Strike!

C6UQvm-XEAApa4yFeminist activists in more than 30 countries around the world have designated tomorrow (March 8, International Women’s Day) a day of strike action; in the US, the organisers of January’s Women’s Marches have dubbed it the Day Without A Woman. Women are being urged to withdraw their labour, both paid and unpaid, and to organise/participate in local protests. Like January’s anti-inauguration demonstration (as discussed in a previous post), this event has a second-wave precedent: the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality.

Though the 1970 strike took place in August, on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave US women the vote, the proposal to hold it was made in March, at a conference of the National Organization for Women. Protests were organised in cities around the country: a thousand women marched in Washington DC, while in New York there were 20,000. In some places women carried out guerrilla-style actions like ogling men (‘you’ve got strong hairy legs, why don’t you wear shorts?’), ‘liberating’ (aka invading) male-only bars and clubs, and occupying the men’s room in a building where male workers were provided with twice as many bathrooms as women.

Discrimination in employment was one theme of the day (flight attendants, who in those days lost their jobs when they had children, carried banners reading ‘Storks fly, why can’t mothers?’),  but attention was also given to women’s unpaid domestic labour. One of the event’s slogans was ‘don’t iron while the strike is hot’, and some women in California marched with pots and pans strapped to their backs.

Supporters of NOW conceived of the event as part of the ongoing campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) making sex discrimination unconstitutional. This issue, however, divided feminists. Many feminists who were active in the Labour movement or aligned with revolutionary leftist groups did not support the ERA: they saw it as a measure designed primarily to serve the interests of middle-class professional women, and warned that it would worsen conditions for the less privileged, by invalidating the protections (e.g. limits on women’s working hours) which women workers and their unions had fought for. This led some feminists to oppose the strike:strike the Berkeley women’s newspaper It Aint Me Babe headlined a piece on the subject ‘The sharks are coming…with Betty Friedan [NOW’s founder] as pilot fish’. (We’ve seen similar objections to the 2017 ‘day without a woman’,  pointing out that a lot of women can’t afford to strike.)

Though it didn’t ultimately achieve its aim (the ERA was never passed), the 1970 strike did make an impression. President Nixon issued a proclamation celebrating the anniversary of women’s suffrage, and mayors in some cities designated the date ‘Women’s Rights Day’. Perhaps more gratifying than these symbolic gestures was the fury of some men. A senator denounced the protestors as ‘braless bubbleheads’, and one newspaper columnist called on men to wear black armbands, to signify that they were in mourning for ‘the death of femininity’.

You might think these reactions were a bit over the top: by the standards of the politically turbulent times, most of the protests were relatively small (even the New York City march wasn’t huge compared to previous anti-war and civil rights demonstrations). But collectively they added up to the largest, most visible feminist action in the US since the beginning of the second wave. Some commentators hailed this as the moment when the new women’s movement really became visible to the American public-at-large.

In 1970, women in the US marked the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, not by celebrating, but by protesting–making clear that they weren’t going to put up with being second-class citizens for another 50 years. And in 2017, as conservatives around the world try to curtail our rights and freedoms, I don’t think the mood on International Women’s Day will be one of celebration either. The message will be one of defiance: no going back.

 

 

The ‘other’ second wave

When I put together the syllabus for the Second Wave course I decided to focus mainly on the autonomous, radical social movement that emerged from the US New Left around 1968. This is what’s mostly associated with the second wave in public memory, and today’s feminism is indebted to it in many ways.

But there was another side to the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s: campaigning for equal rights using traditional methods like lobbying politicians and taking cases through the law courts. This kind of activism is sometimes labelled ‘liberal’or ‘reformist’ (i.e., not ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’), and those labels were sometimes used in disparaging ways by radical activists, who distrusted the institutions of the state, and thought the point of feminist politics was to transform society, not just tinker with its existing structures. One radical slogan of the time was ‘women who want to be equal lack ambition’.

In reality, though, some feminists were involved in both kinds of activism. An example is the African American lawyer and activist Florynce Kennedy, who was a member of NOW, the (‘reformist’) National Organisation for Women, until 1970 (her goal was actually to radicalise it, especially on questions of race and racism), and was also centrally involved in planning the landmark (‘radical’) 1968 protest against the Miss America pageant. flokennedyAs a lawyer she represented radical clients such as the Black Panthers and Valerie Solanas (the author of the SCUM Manifesto, who shot and wounded the artist Andy Warhol), while also participating in ‘reformist’ projects like fighting the ban on abortion in the courts. Though radical by conviction, Kennedy would work within the existing structures where she believed that would advance important political goals.

Sherie Randolph’s recent biography of Kennedy is still on my list of books to read, but one new book I did manage to read during the course was  Gillian Thomas’s Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases and Fifty Years that Changed American Women’s Lives at Work–an informative and readable history of the way women and their lawyers used the courts to fight sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

because-of-sexThe ‘one law’ of the title is the 1964 Civil Rights Act—more specifically, Title VII of the Act, relating to equal opportunities in employment. This law was not originally intended to cover sex discrimination. As drafted, Title VII prohibited discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, religion and national origin. But then Howard Smith, an 80-year old Congressman from Virginia, proposed an amendment adding sex to the list. Smith was a racist and a die-hard supporter of segregation, who probably hoped to prevent the Act from passing (there’s still some debate on what his exact motivations were). In the event, though, his amendment itself was passed by 168 votes to 133. Later that year, when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, it contained a provision banning employment discrimination ‘because of sex’. Because of Sex tells the story of ten landmark cases which began with a woman taking action against an employer, and ended up in the US Supreme Court.

In my last post I cited a recent piece which claimed that second-wave feminism was all about ‘careers for mostly white women’. If there’s one thing this book makes clear, it’s that white middle class professionals weren’t the only women who cared about, or benefited from, the struggle for equal rights at work. Most of the cases Thomas includes were fought by working class women, Black and white: factory workers, van and forklift truck drivers, a bank clerk and a woman who wanted to be a prison guard. They weren’t trying to break through the glass ceiling, but taking action on such basic problems as sexual harassment, unequal pension rights, the sacking or demotion of pregnant women, and recruitment practices which kept the best-paid jobs for men.

The first case in the book, Ida Phillips vs. the Martin Marietta Corporation, involved a 32-year old white waitress who in 1966 was refused the opportunity even to apply for a better-paid position at a local factory because she had a pre-school child. A man with a pre-school child would have been eligible, so this appeared to be sex discrimination. The agency charged with enforcing Title VII investigated and decided in Phillips’s favour, but it could not get the company to settle the dispute by hiring her, so it advised her to file a lawsuit.

Phillips went to a young Black lawyer, Reese Marshall, reasoning that ‘[African Americans] knew more about civil rights’. They lost the case: the judge held that Phillips hadn’t been discriminated against simply ‘because of sex’, but because she was also a mother. Marshall and Phillips also lost on appeal, but one dissenting judge pointed out that if this ‘sex plus’ argument were allowed to stand, the entire Civil Rights Act could fall. The judgment against Phillips created a general loophole: all an employer had to do if he wanted to deny someone a job was add some other characteristic to the legally protected one.

This argument drew the attention of Black civil rights organisations, partly because the loophole would permit racial as well as sexual discrimination, but also because the specific point at issue—whether mothers could be barred from employment—particularly affected Black women, who were more likely than their white counterparts to remain in the workforce while their children were young. Though Ida Phillips herself was white, it was a Black organisation, the NAACP, that applied for her case to be heard by the Supreme Court. (She finally won it in 1971.)

Some of the other cases covered in the book are mind-boggling reminders of what was taken for granted in the fairly recent past. One of them made history by overturning previous judgments on sexual harassment, which had held that employers could not be expected to regulate sexual behaviour in the workplace. Why? Because, apparently,

The attraction of males to females and females to males is a natural sex phenomenon and it is probable that this attraction plays at least a subtle part in most personnel decisions.

There’s also the story of one white professional woman, Ann Hopkins, who was denied a partnership at the accounting firm Price-Waterhouse in 1982. Although she had brought in more business than any of the other 87 candidates, her colleagues considered her ‘aggressive’ and ‘unfeminine’. The Supreme Court considered expert evidence on sex-stereotyping, and concluded, in the words of one Justice, that

An employer who objects to women being aggressive but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible catch-22.

Those words were written in 1989, and nearly 30 years later many employers are still taking no notice—an illustration, perhaps, of the radicals’ point that reforming the law is not the same as changing the world. Nevertheless, I ended up thinking that the reformists deserve more credit than they often get in chronicles of the second wave: a lot of women have a lot to thank them for. And if the new administration in the US does what it’s threatening to do to women’s rights, the current generation of feminists may also have something to learn from them. When your rights are under attack, equality no longer looks like such an unambitious goal.

‘The personal is political’

This week I read a piece about the way the ‘alt-right’ has co-opted a certain idea of feminism to serve its own ideological purposes, celebrating women like Ivanka Trump and Marine Le Pen as ‘feminist’ success stories and role-models. I’m glad the writer has drawn attention to this trend, and I think she makes some good points about it. However, there’s one argument she makes which I have a problem with:

Perhaps one of the reasons why this co-optation might be easily available is that mainstream white feminism failed to articulate how to move beyond individual white women and their issues, encapsulated in the 70s slogan of “the personal is political” […] By embracing the personal in the form of the individual and never setting any ideological goals beyond “career for mostly white women”, this feminism could be easily co-opted by any woman who just attaches the label to herself or by any media outlet that pins it on a woman (whether she claims it for herself or not).

I don’t disagree that some feminists, past and present, have focused on advancing the careers of a privileged minority—what you might call the ‘lean in and break the glass ceiling’ version of feminism. What I do disagree with is the suggestion that 1970s feminists ‘never set any ideological goals beyond career for mostly white women’ and the claim that this very limited vision is ‘encapsulated in the 70s slogan “the personal is political”’.

The writer apparently takes ‘the personal is political’ to mean something like, ‘if you’re a woman, your personal advancement is a political/feminist issue by definition—regardless of how privileged you are and how many less privileged people you step on along the way’. This seems to have become a fairly common interpretation, but it is absolutely not what the feminists who originally used the slogan meant by it. Since it’s one of the best-known of all feminist slogans, in this post I want to take a closer look at what it did mean to its original users.

One important meaning of ‘the personal is political’ had to do with the definition of ‘political’. It might be hard to credit now, but in the late 1960s all kinds of issues today’s feminists would see as self-evidently political–including housework, childcare, domestic violence and rape–were routinely dismissed as ‘personal problems’, because they happened in the home or within intimate relationships.

There’s a good illustration of this dismissive attitude in Marge Piercy’s Vida, a novel about the leftist counterculture of the late 1960s and early 70s. The central character Vida is a radical activist who has gone underground because she is wanted by the FBI. At one point she risks a clandestine visit to her sister Natalie, who is hosting a meeting of her women’s group. While Vida waits for the meeting to finish, she picks up a pamphlet the group has produced, and is taken aback by its subject-matter:

It really was about rape. She felt embarrassed. What a weird subject! Next they’d be doing pamphlets on mugging or toothache. ‘What is this stuff?’ she demanded of Natalie as the last visitor straggled out.

‘We find in groups that half of us have been raped. You see, when women start to talk to each other, the old assumptions crumble’.

‘Half the women in groups. You get the ones who are mad already’.

‘Don’t you think rape is common?’

‘Come on Natty, what do you mean, common? Is murder common? It sure is in Vietnam’.

‘The personal is political’ was a challenge to the view that issues like rape were trivial, and no more political than toothache. By sharing their experiences in consciousness raising (CR) groups, feminists had come to the realisation that these so-called ‘personal’ experiences were not just random things that happened to unlucky individuals, they were part of a pattern which both reflected and reinforced a larger power-structure. In other words, they too were political. (As Natalie puts it later on in her conversation with Vida, ‘what’s more political than coercion?’)

The second point feminists were making when they proclaimed that ‘the personal is political’ was pretty much the opposite of the one attributed to them in the piece about the ‘alt-right’. Far from cheerleading for what we might now call the ’empowerment’ of individual women, these 1970s feminists were firmly rejecting the idea that there could be  individual solutions to problems which were rooted in the oppression of women as a class.

The classic statement of this position is an article entitled ‘The personal is political’, written in 1969 by Carol Hanisch, who was a member of New York Radical Women. (The text is reproduced on this website along with a retrospective commentary Hanisch wrote in 2006.)  The article defends the practice of consciousness raising against a criticism often made by leftist women like the fictional Vida, that it’s more akin to therapy than ‘real’ politics. Therapy, Hanisch says, is about helping individuals adjust to bad situations by changing their own behaviour, whereas CR is about helping women understand their situation so they can take political action to change it.

One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

CR also leads women to question their tendency to blame their problems on themselves (‘my husband’s having an affair because I’ve let myself go’, or ‘my boss wouldn’t have groped me if I hadn’t worn that short skirt’). If most women in a group have had the same experience (like being cheated on, or sexually harassed), it becomes more difficult to see it simply as evidence of your own personal inadequacy. Rather than look for an individual explanation you can start to construct an alternative, political analysis. This is a long way from the ‘lean in and break the glass ceiling’ approach, which treats sexism as an obstacle individual women must overcome through their own efforts rather than a form of oppression women should collectively revolt against.

In her 2006 commentary, Carol Hanisch observes that a lot of ideas that originated in the Women’s Liberation Movement have since been, as she puts it, ‘revised or ripped off or even stood on their head and used against their original, radical intent’. The interpretation of ‘the personal is political’ as an expression of what’s now labelled ‘white feminism’ (totally individualistic and narrowly focused on the aspirations of a small, ultra-privileged minority) is an example of what she’s talking about. I’m not suggesting it’s illegitimate to criticise what feminists said and thought in the past. But if you’re going to criticise them, I do think you should go back to what they wrote and make a good-faith effort to understand what they actually meant. As the writer of the ‘alt-right’ piece says herself, there are plenty of people out there with a vested interest in misrepresenting feminism. We don’t have to follow their example.

Watching Ways of Seeing

When I heard that the writer and art critic John Berger had died, I thought about how enlightening I’d found his book Ways of Seeing when I first came across it in the late 1970s. The book had developed out of a TV series he made for the BBC in 1972, and the second of its four half-hour episodes was devoted to ‘Women in art’. Watching this now is an interesting experience for anyone interested in the second wave. (If you’d like to watch it yourself, you can find it here.)

In the first half of the programme, Berger offers an analysis of the nude in European painting. It’s a feminist analysis: its central point is that the female nude is an object representation-16-728rather than a person, depicted as passive and available for the enjoyment of the male spectator. Another memorable point is about the common convention of showing a nude woman gazing at herself in the mirror. Men paint women’s bodies for their own and other men’s pleasure, then add a mirror to communicate that the women are vain and narcissistic. Hypocrites, says Berger.

But then, after about fifteen minutes, he stops analysing paintings and observes that it’s a bit odd to make a programme which is full of representations of women displaying themselves to men, but does not feature the thoughts or words of any actual women. So, he announces, he has shown his 15 minute analysis to a group of five women, and asked them to respond to what he’s been saying.

The rest of the programme shows the five women and Berger in conversation. He’s pretty restrained, so it’s largely the women’s contributions we hear. They’re interesting both for what the women have to say–they talk about their own reactions to the paintings and their own experiences of ‘looking at themselves being looked at’–and as an example of what a serious feminist TV discussion looked and sounded like in 1972.

The whole thing does feel very retro–it has a lot of long didactic speeches to camera, and they’re delivered in a rather stilted, formal manner. (Connoisseurs of 1970s style will also appreciate the graphic design and background music.) But as I watched the second half, I kept thinking: when do we ever see a serious discussion among five women on TV now? All-female discussion programmes do exist (the obvious example is Loose Women), but they’re generally designed as undemanding daytime entertainment featuring media personalities or ‘celebs’. Today it would be unthinkable for any TV programme maker to let five unnamed women just talk, and listen politely to one another, for 15 uninterrupted minutes. A contemporary producer would want familiar media faces, and would probably choose the participants with an eye to making the discussion a ‘debate’.

The format used in 1972 seems incredibly old-fashioned because it doesn’t observe these conventions. No one involved seems remotely concerned about making it ‘accessible’ or ‘entertaining’. Yet there’s something refreshing about watching a TV discussion among people who are just exploring ideas rather than trying to score points in an argument, and who aren’t slick media performers. Their conversation is feminist in spirit as well as content–and since most feminist conversations (as opposed to written texts) have not been preserved for posterity, that makes it especially interesting as a piece of second-wave history.

The analysis still resonates, too.

1197141Cranach the Elder, The Judgment of Paris, 1530; Victoria’s Secret, 2012

 

Re-reading Spare Rib

Spare Rib was a collectively run, feminist monthly magazine published in Britain between 1972 and 1993. Its archive has recently been made available in digitised form by the British Library, so anyone who’s interested can take a look (or indeed read the whole lot, spare-rib-1minus some stuff that isn’t yet available because the project hasn’t been able to locate contributors to get their permission). The Library has also produced a set of accompanying resources (contextualising essays about the magazine, and sets of themed images and articles from it) which I’m sure teachers of women’s/feminist history will find useful.

I’m proud to say that I’m one of the people who gave permission for a contribution to be digitised: I wrote a piece for SR in 1980, while I was still a student, and it was the first piece of writing I ever got paid for. I was also a regular reader in those days (though I hadn’t read it from the beginning, since in 1972 when it launched I was only 13). Later I would join the editorial collective of another feminist magazine, Trouble & Strife, which was founded in 1983 and initially got some technical and practical assistance from SR.  There were lots of feminist magazines around in the 1970s and 80s (Trouble & Strife also has an online archive containing pdfs of its print issues between 1983 and 2002, after which it went online), but in Britain SR was the best-known, the most professional and the most widely read.

Today’s equivalents of these magazines are websites like The F-Word and Everyday Feminism, but if you’re used to looking at those you’ll find SR is a different sort of thing. Partly that’s to do with the visual style: print design is a different art from web design, and you can see that even though the digital format doesn’t fully reproduce the print layout. But it’s also because SR had a different sense of what it was trying to do: it aimed to address a broad cross-section of women, offering an alternative to the standard women’s magazine. Early issues, in particular, contain some elements which are highly reminiscent of a women’s magazine, along with others which remind you more of a leftist/feminist newsletter. A piece with instructions for making your own curtains might sit alongside an article explaining the political situation in Chile, and news about women striking at a factory in Wales might be juxtaposed with a woman’s personal reflections on why she cut her hair short and how it felt.

Since I’m writing in December, I thought I’d illustrate this post with a closer look at issue 89, which came out in December 1979. It opens as usual with a couple of pages of readers’ letters, including this one:

Our school library receives Spare Rib and I read every issue. I have come to the conclusion that I am abnormal. Am I really the only true woman in Britain that enjoys being treated as one? Is it so wrong of me to enjoy wearing pretty, feminine dresses? I enjoy it when a man stands up for me on the bus, or opens a door for me. I feel happy and pleased rather than antagonistic.

Yes of course I believe in equal job opportunities and equal pay, but some jobs are definitely done better by men. You never give the other side to any story.

I definitely want a career, and I would hold back marriage for that purpose, but eventually I look forward to having a home, husband and children to look after.

Yours, [Name] (age 17)

Next there’s an interview with Winona La Duke, a co-founder of Women of All Red Nations (an organisation of American indigenous women), who was in Europe to publicise a campaign against uranium mining on Indian reservations in the US. This is followed by a poem, then a piece by a woman who suffers from severe acne, a section containing short news stories, a short piece of fiction, a longer news article about a demonstration against the Corrie Bill (a proposed law limiting women’s access to abortion), a review of two new collections of women’s songs, and the regular ‘Tooth and Nail’ feature, a round-up of sexist images and advertisements sent in by readers.page-1 Another regular section containing notices of upcoming conferences and protests is followed by a feature on women and alcoholism, then a review of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, which had just come to the West End. There’s a long classified ads section, another short story, more reviews (books, TV, theatre), then an article entitled ‘What the education cuts mean to you’ (1979 was the year when Margaret Thatcher came to power).

The final piece in this issue is ‘It’s Trousers Time’, an article about the (then near-universal) ban on girls wearing trousers to school, and how it was being contested. The writer talked to girls at a school which permitted the wearing of trousers in exceptionally cold weather—so long as they were worn with a skirt over the top! This ‘trousers plus skirt’ arrangement was also the way schools often accommodated Muslim girls whose religious norms required their legs to be covered. But the article describes a number of pupil-led protests—starting with petitions, moving on to civil disobedience (mass trouser-wearing on a pre-arranged day—would teachers send 150 girls home?) and sometimes escalating to walk-outs and strikes (in one case the police were called to disperse pupils who were picketing).

This piece about trousers was just about the only one in the whole issue that made me think ‘yes, the past really is another country’ (not only because the last-ditch defence of school skirts seems so absurd now, but also because of the organised militancy of the school students—very 1970s). The rest of the content seemed depressingly current: this year, 2016, also brought us news stories about indigenous people protesting against the exploitation of their land, women mobilising against threats to their reproductive rights, and feminist campaigns against cuts to public services. And the letter from a young woman who appreciates it when men open doors for her could have been written at any time during the last 50 years. (I expect there will still be women expressing the same sentiments long after I’m dead.)

One more thing about the December 1979 issue: it contains no references to Christmas apart from a couple of ads suggesting you might want to give someone a subscription to the magazine, or a badge with a feminist slogan on it. That certainly sets SR apart from more conventional women’s magazines, whose December issues are invariably full of party-themed fashion and make-up spreads, shopping guides and Christmas cookery features. Feminists have long understood the festive season as a time when women’s work—cleaning, cooking, shopping, body maintenance and emotional labour—is never done. Nevertheless, if you’re celebrating, I hope you have a good one.

 

 

Housework: the issue time forgot?

Second wave feminist writing is full of complaints about domestic drudgery. Housework, in all its mind-numbing, unproductive tedium, was at the heart of what Betty Friedan dubbed the ‘problem with no name’. Men’s refusal to do their share (and their endlessly inventive excuses for shirking) were mercilessly skewered in Pat Mainardi’s ‘The politics of housework’. The subject also attracted attention from academic theorists. In 1974 Ann Oakley wrote a groundbreaking book on the sociology of housework; Marxist feminists debated the economic value of women’s unpaid domestic labour, and arguments raged about the proposal, made in 1972 by Mariarosa Dallacosta and Selma James, that women should demand wages for housework.

Today’s feminists seem less exercised by this issue (the web is awash with tips for male allies, but they rarely touch on such mundane topics as noticing when the bin needs houseworkemptying or cleaning the toilet without being asked), but I’m not sure why: it can’t be because the problem has been solved. According to a recent report from the OECD, women around the world continue to spend significantly more time than men on tasks like cooking, cleaning and laundry. The gap is larger in some places than others (in India, where it’s particularly large, men spend an average of 36 minutes a day on domestic tasks, whereas for women the figure is around six hours), and there are also class differences within countries (the poorer the household, the more time women spend on housework). But there is no region and no type of household where domestic labour is equally shared, or where men do more than women—a finding the researchers put down to a combination of ‘discriminatory social institutions’ and ‘stereotypes on gender roles’.

The most radical second wave thinkers were not just critical of the gendered distribution of housework, they were critical of housework itself. Although their politics were different in many ways, both Shulamith Firestone and Angela Davis thought housework was soul-crushingly oppressive, not only because it was unpaid (it wasn’t always: as Davis pointed out, doing white families’ housework was a source of income for many Black women), but also because it had no tangible product that the worker could take pride or pleasure in. The meal a woman cooked would be eaten, the floor she cleaned would get dirty, and a few hours later she’d have to do the same thing all over again.

The solution they favoured was to industrialize and mechanize. Angela Davis suggested that

Teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling [with] technologically advanced cleaning machinery, could swiftly and efficiently accomplish what the present-day housewife does so arduously and primitively.

Reading this now is a bit like reading those 1950s predictions that by 2000 we’d all work two days a week and get our nourishment from pills rather than food. Why have our domestic arrangements changed so little—give or take a few labour-saving devices, hardly at all?

In The Dialectic of Sex Shulamith Firestone pondered the failure of various experiments with alternative ways of living, such as the communes of the early Soviet Union and the Israeli kibbutz. She acknowledged that these attempts to collectivize domestic labour were often unpopular with women. On one kibbutz she visited, the women were campaigning to be allowed their own family kitchens in addition to the communal kitchen where most of them (regardless of their skills or preferences) were obliged to work.

A criticism that was often made of the Soviet communes was that they contributed to the rise of totalitarianism by depriving people of ‘the last refuge for intimacy, comfort, privacy, individualism, etc.’ But in Firestone’s view the problem with the communist approach was not its lack of respect for the family as an institution, but its narrowly economic analysis: it ‘drafted women into a male world’ without changing–or even understanding–what was oppressive about the way that world operated.

Because no provision [was] made to re-establish the female element in the outside world, to incorporate the ‘personal’ into the ‘public’, because the female principle [was] minimized or obliterated rather than diffused to humanize the larger society, the result [was] a horror.

Since Firestone wrote, advanced capitalist societies have also drafted more and more women into the workforce without changing the traditional terms of participation. For instance, as Teresa Green noted in her recent post, a ‘standard’ working day continues to be defined on the assumption that someone other than the worker will cook, clean and take care of the children. Women are thus required not only to do their paid jobs, but also to work an unpaid ‘second shift’ at home.

One consequence has been the growth of a global trade in domestic labour: professional women in the rich world sustain careers on the male model by delegating ‘their’ domestic responsibilities to lower-paid cleaners, nannies and carers. The majority of these workers are also female, and in many cases they are migrants from poorer countries (often with children of their own, who have been left in the care of relatives).

Another consequence has been a level of dissatisfaction among women that has led, in some quarters, to a new version of the cult of domesticity which Betty Friedan denounced in 1963. Since the mid-noughties there has been a trend, documented in Emily Matchar’s 2013 book Homeward Bound, for educated middle-class women to turn their backs on the rat-race and seek fulfilment by immersing themselves in home and family life. The women Matchar interviewed really had made domesticity a full-time occupation: they weren’t just doing routine housework, but also home-schooling their kids, growing and preserving their own food, making most of the family’s clothing and relearning old domestic crafts like soap-making and rug-hooking. While only a minority can afford to make this choice, the idea of it clearly appeals to a lot of women–witness the proliferation of blogs, books, TV shows and products (from cupcakes to Cath Kidston) which celebrate it.

This trend underlines Shulamith Firestone’s point that women are not liberated by being drafted into what remains a male-centred and male-dominated world. Joining the paid workforce hasn’t even liberated most women from economic dependence on men, and it certainly hasn’t liberated them from the expectation that they will do a ‘second shift’ at home.

Of course, the new domesticity doesn’t liberate women either. However, as Delilah Campbell commented in a review of Homeward Bound:

The ‘separate spheres’ arrangement, unequal though it is, has some appeal for women living in patriarchal societies. At least it gives them one undisputed sphere of influence, a domain where they can rule without anyone questioning their right to be in charge.

If you can’t avoid being a domestic drudge, it’s rational to prefer an arrangement that gives you maximum control over your own drudgery.

That’s also what the sociologist Ann Oakley found in 1974: while 70% of the women she studied expressed negative attitudes to housework, 50% also said that at least it allowed you to ‘be your own boss’. Maybe that’s why the women of the kibbutz wanted their own kitchens: they weren’t hankering after bourgeois lifestyles, just yearning for some personal autonomy.

It’s not hard to understand why women are reluctant to cede the only sphere where they have an unquestioned ‘right to be in charge’; but as Ann Oakley comments, the result is a vicious circle. By clinging to their authority in the domestic realm women implicitly accept that housework is their responsibility, and that allows men to go on treating it as something they might ‘help with’ if they feel like it. Pat Mainardi urged feminists to resist that idea, and to recognise that ‘participatory democracy begins at home’. Probably with a conversation about who cleans the toilet.

 

Re-reading feminist utopian fiction

Most of the texts we’ve been reading for the Second Wave course are either academic books and articles, or else they’re political manifestos, polemics and position papers. But the reading list also contains quite a long section devoted to fiction, and it’s not there just for light relief.  Feminist fiction in the 1970s and 80s had important political functions. Writers used it as a vehicle for exploring ideas, creating alternative worlds, documenting women’s life-experiences and reclaiming their forgotten histories. Looking back, I’d say my own feminist education owed as much to the (many) novels I read as to the weightier theoretical tomes.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of feminists if the same had been true for them, and if it had, which novels had made the biggest impression. Everyone’s list was different, but one thing immediately stood out: almost all the lists included at least one story set in an imaginary future or a parallel world.

A couple of women mentioned a ‘first wave’ example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s all-female utopia Herland, which was originally published in serial form in 1915, and reissued in 1979. Other favourites had been written during the second wave: they included Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Suzy McKee Charnas’s A Walk to the End of the World (1974) and its sequel Motherlines (1981), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979). But by far the most popular novels belonging to this genre (they didn’t just dominate the speculative fiction category, they were the two most frequently-mentioned titles overall) were Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

The ‘woman on the edge of time’ is Connie Ramos, a working class Latina woman who has edgebeen committed to a psychiatric hospital after trying to defend her niece from a violent pimp. She finds she is able to make contact with the future, of which (in time-honoured fashion) there are two different possible versions. The one evoked in most detail is Mattapoisett, a utopian society where women and men live as equals. The other is a nightmare world where the most oppressive elements of Connie’s own society (such as the objectification and prostitution of women) have been taken to even greater extremes.

The book has been reissued this year to mark the fortieth anniversary of its original publication. The Guardian recently published an extract from the author’s introduction, in which Piercy both explains what she was trying to do when she created Mattapoisett—‘I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete’—and considers why fewer feminists today are inventing their own ideal fictional societies. Feminist utopias, she says,

were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.

The optimism of the early second wave was already beginning to fade by the time Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, which is unequivocally a dystopia—not so much a call to imagine the ideal feminist future as a wake-up call focusing attention on some alarming developments in the present. Conservatism handmaidhad reasserted itself, with Ronald Reagan elected US president in 1980, and Atwood’s fictional Gilead dramatises the potential consequences of a related political phenomenon, the rise of a militant right-wing Christian fundamentalism. Some of the women who put The Handmaid’s Tale on their lists commented that its dystopian vision seemed even more relevant now than it had been in the 1980s. And indeed, you can’t help feeling that the newly-elected Vice-President of the US would be very much at home in Gilead.

A similar prescience can be discerned in the British writer Zoe Fairbairns’s dystopia Benefits, which imagines a patriarchal government using the machinery of the welfare state to keep women in their place. The book was published in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. It’s not as well-known as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s equally revealing about the mood of the 1980s (and spookily on the money about a lot of what’s happened since).

Feminist utopian fiction was particularly popular during the years of the Anglo-American second wave, but women’s desire to imagine a better world has both a longer history and a wider reach. 51pb9nrvgtl-_sx320_bo1204203200_The tradition begins as early as 1666, with Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, in which utopia is ruled by an empress who uses her power to promote peace, tolerance and equality. And not all examples come from Europe and North America: in 1905 (a full decade before Herland), the Bengali writer and social reformer Rokheya Sakhawat Hossein published ‘Sultana’s Dream’, a story set in ‘Ladyland’, which is ruled by women 512huudm8xl-_sx331_bo1204203200_while men are kept in purdah (as one woman explains to a visitor: ‘men, we find, are of rather low morals, and so we do not like dealing with them’).

I expected some women to include some of these books among their favourite second-wave novels, but I’ll admit to being surprised that the two most frequently-mentioned titles were both in the utopia/dystopia category. Evidently they did make a deep impression, and I think Marge Piercy is right about why: one woman who remembered devouring vast quantities of feminist sci-fi said she loved it for ‘that sense that things could be different’. Since visions of the future are always shaped by the author’s present, a lot of the books I’ve mentioned seem dated now; but the best of them still have the power to draw you into their worlds, and to make you think differently about your own.

Postscript: thanks to all the women who answered my question about what feminist fiction had been important to them. FYI here’s a full list of the ten most frequently mentioned titles.

  1. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
  2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  3. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  4. Margaret Drabble, The Millstone (1965)
  5. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)
  6. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
  7. Kate Millett, Sita (1977)
  8. Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (published in Arabic in 1975, and in English in 1983)
  9. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962)
  10. Marilyn French, The Woman’s Room (1977)