to make sense of the period some thirty years later. One of the most striking characteristics of sixties radicals was their ever-expanding opposition to liberalism. Radicals' theoretical disavowal of liberalism developed gradually and in large part in response to liberals' specific defaults—their failure to repudiate the segregationists at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, their lack of vigor in pressing for greater federal intervention in support of civil rights workers, and their readiness (with few exceptions) to support President Lyndon B. Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War. But initially some radicals had argued that the Movement should acknowledge that liberalism was not monolithic but contained two discernible strands—"corporate" and "humanist" liberalism. For instance, in 1965 Carl Oglesby, an early leader of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), contrasted corporate liberals, whose identification with the system made them "illiberal liberals," with humanist liberals, who he hoped might yet see that "it is this movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune."16

By 1967 radicals were no longer making the distinction between humanist and corporate liberals that they once had. This represented an important political shift for early new leftists in particular who once had felt an affinity of sorts with liberalism.17 Black radicals were the first to decisively reject liberalism, and their move had an enormous impact on white radicals. With the ascendancy of black power many black militants maintained that liberalism was intrinsically paternalistic, and that black liberation required that the struggle be free of white involvement. This was elaborated by white radicals, who soon developed the argument that authentic radicalism involved organizing around one's own oppression rather than becoming involved, as a "liberal" would, in someone else's struggle for freedom. For instance, in 1967 Gregory Calvert, another SDS leader, argued that the "student movement has to develop an image of its own revolution … instead of believing that you're a revolutionary because you're related to Fidel's struggle, Stokely's struggle, always someone else's struggle."18 Black radicals were also the first to conclude that nothing short of revolution—certainly not Johnson's Great Society programs and a few pieces of civil rights legislation—could undo racism. As leftist journalist Andrew Kopkind remembered it, the rhetoric of revolution proved impossible for white new leftists to resist. "With black revolution raging in America and world revolution directed against America, it was hardly possible for white radicals to think themselves anything less than revolutionaries."19

Radicals' repudiation of liberalism also grew out of their fear that liberalism could "co-opt" and thereby contain dissent. Thus, in 1965 when President Johnson concluded a nationally televised speech on civil rights by proclaiming, "And we shall overcome," radicals saw in this nothing more than a calculated move to appropriate Movement rhetoric in order to blunt protest. By contrast, more established civil rights leaders reportedly cheered the president on, believing that his declaration constituted a significant "affirmation of the movement."20 Liberalism, then, was seen as both compromised and compromising. In this, young radicals were influenced by Herbert Marcuse, who emphasized the system's ability to reproduce itself through its recuperation of dissent.21



Born in Peoria, Illinois, Friedan graduated summa cum laude from Smith College in 1942. Faced with the necessity of sacrificing marriage and motherhood in pursuit of an academic career, she turned down the research fellowship she was offered, began working as a reporter in New York City, and was married in 1947. Fired from her job after requesting a second maternity leave, Friedan became a freelance writer for women's magazines. She interviewed housewives about their lives, and this research formed the basis of The Feminine Mystique (1963). In this bestselling work, Friedan argued that "feminine mystique," the belief that women gained fulfillment only from marriage and motherhood, is responsible for the boredom, fatigue, and dissatisfaction that has pervaded the lives of many American women. The Feminine Mystique has been credited with revitalizing interest in the women's movement. In 1966 Friedan cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW) and served as its president until 1970. Under her guidance, NOW lobbied for the legalization of abortion, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the equal treatment of women in the work-place. Friedan, however, came into frequent conflict with radical feminists over the issue of lesbianism as a political stance, which she opposed on the grounds that it alienated mainstream women and men sympathetic to the movement. Political infighting between Friedan and such prominent activists as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug disrupted the 1973 National Women's Political Caucus, and Friedan later indirectly accused them of manipulating the balloting to prevent the participation of her supporters. Friedan discussed this controversy and chronicled her early involvement with the women's movement in It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (1976). In The Second Stage (1981), Friedan discussed the emergence of the Superwoman myth—the image of the woman who effortlessly juggles her career, marriage, and children—, or as Friedan dubbed it, the "feminist mystique." Friedan warned that the Superwoman image, as unrealistic as the perfect housewife image from the 1960s, could have lasting negative effects on the women's movement.

Just as radicals' critique of materialism developed in the context of relative economic abundance, so did their critique of liberalism develop at a time of liberalism's greatest political strength. The idea that conservativism might supplant liberalism at some point in the near future was simply unimaginable to them. (To be fair, this view was not entirely unreasonable given Johnson's trouncing of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.)

This was just one of many things that distinguished new leftists from old leftists, who, having lived through McCarthyism, were far more concerned about the possibility of a conservative resurgence. For if sixties radicals grew worlds apart from liberals, they often found themselves in conflict with old leftists as well. In general, new leftists rejected the economism and virulent anticommunism of the non-communist Old Left. In contrast to old leftists, whose target was "class-based economic oppression," new leftists (at least before 1969, when some new leftists did embrace dogmatic versions of Marxism) focused on "how late capitalist society creates mechanisms of psychological and cultural domination over everyone. "22 For young radicals the problem went beyond capitalism and included not only the alienation engendered by mass society, but also other systems of hierarchy based on race, gender, and age. Indeed, they were often more influenced by existentialists like Camus or social critics like C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse, both of whom doubted the working class's potential for radical action, than by Marx or Lenin. For instance, SDS president Paul Potter contended that it would be "through the experience of the middle class and the anesthetic of bureaucracy and mass society that the vision and program of participatory democracy will come."23 This rejection of what Mills dubbed the "labor metaphysic" had everything to do with the different circumstances radicals confronted in the sixties. As Arthur Miller observed, "The radical of the thirties came out of a system that had stopped and the important job was to organize new production relations which would start it up again. The sixties radical opened his eyes to a system pouring its junk over everybody, or nearly everybody, and the problem was to stop just that, to escape being overwhelmed by a mindless, goalless flood which marooned each individual on his little island of commodities."24

If sixties radicals initially rejected orthodox and economistic versions of Marxism, many did (especially over time) appropriate, expand, and recast Marxist categories in an effort to understand the experiences of oppressed and marginalized groups. Thus exponents of what was termed "new working-class theory" claimed that people with technical, clerical, and professional jobs should be seen as constituting a new sector of the working class, better educated than the traditional working class, but working class nonetheless. According to this view, students were not members of the privileged middle class, but rather "trainees" for the new working class. And many women's liberationists (even radical feminists who rejected Marxist theorizing about women's condition) often tried to use Marxist methodology to understand women's oppression. For example, Shulamith Firestone argued that just as the elimination of "economic classes" would require the revolt of the proletariat and their seizure of the means of production, so would the elimination of "sexual classes" require women's revolt and their "seizure of control of reproduction."25

If young radicals often assumed an arrogant stance toward those remnants of the Old Left that survived the 1950s, they were by the late 1960s unambiguously contemptuous of liberals. Women's liberationists shared new leftists' and black radicals' rejection of liberalism, and, as a consequence, they often went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the liberal feminists of the National Organization for Women (NOW). (In fact, their disillusionment with liberalism was more thorough during the early stages of their movement building than had been the case for either new leftists or civil rights activists because they had lived through the earlier betrayals around the Vietnam War and civil rights. Moreover, male radicals' frequent denunciations of women's liberation as "bourgeois" encouraged women's liberationists to distance themselves from NOW.) NOW had been formed in 1966 to push the federal government to enforce the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing sex discrimination—a paradigmatic liberal agenda focused on public access and the prohibition of employment discrimination. To women's liberation activists, NOW's integrationist, accessoriented approach ignored the racial and class inequities that were the very foundation of the "mainstream" that NOW was dedicated to integrating. In the introduction to the 1970 bestseller Sisterhood Is Powerful, Robin Morgan declared that "NOW is essentially an organization that wants reforms [in the] second-class citizenship of women—and this is where it differs drastically from the rest of the Women's Liberation Movement."26 In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone described NOW's political stance as "untenable even in terms of immediate political gains" and deemed it "more a leftover of the old feminism rather than a model of the new."27 Radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson went even further, characterizing many in NOW as only wanting "women to have the same opportunity to be oppressors, too."28

Women's liberationists also took issue with liberal feminists' formulation of women's problem as their exclusion from the public sphere. Younger activists argued instead that women's exclusion from public life was inextricable from their subordination in the family and would persist until this larger issue was addressed. For instance, Firestone claimed that the solution to women's oppression was not inclusion in the mainstream, but rather the eradication of the biological family, which was the "tapeworm of exploitation."29

Of course, younger activists' alienation from NOW was often more than matched by NOW members' disaffection from them. Many liberal feminists were appalled (at least initially) by women's liberationists' politicization of personal life. NOW founder Betty Friedan frequently railed against women's liberationists for waging a "bedroom war" that diverted women from the real struggle of integrating the public sphere.30

Women's liberationists believed that they had embarked on a much more ambitious project—the virtual remaking of the world—and that theirs was the real struggle.31 Nothing short of radically transforming society was sufficient to deal with what they were discovering: that gender inequality was embedded in everyday life. In 1970 Shulamith Firestone observed that "sex-class is so deep as to be invisible."32 The pervasiveness of gender inequality and gender's status as a naturalized category demonstrated to women's liberationists the inadequacy of NOW's legislative and judicial remedies and the necessity of thoroughgoing social transformation. Thus, whereas liberal feminists talked of ending sex discrimination, women's liberationists called for nothing less than the destruction of capitalism and patriarchy. As defined by feminists, patriarchy, in contrast to sex discrimination, defied reform. For example, Adrienne Rich contended, "Patriarchy is the power of the fathers: a familialsocial, ideological, political system in which men—by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is subsumed under the male."33

Women's liberationists typically indicted capitalism as well. Ellen Willis, for instance, maintained that "the American system consists of two interdependent but distinct parts—the capitalist state, and the patriarchal family." Willis argued that capitalism succeeded in exploiting women as cheap labor and consumers "primarily by taking advantage of women's subordinate position in the family and our historical domination by man."34

Central to the revisionary project of the women's liberation movement was the desire to render gender meaningless, to explode it as a significant category. In the movement's view, both masculinity and femininity represented not timeless essences, but rather "patriarchal" constructs. (Of course, even as the movement sought to de-construct gender, it was, paradoxically, as many have noted, trying to mobilize women precisely on the basis of their gender.)35 This explains in part the significance abortion rights held for women's liberationists, who believed that until abortion was descriminalized, biology would remain women's destiny, thus foreclosing the possibility of women's self-determination."36

Indeed, the women's liberation movement made women's bodies the site of political contestation. The "colonized" status of women's bodies became the focus of much movement activism. The discourse of colonization originated in Third World national liberation movements but, in an act of First World appropriation, was taken up by black radicals who claimed that African Americans constituted an "internal colony" in the United States. Radical women trying to persuade the larger Movement of the legitimacy of their cause soon followed suit by deploying the discourse to expose women's subordinate position in relation to men. This appropriation represented an important move and one characteristic of radicalism in the late 1960s, that is, the borrowing of conceptual frameworks and discourses from other movements to comprehend the situation of oppressed groups in the United States—with mixed results at best. In fact, women's liberationists challenged not only tyrannical beauty standards, but also violence against women, women's sexual alienation, the compulsory character of heterosexuality and its organization around male pleasure (inscribed in the privileging of the vaginal over clitoral orgasm), the health hazards associated with the birth control pill, the definition of contraception as women's responsibility, and, of course, women's lack of reproductive control. They also challenged the sexual division of labor in the home, employment discrimination, and the absence of quality child care facilities. Finally, women's liberationists recognized the power of language to shape culture.

The totalism of their vision would have been difficult to translate into a concrete reform package, even had they been interested in doing so. But electoral politics and the legislative and judicial reforms that engaged the energies of liberal feminists did little to animate most women's liberationists. Like other sixties radicals, they were instead taken with the idea of developing forms that would prefigure the utopian community of the imagined future.37 Anxious to avoid the "manipulated consent" that they believed characterized American politics, sixties radicals struggled to develop alternatives to hierarchy and centralized decision making.38 They spoke often of creating "participatory democracy" in an effort to maximize individual participation and equalize power. Their attempts to build a "democracy of individual participation" often confounded outsiders, who found Movement meetings exhausting and tedious affairs.39 But to those radicals who craved political engagement, "freedom" was, as one radical group enthused, "an endless meeting."40 According to Gregory Calvert, participatory democracy appealed to the "deep anti-authoritarianism of the new generation in addition to offering them the immediate concretization of the values of openness, honesty, and community in human relationships."41 Women's liberationists, still smarting from their firsthand discovery that the larger Movement's much-stated commitment to egalitarianism did not apply equally to all, often took extraordinary measures to try to ensure egalitarianism. They employed a variety of measures in an effort to equalize power, including consensus decision making, rotating chairs, and the sharing of both creative and routine movement work.

Fundamental to this "prefigurative politics," as sociologist Wini Breines terms it, was the commitment to develop counterinstitutions that would anticipate the desired society of the future.42 Staughton Lynd, director of the Mississippi Freedom Schools and a prominent new leftist, likened sixties radicals to the Wobblies (labor radicals of the early twentieth century) in their commitment to building "the new society within the shell of the old."43 According to two early SDSers, "What we are working for is far more than changes in the structure of society and its institutions or the people who are now making the decisions.…The stress should rather be on wrenching people out of the system both physically and spiritually."44

Radicals believed that alternative institutions would not only satisfy needs unmet by the present system, but also, perhaps, by dramatizing the failures of the system, radicalize those not served by it but currently outside the Movement. Tom Hayden proposed that radicals "build our own free institutions—community organizations, newspapers, coffeehouses—at points of strain within the system where human needs are denied. These institutions become centers of identity, points of contact, building blocks of a new society from which we confront the system more intensely."45

Among the earliest and best known of such efforts were the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the accompanying Freedom Schools formed during Freedom Summer of 1964. In the aftermath of that summer's Democratic National Convention, Bob Moses [Parris] of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) even suggested that the Movement abandon its efforts to integrate the Democratic Party and try instead to establish its own state government in Mississippi. And as early as 1966 SNCC's Atlanta Project called on blacks to "form our own institutions, credit unions, co-ops, political parties."46 This came to be the preferred strategy as the sixties progressed and disillusionment with traditional politics grew. Rather than working from within the system, new leftists and black radicals instead formed alternative political parties, media, schools, universities, and assemblies of oppressed and unrepresented people.

Women's liberationists elaborated on this idea, creating an amazing panoply of counterinstitutions. In the years before the 1973 Supreme Court decision decriminalizing abortion, feminists established abortion referral services in most cities of any size. Women's liberationists in Chicago even operated an underground abortion clinic, "Jane," where they performed about one hundred abortions each week.47 By the mid-1970s most big cities had a low-cost feminist health clinic, a rape crisis center, and a feminist bookstore. In Detroit, after "a long struggle to translate feminism into federalese," two women succeeded in convincing the National Credit Union Administration that feminism was a legitimate "field" from which to draw credit union members. Within three years of its founding in 1973, the Detroit credit union could claim assets of almost one million dollars. Feminists in other cities soon followed suit. Women's liberation activists in Washington, D.C., formed Olivia Records, the first women's record company, which by 1978 was supporting a paid staff of fourteen and producing four records a year.48 By the mid-1970s there existed in most cities of any size a politicized feminist counterculture, or a "women's community."

The popularity of alternative institutions was that at least in part they seemed to hold out the promise of political effectiveness without cooptation. Writing in 1969, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), a black nationalist and accomplished poet, maintained, "But you must have the cultural revolution.…We cannot fight a war, an actual physical war with the forces of evil just because we are angry. We can begin to build. We must build black institutions … all based on a value system that is beneficial to black people."49

Jennifer Woodul, one of the founders of Olivia Records, argued that ventures like Olivia represented a move toward gaining "economic power" for women. "We feel it's useless to advocate more and more 'political action' if some of it doesn't result in the permanent material improvement of the lives of women."50 Robin Morgan termed feminist counterinstitutions "concrete moves toward self-determination and power."51 The situation, it turned out, was much more complicated. Women involved in nonprofit feminist institutions such as rape crisis centers and shelters for battered women found that their need for state or private funding sometimes militated against adherence to feminist principles.

Feminist businesses, by contrast, discovered that while they were rarely the objects of cooptation, the problem of recuperation remained. In many cases the founders of these institutions became the victims of their own success, as mainstream presses, recording companies, credit unions, and banks encroached on a market they had originally discovered and tapped.52 For instance, by the end of the 1970s Olivia was forced to reduce its staff almost by half and to scuttle its collective structure.53 Today k. d. lang, Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, and Sinead O'Connor are among those androgynous women singers enjoying great commercial success, but on major labels. Although Olivia helped lay the groundwork for their achievements, it finds its records, as Arlene Stein has observed, "languishing in the 'women's music' section in the rear [of the record store] if they're there at all."54

The move toward building counterinstitutions was part of a larger strategy to develop new societies "within the shell of the old," but this shift sometimes had unintended consequences. While feminist counterinstitutions were originally conceived as part of a culture of resistance, over time they often became more absorbed in sustaining themselves than in confronting male supremacy, especially as their services were duplicated by mainstream businesses. In the early years of the women's liberation movement this alternative feminist culture did provide the sort of "free space" women needed to confront sexism. But as it was further elaborated in the mid-1970s, it ironically often came to promote insularity instead—becoming, as Adrienne Rich has observed, "a place of emigration, an end in itself," where patriarchy was evaded rather than confronted.55 In practice, feminist communities were small, self-contained subcultures that proved hard to penetrate, especially to newcomers unaccustomed to their norms and conventions. The shift in favor of alternative communities may have sometimes impeded efforts at outreach for the women's liberationists, new leftists, and black radicals who attempted it.

On a related issue, the larger protest Movement's great pessimism about reform—the tendency to interpret every success a defeat resulting in the Movement's further recuperation (what Robin Morgan called "futilitarianism")—may have encouraged a too-global rejection of reform among sixties radicals. For instance, some women's liberation groups actually opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) when NOW revived it. In September 1970 a New York-based group, The Feminists, denounced the ERA and advised feminists against "squandering invaluable time and energy on it."56 A delegation of Washington, D.C., women's liberationists invited to appear before the senate subcommittee considering the ERA testified, "We are aware that the system will try to appease us with their [sic] paper offerings. We will not be appeased. Our demands can only be met by a total transformation of society which you cannot legislate, you cannot co-opt, you cannot control. "57 In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone went so far as to dismiss child care centers as attempts to "buy women off" because they "ease the immediate pressure without asking why the pressure is on women. "58

Similarly, many SDS leaders opposed the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP), an abortive attempt to form a national progressive organization oriented around electoral politics and to launch an antiwar presidential ticket headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Benjamin Spock. Immediately following NCNP's first and only convention, in 1967, the SDS paper New Left Notes published two front-page articles criticizing NCNP organizers. One writer contended that "people who recognize the political process as perverted will not seek change through the institutions that process has created."59 The failure of sixties radicals to distinguish between reform and reformism meant that while they defined the issues, they often did little to develop policy initiatives around those issues.60 Moreover, the preoccupation of women's liberationists with questions of internal democracy (fueled in part by their desire to succeed where the men had failed) sometimes had the effect of focusing attention away from the larger struggle in an effort to create the perfect movement. As feminist activist Frances Chapman points out, women's liberation was "like a generator that got things going, cut out and left it to the larger reform engine which made a lot of mistakes."61 In eschewing traditional politics rather than entering them skeptically, women's liberationists, like other sixties radicals, may have lost an opportunity to foster critical debate in the larger arena.



In 1968 Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisolm became, in her words, "the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin." She also became the first African American woman to seek the presidential nomination of a major political party in 1972. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Chisolm spent most of her childhood living with her grandparents in Barbados. She returned to New York to complete high school, and earned a bachelor's degree in 1946 and a master's degree in 1952. Chisolm worked as an early childhood educator, and went on to serve as a child care center director and education consultant to the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare before being elected to the New York State Assembly in 1964. During her career as an assembly-woman (1964-1968) and later as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1968-1983), Chisolm was a vocal proponent of funding for child care services, equal rights for women, labor and minimum wage reform, educational issues, ending poverty, and advancing civil rights. In one of her first addresses to the U.S. House of Representatives, on May 21, 1969, Chisolm introduced the Equal Rights Amendment, and declared: "As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black." In 1984 Chisolm was elected the first chairperson of the National Political Congress of Black Women; she now holds the title Chair Emeritus.

Chisolm, Shirley. In Unbought and Unbossed, p. xi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Chisolm, Shirley. In "Address to the United States House of Representatives: Washington, DC: May 21, 1969." Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, E4165-6. Women's Liberation Movement: An On-line Archival Collection, Special Collections Library, Duke University, (30 March 2004).

If young radicals eschewed the world of conventional politics, they nonetheless had a profound impact on it, especially by redefining what is understood as "political." Although the women's liberation movement popularized the slogan "the personal is political," the idea that there is a political dimension to personal life was first embraced by early SDSers who had encountered it in the writings of C. Wright Mills.62 Rebelling against a social order whose public and private spheres were highly differentiated, new leftists called for a reintegration of the personal with the political. They reconceptualized apparently personal problems—specifically their alienation from a campus cultural milieu characterized by sororities and fraternities, husband and wife hunting, sports, and careerism, and the powerlessness they felt as college students without a voice in campus governance or curriculum—as political problems. Thus SDS's founding Port Huron Statement of 1962 suggested that for an American New Left to succeed, it would have to "give form to … feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social, and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society."63 Theirs was a far more expansive formulation of politics than what prevailed in the Old Left, even among the more renegade remnants that had survived into the early sixties.64 Power was conceptualized as relational and by no means reducible to electoral politics.

By expanding political discourse to include personal relations, new leftists unintentionally paved the way for women's liberationists to develop critiques of the family, marriage, and the construction of sexuality. (Of course, nonfeminist critiques of the family and sexual repressiveness were hardly in short supply in the 1950s and 1960s, as evidenced by Rebel without a Cause, Catcher in the Rye, and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd, to mention but a few.) Women's liberationists developed an understanding of power's capillarylike nature, which in some respects anticipated those being formulated by Michel Foucault and other poststructuralists.65 Power was conceptualized as occupying multiple sites and as lodging everywhere, even in those private places assumed to be the most removed from or impervious to politics—the home and, more particularly, the bedroom.

The belief of sixties radicals that the personal is political also suggested to them its converse—that the political is personal. Young radicals typically felt it was not enough to sign leaflets or participate in a march if one returned to the safety and comfort of a middle-class existence. Politics was supposed to unsettle life and its routines, even more, to transform life. For radicals the challenge was to discover, underneath all the layers of social conditioning, the "real" self unburdened by social expectations and conventions. Thus, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael advanced the slogan, "Every Negro is a potential black man."66 Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt argued that among the "most exciting things to come out of the women's movement so far is a new daring … to tear down old structures and assumptions and let real thought and feeling flow."67 Life would not be comfortable, but who wanted comfort in the midst of so much deadening complacency? For a great many radicals, the individual became a site of political activism in the sixties. In the black freedom movement the task was very much to discover the black inside the Negro, and in the women's liberation movement it was to unlearn niceness, to challenge the taboo against female self-assertion.68

Sixties radicalism proved compelling to many precisely because it promised to transform life. Politics was not about the subordination of self to some larger political cause; instead, it was the path to self-fulfillment. This ultimately was the power of sixties radicalism. As Stanley Aronowitz notes, sixties radicalism was in large measure about "infus[ing] life with a secular spiritual and moral content" and "fill[ing] the quotidian with personal meaning and purpose."69 But "the personal is political" was one of those ideas whose rhetorical power seemed to sometimes work against or undermine its explication. It could encourage a solipsistic preoccupation with self-transformation. As new leftist Richard Flacks presciently observed in 1965, this kind of politics could lead to "a search for personally satisfying modes of life while abandoning the possibility of helping others to change theirs."70 Thus the idea that "politics is how you live your life, not who you vote for," as Yippie leader Jerry Rubin put it, could and did lead to a subordination of politics to lifestyle.71 If the idea led some to confuse personal liberation with political struggle, it led others to embrace an asceticism that sacrificed personal needs and desires to political imperatives. Some women's liberation activists followed this course, interpreting the idea that the personal is political to mean that one's personal life should conform to some abstract standard of political correctness. At first this tendency was mitigated by the founders' insistence that there were no personal solutions, only collective solutions, to women's oppression. Over time, however, one's self-presentation, marital status, and sexual preference frequently came to determine one's standing or ranking in the movement. The most notorious example of this involved the New York radical group The Feminists, who established a quota to limit the number of married women in the group.72 Policies such as these prompted Barbara Ehrenreich to question "a feminism which talks about universal sisterhood, but is horrified by women who wear spiked heels or call their friends 'girls.'"73 At the same time, what was personally satisfying was sometimes upheld as politically correct. In the end, both the women's liberation movement and the larger protest Movement suffered, as the idea that the personal is political was often interpreted in such a way as to make questions of lifestyle absolutely central.

The social movements of the sixties signaled the beginning of what has come to be known as "identity politics," the idea that politics is rooted in identity.74 Although some New Left groups by the late 1960s did come to endorse an orthodox Marxism whereby class was privileged, class was not the pivotal category for these new social movements.75 (Even those New Left groups that reverted to the "labor metaphysic" lacked meaningful working-class participation.) Rather, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and youth were the salient categories for most sixties activists. In the women's liberation movement, what was termed "consciousness-raising" was the tool used to develop women's group identity.

As women's liberationists started to organize a movement, they confronted American women who identified unambiguously as women, but who typically had little of what Nancy Cott would call "we-ness," or "some level of identification with 'the group called women.'"76 Moreover, both the pervasiveness of gender inequality and the cultural understanding of gender as a natural rather than a social construct made it difficult to cultivate a critical consciousness about gender even among women. To engender this sense of sisterhood or "we-ness," women's liberationists developed consciousness-raising, a practice involving "the political reinterpretation of personal life."77 According to its principal architects, its purpose was to "awaken the latent consciousness that … all women have about our oppression." In talking about their personal experiences, it was argued, women would come to understand that what they had believed were personal problems were, in fact, "social problems that must become social issues and fought together rather than with personal solutions."78

Reportedly, New York women's liberationist Kathie Sarachild was the person who coined the term consciousness-raising. However, the technique originated in other social movements. As Sarachild wrote in 1973, those who promoted consciousness-raising "were applying to women and to ourselves as women's liberation organizers the practice a number of us had learned in the civil rights movement in the South in the early 1960's."79 There they had seen that the sharing of personal problems, grievances, and aspirations—"telling it like it is"—could be a radicalizing experience. Moreover, for some women's liberationists consciousness-raising was a way to avoid the tendency of some members of the movement to try to fit women within existing (and often Marxist) theoretical paradigms. By circumventing the "experts" on women and going to women themselves, they would be able to not only construct a theory of women's oppression but formulate strategy as well. Thus women's liberationists struggled to find the commonalities in women's experiences in order to formulate generalizations about women's oppression.

Consciousness-raising was enormously successful in exposing the insidiousness of sexism and in engendering a sense of identity and solidarity among the largely white, middle-class women who participated in "c-r" groups. By the early 1970s even NOW, whose founder Betty Friedan had initially derided consciousness-raising as so much "navel-gazing," began sponsoring c-r groups.80 But the effort to transcend the particular was both the strength and the weakness of consciousness-raising. If it encouraged women to locate the common denominators in their lives, it inhibited discussion of women's considerable differences. Despite the particularities of white, middle-class women's experiences, theirs became the basis for feminist theorizing about women's oppression. In a more general sense the identity politics informing consciousness-raising tended to privilege experience in certain problematic ways. It was too often assumed that there existed a kind of core experience, initially articulated as "women's experience." Black and white radicals (the latter in relation to youth) made a similar move as well. When Stokely Carmichael called on blacks to develop an "ideology which speaks to our blackness," he, like other black nationalists, suggested that there was somehow an essential and authentic "blackness."

With the assertion of difference within the women's movement in the 1980s, the notion that women constitute a unitary category has been problematized. As a consequence, women's experiences have become ever more discretely defined, as in "the black female experience," "the Jewish female experience," or "the Chicana lesbian experience." But, as Audre Lorde has argued, there remains a way in which, even with greater and greater specificity, the particular is never fully captured.81 Instead, despite the pluralization of the subject within feminism, identities are often still imagined as monolithic. Finally, the very premise of identity politics—that identity is the basis of politics—has sometimes shut down possibilities for communication, as identities are seen as necessarily either conferring or foreclosing critical consciousness. Kobena Mercer, a British film critic, has criticized the rhetorical strategies of "authenticity and authentication" that tend to characterize identity politics. He has observed, "if I preface a point by saying something like, 'as a black gay man, I feel marginalized by your discourse,' it makes a valid point but in such a way that preempts critical dialogue because such a response could be inferred as a criticism not of what I say but of what or who I am. The problem is replicated in the familiar cop-out clause, 'as a middle-class, white, heterosexual male, what can I say?'"82

The problem is that the mere assertion of identity becomes in a very real sense irrefutable. Identity is presented as not only stable and fixed, but also insurmountable. While identity politics gives the oppressed the moral authority to speak (perhaps a dubious ground from which to speak), it can, ironically, absolve those belonging to dominant groups from having to engage in a critical dialogue. In some sense, then, identity politics can unintentionally reinforce Other-ness. Finally, as the antifeminist backlash and the emergence of the New Right should demonstrate, there is nothing inherently progressive about identity. It can be, and has been, mobilized for reactionary as well as for radical purposes.83 For example, the participation of so many women in the antiabortion movement reveals just how problematic the reduction of politics to identity can be.

Accounts of sixties radicalism usually cite its role in bringing about the dismantling of Jim Crow and disfranchisement, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, and greater gender equality. However, equally important, if less frequently noted, was its challenge to politics as usual. Sixties radicals succeeded both in reformulating politics, even mainstream politics, to include personal life, and in challenging the notion that elites alone have the wisdom and expertise to control the political process. For a moment, people who by virtue of their color, age, and gender were far from the sites of formal power became politically engaged, became agents of change.

Given the internal contradictions and shortcomings of sixties radicalism, the repressiveness of the federal government in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and changing economic conditions in the United States, it is not surprising that the movements built by radicals in the sixties either no longer exist or do so only in attenuated form. Activists in the women's liberation movement, however, helped bring about a fundamental realignment of gender roles in this country through outrageous protests, tough-minded polemics, and an "ecstasy of discussion." Indeed, those of us who came of age in the days before the resurgence of feminism know that the world today, while hardly a feminist utopia, is nonetheless a far different, and in many respects a far fairer, world than what we confronted in 1967.


  1. See Carol Hanisch, "A Critique of the Miss America Protest," in Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation, ed. Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt (New York: Radical Feminism, 1970), 87; and Judith Duffet, "Atlantic City Is a Town with Class—They Raise Your Morals While They Judge Your Ass," Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement 1, no. 3 (October 1968). The protesters also criticized the pageant's narrow formulation of beauty, especially its racist equation of beauty with whiteness. They emphasized that in its forty-seven-year history, the pageant had never crowned a black woman Miss America. That weekend the first Black Miss America Pageant was held in Atlantic City.
  2. See Lindsy Van Gelder, "Bra Burners Plan Protest," New York Post, 4 September 1968, which appeared three days before the protest. The New York Times article by Charlotte Curtis quoted Robin Morgan as having said about the mayor of Atlantic City, "He was worried about our burning things. He said the board-walk had already been burned out once this year. We told him we wouldn't do anything dangerous—just a symbolic bra-burning." Curtis, "Miss America Pageant Is Picketed by 100 Women," New York Times, 8 September 1968.
  3. See Jack Gould's column in the New York Times, 9 September 1968.
  4. The Yippies were a small group of leftists who, in contrast to most of the Left, had enthusiastically embraced the growing counterculture. For a fascinating account of the 1968 convention, see David Farber, Chicago '68 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
  5. Curtis, "Miss America Pageant."
  6. For the sake of convenience, I will use the term Movement to describe the overlapping protest movements of the sixties—the black freedom movement, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the more selfconsciously political New Left. I will refer to the women's liberation movement as the movement; here I use the lower case simply to avoid confusion.
  7. Snitow, interview by author, New York, 14 June 1984. Here one can get a sense of the disjuncture in experiences between white and black women; presumably, black women had not felt the same sense of distance about their civil rights activism.
  8. Robin Morgan, Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist (New York: Random House, 1978), 62.
  9. Yet virtually all the recently published books on the sixties either slight or ignore the protest. This omission is emblematic of a larger problem, the failure of authors to integrate women's liberation into their reconstruction of that period. Indeed, most of these books have replicated the position of women in the larger, male-dominated protest Movement—that is, the women's liberation movement is relegated to the margins of the narrative. Such marginalization has been exacerbated as well by the many feminist recollections of the sixties that demonize the Movement and present women's liberation as its antithesis. Sixties books that textually subordinate the women's liberation movement include James Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987); Tom Hayden, Reunion: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1988); Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1987); and Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest against the War in Vietnam (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984). A notable exception is Stewart Burns, Social Movements of the 1960's: Searching for Democracy (Boston: Twayne, 1990).
  10. Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
  11. Sara Evans has argued that in their attempt to combine work inside and outside the family, educated, middle-class, married white women of the 1950s were following the path pioneered by black women. See Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: Free Press, 1989), 253-54. As Jacqueline Jones and others have demonstrated, black women have a "long history of combining paid labor with domestic obligations." According to Jones, in 1950 one-third of all married black women were in the labor force, compared to one-quarter of all married women in the general population. One study cited by Jones "concluded that black mothers of school-aged children were more likely to work than their white counterparts, though part-time positions in the declining field of domestic service inhibited growth in their rates of labor force participation." Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 269.
  12. Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 302.
  13. Evans, Born for Liberty, 252.
  14. Jane De Hart-Mathews, "The New Feminism and the Dynamics of Social Change," in Women's America: Refocusing the Past, 2d ed., ed. Linda Kerber and Jane De Hart-Mathews (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 445.
  15. I think that this was an experience specific to white women. The problem of diffidence seems to have been, if not unique to white women, then especially acute for them. This is not to say that issues of gender were unimportant to black women activists in the sixties, but that gender seemed less primary and pressing an issue than race. However, much more research is needed in this area. It could be that the black women's noninvolvement in women's liberation had as much, if not more, to do with the movement's racism than any prioritizing of race.
  16. Carl Oglesby, "Trapped in a System," reprinted as "Liberalism and the Corporate State," in The New Radicals: A Report with Documents, ed. Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 266. For a useful discussion of the New Left's relationship to liberalism, see Gitlin, The Sixties, 127-92.
  17. See Howard Brick, "Inventing Post-Industrial Society: Liberal and Radical Social Theory in the 1960's" (paper delivered at the 1990 American Studies Association Conference). In September 1963 the electoral politics faction of SDS had even succeeded in getting the group to adopt the slogan "Part of the Way with LBJ." Johnson's official campaign slogan was "All the Way with LBJ." See Gitlin, The Sixties, 180.
  18. Gregory Calvert, interview, Movement 3, no. 2 (1967): 6.
  19. Andrew Kopkind, "Looking Backward: The Sixties and the Movement," Ramparts 11, no. 8 (February 1973): 32.
  20. That evening seven million people watched Johnson's speech to Congress announcing voting rights legislation. According to C. T. Vivian, "a tear ran down" Martin Luther King's cheek as Johnson finished his speech. Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-65 (New York: Penguin, 1988), 278.
  21. Elinor Langer discusses the ways Marcuse's notion of repressive tolerance was used by the Movement. See her wonderful essay, "Notes for Next Time," Working Papers for a New Society 1, no. 3 (fall 1973): 48-83.
  22. Ellen Kay Trimberger, "Women in the Old and New Left: The Evolution of a Politics of Personal Life," Feminist Studies 5, no. 3 (fall 1979): 442.
  23. Potter quoted from Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets, 196.
  24. Miller quoted from Gitlin, The Sixties, 9. Although the broad outlines of Miller's argument are correct, some recent scholarship on 1930s radicalism suggests that it was considerably more varied and less narrowly economistic than has been previously acknowledged. For example, recent books by Paula Rabinowitz and Robin Kelley demonstrate that some radicals in this period understood the salience of such categories as gender and race. See Paula Rabinowitz, Labor and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
  25. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, rev. ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 10-11.
  26. Robin Morgan, in Sisterhood Is Powerful, ed. Morgan (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), xxii.
  27. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, 33. For a very useful history of women's rights activism (as opposed to women's liberation) in the postwar years, see Cynthia Harrison, On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women's Issues, 1945-68 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
  28. Ti-Grace Atkinson, Amazon Odyssey (New York: Link Books, 1974), 10. In contrast to other founders of early radical feminist groups, Atkinson came to radicalism through her involvement in the New York City chapter of NOW, admittedly the most radical of all NOW chapters. Atkinson made this remark in October 1968 after having failed badly in her attempt to radically democratize the New York chapter of NOW. Upon losing the vote she immediately resigned her position as the chapter's president and went on to establish The Feminists, a radical feminist group.
  29. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, 12.
  30. Betty Friedan, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (New York: Random House, 1976), 153. Friedan was antagonistic to radical feminism from the beginning and rarely missed an opportunity to denounce the man-hating and sex warfare that she claimed it advocated. Her declamations against "sexual politics" began at least as early as January1969.
  31. Due to limitations of space and the focus of this chapter, I do not discuss the many differences among women's liberationists, most crucially, the conflicts between "radical feminists" and "politicos" over the relationship between the women's liberation movement and the larger Movement and the role of capitalism in maintaining women's oppression. This is taken up at length in Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
  32. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, 1. It is the opening line of her book.
  33. Adrienne Rich quoted from Hester Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983), 5.
  34. Ellen Willis, "Sequel: Letter to a Critic," in Notes from the Second Year, ed. Firestone and Koedt, 57.
  35. See Ann Snitow, "Gender Diary," Dissent, spring 1989, 205-24; Carole Vance, "Social Construction Theory: Problems in the History of Sexuality," in Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? ed. Anja van Kooten Niekark and Theo van der Maer (Amsterdam: An Dekken/Schorer, 1989).
  36. Ellen Willis discusses the centrality of abortion to the women's liberation movement in the foreword to Daring to Be Bad. For the young, mostly white middle-class women who were attracted to women's liberation, the issue was forced reproduction. But for women of color, the issue was as often forced sterilization, and women's liberationists would tackle that issue as well.
  37. Stanley Aronowitz, "When the New Left Was New," in The Sixties without Apology, ed. Sohnya Sayres, Anders Stephanson, Stanley Aronowitz, and Fredric Jameson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 32.
  38. C. Wright Mills quoted from Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets, 86.
  39. The phrase is from SDS's founding statement, "The Port Huron Statement," which is reprinted in full as an appendix to Miller's book, Democracy Is in the Streets, 333. For instance, Irving Howe, an influential member of the Old Left who attended a couple of SDS meetings, called them "interminable and structureless sessions." Howe, "The Decade That Failed," New York Times Magazine, 19 September 1982, 78.
  40. The statement appeared in a pamphlet produced by the Economic Research and Action Project of SDS. Miller quotes it in Democracy Is in the Streets, 215.
  41. Gregory Calvert, "Participatory Democracy, Collective Leadership, and Political Responsibility," New Left Notes, 2, no. 45 (18 December 1967): 1.
  42. See Breines's summary of prefigurative politics in Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-68 (New York: Praeger, 1982), 1-8.
  43. Staughton Lynd, "The Movement: A New Beginning," Liberation 14, no. 2 (May 1969).
  44. Pat Hansen and Ken McEldowney, "A Statement of Values," New Left Notes, 1, no. 42 (November 1966): 5.
  45. Tom Hayden, "Democracy Is … in the Streets," Rat 1, no. 15 (23 August-5 September 1968): 5.
  46. The Atlanta Project's position paper has been reprinted as "SNCC Speaks for Itself," in The Sixties Papers: Documents of a Rebellious Decade, ed. Judith Clavir Albert and Stewart Albert (New York: Praeger, 1984), 122. However, the title assigned it by the Alberts is misleading because at the time it was written in the spring of 1966, it did not reflect majority opinion in SNCC.
  47. Rosalind Petchesky, Abortion and Woman's Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom (New York: Longman Press, 1984), 128.
  48. Michelle Kort, "Sisterhood Is Profitable," Mother Jones, July 1983, 44.
  49. Amiri Imanu Baraka, "A Black Value System," Black Scholar, November 1969.
  50. Jennifer Woodul, "What's This about Feminist Businesses?" off our backs 6, no. 4 (June 1976): 24-26.
  51. Robin Morgan, "Rights of Passage," Ms., September 1975, 99.
  52. For a fascinating case study of this as it relates to women's music, see Arlene Stein, "Androgyny Goes Pop," Out/Look 3, no. 3 (spring 1991): 26-33.
  53. Kort, "Sisterhood Is Profitable," 44.
  54. Stein, "Androgyny Goes Pop," 30.
  55. Adrienne Rich, "Living the Revolution," Women's Review of Books 3, no. 12 (September 1986): 1, 3-4.
  56. Quoted from Jane Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 266.
  57. "Women's Liberation Testimony," off our backs 1, no. 5 (May 1970): 7.
  58. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, 206.
  59. Steve Halliwell, "Personal Liberation and Social Change," New Left Notes, 2, no. 30 (4 September 1967): 1; see also Rennie Davis and Staughton Lynd, "On NCNP," New Left Notes 2, no. 30. (4 September 1967): 1.
  60. See Charlotte Bunch, "The Reform Tool Kit," Quest 1, no. 1 (summer 1974).
  61. Frances Chapman, interview by author, New York, 30 May 1984. Here Chapman was speaking of the radical feminist wing of the women's liberation movement, but it applies as well to women's liberation activists.
  62. For more on the prefigurative, personal politics of the sixties, see Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left; Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets; and Aronowitz, "When the New Left Was New."
  63. Quoted from Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets, 374.
  64. Although individual social critics such as C. Wright Mills influenced the thinking of new leftists, the non-communist Left of the 1950s and early 1960s remained economistic and anticommunist. Indeed, the fact that the board of the League for Industrial Democracy—the parent organization of SDS in SDS's early years—ignored the values section of the Port Huron Statement suggests the disjuncture between old and new leftists. For another view stressing the continuities between the Old and the New Left, see Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer … The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (New York: Basic Books, 1987).
  65. See Judith Newton, "Historicisms New and Old: 'Charles Dickens' Meets Marxism, Feminism, and West Coast Foucault," Feminist Studies 16, no. 3 (fall 1990): 464. In their assumption that power has a source and that it emanates from patriarchy, women's liberationists part company with Foucauldian approaches that reject large-scale paradigms of domination.
  66. Carmichael quoted from Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 282.
  67. Firestone and Koedt, "Editorial," in Notes from the Second Year, ed. Firestone and Koedt.
  68. However, the reclamation of blackness was often articulated in a sexist fashion, as in Stokely Carmichael's 1968 declaration, "Every Negro is a potential black man." See Carmichael, "A Declaration of War," in The New Left: A Documentary History, ed. Teodori Massimo (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), 277.
  69. Aronowitz, "When the New Left Was New," 18.
  70. Richard Flacks, "Some Problems, Issues, Proposals," in The New Radicals, ed. Jacobs and Landau, 168. This was a working paper intended for the June 1965 convention of SDS.
  71. Excerpts from Jerry Rubin's book, Do It, appeared in Rat 2, no. 26 (26 January-9 February 1970).
  72. "The Feminists: A Political Organization to Annihilate Sex Roles," in Notes from the Second Year, ed. Firestone and Koedt, 117.
  73. Ehrenreich quoted from Carol Ann Douglas, "Second Sex 30 Years Later," off our backs 9, no. 11 (December 1979): 26.
  74. The term identity politics was, I think, first used by black and Chicana feminists. See Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989), 99.
  75. Jeffrey Weeks locates the origins of identity politics in the post-1968 political flux. He argues that "identity politics can be seen as part of the unfinished business of the 1960's, challenging traditionalist hierarchies of power and the old, all-encompassing social and political identities associated, for example, with class and occupation." Perhaps Weeks situates this in the post-1968 period, because class held greater significance for many British new leftists than it did for their American counterparts. Weeks, "Sexuality and (Post) Modernity" (unpublished paper).
  76. Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 5.
  77. Amy Kesselman, interview by author, New York, 2 May 1984.
  78. "The New York Consciousness Awakening Women's Liberation Group" (handout from the Lake Villa Conference, November 1968).
  79. Kathie Sarachild, "Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon," in Feminist Revolution, ed. Redstockings (New Paltz, NY: Redstockings, 1975), 132.
  80. Betty Friedan, It Changed My Life (New York: Norton, 1985), 101.
  81. Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1982), 226.
  82. Lorraine Kenney, "Traveling Theory: The Cultural Politics of Race and Representation: An Interview with Kobena Mercer," Afterimage, September 1990, 9.
  83. Mercer makes this point as well in Kenney, "Traveling Theory," 9.


SOURCE: Bunch, Charlotte. "Women's Human Rights: The Challenges of Global Feminism and Diversity." In Feminist Locations: Global and Local, Theory and Practice, edited by Marianne DeKoven, pp. 129-46. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

In the following essay, Bunch discusses some aspects of global feminism, including networking among organizations in various countries, the struggle for human rights, and the notion of equality in relation to diversity.

I want to start with a story from the first African Women's Leadership Institute that I attended in Uganda (February 1997) because it illustrates issues I want to discuss and conveys the sense of possibility that I feel about what I call global feminism. While the term global feminism is problematic, it still has resonance for many as a way of describing the growth of feminism(s) around the world over the past two decades. The African Women's Leadership Institute was organized by four young women from different countries in Africa who had attended the global leadership institutes sponsored by the Center for Women's Global Leadership each year and who have been active in the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights.

They brought twenty-five women, ages twenty-five to forty, from eighteen countries in Africa for three weeks of intensive training in a program that was explicitly dealing with feminism and leadership for the twenty-first century. The fact that over three hundred women applied to spend three weeks there speaks volumes about both the growth of feminism in the region and the seriousness of women's commitments to it. The participants were diverse in terms of country, ethnic identity, and class. Some worked in the public sector in politics and government; many came from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and grass-roots women's projects; and a few worked in private corporations or in universities. Their backgrounds were diverse as were their issues of primary concern. Yet as so often happens in events like this, there was also a commonality in the stories that they told about the discrimination and violence that they faced as women that brought them together in spite of their differences.

In one of the opening lectures, Patricia Mc-Fadden, a feminist theorist from Swaziland, wove together the themes of feminism in Africa with analysis of colonialism and the ways in which Western patriarchy had imposed itself on the continent. At the same time, she talked about how this should not blind women to the indigenous forms of patriarchy that they also had to confront. She ended her analysis of the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality in Africa with a participatory exercise in which she asked women to list on the board names that feminists get called in their country. A multitude of words spewed forth from bra burners to unfeminine to promiscuous to frigid to lesbian to Western/white-identified to women who can't get a man to women who want to be a man to women who are ugly to women who read too much (and "lose contact with their roots") to the "know-alls" and even "Beijing Women," referring to the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. Even though these names were expressed in various local languages often reflecting particular cultural concepts, the same accusations that women have experienced in other parts of the world kept appearing on the list. It reminded me that one of the universalities of the feminist struggle is the commonality of our opposition.

McFadden also asked participants to say why they do or don't call themselves feminists. Many replied that before they came to the institute, they didn't or weren't sure whether to call themselves a feminist for various reasons. But many added that after this lecture they would do so because now they understood that was who they were and how the term had been used against women. It was a transforming process that I have seen happen in different ways and arenas around the world. Yet it is still powerful to see how demystifying this word and understanding the way in which it has been used against women enables many to recognize its political nature and reinforces their ability to stand up to those who put women down.

Women's Global Networking

The struggle to reclaim and broaden feminism is central to working for women's human rights. Someone once asked if we say "women's human rights" because it's easier for people to accept than feminism. The intention of this movement has not been to avoid the word feminism, but rather to take feminist analysis into the arena of human rights and use it to make women's claims more indisputable by defining them as human rights. By applying feminist concepts and gender analysis to human rights theory and practice, we seek to transform a major body of work and its related institutions that have enormous influence, both practically and theoretically, in the world, and make them more inclusive of women's lives and experiences. Looking at human rights from a gender-conscious point of view has already begun to challenge the limited parameters of what was previously defined as human rights and opened new avenues of government accountability to women.

The growth of women's movements around the world since the 1970s and the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985) with its world conferences on women provided the context and background for the movement for women's human rights to emerge in the 1990s. The four UN world conferences on women held from 1975 to 1995 became places where women at the regional and global levels got to know one another and to exchange information, ideas, and strategies. While there have been many other women's international events where such exchange took place as well, the UN conferences played a particularly important role because they provided resources for and a legitimacy to what women were doing that was critical to many women's ability to participate. This global feminist discussion has often been rocky with important contentious debates, but it also has enabled networks and groups of women to see where they share common goals and can build linkages across differences. The irony is that the United Nations certainly never intended to facilitate global feminist networking, but it has helped to create the conditions and sometimes the context from which many women have developed a greater understanding of one another and found ways to work together.

When I speak of the "global" in global feminism, I do not see it in opposition to the "local." This is one of those false dualisms that we must transcend. The greatest strength of women's movements in every region of the world, including the United States, is in the wide diversity of particularized local activity that women do. Most of what feminism has achieved in the last three decades has been through fairly small, specific, local organizations or projects of a million different sorts. These are often competing and debating with one another how to describe various women's experiences and what changes women should seek. In this process, women have developed their own analyses of the reality of women in their particular setting and built strategies responsive to their own specific struggles. It is the richness of this very particularized and local experience that makes it possible to imagine global networking that is reflective of women's diversity. Through the process of development by each specific group of women of their own priority issues and identities the feminist discourse has remained vital and evolved over time. This attention to diversity should also provide the basis for creating more inclusive strategies and visions for the future. These diverse, local, and particularized women's movements are the ground upon which any global activity must build and where it must always return to check out its viability.

Nevertheless, over the past decade, many women have come to feel that working in thousands of small separate projects is not enough. The changes feminists seek demand addressing global forces that are affecting so much of local life today. More women are understanding that their particularized concerns and projects cannot be viewed in isolation from this larger context. For example, the global economy is transforming the conditions of women's work both in the paid economy and at home; organizing in this sector must take this into account. Feminist analysis of the global economy is growing as women examine how their lives are affected by trends like the privatization policies that go by many different names: structural adjustment in the third world, the downsizing of employees and services in the United States, and ending the service sector and job guarantees in Eastern Europe.

Global culture and media also have significant impacts on women's lives and on our efforts to organize. To take an example from that list of things that feminists in Africa get called, one stereotype that has been created by the media and spread through global culture is feminists as "bra burners." Even though, as Patricia McFadden pointed out, the bra was a Western invention with no roots in African culture, nonetheless, feminists there get accused of being Western because they're "bra burners." Some of the women at the African Institute asked, "Where did this term come from?" In the ensuing discussion it was noted that media-created stereotypes spread rapidly from continent to continent. Further, even men who otherwise oppose each other politically will often eagerly use the same media-generated concepts when it comes to what's wrong with feminists.

One of the most damaging and persistent stereotypes used by men everywhere and reinforced by the media is to say that feminism is only Western (white) and middle class (bourgeois). Many feminist leaders and groups have certainly made mistakes and taken actions that reflected these biases, and this must be continuously challenged as we work to create concepts and strategies that are inclusive of women's diversity. However, the continual litany that this is what feminism is and who defines it is a profound insult to the millions of diverse women worldwide, including in the United States, whose ideas and lives have given shape to feminism not only in the past few decades but also over centuries. There have been vibrant feminist movements in many countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America at various points during this century and certainly since the 1970s. Yet, the media systematically neglects reporting on them and usually focuses only on the terrible problems women there face—if it notices them at all. Thus, the feminisms and movements of women in the rest of the world remain unknown to most. Similarly, there is not one Western feminism but rather quite a diverse range of feminisms expressed by different groups of women living in Western countries. Yet most of these faces of feminism are rarely if ever acknowledged in the media. Thus, even to speak of global feminism requires reclaiming the term feminism and recognizing how distortions of it have been systematically used to exacerbate differences among women.

Perhaps the greatest challenge feminists face locally is that at the same time a global phenomenon is on the rise of different kinds of fundamentalisms and backlash, both religious and secular. Religious fundamentalism—whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist—and secular fundamentalism like nationalism in the former Yugoslavia, all force women to identify with the particular narrow identity of their group and to disavow "the other." Most of these fundamentalisms also demand that women be the carriers of the cultural purity of their particular group. When women are identified with culture—as reproducers and bearers of tradition—their freedom is usually circumscribed by the male leaders of their group, and they are often also used as the front line against feminism. The ability of competing fundamentalisms to unite as a global force against feminists was made clear at the Women's Conference in Beijing when right-wing Republican U.S. congressmen were in agreement with the Vatican, the Islamic mullahs, and the secular Chinese Communist government in their opposition to the inclusion of gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights in the Platform for Action.

Growing recognition of the global forces affecting women's lives has fueled women's efforts at global networking during the 1990s—including within the women's human rights movement. And this is where the UN world conferences have come to play a key role. Prior to the World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985, most of what went on in the name of global feminism or international women's work was information sharing or solidarity work supporting another group's needs. But the global networking that has emerged in the nineties goes beyond solidarity—though that continues to be important—to a more integrated understanding of the connection between what's happening in one country and another. Thus, not only do women care about what's happening to other women in Afghanistan or Rwanda, but also we understand that the advance of fundamentalism anywhere has implications for its growth in other countries and the instability and violence of armed conflicts spill over many borders. Feminists of course still need to act out of solidarity but also to understand that events in diverse parts of the world affect each other. Global networks that have the capacity to respond with a greater international effort can thus strengthen local work.

Understanding the need for more global connections among women gained considerable ground at the time of the third UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi. In 1975, at the first UN World Conference on Women in Mexico City, the debates were generally divided along the lines of the three prevailing UN blocs and the slogan for the UN Decade symbolized this: "Equality, Development, and Peace." These terms reflected what was understood as central to the "woman question" in each of the three blocs. Thus, Equality was seen primarily as a feminist issue coming from Western industrialized countries; Peace was included at the request of the Eastern Socialist bloc; and Development was perceived as key to the improvement of women's lives in third-world countries. At the end of the decade conference in Nairobi by contrast, many women had rejected this division into separate areas and were calling for an understanding of the intersection of these issues. The seeds of several future global networks were sown in Nairobi. One of the groups leading in this effort was DAWN—Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era—a group of women from the South who worked together to produce a book for Nairobi that was a feminist analysis of development and international capitalism and their impact on women. To respond to the challenges posed by the global economy, they called for strategies that crossed North and South lines, with leadership from Southern feminists. They saw no hope of achieving the kind of changes women sought nationally without building alliances that moved both South-South and North-South. Alliances like these played a key role in beginning to shift the discussion of development in the international community to take greater account of women and gender analysis.

The UN world conferences in the 1990s became the occasion for many of these nascent networks to emerge in a more public arena. Women were already sharing strategies and information around development, health, the environment, violence, et cetera. What the world conferences provided was an opportunity to make more visible women's experiences and to showcase feminist/gender-aware perspectives on major global issues. Throughout the eighties many women had been involved in significant efforts to redefine development, and witnessed how the United Nations and some other development agencies began to reflect some of women's concerns in what came to be called human development, a concept that went beyond the prevailing economic development theories. Similar work to redefine society's major paradigms became the focus of women's global networking around the UN world conferences: The Earth Summit on the Environment in Rio in 1992; the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993; the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994; the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995; the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995; the Habitat World Conference on Human Settlement in Istanbul in 1996; and the World Food Summit in Rome in 1997.

Feminist analysis and practice moved into these global public spaces as women brought work done on issues concerning violence, reproductive rights, pay equity, women's political participation, et cetera, to the agendas of the world conferences. The women demonstrated what a gender analysis means in terms of global public policy. While there were of course many differences and debates among women about what should be done at the conferences and how to define a gendered approach, these were generally political differences, not ones based primarily on identity and geography. Women found themselves agreeing with some of the women from different countries and as often disagreeing with some of the women from their own identity groups. While women drew on the insights gained in identity politics, they also recognized the need to move beyond that in order to create a global political force.

These global networks are still emerging, but their experience points to the possibility of organizing that builds on the specificity that women have developed around particular identities and takes account of diversity but also creates a broader political analysis from that place. This is an effort to take the best of identity politics and its grounding in the particulars of differences according to race, class, sexuality, nationality, and other factors and move from that knowledge toward a common political analysis of the larger forces at work. It assumes that diverse experiences can help build broader strategies and more effective next steps. An example of how this works can be seen in the women's human rights movement that has grown out of this impetus for global feminist networking.

The international movement for women's human rights crystallized around the second United Nations World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993. It emerged in response to numerous concerns and reflected women's collaborative efforts in diverse contexts. In particular, many women in different regions believed that the issues they were organizing against—especially various forms of gender-based violence such as battery, rape, female genital mutilation, female infanticide, or trafficking—were human rights crises that were not being taken seriously as human rights violations. Thus, despite the many differences among the women organizing for the Vienna conference, women were able to articulate, develop, and act upon a common agenda that took as its focal point the issue of gender-based violence against women.

One of the major expressions of this movement at the international level has been the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights—a loose coalition of groups and individuals worldwide formed in preparation for the Vienna conference. Several organizations and regional networks worked together to launch the Global Campaign, and they used networking as a primary mode of mobilizing women. This coalition pursued a number of diverse strategies and advanced various issues under the broad umbrella of demanding that women be put on the agenda in Vienna and that violence against women be recognized as a human rights violation. Having gained recognition of women's rights as human rights in Vienna, the Global Campaign then coordinated a series of actions that included workshops, strategic planning meetings, human rights caucuses, and hearings on women's human rights at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Since these conferences, one of the ongoing tasks of the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights has been pushing for implementation of the various UN world conference commitments to women. Activists have coordinated efforts globally to lobby the various human rights mechanisms of the UN to fulfill their commitment to the full integration of gender concerns and awareness into their work. Similarly, much effort has gone into working with regional and national bodies, both governmental and nongovernmental, for the full incorporation of gender consciousness and women's human rights into their agendas. In 1998, the Global Campaign utilized this same method of networking in putting forth several broad themes under the slogan Celebrate and Demand Women's Human Rights. This effort sought to bring women's perspectives into commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the global level and to encourage diverse but coordinated expressions of this theme locally.

Another ongoing initiative of the women's human rights movement that embodies this approach is the "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence," an international campaign which links November 25 (International Day against Violence against Women) to December 10 (International Human Rights Day). The 16 Days Campaign aims to provide a global umbrella for local activities that promote public awareness about gender-based violence as a human rights concern and that seek specific commitments to women's human rights at all levels. Groups participating in the campaign select their own particularized objectives and determine their own local activities, but all are done with a sense of being part of this larger global focus.

The driving force of these campaigns has been commitment to action-oriented networking and to building linkages among women across multiple boundaries including class, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, both within local and national-level communities and across geopolitical divides. In these activities, the women's human rights movement has utilized human rights approaches to strengthen local mobilization efforts and to advance local objectives, while at the same time linking them to a larger international movement with broad common goals. It has thus incorporated a wide range of particularized women's issues into an overall international framework for action and change.

Why Human Rights?

One of the first questions that the women's human rights movement has had to address is why feminists should use the human rights concepts and framework for our concerns at all? The limitations in the origins of modern human rights practice are real: it's Western, it's male, it's individualistic, its emphasis has been on political and not economic rights. However, looking beyond its origins to the particular movements for change in the twentieth century that have taken up this concept, we see that the idea that all people have fundamental human rights has become one of the most powerful concepts that disenfranchised groups have used to legitimize their struggles. In the anticolonial independence movements in Asia and Africa, in struggles against dictatorships in Latin America, in movements for the rights of the indigenous, in the African American movement in the United States, human rights language has given voice to claims to be included in the human community as equal citizens. As each group that has been excluded from mainstream power and political discourse stakes their claim to human rights, the term and the practice that derives from it has also been revitalized and expanded in its meaning—taking it further from those limited origins and closer to the ideal of universal human rights for all. The whole body of human rights literature as well as the UN treaties and mechanisms to enforce them established in the last fifty years has had to change and grow as each group has laid out its claims.

Women are following this historical precedent in demanding full recognition of our humanity and posing challenges that are already beginning to transform human rights concepts and practice to be more responsive to women's lives. Human rights language creates a space in which different accounts of women's lives and new ways of demanding change can be developed. Women from many different countries have used it to articulate diverse demands in relation to a broad array of issues. Human rights also provide over-arching principles to frame visions of justice for women without dictating the precise content of those visions. As an ethical concept, human rights speak to values and principles that are not tied to any one religion and can be useful to feminists in answering conservative or fundamentalist attacks.

Human rights is a powerful term that transforms the discussion from being about something that is a good idea to that which ought to be the birthright of every person. Thus it provides a powerful vocabulary for naming gender-based violations and impediments to the exercise of women's full equality and citizenship that legitimizes the demand that these be taken seriously. For many women, it has been empowering to realize that abuses they endure or have endured such as rape, battery, forced marriage, or bodily mutilations are recognized as violations of their humanity. Further, by interpreting abuses of women as human rights violations, women gain greater access to the large body of international and regional human rights treaties, covenants, and agreements that make up international human rights law and practice.

Human rights is as close as we have in the world today to an agreement about what is crucial to human dignity. It is at the center of debates over what every person should have the right to and what no person or state should be able to violate. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by all the governments in the United Nations in 1948 remains the core document for human rights deliberations. It defines human rights as universal, inalienable, and indivisible. All of these defining characteristics are important for women.

The idea of human rights as inalienable means that no one can voluntarily abdicate her/his human rights since those are rights which we have by virtue of being human. This also means that no person or group can deprive another individual of her/his human rights. Thus, for example, debts incurred by migrant workers or by women caught up in sex-trafficking can never justify indentured servitude (slavery), or the deprivation of food, of freedom of movement, or of compensation. Human rights cannot be sold, ransomed, or forfeited for any reason. In theory, then, these are not rights which a country gives or can take away from anyone since they inhere in each person. Further, if governments do deprive citizens of these rights or fail to protect them, they are in violation of their obligation as a state to promote and protect their citizens' rights.

The universality of human rights means that human rights should apply to every single person equally, for everyone is equal in simply being human. While such an interpretation of universality may seem simple, this egalitarian premise has a radical edge that makes it one of the most challenged issues in human rights. By invoking the universality of human rights, women have demanded the incorporation of women- and gender aware perspectives into all of the ideas and institutions that are already committed to the promotion and protection of human rights. Further, universality challenges the contention that the human rights of women (or any group) can be limited by religious or culturally specific definitions of their role.

It is important to note that the concept of universality in human rights does not mean that everyone is or should be the same, but rather that all are equal in their rights by virtue of their humanity. Further, it demands that these rights not be culturally circumscribed and denied to any one group of humans. Of course interpretations of human rights are not static but represent what the prevailing forces in the human community decide are the fundamentals of what is acceptable for the treatment of people. The question then is, who decides what are these agreed-upon human rights? Women are demanding both an end to the double standard of who has human rights and, perhaps even more important, the right to be engaged in their ongoing definition and interpretation. In cultures where there is debate about whether the concept of human rights is being imposed from the outside, women have argued that the concept of universality means that they have the right to be part of those deciding how to interpret human rights principles in their context and that their interpretation must apply equally to men and women.

The indivisibility of human rights means that none of the rights that are considered to be fundamental is supposed to be seen as more important than any of the others and that they are interrelated. Moreover, since human rights encompass civil, political, social, economic, and cultural facets of human existence, the indivisibility premise highlights that the ability of people to live their lives in dignity and to exercise their human rights fully depends on the recognition that these aspects are interdependent. The fact that human rights are indivisible is important for women, since their civil and political rights historically have been compromised by their economic status, by social and cultural limitations placed on their activities, and by the ever-present threat of violence that often constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to women's participation in public and political life.

Indivisibility also challenges the historic Western bias in favor of civil and political rights over social and economic rights. Many people in the United States don't even realize that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes social and economic rights. However, many groups throughout the world have spent a great deal of time working on how to demand and realize rights to things like development, housing, and employment. Women's human rights activists have rejected a human rights hierarchy which places either political and civil rights or socioeconomic rights as primary. Instead, women have charged that political stability cannot be realized unless women's social and economic rights are also addressed; that sustainable development is impossible without the simultaneous respect for, and incorporation into the policy process of women's cultural and social roles in the daily reproduction of life; and that social equity cannot be generated without economic justice and women's participation in all levels of political decision making.

While indivisibility has not yet been realized in human rights practice, it reinforces what feminists have called intersectionality or the interrelatedness of factors like race, class, age, gender, and sexuality. A person's rights or experience of violation cannot often be divided out according to one of these factors alone, for how one experiences each of these is affected by the others. The everyday reality of this principle was reiterated in most of the testimonies presented in the hearings and tribunals organized by the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights at the UN world conferences. As women told the story of how they were violated in one area of their lives such as domestic violence, it was evident how this was exacerbated by other factors such as race or their lack of economic or political rights in other areas. Further, indivisibility of human rights reminds us that human rights are not for some while others can be left on the margins. As long as the rights of some are denied—whether on the basis of race, gender, culture, sexual orientation, or other factors—the human rights of all are undermined.

These basic concepts reflect the ideals of human rights while the considerable body of human rights standards, treaties and mechanisms that have evolved over the past fifty years are intended to translate those ideals into reality. These are particularly useful to establishing governmental accountability for protecting and promoting the human rights of women. While governments may not fulfill these obligations, most claim to care about human rights and are sensitive to both internal and external pressure to live up to the treaties they have signed. These have sometimes provided the basis for legal challenges to national law. For example, a woman in Botswana sued her government for the right to give her children her own nationality under the terms of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She won her suit on the grounds that this was sex discrimination that violated CEDAW, which her country had ratified. Since a number of countries do not allow women to pass on their nationality to their children, who must take that of the father, her victory had implications beyond Botswana.

In the effort to bring the issue of rape and forced pregnancy in war and conflict onto the international human rights agenda, women have successfully utilized human rights arenas such as the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and mechanisms such as the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The United Nations is currently engaged in setting up an international criminal court, which can have a significant impact on how such crimes against women are pursued in the future. They are debating the terms of the court: what will be the definition of war crimes? Will rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and other violations of women be war crimes and under what conditions? Will crimes against women outside of warfare be included in the jurisdiction of an international criminal court? Will individuals be able to bring crimes before the international court, or will it only be governments who can do so? The decisions made now will determine what kind of access women will have to this international justice system in the future. Women's human rights activists from all regions of the world have operated for several years as an ongoing international group called the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice in the International Criminal Court to inject a gender perspective and to influence such decisions from the inception of the court rather than having to add gender later on, as women must do in so many of the existing human rights bodies.

There are a number of other treaties, standards, and mechanisms that the United Nations and regional organizations have developed for realizing human rights which women are now seeking to address from a gender-conscious perspective. But for people in the United States, we face a particular problem because our government claims to be a big defender of human rights internationally yet has refused to ratify many human rights treaties. It has refused to do so precisely because it is afraid that people in this country will use them to address abuses of human rights within the United States. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, for example, is much more progressive than anything in the U.S. Constitution, even than the ERA, which was defeated. There are a number of provisions in the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well that cover human rights in the family that have been useful to women elsewhere, but the U.S. Government is the only industrialized country that has ratified neither of these treaties. The United States has also refused to ratify the Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, because it might become the basis for challenging economic policies here. Indeed, some welfare rights organizations are now doing just that—utilizing human rights principles and covenants to challenge U.S. welfare policy.

One of the most important future potential uses of human rights is to be the basis for establishing standards by which international financial institutions and multinational corporations can be held accountable for the impact of their policies. In the trend toward privatization in recent years, many governments find themselves relatively helpless in the face of violations by multinational corporations or in relation to the World Trade Organization. The question is, do we as a human community believe there should be checks on these transnational forces? Some people are beginning to look at whether the human rights system can be utilized to establish standards of what is expected from the private sector in the world today. Women's human rights advocates must be present from the beginning of this important exploration or once more, gender-aware perspectives on the responsibilities of global economic forces and the rights of women workers may be left out.

Another demonstration of the power of talking about women's rights as human rights could be seen at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing as women articulated the various issues of the agenda as questions of the human right to education, to political participation, to health care, to a life free of violence, et cetera. Many governments became nervous and began to talk about how the conference must not "create any new rights." However, the expanding interpretation of human rights principles from the perspective of previously excluded groups like women always brings with it the articulation of "new"—that is, not previously recognized—rights. The clearest example of this for women has been the rapid acceptance in the nineties of violence against women as a violation of human rights; the greatest resistance to this expansion has been the reluctance of many to recognize sexual rights as human rights. Further, it was clear in Beijing that many governments recognized that women's increasing use of human rights language implied a greater demand for government accountability to the promises that were being made. Identifying these issues as human rights does not automatically provide ways of holding governments accountable, but it does open wider the doors of the human rights system for women to take steps toward more effective measures for such accountability.


The success and extent of women's human rights networking globally is all the more significant in light of critiques that suggest that the effort to find a common articulation of women's concerns or a common basis for women's organizing is seriously flawed. Some argue that to do so is to universalize the category of woman and to impose a limited agenda on all women on the basis of the experience of some women—usually white, middle class, and living in the north. Given the ways in which geography, ethnicity, race, culture, sexuality, class, and tradition shape what it means to be a woman and the specificities of local and national politics, it is important not to conceive of women or the women's movement as singular and coherent entities. Nevertheless, the experience of the women's human rights movement suggests that a global feminism driven by international feminist networking is also possible. Such networking does not require homogeneity of experience or perspective, or even ongoing consensus across a range of issues. Rather it can be built around acknowledging diversity while also finding common moments at the intersection of diverse paths.

Even as women have worked to recognize, admit, and incorporate diverse perspectives in their thinking and work, they have also struggled to create alliances and to work together in solidarity across differences in the face of conservative and fundamentalist backlashes against feminism occurring in many parts of both the North and the South. Through an understanding of the exercise of power as global and interconnected (that is, universally experienced, though different in its effects) universal human rights can be seen as a system of accountability required by the way power is exercised. In this way, the idea of universal human rights serves as a regulative principle which informs the articulation of women's local demands and strengthens their resistance to abuses of power.

When local women's groups use human rights thinking and practice, especially in the context of international networking, they actively demonstrate the complementary links between universal ideals and local struggles for justice. The Global Campaigns for Women's Human Rights can be seen as one example of the kind of mobilization that is necessary to translate international human rights standards into local social and political practice. Although it is difficult to find a common framework through which to analyze women's lives and organize for change without falling into the trap of false universalization, the international movement for women's human rights has consciously strived to challenge the idea that we must choose between universality and particularity. The movement began with the central operating principle that its concepts and activities should be developed through a process of networking with women who work and organize at the local, national, and international levels in all regions of the world. Similar types of networking have been taken up as a method of organizing by tens of thousands of women from all over the world, and they have successfully linked together women from diverse backgrounds to work on common projects.

The experiences that women gained in networking nationally, regionally, and internationally around the UN world conferences have provided the basis of trust for many to now seek to work on common and diverse projects in collaboration and solidarity on a regular basis. As this work gets translated into local and global expressions, the ability of women's networking to provide a model for affirming the universality of human rights while respecting the diversity of our particular experiences will grow. This can then lead us to take more effective action on behalf of all human rights in a time when the need for common action globally based on ethical principles is greatly needed.


This essay is based on "Women's Rights Are Human Rights: Discourses of Universality and Particularlity," a presentation given as part of the Thinking about Women Series at the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers University in 1997.

I would like to acknowledge in particular the collaboration of Samantha Frost and Niamh Reillv in the development of some of these ideas for an earlier essay.

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The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century: Overviews

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