Machismo and Its Discontents

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

Ann Ferguson

THE ONE CLEAR memory I have of 1968 (as opposed to all those other antiwar and pro-civil rights struggles in which I was engaged in the 1960s and ‘70s) is that I was a member of a faculty ad-hoc group, mostly from UMass Amherst (but there was also someone who taught at Amherst college and his wife).

The group was a left group against the war and U.S. capitalism and racism. We pretentiously called ourselves The Collective, and we were all young and full of ourselves.

We had all been involved in the ongoing antiwar movement in the Valley, particularly in nonviolent civil disobedience demonstrations against Dow Chemical and CIA recruiting on campus, and against the use of Westover air force base in nearby Chicopee to fly soldiers to Vietnam. We had also been involved in organizing students from UMass to go to big antiwar demonstrations in Washington DC from 1965 forward.

We were studying Marx in a study group, we were writing letters against the war to the local papers, including the student paper at UMass, we were engaging in campus protests, and we were coordinating the content of our courses to radicalize students. I was one of three women in The Collective. All were either the wives or partners of the five faculty men in the group.

The shining moment of success for our group was the demonstration against Hubert Humphrey that we were a part of, along with UMass student antiwar groups. We planned that we would all be present at his speech on campus and would let him speak until the question and answer period, when one of our number, Howard Gadlin, would raise his hand to ask a question and would just announce that Senator Humphrey’s speech defending the Johnson administration’s position on the Vietnam war was a “crock of B.S.,” which was a signal to all the student protestors to raise up antiwar banners and bring out noisemakers, not letting Humphrey speak any further.

Our anti-business-as-usual attack on the Humphrey campaign as just supporting the war machine went off famously, and got a lot of publicity. We also had good effects that year, 1968, from several guerrilla theatre pieces we constructed to deal with other important visitors to the Pioneer Valley. For example, we portrayed John D. Rockefeller, who came to give a large grant to the newly formed Hampshire College, as someone trying to learn social movement lingo so as to ingratiate himself with student leaders and hide the cooptive nature of his project.

Male Domination

Unfortunately more of our actions than not were like the action against Humphrey: The men in our group tended toward a macho style of shouting people down at demonstrations and workshops. Instead of trying to win over people to our point of view. The men tended to dominate our group meetings and our group events, loving to hear themselves speak and not very sensitive to the effect their words might be having on their intended audience.

We three women did write letters to the editor that were as good as the men’s, but at one point it was suggested by some of them that we could be more effective working on a woman’s point of view radio show dealing with women’s issues from a progressive perspective. Though maybe it would have been a good strategy, at the time it seemed like relegating us to the less weighty issues.

Although some women who had been active in Left groups and actions were already moving toward separate women’s consciousness-raising groups in 1968, I was not in support of autonomous women’s movement organizing until the early 1970s. I had worked in solidarity with SDS, SNCC and the Black Panther Party in the ‘60s, and felt that all of them tended to patronize women.

Already in 1970 there had been divisions within the student movement as to whether it should be a single-issue strike to end the war or a multi-issue strike to challenge not only U.S. imperialist wars but also racism and sexism in our country’s policies at home and abroad. We resolved that tension by adopting an education compromise: workshops on the arguments why all the issues were linked (or not) and a vote after two weeks of workshops as to whether we incorporated all demands or not (we did).

The Movement Splits

At the 1972 student strike after the Nixon bombing of Cambodia, the tensions were not so easily resolved among the leadership of the strike, even though it voted to have a three-person chair that would include a white man, a person of color, and a woman. Some of us had formed a women’s caucus within the strike that was crucial to the success of one aspect of that strike.

There was a split within the strike between the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam group, whose leaders were white male students, and the Third World Alliance, students and faculty of color, about whether to include the fight against racism and racist imperialism as a part of the demands of the strike. The Women’s Caucus supported the Third World Alliance on these points and walked out of the Strike meeting with them when they accused many of the white male leaders of racism.

We then joined the Vietnam Vets against the War in a stealthy unannounced takeover of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program building on campus, with the intention of using the space to set up a Center for Social Change. We were successful in closing that building down for classes for the remainder of the semester, and appropriating mimeograph machines and classrooms to try to educate other students on our analyses of the connections between capitalism, racism, sexism and the war in Vietnam.

Of course as soon as the students left for the summer our group, which had been moved from the ROTC building to a promised more permanent space for our center, was closed down and moved out by police.

It may have been utopian thinking, but at the time it seemed like a wonderful transfiguration of values to have the women leadership working with the formerly very macho Vietnam vets, whose shattering experiences of racism and sexism in the war had motivated them to want to think personally about the costs to whites and men of these institutions.

By 1973 there was a group of radical and left feminists in Northampton and the surrounding towns in the Pioneer Valley in central Western Massachusetts who wanted to define ourselves as autonomous feminists yet wanted to create a new type of socialist-feminism that was not just radical feminism or Marxist-feminism, that held there were two different but interlocking systems, patriarchy and capitalism, that defined our oppression as women.

A New Socialist Feminism

We took our inspiration from the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (the CWLU), who had published their principles and strategy of autonomous organization for women in 1972. The initial organizing group split off from the Valley Women’s Center, which was more into self-help health and counseling for women, on the political ground that it wanted to be pro-active in organizing women to challenge the system with demands for non-reformist reforms based on the CWLU principles and analysis.

I helped organize a feminist conference at UMass in the fall of 1973 in which the original women’s collective discussed the CWLU and proposed to organize a Valley Women’s Union (VWU) based on them. This was organized as a group of about 60 women in the spring of 1974 with a structure of work groups around particular issues: Women and Work (to organize women into labor unions), Women against Nukes (to form a women’s group to connect to the New England mixed left Clamshell Alliance against nuclear power), the Mother Jones press (a women’s press), and the Political Action group (to develop position papers).

Each work group met once a week or so, elected a spokesperson to be on the steering committee which then organized the monthly meeting of members.

The Valley Women’s Union only lasted three years, like the other 10 or so other socialist-feminist chapters nationally based on the CWLU ideas. It died because of internal divisions around working with men, lesbian separatism, and allying with mixed left groups around anti-imperialism and anti-racism.

Nonetheless I think that the autonomous left women’s movement served an important function of consciousness-raising for many left women. It allowed those of us who had gone through that experience to export the ideas of non-hierarchical discussions and rotating leadership positions, and criticism/self-criticism, into some of our later mixed left groups.

I think also that the attempts at making coalitions around fighting sexism and heterosexism and racism that the autonomous left women’s movement made in the 1970s, while not successful in sustaining coalitions on these issues, set the stage for the understandings that developed into the creation of the concept of “women of color.” The coalitions made using this concept in the late 1970s and 1980s, among African-American, Latina, Native American, Caribbean and Asian-American women, enriched the women’s movement and academic feminism with new ideas of the intersectionality of systems of race, class, gender and sexuality.

These ideas have spawned a more class and race-inclusive politics, including a reproductive justice movement inclusive of the specific demands of women of color, poor women and lesbians.

ATC 134, May-June 2008