This week I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see ‘You Say You Want a Revolution?’ a show about the 1960s counter-culture from which the feminist second wave emerged. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election had been announced just a few hours before I arrived, and I kept thinking how different the experience would have felt if I’d been there even one day earlier.
The exhibition uses various cultural artefacts—records, clothes, photographs, posters, pamphlets, furniture, spacesuits—to recreate the spirit of the counter-culture in the US, Britain and (to some extent) France between 1966 and 1970. For those involved it was a time of optimism, a time when activists looked forward to a new era of peace, justice and freedom. Their efforts to bring that about were met with opposition, and not infrequently brutal repression, by the agents of the state; but still it was said that the revolution could not be stopped, because it had already happened in people’s heads.
On 9 November 2016, contemplating the ascendancy of a man whose campaign was fuelled by everything the 1960s radicals opposed, it was impossible not to ask what went wrong.
I found myself wondering why the mood of our time feels so much less optimistic. It’s not as if 1960s radicals lived in a kinder, gentler world: on the contrary, the problems facing activists then were at least as daunting as the ones their successors face today. The US was waging an increasingly unpopular war abroad (in Vietnam), but in the 1960s it was fought by young men who had been conscripted; many didn’t want to fight, and some found the whole enterprise politically repugnant. (As someone memorably put it—the exhibition credits Stokely Carmichael, but the attribution is disputed—‘the draft is about white people sending Black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from red people’.) The Civil Rights Act had only recently been passed, and racism remained overt and vicious.
Women were still in many ways second-class citizens, and those who were active in radical movements, from Students for a Democratic Society to the Black Panthers, had to contend with the entrenched sexism of many of their male comrades–an indifference or contempt when faced with women’s own aspirations to justice and freedom that was one important factor in the emergence of an autonomous Women’s Liberation Movement. There’s a small section in this show about the second wave, which was incipient in 1966 and gaining real momentum by 1970, but I found that part of the show a bit unimaginative, as well as sparse. It doesn’t feature, for instance, some of the early feminist actions–like the 1968 Miss America protest–which seem to me very much in the spirit of the counter-culture.
More generally it could be said that the presentation of women in this show (with the partial exception of musicians like Janis Joplin) exemplifies the art critic John Berger’s maxim that ‘men act, women appear’. We see young women modelling the new Carnaby Street fashions, posing for trendy photographers and film directors, or having their hair cut by Vidal Sassoon, but we don’t see them featured prominently as radical political activists.
There is, though, one major exception to that rule. Towards the end of the show there’s a point where you look up and see a poster depicting Angela Davis. It was produced during the international campaign to free her after she was incarcerated on charges relating to her involvement in the defence of the Soledad Brothers, three African American inmates of a California prison who had been accused of killing a guard.
In 1970 the brother of one of the three men tried to secure their release by entering a courtroom and taking the judge and three jurors hostage. The guns he used were registered to Angela Davis, and although she had not been directly involved, she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and the murder of the judge. She was briefly a fugitive, and on the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list. After she was captured she spent more than a year in prison. When the case came to trial, though, she was acquitted on all charges.
Angela Davis was a key figure in the radical political culture of the 1960s and early 1970s. She was born in 1944 in segregated Alabama, and later moved to New York City to attend an integrated (and radical) high school. She went on to join the Communist Party and to study in the US and Europe with, among others, the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse, sometimes described as the ‘father of the New Left’. Returning to the US, she became an active supporter of the militant Black Power movement, and in particular the Black Panthers. She was also a feminist and an early advocate of what we would now call intersectional analysis. Her classic book Women, Race and Class, which was one of this week’s course readings, reflects all these political commitments. Its primary focus on the experiences of Black women produces an analysis which illuminates the situation of all women.
During her later career as an activist, academic and public intellectual, Angela Davis has sometimes spoken critically about the tendency to do what I’ve just done myself—present people like her as exemplary figures. In an interview in 2014 she pointed out that the achievements often credited to individuals, like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, cannot be detached from the work done by the thousands of other people who participated in the movements they led. She went on:
It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.
In a week when so many people who share the 1960s radicals’ aspirations are feeling so demoralised, I think it’s worth reflecting on those words. Communities of struggle have been built before, and they can be built again.