Tania Serisier replies to Eli Zaretsky’s article for HWO
As someone who was only born in 1979, ten years after Shulamith Firestone used the Guardian to tell the left to ‘fuck off’, the split between feminism and the left that Zaretsky describes has only ever been history to me. It is, however, a history that has shaped both my activism and my scholarship, which is deeply interested in the profound but contradictory legacies of the second wave feminist movement. Shulamith Firestone more than anyone embodies the complex nature of this legacy; an immeasurably influential intellectual and author who was, for most of her life an outsider, not only to the later feminist movement but to the society that has been so profoundly shaped by it.
I speak neither from a position of experiential authority nor as a historian (my work is in cultural studies), so I do not wish to contest the narrative of the past Zaretsky provides so much as to raise questions about the meanings to be drawn from it today. As Alice Echols writes in her response to Zaretsky, ‘it’s hard to know how history would have played out had a divorce been avoided.’ I want to suggest instead that it is precisely this hypothetical imagining that is central to our assessment of that moment.
I agree with Zaretsky that thinking about this question requires going beyond a simple narrative of women driven from the left by male sexism; this isn’t on its own a convincing response, particularly when one considers the political commitments and passions of so many of the women involved, and the reluctance and sorrow that accompanied the decision for so many, as Echols discusses here and elsewhere. However, I think there is something missing when Zaretsky says that the split occurred simply because women wanted to work with, live with and sleep with other women. When second-wave feminists split from the left they didn’t only organise on the basis of identity but created their own practices and theories that, like The Dialectic of Sex, both drew upon and fundamentally challenged the structures and thinking of the New Left. Consciousness-raising, for instance, has its roots in Maoism and New Left practices but the intense theorisation of it by women like Kathie Sarachild shows the extent to which it was transformed by feminist movements.
In other words, the decision to leave the left was taken because feminist activists felt this would be the most effective way to fight gendered oppression. The foundational feminist texts of this time, and the gay liberation texts that followed, remain so important because they were able to respond to the profound changes that were occurring at that time in the nuclear family, gendered labour patterns, and sexual and gendered identities. Organising and thinking autonomously enabled them to ask questions and take political actions which the New Left had been incapable of. The overt sexism of leftist men was really only the crudest form of a deeper problem; the inability of the New Left to understand or challenge the dominant gender order. It seems to me that the historical tragedy here was not the split itself but the precipitator of this split – the failure of the left to respond to these fundamental social changes or to provide the space where feminist and gay activists could develop ideas and politics that could address these changes.
For this reason it is important to acknowledge the achievements of second-wave feminism, along with its many failings. It may have become a toxic environment within which ‘trashing’ was commonplace and where many of its more creative and inspirational members were left isolated and alienated. But it also fundamentally altered our understandings of gender and sexuality. It seems to me highly plausible that the most profound insights of the second wave might never have occurred if women had continued to look within and to the left for answers to the questions that they were trying to answer.
I also think that it is important to recognise that while the initial split of second wave feminism was posed in terms of women exploring their own oppression, the idea that this was separate from the oppression of others could not in the long run be maintained. Thinking in terms of a longer history of the women’s movement it didn’t take long before lesbians and women of colour began to contest the notion that white, heterosexual middle-class women could speak unproblematically on behalf of all women. Whether through projects like the ‘Lavender Menace’ or the Black Women’s Manifesto, both of which emerged in 1970, from the very beginning of the women’s liberation movement the question of how to relate to interconnected and intersecting oppressions was raised. Famously, the feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s often failed to respond adequately to this challenge and women of colour faced the same questions that feminists had faced in relation to the New Left – at what point is it better to abandon a movement and struggle outside of it? The point is that feminist struggles with these ideas and attempts to respond to them, ideas such as Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of ‘intersectionality’ for instance, continue to be important touchstones in organising across lines of social and power differentials.
For these reasons I am not entirely convinced that we can declare that the split between feminism and the left had only tragic consequences, or argue that a world in which that split had not happened would be one in which it would be easier to build a contemporary politics that can adequately respond to issues of gender and sexuality. The most important moments of the American left of the last twenty years, from the anti-capitalist struggles of the turn of the century to the recent Occupy protests, owe much to the conception that one big movement is not necessarily the only way to organise, to struggle or to create change. The anti-capitalist struggles which took so much inspiration from the Zapatista uprisings in Chiapas in the 1990s saw themselves as a ‘movement of movements’ where shared goals did not require organisational and political affiliation. This notion of pluralistic struggles owes much to political developments from within second-wave feminism and gay liberation struggles. Whether this model ultimately can fulfil the transformative role of a more traditional left is an open question that remains to be answered.
Looking back to a political past requires us to always remain cognizant of what is it we wish to find and how that shapes our construction of historical narratives. As leftists, feminists or others seeking a political heritage I think it is important to think seriously about the questions feminist political theorist Wendy Brown raises in articles such as ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’ and ‘Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics’. Brown enjoins us to think carefully about what we look to the past for and to question what exactly it is we mourn when we read the past as a loss. The idea of a strong, coherent, united left is an attractive one but is it actually what we need most at this moment in time?
What I am more inclined to mourn when I look back at this period is not Zaretsky’s fantasy of a lost left unity, but instead the existence of a utopian or revolutionary horizon, that is the idea that the world could be fundamentally different than it currently is. This loss in both feminism and the left is noted by Zaretsky; the feminism of Lean In and the ‘leftism’ of Obama and the Clintons have no connection with radicalism, in the sense of getting to the roots of things, or utopianism, in the sense of striving towards a place that does not yet exist. Rather than proposing a vision for the future, both mainstream progressives and feminists today are more likely to be cast and see themselves as standard-bearers for an old order, holding out for social democratic principles against an increasingly radical and aggressive right. Is the split between feminists and the left a contributing factor to that? Perhaps, although Zaretsky is unconvincing in making this case.
Where one places the split in relation to this loss of radical utopianism affects the extent to which reuniting feminism and the left is viewed as an urgent political priority. Thinking through priorities for the left and feminists necessarily involves asking what they have to offer each other, and importantly, what they offer more broadly to society. Again, the late 1960s is an important reference point here because these sets of movements were highly influential both in the everyday lives of many people and in shaping political, social and cultural discourse.
In thinking about the lessons of this time for today we can seek to recapture the political animus between the organised left and the ‘splittist’ feminists. Alternatively, we can accept that these entities and politics no longer exist in the same way and see the loss of their model of politics as an opening up of possibilities to do things differently, as a chance to ask what kind of world we wish to see and what political and organisational forms have the possibility to move us towards it. The anti-capitalist movements of the late twentieth century and the Occupy movements of recent years, with their pluralist politics and emphasis on a multiplicity of voices, make talk of divorce and reconciliation of ‘feminism’ and ‘the left’ less immediately pressing. These movements, like second wave feminism, also have their limitations, their trashings and their problems, but the lesson of Shulamith Firestone for me is that second-wave feminism is not defined by divorce. It also involved an imaginative leap into the new, a determination to find answers to important, unresolved questions. How to carry this legacy with us is and how to continue to imagine better worlds are the more fundamental questions.
Dr Tanya Serisier is a lecturer at the University of New South Wales
Alice Echols’ response to Zaretsky’s article can be found here
Mandy Merck’s response to Zaretsky’s article can be found here