Resist cock privilege! Free the clitoris!

Inspired by Anne Koedts The myth of the vaginal orgasm and Robin Morgans Goodbye to all that, guest blogger Santina Sorrenti presents a 21st century (waveless) feminist manifesto.

FRIGIDITY. Women, hold that word in your hands, put it in your pocket, keep it a secret. Ice-cold, lamenting, uninviting, unpenetrable for pleasure and lost in our heads–these are caws heard from men nearby as they stand in groups with their pint in hand stimulating each other’s erections by conversing about their “cock privilege”. A privilege that manifests itself in men’s ability to penetrate a woman both in bed and in her workplace.

It’s the 21st century, and still we cannot be legitimized as autonomous beings, whether we are a freak in the sheets or make money in the streets—these are the rhymes of (what we think is) sexual emancipation. We may feel more sexually liberated now than in the 1970s, but how much freer are we?

Our anatomy is still the same and still sabotaged the same. Our clitorises still exist but they are refuted, ignored, operated on and cut off. ‘Girls nights’ prevail, as we reflect on ideas that men consider whingeing and can’t bear to listen to. We speak about masturbation, our failed Tinder dates and the unpleasant experience of having sex with our lovers and still failing to cum to our senses. “But I love him so much”, exclaims my best friend. “But I love my clit more”, utters another who shows her desperate friends how to utilize sex toys after her husband goes off to work.

Wake up! Wake up! It’s 2017 but it still feels like 1970. It’s 7am and you have to get to work. You run your own business, you own your own ‘bachelor pad’ in the West End and drive yourself to the office where you manage a team of 150 people. Yet here is your boyfriend at 7am rubbing his erection against you even though you blatantly said NO three times. You feel imprisoned, you feel guilty and you feel annoyed. The fourth attempt is coming and you try to race to the shower but he pulls you close to him as he demands your affection and he promises to make you breakfast. You fall into the trap and there you are on your back thinking about all the tasks that need to be completed today at work. It’s hard to manage these thoughts as your boyfriend hovers over you while his cock revels in the privilege of being able to be pleasured, by your vagina NOT you. But at least you get some free breakfast that you do not have to labor for.

You get up and race to work, your body overworked and your clitoris underwhelmed. You arrive at your desk and open your Facebook feed only to be confronted with visuals and slogans or feminist memes that your friends persistently share. One promotes the hashtag #metoo, bringing awareness to the (male based) sexual violence that women continue to face. Another shows a girl taking selfies with men from whom she has faced street harassment. Click! Down the page you scroll. All you see is a barrage of activist slogans with one that reads ‘free the nipple’ displaying a picture of a woman posing topless with a refusal to have her nipples blurred out. Free the nipple? What is one nipple going to do?

In 1970 Anne Koedt’s ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm’ spoke to the false assumptions made about female bodies. Women were described as ‘frigid’ because they were unable to orgasm from vaginal penetration. But it’s impossible! The vaginal canal has no sensitivity, only the clitoris does. We have been defined sexually in accordance with what pleases men. And nothing has changed. More than ever this idea is perpetuated through visual and media representations such as mainstream pornography and Hollywood films.It’s also pervasive in the school system, through heteronormative sex education classes, teen magazines and student gossip in the cafeteria.

Heteronormativity is such bore, it is a disease that infects every institution. It is strong and dominant but it has an inferiority complex. Men are scared. Worried that if they give power to the clitoris it will take over. That a giant clit will storm in and grant women equal pay, stop sexual harassment in the streets, put an end to home cooked meals and a clean house.

We must resist sexual submission. Goodbye to weekly sex. Goodbye to fulfilling his sexual fantasies. Goodbye to making sure you go down on him when he won’t even use his mouth on you. Hello to sexual explorations with other women and yourself. Hello to diffusing information on your latest self pleasing techniques to your girlfriends. Hello to refusing sex unless it is on your terms. Hello to meet-ups IN PERSON in the 21st century. Mobilizing, educating, getting your voices heard (but not just online).

Free your body! Free your anatomy! Free yourself from submission! Free yourself from alarm clocks in the form of erections! Free the psychologically ill women! Free your vagina! Free yourself through mental fantasy! Free your flesh! Free your hair! Free lesbianism! Free your mind! Free yourself from heteronormativity! Resist cock privilege! FREE THE CLITORIS!



Them too

This year’s Second Wave class met for the first time this week, and we talked about a set of readings which discuss the origins of the US Women’s Liberation Movement. The women who formed the earliest feminist groups, beginning around 1967, had been (and in some cases remained) active in the radical social movements of the 1960s, like the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC, a civil rights organisation) and various ‘New Left’ groups. But as the 1960s wore on, they became increasingly discontented with the way their male comrades treated them.

It wasn’t just that women were excluded from leadership positions and expected to do the menial jobs. There was something else as well–something which, this week, had a very familiar ring. Robin Morgan, writing in 1970, called it out when she asked:

Was it my brother who listed human beings among the objects that would be easily available after the Revolution: Free grass, free food, free women, free acid, free clothes, etc.? Was it my brother who wrote Fuck your women till they can’t stand up and said that groupies were liberated chicks ’cause they dug a tit-shake instead of a handshake?

The term ‘sexual harassment’ did not yet exist–it would be coined by Lin Farley in the mid-1970s when she was teaching a course on women and work at Cornell University–but it was rife on the radical left, and (then as now) it covered a spectrum from objectification to rape. A very common form of it involved pressuring women to have sex with male activists as part of their contribution to the struggle. As Anne Koedt would recall in 1968, female activists were largely used for ‘food-making, typing, mimeographing, general assistance work, and as a sexual supply for their male comrades after hours’.

Robin Morgan’s words, quoted above, come from a bitter polemic entitled ‘Goodbye to all that’, her feminist farewell to the male-dominated counter-culture. But it had been a long time coming. Women on the left had spent several years trying to raise their concerns about sexism, sexual harassment and sexual abuse. And they had not been heard.

In 1964 two white women on the staff of SNCC, Mary King and Casey Hayden, wrote a paper for a staff retreat called ‘Women in the Movement’, laying out what they and other women saw as the problem in the hope of sparking a constructive discussion. This was, after all, a radical, egalitarian political organisation. They believed the men would be willing to take women’s criticism on board. But in the event, they were the ones who were criticised. This was the occasion on which Stokely Carmichael (in)famously declared that ‘the only position for women in SNCC is prone’. (Originally King and Hayden took this as a joke, regarding Carmichael as an ally–but he went on to repeat it at many other SNCC meetings.)

In 1965 SNCC became an all-Black organisation, and many white activists joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). King and Hayden made another attempt to have the question of women’s position discussed at an SDS conference at the end of the year. Women present began to share their experiences of sexism, but according to the historian Ashley Eberle, ‘Instead of concern, the discussion elicited “catcalls, storms of ridicule, and verbal abuse from the men.” Men hurled insults like, “She just needs a good screw” or “She’s a castrating female”‘. In the end most of the men walked out, leaving the women to go on talking long into the night.

Incidents like this one were the second wave’s ‘me too’ moments–moments when women spoke openly about their experiences, realised they were not alone in having those experiences, realised that they were understood and supported by other women. Allowed themselves to feel anger, and to think that their anger might become a force for change. In ‘Goodbye to all that’, Robin Morgan wrote:

There is something every woman wears around her neck on a thin chain of fear—an amulet of madness. For each of us, there exists somewhere a moment of insult so intense that she will reach up and rip the amulet off, even if the chain tears the flesh of her neck. And the last protection from seeing the truth will be gone.

I thought of those words when the first women came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein. And again when all the ‘me too’ stories began to flow–stories which weren’t just about wealthy and powerful men like Weinstein, or ‘unreconstructed’ men of his generation. Some of them were about the contemporary equivalents of the hip radical leftists Morgan took aim at in 1970. This view of women, this treatment of women, goes, as Morgan put it, ‘all the way down’. And women’s resistance goes all the way back in time. When we call men to account today, we are building on the insights and the actions of an earlier generation.

I’ll end with another quote from ‘Goodbye to all that’ which seems pertinent this week:

Let it all hang out. Let it seem bitchy, catty, dykey, Solanisesque, frustrated, crazy, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libelous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating. We are the women that men have warned us about.


The second wave v. Hugh Hefner

Note for readers new to ‘Re-reading the Second Wave’ : this blog is associated with a women’s studies course on second wave feminism, and it’s active during the half of the year when the course is running (roughly October to March). I explain why I started it here, and you can look at the course syllabus here. This is the first post of the 2017-18 session.

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, died last week at the age of 91. Many obituaries repeated his own claim to have been a leader in the field of women’s rights. As he told Esquire magazine in 2002:

I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism. That’s a part of history very few people know.

The fact that Hefner could get away with saying this suggests that even fewer people know much about the history of second wave feminism. Fortunately, some of the women who took issue with Hefner in the 1960s and 70s–when he was building his empire and they were building a new political movement–are still around to set the record straight.

Writing in the New York Times, Susan Brownmiller recounts that in 1970 she and Sally Kempton were invited to appear on The Dick Cavett show to discuss the new Women’s Liberation Movement. When they got there they discovered that Hugh Hefner was also a guest. Asked what Women’s Liberation was about, Brownmiller replied: ‘Hugh Hefner is my enemy’. She went on to explain: ‘women aren’t bunnies, they aren’t rabbits, they’re human beings’. And then she addressed Hefner directly: ‘the day you come out here with a cottontail attached to your rear…’

The point feminists like Brownmiller were making, a novel one at the time, was that treating women as sexual objects did nothing to advance their rights or their freedom: on the contrary, it was demeaning and dehumanising. Hefner never saw their point. Whenever he was accused of objectifying women he would say that women were by nature sex-objects, and that in treating them as such he was affirming their sexuality. He seems to have believed that female sexual desire was entirely passive, and that what gave women pleasure was pleasing men.

This was exactly the problem the women of the second wave had with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, in which many of them had participated–enthusiastically to begin with, since there was nothing conservative or ‘anti-sex’ about their philosophy, but with increasing dissatisfaction as they learnt from experience that the revolution wasn’t actually about women’s desires, women’s freedom or women’s pleasure.  It was all about men getting what they wanted from women. As Susan Brownmiller also notes in her New York Times piece, this was the real reason why Hefner supported abortion rights (a ‘progressive’ position for which many obituaries lauded him). The Playboy lifestyle was about sex without strings or commitment: if abortion was legal, women who became pregnant would have less power to demand that the father marry or support them.

Whatever he said to Esquire in 2002, in the 1970s Hefner knew very well that feminists considered him an enemy–and there is hard evidence that he felt the same about them. One of the most interesting personal testimonies published last week was Susan Braudy’s account of being commissioned to write a piece on the new Women’s Liberation Movement for Playboy in 1970, when she was an aspiring writer fresh out of college and not (yet) a feminist herself (though she would be by the end of the process). Initially  Braudy was told to make her piece ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’, explaining the facts about feminism rather than taking a position for or against it. She was told that if she did this, she wouldn’t be censored. When she first submitted her text the editors were pleased with it. But (as many of the feminists she interviewed had predicted), Hugh Hefner, the boss, had other ideas. He handed Braudy a memo, part of which read:

The women’s movement is rejecting the overall roles that men and women play in our society—the notion that there should be any differences between the sexes whatever other than the physiological ones. It is an extremely anti-sexual unnatural thing they are reaching for. It is now up to us to do a really expert, personal demolition job. …Doing a rather neutral piece on the pros and cons of feminism strikes me as being rather pointless for Playboy. What I’m interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie trend that feminism has taken. These chicks are our natural enemy.

Not, you might think, the words of someone who was ‘a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism’.

Braudy was asked to make drastic changes which she could not agree to, and in the end she withdrew her article. Instead Playboy commissioned an overtly anti-feminist piece by a man, which appeared under the title ‘Up against the wall, male chauvinist pig!’ But the drama wasn’t quite over. After the piece appeared, a secretary at Playboy, Shelly Schlicker, was caught in the office at night, xeroxing Hefner’s memo about Braudy’s original article so that she could leak it to the press. For this act of feminist solidarity Schlicker was fired, but the underground press picked up her story and eventually it did get into the mainstream. For Braudy the consequences were positive: she was hired to write for Newsweek, one of the mainstream publications which had carried the story and thought it reflected well on her integrity.

Another ambitious young woman journalist had taken on Hugh Hefner and his growing business empire seven years earlier in 1963 (when there was not yet such a thing as the Women’s Liberation Movement, though the second wave was getting ready to break–this was also the year in which Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique). Gloria Steinem, who would later found Ms magazine, went undercover at the Playboy Club in New York City, gaining employment as a Bunny under the fictitious name of Marie Ochs (she also had to lie about her age–it was 28, whereas the upper limit for new Bunnies was 24) so that she could document the women’s working conditions.

Steinem’s report, ‘I was a Playboy Bunny’, was published in two parts in Show magazine, and later republished in a collection of her writings, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. (It was also made into a TV movie starring Kirstie Alley, entitled A Bunny’s Tale.)  I found re-reading it this week a fascinating experience, because although it documents the fact that Bunnies were routinely sexually harassed by customers (and makes clear that this was what they were there for), and also the outrageous fact that new employees were forced to undergo internal medical exams and STI testing (this policy did get changed after Steinem’s piece came out), it belongs to the era before feminists named sexual harassment as a distinct phenomenon, and the overall emphasis of the account falls less on the overtly sexualised aspects of the work than on the ways in which it resembled other forms of work done by women (Bunnies were essentially waitresses and cloakroom attendants in revealing and painful uniforms), and reproduced features of many workplaces where men as well as women are exploited (like punishing shift-work, insufficient breaks, crappy food, pay that was always less than the advertised rate, withheld tips, petty regulations you could be fined for infringing, and middle managers taking the flak for the bosses (in this case these intermediaries were women–‘Bunny Mothers’, the Aunt Lydias of Hefner’s regime)).

‘I was a Playboy Bunny’ is essentially a brilliant piece of muck-raking investigative journalism, of the sort male writers had done in other industries where exploitation was rife. But because Steinem’s access depended on being able to pose as a Bunny–which in turn required her to meet certain standards of youth and physical attractiveness–she got a rather different reception. She recalls that after the Show piece she lost several good assignments because someone who had dressed up in a corset, ears and a tail was not taken seriously–she was both trivialised and sexualised in much the same way as the women she was writing about. Throughout her career as a prominent spokeswoman for feminism she has often been confronted with publicity pictures from her short stint as a Bunny–despite his protestations to the contrary, Hugh Hefner did not forgive or forget. As recently as this year, she told the Guardian that she had regrets about doing the story.

Since the 1970s Hugh Hefner has come under critical scrutiny from other feminists for other reasons. There was the issue of Playboy’s use of underage models and its attempts to minimise the problem of child abuse editorially, as laid out in this piece by Samantha Berg in 2004; there was also the way Hefner treated the ‘playmates’ who lived with him in his mansion, recorded as entertainment for a reality TV show, but retold as a story of abuse by one of the woman concerned, Holly Madison, in her 2015 memoir Down the Rabbit Hole (in fact, while the tribute-writers were able to line up various women to praise Hefner after his death, quite a number have spoken out about the unpleasant realities of their experience with him).  And since the first rush of what Brownmiller aptly dubs ‘fawning tributes’, there have been a number of more bracing assessments from feminists like Liz Posner at Alternetthe Guardian’s Suzanne Moore, Glosswitch in the New Statesman, and Claire Heuchan in Glamour.

I’m glad to see these contemporary feminists contradicting the mainstream obituarists’ received view of Hefner as, yes, a womaniser in his youth and a bit of an old lech in his later years, but basically a liberal guy who supported the right causes. But I have seen people on social media saying that theirs is the anachronistic judgment of a more puritanical feminist generation.  It isn’t, and the pieces I’ve linked to by Susan Braudy, Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem show it isn’t. The feminists of the second wave were onto Hugh Hefner, and critical of what he stood for, from the first. What we ought to remember isn’t his claim to have been ‘a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism’, it’s the statement he made 32 years earlier, in an internal memo rather than for public consumption, that ‘these chicks are our natural enemies’. He was right the first time.


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