Women's Liberation: Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Carol Hanisch, Cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

Feminism 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.

Rise of Individualist Feminists

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's Sarah Palin, who calls herself a feminist and defines it as "an emerging, conservative, feminist identity." Faced with broad support from women for Democrat Hillary Clinton, the Republican Party hoped to narrow the gender gap in the 2008 elections by nominating this feisty, ultra-conservative but little-known woman for vice-president. Palin, who opposes abortion rights, as well as many forms of government support for health and education programs that affect women, is also a former beauty queen who attracts a lot of male approval. Men support her in larger numbers than women.

Women Against Liberation: The Long View

Actually, though, the phenomenon of politically active women who work against women's liberation is nothing new. It goes back at least to the "antis" -- women who opposed women's suffrage -- in the 19th century. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly was the most prominent example. Schlafly's website now identifies her as "America's best-known advocate of the dignity and honor that we as a society owe to the role of fulltime homemaker." The mother of six children, she was the 1992 "Illinois Mother of the Year." However, the contradiction that Schlafly worked as a successful writer, pundit and lawyer while attacking both women who didn't stay home and take care of their kids and the Equal Rights Amendment is not addressed. Indeed, her work is widely recognized as a key reason the Equal Rights Amendment, approved by Congress in 1972, was never ratified.

Schlafly didn't, however, call herself a feminist. In fact, she opposed feminism. That the "new conservative women" feel compelled to call themselves feminists in order to win women's approval seems a sign of both the success and failure of the feminist movement.

Whether or not Sarah Palin can be considered a feminist obviously depends on how you define feminism. Yes, if the criteria is that she is allowed to define it and if it means carving out some success as an individual in the capitalist and male supremacist order. No, if one considers feminism to be the struggle for the liberation of all women, not just individual career success.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is considered a feminist by many. She helped shatter the glass ceiling for women in Democratic Party politics by becoming a senator and then running for president on a major party platform, in part by standing by her serial-philanderer of a husband. Many women who claim Clinton is a feminist for running on a national ticket don't accord the same to Palin.

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.

Celebrity 'Sex Pots' and Feminism

The relation of sexual self-expression, celebrity and feminism is another controversial area: A lot of hot blogging is going on about whether Lady Gaga, for one, is or isn't a feminist. She's an icon for some women who admire her for her celebrity success and her supposed control of her own life and "self-expression." I am among those who find the unreality of the Lady Gaga type of sexy performance --seemingly the weirder the better for filling one's personal coffers -- spooky and politically scary. It feels anti-human to me as well as anti-woman, part of the current dehumanizing cultural warp that surrounds us. It brings to mind shades of the sexuality in the movie Cabaret, set in emerging Nazi Germany.

The celebrity selling of sex is nothing new either, however. Every generation has had its famous "sex pots," from Clara Bow to Marilyn Monroe to the "Sex and the City" crew. As businesspeople, they may be quite successful, but calling them -- or allowing them to call their work -- "feminist" turns women's liberation on its head. If feminism is defined as being successful in the capitalist and male supremacist sexploitation business, then it may be feminist in the careerist sense of the word, but it is not women's liberation.

One hears how "selling sex has always been with us" as though that makes it okay or makes it impossible to change. The purpose of a feminist movement is to break with all of sexist tradition, not ape it. The promotion of women as sex objects is no more "good for women" -- as the 1969 Redstockings Principles said we should judge things -- in 2010 than it was back then. The Lady Gagas may be getting rich and famous but they are raising the bar for women's struggle for dignity and equality, including the right not to be seen and treated as sex objects. They contribute to men thinking that objectifying women is just fine; after all, women do it themselves. And only a few women can succeed in these singular careers, whether it's as a sexual icon or in the presidential race. I believe most women need and want something more and better than what's now on the feminist table.

Moving Women's Liberation Forward

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:www.carolhanisch.org and email: truthtellers@verizon.net.

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