Radical Feminism’s Birth

Against the Current, No. 29, November/December 1990

Joan Cocks

Dsring to be Bad:
Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975
By Alice Echols
Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

ANY FEMINIST who, like myself, is used to leading and writing about theoretical questions should find Alice Echols’ Dsring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 a refreshing break from the intellectual routine. Certainly the reservations that the theoretically minded always have about historical analysis will surface here, and certainly, too, there will be that momentary doubt about what, in the face of a single historical work, it is possible critically to say.

The theorist is in her element when thinking for or against abstract argument—-about the logic of capital, or the meaning of the body, or the value of an industrial way of life. How to respond to the historian’s aunt of what happened in a particular time and place, and to the historian’s concentration on particular individuals?

Echols’ book is especially likely to provoke such questions through its narrow temporal and geographical scope—-this is a study that spans only nine years and a few metropolitan centers in the United States—-and through its focus, via interviews as well as written records, on a small coterie of radical feminists.

And yet Daring to be Bad offers theorists, no less than historians and activists, real delights. This is at least in part because the flesh-and-blood characters and struggles it portrays gave birth to tendencies of thought that remained on the feminist scene long after radical feminism, as Echols defines it, disappeared.

It is always telling to have the veil lifted on the formation in the past of what have become habits of critical thought in the present Echols is a deft veil-lifter, with a lucid political intelligence and a talent for hitting just the right tone to discussa movement as prickly and fractious as this one. She corqures up not only the deadly serious feminist divisions and debates but also the madcap rush of ideas, the bizarre experiments in living, the sheer exuberance of political radicalism in those extraordinary times.

Radical feminism comes into the reader’s view through a swirl of revolutionary groups sectarian parties, progressive coalitions, political communes, left-wing events and feminist actions. There were the left-wing groups: SDS, the Progressive Labor Party, the Weathermen. There were feminist groups: New York Radical Women, WITCH, Cell 16, Bread and Roses, the Socialist-Feminist movement, Chicago Women’s Liberation, Redstockings, the Furies, Radicalesbians, Lavender Menace.

There were actions: the Miss America Protest, the Counter-Inaugural demonstration, the National Women’s Liberation Conference, the Rape Speak Outs, the United Front against Fascism Conference, Days of Rage, the Prostitution Conference, the Abortion Law Repeal Actions, the Revolutionary People s Constitutional Convention.

And there were the manifestos and debates: on female sexual pleasure, smashing monogamy, the sexual division of labor, heterosexual desire, global sisterhood, matriarchy, the creation of a women’s counter-reality, lesbian vanguardism, female difference.

Of course, Echols is not simply recording a practical historical episode and its ideological reverberations. She has an argument that she uses her narrative to make. This argument, which Ellen Willis reiterates in her fine foreword, and which Echols lays out explicitly in her introduction, is that radical feminism was qualitatively different from the cultural feminism that eventually triumphed over it, which was conflated with it, and which illegitimately took on its name.

That conflation of identity, Echols claims, masks the facts of cultural feminism’s real conservatism and radical feminism’s real radicalism.

The Background

Echols begins her tale by situating radical feminism in the late 1960s against the backdrop of earlier strands of feminism and other forms of ’60s radicalism—-primarily Students for a Democratic Society and the student movement, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Black Nationalism.

This double situation came to have its counterpart in a sharp division between two factions of the women’s liberation movement: the “radical feminists,” who argued that sex-class is the primary social contradiction; and the “politicos,” whose main analysis was Marxist.

Echols shows how the civil rights movement and the new left helped spur both the women’s liberation movement and its internal splits—-positively, by producing the tenets of participatory democracy and resistance to oppression, and by politicizing women along radical lines; negatively, by refusing to take gender critique seriously, and by the sexual bravado and machismo of Black and white male radicals, with differently invidious effects on Black and white women.

Although in time many politico women gravitated toward radical feminism, and although in practice many women thought in both politico and radical-feminist terms, prototypical politicos identified with the left while prototypical radical feminists condemned it Politicos saw women’s liberation as a wing of the left that was important less for having its own fundamental significance than by being a means by which women could be organized into the broader struggle against corporate capitalism, militarism and imperialism.

Radical feminists refused to subordinate women’s liberation to class or anti-imperialist struggle, and they pinpointed male supremacy rather than capitalism as the main system of oppression. Ironically, although Black Power activists were aggressively hostile to feminism, while the student left merely ridiculed it and the old left paid it respectful lip service, it was Black Power theory, with its expose of white supremacy and ideal of a separate Black culture, that proved to be the seductive model for radical feminism that Marxist theory did not.

A Perspective of Struggle

What becomes clear to the reader is how different the radical feminism of 1967-69 was from what many of us call radical feminism today. Early radical feminists believed in struggle and conflict. They were unimpressed with nonviolent protest They disdained all–women’s antiwar demonstrations for equating femaleness with pacifism. They were hostile to motherhood and the ideal of female nurturing. They alternately wanted to set free female sexuality and to eradicate it to guarantee single-minded political commitment.

Yet Echols shows how radical feminism also strongly anticipated what she calls cultural feminism, so that it is hard to think of the two as distinct formations. Some elements of radical feminism today were there from the start: belief in male supremacy as the fundamental power relation; the view of all men as monolithic mass; the emphasis on psycho\cultural iransformation; a separatism which began organizationally when radical feminists broke with the left but quickly became social, sexual and personal.

Certain shifts almost immediately reoriented the ethos of the movement. The early emphasis on the importance of personal struggles between women and men gave way to a repudiation of personal relations with men and the celebration of woman-to-woman intimacy, setting the stage at the public level for a retreat from conflictual engagement with the larger society toward the creation of women’s countercultural enclaves.

The charge that all men are the enemy gave way to the view that all women are men’s powerless victims, and that gender difference is biologically rooted. There was a slippage from the defense of female chastity toward equating men with active sexual desire. There was a gradual distillation of traditional feminine propensities toward caring and attending to personal needs into a so-called female principle that was touted as a spiritual life force.

From Politics to Spirituality

The claim that sex is the primary contradiction and that feminism incorporates socialism led to dispensing with class analysis and dismissing anticapitalist struggle as irrelevant to women. The eventual attack on “classism” hardly improved matters, replacing as it did a critique of class structure with a critique of the psychological prejudices middle-class women felt toward working-class women.

Radical feminism’s early conviction about the revolutionary promise of consciousness-raising, Echols tells us, fed less savory presumptions that have remained a staple of much feminist thinking in our own day.

The conviction encouraged the idea that women’s experience is the sole ground of truth, and that theory must be “experimental.” It contained the intimation that all raised consciousness would have the same universal content, which effectively erased the significance of class, race and ethnic difference. It led rapidly away from polities toward therapy, as consciousness-raising groups became for women “non-judgmental, supportive spaces.”

All of these shifts helped prepare for a massive redirection of radical feminism, from politics to spirituality.

Perhaps the most secret step radical feminism took was its transformation of egalitarianism from a positive into a negative principle. Its original celebration of the potentialities of all women turned into hostility towards any talent or skill or agility that made one woman stand out from others.

The critique of social privilege deteriorated into the hatred of distinction; the glorification of the untapped strengths of individuals became the glorification of the virtue of weakness. Resentment, one failing Marxism never had, became by the early 1970s a mainstay of radical feminisms well as of other non-socialist progressive groups.

Fluidity of Radical Feminism

All these shifts began very early in radical feminism’s history—and a strangely amputated history it was, if we accept Echols’ view that radical feminism disintegrated in 1975. But where Echols asserts the separate identities of radical and cultural feminism, we can see instead the kind of ideological and practical fluidity in radical feminism that political formations, as opposed to institutions, so characteristically have.

This fluidity spells not a collapse but a transfiguration of radical feminism from 1967 to our own time. Certain questions pressed by the period as Echols presents it are still vital for feminists today.

These questions include the political significance of sex and the nature of female sexuality, intense personalization of political differences and the consequent guilt-tripping and witch-hunting of internal feminist politics; the reification of the feminine, which today goes by the name essentialism; and the connections and disjunctures among different axes of power, and the appropriate mode of response—therapeutic or political?—by feminists to racial and class domination.

Was the triumph of cultural feminism, or what I would call the shifts in direction of radical feminism, as dear a defeat for radicalism in feminism as Echols believes? Or was it, as contemporary feminists would argue, a step forward for radicalism, in that women’s counterinstitutions, values and relations break with the entrenched way of life?

I think the record is more mixed than the author makes out. Echols is right to find the content of the women’s counterculture highly problematic, but wrong to deny it a radical significance—-although that significance is very different from a socialist or a socialist-feminist sort.

Through its being lived as a whole way of life, radical feminism has maintained a vitality that the U.S. left has not.

On the outskirts of an otherwise overweening and absorptive culture, it offers palpable if marginal proof of new social possibilities. Its rules for “true” female eroticism, ecologically correct eating habits, proper spiritual sensibilities and permissible political sympathies may be nastily authoritarian, but its very keenness to dictate those rules sets it far apart from an established order that wields power through a banal tolerance for “private lifestyles.”

Finally, contemporary radical feminism engages the dominant culture over ecology, militarism and sexual violence, even though its ideology of woman, peace and nature against man, war and civilization is as fixed and frozen as any hegemonic sexual idea.

Challenging the Established Order

The most militant radical lesbians call to mind Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between thought that is thought and thought that is acted, and his admonition that thought that is acted can be ahead of thought that is thought.

Radical lesbians may see the world as the inherited dualities of masculine/feminine, with only the valuations reversed. Nevertheless, they challenge the established order in their very being by rejecting masculinist culture, shaking up preconceived notions of how to orchestrate sexuality and reproduction, and transgressing physically and psychologically the line between masculine and feminine. For this surely they deserve to be recognized as oppositional figures-—as rebels, if not as revolutionaries.

November-December 1990, ATC 29

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *