Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left

Reflecting on the death last year of the pioneering activist Shulamith Firestone, Eli Zaretsky and Alice Echols debate the tangled history of the relationship between women’s liberation and the New Left.

The recent death of Shulamith Firestone marks a milestone in the history of second wave feminism, and encourages an historical perspective. Firestone was one of the most inspired and original political intellectuals of the sixties, and a founder of the modern feminist movement. I can speak personally here of the impact of Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970) on my own life. When I first read the book, upon its publication, I immediately recognized that its portrait of a universal system of male domination rooted in the family was both the most important challenge to the Marxism that had shaped my worldview, and an equally important corrective to its blind spots. My 1972 book, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life began as a review of Firestone’s work and proposed both to answer and to learn from it.

Shulamith Firestone (January 7, 1945 – August 28, 2012), feminist and central figure in the early development of radical feminism. Photograph by Michael Hardy, circa 1970
Shulamith Firestone (January 7, 1945 – August 28, 2012), feminist and central figure in the early development of radical feminism. Photograph by Michael Hardy, circa 1970

In a recent New Yorker (April 15, 2013) Susan Faludi provided a powerful and moving account of Firestone’s brief, brilliant career and its tragic aftermath. Firestone was only twenty-five years old when she published Dialectic of Sex. When she died last year, at the age of sixty-seven, she was alone, impoverished, forgotten and had been diagnosed as schizophrenic for decades. In recounting this tragic story, Faludi touches on a related topic, the split in the US between women’s liberation and the New Left, a split in which Firestone participated. For those who are too young to remember, or who have not read this history, the New Left arose in the early sixties in Britain, France and the United States, and was an effort to create an enduring radical presence, one that surpassed traditional liberalism and that did not succumb to tragic problems of Communism. Women’s liberation began in the late sixties as part of the New Left but then split off creating a separate or autonomous women’s movement, which generally does not identify itself as part of the Left. In my view this was one of the most important, if not fully understood, stories of recent US history.

As I see it, it is partly thanks to this split that there is no Left in the United States today. We do, of course, have protest movements of all sorts, but no Left in the more emphatic sense of a social and intellectual tendency capable of understanding American capitalism as a whole and critiquing it from an egalitarian point of view. To be sure, the late twentieth century witnessed the global defeat of the Left, within which the split between radical feminism and the New Left was simply one moment. Nevertheless, in my view is was a significant moment, at least in the United States, and is worth reconsidering. While some today think of the New Left as a brief explosive upheaval, which burnt out by 1968, the New Left had its roots in a preexisting radical tradition and a small but significant minority shared its goal of creating a permanent radical presence – a Left – in the United States. The defeat of that effort, which played itself out during the 1970s, has been important to the triumph of neo-liberalism, the drastic growth in inequality, the evisceration of public life, and other obviously problematic features of today’s world. For many young people, figures like Bill and Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama, are what they know of a Left. For someone like myself, who can still remember what a Left means, this is an incredible loss.

Closely related to the absence of a Left in the broad sense is the decline of a radical tendency within feminism; just compare Firestone’s Dialectic, which came out of and partook of the New Left, to the current feminist best-seller, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which reflects the merger of feminism with business culture. Many figures have argued that the New Left’s critique of bureaucracy and its antinomian individualism contributed to a new spirit of “lean,” just-in-time,” post-Fordist consumerist capitalism. Similarly feminism has been adapted by neo-liberals to justify the destruction of traditional (no doubt, patriarchal) cultures, the integration of low-skill women’s labor into global labor chains and even the US wars in the Middle East.

One of Faludi’s main contributions to understanding this history lies in showing how truly mad the psychological milieu in which Firestone operated was. Both Firestone and her contemporary, Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, were driven out of the women’s movement by feminists who accused them of being male-identified, “unsisterly” “leaders.” According to Faludi, hierarchy was anathema to many radical feminists, who saw leadership as oppressive and male, and sisterhood as a community of equals. Firestone ran afoul of this egalitarianism. A practice known as “trashing,” a term that signified cleaning the ranks, resonated with the Maoist sensibilities of the time. In Faludi’s words, “Like a cancer, the attacks spread from those who had reputations to those who were merely strong; from those who were active to those who merely had ideas; from those who stood out as individuals to those who failed to conform rapidly enough to the twists and turns of the changing line.” Although Faludi does not discuss this, “trashing” also included an attack on women who remained in heterosexual relationships, i.e., women who “slept with the enemy.” The early women’s movement was committed to what was soon termed “the woman-identified-woman.”

To be sure, such extreme egalitarianism was not unique to the early women’s movement. It could also be found in the New Left, the old Left, and the Occupy movements today. American culture is deeply shaped by Puritanism, and the American Left reflects this. American Leftists invented such concepts as “white chauvinism,” “sexism,” and “the personal is political,” while the European and Latin American Lefts were more likely to focus on structural issues per se. While “trashing” occurred in the mass feminist movement, best represented by Betty Friedan and NOW, it was more intense in the “sects.” In addition, some advocates of women’s liberation condemned trashing. For example, in a 1970 address, “Divisiveness and Self-Destruction in the Women’s Movement,” Anselma Dell’Olio, the founder of the New Feminist Theater, warned that women’s “rage, masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism under the ‘pro-woman’ banner,” was turning into “frighteningly vicious anti-intellectual fascism of the left.”

Understanding Firestone’s milieu helps establish the mentality in which the advocates of women’s liberation decided to split with the New Left and pursue a stand-alone feminism. Although the leading forces in this split were the radical feminists, almost all feminists on the Left, including socialist feminists, shared the goal of a stand-alone women’s movement. To be sure, a small mixed left continued until roughly 1980. For example, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, led by Michael Harrington, worked in alliance with labor unions, was a powerful presence within the Democratic Party, and was explicitly feminist; Gloria Steinem was a founding member. Nonetheless, most radical women put the bulk of their energies into stand-alone women’s organizations, which in effect meant that less and less energy went into building a mixed left.

In Faludi’s account, which follows canonical texts of the period such as Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open or Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad, feminists left the Left because of the intransigent sexism of New Left men. Here are Firestone’s words, published in the Guardian in 1969: “We have more important things to do than to try to get you [i.e., men] to come around. You will come around when you have to, because you need us more than we need you…The message being: Fuck off, left. You can examine your navel by yourself from now on. We’re starting our own movement.” In support of this view, Faludi provides many still-horrifying descriptions of Firestone and other women being shouted down at male dominated New Left events.

In my view, it is important to understand in its full complexity women’s motivations in leaving the left. In reading a statement like Firestone’s one might reduce the motivation to anger and irrationality; many did at the time. However, not only is there an obvious experiential truth to the perception of men’s obtuseness, as one who was there I can testify to the sexist assumptions that prevailed among New Left men. At the same time, a moment’s reflection will convince the reader that it is an inadequate explanation. At root, the explanation minimizes women’s capacity to build the kind of mixed Left they wanted. It emphasizes women’s strongly negative experiences of working with men but it does not call attention to women’s powerful positive wish to be in an all-woman movement. Whatever failings the men of the New Left had, and they were many, it is far more reasonable to conclude that women left the Left because they wanted to, than because male sexism drove them out.

Why did women want to leave the Left? The 1970s was a period in which what Marx called “the constant revolutionizing of production” was sweeping away such “ancient and venerable” institutions as the traditional family, as well as the community networks and forms of solidarity associated with the New Deal. Not just women and homosexuals, but sons and fathers and husbands as well were released from the family’s grip. Women left the New Left because they wanted to be with other women, because they wanted homosexual relations alongside heterosexual ones, but also because they felt, as long-time peace activist Barbara Deming wrote to a gay male friend and colleague, David McReynolds, “our lives, women’s lives, are not real to you (and to men generally)—except in so far as they support the lives of men.”

The costs of this split were great. In her own diary Deming called the split a “tragedy,” which in my view is partly true. The consciousness of the great early movements of the 1960s was based on a shattering of social identity and a reaching out at the deepest possible level to achieve solidarity with people utterly unlike oneself. Thus New Leftists, typically, did not advocate “student power,” or other reforms that reflected their supposed interests, but rather argued that they could not be free so long as blacks were subjected to racism in Mississippi, or so long as peasants were being napalmed in Vietnam. By contrast, the identity politics that fueled women’s liberation counter-posed the fight against one’s own oppression against what was perceived as the oppression of others. Anyone reading the literature of women’s liberation will find statements like that of Cathy Cade, a lesbian documentary photographer who explained, “in the black movement I had been fighting for someone else’s oppression and now there was a way that I could fight for my own freedom.” Or the feminist collective that proclaimed, “the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Or Mimi Feingold: “women couldn’t burn draft cards and couldn’t go to jail so all they could do was to relate through their men and that seemed to me the most really demeaning kind of thing.”

If we read these statements with an historian’s gift for empathy, and especially pay attention to the last one, we can see that they mean that women historically subordinated themselves to others– not just men, but also to children and old people and the sick and the dying. Women sacrificed to give the socialist movement its ethos, to build the civil rights movement in the South, and to support the draft-age men who refused to fight in Vietnam. Above all they sacrificed to maintain the family, the institution that Firestone identified as the core of human oppression, not just of women, but of all human beings. To be sure, Firestone was one-sided in her attack on what she called “the biological family,” and theorized as the root of the “power psychology.” The family can be a salvation as well as a source of darkness and inequality. Nonetheless, it was right and good that the reliance of the family on women’s nurturing and “giving” qualities end and that these responsibilities be shared by both men and women. Women’s liberation was a way of saying that women would not be the sole givers and caretakers anymore.

Finally, let me address one last question. Many have argued that the true birth of identity politics in the 1960s and 70s was in the Black Power movement, and not in women’s liberation. It is true that Black power preceded women’s liberation, and that it had elements of identity politics in it, including a break with the universalism of the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, there was a basic difference. The civil rights movement was not simply a movement for rights, but also aimed at destroying a racially organized state, namely the Jim Crow South. As a result, the civil rights movement was the expression of a group struggling collectively for its rights as a people. This gave black power a different valence than the other movements of the sixties such as the student movement, the antiwar movement and women’s liberation. Black people decided that they wanted to be part of America, but that was at root a choice. Some currents of feminism– cultural feminists– do think that women can be seen as a separate nation, but most women do not agree. For that reason the break with the New Left should be seen as a strategic diversion in the history of the Left and not as a final divorce.

Alice Echols’ response to this article can be found here

Mandy Merck’s response to this article can be found here

Tanya Serisier’s response to this article can be found here


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