Radical Books

Radical Books: Dale Spender, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century (1983)

At the tail end of 2023, The Guardian lamented: ‘we’ve lost Dale Spender‘. Very early in her career, Australian author, scholar, and teacher Spender (1943-2023) wrote an internationally acclaimed feminist critique on how male superiority was embedded in and supported by language, Man Made Language (1980). She went on to write over 30 books and achieved for herself a radical feminist reputation. One of the more idiosyncratic manifestations of her feminism was habitually wearing purple to honour the suffragists who came before her. But beyond simply being a fashion choice, Spender’s purple clothing echoed her own radical calls for the feminist movement to recognise and embrace its past. Her call to view feminist organising as part of one long movement that unites all who join is at the heart of her work There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century (1983) and remains as critical today as it did at the time of the book’s publication.

The Guardian article written in her memory confirmed that, throughout her life, Spender’s theories and campaigns ‘continued to challenge, enrage, insult and inspire people, including a few men’. The author of the article, Chloe Shorten, who was personally acquainted with Spender, described the latter as ‘one of feminism’s most successful agent-provocateurs, she was inspiring, intimidating and generous – a women of ideas who liked to unnerve men’.

At the same time, Spender was earning a reputation for both unnerving and inspiring men, she was also confessing ignorance about the history of her fellow women. In 1983, Pandora Press (which Spender co-founded) published There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century. The title of the book emerges from the question that spurred her initial admission and subsequent road to feminist self-discovery: ‘why was there no women’s movement between the suffragettes and the new movement of the 1970s and 1980s?’ Feminist interviewee for the book Mary Stott (1907-2002), to whom this question was put, replied incredulously: ‘There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century!’

Front cover, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century, 1983

While nowhere near as lauded or remembered as Man Made Language (1980), There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century continues to be a radical book, not least because of its potential to inspire feminist consciousness-raising, which is vital if we are to address a form of alienation that some younger generations of feminists profess is prevalent today.

In her autobiographical introduction to the book, Spender admitted that, along ‘with most if not all of my generation I came to share an experience historically common to all women, of believing that we were the first generation to make the radical claim for full humanity’. She wrote that she did not know women had ‘a rich and resourcing history’. This lack of knowledge, she said, undermined her sense of herself in the present, and it led her to believe that ‘if women were to accomplish anything then it would have to be in the future’.

The eventual realisation that this was not true and that women did indeed have a long history of activism motivated Spender to seek out the sentiments of American feminist Mary Ritter Beard (1876-1958), who had written on women’s history from the 1910s to her death in the 1950s. Referring to Beard, Spender wrote: ‘women have always been a very real force in history she insisted to women who had once more come to believe they were without a past and had no choice but to begin from the beginning’. Continuing to paraphrase Beard, Spender wrote: ‘if we believe we are without a past, she said, our collective strength is undermined, and the idea that we are inferior takes hold of our minds and helps to construct the bonds of oppression. If women are to be liberated, she argued passionately, then they must know that they do have a forceful, valuable and marvellous past. They must know that they are part of a long constructive tradition, that there is a collective, historical experience of women which is a strength to be drawn upon’. This led Spender to conclude that ‘I understood that a male dominated society will not forage for us the links between one generation of women and the next and that unless we take matters into our own hands and actively make those links we are just as effectively divided from older women, as we are from women of the past’.

Back cover blurb, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century, 1983

Published in the final years of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century argued for a radical recognition of feminist continuity. To do so, Spender presented the stories, based on oral interviews, of five feminists’ – Mary Stott (1907-2002), Dora Russell (1894-1886), Hazel Hunkins Hallinan (1890-1982), Constance Rover (1910-2005), and Rebecca West (1892-1983). Spender attested that their individual ‘intransigent dissent’ collectively spanned the entire twentieth century and continued ‘unabated into their older years’. In her introductory rationale for the text, Spender contested the by-now common perception that the era of the WLB represented the “second wave” of feminist activism, with the “first” ending as far back as the 1910s. Her oral histories aimed to challenge the second-wave feminist perspective that framed itself as ‘the first …. to make the radical claim for full humanity’.

Forty years on, Spender’s text endures as a refutation of the discontinuous model of feminist history. Still, feminist history continues to be delivered to us via the waves metaphor: either discontinuous chunks of time jumping from first to second to third and now to the fourth wave of feminist protest and reform or interconnected periods of feminist activity and relative inactivity as represented by the crests and troughs of waves. Whichever of these two interpretations they are referring to, activists have used the image of waves to denote generational differences. For instance, as elucidated by scholar of digital identities, Tisha Dejmanee, the third wave was coined by 1990s feminists to distinguish between their lived experiences and those of the so-called second wavers – in terms of political, economic, technological, and cultural conditions. And in doing so, these third wavers might repudiate the necessity or relevancy of the concerns and priorities of the previous wave. Far from straightforward, the years from the end of the twentieth- to the beginning of the twenty-first century, accommodated kaleidoscopic views. Some academics claim that this generation of feminists ‘grappled with fragmented interests and objectives’ – or micropolitics – including ongoing issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace and a scarcity of women in positions of power. Other feminists at the time laid claim to a state of ‘postfeminism‘, meaning that they felt that gender equality had been more or less achieved.

The current fourth feminist wave, known as ‘digital or online Feminism‘, has been marked by mass online mobilisation that has at times led to spectacular street demonstrations, including the #metoo movement, the Women’s March, and the Global Women’s Strike. Such highly visible gender protests have led some feminist academics, like Red Chidgey, to declare that feminism has now transformed from ‘a dirty word and publicly abandoned politics’ to an ideology sporting ‘a new cool status’. Certainly, this recent generation is connected via new communication technologies in ways that were not possible previously. It has also been argued that the fourth wave has used new social media networks to bring back consciousness-raising groups, for which the WLM was renowned – online communities forged for the purpose of ‘venting’, ‘healing’, and ‘converting’.

Still, feminist discontent prevails. Some academics say online feminism has returned ‘gender-based issues from the public to the private sphere, which does not, in turn, solve broader social issues’. Other academics claim it has brought about another undesirable ‘wave’, this time one of ‘feminist nostalgia’, in which white women recall times ‘when feminism was not centered on individualised online activism’. This fantasy version of a feminist past as a shared sisterhood ignored the reality of disconnection on the basis of race, class, and more.

The message contained within Spender’s book played out at an event in Canberrra in September 2023, organised to launch work by revolutionary Australian feminist and the world’s first ever women’s advisor to a national government, Elizabeth Reid. At the event, a young university student spoke from the floor, communicating a pervasive feeling of disconnection and aloneness as an emerging feminist. In response, Reid passionately advocated a return to physical gatherings, whereby younger generations of feminists – those also still dealing with the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns – could have the opportunity, as previous generations had once had, to harness the affective potential of coming together in one room to talk, listen and exchange. Through a revitalisation of this more traditional form of interpersonal experience, newer feminists could put into motion their own distinctive versions of consciousness-raising suited to their unique predicaments.

In Feminism is for Everybody (2000), bell hooks wrote: ‘Feminists are made, not born’. One vital aspect of developing a robust feminist consciousness is, as Beard has argued, knowing that each of us is part of ‘a long constructive tradition, that there is a collective, historical experience of women which is a strength to be drawn upon’. It is knowing that There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement this century, too. As we continue to live in a patriarchal society, we might heed Spender’s caution that the patriarchy ‘will not forge for us the links between one generation of women and the next and that unless we take matters into our own hands and actively make those links we are just as effectively divided from older women, as we are from women of the past’. New generations of feminists – like the guest at Reid’s event in Canberra – need to know that they do not need to undertake the overwhelming, perhaps immobilising project of beginning feminism anew. Through engaging in a multitude of affective spaces with multiple generations of feminists in the present – physical and digital – and capitalising on the momentum created by generations upon generations of feminist activists, achieving feminist futures is indeed possible.

Dedication, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century, 1983

This means that the radical potential of Spender’s feminist manifesto – aimed at ensuring the intergenerational transmission of feminist knowledge and laying bare our feminist continuum – is still direly needed. While it is necessary for us to cultivate intergenerational connections in the feminist present now, it is also essential to continue to document the ‘irrepressible spirit … lively wit and enduring optimism’ of past feminists to ‘provide the women of today with inspiration for the future’. Only then can we work towards realising There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement‘s dedication to Hazel Hunkins Hallinan: ‘in her honour we should dedicate ourselves anew to finishing our own liberation’. This complex feminist temporality is perhaps encapsulated in the image of a radical feminist who bridged the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries while also conjuring memories of her nineteenth- and twentieth-century predecessors through her purple garb.

HWO’s Radical Books series shares subversive, seminal, and seismic texts that have shaped understandings of radical history, provoked controversy in their time, or sparked social change. Read more here.

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