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 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)

Patriarchy and capitalism: re-reading the debate

In this guest post Teresa Green revisits the arguments made by socialist and radical feminists about the nature of women’s oppression, and considers their relevance for feminists today. 

Histories of the second wave often distinguish between radical feminist political currents that gave primacy to sex-based oppression, and Marxist or socialist currents that put class antagonism first. However, it wasn’t always as polarized as this implies. Socialist feminists like Zillah Eisenstein argued that the oppressive structures of capitalism and patriarchy should be analysed as mutually reinforcing, with neither taking priority over the other. Capitalism reinforces male supremacy, and male supremacy serves the interests of capitalism (which benefits both directly from the undervaluing of women’s paid labour and indirectly from their unpaid domestic and caring labour).

But as Christine Delphy pointed out, this kind of analysis does not tell us everything about women’s situation as an oppressed class. The male wage labourer and the unwaged housewife are not in the same position. While the working man depends on the market, the housewife is dependent on an individual man. As a wage earner he can increase his earnings by doing more work or a different kind of work. By contrast,

The services which a married woman provides…are not fixed: they depend on the will of the employer, the husband… the support furnished does not depend on the work done by the wife, but on the wealth and good will of her husband.

That a woman doesn’t simply become a member of her husband’s class on marriage is made obvious by looking at what happens after divorce; more often than not, women’s financial position deteriorates sharply, while men’s wealth tends to increase. Roxanne Dunbar made the same point in 1970:

For women who are supported by and gain the status of their husbands, working class status is always a potential threat, if they do not perform their wifely duties properly.

These arguments about women’s position as economically dependent housewives might seem outdated in an era when far more married women work for wages outside the home. But the social theorist Ulrich Beck argues that the traditional gender system has shaped the current form of capitalism. Wage labour presupposes unpaid housework. The standard ‘working day’ presupposes that someone is at home filling the gap between wages and food on the table; it is, roughly, the number of hours that one can work so long as someone else is at home cooking, cleaning, and looking after the kids (for free). And crisis results, according to Beck, when this working standard is extended to women as well as men.

Where men and women have to and want to lead an economically independent existence, this can occur neither in the traditional role assignments of the nuclear family, nor in the institutional structures of professional work, social laws, city planning, schools, and so on, which presuppose precisely the traditional image of the nuclear family with its gender status foundations.

Many countries have tried to mitigate the results of the crisis by offering parents more leave, more nursery school places (at the cost of a chunk of their income) or more ‘part-time’ and ‘flexible’ work (at the cost of a chunk of their income). But these solutions fail to recognise the fundamental point that ‘full time’ work assumes inequality. The structure of capitalism rests on this division, and that structure itself has to be tackled. As Beck says, ‘The equality of men and women cannot be accomplished through the institutional structures that are connected by design to inequality’. The structure of the working day under capitalism needs re-working precisely because it both rests on and reinforces inequality between men and women.

Does this mean socialist feminism is the way forward? Maybe not: according to Catharine MacKinnon:

Most attempts at synthesis [between feminism and Marxism] attempt to integrate or explain the appeal of feminism by incorporating issues feminism identifies as central—the family, housework, sexuality, reproduction, socialization, personal life—within an essentially unchanged Marxian analysis.

Women’s liberation becomes an aspect of the class struggle, and women are reduced to categories like ‘women workers’ or simply ‘the family’.

MacKinnon also notes that sexuality is treated as if there was no difference in its social meaning for men and women. We might be able to analyse women’s sexual objectification, or rape culture, through a socialist feminist lens, arguing that these phenomena reinforce heterosexuality and the nuclear family and so help to reproduce the primary unit for consumption. However, this kind of analysis abstracts away from the fact that the primary beneficiaries are the men who consume women’s bodies.

Women’s oppression is located not just in the structure of institutions, but in their everyday interactions with men. Emphasizing the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy interact risks shifting the focus too much onto institutions, with too little attention to men’s behaviour. So, while socialist feminist critique is necessary in tackling certain areas of women’s oppression, in other areas I think we need to recognise that the problem is primarily misogyny, reinforced by capitalism or otherwise.



Whose Joy of Sex?

This guest post revisits Anne Koedt’s ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’–and asks whether women in the 21st century are still being ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men’.

In 1970, Anne Koedt described in detail the myth of the vaginal orgasm-the shape of the myth itself and the reasons it continues to be reinforced.

The myth says: the vaginal orgasm exists and is separate from the clitoral orgasm.

The myth says: the vaginal orgasm is the True Orgasm.

The myth says: if a woman cannot orgasm from penetrative sex, she is broken in some way, she has failed, she is “frigid”.

The myth says: women ought to get pleasure from pleasuring men.

Today, the word “frigid” has come to be used slightly differently-a frigid woman is not necessarily a woman who can’t achieve that (mythical, magical) vaginal orgasm, but usually a woman who refuses sex in the first place. A woman who spurns a man’s advances is often dubbed a “frigid bitch”–cold, unfeeling, withholding something imagined to be his due. Frigidity is not just about failing to be pleased by pleasing a man, but about refusing to please him at all.

The myth is still real, and frigidity–in the sense that Koedt describes it– is still pathologised. What Koedt did not write about, though, was the way in which some level of frigidity seems to be expected of women, even as it is pathologised. Women’s sexual pleasure isn’t just imagined in terms of men’s, it does not belong to women at all: women cannot be seen to embrace their own sexuality. Even today, ‘respectable’ women must appear, at least initially, as frigid beings.

For women’s sexuality to be acceptable, it can’t be on their own terms. Nude leaks inspire hype and excitement in the online sphere, but when celebrities like Emily Ratajkowski voluntarily release nude photo-shoots the reaction is disgust and misogynistic shaming. Women who embrace their own sexuality are decried as sluts, whores, slags, hos—made dirty by their own desire. They’re only sexy if they are sexualized by someone else. Eventually women are expected to submit, but they must be “hard to get”- just frigid enough to maintain their respectability.

Even if they play the game right, women often end up frustrated: the myth of the vaginal orgasm still lives. Nothing appears to have changed since Koedt observed that men did seem to understand the importance of the clitoris

during “foreplay,” when they want to arouse women and produce the necessary lubrication for penetration. Foreplay is a concept created for male purposes, but works to the disadvantage of many women, since as soon as the woman is aroused the man changes to vaginal stimulation, leaving her both aroused and unsatisfied.

A general lack of awareness of how female bodies work has to be partly to blame, and the lack of a compulsory and comprehensive sex education curriculum in schools must take some responsibility here. When I was 16, my sex education class consisted of an awkward explanation of “how babies are made” and a vague allusion to how that can be prevented (though as it was a Catholic school, the only mode of safe sex defended explicitly was abstinence). The only description of male and female anatomy made available to us was in our biology textbooks, in which the clitoris was absent and the vagina was presented as permanently open and ready for penetration. With this kind of education, supplemented only by pornography for most of my male peers, is it any surprise that the myth of the vaginal orgasm still reigns?

Koedt tells us that our model of sexuality cannot be improved or adjusted, it must be rejected:

What we must do is redefine our sexuality. We must discard the “normal” concepts of sex and create new guidelines which take into account mutual sexual enjoyment. While the idea of mutual enjoyment is liberally applauded in marriage manuals, it is not followed to its logical conclusion. We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as “standard” are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard. New techniques must be used or devised which transform this particular aspect of our current sexual exploitation.

A look at the “sex-positive” feminism of the new century suggests that this project, if it ever got off the ground, has failed. Male fantasies have been repackaged and sold back to women as not just “empowering” but also “feminist.” Lip service is frequently paid to the idea of mutual enjoyment, and yet in practice women continue to be expected to perform above and beyond what they will ever be repaid.

The writers of the popular self-help manual Being Orgasmic encourage women to try anal sex if their male partner wants to, advising that ‘If any discomfort does occur, try again some other time’. It seems that a woman’s comfort–not even her pleasure–is considered secondary to a man’s desires.

The bar for “frigid” women has been raised. Now, possibly even more than before, we need to follow Koedt and reject the dominant model of sexuality. As Natasha Walter puts it:

If this is the new sexual liberation, it looks too uncannily like the old sexism to convince many of us that this is the freedom we have sought.


Plus ça change…

Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA will take place in Washington DC on January 20, 2017. And on the following day, it has been announced, there will be a women’s march

to show our strength, power and courage and demonstrate our disapproval of the new president and his values.

US feminists have been here before. On January 20 1969, the (first) inauguration of President Richard Nixon was also marked by a demonstration in the nation’s capital. The event was mainly organised by campaigners against the Vietnam War, but it included a feminist protest in which women carried roslyn_baxandallbanners with slogans like ‘Give back the vote’ and ‘The vote wasn’t worth the struggle’.

One of the feminists involved, Ellen Willis of New York Radical Women, explained:

Since women’s 80 year struggle for the vote had achieved a meaningless victory and vitiated the feminist movement, we planned to destroy our voter registration cards publicly as a symbol that suffragism was dead and a new fight for real emancipation was beginning.

The women who formed the early Women’s Liberation Movement came out of (and often remained connected to) a New Left which believed that true democracy required a lot more than just the right to vote. They also wanted the second wave to learn from the mistakes of the first one, which in their view had lost sight of its original radical goals as it became narrowly focused on the single issue of women’s suffrage. In pursuit of that objective (which in the US was finally achieved in 1920), the leaders of the suffragist movement had put what was politically expedient over what was right: in particular, they had been willing to sell out Black women to win the support of white women in the southern states.

To the radical activists of the mid-20th century it did not seem that the enfranchisement of women had done much to advance their cause. By 1969 they’d been voting for nearly half a century, but they were still a long way from gaining equality. Radical women were not even treated as equals by their own comrades on the Left: when they tried to make a statement on women’s liberation to the assembled anti-inaugural protesters, they were met with jeering, catcalling and shouts of ‘Take her off the stage and fuck her’.

Since 1969 almost another half-century has passed, and here we are again. Not, this time, planning to give back the vote, but still arguing about whether ‘real emancipation’ can be delivered through the ballot box, still divided on whether to support a woman leader who has made compromises in pursuit of power, still dealing with the reality of racism, and still being dismissed by some leftist men as just a bunch of over-privileged whiners. And still taking to the streets to protest because the White House is about to be occupied by a man whose whose views and behaviour feminists find repugnant, and whose intentions while in office they have every reason to fear.

Postscript: this is the women’s march in Washington DC on 21 January 2017. 


You say you want a revolution?

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.