For many of the young women who were involved in the antiwar and Civil Rights movements, the liberal feminism epitomized by NOW was not enough. They wanted to be part of a movement that challenged oppression and imperialism at its root. The enormous radicalization of this period also spurred many women to explore a complete rethinking of women’s roles in romantic relationships, in the family, in society, and in the existing organizations of the left.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formed in 1960, grew rapidly into being the most important radical youth organization in the country, with a reported 100,000 members at its height. SDS played a key role in building a mass movement against the war and was very active in anti-racist organizing. But as their name suggests, they were concentrated on college campuses at a time when most students were middle class and male. They had little connection with the wider working class. While many different trends emerged in SDS, most were influenced by Maoism and its rejection of the central role of the working class in changing society. Due to massive internal contradictions, SDS split in several directions in 1969.
In its internal life, SDS also unfortunately reflected the strongly sexist male-dominated campus environment of the time. Women were expected to fulfill the same types of subservient roles that were prevalent in mainstream society. As an SDS woman put it:
“We were still the movement secretaries and the shit-workers; we served the food, prepared the mailings and made the best posters; we were the earth mothers and the sex-objects for the movement men. We were the free movement ‘chicks’–free to screw any man who demanded it, or if we chose not to–free to be called hung-up, middle class and uptight. We were free to keep quiet at the meetings–or, if we chose not to, we were free to speak in men’s terms. If a woman dared conceive an idea that was not in the current limited ideological system, she was ignored and ridiculed. We were free, finally, to marry and raise liberated babies and clean liberated diapers, and prepare liberated dinners for our ass-hunting husbands or ‘guys we were living with.’”(EVELYN GOLDFIELD, SUE MUNAKER AND NAOMI WEISSTEIN, A WOMAN IS A SOMETIME THING; OR, CORNERING CAPITALISM BY REMOVING 51 PERCENT OF ITS COMMODITIES, 1974)
At a 1965 SDS conference, the debate on women’s oppression broke out into the open, sparking a discussion among the SDS women about the deeper roots of women’s oppression and how to fight it. These types of debates were also occurring in radical black and Latino organizations. In the fall of 1967, a section of radical women began to form their own organizations, dedicated to the liberation of women. By 1969, there were women’s liberation groups in over 40 cities. At the same time, many other radical women continued working in a range of left and far-left groups alongside male radicals where the debate on how to achieve women’s liberation continued in various ways.
Women’s liberation organizations often started as consciousness-raising groups, where women gathered to discuss their common oppression. The prevailing post-war idealization of women as homemakers and mothers caused many middle-class women who didn’t work in the paid economy to feel that their dissatisfaction with their lives was a personal problem. Consciousness-raising groups revealed that the many problems women faced – from limited job opportunities compared to men to domestic abuse – were political problems that required political solutions, not personal issues. The women-only format was important to allow women to speak freely about their experiences and feelings in an era when the idea that women were oppressed was not accepted in wider society. Some of these groups developed into activist organizations that used direct action protests, speak-outs, and other tactics to campaign on abortion, rape, objectification of women, and other issues.
Women’s liberation spread like wildfire from 1967 into the mid seventies. Consciousness-raising groups multiplied and dozens of mostly very small organizations produced publications that included feminist theory, politics, poetry, and fiction. The women’s liberation movement never developed any broad coalition or unified organizational form, which was one of its key weaknesses. Despite the lack of a formal organization or program, there was agreement within the women’s liberation movement on the need to expand the possible roles of women in society beyond wife, mother, or sex object.
In an action that helped define popular perception of the movement, New York Radical Women coordinated a protest in front of the 1968 Miss America pageant. Around 150 women activists descended on Atlantic City for the high-profile protest, crowning a sheep the pageant victor and tossing high-heel shoes, bras, and other objects symbolizing women’s oppression into a “Freedom Trash Can” to be burned. The national media used images of this event to promote the idea of women’s liberation activists as “bra burners.” These and other deliberate distortions were used to slander women’s liberation activists as attention-seeking “man-haters.”
Activists in women’s liberation groups went beyond campaigning. They were pioneers in providing educational resources and health services to help women directly. Women’s liberation organizations created the nation’s first rape crisis centers. Small groups of feminists all across the country built women’s shelters for women in abusive relationships. Women’s health activists overturned the taboos on talking about women’s sexuality and reproductive health, and they revolted against the paternalistic relationship doctors and the medical system imposed on women, creating alternative clinics and resources to help women gain knowledge and control over their bodies and health. This body of knowledge was collected in a book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, that was eventually translated into dozens of languages, providing reproductive, contraceptive, sexual, and medical information to women across the globe.
The Jane Collective, an illegal abortion service run by the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU), operated out of two apartments and offered early-stage abortions on a sliding scale. CWLU members were trained by the Jane Collective to perform abortions safely. Members of the group performed an estimated 11,000 abortions, mostly to low-income women who could not afford to travel to the places where abortion was legal. No women died as a result of their services.
Lesbian feminism developed as its own tendency within the women’s liberation movement, with organizations, events, and publications. Some women who were active in the Gay Liberation Front, an organization that was formed in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots, became frustrated when women’s issues and women themselves were sidelined within the GLF. The women’s liberation movement proved to be more open to lesbians, and they played significant roles in many of the projects undertaken by the women’s liberation groups.
Although the women’s liberation movement was less legalistic and more radical than the mainstream feminist movement, it too was dominated by middle-class white women. Many in the women’s liberation movement argued that women were oppressed as a “sex class,” that the division between women and men was the primary contradiction in society, and that because of this women could only achieve their liberation when they were organized on the basis of their gender. This was linked by some to separatist ideas of organizing completely apart from men or even living separately from them. Inevitably this contributed to the media smear that women’s liberation groups were full of “man-haters.” But the real problem was that separatism pointed away from linking the struggle to end women’s oppression to the broader working-class struggle to end capitalism. This limited its appeal to working-class women even while its campaigns had a positive impact on popular opinion.
Socialist-feminists were influential, but they never coalesced into a unified force that was capable of impacting the national direction of the women’s movement. As early as 1969, women in CWLU the prominent Chicago socialist feminist organization, articulated the need to fight capitalism and racism alongside sexism and actively worked to develop a program that would widen its membership to more working-class women and women of color.
A genuine Marxist party would have interacted with both SDS and the women’s liberation movement and sought to win the best young women and men to a working-class perspective while relentlessly challenging chauvinist ideas in the movement as well as separatism. The role of a real workers party, as Lenin explained in his book What Is To Be Done, is to be the “tribune of the oppressed.” This means the party must work and struggle alongside all sections of society exploited by capitalism, prove that it is there for the long haul, and integrate the best fighters from every movement into its ranks. Unfortunately the left groups of the time in the U.S. were not up to this task. While some outright rejected the central role of the working class in changing society, many others were also infected by a sectarian approach combining super-radical rhetoric and an inability to connect with the day struggles of working people.