The exhilaration of the beginnings of a movement for social liberation can never be recovered with its original and particular intensity. But surely the aspiration for liberation persists within a generation and perhaps more importantly across generations? ‘The women’s liberation movement set my soul on fire,’ recalls Sue O’Sullivan. ‘It started something which isn’t finished yet.’
The Italians have a good metaphor for the way that movements disappear, but their ideas and visions often reappear in a fresh form in a new context. They talk about carsici, those mountain streams which at certain points go underground and reappear quite unexpectedly on new terrains with a fresh bubbling energy. (Well, that’s the optimistic version!)
Paradoxically, the apparent disappearance of the women’s liberation movement, as with other movements of liberation, is in part a product of what it had to do to campaign for reforms in the direction of its vision of liberation. To make allies and gain institutional footholds, parts of the movement found themselves focusing on specific changes and becoming immersed in pursuing them. The work of nurturing the long-term vision is difficult to maintain.
History seems to indicate that movements are only rarely able to sustain themselves long enough to nurture and develop their vision and values. The ‘labour movement’ might seem an exception but what have lasted in this case are institutions – not necessarily the same as a movement – and these institutions only occasionally show signs of the movement’s original emancipatory values.
Men discussing the movements of the 1960s and 1970s often remark with a tinge of jealousy on the longevity of the legacy of the women’s movement. This is not to imply that it achieved the most by way of demands and actual reforms; indeed, much of what it did achieve has been reversed. It is, rather, that its fluid legacy lives on through the lives, friendships and work of the women and men influenced by it and the culture they create. Maybe this is because one of the distinctive features of the women’s movement is that it broke down many of the divisions between politics and daily life that underlie the brittle life of much of the radical left.
Feminism is now being rediscovered and remade by women influenced indirectly by this cultural legacy of 1970s feminism, but facing a society in which women are still treated in all sorts of ways as subordinate. This seems to be a moment when it might be useful to look back to the original hopes of the women’s liberation movement to see how present realities fall short, to learn lessons and avoid the same mistakes.
An infantile disorder
There is no point pretending that feminism – in its three main political varieties: radical, bourgeois and socialist – has had much significant impact on larger political and social structures, or even on many micro-cultural phenomena. Social and sexual divisions of labour have scarcely, if at all, been altered. And yet within the generations who seized 1968 and the two generations that have followed, no doubt some gains have been made in terms of some of their professional and lifestyle choices.
This isn’t really surprising. Without mutually transforming visions between socialism and feminism, not a lot was ever going to change.
I assumed in the early 1970s that everyone believed passionately in the political ideals we/they expressed. And I assumed that belief was so fundamental that it could never change. After all, that is the definition of this kind of idealism, of these visions of better futures. Looking back, radicalism (feminist and socialist) now appears to have been, indeed, a kind of infantile disorder, or just a career stepping stone for some people. When professional and political careers took over working energies, the analyses and ideals lost their appeal and relevance.
This points to the genuine difficulty of linking the two halves of that powerful banner of all feminisms – that the personal is the political; that the individual and the group/collective/social are symbiotically so entwined that the one cannot function without the other. At their best and highest, feminist moments really did aim to integrate these into something more than the sum of differences and individualities. Fighting against a world that is constantly dividing individuals from groups and from each other was and is exhausting.
Michelene Wandor is a playwright, poet, critic and musician, who has just published The Author is not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else, a critique of creative writing courses. She edited the first collection of women’s liberation writings, The Body Politic, in 1972, helped facilitate Spare Rib magazine, and worked on the socialist-feminist paper Red Rag
Sweet and sour
In 1968 I had a baby. In 1969 I became part of what would become the women’s liberation movement in London. Twenty years later, in 1988, I wrote about my memories of my first ‘small group’ meeting: ‘I know, even if I can no longer touch its electricity, that I left with a wonderful feeling, a spinning head and a churning stomach.’ Also, ‘I sensed huge personal contradictions to come, and was anxious even as I lunged forward.’
I recall feelings and experiences from that year when something started for me which isn’t finished yet. The women’s liberation movement set my soul on fire. I treasure the embers even now.
Even by 1988, when things were falling apart, crashing together – clear portents that the end of the women’s liberation movement was upon us – I felt grounded in my attachment to the perspective and activism of the feminism I was involved in.
By then, different forms of feminism and various identities were demanding rights – human rights, women’s rights, lesbian rights, black women’s rights; a proliferation of rights, often based around identity, and this continues today. Liberation slumbers.
Even at the end of the 1980s, I didn’t have a clue, realist that I thought I was, how horrendously wrong things would go by 2008. Not that all is lost by any means, not that I had illusions of continual progress – only that the whole context for women’s liberation in this country has changed. Many of the ‘words’ of the movement have been tamed: gender obscures women, rights obscure liberation and freedom, advocacy obscures radical activism, and the divisions and inequalities of class, race, age, ethnicity and sexuality reverberate as they reconfigure – reconfigurations we ignore at our peril. Things change even if it’s change we neither wanted nor worked for. (Religious fundamentalisms of all sorts spring to mind.)
We’ve got a long way to go, but who will set the scene, provide the wild energy, paint the new visions? I don’t see my generation setting the agendas of a resurgence of women’s activism via a casting back to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s. If a new women’s movement arises, I hope that it might learn from our mistakes and not end up re-inventing the wheel. In fact, I hope there are other forms of transport out there that I haven’t begun to imagine.
Now I keep on in a less expansive way. I maintain my political soul, my feminist, women’s liberationist, socialist, anti-racist, lesbian soul, even if it’s a bit crinkly, by working around women and HIV/Aids internationally. I got involved in this area of work while part of the women’s health movement, an outgrowth of the women’s liberation movement. I’ve sustained involvement in HIV/Aids work for almost 20 years – my feminist health concerns of the 1970s and 1980s melded into the specificity of the global Aids pandemic – and for the last 12 years I’ve worked for the International Community of Women Living with HIV/Aids (ICW).
I work with and for incredible women from around the world. Their difficulties surpass anything I’ve ever known. By coming together in networks and support groups they set in motion the energy of women’s liberation. They may speak of ’empowerment’ – a ‘development’, UN, World Bank word if ever there was one – but they mean both gaining their rights and liberation, not waiting for handouts. Many are religious, but as far from fundamentalism in life as imaginable. Some have never heard of or met a lesbian before and yet are interested – even personally so because of their poor experiences with men. I use the skills and pleasures I learned in the movement to produce ICW News, which presents the personal ‘testimonies’ of HIV-positive women around the world, their projects, and ICW’s international, activist, political analysis.
I draw on my feminist experiences and analysis in my work and gain much from the women I work with across the world. They say ladies, I say women; they say empowerment, I say liberation. Increasingly, and somewhat tentatively, we say feminism together. I try to represent them as best I can in the pages of their newsletter. I try in my editing to remain true to their experiences, language, hopes and fears. I may celebrate progressive HIV-positive women’s voices with more enthusiasm than I feel for those who are more conservative, but my aim is to support a desire to write from the reality of their lives.
Watching TV or reading the newspaper or listening to friends with younger children telling their tales, at times I could succumb to cynicism or despair. Globally and here at home, barbarism sometimes feels very close. So perhaps it’s my power to suppress that means I don’t feel as grim in my daily life as others do.
I joined Women Against Fundamentalism when it restarted a couple of years ago. I got a new lover when I was 65 and that’s a dare and great fun. I don’t go on as many demos as in the past. But as we used to say, the struggle continues, life and politics are complex, there’s pleasure and there’s pain.
Sue O’Sullivan works for the International Community of Women Living with HIV/Aids, is a member of Women Against Fundamentalism, and ‘still a socialist – although who knows what sort’. She hates the vast majority of mainstream politicians, the war in Iraq, racism, fundamentalism and the idea that women have won – ‘We haven’t!’
The air that I breathed
For my piece in the ’68-’78-’88 anthology, I wrote about my involvement as a feminist punk in Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s, when the National Front was on the rise. I said then, and I still strongly believe, that Rock Against Racism, along with all the other anti-fascist organisations of the day, played a major part in stopping the National Front in its tracks. We helped to destroy the influence of neo-Nazism in English politics for a generation. Unfortunately, it is now gaining ground again in the shape of the BNP.
I also spoke about the ravages of Thatcherism, the looming menace of Section 28, and my own struggle to find enough time to combine writing, activism and earning a living. I ended by wondering whether I would manage to keep all these strands going if I realised my other ambition, which was to have a child.
The answer to that question turned out to be: no, I wouldn’t, but actually this wasn’t so much to do with being a mother as with being a daughter. I did manage to have a child, in the nick of time, just before my 40th birthday, and I am glad to say I enjoy being a mother. But very soon after my son was born, both my parents – who were well into their eighties – became seriously ill, and my sister and I spent the best part of ten years fire-fighting on their behalf, trying to look after them and keep them safe, and accompanying them on their journeys to their deaths.
Activism and writing both went out of the window for a long time, and it is only now that I am beginning to emerge from what I call my ‘care and wear’ or ‘wear and tear’ years to rediscover myself. I now have a much keener sense of the powerlessness of very old people in our callous, throwaway society.
What strikes me now, on re-reading what I wrote in 1988, was that at that time, despite the fact that the women’s movement had fragmented into a trillion pieces, I still had a strong sense of being part of a living, ongoing, movement.
I also had a strong sense that despite all the horrors of the Thatcher years, in terms of consciousness – the general level of awareness of the injustices of sexism, racism and all the rest of it – we were still making progress.
Twenty years later, I have become aware, firstly, that the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which used to be the very air that I breathed, is no more. And secondly, that consciousness, like share prices, can go down as well as up. I have to confess that I am utterly amazed by the fact that some of the gains we made in the 1970s and 1980s have been reversed.
The sexism we objected to in adverts and popular culture back in the 1970s seems laughably tame compared to what we are subjected to now, on TV, in music videos, in both women’s and men’s magazines. Never in a million years would I have guessed, back then, that by 2008 cosmetic surgery would be a multi-billion-pound industry and that countless women would willingly go under the knife to acquire plastic breasts, or even to have their genitals ‘improved’.
No doubt each of us here could produce a long list of all the things which are very, very wrong in the world today. I will mention just one glaringly obvious issue: the intractable problem of male violence, both here in the UK and in every country of the world, where we still seem to have made so little headway.
Despite all of this, I still strongly believe that our generation of feminists achieved a huge amount. The legal position of women, and of lesbians and gay men, affecting all areas of our lives, has been completely transformed.
We have to be vigilant, because our precious gains are continually under threat, but there is no doubt in my mind that women have more rights, more freedoms and more opportunities than they had before the women’s liberation movement came along. I now suspect that there were far fewer of us actively involved than I thought at the time.
We really punched above our weight, and our achievements have made a huge difference to the lives of millions of people (not just women).
I feel really proud to have been a part of this movement.
Lucy Whitman, founded a punk fanzine, Jolt, in 1977, in which she attempted to introduce punks to feminism, and went on to write for Spare Rib, where she attempted to introduce feminists to punk. She is currently working on a book about looking after people with dementia
Andrea d’Cruz reports on the recent upsurge in feminist campaigning
It’s possibly fallen under your activist radar but over the past year or so, pockets of feminist resistance have begun to materialise across the UK. It may not quite merit the title ‘resurgence’ or ‘revival’, but whatever you call this micro-phenomenon, there’s no denying that it’s all very exciting. All the more so because this isn’t just any old feminist upspring; it’s a radical feminist upspring.
And what a joyous change it is to see ‘the F-word’ prefixed with something other than post- (or in fact liberal-). Radical is certainly a complicated and contested term, and all too often a demonising one: shoved in front of ‘Islam’ as shorthand for ‘an uncivilised, murderous ideology’, and affixed to ‘feminism’ to conjure ‘essentialising, man-hating separatists’. But in this context, and indeed its Latin one, it’s all about roots: grass-roots action aimed at the roots of inequality.
The emphasis is on liberation from below, on DIY, self-organised, non-institutionalised women’s activism. The other key feature is a deliberate focus on the wider underlying and interconnecting systems and manifestations of oppression: this feminism is synonymous with anti-capitalism and anti-racism.
From north to south, socialist to anarchist, and cyber-space to squatted space there are myriad examples of these radical ventures, a small selection of which are listed below.
However, participation is yet to reach a critical mass and although collaborative efforts have flowered into large national demonstrations – such as the Million Women Rise march, on International Women’s Day in March – it’s far from being a strong and cohesive movement. The seeds are there, for sure, but it’s too early to assess the potential depth, breadth, or longevity of these developments, so perhaps we shouldn’t quite be celebrating the imminent crumbling of the patriarchal edifice. That said, the energy, enthusiasm and sheer optimism of the women involved makes it awfully hard not to.
Feminism ’08 is diversely manifested in ‘zines, on blogs, and across the web; via conferences, demonstrations and workshops; on the streets, in squatted buildings and around the bronzed military men on their Trafalgar Square plinths. Here is just a small selection of the myriad groups involved in this activist upsurge.
A London and Manchester-based socialist feminist network. The group links its struggle for women’s liberation to all struggles against capitalism and exploitation and focuses on grass-roots action, to empower women to fight their own exploitation rather than to depend on others for protection.
An online magazine and blog created by young UK feminists. It provides a
place for emerging and new feminist voices, and to show that feminism ‘is
as relevant to the lives of the younger generation as it was to those in
the 1960s and 1970s’.
London Feminist Network
A women-only networking and campaigning organisation formed in 2004 to unite feminist groups and individuals in action. LFN
re-launched the Reclaim the Night march in 2004, which has grown
each year since, mobilising 1,500 women last November.
Feminist Activist Forum
Set up in April 2007, FAF is dedicated to feminist history and popular education and strongly committed to intergenerational feminism, uniting younger feminists with activists from the second wave. It is anti-capitalist and actively challenges all forms of oppression.
In March this year women squatted an abandoned building in Hackney and transformed it into the autonomous, self-organised Wominspace. Unfortunately Wominspace was evicted in May. However, the activists decided to form an anarcha-feminist collective and provide a platform for people to come together to share advice related to all aspects of squat-living from a trans/woman’s perspective.
Bradford-based women’s collective, who don white Feminista boiler suits to stand out as a feminist ‘bloc’ on various demos and actions.
Established during the heyday of the women’s liberation movement in 1975, the Feminist Library has recently had fresh air breathed into it after a few years when its continued existence was in doubt. Its large archive is particularly focused on second-wave feminist materials from the late 1960s and 1970s and includes 5,000 non-fiction titles, 2,500 fiction titles and more than 1,500 periodical titles.
5 Westminster Bridge Rd, SE1 7XW
020 7928 7789
London Pro-Feminist Men\’s Group
A men’s group that meets fortnightly for workshops and discussions about feminism, in an effort to ‘support each other in our personal struggles to rid ourselves of sexist behaviour, discuss issues around pro-feminism generally and to plan what kind of action we can take as pro-feminists’.
’68-’78-’88: from women’s liberation to feminism, edited by Amanda Sebestyen, is an anthology of women’s liberation history, with more than 30 feminists of every stripe offering personal snapshots of their experiences in the movement. The book was published in May 1988, 20 years after the struggles of 1968. This year’s debate at Housman’s bookshop and the contributions featured on these pages, in turn, mark both the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication and the 40th anniversary of the ‘May events’.
’68-’78-’88 was published by Prism Press
For details of monthly political debates at Housmans bookshop, see www.housmans.com
#229 No Return to ‘Normal’ ● Sir David King blasts the government ● State power, policing and civil rights under Covid-19 ● Hope and determination in grassroots resistance ● Black liberation and Palestine ● The future of ‘live’ ● Pubs, patriotism and precarity ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Phoebe Kisubi reflects on using participatory theatre as a tool for social and political activism among sex workers in Cape Town, South Africa
Shakespeare’s women can alert us to alternative stories – if we listen to them. In ‘talking back’ to the Bard we can change our own stories, says Charlotte Scott
Cleaners are being ignored in the government’s provision of a safety-net during the pandemic. The current crisis is rooted in a long history of domestic work being made invisible, writes Laura Schwartz
With pop culture increasingly a political battlefield, Marzena Zukowska asks Carolyn Petit of Feminist Frequency how the left can leverage the momentum of video gaming
As the University and Colleges Union strike enters its final week, Ruth Pearce discusses the importance of building alliances and fighting back
A book that systematically unpicks the myths that are spread in order to preserve the status quo, written by Nesrine Malik. Reviewed by Leah Cowan