A Parable of Women’s Liberation

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Meredith Tax

Against the Current: Which events of 1968 were you involved in? How did that event/those events affect you personally and politically at the time?

Meredith Tax: Though I was inspired by the Civil Rights movement, I did not get involved in the left until I was a grad student in London, studying English lit. Because I was out of the country, I got an international perspective on everything happening in the United States and, on a visit home in 1967, the reality of the war and U.S. racism came crashing in on me. I decided the only way to stay sane was to become politically active, and I joined a group of American antiwar activists called the Stop It Committee.

I got my political education listening to the arguments between liberals and radicals in that group. The liberals saw the Vietnam war as a terrible error, a departure from U.S. democratic traditions. In their view, the Vietnamese were fighting the same kind of struggle Americans had against the British in 1776. Their strategy was to seize the moral high ground, refuse to participate in the war, and do everything possible to make the U.S. government see the error of its ways.

The radicals argued that the Vietnam war was not an aberration but part of a consistent U.S. policy of trying to run the world for its own economic benefit; Washington’s talk about bringing democracy to Asia was just a fig leaf. The strategy that followed from this analysis was an anti-imperialist one of solidarity with the Vietnamese NLF (National Liberation Front).

I did not want to believe my country was imperialist. I came from a patriotic family and, as a Jew, I knew my family would not have survived if we had stayed in Europe. But it was impossible for me to believe the Vietnam war was just a mistake. Growing up in Milwaukee during the McCarthy period had taught me that what the government called “democracy” was not about national liberation, self-determination, human rights, or majority rule; it was about the U.S. winning. So I joined the radicals.

I returned to the United States in the fall of 1968, to a one-year teaching job at Brandeis and full involvement in the Cambridge-Somerville movement. As a result of speaking in support of the Black student rebellion at Brandeis in January, 1969, I found it impossible to get another teaching job, and decided to try to write and do fulltime work in the women’s liberation movement.

ATC: How did you see yourself as a woman who was a political activist before, during and afterwards? How did you relate (or not) to the rise of the women’s liberation movement? How did you view your particular struggle in relationship to other struggles that were taking place internationally?

MT: I was a feminist long before I knew the word, fighting against prevailing definitions of what a girl could do, seeing my mother’s restricted possibilities and my father’s sexism. I fell in love with the women’s liberation movement the first time I encountered it; attended the first Boston women’s conference in the spring of 1969; and, that summer, was one of the initiators of Bread and Roses, named after the song of the 1912 Lawrence strike.

Bread and Roses viewed itself as an “autonomous” rather than “separatist” women’s group, by which we meant we would continue to work against the war and racism, but were so repelled by the macho power plays of the boys that we had to develop our own activities, thinking and organization.

I found my voice in the women’s movement. In 1969, I wrote a long essay, Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Daily Life, which was published as a pamphlet by the New England Free Press.

The first two sections were also published in Notes from the Second Year (1970), edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt, and from there picked up by Liberation News Service and reprinted in underground papers all over the country. But the editors of Notes wouldn’t publish the other two sections; as Shulie informed me, they felt they were too socialist. (The women’s liberation movement in New York was split between “feminists” and “politicos.”)

Then Roberta Salper, a New York ”politico,” asked if she could use the second two sections in an anthology. When I asked her to take the whole pamphlet she said no, the first two sections were too radical feminist.

It was so strange to me that women in Boston had no trouble seeing my work as all of a piece, but women in New York would only take one half or the other. I felt like the baby in Solomon’s parable, who almost got cut in half in a custody fight, and developed a hatred of all kinds of sectarianism.

After the pamphlet, I began working on a book on women’s history in the American left and labor movement, trying to understand how earlier generations had dealt with questions of power, alliances, racism, and reconciling activism and family demands (The Rising of the Women, Monthly Review Press, 1980; University of Illinois Press, 2001).

I was increasingly worried about the women’s liberation movement, for though we seemed able to attract hundreds of members without even trying, we had no real strategy and I didn’t know how we were going to get one.

What was our program? What kind of organizational form did we need? What did any of this have to do with state power and the kind of revolution the guys talked about? And did our inability to answer these questions have something to do with how middle class we all were? Would the women’s movement be clearer if it had more workers in it, and if Blacks and whites were not in different organizations?

ATC: Were you involved in a movement or socialist organization at the time, or chose to join one subsequently? Do you have reflections on that experience?

MT: After a few years, Bread and Roses began to disintegrate; some people went to grad school or got jobs; some, searching for answers to the questions above, started studying Marxism-Leninism and went farther to the left. In 1971, I started reading about China and meeting people who had been there and knew about the Cultural Revolution. It sounds ridiculous now — but at that time little was known about China and, to Americans shaped by the student movement, the Cultural Revolution looked like a vast, anarchic student uprising, a larger version of the Columbia strike, in which the young mobilized against top party officials to protect the gains of the revolution.

In 1972, influenced by the Chinese example, my husband and I moved to Chicago to do factory work and start to build a new communist party; soon after, we joined the October League, one of several pre-party organizations started by people who had been head honchos in SDS.

Since I hated sectarianism, had a questioning nature and problems with authority, and tended to speak up whenever I saw sexism, I was not well-suited to life in a disciplined, top-down organization. Within a few years, I was expelled for a long list of ideological crimes. My husband left me at that point, and I was politically isolated, a single mother with a one-year old baby. I have many thoughts on that experience but they are too complicated to go into here.

In 1977, I moved to New York and became involved with the reproductive rights movement. I also began to write again. In the Eighties, I began to do international work around issues of gender-based censorship, which I have done for the last 20 years.

ATC: What are the lessons you’d like to pass along to today’s activists?

MT: 1) Any work, any analysis, any program, has got to be based in an analysis of the main things going on in the world: right now that means globalization, war, the environmental crisis, and the rise of right-wing extremist movements.

2) In the United States, race is as fundamental as class and all mixed up with it; both must be central to any analysis or program for women’s rights.

3) You have to begin the way you want to go on. If you want a democratic organization, you have to start with one. If you want to work across race or class lines, you can’t start out all white and middle class.

4) The broad women’s movement is essentially a coalition; only when leftwing, class conscious, antiracist feminist organizations work within this coalition to act as counterweights to mainstream feminism will the results serve the needs of the masses of women, rather than just the middle class.

5) Successful organizing work has three components: ideas (program, education, agitation); serving the people (programs that address daily life issues); and organization. My generation of feminists tended to throw out the idea of organization because of past bad practice. Instead, we need to figure out how to build organizations that can do the job without becoming crazy, bureaucratic, Stalinist or cultish.

6) The task before us is to integrate the best ideas and practices of past generations of the left with what we have learned from the feminist and queer movements: in other words, to build a feminist left.

ATC 134, May-June 2008