In 1965, two women of Students for a Democratic Society, Casey Hayden and Mary King, wrote an essay bringing attention to the problem of sexism within SDS. In their essay, the authors cautiously raised the issue of sexism in the student movement (indeed, the subtitle of the essay, “A Kind of Memo,” suggested just how cautious they were), arguing that women engaged in movements for social justice needed to start communicating to both each other, and their fellow male activists about their experiences. Deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Hayden and King went out of their way to be clear that they were in no sense equating the discrimination and oppression they experienced as women with the oppression experienced by African Americans in the United States. Nonetheless, it had become increasingly clear to them that sexism did not stop at the door of the radical meeting house – it was a very real problem in the New Left community, and it had to be dealt with.
Two years later, frustrated by the tepid and insulting response of many men in SDS to their call for gender equality, the women of SDS again penned an essay which attempted to explain why attacking sexism was so important to the overall struggle for social justice. As they wrote:
“We seek the liberation of all human beings. The struggle for liberation of women must be part of the larger fight for human freedom. We recognize the difficulty our brothers will have in dealing with male chauvinism and we will assume our full responsibility in helping to resolve the contradiction. Freedom now! We love you!”
The journal New Left Notes published the essay, but it ran accompanied by this image:
As rankly awful as it was, the illustration proved to be just one insult in what would turn out to be a long history of New Left men dismissing New Left feminists. So, it turns out, many (most?) New Left men were perfectly capable of being sexist assholes. When I first learned this – way back during an undergraduate history course – I have to admit, I was surprised. Shocked, in fact. I can’t even imagine how the women in the New Left felt.
Here, after all, were the people who were supposed to be their brothers and partners in the fight for social justice – people who they had fought alongside of, struggled alongside of, perhaps even been brutalized alongside of. These were their friends and lovers who spoke eloquently about the fight for racial equality, who condemned with words of fire and actions of bravery the bigotry, violence, and exploitation that colored life-as-normal throughout the United States. And yet, when it came to listening to the struggles of their sisters – when it came to recognizing that women were belittled, dismissed, objectified, and controlled in this same society – they responded with mockery and insults.
How deeply such an experience must have shocked one’s sense of self, of your mooring and identity, is something that can only be imagined. We get some sense of how fundamentally it changed the perspective of New Left women, however, by what they went on to do. Emboldened by this experience, many decided that they needed a movement by and for women – that the sexism that seeped so deeply into not only mainstream, but even counter-cultural leftist American life, could only be rooted out if women took it entirely into their own hands to do so. Thus from such experiences came the birth of radical feminism, with its accomplishments ranging from the wonderful people who brought you the protests outside of the Miss America pageant to the small, radical groups in New York City such as the Redstockings or the delightfully defiantly named WITCH – Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.
However, breaking away from New Left organizations to create their own movement did not lead to a unified sense of “sisterhood.” Various radical feminists groups not only vehemently opposed liberal feminism, as represented by such organizations as NOW, but also did not agree with each other – indeed, they were often the products of the splintering of larger groups that could not agree on questions about identity, politics, and sexuality. Some points of contention – such as whether or not all women should reject all romantic relationships with men, or whether or not homosexuality in men actually represented a misogynist impulse – seem strange and disturbing to most feminists today. Yet nonetheless, each group contributed some aspect of feminist consciousness and feminist activism that are still important and vital parts of the women’s movement today. There is more than a slight echo, for example, of the tactics of public spectacle and defiance pioneered by groups like WITCH in our contemporary Slut Walks, and the concept that the personal is political – now accepted by nearly anyone who calls themselves a feminist – was an idea first articulated by radical feminists.
Today, it seems to me that the borders between radical feminism and liberal feminism seem to be breaking down to a significant degree, with each informing the other and certain tribalist tendencies – such as the awful transphobia displayed by those who try to claim ownership over the title of “radical feminists” – rightly condemned in nearly all corners of the feminist community. At the same time, basic awareness of sexism – and wariness against it – is now taken seriously in most leftist circles, even if, unfortunately, failures to protect against it and respond to it are still common. Yet, at the least, the same issues that the New Left women received nothing but mockery for bringing up are now understood as serious and systemic problems that must be addressed and tackled by any movement which takes the securing of equality for all people as its purpose.
And this, perhaps, tells us something about the dynamics of historical and political change – sometimes, you have to break away in order to come back; you have to create a community that is truly your own before the moral pressure of your critique can be fully and successfully applied to the spaces you originally tried to change entirely from within. This, at least, seems to be the lesson of the successes and failures of the New Left women who, distraught by the hypocrisy and cruelty of their friends and partners, struck out on their own to build a movement by women and for women – but ended up also creating new possibilities not only for women, but for all who failed to meet the requirements of a homophobic, sexist, racist, and classist society.