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.

These women are angry

Guest blogger Teresa Green wonders what happened to second wave feminists’ rage

I remember being sixteen, and listening to my father talking about the female students he encountered at Cambridge in the 1970s: “These women were climbing the walls! They were so angry.”

Reading the essays and manifestos written around the years that the Women’s Liberation Movement came roaring into view, by women like Anne Koedt, Robin Morgan and Pat Mainardi, one of the things that strikes me most is their anger. It isn’t their anger per se that sticks out, but the fact that they boldly express it with no qualms about the male egos and female delusions they tread on.

Today, that rage seems to be tucked out of sight. Male politicians can bluster and shout and turn red in the face, but women must stay calm and placid lest our anger give us away as “overemotional” and “hormonal.” Koedt and many of the other women who wrote on women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s gave their anger a voice and did not bother to sugar-coat their hatred of injustice, or their conviction that things had to change.

Pat Mainardi breaks down the justifications produced by men for avoiding housework, translating her husband’s excuses and refusing to accept them. She’s angry, and she is sarcastic. Anne Koedt is similarly sarcastic in her denunciation of that “incredible invention,” the vaginal orgasm, and refuses to mince her words in demanding a new conception of sexuality. Judy Syfers relentlessly lists the expectations men have of women  and finishes in blunt exasperation: “My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?” Robin Morgan defiantly points at man as the oppressor, male friends and colleagues and family members and partners and comrades, disparaging their self-centeredness and their misogyny.  She invites women to be

bitchy, catty, dykey, Solanasesque, frustrated, crazy, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libellous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating.

She makes no suggestion that the system itself can be re-made feminist, but simply says goodbye to the whole thing, tells us it must be destroyed: “Run it all the way down.”

Most academic feminism is written by women, but they know that their work will be scrutinised by men, too, and men control the boundaries defining what is angry and what is “crazy.” When the author is a woman, men have learnt that they can use these words interchangeably and so dismiss her.

Koedt and Mainardi, Syfers and Morgan, are not writing for an audience of (male or female) academics, but for their fellow women. It seems that they don’t feel the need, evident in so many feminist speeches and articles today, to make the issue abstract, neutral. Maybe they don’t feel the need to hide their anger, speaking as they are directly to other women, or maybe they hope their anger will be shared and reproduced.

I can imagine these essays sparking new rage in the women who read them, sending rose-tinted spectacles flying to the floor. There is no attempt in their writing to soothe the male ego by labouring the idea that an end to patriarchy will benefit men too (a lie- when you reach your great heights by stepping on someone’s back, you can’t continue to float there when they pull themselves out from under your weight, which Morgan freely points out). There is also no attempt to soothe or sustain or sweeten female delusions; I can’t imagine any of these women suggesting that we don’t need to change our society or our expectations, we just need to call them “empowering.” Of course, not all contemporary feminists have fallen prey to this need to be palatable, but one wonders where the anger went, and specifically the direction of that anger.

These women, writing in the 1970s, were not simply angry about a system, a structure, a society, they were angry at men. Many of them write about the rage they felt as a result of men’s treatment of them in New Left organisations, the frustration and resentment spurred by the realisation that the redistribution of power between men would change nothing about the fact that women do the “shitwork.” They express their anger towards their fathers, brothers, husbands, even their sons: concrete individuals, not institutions. The Redstockings Manifesto makes their stance explicit:

Institutions alone do not oppress; they are merely tools of the oppressor.

Maybe the reason the anger expressed so vividly by these women seems to have faded from today’s feminist writing, and been replaced by the neutral tones (or anger directed in the vague direction of institutions) of many modern feminist writers and groups, is that anger is exhausting. In particular, anger given the direction embraced by women like Koedt and Mainardi is exhausting. Even as she describes the “fury older and potentially greater than any force in history” of the women of the New Left, Morgan points to the emotional strain of that fury against known, loved men. She describes women rising in powerful rage but

stuffing fingers into our mouths to stop the screams of fear and hate and pity for men we have loved and love still.

To hate the injustice of institutions and social structures is, I think, much easier than to direct that anger towards beloved fathers and brothers, partners and friends.

When I asked what happened to those roaring women in Cambridge, my father said “I think they got tired”.

First thoughts on the second wave

This is the first of two guest posts by students responding to classic texts from the early second wave–in this case, the Manifesto put out in 1969 by the New York City-based feminist group Redstockings. 

Reading the Redstockings Manifesto for the first time, I was struck by the careful attention its authors paid to distinguishing between individual and institutional responsibility for women’s oppression. Three of the manifesto’s tenets are as follows: that all forms of exploitation flow from the original sin of patriarchy and men’s domination of women; that there is no individual absolution of men for the crime of sexism; and sexism is not the work of institutions, but of individuals.

This was surprising to me because it diverges from and even inverts the way we talk about women’s oppression today. Intersectionality, which to me underpins much of contemporary feminist discourse, would suggest that it is anathema to rank oppressions, much less to suggest that one of them is the “original” and most important oppression. Even if the oppression of women is the oldest oppression of all, I have an inculcated aversion to asking people to subordinate any aspect of their marginalised identity to another, whether because of the Black Lives Matter movement, reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or witnessing discussions of the male-female wage gap that do not address the chasm between white women and black women.

The other statement, that sexism is the work of individuals rather than institutions, was also striking to me because it seems the opposite of where we place discursive emphasis today: on the idea that individuals are principally players in larger systems of oppression. It is a semantic difference, but it feels like a significant one. It made me wonder whether this specific shift in discourse stems from the dramatic changes in the status of women in the United States between that time and now.

At that time, it seems to me, the circumscribed spheres of women’s lives meant that women felt most oppressed by male figures in particular: the husband or the father, for example. And yet, at the same time, second wave feminism seems to me to have been born out of a collective awakening to the fact that women’s experiences of oppression by these figures were not accidental but universal. Hence the striking intention in the Redstockings Manifesto to build a systematic analysis from the basis of aggregated individual experience.

Nowadays when women have much greater freedom in their educational, professional, and social lives, it no longer rings so true to target every individual man for equal responsibility for oppression. An American woman today might no longer feel so much that her father or husband (if she has one) is the gatekeeper of her opportunities and liberty, but nonetheless feel constrained by the demands that patriarchy as a system continues to make of women.

This aforementioned dynamic – that second wave feminism was born of the realisation that the trees constituted a forest, and the need to insist upon that forest by collecting individual testimony – produces an effect unlike any other text of contemporary feminism that I have read. With forceful, righteous anger, the authors manage simultaneously to decry men in general and every man in particular.

I was positively surprised, given the reputation of second wave feminism today as “white feminism,” that in this text and others there were definite gestures towards intersectionality, even if history has judged them unsuccessful (the Redstockings Manifesto retains – perhaps most honestly of all – vestiges of division, speaking as it does as a “we” that repudiates any prejudices they may have against “other women”). I was unpleasantly surprised that evidently many things feminists said then continue to need saying today: the manifesto declares, for example, that

the most slanderous evasion of all is that women can oppress men.

Lastly, I was fascinated in reading all the texts assigned in the first week of the course to observe the different motives and systems to which different groups attributed their feminism: most decried the socialist revolution of men, but pushed therefore for an alternative revolution. The Redstockings Manifesto, however, contains one of the most striking statements of purpose:

We will not ask what is ‘revolutionary’ or ‘reformist,’ only what is good for women.

I am intrigued to learn more about what defined that good for second wave feminists.