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 Ti-Grace Atkinson

"The Descent from Radical Feminism to Post-Modernism"

Whatever happened to the radical wing of the women’s movement (late 1960s/early 1970s)? Many of us who were most intensely involved then have often asked ourselves this question since.

In 1968, we were consumed by politically analyzing the oppression of women. We were committed to a fusion of theory and praxis and lived this.

In retrospect, what we did NOT do was probe deeply enough into the meanings of the words we were using most commonly. Instead of deliberately working through what each of us actually MEANT by certain terminology, like ‘liberation’ and ‘difference’, we assumed that we were all using these words to mean the same things. This was a mistake, since when such issues are evaded, they are inevitably played out when it comes to action.

The early radical feminists were inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Beauvoir comes out forcefully against biology as destiny. ‘Difference’ between men and women is primarily a social construct: it’s political.

Under patriarchy, women are defined as part of the natural world. We are BODY. Sexual bodies. Bodies defined by our usefulness to men.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most radical feminists were conversant with other political ideologies as well: capitalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, etc. There were close working relationships with the radical black and anti-war movements.

There were many events that contributed to the demise of any true radical feminism as a political force. In 1969-1970, we had an influx of new women from the peace and counter-cultural movements. These women were new to radical feminism and we had not adequately prepared for this situation.

Cultural feminism was replacing radical feminism. By focusing on the arts as the primary expression of politics, ambiguity became a positive value which replaced clarity of meaning. Cultural feminism had many apparent advantages: it avoided conflicts between different women’s beliefs; it introduced much more flexibility into ideology, so much flexibility that by the mid-1970s ‘radical feminism’ came to signify the opposite of its original meaning. Sexual definition again became primary. The body was front and center. And the lessons learned by other revolutionary movements over the past hundred years became irrelevant.

We made the mistake of ignoring Women’s Studies. I hadn’t thought through that this would most likely be a major source for the next generation of feminists. What these younger women learned through Women’s Studies would filter into street feminism. This oversight also contributed to the dilution of radical feminism.

Finally, through Women’s Studies, we got hit by post-modernism, a reactionary ideology if ever there was one. By the late 1970s, Women’s Studies was constituted primarily of literature people, with a strong French influence. Cultural feminism, which was already anti-intellectual, now got buttressed academically by a new philosophy of despair, combining solipsism and relativism. When applied to feminism, it resulted in word play and led to circular reasoning. We ended up where we had started: with the body.


 Carol Hanisch

Telltale Words: Depoliticizing the Women’s Liberation Movement”

A comparison of the passionate demands of the 1960s/early 1970s women’s liberation movement with today’s “women’s movement” reveals major changes in strategy and goals. The robust cry for women to unite for organized power to defeat male supremacy has all but disappeared. In its place is a vocabulary of “self-empowerment”—every woman for herself—with its emphasis on “self-expression” and “presentation.” In extreme cases, the existence of women as an oppressed sex class is being challenged and over-ridden by “gender.”

"Identity politics" was initially a political charge hurled by the Right against the revolutionary solidarity within the Black and Women's Liberation Movements. Some on the Left who felt women and Black people were taking too much attention and resources away from fighting capitalism joined in the attack instead of understanding the deep relationship between these Movements and capitalism. Soon both personal and group "identity" emerged as a means of opting out of the collective political struggle while still appearing to be involved in it. "The Personal Is Political" got turned on it's head and into a reactionary excuse to do whatever pleased one at the moment and still claim it as political action.

Other changes in words and concepts and their repercussions to be explored include:

•   Women's liberation becomes about individual "agency" rather than liberation of women as a class, whose liberation is the condition for any meaningful “agency.”

•   Women's Studies starts out with a good deal of Women’s Liberation content but is called Women's Studies or Feminist Studies, and often later changes to Gender Studies, sometimes even wiping “women” out of its name.

•   Women as an oppressed sex class gets confused with “gender,” making organizing women impossible because women no longer exist as a class.

•   Abortion rights groups abandon agitation for abortion on demand, and are replaced by single-issue organizations with the less liberation-oriented language of “choice” and dependence on lobbying.

•   Battered women or violence against women becomes domestic violence, taking the emphasis off the fact that nearly all batterers are male, thus obfuscating effective solutions.

•   The language of struggle is replaced by the often intimidating, elitist and inaccessible language of the academy (post-modernism, post-structuralism, binary, agency, deconstruct, complicate, etc.) with neither the words nor the concepts having much meaning to most women’s real lives.

•   Demands like “men sharing the housework” disappear along with holding men accountable for their actions, except perhaps occasionally for verbal insults or in extreme cases like rape or violence.

•   Equality within marriage becomes totally overshadowed by "marriage equality."

•   The focus on unity necessary to any successful movement is displaced by false “difference.”

•   Meanwhile, in the name of unity, debate and critique so necessary to driving a movement forward are discouraged, if not banned.

•   A radical “going for what we really want” is taken over by a marketed--and marketing of—feminism.

•   Live face-to-face consciousness raising yields to Facebook feminism.

Kathy Scarbrough

“Women's Liberation Is Based on Sex not Gender”

The term women's liberation makes clear the goal, and without naming men declares that male power is the problem. Otherwise what do women, as women, need to be liberated from? Women's liberation is scary. We were immediately accused of man hating. We were accused of being lesbians. Some of us were lesbians but so what? Women experience discrimination based on their sex, regardless of who we choose as an intimate partner.

It has recently become fashionable to talk about gender discrimination rather than sex discrimination. There is a difference between gender and sex, yet in today's world the two terms are often used synonymously. The use of gender, however, actually covers up the oppression of women. It takes the focus off issues linked to the struggle between the vast majority of women and men--like equality WITHIN marriage, sharing the housework and child rearing and breadwinning. As part of the class of women, lesbians also experience discrimination in educational and other pursuits, in pay and as consumers of medical treatment.

The focus of gender is instead on appearance, on the "presentation" of oneself, including a renewed embrace of the "articles of torture" like a mask of makeup, hobbling high heels and restricting girdles that the early women's liberation movement tried to end. Focusing on gender tends to emphasize differences between men and women and downplay our common humanity. Who benefits from an emphasis on the differences between men and women? The group on top—men.

As a physiologist, Kathy Scarbrough will discuss sex and gender from both a feminist activist and scientific perspective, including a discussion of primary and secondary sex characteristics and where gender fits into these biological categories. She will define an important distinction in hormone action, the organizational versus the activational effects of sex hormones during fetal development and puberty. Kathy concurs with recent scholar's debunking of the wholly sexualized brain but agrees that small parts of the brain involved in the regulation of reproduction are differently organized in men and women. She will make a provocative suggestion for a method to gather evidence regarding which way one's own brain is sexually differentiated. She acknowledges that gender might be a useful term in rare cases where a person's sex isn't clear and takes on the assertion that one's "brain sex" can differ from one's gonads. Arguing that women's oppression is based on sex, not gender, she looks toward a future where gender becomes inconsequential.


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