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What Happened to the Women’s Movement?

Barbara Epstein is a close friend and supporter of Monthly Review, and teaches in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Along with Marcy Darnovsky and Richard Flacks she is the editor of Cultural Politics and Social Movements (Temple University Press, 1995).

From the late 1960s into the 1980s there was a vibrant women’s movement in the United States. Culturally influential and politically powerful, on its liberal side this movement included national organizations and campaigns for reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and other reforms. On its radical side it included women’s liberation and consciousness raising groups, as well as cultural and grassroots projects. The women’s movement was also made up of innumerable caucuses and organizing projects in the professions, unions, government bureaucracies, and other institutions. The movement brought about major changes in the lives of many women, and also in everyday life in the United States. It opened to women professions and blue-collar jobs that previously had been reserved for men. It transformed the portrayal of women by the media. It introduced the demand for women’s equality into politics, organized religion, sports, and innumerable other arenas and institutions, and as a result the gender balance of participation and leadership began to change. By framing inequality and oppression in family and personal relations as a political question, the women’s movement opened up public discussion of issues previously seen as private, and therefore beyond public scrutiny. The women’s movement changed the way we talk, and the way we think. As a result, arguably most young women now believe that their options are or at least should be as open as men’s.

Despite the dramatic accomplishments of the women’s movement, and the acceptance of women’s equality as a goal in most sectors of U.S. society, gender equality has not yet been achieved. Many more women work outside the home but most continue to be concentrated in low-paying jobs; women earn, on the average, considerably less than men; women are much more likely than men to be poor. Violence against women is still widespread. Responsibility for childcare remains largely the responsibility of women; despite the fact that most women work outside the home, nowhere is it seen as a societal rather than a familial responsibility. In the 1960s and 1970s feminists protested the imbalance in power between men and women in family and personal relations. But these continue to exist.

Worst of all, there is no longer a mass women’s movement. There are many organizations working for women’s equality in the public arena and in private institutions; these include specifically women’s organizations such as the National Organization for Women, and in environmental, health care, social justice and other areas that address women’s issues. But, where there were once women’s organizations with large participatory memberships there are now bureaucratic structures run by paid staff. Feminist theory, once provocative and freewheeling, has lost concern with the conditions of women’s lives and has become pretentious and tired. This raises two questions. Why is there so little discussion of the near-disappearance of a movement that not so long ago was strong enough to bring about major changes in the social and cultural landscape? What are the causes of the movement’s decline?

Why the Silence?

The decline of the women’s movement has coincided with a right-wing attack on feminism, and with the decline of other activist movements. The civil rights and Black Power movements are considerably weaker and more fragmented now than they were a few decades ago. The environmental activist and gay and lesbian rights movements have lost coherence and direction. Many feminists and other progressives have resisted public discussion of the weaknesses of these movements, arguing that any acknowledgement of them provides the right with ammunition. But this is not a valid reason to avoid examining a movement’s problems. There is no place other than the public arena for holding such a discussion. The causes of the decline of these movements are more complicated than can be dealt with by circling the wagons. Right wing attacks have played a role in damaging some feminist projects, such as abortion rights, but the overall decline of the women’s movement has much more to do with a loss of a sense of urgency within than with attacks from without.

It is my impression that the real reason for avoiding or suppressing criticisms within the movement is fear that discussing the movement’s problems will hasten a process of unraveling that is already well underway. Movements are fragile; the glue that holds them together consists not only in belief in the causes that they represent, but also confidence in their own growing strength. Especially when a movement is in decline it is tempting to silence criticism and turn to whistling in the dark, in the hope that no one will notice that something has gone wrong. But problems that are not acknowledged or discussed are not likely to go away; it is more likely that they will worsen. Understanding why a movement has declined may not lead to the revival of that movement as it was in the past, but it may help in finding new directions.

Reluctance to look at the weaknesses of the current women’s movement may also have to do with the fear that second wave, or contemporary, feminism could disappear, sharing the fate of first wave feminism. The first women’s movement in the United States, which took place in the latter part of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, was almost wiped from historical memory during the four-decade interlude between the two waves of feminist activism. It was the weaknesses of first wave feminism, most of which have not been shared by feminism’s second wave, that made this possible. First wave feminism was largely confined to white, middle and upper-middle class women. First wave feminism also moved, over the course of its history, towards a narrowness of vision that isolated it from other progressive movements. The first feminist movement in the United States originated in the abolitionist movement. In its early years feminism’s alliance with the anti-slavery movement, and its association with other protest movements of the pre-Civil War decades, gave it a radical cast. But when the Civil War ended and suffrage was extended to former slaves but not to women, much of the women’s movement abandoned its alliance with blacks. In the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, racist and anti-immigrant sentiment spread within the middle class. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth the women’s movement narrowed its focus to winning woman’s suffrage, and leading feminists turned to racist and anti-immigrant arguments on behalf of that goal. Other currents in the women’s movement, such as the women’s trade union movement, avoided racism and continued to link feminism with a radical perspective. But by the late nineteenth century the mainstream woman suffrage organizations dominated the women’s movement. By the time woman’s suffrage was won, first wave feminism had abandoned any broader agenda and had distanced itself from other progressive movements. Feminism was easily pushed aside by the conservative forces that became dominant in the twenties.

The impact of second wave feminism has been broader and deeper than that of the first wave. Whatever direction U.S. politics may take it is hard to imagine feminism being wiped off the slate as it was in the thirties, forties and fifties. In the last three decades feminism has changed women’s lives and thinking in ways that are not likely to be reversed. Where first wave feminism collapsed into a single-issue focus, second wave feminism has in many respects broadened. Second wave feminism had its limitations in its early years. Though participants included women of color and of working class backgrounds, their route into the movement was through the same student and professional circles through which white middle class women found feminism. The presence of women of color and working class women did not mean that feminism was being adopted within these communities. Second wave feminists, especially in the intoxicating early years of the movement, tended to believe that they could speak for all women. Such claims contained a small grain of truth, but ignored the composition of the movement, which was overwhelmingly young, white, college educated, heterosexual, and drawn from the post-Second World War middle class.

Unlike first wave feminism, the second wave broadened over time, in its composition and, in important respects, in its perspective. In the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian feminism emerged as a current within the movement. Women of color began to articulate their own versions of feminism, and working class women, who had not been part of the movement’s early constituency of students and professionals, began to organize around demands for equal treatment at the workplace and in unions, for childcare, and for reproductive rights. Where first wave feminism pulled back, over time, from its early alliances with the black movement and other radical currents, second wave feminism increasingly allied itself with progressive movements, especially with movements of people of color and with the gay and lesbian movement. Second wave feminists also developed increasing sensitivity to racial differences, and differences of sexual orientation, within the women’s movement.

From a Movement to an Idea

The heyday of the women’s movement was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s a feminist perspective, or identity, spread widely and a diffuse feminist consciousness is now found nearly everywhere. There are now countless activist groups and social and cultural projects whose goals and approaches are informed by feminism. There are women’s organizations with diverse, grassroots constituencies focusing on issues of concern to working class women and women of color. There is the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, dealing with the problems of working class women and women of color. There are many local groups with similar concerns; an example from California is the Mothers of East Los Angeles, which has played an important role in environmental justice struggles. There is Women’s Action for New Directions (previously Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament), bringing women of color and white women together around issues of health and the environment. There are many others. Nevertheless, grassroots activism is not the dominant, or most visible, sector of the women’s movement. Public perception of feminism is shaped by the staff-run organizations whose concerns are those of their upper middle class constituencies and by the publications of feminists in the academy. The mass diffusion of feminist consciousness, the bureaucratization of leading women’s organizations, and the high visibility of academic feminism are all consequences of the acceptance of feminism by major sectors of society. But these changes have not necessarily been good for the movement. Feminism has simultaneously become institutionalized and marginalized. It has been rhetorically accepted, but the wind has gone out of its sails.

Feminist activism has not ceased, nor have the numbers of women engaged in feminist activity or discussion declined. Millions of U.S. women talk to each other about women’s concerns, using the vocabulary of feminism. There are countless organized feminist projects, focusing on domestic violence, reproductive rights and women’s health. There are international networks of women continuing efforts begun at the international meeting of women at Beijing in 1995. Young feminist writers are publishing books addressed to, or speaking for, their generation.

The proliferation of feminist activism is part of a broader pattern. The numbers of people involved in community, social justice, and progressive activism generally appears to have increased since the 1970s (though there is no way of counting the numbers of people involved). Feminist activism is not an exception to this trend, especially if one includes in this category women’s involvement in the environmental and public health movements, addressing women’s issues among others. The fact that feminist perspectives have been adopted by movements outside the women’s movement, by organizations that also include men, is itself an achievement. Women play a role in leadership of the environmental and anti-corporate movements that is at least equal to men’s; feminism is understood by most of these groups to be a major element in their outlook. But these activist projects do not shape the public image of feminism. The organizations and academic networks that shape public perceptions of feminism have become distant from the constituencies that once invigorated them, and have lost focus and dynamism.

Feminism has become more an idea than a movement, and one that often lacks the visionary quality that it once had. The same could be said about progressive movements, or the left, generally: we now have a fairly large and respectable arena in which feminist and progressive ideas are taken for granted. And yet we seem to have little influence on the direction of politics in the United States as a whole, and a kind of “low-grade depression” seems to have settled over the feminist/progressive arena. This is both result and cause of the weakness of the left in recent decades, a response to the widespread acceptance of the view that there is no alternative to capitalism. The women’s movement has been weakened along with other progressive movements by this loss in confidence in the possibility that collective action can bring about social change.

Why the Decline of the Women’s Movement?

In the 1960s and early 1970s the dominant tendency in the women’s movement was radical feminism. At that time the women’s movement included two more or less distinct tendencies. One of these called itself Socialist Feminism (or, at times, Marxist Feminism) and understood the oppression of women as intertwined with other forms of oppression, especially race and class, and tried to develop a politics that would challenge all of these simultaneously. The other tendency called itself Radical Feminism. Large-R Radical Feminists argued that the oppression of women was primary, that all other forms of oppression flowed from gender inequality.

Feminist radicals of both stripes insisted that the inequality of the sexes in the public sphere was inseparable from that in private life; radical feminism demanded equality for women in both spheres. And despite disagreements among themselves about the relationship between the oppression of women and other forms of oppression, radical feminists agreed that equality between women and men could not exist by itself, in a society otherwise divided by inequalities of wealth and power. The goal of radical feminism was an egalitarian society, and new kinds of community, based on equality.

During the 1960s and 1970s the radical current within the women’s movement propelled the whole movement forward, but it was the demand for women’s entry into the workplace, on equal terms with men, that gained most ground. The more radical feminist demands for an egalitarian society and new kinds of community could not be won so easily. Though the liberal and radical wings of the women’s movement differed in their priorities, their demands were not sharply divided. Radical feminists wanted gender equality in the workplace, and most liberal feminists wanted a more egalitarian society. Affirmative action was not only a tool of privileged women. In an article in the Spring 1999 issue of Feminist Studies, Nancy McLean points out that working women used this policy to struggle for equality at the workplace, both opening up traditionally male jobs for women and creating a working class component of the women’s movement. As long as the women’s movement was growing and was gaining influence, demands for equal access to the workplace and for broad social equality complemented one another.

But a movement’s demands, once won, can have different consequences than intended. Affirmative action campaigns were on the whole more effective in the professions than elsewhere, and it was educated, overwhelmingly white, women who were poised to take advantage of these opportunities. This was in large part due to the failure of the labor movement to organize women and people of color. The class and racial tilt of affirmative action was also a result of the accelerating stratification of U.S. society in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the growing gap between the lower and higher rungs of the economy. The gains made by working women for access to higher-paid jobs could not offset the effects of widening class divisions. From the early 1970s on, the standard of living of workers generally declined. Women, who were poorer to begin with, suffered the worst consequences.

The radical feminist vision became stalled, torn apart by factionalism and by intense sectarian ideological conflicts. By the latter part of the 1970s, a cultural feminism, aimed more at creating a feminist subculture than at changing social relations generally, had taken the place formerly occupied by radical feminism. Alice Echols’ book Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 describes these developments accurately and empathetically. Ruth Rosen’s recent survey of the women’s movement, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, includes a clear-eyed account of the impact of these developments on the women’s movement generally. Ordinarily, such sectarianism occurs in movements that are failing, but the women’s movement, at the time, was strong and growing. The problem was the very large gap between the social transformation that radical feminists wanted and the possibility of bringing it about, at least in the short run. The movement itself became the terrain for the construction of, if not a new society, at least a new woman. The degree of purity that feminists demanded of one another was bound to lead to disappointment and recriminations.

I think that radical feminism became somewhat crazed for the same reasons that much of the radical movement did during the same period. In the late 1960s and early 1970s many radicals not only adopted revolution as their aim but also thought that revolution was within reach in the United States. Different groups had different visions of revolution. There were feminist, black, anarchist, Marxist-Leninist, and other versions of revolutionary politics, but the belief that revolution of one sort or another was around the corner cut across these divisions. The turn toward revolution was not in itself a bad thing; it showed an understanding of the depth of the problems that the movement confronted. But the idea that revolution was within reach in the United States in these years was unrealistic. The war in Vietnam had produced a major crisis in U.S. society. Protest against the war, combined with protest against racism and sexism, led some to think that it had become possible to create a new society. In fact, the constituency for revolution, however conceived, was limited mostly to students and other young people, and this was not enough for a revolution. When the war ended the broad constituency of the protest movement evaporated, isolating its radical core. Radical feminism lasted longer than other insurgencies due to the continuing strength of the women’s movement as a whole, and the ongoing receptivity of many feminists to radical ideas. But by the 1980s radical feminism, at least as an activist movement with a coherent agenda, also became marginal to politics in the United States.

Affirmative action for women constituted an effort toward gender equality in the workplace, a goal not yet achieved. But the success of the women’s movement in opening up the professions to women, ironically, has had the effect of narrowing the movement’s perspective and goals. When it was mostly made up of young people, and infused with radical ideas, feminism was able to develop a perspective that was in many ways independent of, and critical of, the class from which most feminists were drawn. Now, although there are important new, younger feminist voices, the largest part of the organized women’s movement consists of women of my generation, the generation that initiated second wave feminism. I am not suggesting that people necessarily become less radical as they get older. I think that what happens to people’s politics depends as much on the times, and the political activity that they engage in, as it does on their age. In a period when radicalism has been made to seem irrelevant even for the young, it is easy for a movement whose leadership is mostly made up of middle aged, middle class professionals to drift into something like complacency.

This of course does not describe the whole women’s movement. What we now have is a women’s movement composed on the one hand of relatively cautious organizations such as the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and others, as well as more daring but also less visible organizations concerned with specific issue grassroots organizing. What we do not have is a sector of the women’s movement that does what radical feminism once did, that addresses the issue of women’s subordination generally, and places it within a critique of society as a whole. Liberal feminism lost the ERA, but it did accomplish many things. Largely due to liberal feminist organizing efforts, young women and girls now have opportunities that did not exist a few decades ago, and expectations that would have seemed wildly unrealistic to earlier generations.

Radical versions of feminism still exist, but more in the academy and among intellectuals than among organizers. Some feminists have continued to work at bridging this gap, both in their intellectual work and in engagement with grassroots movements. The growing numbers of women, including feminists, in the academy, has meant that many students have been introduced to feminist and progressive ideas, and feminist and progressive writings have influenced the thinking of a wide audience. But on the whole, feminists in the academy, along with the progressive wing of academics generally, lack a clear political agenda, and have often become caught up in the logic and values of the university. In the arena of high theory, and to some extent cultural studies, both of which are closely associated with feminism, the pursuit of status, prestige, and stardom has turned feminist and progressive values on their head. Instead of the 1960s’ radical feminist critique of hierarchy, we have a kind of reveling in hierarchy and in the benefits that come with rising to the top of it.

Though the contemporary women’s movement has avoided the racial and ethnic biases, and the single-issue focus, that plagued the early feminist movement, it resembles first-wave feminism in having gradually lost its critical distance from its own middle and upper middle class position. First wave feminism narrowed, over the course of its history, not only in relation to the issue of race but also in relation to the issues of capital and class. In the pre-Civil War years, first wave feminism was part of a loose coalition of movements within which radical ideas circulated, including critical views of industrial capitalism. In the late nineteenth century, as the structures of industrial capitalism hardened and class conflict intensified, feminists played important roles in the reform movements that championed poor and working class people, and some sections of the women’s movement criticized capitalism and reached out to labor. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, for instance, criticized the exploitation of labor by capital and entertained support for “gospel socialism” as “Christianity in action.” In the early years of the twentieth century the alliance between feminism and socialism continued within the Socialist Party. But after the turn of the century mainstream feminists moved away from any critique of capitalism, instead identifying women’s interests and values with those of the upper middle class. By the time first wave feminism disappeared it had lost any critical perspective on capitalism or on its own class origins.

Feminism Has Absorbed the Perspective of the Middle Class

Like first wave feminism, contemporary feminism has over time tended to absorb the perspective of the middle class from which it is largely drawn. Meanwhile the perspective of that class has changed. Over the last several decades, under the impact of increasing economic insecurity and widening inequalities, the pursuit of individual advancement has become an increasingly important focus within the middle class. Community engagement has weakened for many, perhaps most, middle class people. For many people, especially professionals, work has become something of a religion; work is the only remaining source of identity that seems valid. Meanwhile the workplace has become, for many, more competitive and more stressful. This is not just a problem of the workplace, but of the culture as a whole. This country has become increasingly individualistic, cold, and selfish. And feminism has not noticeably challenged this. The feminist demand for equal workplace access was and remains important; for most women this demand has not been achieved. But the most visible sector of the women’s movement appears to have substituted aspirations toward material success for the demand for social equality and community. This evolution, from the radical and transforming values of its early years, has been so gradual that it has been easy for those involved not to notice it. But it is a reflection of the shifting perspectives of women who were once part of a radical movement and now find themselves in settings governed by a different set of values.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many feminists thought that if only we could get more women into the universities, the universities would be transformed and would become less elitist, less competitive, more humane, and more concerned with addressing social problems. We now have a lot of women in the universities, and it is not clear that the universities have changed for the better. Indeed, in many respects the universities are worse, especially in regard to the growing pursuit of corporate funds and the resultant spread of the market ethos. But so far neither women in general nor feminists in particular have been especially prominent in challenging these trends and demanding a more humane, less competitive, or less hierarchical university. Feminist academics have not in recent years been particularly notable for their adherence to such values. There are some areas of academic feminism where there is open discussion, where people treat each other with respect, and where everyone involved is treated as an equal participant towards a common purpose. But in too much of feminist academia this is not the case. In the arena of high theory, the most prestigious sector of academic feminism, competition and the pursuit of status are all too often uppermost.

The shift in values that has taken place in the women’s movement has been part of a broader trend. In a period of sharpening economic and social divisions, characterized by corporate demand for greater and greater profits and the canonizing of greed, a whole generation has been seized by the desire to rise to the top. Feminists are no exception to this. The image of the feminist as careerist is not merely a fantasy promulgated by hostile media. Put differently, feminists, at least those in academia and in the professions, have been no more overtaken by these values than other members of the middle class. But to say this is to admit that feminists have lost their grip on a vision of a better world.

Contemporary feminism emerged out of the rebellion of young middle class women against domesticity, and their demand for careers outside the home, which was one side of the gender politics of the 1960s and early 1970s. The other side was rebellion against work in a corporate-driven society on the part of the young men of the New Left, and their never fully defined demand for something more meaningful. Christopher Lasch’s posthumously published collection of essays, Women and the Common Life (Norton, 1997) argues, in an essay entitled “The Sexual Division of Labor, The Decline of Civil Culture, and the Rise of the Suburbs,” that these critiques were both correct and were in principle complementary. He argued that each view suffered from failing to take the other into account, and that the division between these critiques reflected the excessive distance between the spheres of work and family. He called for equal participation of the sexes in the home and a workplace made more human by incorporation of a feminist critique.

I think that we need an updated version of 1960s radicalism which would include both socialist and feminist perspectives and address itself to the increased power of the corporations and influence of marketplace values. Most feminists would disavow the individualism and the pursuit of success that has become such a prominent part of culture in the United States. But I think that most of us live according to these values anyway: we measure our value by our success at work, and we let little stand in the way of it. It is taken for granted that success in life can be measured, in large part, by the achievement of wealth and status, through work. These values may have taken hold most strongly within the professional middle class, but they have extended far beyond it as well; they are reinforced by economic insecurity, the fear of falling behind, losing one’s job, falling to the bottom.

It is difficult, even for radicals, to maintain a different set of values, when institutions and social relations outside of work have become so weakened, when nothing but achievement at work seems to hold much social value. Our communities have dwindled. We regret this but most of us respond by further throwing ourselves into our work. I think we need a critique of, and an alternative to, an increasingly unfettered capitalism, which intensifies social divisions, puts a price on everything, and draws all arenas of life into its vortex. One can think of the radical feminist demand for equality and community as quaint, or one can see it as a precondition for a contemporary radical program.


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