Linda Nicholson (1986)

photo of Linda Nicholson

Gender & History, Chapter 1

The Contemporary Women's Movement

Source: Gender & History (1986) publ. Columbia University Press. Just the first chapter, Contemporary Women's Movement and Chapter on Karl Marx, reproduced here.

IN THE LATE 1960s the women's movement in the United States formulated the slogan, "The personal is political." Many of the women who took up this slogan had been active in the various protest movements of the sixties. The slogan was directed in part to other activists and was created to justify attention to a new cause: the personal relations between men and women. Such justification was perceived necessary because of the widely held attitude that the practices which took place between women and men acting qua women and men stood outside the domain of politics. For the activists of the 1960s, if these practices were not political, they were not appropriate objects for the scrutiny and struggle for change that were demanded by the relations between, for example, different racial groups. The early feminists intended to challenge this attitude through this slogan.

At one level the slogan expressed what was clearly false. Modern Western society appears obviously split between the two spheres of family or personal life on the one hand and public life on the other. The term "political" has been traditionally limited to describing the interactions within the public sphere, supposedly different in content from the interactions of private life. The feminists responded that apparent differences in content were often illusory; they argued that power dynamics, for example, existed in both. They added that the relations between the sexes, like relations between other social groups, were regulated by societal rules. The difficulties individual women experienced in their "private" lives were shared by other women and consequently were not "personal." Moreover, they argued that the supposedly private nature of gender shaped and was shaped by the content of social relations outside as well as inside the home. Thus the early feminists proclaimed that the popular ideology which placed personal relations between the sexes outside politics created obstacles against an adequate understanding of such relations.

To use the terminology of contemporary philosophy, the slogan "The personal is political" expressed a stipulative definition; intended was a change in traditional understandings of the term "political." Something more than language use, however, was also at stake. Descriptions of social reality bear a curious relation to the reality they are about; in part such descriptions help constitute the reality. In this case, the popular belief in a distinctness of the realms of personal and public life has been an important ingredient in keeping the realms separate. To challenge this belief was thus in part to challenge the reality constituted by it. In short, the slogan "The personal is political" expressed a stipulative and constitutive definition. It was stipulative in that it sought to redefine the term "politics" and constitutive in that such a new definition must in turn affect the reality being defined. The slogan was thus itself a political statement; by its very utterance it sought to make a change in social reality.

The slogan provides, I believe, an important clue to understanding the significance of the contemporary women's movement and marks it as unique as a political movement. This uniqueness is reflected not only within the political practice. Rather I wish to argue, and this will be a central argument of this book, that the theory which is currently being developed by those active in the contemporary women's movement represents a comparably unique contribution to existing political theory. The attention contemporary feminist practice has given to gender relations and the family is reflected within feminist theory in the study of both as necessary components of political theory. The consequence, I intend to show, carries serious implications for existing political theory.

As a preliminary step toward making this argument, I shall describe in this chapter the role the slogan has played in the politics of the contemporary women's movement, particularly as this movement has existed in the United States. It should be noted that the slogan only arose within a certain section of the movement and so cannot be attributed to the movement per se without qualification. The different parts of the contemporary women's movement have had a changing and complex relationship among themselves. Indeed, at certain points in the 1960s it would have been misleading to talk about "the" women's movement. In the late 1960s there existed at least two very different movements. The mass media recognised this difference in their distinction between what they called the "women's rights" movement versus what they dubbed "women's lib," the latter a pejorative shortening of the term "women's liberation." The "women's rights" movement was composed primarily of those professional women who initiated activities in the mid 1960s and who were involved in such organisations as the National Organisation for Women. "Women's liberation," on the other hand, was largely constituted by younger women who were active in the 1960s' protest movements of the New Left and whose concern with women's issues began to receive national attention only toward the latter part of the decade. It is from within "women's liberation" that the tendency "radical feminism" emerged, the label intended as a means of distinguishing it from the "liberal feminism" expressed in the "women's rights" movement. While radical feminism distinguished itself from a feminism more "on the right," there was also dialogue and confrontation with those "on the left" and in particular with women who identified more strongly with Marxism and labelled themselves "Marxist feminists."

One of the important sources of difference among "liberal," "radical," and "Marxist" feminists has concerned the nature of their respective endorsements of the slogan "The personal is political." Only within radical feminism was the endorsement unambiguous; some of the early exponents of radical feminism broke out of the New Left with precisely this banner. Liberal feminism and Marxist feminism have had a more complicated relationship to the slogan. In fact, an important source of tension within both has had to do with the question, "How political is the personal?" The differing assessments by liberal, radical, and Marxist feminists of the relation between personal and public life is related in turn to fundamental differences in the underlying theories of each on the nature of social life.

Liberal Feminism

To understand these differences it is helpful to go back to the early 1960s and the re-emergence of "women's rights" as a topic of political discussion in the United States. Following the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting women suffrage, the issue had remained relatively dormant for almost forty years. Two events of the early 1960s are often credited as important in marking the end of the silence; the publication in 1963 of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and the establishment of a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women by John F. Kennedy in 1961. That The Feminine Mystique became a best-seller soon after its publication seemed to indicate a widespread discontent with the prevalent national ideal of the "happy housewife." At least as articulated by Friedan, women's daily life in the suburbs deviated significantly from its popular image and possessed a multitude of negative features. Women consequently needed to begin questioning their exclusion from all those spheres of activity which had become predominantly viewed as the domain of men. A similar questioning of women's exclusion from non-domestic life was expressed in the document American Women, released in 1963, the official report of Kennedy's commission. While that document did not challenge traditional conceptions of women's place within the family, it did argue forcefully against women's exclusion from other domains. While endorsing "the fundamental responsibility of mothers and home-makers and society's stake in strong family life," the commission also put forth such recommendations as for the increased availability of day care services for everyone regardless of family income and for tax deductions for the child care expenses of working mothers. Kennedy's original commission spawned a variety of governmental agencies, including a Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women, an Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women, and various state Commissions on the Status of Women. These groups began to provide a forum for discussion of women's status within the law as well as a means of contact for those interested in making changes in that status. Of special importance was a meeting of the National Conference of State Commissions, held in the summer of 1966 in Washington, D.C. Out of that conference emerged NOW, the National Organisation for Women. It grew out of the need felt by some that an extra-governmental action group exist which would put pressure on existing governmental bodies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The existence of NOW was officially announced at a press conference on October 29, 1966, with Betty Friedan becoming its first president. The purpose of the organisation was stated as the following: "To take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men." The political stance of NOW is further illustrated in the Women's Bill of Rights which it drew up at its second national conference in November 1967 in Washington, D.C. The Bill of Rights was to be presented to the platform committees of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as all major candidates running for national office in the 1968 election. It was composed of the following eight demands:

  1. Equal Rights Constitutional Amendment
  2. Enforcement Laws Banning Sex Discrimination in Employment
  3. Maternity Leave Rights in Employment and in Social Security Benefits
  4. Tax Deduction for Home and Child Care Expenses for Working Parents
  5. Child Care Centers
  6. Equal and Unsegregated Education
  7. Equal Job Training Opportunities and Allowances for Women in Poverty
  8. The Right of Women to Control Their Reproductive Lives.

Two of the above planks brought controversy. The first demand supporting a constitutional equal rights amendment was opposed by women from the United Auto Workers. That union with others was officially against such an amendment on the grounds that it would conflict with various state protective laws. Demand 7 was fought by other women who argued that abortion was not a women's rights issue; they subsequently left NOW when NOW endorsed this demand.

The statement of purpose and statement of demands express a particular emphasis: a concern to eliminate those obstacles barring the full participation of women in non-domestic activities. Certainly some of the above demands, such as demands 5 and 8 concerning childcare and reproductive rights, also touch on issues relating to women's "personal" lives. However, even these in the context of the other demands and the statement of purpose appear as means to ensure a more primary end: the ability of women to participate equally with men in activities and occupations outside the home. What also can be concluded from the above is an emphasis within NOW on making changes within the law to bring about this end. All the above eight demands are ones that could be brought about by legal means. This, of course, is not surprising, in that the demands were developed for endorsement by political parties and candidates. The point, however, is that NOW viewed such activity as crucial on its agenda. That it did so followed from the motivation behind its genesis: that there exist an extra-governmental action organisation which would work to put pressure on existing governmental bodies to bring about legal change.

However, while in the mid and late sixties it may have been correct to describe the politics of NOW or other liberal feminist organisations such as WEAL (Women's Equity Action League) or BPW (Business and Professional Women) in this way-as concerned primarily with women's ability to function equally with men outside the home-this characterisation has become increasingly problematic. Liberal feminists, like many others, have steadily focused their attention on women's personal lives. Thus liberal feminists, with others, have discussed such topics as "the politics of housework," the demeaning portrayals of women in television and advertising, the oppressive nature of traditional understandings of women's sexuality, etc. There are complex reasons for this growing attention by liberal feminists to personal issues as ends in themselves. Many follow from widespread societal changes which will be discussed at greater length in the following chapter. For now it simply can be noted that issues associated with personal life have, during the twentieth century, steadily become issues of public concern for American society at large, and this has been manifest in many aspects of American life, including but not limited to the women's movement. Thus a defining aspect of the New Left of the 1960s and that which distinguished it from the old left was a concern with matters of "consciousness" and "lifestyle." The New Left itself was affected by the "beat generation" which preceded it and the "hippie" movement which was a part of it, both of which placed a strong emphasis on matters personal and viewed them in political terms. Apart from the New Left there has existed a widespread national concern over social mores regarding marriage and sexuality. Thus that many liberal feminists have come to incorporate a focus on personal relations within their concern for "women's rights" is understandable within the context of an existing general societal concern with such issues. Moreover, many liberal feminists, as a consequence of their feminism, have taken note of the strong arguments made by more radical feminists, that the achievement of parity with men outside the home necessitates changes in traditional patterns within the home. They have thus increasingly come to recognise the interconnection of domestic and non-domestic life.

Of course, the degree to which domestic life is believed to be in need of change varies widely within the national culture, and part of this variance is also reflected in the women's movement, still creating important differences between liberal feminism and its more radical allies. It is one thing to argue that women should retain their surnames in marriage or that women and men should share housework responsibilities. It is something quite different to protest the privileged status given to heterosexuality as a mode of sexuality or more radically to argue against its desirability for women. Thus an increasing unanimity on the position that traditional mores governing personal relations need to be changed coexists with important divisions concerning the extent of the changes believed to be needed. Thus while liberal feminism may have increasingly accepted the dictum that "The personal is political," this has coexisted with a tendency toward caution in making such politics revolutionary.

Connected with the difference in conceptions of how radically domestic life needs to be changed are other differences concerning how radically non-domestic life needs to be changed. Liberal feminism has tended to accept the basic structures of existing political and economic institutions, pressing hardest on the need to make them accessible to women. This contrasts with the leftist perspective present in varying degrees in radical feminism and strongly in Marxist feminism which sees such institutions as hierarchical, competitive, and individualistic.

This latter difference between liberal feminism and its more radical allies has had important consequences concerning their respective positions on the relation of private and public life. While liberal feminism, like other versions of feminism, tends to be sympathetic toward redefining the relation of private and public, for liberal feminism this often means the subsumption of the private under the public. In this respect there is a close similarity between liberal feminism and twentieth-century welfare state liberalism, as both look to the extension of state functions as a means of alleviating social problems. Both positions reflect that movement within the twentieth century for the state to extend its domain, taking over in many contexts activities thought previously to be the province of the family and the household. Examples are the further development of public education and the emergence of social security, welfare, and public health agencies. Such phenomena, in conjunction with increased state regulation, both in regard to familial matters and also in regard to economic activities, have caused some to speak of the creation of a new domain altogether: the sphere of the "social," a sphere of state control arising on the collapse of old boundaries between the private and the public. Liberal feminism, insofar as it advocates extending this domain to meet the needs of women, can thus be described as supporting that realignment of the private and the public which entails the subsumption of the former under the latter.

This tendency within liberal feminism to view problems in private life as solvable by an extension of public regulation both ties it to classical and contemporary liberalism and differentiates it from many other forms of contemporary feminism. It ties it to classical liberalism insofar as liberalism has classically celebrated, though in different forms in different centuries, the public realm as articulated reason, or law, in ordering social life. Classical liberalism, of course, has also worried about infringements of liberty made possible by a too powerful state. Contemporary liberal feminism, like contemporary welfare state liberalism, tends (though not unequivocally) to view the good accomplished by the extension of such reason or law as outweighing the personal liberties diminished in consequence. Both stances, however, can be differentiated from a growing tendency in radical and left-wing feminism to argue that such a conception of reason or law emphasises traits associated with masculinity, such as the inclination to abstract from particular differences in needs and circumstances and to de-emphasise the importance of compassion and care.' Neo-Marxists and anarchists have argued that in its twentieth-century instrumentalised form, public "reason" has been employed as a means of domination, giving power to the "expert" and turning others into passive clients of state control.' Neo-Marxist and anarchist feminists have pointed out that in the institutionalised form of such "reason," in public bureaucracies, masculine control over women has taken new forms, going beyond traditional paternal modes. They have argued that while the state here may be undermining "patriarchy," at least in its traditional form, this has not necessarily entailed the promotion of gender equality but rather has often merely changed the nature of gender inequality. Women's personal dependence upon individual men has frequently been replaced by a more impersonal subordinate position within the workplace and by a mass dependence on the states' welfare institutions. Private patriarchy, in short, has itself become public.' What all these positions share, therefore, in opposition to liberal feminism, is the recognition that the breakdown of the separation of private and public is insufficient to satisfy feminist requirements but must be conjoined with a restructuring of the public.

Radical Feminism

We can further understand such differences by looking more extensively at that political position known as radical feminism. In part, radical feminism was created by women who had been active in NOW and were dissatisfied with what they perceived of as NOW's conservatism. Thus in 1967 at the annual meeting of NOW subsequent to the one in which the above demands were formulated, a group of New York women allied with Ti-Grace Atkinson left NOW and subsequently formed an early radical feminist organisation, "The October 17th Movement," later called "The Feminists.'' Radical feminism was to a large extent also constituted by women whose previous political activity had been in the diverse organisations of the New Left. This was the case, for example, with such women as Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman, who founded an early radical feminist organisation, Radical Women, in New York City in the fall of 1967. These two women, with others, had earlier presented a series of women's demands to a New Left conference, the National Conference for a New Politics, in the spring of that year. None of the demands were taken seriously, causing them to begin thinking about the necessity of separate women's organisations outside existing groups.

The early organisers of radical feminism shared with the rest of the New Left a belief in the systemic nature of much of political injustice. Thus when these women began to perceive the situation of women as representing a case of this injustice, they employed the adjective "radical" to describe their stance. It signified a commitment to look for root causes. Radical feminists viewed the activities of women who had been involved in NOW or other existing business and professional women's organisations as "reformist," helpful and necessary but fundamentally inconsequential. This view stemmed both from a belief that the criticisms liberal feminism made of relations between women and men in both domestic and non-domestic life did not go far enough, and also, from a belief that liberal feminism had no sense of the importance of gender, and the social relations of domestic life, in structuring all social life. For radical feminism, liberal feminism's belief in the power of the law to remedy inequalities between women and men testified to a lack of insight into the fundamentality of the "sex-role system," those practices and institutions which were important in creating and maintaining sex-role differences. Of particular importance was the family, for it was here that biological men and women learned the cultural constituents of masculinity and femininity, and learned about the fundamental differences of power which, according to radical feminism, were a necessary component of both. A quotation from a manifesto of New York Radical Feminists illustrates the political position:

Radical feminism recognises the oppression of women as a fundamental political oppression wherein women are categorised as an inferior class based upon their sex. It is the aim of radical feminism to organise politically to destroy this sex class system.

As radical feminists we recognise that we are engaged in a power struggle with men, and that the agent of our suppression is man insofar as he identifies with and carries out the supremacy privileges of the male role. For while we realize that the liberation of women will ultimately mean the liberation of men from their destructive role as oppressor, we have no illusion that men will welcome this liberation without a struggle....

The oppression of women is manifested in particular institutions, constituted and maintained to keep women in their place. Among these are the institutions of marriage, motherhood, love and sexual intercourse (the family unit is incorporated by the above).

In sum, for radical feminism, women's inferior political and economic status were mere symptoms of a more fundamental problem: an inferior status and lack of power built into the role of femininity. Radical feminism challenged prevailing beliefs that the constituents of this role, such as women's abilities and interests in child-rearing or lack of assertiveness or even the content of women's sexual interests, were "natural." Rather the argument was made that all but certain limited biological differences between women and men were cultural. The constituents of the sex-role system were social constructions, and more important, such constructions were fundamentally antithetical to the interests of women. The norms embodied in femininity discouraged women from developing their intellectual, artistic, and physical capacities. It dissuaded women from thinking of themselves and from being thought of by others as autonomous agents. Whereas "masculinity" embodied certain traits associated with adulthood, such as physical strength, rationality, and emotional control, "femininity," in part embodied traits associated with childhood, such as weakness and irrationality. The norms of femininity created an emphasis in women's lives on achieving the roles of wife and mother whose outcome was a comparable imbalance between men and women in economic and emotional autonomy. Moreover, while the norms embodied in femininity often worked against women, the norms embodied in masculinity served to create many unattractive beings, those who too frequently were aggressive, selfish, instrumental in their dealings with others, and unskilled in the arts of nurturance and caring. The source of the problem, according to radical feminism, was to be found in the home and family, where girls and boys received their initial and most primary lessons on the differences between the sexes and where adult women and men played out the lessons that they learned. The lessons of gender differences learned and practiced in the home were in turn transferred to the outside world when women did leave the home. Thus when women took paid employment, they replicated and were expected to replicate the practices and inferior status of women which were a part of the home. In sum, according to radical feminism, the inferior status of women as political or economic beings was merely the symptom of a problem whose roots were to be located elsewhere.

Radical feminism also generated new forms of political organising. Organisations such as NOW, WEAL, BPW had engaged in traditional political means to improve women's status. Such groups sent telegrams and lobbied in Congress. Members of NOW sometimes marched or demonstrated. The primary intent of such actions was to bring about changes within the law. While radical feminists also marched and demonstrated, the intent of the action was not always the same. The point was not necessarily to change people's thinking so that they might vote differently but sometimes to change people's thinking so that they might live differently. This conception of political organising was embodied in the phrase "consciousness-raising." In the early years of radical feminism, this was occasionally attempted through street theatre, itself a practice carried out within the New Left. This tactic was employed in Atlantic City in the fall of 1968 at an event which first brought "Women's Lib" to national attention. The New York Radical Women demonstrated outside the Miss America contest, crowning a sheep "Miss America" and throwing such feminine articles of clothing as bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, and wigs into a "Freedom Trash Can."" It was from this event that the media's description of "Women's Lib" as "bra-burners" was generated. The more prevalent form that consciousness-raising took within the early years of "Women's Lib" was small-group discussion. Women came together to discuss the implications of gender in their own lives, which included its personal as well as its political and economic components. What is notable about such groups is that they expressed, and were consciously designed to express, a political statement in their very purpose. The attention that radical feminists gave to the dynamics of personal relations was accompanied by a belief that attention to feelings and personal experience was a necessary condition for eliminating the present sex-role system. Since the components of that system were embedded in deep and complex ways in daily life experience, it was only through careful examination of that experience that the multiple manifestations of gender could be understood and thus changed.

This attention to "personal experience" had immense significance for the direction contemporary American feminism has taken. On a practical level it entailed a rethinking of the nature of social change. On a theoretical level it entailed anew focus on the family as a central institution in structuring social life. To be sure, radical feminism was not the first social movement to devote attention to the family and personal life. Psychoanalytic theory has also been concerned with both the family and sexuality. For many radical feminists, however, much of psychoanalytic theory appeared to reflect uncritically prevalent assumptions concerning gender. For example, psychoanalytic theory did not question the dominant position that men played within the family or within society at large. It often assumed the universal existence of the family type which prevailed in the middle classes in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Western society. In short, psychoanalytic theory did not treat the family as a social institution whose dynamics might be susceptible to criticism and possible change; it did not address the family and gender relations in political terms.

Thus the initial task which faced early radical feminist thinkers was that of creating a theory which both treated the family as a social institution and recognised its centrality in structuring social life as a whole. Thus if for liberalism the state, or public law, has been seen as possessing priority in structuring social life, and if in certain interpretations of Marxism the economy, or sphere of production, has been viewed as the base from which might be explained all other social phenomena, so for radical feminism the family, sometimes described as the sphere of "reproduction," occupies an analogous role. This point was made explicit by Shulamith Firestone, one of the early radical feminist theorists, in her rewriting of Engels:

Historical materialism is that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate course and the great moving power of all historic events in the dialectic of sex: the division of society into two distinct biological classes for procreative reproduction, and the struggles of these classes with one another; in the changes in the modes of marriage, reproduction and childcare created by these struggles; in the connected development of other physically differentiated classes (castes); and in the first division of labor based on sex which developed into the (economic-cultural) class system.

An important problem with Firestone's argument, which surfaces in much, and particularly early, radical feminist writing, is a tendency to resort to biology to ground the analysis. In Firestone's case this tendency manifests itself in her claim that the ultimate causes of women's oppression are biological differences between women and men. That women bear and nurse children makes necessary a basic family form in which women are fundamentally dependent on others in a way in which men are not. This power imbalance between women as a class and men as a class is replicated by a similar imbalance between children and adults. From such biologically based imbalances result the imbalances of power which have marked all human societies. However, for Firestone, biology need not be destiny. Technological developments in the reproduction of children conjoined with cultural changes in child-rearing would end the so far universal "tyranny of the biological family.

As many critics have pointed out, Firestone's account suffers from the obvious problem of ahistoricity. That we associate child-bearing or child-rearing with dependence and devalue those who perform such tasks need not imply that all other societies make or have made similar associations. Similarly, Firestone's account seems to project onto all societies a modem Western nuclear type of family with a certain gender division of labor. This projection seems allied with her association of child-bearing and child-rearing with dependence. If we abstract from our own nuclear family, where individual women are often dependent on individual men, to different family forms with different divisions of labor, then it is easy to see that a pregnant or lactating woman need be no more dependent on a larger social group than any other member of that group. To respond here that any other member possesses a greater possibility of leaving that group because of a greater ease in existing self-sufficiently is to belie both the social nature of human existence and the fact that women are as capable of forsaking children as men.

These problems in Firestone's account bear explicating only because they reflect methodological problems prevalent in radical feminist theory. Within the larger body of that theory there has been a tendency to create transhistorical descriptions and explanations and at times to resort to biology. As Heidi Hartmann notes, the radical feminist emphasis on psychology tends to blind it to history.' Also, the inclination to articulate a transcultural perspective follows from the need to create a theory which will explain the universal phenomenon of female oppression. The emphasis on biology is connected with this need and also with the radical feminist focus on the family, as the family tends to be viewed in modern Western culture in largely biological terms. The contradiction here is that radical feminism's attention to the family and to gender has been motivated by the desire to denaturalise both, to enable us to see both as constructed and changeable. It has been one of the important contributions of radical feminist theory to make the point that women are made and not born. The dilemma for radical feminism has been to retain this awareness of the social construction of gender and the family while also maintaining an awareness of the persistent and deep-seated phenomenon of female oppression and the importance of the family both in generating that oppression and in structuring non-domestic life.

Radical feminist practice and theory has also changed in many ways since its genesis in the late 1960s. One change is a growing attention to issues of race and class. Another is an abandonment of the early reliance on the terminology of "roles" and the "sex-role system." As Alison Jaggar has noted, role terminology implies that women and men have a high degree of choice vis-a-vis gender; role terminology suggests that gender is a kind of mask or script which people may assume or relinquish at will. Also, radical feminism in more recent years describes women's oppression less as a consequence of "the family" and more in terms of specific practices which have been associated with that institution, such as mothering and sexuality.

Indeed, one of the most important changes in radical feminism since the late 1960s has been its increased, explicit focus on sexuality, a change associated with the extension of radical feminism into lesbian feminism. An article which greatly contributed to this development was "The Woman Identified Woman." This paper claimed that women must eliminate the need for male approval and the practice of identifying with male beliefs and values, both central components of a misogynist culture. The authors argued that an important means for women to accomplish such tasks and to remove the self-hate women typically have toward themselves is to love other women, both emotionally and sexually. At the very least, women cannot let the label "dyke" stand in the way of developing such love and removing such self-hatred. More recently, Adrienne Rich has also tied together female self-identification and lesbian sexuality under the phrase, "a lesbian continuum." By using the term "lesbian" to denote not only female homosexuality but also instances "of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support," Rich argues that "We begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of 'lesbianism'.

However, radical feminism has gone even further than stating that there is a connection between lesbianism and women coming to define and love themselves. Made more explicit, both by Rich and others, is the assertion that women's oppression is constituted by heterosexuality. As Catherine MacKinnon puts it, "Sexuality is the Iynch-pin of gender inequality." It is worthwhile examining the following passage from the article in which this point was made for its illustration of the similarities and differences between early radical feminism and more recent forms:

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the moulding, direction, and expression of sexuality organises society into two sexes-women and men-which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organises, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to Marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organised expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class- workers-the organised expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalised to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

MacKinnon, like Firestone before her, defines feminism by contrast with Marxism. As Marxism has defined production, or human labor recreating the conditions of its existence, as central to its analysis of oppression, so feminism, according to MacKinnon, makes sexuality the cornerstone of its analysis of oppression. Thus MacKinnon is continuing that path well trodden by contemporary feminists, of recognising that Marxism, while providing a deeply insightful tool for analysing social oppression, has no means for comprehending gender oppression. What is unique in MacKinnon's argument is her explicit claim that the central lacuna in Marxism and that which serves as the defining issue for feminism is sexuality.

MacKinnon's argument gives us clues for seeing both what has been most insightful in radical feminism and its major problems. Contemporary radical feminism has been relatively unique in the concerted attention it has given to matters often thought of as either natural or trivial, issues such as sexuality and the family, and in arguing for the centrality of these phenomena in structuring relations between women and men and social life as a whole. The insightfulness of the first point, that in at least some cultures sex may be instrumental in structuring gender is illustrated in the English language where the word "sex" refers both to sexual activity and to gender. Moreover, the illuminating power of the second point, that both sexuality and gender are concerns not only of "private life" but of all social life, must also be recognised as a crucial contribution of radical feminism. For one, it enables us to see the interconnection of gender oppression in domestic and non-domestic settings. Also, it helps us realize that the liberal feminist solution of extending the sphere of state control is not necessarily a solution for women: that to extend the realm of state control may entail merely a substitution in new forms of masculine power, or gender inequality, in women's lives.

However, if the strengths of radical feminism lay in its recognition of the interconnection of sexuality and gender and of their importance in affecting social life, its weaknesses result from its tendency to collapse gender into sexuality and to see all societies as fundamentally similar. Indeed the interconnection of these two problems can be seen in MacKinnon's analysis. MacKinnon argues that "sexuality is the Iynch-pin of gender oppression." A question one might put regarding this assertion is: does it hold true for all women? For example, one might say that the form of sexism experienced by contemporary, poor, black, American women at the hands of a white, male-dominated, state bureaucracy and corporate world seems at least as central, if not more central, a form of sexism in the lives of these women than the sexism experienced in the context of heterosexual relations. In other words, MacKinnon's analysis does not appear to leave room for the possibility that forms of gender oppression, such as those experienced in work, politics, or religion, might express or have come to express a central form of the oppression of some women. This is not to deny that sexuality might have played a central role historically in generating gender oppression, but that would constitute a historical and not an analytic truth, which would have to be integrated with historical analysis to explicate gender oppression in other periods. Indeed, as I will argue in later chapters, when one provides this kind of historical analysis, the insights of radical feminism appear at their strongest.

Marxist and Socialist Feminism

The New Left, out of which radical feminism emerged, was composed of a diverse collection of political groups and contained a wide spectrum of political views. An important component of the New Left were individuals who described themselves as socialists or Marxists. The relation of Marxists to the contemporary women's movement has been complex. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were many who believed that the women's movement could at best be described as reformist, demanding changes which were relatively superficial to the social order per se. Allied with this perspective was a tendency to see no important differences between liberal and radical feminism. According to many Marxists, the ultimate political demands of both could be summarised in the slogan, "Where there are men, there women shall be." This goal could be easily satisfied by working class women performing those working class jobs traditionally performed by men and ruling class women stepping into the positions of power of their husbands. Such a political transformation would not alter, however, the fundamental class structure of capitalist society, which would be relatively compatible with such changes. The notion that gender differences were relatively superficial societal differences stemmed from the position that the oppression women suffered as a consequence of their gender was insignificant in comparison with the oppression black people suffered as a consequence of their race and even less significant in comparison with the oppression black and white working class people suffered as a consequence of their class. Some Marxists pointed to women of relative privilege and status, such as Jacqueline Kennedy, to illustrate the absurdity of sympathising with women merely as a consequence of their gender.

The above derogatory stance of many Marxists to the women's movement diminished somewhat by the early 1970s. Gender joined the ranks of race to become a worthy organising issue. Persisting for a longer time was the question of how gender oppression was best to be explained. While many Marxists came to accede to radical feminism's claim that gender oppression was a significant type of oppression, the argument remained that radical feminism lacked an adequate explanation of its cause. Radical feminism employed the phrase "sex-role system" to explain female oppression and looked to the family as its carrier. For many Marxists such a framework was ahistorical; it tended to place the family and the practices associated with both masculinity and femininity outside history and class. Many believed that what was necessary was an analysis which could explain the initial genesis of female oppression, its evolution within history, and the specific forms it took within diverse class formations.

For many Marxists this analysis was available in Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels posited an initial state of social organisation as primarily peaceful and egalitarian. The basic social unit in such societies was the collective kin group. All economic and political activities were communal and public. There was no difference in status between men and women; the political and economic egalitarianism that prevailed extended also to the relations between the sexes. Such societies operated mainly at the level of subsistence; the little social surplus that was created was passed on through the line of the mother. By a gradual evolutionary process the form of group marriage which existed in such societies was replaced by what Engels called the "pairing family," not identical with later monogamous marriage. The pairing family represented a loose association and did not undermine the communistic structure which still prevailed; that was destroyed only with the creation of a social surplus made possible by the introduction of cattle breeding, metal working, weaving, and agriculture. Within the existing division of labor, it was men who were in charge of food production. Men's role in creating the new wealth in turn became contradictory with the principle of matrilineality. Matrilineality needed to be overthrown; that it was, in turn, brought about the emergence of the patriarchal family:

Thus on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased it made the man's position in the family more important than the woman's, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother right. Mother right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was.... The reckoning of descent in the female line and the matriarchal law of inheritance were thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them.... The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of his children.... The establishment of the exclusive supremacy of the man shows its effect first in the patriarchal family, which now emerges as an intermediate form.

The attraction of Engels' explanation for contemporary Marxists was that it enabled a recognition of the radical feminists' claim that sex oppression was significant without necessitating an abandonment of the traditional Marxist framework. It was for Engels the same phenomenon, the existence of an initial social surplus, which was simultaneously linked with the oppression of women and the beginning privatisation of property. Private property, responsible for class domination, was thus also connected with gender domination. The struggle for communism, as the struggle for that form of social order which replicated at a higher level of subsistence the communality and egalitarianism of primitive society, would bring about the simultaneous ending of both forms of domination.

This account by Engels has been subject to a wide variety of criticisms, many of which I will examine in a later chapter. For now, however, we might focus on some of the most widespread criticisms that were made of his analysis, particularly by radical feminists in the course of the 1970s. In counter to Engels' argument, radical feminists claimed that male domination, labelled "patriarchy," extends further back than even to the beginnings of class society. Thus they argued against Engels' claim of a single cause, private property, to explain all forms of social inequality. Engels' explanation, it was believed, by failing to give credence to the autonomy and persistence of patriarchy, also failed to give adequate recognition to its strength.

This specific criticism was conjoined with a more generalised suspicion of traditional Marxism's focus on the "economic." A persistent tendency within Marxism has been to interpret such terms as "economic" or "production" to refer to phenomena taking place outside the home. A consequence has been a tendency to dismiss both practically and theoretically the domestic sphere. Thus even when Marxists became sensitive to the radical feminist claim that women did indeed constitute an oppressed group, they tended to treat this oppression as a phenomenon most interesting in its non-domestic manifestations. For example, many appeared to equate their commitment to feminism with a concentration on the situation of women as paid workers.

I noted earlier that if liberalism could be characterised as giving theoretical and practical priority to the state as a means of social change, and radical feminism saw the roots of gender oppression and oppression in general as stemming from the family, Marxism could be characterised as giving priority to the sphere of the economy. Thus Marxists have believed that it will be from changes in the organisation of the economy that changes in both the state and the family will follow. Marxists have tended to view the sphere of home and family, as presently constituted, as either non-problematic or as vestigal survivals of an earlier form of social production, which would wither away as a consequence of the steady advancement of capitalism or the establishment of socialism. However, from the perspective of radical feminism, such a viewpoint suffers from a problem similar to that of liberalism: both liberalism and Marxism fail to see how gender dynamics are built into the operation of both the state and the economy. By failing to give credence to the dominating dynamics of familial patterns in all of social life, both liberals and Marxists tend to recreate such dynamics in all the social changes they instigate or envision.

For many Marxist women (and some men), many of these charges rang true. Many were drawn to radical feminism's claim that Marxism's emphasis on the "economic" entailed a dismissal of the importance and persistence of women's oppression and a lack of insight into its dynamics. Many were also sympathetic to radical feminist criticisms of Engels' account. On the other hand, many of those who were sympathetic to such charges were also critical of radical feminism's tendencies toward biologism and ahistoricity. If Marxism had ignored the persistence of women's oppression by concentrating on the economic sphere, it also seemed that radical feminism, by concentrating on the family, tended to ignore the diversity of such oppression. Moreover, many Marxist feminists believed it was important to retain not only Marxism's emphasis on history but other aspects of the theory, such as Marxism's concepts of "materialism" and "class." The task then became one of reinterpreting such concepts so that they were no longer susceptible to criticisms by radical feminism.

Those who took up this task identified their position by the label of "socialist feminism." As a stance it represents less a particular theoretical position than a commitment to integrate the insights of radical feminism and Marxism. The results have varied widely. One of the most influential and representative examples was Heidi Hartmann's article, "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union." Hartmann, like other socialist feminists, criticised both a radical feminist approach for being blind to history and insufficiently materialist and Marxist categories for being sex-blind. She argued that we need to understand the categories of patriarchy and capital as descriptive of independent sets of social relations which became, by the early twentieth century, mutually supportive. A form that this mutual accommodation took was the family wage, as well as a sexual division of labor which placed women in certain "feminine" low paying jobs. This theoretical approach paralleled, for her, what was also required politically: "a practice which addresses both the struggle against patriarchy and the struggle against capitalism.

Hartmann's position too has been subject to a variety of criticisms. One, by Iris Young, notes a problem which follows from the very strength of Hartmann's argument. Young applauds the "materialist" component of Hartmann's analysis, that it does not limit gender oppression to the realm of culture or psychology but locates it in men's control of women's labor power. However, Young notes that if one describes "patriarchy" in this way, i.e., as basically a mode of production, it is difficult to differentiate it analytically from "capitalism," also conceptualised as a mode of production. Young claims that it does not help here to argue that "patriarchy" and "capitalism" are two distinct modes of production existing alongside each other, a position she attributes to Ann Ferguson as well as to other "dual system" theorists. She argues that almost inevitably such an approach ends up situating patriarchy within the family and hypostatising the division between family and economy specific to capitalism into a universal form. Moreover, she argues that such an approach, by situating patriarchy within the family, fails to adequately account for women's oppression outside of the family.

With Hartmann and Young I would argue that patriarchy is not limited to culture or psychology but must be understood as a distinct form of social organisation, regulating work as well as sexuality. In this sense, it is in part, but only in part, "a mode of production," existing in the modern period alongside of, in conjunction with, and at times, in antagonism to capitalism as "a mode of production.'' In other words, gender as well as the system of private property and wage labor organises the production and distribution of resources in the modern period. However, I would claim against Young that if we identify patriarchy not with the family but rather as a certain type of kinship structure which in pre-modern times organised work, sexuality, religion, etc., we can understand how in the modern era aspects of patriarchy might be found both in the family and also in the spheres of politics, the economy, etc., as these progressively became separated spheres. The full telling of this tale, however, must await further chapters.


In the above I have attempted to point out the strengths and weaknesses of the different varieties of contemporary American feminism and to begin to suggest that approach which will best conjoin these strengths and eliminate the weaknesses. The fuller articulation of this approach will come in later chapters, where I also elaborate its advantages over traditional political theory as represented in liberalism and Marxism.

Needing to be stressed at this point, however, is that many of the strengths of all the variants of contemporary American feminism and some of the dilemmas came about as a consequence of something new in political theory: a focus on the family. While this focus has been strongest in radical feminism, it has influenced liberal feminism and brought about, through the work of Marxists, the construction of socialist feminism. As we shall see in the following chapter, this focus on the family has been more true of twentieth-century American feminism than it was of the nineteenth-century movement. To understand what has brought about this change and to provide a deeper understanding of the significance of the theory being created, I would now like to turn to an examination of the nineteenth-century movement and to changes taking place within this country over the past two centuries.

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