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The Broader Picture

Hester Eisenstein, teaches sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York. She is the author of Contemporary Feminist Thought (G.K. Hall,1983), and Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State (Temple University Press, 1996). She is working on a book concerning gender, globalization, and the international women’s movement.

I take it as given that in publishing this piece Barbara Epstein sought to stir up controversy. I take it also that her effort seeks to revive feminism, rather than to bury it. And I agree with her notion that the situation of the women’s movement should be a subject for critical analysis. But I am surprised that such an acute observer of social movements should paint a picture so isolated from the larger political and economic context. In this response I will try to add some pieces of the broader picture.

First, it is true, as Barbara states, that what was a mass movement in the 1970s in the United States has now, over thirty years later, devolved into a series of groups and organizations devoted to particular issues. But while the visible women’s movement has apparently declined in strength within the United States, it is growing, albeit unevenly, throughout the rest of the world, aided and abetted by globalized communications.1

The global struggle for women’s rights is widely acknowledged as a significant force, even by the mainstream press: the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing “put women’s issues squarely on the international agenda and energized reform efforts around the world.”2

Second, in assessing the current state of the women’s movement, we need to take into account the scope and ambition of the movement as framed by radical feminists in the 1970s. Second wave feminism set out confidently (if naively) to liberate all women. In the thirty years since the revived movement—with its liberal and radical wings—began, the agenda for change has expanded steadily. From incest, rape, and the battering of women and children, to equal pay and reproductive rights, from freedom of sexual expression to ecofeminism, from black, Chicana, and Asian–American feminism to global feminism, the range of issues and campaigns undertaken by women activists is now so broad and so wide–reaching that it is impossible to list them in a brief compass.

But beneath the proliferation of issues and campaigns, there is a more profound point. Rarely in history has there been a movement so diverse, so complex, and so ambitious as the contemporary women’s movement. It is clear now, if it was not early on, that this simple idea of liberating women, if taken seriously, would entail the dismantling of virtually all of the structures of society, from the family, to the state, to the political economy of the entire world. The time line for judging the successes and failures of this movement needs to be extended from a mere one or two generations. What Juliet Mitchell famously termed “the longest revolution” should not be gauged by its vicissitudes in an increasingly reactionary U.S. political climate.3

And this brings me to my third point: Epstein’s analysis barely mentions the powerful forces that were brought to bear on the women’s movement the minute it began to demonstrate a capacity to bring about meaningful change. Most observers count the Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 (placing abortion under the protection of the privacy doctrine implied in the U.S. Constitution) as the high–water mark of feminist political influence. This was also the moment when the long march of the right–wing fundamentalist–corporate alliance began, with Paul Weyrich and other strategists specifically targeting women’s liberation as the enemy around which to construct a new conservative coalition.4

In asking what happened to the women’s movement, would it not be important to point to the economic restructuring of the 1970s and 1980s, which successfully rolled back the influence of trade unions, and began the increasing polarization of wealth and income that has left so many women (and men) in poverty? And should we not take account of the ideological war that accompanied these economic and political shifts? The backlash against feminism, so ably encapsulated in Susan Faludi’s book, targeted the women’s movement, along with the civil rights movement, the gay and lesbian movement, black and Hispanic welfare mothers, and illegal immigration as the main sources of social disruption, thus creating a brilliantly successful diversion from the real engines of social change.5 The confusion created in the mind of the public was brought home to me several years ago in an introductory Women’s Studies course, when one of my male students announced that women were the major cause of the budget deficit of the late 1980s. If the women’s movement has lost some of its clout, this is at least in part due to the sea change in U.S. politics.

And speaking of Women’s Studies, my fourth point is a response to Epstein’s lament that academic feminists have become elitists, who have buried themselves in work for the sake of success. The creation of Women’s Studies programs staffed by senior scholars has provided secure places within academic life where the ideas and the history of the women’s movement can be taught to new generations, and where the conflicts arising from the differing perspectives of women of color, lesbians, and younger women are aired and debated. It is true that feminist scholarship has produced some high flyers, who have mastered the “star system” of academe, and who have been richly rewarded for their capacity to speak the arcane languages of postmodernism, poststructuralism, and queer theory. The same is true for some Black Studies scholars. But if one major goal of feminism, like that of the civil rights movement, was access, that is, the right of women and men of working class and diverse ethnic backgrounds to occupy all of the positions and statuses previously only available to bourgeois white men, then we can hardly gripe if some have reached the higher altitudes of academic life.

It is unfair, though, to mention this without also mentioning the serious scholars who have thrown themselves into the struggle to save public education, as a crucial part of the public sector. At the City University of New York an insurgent group called the New Caucus won the leadership of the Professional Staff Congress (the faculty and staff union) in 2000. Barbara Bowen, the new president of the union, is a brilliant Shakespeare scholar and feminist who has turned all of her considerable academic and analytic skills toward the struggle to restore CUNY to its rightful place as the premier public university of New York City.6

Finally, I think that an analysis of the current state of the women’s movement needs to address the current economic and political situation. Epstein’s most serious charge is that “feminists have lost their grip on a vision of a better world”(12). But which feminists is she talking about? It would be perhaps more useful to say that the feminist visions of the 1970s need to be revised and updated for a new era of political struggle. It is noteworthy that Angela Davis, one of the most important black feminist theoretical writers of our time, is leading a campaign for a new abolitionist movement, seeking to end both prison and the death penalty.7 The Women of Color Resource Center, based in Berkeley, California, runs workshops for women activists, using their practical and imaginative workbook that relates structural adjustment programs in the low–income countries to welfare “reform” in the United States.8 One could cite many more examples of women’s activism on a range of fronts, from immigration rights to the antiglobalization struggle. I agree with Epstein that “we need a critique of, and an alternative to, an increasingly unfettered capitalism…” But I would argue that many feminists, both in the United States and around the world, are turning their attention precisely to this project.


  1. See Amrita Basu, “Introduction,” in Basu, ed., The Challenge of Local Feminisms (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).
  2. Ellis Cose, “Shining a Light on Our ‘Dark Corners,’” Time, July 16, 2001, 29, comparing Beijing to the August 2001 international UN conference on racism, Durban, South Africa.
  3. Juliet Mitchell, “The Longest Revolution,” New Left Review 40 (November–December 1966); reprinted in The Longest Revolution (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 17–54.
  4. See Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, Abortion and Woman’s Choice (Boston: Northeastern University Press, rev. ed., 1990), 241 ff.
  5. Susan Faludi, Backlash (New York: Crown Publishers, 1992).
  6. See the union website
  7. See Angela Davis and Gina Dent, “Prison as a Border: A Conversation on Gender, Globalization, and Punishment,” Signs 26, (Summer 2001): 1235–41.
  8. Miriam Louie and Linda Burnham, Women’s Education in the Global Economy (Berkeley: Women of Color Resource Center, 2000). They can be contacted at 2288 Fulton Street, Berkeley, CA 94704; (510) 848–9272; or

2001, Volume 53, Issue 05 (October)

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