Archive for the ‘WLM / Feminist History’ Category

Extract from a longer opinion piece by Carol Hanisch

Feminism (USA) has always been a problematic term in the struggle for women’s liberation, and now with such unlikely public figures as Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga embracing it, it’s become more so. When can or should the feminist label be applied? A look at the recent history of the term may help put the question in perspective.

In the 1960s, many of us involved in getting the Women’s Liberation Movement off the ground didn’t at first want to call ourselves feminists because the term was applied to establishment liberal groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). These groups concentrated on legal and lobbying solutions, mostly in the areas of employment and careers, and while we appreciated their work, we had a much broader goal for our movement: the total liberation of all women in every area of our lives, including those considered too “personal” for public discussion and action. Also in contrast to the liberal groups, most of us agreed that women’s liberation could not be achieved under capitalism, though we thought progress certainly was possible and necessary and needed to be fought for in the present, that it would actually help bring about the other social and economic changes we wanted.

At the same time we took the name “Women’s Liberation,” we didn’t want to cut ourselves off from other women’s rights groups and we wanted to study and learn from feminist history and our feminist foremothers. We ended up using both terms — feminist and women’s liberation — though not completely interchangeably. We thought of ourselves as the Women’s Liberation Movement within a broader feminist movement.

The radical WLM led the way in making feminism immensely popular by using consciousness-raising to focus on the nitty-gritty male supremacy that women experienced in their everyday lives — some aspects of which, like abortion, were not then discussed in public. (The case for the success of these radical ideas is made in the 1975 Redstockings book,Feminist Revolution.) As its popularity grew, the feminist bandwagon became overcrowded with a myriad of offshoots: cultural feminists, lesbian feminists, lesbian separatist feminists, matriarchal feminists, eco-feminists, anti-nuke feminists, peace feminists, anarcho-feminists, animal rights feminists, third wave feminists, Jewish feminists, and the list goes on — even the anti-abortion Feminists for Life. Some, in our view, bore little relationship to the real struggle for feminist or women’s liberation demands, but were women self-segregating themselves to fight for other goals.

With the marginalization of the Women’s Liberation Movement by liberal forces, a milder “women’s movement,” minus “liberation”– and now even often minus “movement” (in practice if not if intent) — arose proclaiming that “feminism is anything a woman says it is.” It became mostly about the individual woman — individual choice, personal expression, and individual career success — with little relationship to the need for a collective, united, social movement to liberate all women. This tendency, there from the beginning, gained strength as the Women’s Liberation Movement, radical in its collective approach to attacking the roots of male supremacy, was pushed into near oblivion in the early 1970s. The militant multi-issue groups with their willingness to probe and expose every nook and cranny of women’s oppression were either marginalized or became single issue organizations, advocating in only one area and often distancing themselves from women’s liberation as a radical, grassroots movement.

Today, there is even a group aptly called “ifeminists” (individualist feminists), which claims it is for women’s equality while simultaneously associating itself with anti-government libertarians and Ayn Rand. It supports all kinds of “individual choices” for women, from abortion to porn, while opposing such “government intervention” as police and court interference in wife-battering.

Then there is the question of the relation of feminism to issues of war and peace. Many feminists consider peace to be a feminist issue (I don’t). Their criteria, however, is often inconsistent. Some who see Clinton as a feminist claim Palin can’t be a feminist because she supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Clinton, who championed mildly progressive women’s and family issues as a senator, is a war hawk as Secretary of State. Rare is the woman who gets into the Good Old Boys Club who doesn’t reinforce the system she started out to reform.

A movement needs a certain amount of consensus to move forward, and if it can’t even decide what direction that is, it is not a force to be reckoned with and will achieve little. What’s more, if its leaders are going to call that chaos a good thing, what hope is there? It also needs more than belief in women’s equality and encouraging words. It needs accompanying theory and action. Knowing that the yearning for equality has not left most women’s souls (even if the Movement that fought for it to become a reality is in disarray), opportunists of both sexes play off feminism in many spheres. Lack of consensus throws the door wide open.

It may be that by now the word “feminism” is so distorted by those claiming the label — including its enemies — that it is impossible to define or use the word without writing a whole book about it. But anyone who thinks we’re post-feminism and it doesn’t matter anymore is asleep at the wheel. We can’t afford to abandon the term and concept of feminism because of the real advances that have been made for women in its name, and the rich historical legacy that we must defend. And we need a name for what still needs to be done, a still monumental task. We need to use the terms “women’s liberation” and even “male supremacy” again, even if it means a very big fight.

    Carol Hanisch was a founding member of New York Radical Women in 1968 and has been agitating for the liberation of women ever since. She is probably best known for writing The Personal Is Political and for proposing the idea for—and writing a critique of—the 1968 Miss America Protest. She was also managing editor of the Redstockings book Feminist Revolution and editor of the journal Meeting Ground. She has also been active in civil rights, working class and environmental movements. Website: and email:

Over the past several years, feminist women and men throughout Europe came together to meet as part of the European Feminist Forum. In the European Feminist Forum, they exchanged ideas about issues that face women in Europe today, with the goal of creating a new European feminist agenda. The discussions are now collected in the book “A Herstory (2004-208)”. Download the book (PDF)

The new Europe

Women in Europe still often do not enjoy the same opportunities as men. And the newly expanded Europe brings with it entirely new challenges – a new dynamic in the area of economic migration, for example, and also an increase in the trafficking of women from Eastern Europe.

Time for a new feminist agenda

In 2004, a group of large European women’s organizations, including Aletta, decided that it was time for a new European feminist agenda. Aletta took a leading role in organizing the European Feminist Forum and also functioned as its Secretariat.


From 2006 to 2008, women from all over Europe met on the website European Feminist Forum to exchange ideas in discussion groups and forums. They shared reports, inspiring articles, videos, podcasts and photographs and, from time to time, took part in live online meetings.


Aletta now publishes “A Herstory (2004-2008)”, a book of information gathered through the European Feminist Forum. The book is a compilation of articles on the most important issues facing feminists in the new Europe, including: migration, employment, new organizing and fundraising strategies, the dialogue between different generations of women, and the politics surrounding sexuality and women’s bodily integrity.

Project partners

Aletta (Institute for women’s history)
ASTRA (The Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights)
Babaylan (The Philippine Women’s Network in Europe)
Bayanihan (Philippine Women’s Center in the Netherlands)
Federa (The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning)
JRWI (Joint Roma Women’s Initiatives)
Karat Coalition (a network of Women’s NGOs from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS))
NEWW (The Network of East-West Women)
WIDE (Women In Development Europe)
WPP (The Women Peacemakers Program of IFOR)

Some would say socialist feminism is an artifact of the 1970s. It flowered with the women’s liberation movement, as a theoretical response to what many in the movement saw as the inadequacies of Marxism, liberalism, and radical feminism, but since then it has been defunct, both theoretically and politically. I think this view is mistaken.

Socialist feminism should be seen as an ongoing project. It is alive and well today and it existed before the women’s liberation movement as well—though both now and then, not necessarily in that name. It has sometimes been called Marxism, sometimes socialist feminism, sometimes womanism, sometimes materialist feminism, or feminist materialism, and sometimes is implicit in work that bears no theoretical labels.

The broad characterization of socialist feminism I am using allows for a range of views regarding the relationship among the many facets of our identities. Some of us would make class fundamental from an explanatory point of view, while others would refuse to give a general primacy to any one factor over others. Despite these differences in our perspectives, in the broad sense of “socialist feminism” that I am using here, all socialist feminists see class as central to women’s lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race oppression to economic exploitation. And all of us see these aspects of our lives as inseparably and systematically related; in other words, class is always gendered and raced. We should promote conversation, dialogue, and debate among these different perspectives, but it is important to see that the conversation takes place within a common project that underlies the differences. The project has a long history.

What we now call feminism came to public attention in the eighteenth century, most notably in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), where she argued for equal opportunity for women based on a rational capacity common to both sexes, expressing “the wild wish to see the sex distinction confounded in society.” Her feminist aspirations came together with socialistic aims in the thinking of a number of utopian socialists, whose visions of socialism included not only sexual equality in the family and society at large but the end of the sexual division of labor—Wollstonecraft’s “wild wish” which is radical even today. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared these aspirations and deepened the critique of naturalistic justifications of all social hierarchies. But Marx and Engels were impatient with blueprints for a good society and focused instead on developing a theory of history, society, and social change which would be the basis for the realization of these ideals. It is worth pausing briefly to consider what Marx and Engels said, since Marxism has had a great influence on feminism, whether it has been appropriated, rejected, or transformed.

In the mid-1970s many women within the women’s liberation movement found themselves dissatisfied with the prevailing analyses of women’s oppression. Liberalism was not radical enough, and radical feminism ignored economic realities. But Marxism was tainted, as Adrienne Rich describes, “by the fear that class would erase gender once again, when gender was just beginning to be understood as a political category.”2 Seeking to combine the best of Marxism and radical feminism, these women developed a theory they called socialist feminism. When socialist feminism is intended in this way—as differentiated from Marxism—”Marxist feminism” is then understood as a perspective which gives primacy to class oppression as opposed to other forms of oppression—or going further, that reduces sex oppression to class oppression. (Radical feminism asserts the reverse relationship.)

In the 1990s the term “materialist feminism” gained currency, coined by feminists who wanted to give some grounding in social realities to postmodernist theory. However, materialist feminism is “a rather problematic and elusive concept,” in Martha Gimenez’s apt characterization, in that sometimes it is used more or less as a synonym for “Marxist” or “socialist feminist” combined with discourse analysis (as in the work of Rosemary Hennessy), while it is also used by cultural feminists who want nothing to do with Marxism. Yet another term that does not necessarily signal a distinct theoretical perspective regarding the relationship among class, sex, and race is “womanist,” a term preferred by some women of color who feel that “feminist” is too one-dimensional and who want to indicate solidarity with men of color as well as with women. Similarly, those who call themselves “multicultural” or “global” feminists would be socialist feminists in my broad sense. Feminists use a particular term to situate themselves within particular debates.

It is “socialist feminism” in the narrower sense that has declined. Developed by feminists who accepted Marxism’s critique of capitalism but rejected the view that women’s oppression was reducible to class oppression—which is how they understood the Marxist analysis—they argued that women’s position in today’s society was a function of both the economic system (capitalism) and the sex-gender system, which they called patriarchy. Some socialist feminists preferred to speak of one system they called capitalist patriarchy. But whether they preferred one system or two, the key claim was that the mode of production had no greater primacy than sex-gender relations in explaining women’s subordination. Many saw the Marxist emphasis on wage labor rather than on all kinds of labor, especially mothering, and on the relations of production rather than on the relations they called “the relations of reproduction,” (sexuality and parenting), as sexist. Convinced that “the personal is political” they wanted to give theoretical and political attention to issues of sex, sexuality, and relations in the family which some utopian socialists had addressed but which most Marxists ignored.

This distinctively anti-Marxist version of socialist feminism declined I believe, for both internal and external reasons. Socialist feminists of the 1970s had criticized liberal and Marxist writers for using categories that were “gender-blind”: “the individual” in liberalism, “the working class” in Marxism. Such categories ignore sex differences among individuals and workers, feminists argued, and hence neither liberalism nor Marxism could explain women’s oppression. But women of color could and did make the same criticism of feminism, including socialist feminism, for using race-blind categories: “working class women,” or simply “women.” To accommodate race oppression (and heterosexism and other forms of oppression), there seemed to be two choices. If we need to posit “a system of social relations” to explain sexism as they argued, then to explain racism (and other forms of oppression) we would have to posit systems beyond capitalism and patriarchy. This option raised a number of questions including: What exactly constitutes a “system”? How many is enough? How are they related? How does the resulting perspective differ from simple pluralism? The other option was to go back to a theory like Marxism which aims to be all-inclusive. Since socialist feminists had distinguished themselves from Marxists because they were unclear how to integrate different forms of oppression without reducing one to the other, this did not seem an attractive option, but neither did the multiplication of systems. Hence there was and remains a lack of clarity, and disagreement as to exactly how different forms of oppression are related.

Turning to political causes, the decline of women’s liberation and other social movements had a profound impact. The explosion of writing by feminists of all persuasions (indeed the creation of these “persuasions”) was a product of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Consider the fact that a number of very influential articles of this period began as position statements for activist groups (the Redstockings’ Manifesto, the Combahee River Collective’s Statement), or as collective papers (Heidi Hartmann’s and Gayle Rubin’s—two of the most influential of this period). New movements stimulated new theorizing; for example, the gay and lesbian movements gave rise to the academic field Queer Studies. With the move of many activists into social policy and service work for women, into academia, and into families and middle age this essential active stimulation was lost. It is not coincidental that the hottest feminist theorizing of the last decade was of a highly academic sort—postmodernism—while the dominant politics have been the most local and particularistic form of identity politics. Moreover, of course, we have to appreciate the context in which all this has taken place, namely, the general rightward political drift throughout the world during the 1980s and much of the 1990s.

Extracts from an essay adapted from the introduction to The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics, edited by Nancy Holmstrom (Monthly Review Press, 2002). You can read the full essay at

Part of a BBC series charting the history of America, written and presented by David Reynolds.

American women push back against sexism, demanding career opportunities and access to birth control.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 3:45pm Thursday 11th June 2009
Duration: 15 minutes
Available until: 4:02pm Thursday 18th June 2009

Has the move toward online resources had an effect on source material for the study of black feminist theory? The last forty years have witnessed a critical mass of literary and theoretical writings on the black feminist movement. This article evaluates the coverage of writings by a select group of forty “second wave” (1963–75) and pre– “third wave” (1976–90) black feminists in twelve major electronic-literary and women’s-studies indexing and abstracting services. Most of the twelve resources studied provide materials on the black feminist movement; however, Gender Studies Database, Black Studies Center, and Periodical Index Online, respectively, were identified as offering the best overall coverage of black feminist writers. Each of the twelve databases studied are discussed in detail, offering some useful hints for black feminist studies researchers interested in finding the most comprehensive materials in the field. The survey investigates the breadth of coverage of writings authored by these black feminists and determines that there is a critical need to either update current thesauri or develop a new comprehensive tool for indexing and abstracting black feminist writings. Finally, the results of this study will assist libraries and librarians in making decisions about purchasing the most relevant resources for research on the writings of the feminist movement in general and black feminists in particular.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been an explosion of indexing and abstracting databases incorporating previously print-only resources with newer, more comprehensive, full-text services. Although there are a plethora of print indexes considered invaluable to researchers, the movement within the library field to replace print with electronic access to online databases has seen a marked increase. How has this move toward online resources affected access to source material for the study of black feminist theory? The last forty years have witnessed a critical mass of literary and theoretical writings on the black feminist movement. This article will evaluate the coverage of writings by a select group of “second wave” (1963–75) and pre–“third wave” (1976–90) black feminists in twelve indexing and abstracting services. Are the writings of these black feminists indexed in the major electronic literary and women’s studies database resources available for researchers? What services provide ease of use combined with multiple levels of search strategies that include searching by author, subject, title, and publication date simultaneously for retrieval of information? The survey will answer these questions and identify the availability of these writings as full text or abstracts. The survey investigates the breadth of coverage and determines that there is a critical need to develop a comprehensive tool for indexing and abstracting black feminist writings. The study will, more importantly, show what databases provide access to scholarly, peer-reviewed articles that legitimize a subject matter. Providing access to these resources encourages critical analysis of black feminist theory, thus furthering the diversity and scope of research. The results will assist researchers in choosing the most relevant resources for their research on the writings of the feminist movement in general and black feminists in particular. In this era of shrinking budgets, the data will provide guidance for librarians seeking to purchase electronic resources in the area of black women’s studies.

The black feminist writers chosen are consistently listed in major research about and writings on the feminist movement, including Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment; the voluminous Pioneer Feminists Project out of Harvard University and its first major publication, Feminists Who Changed America, edited by Barbara Love in 2006; Barbara Christian’s seminal 1985 work Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers; and the more recent two-volume set, Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page in 2007. Two comprehensive websites were also consulted during formation of the list of black feminist writers in this survey: Sherri L. Barnes’s Black American Feminisms: A Multidisciplinary Bibliography from the University of California– Santa Barbaraand the University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gaps.1

In searching library literature using the terms women, women’s studies, and indexing in a variety of combinations, five articles were retrieved: “Table of Contents Services: Retrieving Women’s Studies Periodical Literature” by Loretta P. Koch and Barbara G. Preece (1995); “Women’s Studies Periodical Indexes: An In-depth Comparison” by Linda A. Krikos (1994);“An Evaluation of Indexing Services for Women’s Studies Periodical Literature” by Deborah Mesplay and Loretta Koch; “Indexing Adequacy and Interdisciplinary Journals: The Case of Women’s Studies” by K. H. Gerhard et al. (1993); and “Indexing of Feminist Periodicals” by May Alice Sanguinetti (1984).2 The Koch and Preece article surveyed table of contents services and not the coverage of individual writers. The articles by Mesplay and Koch and by J. A. Gerhard surveyed the general coverage of women’s studies journal literature but not the writings of individual black women writers that represent an important subset of feminist writers in the United States. Mesplay and Koch concluded that “of the indexing and abstracting services examined, ‘Women Studies Abstracts’ provides the overall best coverage.”3 Krikos’s article was a follow-up to the Mesplay and Koch article with the inclusion of the “Women’s Studies Index.”

Although Krikos’s article also reviewed indexes rather than the coverage of individual writers, it is an important resource because of its comparison of the three major resources at that time, “Women’s Studies Index,” “Studies on Women Abstracts,” and “Women Studies Abstracts.” The article is also important for its development of the following standards for comparing indexes: scope; depth of indexing; currency, time-lag, and cost; publisher and editor; format and arrangement; and vocabulary and subject headings.4 Two of these standards will be used in this study: scope, which Krikos describes as “the number and type of materials indexed (meaning articles, book chapters, books, dissertations, pamphlets) and overlaps and gaps in coverage,” and format, defined as “considering the usefulness of the overall arrangement of the service and the content of the citations.”5 Krikos concluded that “‘Women’s Studies Index’ actually indexes the most comprehensive combination and greatest number of women’s studies journals.”6 Krikos also concluded that “Women Studies Abstracts” “is essential to research collections.”7

Sanguenetti’s article surveyed the coverage of women’s studies and feminist journals in the leading paper indexing services available at that time and, again, “Women Studies Abstracts” was found to offer the best coverage, albeit in paper format. Some of the indexes surveyed by Sanguenetti are included in this survey: “Alternative Press Index,” “Essay and General Literature,” and “Women Studies Abstracts” (now a part of the much larger Gender Studies Database). Although the articles mentioned did not survey coverage of individual writers, they provided a set of criteria to assist in reviewing the databases. This study will also test some of the conclusions of these earlier articles and determine whether “Women Studies Abstracts,” which was found to have the best coverage of women’s and gender studies in earlier reviews, offers the best coverage of black feminists writers.

The study covers forty black feminist writers: fifteen Second Wave (SW) and twenty-five pre–Third Wave (pTW). The SW arguably dates either from 1963–75, according to Barbara Love and Harvard’s Pioneer Feminists Project, or from 1965–75, according to Darlene Clark Hine, African American historian and scholar. Love states, “we honor changemakers in the Second Wave movement beginning in 1963, when Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, was published and spurred countless women into action … some historians say the true Second Wave movement began in 1966 when the National Organization for Women was founded … 1963–1975 were the years of involvement by the greatest number of feminists.”8 All of the selected writers were known activists in the feminist movement. This SW period relates to the founding of the modern feminist movement that grew out of the larger civil rights era, a time when America was coming to grips with those people unwilling to be classified as “second class citizens.” The feminist movement saw the larger movement as not addressing issues of sexism, unequal pay, and the leadership role of women. Black women long involved in civil rights activism came to a similar conclusion, but the sensitive issue of women’s rights was often subsumed into the larger struggle of achieving equality as black people. With the achievement of some of the goals of the civil rights movement, such as the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, black women felt it was time to turn their attention to the rampant sexism and chauvinistic tendencies in many of the black civil rights movement leaders. The Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists that have met since 1974, state in their discussion of the genesis of contemporary black feminism that:

many of us were active in those movements (civil rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives were greatly affected and changed by their ideology, their goals, and the tactics used… . It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements … that led to the need to develop a politics that was antiracist, unlike those of white women, and antisexist, unlike those of Black and white men.9

Many within the black feminist movement viewed the early white feminist movement as focusing primarily on issues of gender equity while ignoring issues of racism and classism that were the everyday experience for women of color. Benita Roth, in Separate Roads to Feminism, sums up the feelings of many black feminists: “They were wary of joining white women’s liberation groups that paid insufficient attention to the links between gender, racial, and especially class oppression. Critical of the middle-class bias of liberation movements, Black and white, Black feminists therefore found themselves maneuvering in the interstices between the two.” 10

The writers in this study represent those who worked within and outside the women’s movement, and produced scholarship that reflected the issues and concerns of black women who faced discrimination that was both similar to and different from the discrimination faced by the women represented by the dominant white feminists’ movement. According to Joy James, the women chosen generated a wealth of materials to address these issues “not in an attempt to diminish feminist struggle but to enrich, to share in the work of making a liberatory ideology and liberatory movement.”11 The SW writers established an unprecedented body of scholarship, which is now being studied and analyzed by scholars the world over.

By Rebecca Hankins – Continues online at

Or download a pdf version

See also:
* Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and daughters fighting about clothes? Second wave: you’re going out in that? Third wave: just drink your herbal tea and leave me alone! Media commentators love to reduce everything about women to catfights about sex, so it’s not surprising that this belittling and historically inaccurate way of looking at the women’s movement–angry prudes versus drunken sluts–has recently taken on new life, including among feminists.
* Blame it on globalization but does a saucy tattoo on the arm of a young Indian woman mean she is standing up for her rights and those of the sisterhood? Yes, say India’s New Age feminists, who see the tattoo as proof of rebellion against a society that insists women be demure. But it is a superficial badge for a superficial ideological struggle, laments Anuradha Marwah, who has written three novels on gender equations.”This new movement of pop feminism feeds into liberalism but unfortunately, is, itself contained by it. Just because a group of women feel empowered through tokens of fashion and sex, the world isn’t going to change at large”.

The White House released a statement by President Obama proclaiming March Women’s History Month. March was selected as a time to honor American women in 1978, when a Women’s History Week was initiated; the time-period was expanded to a month in 1987. Obama’s proclamation follows:

With passion and courage, women have taught us that when we band together to advocate for our highest ideals, we can advance our common well-being and strengthen the fabric of our Nation. Each year during Women’s History Month, we remember and celebrate women from all walks of life who have shaped this great Nation. This year, in accordance with the theme, “Women Taking the Lead to Save our Planet,” we pay particular tribute to the efforts of women in preserving and protecting the environment for present and future generations.

Ellen Swallow Richards is known to have been the first woman in the United States to be accepted at a scientific school. She graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1873 and went on to become a prominent chemist. In 1887, she conducted a survey of water quality in Massachusetts. This study, the first of its kind in America, led to the Nation’s first state water-quality standards.

Women have also taken the lead throughout our history in preserving our natural environment. In 1900, Maria Sanford led the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Groups in their efforts to protect forestland near the Mississippi River, which eventually became the Chippewa National Forest, the first Congressionally mandated national forest. Marjory Stoneman Douglas dedicated her life to protecting and restoring the Florida Everglades. Her book, The Everglades: Rivers of Grass, published in 1947, led to the preservation of the Everglades as a National Park. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.

Rachel Carson brought even greater attention to the environment by exposing the dangers of certain pesticides to the environment and to human health. Her landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring, was fiercely criticized for its unconventional perspective. As early as 1963, however, President Kennedy acknowledged its importance and appointed a panel to investigate the book’s findings. Silent Spring has emerged as a seminal work in environmental studies. Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1980.

Grace Thorpe, another leading environmental advocate, also connected environmental protection with human well-being by emphasizing the vulnerability of certain populations to environmental hazards. In 1992, she launched a successful campaign to organize Native Americans to oppose the storage of nuclear waste on their reservations, which she said contradicted Native American principles of stewardship of the earth. She also proposed that America invest in alternative energy sources such as hydroelectricity, solar power, and wind power.

These women helped protect our environment and our people while challenging the status quo and breaking social barriers. Their achievements inspired generations of American women and men not only to save our planet, but also to overcome obstacles and pursue their interests and talents. They join a long and proud history of American women leaders, and this month we honor the contributions of all women to our Nation.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2009 as Women’s History Month. I call upon all our citizens to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that honor the history, accomplishments, and contributions of American women.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this third day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.


Interview with Ruth Anne Koenick director of Rutgers’ Department of Sexual Assault Services and Crime Victim Assistance by Robert Jensen

I met Ruth Anne Koenick at a dinner before my talk on the feminist critique of pornography at Rutgers University in 1997. I had been doing public presentations on that issue for several years, but that was the first time an institution had paid my plane fare to give a lecture. As a young professor, I was a bit nervous but also was feeling pretty self-important.

Koenick was seated next to me, and when I introduced myself she said, “I’ve seen a lot of men who’ve figured out how to make money off of women’s pain. Are you one of them?”

I admit that I was taken aback, but the question was important and appropriate. I was getting a modest honorarium for the talk, but as a full-time academic who is paid a reasonable salary by my university, I could live without it. Independent writers and artists typically need the support that comes from speaking fees to survive, but I can easily donate that money to activist groups. So, I asked if she thought it would be appropriate for me to sign over the speaking fee to her center, and Koenick accepted.

I will forever be indebted to her for that in-your-face comment. In my first attempt at being an “expert,” Koenick reminded me of all the wrong ways I could use my privilege as a white guy with a university position to put myself above the feminist anti-violence movement, from which I had learned most of what I knew. Koenick later told me she regretted being inappropriately rude, but I suggested it wasn’t necessary to apologize for asking the right question.

Ever since that night I have stayed in touch with Koenick, continuing to be impressed by (1) the great work she and her staff were doing, and (2) how little she seemed to recognize her own accomplishments. As we have talked about her experience in the feminist anti-violence movement — and as the dominant culture increasingly has pretended to be “post-feminist” — I began to nag her about putting her insights down on paper. Each time she insisted that her life wasn’t interesting enough and that she didn’t have anything insightful to say. Eventually I wore her down, persuading her that women like her from the “second wave” of feminism should not stay silent, and we finally conducted an interview.

The term second-wave feminism is used to mark the U.S. women’s movement that emerged in the 1960s, distinct from the women’s suffrage movement — the first wave — that won the vote in 1920. In the 1990s, the idea of third-wave feminism became popular, though it has never been clear why the crucial insights of the second wave had become irrelevant or why the political work that second-wavers had initiated was somehow magically over. Nowhere is this clearer than in the public-health crisis of epidemic levels of men’s violence against women, where the brutality of patriarchy is so obvious and the analysis and activism of second-wave feminists remains more needed than ever.

The stories of women such as Koenick are more important than ever for all of us — women and men — to hear.


Robert Jensen: Can you recall the first time you understood what feminism meant and identified as a feminist yourself?

Ruth Anne Koenick: I am not sure I can define a specific time and, in truth, I am not sure that I totally understand it now. I am the youngest of four children and I was lucky to be raised to be an independent thinker by both my parents. They taught me to question things and that I could be anything I wanted to be, that there were no barriers — I was as good as anyone else, male or female. Although there were some specific expectations — go to college, get married and have children — I was encouraged to have a career and to make decisions for myself; I never really felt constricted. My mother was an independent woman and, although she did some very traditional things, she also clearly had a mind of her own and was in control of her life in a way that was unique for someone born at the turn of the 20th century. I think some of this came from my father, an immigrant from Russia in 1920 who lived through the revolution, WWI, the pogroms — he really was a hippie before there were hippies. He had overcome a lot to make it in this country, and nothing was going to keep him or his family second class.

RJ: Was there a defining moment as you got older?

RAK: When I was actively involved in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, I had an awakening, almost like the old “click” that feminists talk about, when it became clear to me that issues pertaining to women were so intricately intertwined in what we were doing. It was also clear that the men “in charge” gave only lip service to anything that was of importance to women, that we were always at the bottom of the food chain. Like others, I got tired of “making coffee and not policy” and began to look at that movement, my surroundings, and my life in a very different way.

There were other things, such as hassles my husband and I faced because I didn’t take his last name. A married couple with different names is not unusual today, but in 1973 it presented real challenges — banks not giving us credit or not printing both names on a card, a newspaper printing only his name and not mine in my father-in-law’s obituary. That was all part of a process that got me to look at the broader picture of how our culture encourages and rewards the subordination of women.

RJ: So, in 1970 you were a student at the University of Maryland with this emerging feminist worldview, and you helped start a rape crisis center on campus. How did that come about?

RAK: I was an undergraduate working for residence life, on the cusp of trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was living on campus when a student on my floor was abducted and raped. I went to meet her at the police station and then to the hospital, and I felt totally inept, but I knew enough to know that she wasn’t getting what she needed. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her, and we were kept in separate rooms. She was all alone and no matter what I did, I couldn’t talk to her. I realized the system wasn’t working for victims.

Sometime later, there was a series of abductions and rapes that overwhelmed the university, not because people didn’t want to help but because we didn’t know how. It hit the front pages of the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, and it became an even bigger issue. I teamed up with two friends who also worked for residence life and were in grad school, Chris Courtois and Debby Watts, and worked with folks in student affairs to open a campus rape crisis center. It operated on the beg-borrow-and-steal budget, but we got support from Dan Bratton, the Vice President for Student Affairs, and others in leadership positions, partially because he made them do this and partially because some of them knew it was the right thing to do.

We really didn’t know much but quickly discovered that we knew more than others, and when we started to talk about this publicly, women came out from the woodwork to tell us what had happened to them. Eventually we got space in the health center, developed training, took overnight shifts, and responded to crisis calls. We developed a really good relationship with the university police and, in retrospect, worked as a team. This was 1973-74, just before the first Burgess and Holmstrom book (Rape: Victims of Crisis) came out in 1975 and people began to use the term rape-trauma syndrome.

RJ: Can you remember how you came to a feminist consciousness about the gender politics of this specific issue, of rape? What was that process by which you and your colleagues deepened your understanding of sexual assault?

RAK: I am one of those people teaching in women and gender studies who has never taken a women’s studies course, and I’m still not all that well-read in academic feminist theory. When I was in college, there weren’t any women’s studies courses, although I do vividly remember demonstrating on campus to get them. Most of my knowledge is rooted in experience. In the beginning almost everything I learned came from survivors — their feelings, thoughts, beliefs.

Once we started looking at the issue, it was clear most men don’t rape but, of course, almost all rapists are men. As we started to understand sexism throughout society, we couldn’t help but see the reality of rape and sexism. Over the years I have learned a lot from colleagues and some key writers — (Andrea) Dworkin, (Susan) Brownmiller, (Ann Wolbert) Holmstrom and (Lynda Lytle) Burgess — but really it has been mostly my clients who have helped me understand what they need. When I don’t have a clue, they have helped me help them.

RJ: You pretty consistently underplay what you know and what you’ve done. It doesn’t strike me as just false modesty. Why do you do that?

RAK: As I look back over 38 years, probably like most people in my age group who do this work, we went on our instincts and learned by trial and error, and the research and writings confirmed our inner feelings. My dear friend Chris Courtois was just honored as a distinguished alumni from the University of Maryland, and I just received the Wynona M. Lipman Leadership Award for the state of New Jersey. Chris and I recognized that what we’ve accomplished was born of our passion long before we had any technical knowledge. I like what Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, said: “One of the things that I think characterizes my generation…is that I’ve always been surprised by how my life turned out.” I am continuously surprised that I do what I do and that people see me as having done something special. I think what is special is the people who taught me what to do and how to be helpful, and that has been a process, not a moment in time. I also need to credit my parents who taught me that with privilege comes obligation and that I had an obligation to help “repair the world” and to be actively engaged in my community.

RJ: What have been the costs and rewards for you in this work?

RAK: In retrospect, the rewards have been far more than can fit in this interview — my experiences have helped shape me as a person, a woman, a wife and mother, and a friend. It has shaped how I see the world and how I see myself, and most of the time I feel really good about who I am. But the sacrifices have been many. A crisis isn’t scheduled, and being on call, running a one-person office in the early years, having a commitment to help survivors begin their recovery no matter when that happens — all affected my ability to have more time with my children and husband, led to shorter (if any) vacations, and were a general interruption into my daily life. I remember moving in with my mother during the last days of her life and taking phone calls from work about people in need. It may have been the first time I told people that I had no more to give, that I couldn’t help them while I was experiencing this excruciatingly raw and tragic loss.

At another level, hearing so many painful stories helps me keep my life in perspective, to see my own problems in the bigger scheme of things. But some days, I must admit that I think I can’t bear to hear one more story about abuse and violence without breaking. Many years ago I worked with a young woman who had AIDS and was then raped. Everything I knew about helping someone recover went out the window because she had no sense of future. She was saying, “All I want to do is live to be 25.” Every time she would leave I would close the door and cry. I have moments when I say I can’t do this one more minute, and I weep.

RJ: As you look back at where the feminist movement to confront men’s violence started, and then reflect on where we are today, are you optimistic? Hopeful? Have we made progress or lost ground?

RAK: Answering this almost depends on the day, perhaps hour or even minute that you catch me. I have such mixed feelings about where we are, have been, and need to go. Most days I feel like we are fighting many of the same battles we fought almost 40 years ago: no dependable funding, poorly paid advocates, a culture that is judgmental and victim blaming, a profound fear of the dreaded “f” word as a descriptive term of our values, and an increasing — yes, increasing — acceptability of the desecration and degradation of people in general and women in particular. For example, people who willingly expose their vulnerabilities for a few moments of canned fame, and those who exploit those people for a few dollars, send a clear message about how little we value each other. The increased degradation of women and overt racism in pornography in the past couple of decades is another example.

I think there are some things that are better, but only at a certain level. Yes, there are rape care programs, and there is state and federal funding for a small piece of those programs. Maybe the prosecutor and I know each other well enough to chat and have lunch, but does that mean that the criminal-justice system is any more likely to treat a survivor well, to take her seriously today than years ago? The language has changed — we can say “rape” out loud and teach about it in courses — but has that changed the underlying belief system? People don’t come out of the womb wanting to be rapists nor believing that they are to blame when they are victims, but that’s where so many end up. What does that say about the culture’s belief systems?

Here’s just one example: I watched a youtube piece about the sexism directed at Hillary Clinton, click here and no matter who a person supports for president, this is a reminder of how far we haven’t come. I have to say that, in those moments, I don’t feel very hopeful. I still care about the work, which motivates me to sit through countless boring meetings that come with that work. I also am surrounded by wonderful colleagues, friends and family who make it easier to get through the day. I’m grateful for what I get to do, and at the same time I’m counting the days until retirement.

RJ: Is it possible that all these things are true? We have made enormous strides in forcing the culture to recognize that, after thousands of years of patriarchy, contempt for women is woven deeply into the fabric of the society and that violence against women is a huge public-health problem. And, at the same time, large segments of the population don’t want to face that and so minimize or deny the problem. In that sense, is it the case that the women of your generation pushed the society forward and as a result we see how far we have to go? Could we say the same about racism? Is that just our fate at this point in history?

RAK: One of my favorite people once said, “Rape is illegal, but the sexual ethic that underlies rape is woven into the fabric of our culture.” I just re-read the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions written in 1848, and I think that great strides have been made, that women have a greater control over their lives and their bodies. When I really think about it, at least at an intellectual level, I know life has changed in countless ways. But in my heart and perhaps in my daily life, I don’t see much progress. Maybe it is because of the world I work in or because I’m so aware of how contempt for women infiltrates so much that we do in this culture. When I was once accused of not having a sense of humor, I responded that I have a great sense of humor about things that are funny. But when people in public life laugh at comedians who refer to women in degrading terms, it demonstrates how little women are valued. When men in leadership positions say they are concerned about equality for women because they have daughters, I say shame on you — how could you be so selfish? Why aren’t you concerned because it is just wrong? The same thing applies to issues of race and sexual orientation — discrimination and degradation are wrong no matter who is in your family, no matter how it affects you personally.

Believing that this is all just our fate and can’t really be changed is a bit on the depressing side. So, I have to find ways to feel good about getting out of bed in the morning, and I do. I find ways to not be brought down by how our culture devalues a majority of the population. It’s a struggle, but I find ways.

RJ’s last word: Koenick’s first reaction to my interest in writing about her work had been disbelief. She asked, “What’s so special about me?” My answer was, “Nothing, and everything.” Koenick is one of thousands of women who have built and sustained the anti-rape movement, which has helped millions of victims and tried to educate the culture. In a time of backlash, when even some women mock feminism, understanding the lives of women such as like Koenick — remembering the history and not turning away from the present struggle — is crucial. Her story reminds us that change is possible, even against deeply rooted systems of oppression, and that the people who propel forward progressive social change are profoundly ordinary and extraordinarily remarkable, all at the same time.


Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Radical Politics in the Prophetic Voice, will be published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press. He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen’s articles can be found online at

Related Pornography contributing to atrocities against women in the Congo say GAD

Men on the “down low” go to extreme lengths to deceive the women they marry about their sexual encounters with other men because of self-hatred and denial, a practice that puts women at risk for HIV, writes Natalie Bell in “The Down Low Effect,” an essay at On The Issues Magazine Online.

In addition, women are kept in the dark by media gender-blindness, most recently in articles in New York Magazine and The Independent in Britain, writes Mary Lou Greenberg in “Media Missteps + Misogyny = Death for Women.” While women are being engulfed by galloping HIV rates, making HIV-AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 24-35, New York Magazine failed to find a single woman to interview for its article “Who Still Dies of AIDS, And Why.” The Independent said that heterosexual transmission is no longer a problem, even though it is the main cause of infection for women.

These and other ignored topics on HIV-AIDS and sexism are in a unique feature, “The Café” at On The Issues Magazine, an online publication. Writers, thinkers and artists are invited to continually pour their commentary and ideas into the mix of feminist and progressive discussions about hot-boiler topics. The current edition of On The Issues Magazine focuses on HIV-AIDS, with the title “Blowback Strikes Women Hard.”

Other highlights in The Café at On the Issues Magazine Online warn that Congress is trying to extend the anti-abortion Global Gag Rule to international HIV-AIDS funding, which will affect much-needed integrated care for women by walling off assistance at family planning clinics. In “Global Gage Rule Poses Moral Challenge for U.S. HIV/AIDS Funding,” Marjorie Signer of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice blows the whistle on this ideological burden, coming at a time that women suffer 62 percent of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa.

Visual artist Larry Schulte writes about the importance of art to AIDS activism, and Lisa Vives of the Global Information Network describes the tragic case of a British woman with AIDS who is being deported. Cindy Cooper reports that women are under-utilizing an important online resource, and Nicole Itano sees new possibilities with a change of guard at UN AIDS.

This vital mix of information, commentary and dialogue adds to content exposing misogyny in silencing and ignoring women as HIV-AIDS becomes increasingly devastating to them. Recalling that she first printed an AIDS alert in 1983 when On The Issues Magazine was a print publication, Merle Hoffman, publisher and editor-in-chief, notes, “Now we need more than an alert. We need a planetary alarm for the women of the world.”

On The Issues Magazine revived as an Online magazine in spring 2008 to respond to the need for passionate and thoughtful feminist voices. The full archives of the print publication (1983-1999) with writers such as Kate Millet, Charlotte Bunch and Alice Walker are available at the site. Individuals may subscribe at no cost. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem said, “I’m so glad that On The Issues Magazine is back.”

Article by Gloria Steinem from the April 4, 1969 issue of New York Magazine which they have reprinted this month.

Once upon a time—say, ten or even five years ago—a Liberated Woman was somebody who had sex before marriage and a job afterward. Once upon the same time, a Liberated Zone was any foreign place lucky enough to have an American army in it. Both ideas seem antiquated now, and for pretty much the same reason: Liberation isn’t exposure to the American values of Mom-and-apple-pie anymore (not even if Mom is allowed to work in an office and vote once in a while); it’s the escape from them.

For instance:

Barnard girls move quietly, unlasciviously into the men’s dorms at Columbia; a student sleep-in to protest the absence of “rational communities”—co-ed dorms like those already springing up at other universities.

Wives and mothers march around the Hudson Street alimony jail with posters announcing they don’t want alimony.

A coven of 13 members of WITCH (The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, celebrating witches and gypsies as the first women resistance fighters) demonstrates against that bastion of white male supremacy: Wall Street. The next day, the market falls five points.

More witches and some black-veiled brides invade the Bridal Fair at Madison Square Garden. They carry signs (“Confront the Whore-makers,” “Here Comes the Bribe”), sing, shout, release white mice in the audience of would-be brides, and generally scare the living daylights out of exhibitors who are trying to market the conventional delights of bridal gowns, kitchen appliances, package-deal honeymoon trips and heart-shaped swimming pools.

At the end of the Columbia strike, the student-run Liberation School offers a course on women as an oppressed class. Discussions include the parallel myths about women and Negroes (that both have smaller brains than white men, childlike natures, natural “goodness,” limited rationality, supportive roles to white men, etc.); the paternalistic family system as prototype for capitalistic society (see Marx and Engels); the conclusion that society can’t be restructured until the relationship between the sexes is restructured. Men are kept out of the class, but it is bigger and lasts longer than any other at the school.

Redstockings, an action group in the Women’s Liberation Movement, sponsors a one-act play about abortion by the New Feminist Theatre (whose purpose it is to point out how many plays are anti-woman and how tough it is for women playwrights, directors, producers), plus two hours of personal and detailed testimony—in public—by girls who have had abortions and Tell It Like It Is, from humor through sadism. Nobody wants to reform the abortion laws; they want to repeal them. Completely.

What do women want? The above events are in no way connected to the Bloomingdale-centered, ask-not-what I-can-do-for-myself-ask-what-my-husband-can-do-for-me ladies of Manhattan, who are said by sociologists to be “liberated.” Nor do the house-bound matriarchs of Queens and the Bronx get much satisfaction out of reading about feminist escapades. On the contrary, the whole thing alienates them by being a) radical and b) young.

The women behind it, and influenced by it, usually turn out to be white, serious, well-educated girls; the same sort who have labored hard in what is loosely known as the Movement, from the Southern sit-ins of nine years ago to the current attacks on the military-industrial-educational complex. They have been jailed, beaten and Maced side-by-side with their social-activist male counterparts. (It’s wonderful to see how quickly police from Selma to Chicago get over a reluctance to hit women.) They have marched on Senate committees, Pentagon hawks, their own college presidents and the Chase Manhattan Bank. But once back in the bosom of SDS , they found themselves typing and making coffee.

“When it comes to decision-making or being taken seriously in meetings,” said one revolutionary theorist from Berkeley, “we might as well join the Young Republicans.”

Such grumbling noises were being made aloud at Movement meetings as early as five years ago. but women were ridiculed or argued down by men (as well as some “Uncle Tom” women). Eventually, they were assured, “the woman question” would come up on the list of radical priorities—as decided on by radical men. Meanwhile, more backstage work, more mimeographing, more secondary role-playing around the revolutionary cells and apartment-communes. And, to be honest, more reluctance to leave the secondary role and lose male approval.

Finally, women began to “rap” (talk, analyze, in radical-ese) about their essential second-classness, forming women’s caucuses inside the Movement in much the same way Black Power groups had done. And once together they made a lot of discoveries: that they shared more problems with women of different classes, for instance, than they did with men of their own; that they liked and respected each other (if women don’t want to work with women, as Negroes used to reject other Negroes, it’s usually because they believe the myth of their own inferiority), and that, as black militants kept explaining to white liberals, “You don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles.”

Next: The quiet spread of feminist groups.

At the SDS Convention in 1967, women were still saying such integrationist things as “The struggle for the liberation of women must be part of the larger fight for freedom.” Many Movement women still are. But members of groups like the Southern Student Organizing Committee and New York Radical Women (a loose coalition of various radical groups whose representatives meet once a month) withdrew to start concentrating on their own problems. They couldn’t become black or risk jail by burning their draft cards, but they could change society from the bottom up by radicalizing (engaging with basic truth) the consciousness of women; by going into the streets on such women’s issues as abortion, free childcare centers, and a final break with the 19th-century definition of females as sex objects whose main function is to service men and their children.

All this happened not so much by organization as contagion. What has come to be known in the last two years or so as the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) is no more pin-downable than the Black Power Movement; maybe less so, because white groups tend to be less structured, more skittish about leadership than black ones. Nonetheless, when the WLM had its first national conference last fall, women from 20 states and Canada showed up on a month’s notice. A newsletter, Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, is published in Chicago. WLM-minded groups are springing up on dozens of campuses where they add special student concerns to their activities: professors who assume women aren’t “serious” about careers; advisers who pressure girls toward marriage or traditionally feminine jobs (would-be Negro doctors are told to be veterinarians, would-be women doctors are told to be nurses), and faculties or administrations where few or no women are honored in authority.

In New York, WITCH is probably the most colorful outcropping of the WLM. It got started when women supporters of men being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee decided that a witch-hunt should have witches, and dressed up for HUAC hearings accordingly. (In the words of WITCH, “We are WITCH. We are WOMAN. We are LIBERATION. WE are WE. The hidden history of women’s liberation began with witches and gypsies . . . the oldest guerrillas and resistance fighters, the first practicing abortionists and distributors of contraceptive herbs. WITCH implies the destruction of passivity, consumerism and commodity fetishism . . . the routine of daily life is the theatre of struggle.”) It was the Witch Guerrilla Theatre that hexed Wall Street, and later, as part of a technique called “violating the reality structure,” it “freaked out at a Wellesley Alumnae Fund-raising Bridge Party.”

Quieter groups seem to be forming everywhere, from the New Women in Manhattan to The Feminists in Oceanside. Redstockings, the most publically active at the moment, has recapitulated the whole WLM in its short history. Women activists rebelled against their subordinate position, but still tried to work within the Movement until a peace-and-liberation protest at Nixon’s Inaugural, where girls spoke and were booed by their own fellow radicals. After that moment of truth, they reformed as part of “an independent revolutionary movement, potentially representing half the population. We intend to make our own analysis of the system . . . Although we may cooperate with radical men on matters of common concern . . . our demand for freedom involves not only the overthrow of capitalism, but the destruction of the patriarchal system.”

If all this sounds far-out, Utopian, elitist, unnecessary or otherwise unlikely to be the next big thing in revolutions, consider two facts: 1) the WLM is growing so rapidly that even its most cheerful proselytizers are surprised, spreading not only along the infra-structure of the existing co-ed Movement, but into a political territory where anti-Vietnam petitions have rarely been seen; and 2) there are a couple of mass movements, from highly organized through just restless, that the WLM might merge with, becoming sort of a revolutionary vanguard.

The older, middle-class women come first, the ones who tried hard to play subordinate roles in the suburbs according to the post-war-baby-boom-women’s magazine idyll but found Something Missing. Betty Friedan, who explained their plight clearly and compassionately in The Feminine Mystique, named that Something: rewarding work. But when these women went out to find jobs, they found a lot of home-truths instead.

For instance, there is hardly a hierarchy in the country—business, union, government, educational, religious, whatever—that doesn’t discriminate against women above the secretarial level. Women with some college education earn less than men who get as far as the eighth grade. The median income of white women employed full time is less than that of white men and Negro men. The gap between women’s pay and men’s pay gets greater every year, even though the number of women in the labor force increases (they are now a third of all workers). Forty-three states have “protection legislation” limiting the hours and place a woman can work; legislation that is, as Governor Rockefeller admitted last year, “more often protective of men.” The subtler, psychological punishments for stepping out of woman’s traditional “service” role are considerable. (Being called “unfeminine,” “a bad mother” or “a castrating woman,” to name a traditional few.) And, to top it all off, the problem of servants or child care often proves insurmountable after others are solved.

Next: Can the WLM feel solidarity with poor women of all colors?

In short, women’s opportunities expanded greatly for about 15 years after they won the vote in 1920 (just as Negroes had more freedom during Reconstruction, before Jim Crow laws took over where slavery had left off), but they have been getting more limited ever since.

The middle-class, educated and disillusioned group gets larger with each college graduation. National Organization for Women (NOW)—founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan, among others, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men” — is a very effective voice of this group, concentrating on such reforms as getting irrelevant sex-designations out of Help Wanted ads and implementing Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

If the WLM can feel solidarity with the hated middle class, and vice versa, then an alliance with the second mass movement—poor women of all colors—should be no problem. They are already organized around welfare problems, free daycare centers, for mothers who must work, and food prices. For them, equal pay, unequal training and sex discrimination for jobs (not to mention the woman-punishing rules of welfare) exact a daily price: Of all the families living below the poverty level, 40 per cent are headed by women.

A lot of middle-class and radical-intellectual women are already working with the poor on common problems, but viewing them as social. If the “consciousness-raising” programs of the WLM work, they’ll see them as rallying points for women qua women. And that might forge the final revolutionary link. Rumblings are already being heard inside the Democratic party in New York. It’s the women who staff and win elections, and they may finally balk at working for only men—not very qualified men at that—in the mayoral primary.

There is plenty of opposition to this kind of thinking, from women as well as men. Having one’s traditional role questioned is not a very comfortable experience; perhaps especially for women, who have been able to remain children, and to benefit from work they did not and could not do. Marriage wouldn’t go straight down the drain, as traditionalists keep predicting. Women’s liberation might just hurry up some sort of companionate marriage that seems to be developing anyway.

But there is bound to be a time of, as social anthropologist Lionel Tiger puts it, “increased personal acrimony,” even if the revolution fails and women go right back to darning socks. (Masculinity doesn’t depend on the subservience of others, but it will take us a while to find that out.) It might be helpful to men—and good for women’s liberation—if they just keep repeating key phrases like, “No more guilt, No more alimony, Fewer boring women, Fewer bitchy women, No more tyrants with all human ambition confined to the home, No more ‘Jewish mothers’ transferring ambition to children, No more women trying to be masculine because it’s a Man’s World . . .” (and maybe one more round of “No more alimony”) until the acrimony has stopped.

Because the idea is, in the long run, that women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too.

Report on discussion hosted by RAG

RAG, the Revolutionary Anarchafeminist Group is now in its third year. The collective was set up in order to explore our ideas and produce a magazine, the Rag. Meetings are held weekly on Mondays, but the first Monday of every month is an open meeting, in which non-members are invited to a workshop or discussion.

On Monday 7th April, the open meeting was entitled “Why Anarchafeminism?” The purpose of the meeting was to encourage women outside of RAG to question and explore their ideas about feminism and anarchism and to draw links between the two. Also, it gave members of the group a chance to revisit the fundamental aspects of our beliefs. The following is a personal account by two of us of the discussion. It is limited by the quality of our notes and recollections. It does not present a RAG position on anything, but is simply an attempt to share some of the ideas that were touched upon with those who were unable to attend.


The introductory round of the discussion invited the women present to state their general ideas about anarchism and feminism. All the RAG women present identified as anarchafeminist, although each had come to anarchafeminism from different perspectives. One member said that while feminism was a given for her, she realised that we can’t have meaningful liberation with capitalism intact. Thus her belief in anarchism.


Another held that it was easier for her to identify herself to others as a feminist than as an anarchist – or at least to defend her position. She felt that people who have not considered the concepts before tend to be more willing to accept the premise that women and men should have equality than to question the core of the economic and political systems in place.

Dirty Words

Others noted that they were unable or unwilling to identify as feminist for many years due in part to the negative connotations associated with “the F word!” (There was mention that perhaps Anarchism was also seen as a dirty word – the mis-association between anarchy and chaos etc.) There was discussion around the fact that the capitalist system in place is very effective in muddying the meaning of concepts which pose a clear threat to that system.

Coming to Consciousness/ Global Consciousness

We spoke about our experiences of becoming conscious as both feminists and as anarchists, and how surprising it is that we can live happily blind to the oppressive systems around us until this change in consciousness begins to take place. It was noted that it takes a certain level of understanding to find real conviction about feminist and anarchist ideas – as to do so we must expand our view of the world to look at the global systems of oppression in place. We have to identify our own somewhat limited struggles with the very struggle for existence of many of those in the global south for example. There was more talk of migration issues and how traditionally feminine economic roles, such as care, childrearing and even sex-work are being filled by a new generation of migrant women travelling to Ireland to escape poverty in other countries. Thus greater equality for western women does not mean greater equality for all.

The Radical Feminist Threat

While feminism seems to be a more accessible concept than anarchism – or less threatening for many, it is in fact multi-layered and multi-disciplined. Even though, in recent years there has been a growth in feminist academia, it is a ghettoised thing, and little in the way of truly radical feminist ideas have seeped out into the public consciousness. Yet real feminism requires complete social restructuring which can be equated with anarchism.

What is Anarchism?

There were some women present who were unfamiliar with the term anarchism. While no “definition” was offered, it came out during the discussion that the ultimate aim of anarchism is total democracy – that each person would have equal say in every aspect of their own lives. This requires the destruction of state, hierarchy and class society, and the construction of bottom-up systems to replace it. There was some discussion around the idea of Revolution, and the need for strong grassroots action and organisation in preparation for radical change. Ultimately this would lead to an ability to take control of our resources and the defend that right. While the site for this has often been the work-place in traditional anarchist dialogue, it was noted that from a feminist perspective, the family and the body are additional sites of conflict (our literal “means of production” which we determined to seize!)

There was an aside which noted that while as anarchists we attempt to be the change we wish to see, creating non-hierarchical structures and modes of working for example. As one participant noted, however, it is not enough to try to create a utopian present, but we must remain conscious of the broader political and worldwide struggle and attempt to engage with it, not ignore it in order to work on own small circle.

Equality not Sameness

It was pointed out that one of the misconceptions of the feminist movement so far has been that for women to be equal to men, we had to be the same. Thus we have joined the rush into the workplace to have, as one participant put it, “equal access to exploitation.” We also have the added bonus of the double day at work – both outside and inside the home. The value system of capitalism is profit-driven. Only that which produces profit is seen as productive, and women’s work in producing and caring for children, in keeping the home and in caring for the sick and the old, is not valued under capitalism.

The question was placed whether capitalism would ever be able to fully adapt to feminism. It was observed that although feminism has made progressive changes for some women in the west, it cannot succeed in creating global equality under capitalism: a complete overhaul is in order. While patriarchy (the system of male dominance over women) has existed thousands of years longer than capitalism has, capitalism has made effective use of it and in some ways it may be reliant on it – for example on the nuclear family. It was suggested that capitalism would never arrive at complete equality. For it, the perception of equality is as good as actual equality. It would only concede enough to give a convincingly muddied image of equality. As the nature of capitalism is exploitation, it would be naïve to chase an equality ideal within it.


There was some debate around the value of “reformist” feminism. No-one doubted that very real changes had been made in women’s lives due to feminist efforts. These range from the right to vote to the right to work outside of the home, equal pay legislation, anti-domestic violence legislation, etc. Unlike anarchism, feminism can and has been accepted into capitalist reform. Yet it is the socialists and anarchists who have always been behind meaningful reform – through the trade union movements, anti-racism work, community work, and women’s liberation movements. It was questioned how much has been lost to the ultimate aims of those working to create these reforms. Their achievements have been co-opted into seeming like the achievements of “democracy” when in fact they are the small rights pulled back by those who have fought against the oppressive systems in place.

It was mainly agreed that while we would always fight for meaningful reform (for abortion rights and free childcare for example), we also want to remain completely clear about why we are fighting – due to a belief not just in women’s equality – but in absolute equality. For us, the ultimate endpoint of feminism is anarchism. Yet this endpoint would never be an endpoint in itself. Someone mentioned the need for a constant state of revolt – that the reality of anarchafeminism in action would be a continual striving to do better. There can be no hand-book on how life would be after the revolution!

Patriarchy and Men

Threatened systems of oppression have always been adept at misrepresenting that threat, or causing arguments to be framed in a certain way. Thus the fight for women’s equality has been framed as a “battle of the sexes”. Certainly, male privilege is a reality, and one which feminists have focussed on in the past. Yet abolishing male privilege is not the end-goal of feminism (and certainly not of anarchafeminism!) Feminism has led to a growing consciousness of male oppression under patriarchy. For example: strict adherence to masculine gender roles, duty to “provide” in the realm of work and lack of equal rights to active parenthood. Male-oppression has been misconstrued as either a product of the feminist movement, or an oversight of it. Yet it is through feminist dialogue that a space has opened up for discussing these aspects of men’s lives and experiences. At the moment, it is only anti-feminist “backlash” groups which are addressing these specifically male issues. It is only through pro-feminist solidarity between men and women that meaningful inroads into these issues can be made. This would be truly revolutionary anarchafeminism! Yet there seems to be an unwillingness, or unreadiness as yet for anarchist men to take this on.

Queer Feminism?

There was a question about the link between feminism and queer theory – or what anarchafeminism could offer queer people (queerness might be roughly defined as gender or sexuality non-conformism.) We talked about anarchism as the freedom to be yourself within only the confines of not harming others. The destruction of the systems of capitalism, state and patriarchy would lead to an explosion in different ways of being – sexualities, gender identities, family structures etc. Presently, although there has been some acceptance by wealthy capitalist countries of difference, ultimately difference is acceptable only as a lifestyle choice, not as a revolutionary force, which (with anarchafeminist analysis?) it should ultimately be.

The meeting finished with a closing circle where all acknowledged the value of the discussion, some professed to have found nothing new, and some everything! Yet most were somewhere in-between. Certainly it provided food for thought and opened the way for further debate.

See also RAG Feminist Gathering Fri 2nd to Mon 5th May – Leitrim Ireland at

… Women columnists still make their fortunes by attacking other women – it is, in fact, a time-honoured way to get a book contract or a political appointment. Trashing one’s own gender remains a path to advancement. …

It’s an artifice of journalism to choose a given year and pretend that year “changed everything”. We constantly hear in the United States that 9/11 “changed everything”, yet – for most of humanity – life is still as nasty, brutish and short in 2008 as it was in 1008 or 2008 BC. If it is so for man, it is doubly so for woman – since women and children are the main victims of war – if we go by numbers. But can numbers measure pain? Probably not.

It is a good time for me to be thinking about feminism over the past 40 years, as this week I am in Rome with other writers, thinkers and artists (including Bernardo Bertolucci, Joschka Fischer and Slavoj Zizek) for a festival of philosophy to mark the anniversary of 1968. In 1968, there was a great feeling of hope that things might change, that women might escape from beatings and rape and malnutrition in the developing world, and that, in our supposedly civilised world, they might find law degrees, medical degrees, political advancement and economic parity with their brothers and fathers. Not to mention their husbands.

But it has not come to pass. Yes, women have law and medical degrees in great number, write books by the carload and are good at it (why should we be surprised, when our first great poet of love, Sappho, was a woman?), but the world is still not a level playing field. Women are still not safe on the streets or in their own homes. And they comprise, with children, most of the world’s poor.

We have spilled oceans of ink, cut down forests of trees, blazed through the internet in light, and the world is still dominated by the sex-bearing appendages rather than clefts. Why? That is the subject for a future book. But I can say that the hope I felt in 1968 has evaporated. Last week, a woman commentator on a supposedly progressive network called Hillary Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro “whores”. She was suspended, but she’ll be back. Women columnists still make their fortunes by attacking other women, as in the age of Clare Boothe Luce. It is, in fact, a time-honoured way to get a book contract or a political appointment. Trashing one’s own gender remains a path to advancement.

There was a moment – 1968 to 1975, let’s say – when it seemed that everything would change for women. We were studied, promoted, advanced like a trendy minority. Then came the backlash. “Is feminism dead?” screamed the cover of Time magazine. We were declared dead before we were even half born. The backlash against feminism has lasted longer than the brief flaring of feminism itself.

This has been the course of the movement for women’s equality. Born in the 18th century with other movements for equality, our movement has ebbed and flowed with changing generations. We were scarcely enunciated before we became “the F-word” – the word that can’t be articulated lest we sound too much like our hated mothers.

In the US, there has been a real ebbing of reproductive rights, equality of pay and equality at law. And women have assisted in their own demise, demonstrating against abortion and “for life”, though they don’t seem to care so much for the children already born as for those unborn. There has also been a flood of privileged women with law degrees and prosperous husbands returning to housewifery – albeit a housewifery aided by nannies and caterers. I have nothing against that. But I am astounded by the flight back to the nursery. In 1968, anti-feminist scolds used to predict that the pill would stop women from having babies in the future; quite the opposite has happened. Our daughters are having three, four and five children – if they can afford them. Good for them. But here is what amazes: even the most dependent years of childhood take up only a fraction of women’s lives, and the cost of early childhood education, preschools, crèches and such would come nowhere near the cost of war, yet there is no political will in the US to make life healthier for childbearing women and children. That is the ultimate cost of the backlash – and once again, it targets the most vulnerable among us.

Watching this pageant of mayhem and murder one can only conclude, as Jeanette Winterson appears to in her latest novel, The Stone Gods, that we are a uniquely self-destructive species, high on our own desire to destroy our planet, starve and maim the world’s children. Power is a drug. It craves more and more of itself. Humanity, it turns out, is better represented by Robert Mugabe and George W Bush than by Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Perhaps women hating women is just a shoot off the poisonous vine of misanthropy. We ourselves are the evil empire. And if we elect fools and knaves to hasten our planetary demise, perhaps it is because these monsters represent our own desires for self-destruction.

1968 was a brief flare of hope for the human species. It was extinguished. The thugs with jackboots are back. Some of them have vaginas. Or, as Oprah would say, “vajayjays”. Talk about the problem that has no name: we can’t even name our own clefts.

Feminism, founded by Mary Wollstonecraft, advanced by Virginia Woolf, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton, has become nameless again. Perhaps a new generation will rediscover it like the shard of an ancient cooking vessel. Perhaps someone will name it again. I’ll be there.,,2272869,00.html

Ever since feminism’s “Second Wave” emerged in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War movement, women around the world have debated the compatibility of national liberation and women’s liberation. Several questions predominate: Which movement is more likely to liberate women? If both are necessary, how will they fit together? And what about other oppression many women face, such as classism and racism?

This paper will examine these issues as they relate to women in Ireland. It will put Ireland’s national liberation and women’s liberation into their historical contexts. It will next describe the Irish women’s current social and economic conditions.Finally, it will compare and contrast the roads to women’s liberation envisioned by feminists and Irish Republicans.

Ireland’s colonization by Britain was begun with the Anglo- Norman invasion of 1169, and it was completed by 1652 under Cromwell. The British government removed the native Irish from their lands and planted loyal colonists in their stead. The native Irish were governed by the Penal Laws, an apartheid code,which forbade them to own land or horses, practice theirreligion, participate in government or educate their children. This repression spawned secret societies and agrarian revolt in every generation. Many Presbyterian planters were sympathetic to native Catholic grievances, as they were nearly as oppressed legally by a colonial administration which restrained trade and deliberately kept Ireland underdeveloped. Following the examples of the American and French revolutions, the dissatisfied elements within Ireland coalesced into the United Irishmen, a movement for an independent Irish Republic. After many failed risings, this goal was partially realized in 1921 with the winning of limited independence for 26 of Ireland’s 32 colonies.

Irish Republicans, however–along with the majority of nationalists never accepted Ireland’s partition, and they are still fighting for a united, socialist Ireland. Irish women historically saw their gender’s liberation intertwined with their nation’s. In Celtic Ireland before the conquest, women enjoyed many legal rights which aren’t equalled in most countries today. Women kept their own property in marriage, and neither partner could enter into any contract or business deal without the other’s consent.

(1) Both husband and wife were allowed liberal grounds for divorce.A wife could divorce her husband for fourteen reasons, including his slander of her or for his sexual inadequacy.

(2) Women were also legally protected in common-law and transient relationships, and no children were considered illegitimate (3).

The British conquest brought Ireland’s independent legal system to an end and removed most of Irish women’s traditional rights. It also brought sexual prudery, which hadn’t previously been part of Irish culture. Pre-conquest church ruins in Ireland contain carvings of sile-na-gigs, naked female forms with hugh exposed genitals, often show masturbating.

One Celtic tradition which the conquest did not bring to an end was the existence and acceptance of strong warrior women.In the Tain bo Cuailgne or Cattle Raid of Cooley, Ireland’s main mythological saga, the warrior Queen Maeve led her army to victory, drowning one opposing army in a flood of urine and menstrual blood. And in Elizabethan times, Grainne Mhaol led her clan in pirate raids on British ships, later negotiating with Elizabeth as an equal. In every Irish rebellion, women fought alongside men and took part in all activities. But most of this women’s history has been obscured and is only lately being rediscovered. For example, contemporary accounts of the 1798 rebellion list many women’s actions; but later histories have dropped almost all these incidents. Feminist demands also accompanied nationalist struggles, at least from 1798 on. Mary Ann McCracken, a United Irishwoman, was an admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft. Before joining the society of United Irishwomen, she wrote to an imprisoned friend that she wished “to know if they have any rational ideas of liberty and equality for themselves or whether they are content with their present abject and dependent situation, degraded by custom and education beneath the rank in society in which they were originally placed.” (4)

By the Easter Rising of 1916, three movement had joined forces to take advantage of Britain’s preoccupation with the World War: the nationalist movement, the labor movement and the woman’s movement.This alliance meant that a progressive social program for worker’s and women’s rights accompanied the demand for national liberation. James Connolly, a socialist theoretician and one of the rebellion’s executed leaders, supported the woman’s suffrage movement. In 1915 he wrote: “The worker is the slave of the capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave. ” (5)

And in 1918, when the Republicans won a landslide electoral victory and set up their own (illegal) parliament, Constance Markievcz–a 1916 leader–was named Secretary of Labour. She and Alexandra Kollantai in the new Soviet Union were the first women at cabinet level. (6)

The partition of Ireland and the ensuing Civil War ensured the victory of pro-British, socially conservative forces in government. In the 1930’s many of the remaining Irish radical leaders fought and died for the Spanish Republic.This paved the way for the 1937 Irish Constitution, Article 41 of which states that “by her life within the home, Woman gives to the State a support without which common good cannot be achieved.” (7) In the late 1960’s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, inspired by the African-American Civil Rights Movement, waged a non-violent campaign to win equal rights for the Catholic nationalist people of the partitioned Six Counties.Women made up a large proportion of this movement but, except for Bernadette Devlin, the entire leadership was male.When peaceful marches were continually beaten and shot off the streets (culminating in Bloody Sunday, January 1972, when British paratroopers killed fourteen unarmed demonstrators), the armed struggle was resumed.

Also in the early 1970’s a woman’s movement was emerging in Dublin, inspired by those in the United States and other European countries.Irish feminists agitated for reforms in the welfare system for single mothers, for access of women to equal jobs, pay and education, and for legal divorce and contraception.(8) One of the women’s first actions was the Contraception Train to Belfast in May, 1971. (9) Since contraceptions were legal in Northern Ireland, 47 women travelled there and brought large quantities of contraceptives, which they openly declared at Irish Customs on their return.This action attracted a lot of media attention and sparked a large campaign, which led to the partial legality of contraception.

In 1975 the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was founded in Belfast to demand parity with British laws on women’s rights.This was a middle class, legalistic movement, which took no position on working class or nationalist women’s issues.The following year, when the NIWRM criticized the Troops Out Movement, a Socialist Women’s Group split off from it. Then in 1977 the Socialist Women’s Group split again, and the Belfast Women’s Collective was formed to work more closely with the Republican Movement, especially around women’s prisoners issues. A final split, in 1978, produced Women Against Imperialism, which had even closer links with the Republicans. (10) The centrality of the national struggle and the polarized positions on it kept a united feminist movement from developing in the North of Ireland.

To understand women’s conditions in Ireland, one needs to know a little bit about Irish society and its economic conditions. The occupied Six Counties of Northern Ireland is a British colony, ruled directly from London. The southern 26 counties, or “Irish Republic”, is s neo-colony–nominally independent but with its economy completely dominated by multinational investment. In economic terms, Ireland is a Third World country. Officially, unemployment in both parts of Ireland exceeds 17 percent. But in some working class areas, it is over 80%. Politically, both parts of Ireland are conservative confessional states.The south is dominated by the Catholic Church, and the north by fundamentalist Protestantism. Both states are extremely conservative in social legislation, and both use repressive measure and censorship to try and maintain the status quo.These social and economic condition impact heavily on women. Although more women have entered the labor force in recent years, they are highly concentrated in service industries. (12) Women in the 26 Counties earn only 60 per cent of male wages, while those in the Six Counties earn 75.5 percent. (13) Over 1.25 million Irish women (at least half the female population) is classified as living in poverty.(14) Women’s social conditions, influenced by strong links between conservative churches and states, haven’t improved significantly since the early 1970’s.

Contraceptives can now be legally prescribed in the 26 Counties, but many doctors and pharmacists, especially in rural areas, refuse to provide them.Condoms can only be sold in pharmacies, and a record store in Dublin which challenged them was prosecuted successfully in 1990. Abortion, which has always been illegal in Ireland, was made unconstitutional in a 1983 referendum.Even non-directive pregnancy counseling, with options for abortion in Britain discussed, is illegal. In the North abortion is also illegal, even though Northern Ireland is supposed to be an integral part of Britain. Divorce is still illegal in the 26 Counties, although a campaign is growing for a new referendum on this issue. Women in Northern Ireland also have to contend with sexist harassment from armed soldiers on their streets, constant house raids, strip-searching, and caring for families alone while their husbands or imprisoned or on the run.

Feminists and republican feminists propose different solutions for women’s oppression. The largely middle-class feminist movement sees the solution as working toward equality and gender-neutrality in the legal system.The Commission for the Status of Women, a government-appointed advisory body, recommended many changes in employment and social welfare laws, which ameliorated some of the worst inequalities. (15) Many feminists also see the need for steps beyond formal equality, such as day care facilities, maternity leave and control of their own fertility, as necessary prerequisites for equality.Single-issue campaigns on many of these issues have been and are being fought by feminist groups.Women’s cultural groups, such as writing groups, self-help therapy groups, sports groups, etc.are seen by many as “an alternative environment in which women can explore ideas and support each other away from the constraints imposed by patriarchal structures.” (16)

Republican feminists say that this approach is too fragmented, dealing with symptoms, rather than the cause of women’s problems, which they see as capitalism and British imperialism, along with patriarchy. As Mary Nelis, a Derry Sinn Fein activist, puts it: “The system of patriarchy, with its sub- structures of imperialism and capitalism, can accommodate reforms and even allow women to be the power figure head ( e.g.Maggie Thatcher) given that the ground rules establishing essential inequality remain intact.” (17)

The fragmentation of a multitude of single-issue women’s groups, each lobbying against the others for funding and attention, is seen by republican feminists as “the old divide and conquer trick”.(18) They also believe that “the state apparatus, to an extent, has absorbed the women’s movement.The more acceptable feminists have become part of the establishment and enjoy the freedom of the airwaves, which we, as Republicans, are denied under Section 31 {26 Counties censorship law}. So what is the real threat?” (19) Nell McCafferty, a feminist journalist whose work is known around the world, had broken laws on behalf of women’s rights to contraception for years and had reported on this “criminal activity”. As she said, “It did my career no harm at all.” (20) But then she gave an interview expressing support for the IRA. She was immediately banned from Irish airwaves.

Feminist objections to the Irish Republican struggle usually fall into three main categories: (1) “It’s a man’s war”; (2) “Women should concentrate on our own liberation as women;” and (3) “It’s different from legitimate struggles in the Third World.” (21)

Cathy Harkin of Derry Women’s Aid, a refuge for battered women, put forth the first objection. She calls Derry “an armed patriarchy” and says that women in the Republican Movement have “seldom risen to positions of authority except where they adopt the male ideals, aims and discipline of the movement. ” (22) This argument, which has been debated in feminist circles for years, presupposes that women are “naturally” pacifist and that any women who takes part in a struggle which includes a military component is going against her true nature and only following men.

This is a dangerous argument for feminists to make, because women’s supposed biological and psychological “differences” have been used against them through patriarchal history. Besides, as women IRA Volunteers have stated, “This is not a man’s war, but a people’s war.(23)

Margaret Ward, a feminist historian, raises the second objection. She asks, “Can feminism offer such unqualified support (to national liberation) and retain its ability to encompass the reality of all women’s oppression, to fight without compromise for women’s interests?” (24) This criticism raises two questions (1) What are women’s issues? and (2) Is the Irish Republican Movement fighting for them? To the first question, the Irish Women Prisoner of War have answered, “Women within the occupied Six Counties of IReland are oppressed by both a foreign imperialist state and the sexist ideologies which suppress women worldwide.” (25) And Bernadette Devlin McAliskey added that “We are not oppressed simply because we are women but also because we are working class women and because we are working class republican women. ” (26) As a woman Sinn Fein activist stated, “Just because as issue also affects men, doesn’t mean it’s not a woman’s issue.” (27)

But what about the issues that are specifically of interest to women? As asked in question 2 above, is the Republican Movement fighting for them, as well? Sinn Fein has an extensive policy document which states its positions on women’s issues. It calls for, among other things, legal divorce; free and accessible contraception; non-directive pregnancy counseling embodying all choice; childcare to be shared by both parents; 24 hour public childcare; and an end to stereotyping of sex roles in education and advertising.(28) Plus, Sinn Fein members are active in women’s center and in campaigns for divorce, non-directive pregnancy counseling, and against rape and battering.

The third objection to Republicanism, that it isn’t a bonafide Third World movement, has been dealt with earlier in this paper, where Ireland’s economic status as a Third World country was explored.

Many people are more comfortable supporting liberation movements that are far away from their home and are waged by people who look different from them or speak a different language than they are supporting a movement closer to home.The distance and suspicion between feminists and republicans is harmful to both movements and to all women’s liberation. As the coordinator of the Falls Road Women’s Center in Belfast explains, “The right wing has no trouble in uniting to defend its interests while using the distortions caused by British imperialism to divide us and divert our energies.” (29) The inability of the women’s movement to mount an effective opposition to the current conservative backlash is attributed by Marron to this “sectionalism and fear.” (30)

Both the feminist and Republican movements have a lot to offer each other and the Irish people.

Nell McCafferty comments that :

“It has so far proved easier to feminise Republicans, who have much to gain from the inclusion of women in the struggle, than to Republicanise feminists, who have much to lose if women’s interests are totally subordinated to a resolution of the war.

“However, experience around the world shows that social protest struggles have been obliged to take steps to resolve sexist problems once the women’s movement has become involved…

“It poses a challenge to the Irish women’s movement of developing a theory and practice on feminism and war.The active involvement of women is imperative if women are to have, when the war is resolved, the freedom of free men. ” (31)

by Jan Cannavan, Irish Women’s History Group
1.Donncha O Corrain, “Women in Early Irish History,” in “Women In Irish Society: The Historical Dimension”, eds Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha O Corrain (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979), p. 2.
2. ibid., p. 6.
3. ibid., p. 4.
4.Mary NcNeill, “The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken: A Belfast Panorama” (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1960), p. 126.
5. James Connolly, “Selected Writings”, ed P.Berresford Ellis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), p. 191.
6.Margaret Ward, “Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism” (London: Pluto Press, 1983), p. 137.
7. Ibid., p. 238.
8. Jenny Beale, “Women in Ireland: Voices of Change” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 3-4.
9. Ibid., pp. 106-107.
10. Kevin Kelly, “The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA (Lawrence Hill, 1982), pp 320-322.
11. Alternative Ireland Directory, 4th ed. (Cork, Ireland: Quay Co-op, 1990), p. 176.
12. Ursula Barry, “Lifting the Lid: Handbook of Facts and Information on Ireland” (Dublin: Attic Press, 1986), p. 34.
13. Alternative Ireland Directory, p. 4.
14. ibid.
15. Beale, p. 186.
16. Ibid., p. 193.
17. Mary Nelis, “Real Change Still Beckons” in “Unfinished Revolution: Essays on the Irish Women’s Movement” (Belfast: Meadbh Publishing, 1989), p. 5.
18. Mairead Keane, head of Sinn Fein Women’s Department, unpublished speech (1989).
19. Rita O’Hare, Sinn Fein Publicity Director, unpublished speech (undated–about 1987).
20. Nell McCafferty, “My Phone Doesn’t Ring Anymore…”, from “Labour and Ireland”, no. 20 (March, 1988).
21. Jan Cannavan, “Irish Freedom Fighters”, from “Womanews”, 9, no. 3 (March, 1988).
22. Nell McCafferty, “The Armagh Woman”, p. 88.
23. “Notes for Revolutionaries” (Belfast: Republican Publications, 1983), p. 1.
24. Ward, p. 262.
25. Women POWs, Maghaberry Gaol, “Women and the National Struggle”, from “Women in Struggle”, no. 1 (Spring, 1991), p.14.
26. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, “What Price Reunification?” from “Counterspy”, 8, No.2 (December, 1983), 41.
27 Cannavan, p. 7.
28. “Women in Ireland: Sinn Fein Women’s Policy Document” (Sinn Fein, 1992).
29. Oonagh Marron, “The Cost of Silencing Voices Like Mine” from “Unfinished Revolution: Essays on the Irish Women’s Movement”, p. 42.
31. McCafferty, “The Armagh Women”, p. 30.

For further information on women in Ireland, please contact:
The Irish Women’s History Group
922 East 15th Street, Apt. 1A
Brooklyn, NY 11230
tel: 718-253-6640

Her series concludes as Judith Orr looks at the issues that women are fighting over today

Women in Britain have made great gains since the days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. We are now a permanent part of the workforce and have a degree of economic independence previously denied to us.

Access to legal and safe abortion, however limited, has saved thousands of women faced with an unwanted pregnancy from risking their lives in backstreet abortions.

Easier access to divorce and acceptance of relationships outside of marriage have enabled millions of women and men to make different choices about how they live together.

Yet we are still a long way from liberation.

The Equal Pay Act was passed over three decades ago but the average wage for women is still around 18 percent less than men.

A recent TUC report talked of a “motherhood penalty” and showed that women who have children are most affected by pay inequality.

Many are forced into part time work, where the pay gap is at its greatest, as they juggle work with inadequate and expensive childcare.

There are also many who want to roll back the gains we have made, and the right of women to control their bodies is still contested.

Around 83 percent of the population support abortion being legal but the anti-abortionists have not given up.

Their tactic is to target the small minority of women who need abortions, often in desperate circumstances, at the upper end of the 24-week time limit.

When it comes to the sexual commodification of women’s bodies it certainly feels like the clocks have turned back.

Lap dancing is now big business and strip clubs are sold as a great night out for both women and men.

Women who object are denounced as prudish or sexually repressed. But what is liberating about commercial sex sold for a profit?

We fought hard in the 1960s and 1970s for more openness in society about sex and sexuality. Now capitalism wants to repackage it and sell it back to us as a commodity.

The obsession with women’s appearance breaks new boundaries. We are supposed to ape skeletal celebrities and aspire to be the mythical size zero.

And if you can’t achieve the perfect body by going hungry you can always go under the knife. Cosmetic surgery is now mainstream with “breast enhancement” the most popular operation.

At the same time as women are encouraged to dress and behave like porn stars we are still seen as the custodians of morality.

Women’s sexual histories, clothing and behaviour are still brought up in court in rape cases to suggest that the victim is in some way responsible for an assault.

The result is that any women wearing what is in the window of Top Shop can be deemed to be asking for it. Today only 5 percent of reported rapes end in conviction.

These attacks are being challenged by a new generation of activists. There may no longer be a Women’s Liberation Movement, but there are many young women, trade unionists, and activists who want to fight for women’s liberation.

In colleges and workplaces across the country women are standing up against the tide of raunch culture and refusing to be defined by the sexist stereotypes peddled by the media.

The struggle for equal pay continues. This year the Abortion Rights campaign has already mobilised many women who have never had to fight on the issue before.

History has shown that the fate of women in society is tied to the fate of the working class. We have won the most gains when the working class has been on the offensive.

We have never been in a better position to challenge our oppression as part of a collective – women are now half the workforce.

But the fight must be for more than just equality under capitalism. Class remains the deepest divide in society, defining our health, education, housing, jobs and pay and even our life expectancy.

Winning equal pay with men would be progress, but not victory.

The top 1 percent of population own over 23 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 50 percent’s share is only 7 percent. Equal pay can still mean gross inequality between the minority and the majority.

For socialists the fight for women’s liberation is part of a struggle for the emancipation of the whole of humanity.

In the second column in her series on women’s liberation, Judith Orr looks at problems that hit the women’s movement

By the late 1970s the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was in decline on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Britain there was a growing rift between those who saw the struggle for women’s rights as linked with that of the working class, and those who were more influenced by radical feminism, and in particular the theory of patriarchy.

In essence this theory declared that the root cause of women’s oppression was male power. Soon patriarchy became the dominant theoretical explanation of women’s oppression.

It was widely accepted that all men benefited from women’s oppression, and that therefore all men had an interest in maintaining it.

By the time of the WLM conference of 1978 the political divisions in the movement had become insurmountable. It was to be the last such conference to be held in Britain.

When the left started to be characterised as “inherently macho” it signalled just how far the rightward drift had gone.

Beyond the Fragments, an influential book by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, was published in 1979. It was an outright attack on the left that claimed Leninist politics was oppressive to women.

Radical feminists argued that socialist politics were not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

Even working class struggle and trade unions were increasingly dismissed in this manner.

This disintegration of the WLM led some women – usually the most privileged – to look to individual solutions.

These were women who could pursue careers in the City and big corporations while employing nannies and cleaners to carry the burden of housework.

The image of a businesswoman in shoulder pads and high heels became a 1980s cliché. But the success of the few women who broke through the “glass ceiling” did nothing to advance the position of the majority of women.

For others, the Greenham Common peace camp in the early 1980s provided a model. This was a women-only protest against US nuclear missiles in Britain.

Greenham Common came to embody the radical feminist view that men were biologically driven to be aggressors while women were naturally peacemakers. Yet Margaret Thatcher’s warmongering was proof that women are not naturally non-violent.

Many women found a new political home in what seemed an unlikely place – the Labour Party.

Labour was dominated by men and bureaucratic, but it provided an alternative to a layer of political activists – women and men – who were giving up on class struggle as a way forward.

Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 general election convinced many activists that the left had to take over the Labour Party and transform it from the inside.

Labour-controlled local authorities became key battlegrounds. Many of them established women’s committees, reflecting the new influence of feminism on the party.

The pinnacle of these was the Greater London Council’s women’s committee, which controlled a budget of £8 million. But this top-down approach was a far cry from the struggles of the 1960s.

The trajectory away from class politics was briefly stopped in its tracks by the great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

Despite the fact that the National Union of Mineworkers was a male-dominated union, the common interest of working men and women was clear for all to see.

Miners’ wives and other women in mining communities threw themselves into the struggle. Many went from making the tea and kitchen duties to mass picketing and travelling all over the country to win solidarity. A layer of feminists was inspired by their magnificent fight and got involved.

But this spark of renewed interest in working class struggle turned out to be short lived.

In the end many of those who had been at the forefront of the WLM ended up playing the system rather than trying to smash it.

These are the women who are the cabinet ministers, lawyers and managers of today.

They have benefited from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s that put equal opportunities on the agenda. But their lives have little in common with those of the mass of ordinary women.

The battle to win real women’s liberation is still to be won. We face pay inequality, attacks on abortion rights, welfare cuts and a massive rise in sexism in popular culture.

In the first part of new series in Socialist Worker Judith Orr looks at the rise in the struggle for women’s liberation

It is hard to imagine just how different the world was for women before the 1960s.

When my mum got married she had to leave her job in a bank. It was assumed that her husband would keep her and she would look after the home.

This was not unusual – in many jobs, including the entire civil service, married women were not employed. It was difficult for a woman to get a mortgage or even buy something on hire purchase without a man’s guarantee.

These were the days before the pill. Sex before marriage was seen as shameful and if a single woman got pregnant it was devastating. Abortion was illegal and many women risked their lives going to the backstreet, or were forced to give their baby up for adoption.

The radical political movements of the 1960s blew apart this repressive and stifled world.

The gains women made then – legal abortion, easier divorce, freedom to express our sexuality and the principle of equal pay – changed the lives of millions.

The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was born in the US among students radicalised by the mass black civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.

In Britain the WLM developed from the struggles of women workers for equal pay.

The two movements had different characteristics but both were rooted in the effect of the long post war economic boom.

This had pulled increasing numbers of women into the workforce and into further education.

For example between 1960 and 1965 there was a 57 percent increase in women being awarded degrees in the US (the same figure for men rose by 25 percent). Suddenly a whole generation of women had new expectations.

The universities of the US became centres of struggle and debate. By 1967 thousands of women had been on marches and protests. They had fought for black civil rights, opposed the war in Vietnam and challenged the state.

Yet they faced sexism in their own political organisations and felt sidelined and trivialised by the mainly male leadership.

It seems shocking that such brilliant radical movements did not take women’s rights seriously. But when the movements exploded in the 1960s they did so in a vacuum.

The socialist tradition had been decimated by the witch-hunts of McCarthyism. There was no Labour type party or revolutionary left to speak of. The shadow cast by the experience of Stalinism made many feel that socialism had nothing to do with liberation.

Women activists began to organise their own workshops, write papers and talk about their oppression.

The movement in the US was dominated by the idea that women had to organise separately. Meetings often involved women talking about their personal lives­ – a process described as “consciousness raising”.

Groups, dominated by college educated middle class women, spread to cities all over the US.

But although it was never a truly mass movement in terms of numbers and activity it did articulate the dashed hopes and frustration of millions of women.

In Britain the experience of the women’s movement was shaped by the greater influence of the left and class politics here. The presence of a Labour Party, the higher density of trade union membership, and an organised revolutionary left made a difference.

It meant that there was an understanding of the socialist tradition of fighting for women’s rights.

These influences ensured the demands of the British WLM reflected the needs of working class women – free abortion and contraception, equal educational and job opportunities, free 24 hour nurseries and equal pay. Strikes of women workers like the London office cleaners were seen as very much part of the movement.

But there were problems. Ideas about women needing to organise separately divided the movement. In fact bitter experience showed there was nothing inevitably “sisterly” or democratic about women-only organisations.

By the mid 1970s the high point of the WLM on both sides of the Atlantic had passed. Groups fragmented over questions of sexuality, race and issues such as national liberation and imperialism.

Yet the world had changed. For the first time women could control their fertility. Millions of women were gaining a level of economic independence that gave them new choices.

The struggle for women’s liberation and equality had made massive strides but the movement disintegrated.