essay is from an edited collection titled
They Should Have Served
That Cup of Coffee: 7 Radicals Remember the 60s,
edited by Dick
Cluster (South End Press, 1979). The essays are all written by activists
involved in the many historic and truly revolutionary movements
of that time. The essay presented here descibes the early days of
the Women’s Liberation Movement. Popkin was involved in the
Bread and Roses collective in Boston and tells about their struggles
and successes, particularly the revelation that “the personal
is difficult to believe this today, but at the outset of the 1960s
the idea of Women’s Liberation did not exist. The huge “second
wave” of the feminist movement in the U.S. began to emerge
only later. By 1968 or 1969, small groups of women were meeting
together, excitedly, throughout the country. Much political life
for women today is an attempt to work out many of the ideas we first
formulated and tried to implement at that time.
It’s not that the Women’s Movement was my first satisfying
political experience. I walked the picket lines with my mother when
I was thirteen or fourteen. A year or two later I began picketing
Woolworth’s in support of the sit-ins in the South.
Those of us who had participated in these movements came away with
certain political skills. (Still, although many of us did good work,
we could not help but notice that many of the “leaders”
and public spokespeople were men.) In the Anti-War Movement, whatever
our feelings of disaffection as women who could not directly resist
the draft, we shared the fervor and excitement of staging demonstrations
of hundreds of thousands of people. Being part of “the movement”
was not just a matter of political opposition, but of criticism
and withdrawal from the dominant culture as well. Blue jeans, comfortable
hair, little or no makeup, and increasingly open attitudes about
sex, marriage, and “living together” already separated
us somewhat from the accepted image of proper young women.
At first we thought all of us—women and men, blacks and whites—were
together in the struggle as equals. A few women, realizing that
the rhetoric of equality was not borne out in movement activity,
began to forge critiques. In 1964 a group of women in SNCC met to
talk about their role in that organization. In SDS women made several
attempts to raise the issue of Women’s Liberation, with little
Meanwhile, certain social developments outside of New Left circles
created fertile ground for a movement of women. More and more women
were entering the paid economy. In 1961, in part to quell a rising
concern with equal rights, the President’s Commission on the
Status of Women was cre. In 1963
The Feminine Mystique
Betty Freidan called the malaise of housewives, “the problem
that has no name.” The discontent of women in the professional
middle class led to their creation in 1966 of the National Organization
for Women (NOW). These women wanted economic and legal equality
in professional life; however, they accepted traditional sex roles,
including women’s primary responsibility for the home. They
did not, at that time, address the oppression from women’s
prescribed “private” roles as wives and mothers—or
the conflict between women’s old role in the home and their
growing role as paid workers outside of it. A more basic challenge
to the sexual division of labor was needed.
Outside the economic sphere, other developments increased women’s
self-awareness. To some young women, the advent of the birth control
pill and the counter-culture brought expectations of more equality
in social relationships. Women’s hopes were raised again by
the emergence of a “hippie” counter-culture. But the counter-culture
was riddled with sexual power trips of its own.
The first media-certified Women’s Liberation “event”
announcing the arrival of a national movement took place at the
Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City on September 7, 1968. Women
from New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC, and Florida joined together
to protest the “boob girlie show” in a highly publicized
guerilla theater action outside. They crowned a sheep as their contest
winner and set up a “freedom trash can” to receive (their
leaflet explained) “old bras, girdles, high-heeled shoes, women’s
magazines, curlers, and other instruments of torture to women.”
Headlines screamed of “bra burners”—a name of ridicule
that stuck in the media although, as far as anyone who was there
remembers, no bras were burned.
Even before this well-publicized action, radical women in many parts
of the country had started to meet together. In Chicago, Seattle,
Toronto, San Francisco, New York, Gainesville, and Boston, in all
major cities, women began to say “enough.”
The Personal Is Political
In Boston small groups of women in the New Left had begun meeting
informally as early as 1967. Some were groups of friends; others
were made up of female members of mixed political groups. Larger
weekly meetings of about 50 to 75 women began after the return of
five Boston women from the first National Women’s Liberation
conference in Chicago. Participants in these small and large groups
planned a local Liberation Conference for the spring of 1969; we
expected a few hundred women at most. Instead, over 500 thronged
to the conference, attending workshops on such topics as Women in
Socialist Countries, Self-Defense for Women, Abortion, Women and
Witchcraft, and Working Women.
In September seventy women created a formal organization. We called
ourselves Bread and Roses, taking the name from the cry of the Lawrence,
Massachusetts textile workers, many of whom were women, during their
historic strike of 1912.
The small group was the basic unit of participation in Bread and
Roses. These groups were called in many parts of the country rap
groups, consciousness raising groups, or “bitch sessions.”
In Bread and Roses we called them “collectives.” In these
collectives of seven-to-fifteen women, we told each other our life
stories, poured out our feelings as women in U.S. society, and especially
as women in a left movement of which we had very high expectations.
We wondered, “How come in my equal relationship with my boyfriend
it’s always me who notices when we’ve run out of toilet
paper?” “Doesn’t my boss know how to make a cup of
coffee?” And, as recorded in New York Radical Women’s
Notes from the First Year
, “I can’t stand walking
down the street by the construction workers on their lunch hour;
they undress me with their eyes and I don’t know which way
to look.” “If you don’t want to sleep with him, he
assumes you’re hung up and then you have to stay up the whole
night convincing him you’re not.”
Then we tried to analyze these experiences. We looked at the ways
we were brought up to be good little girls—at all the agents
of socialization that contributed to our feeling that we could do
certain things, but we couldn’t do others. We took a new look
at our families, our schools, our churches, and especially the media.
Thus, intuitively, we started a process of analysis that has characterized
the Women’s Liberation Movement since that time: starting from
our own experiences, our own conditions of oppression, and from
there generalizing to other women’s condition and the larger
institutions of U.S. society and from there thinking of strategies
In particular we talked about how invisible and taken for granted
we had felt in the Left and in our relationships. And we began to
explore our relationships with women—to trust and value women
more. A theme that ran through many of our discussions was something
we began to call psychological oppression. Deeply internalizing
the norms of the society, many of us had come to think less of ourselves
and other women than we did of men. Each woman reproduced the society’s
power relationships and the values placed on the different sexes
in her own psyche and in her own relationships.
Our understanding of this phenomenon enabled us to look at the social
roots of many of our deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.
It also led us to the position that damage to the psyche of each
individual—to unconscious and conscious values, images, and
aspirations— was as important to struggle against as was economic
exploitation or physical domination. We were aided in our recognition
of this cultural domination by the black movement’s pointing
to the power of (white) man’s ideology in forming black self-perceptions.
The process of the small group also countered an aspect of women’s
lives that we had come to see as one of the most basic and most
heinous— “the privatization of personal life.” Women
lived, by and large, alone with their day-to-day problems, separated
not only by the walls of their individual kitchens, but by an ideology
that affirmed that people’s problems were, after all, individual
problems that required individual solutions.
Redstockings, a New York women’s group, wrote in its manifesto
about this isolation and the need to counter it: “Because we
have lived so intimately with our oppressors, in isolation from
each other, we have been kept from seeing our personal suffering
as a political condition. This creates the illusion that a woman’s
relationship with her man is a matter of interplay between two unique
personalities and can be worked out individually. In reality every
such relationship is a class relationship and the conflicts between
individual men and women are political conflicts that can only be
Not everyone agreed with the description of women and men as “classes,”
but the political nature of conflicts between men and women was
undeniable. This concept became a watchword of Women’s Liberation:
“The personal is political and the political is personal.”
the lives of the members was only one of the tasks of most small groups.
Making larger analyses of women in the society, reaching out to bring
more women into the movement, carrying out small public actions, such
as guerrilla theater and “zap” actions —all were taken
on. Consciousness raising in small groups was both a means to mobilize
increasing numbers of women and a source for generating ideas and
analysis about Women’s Liberation. It re-introduced to the Left
the importance of small units, which mobilized people for larger movements.
In other cities besides Boston, the creation of these groups went
hand in hand with the creation of larger organizations. These organizations
identified themselves as part of an autonomous Women’s Liberation
Autonomy and Analysis
By an “autonomous” movement we mean a movement by, for,
and of women—one that would analyze women’s position in
U.S. society and act to change women’s condition in the context
of a broader struggle for revolutionary change in society.
Autonomy differed from separatism in that we saw our struggle as
integrally tied to that of blacks, workers, and other oppressed
groups fighting for radical change. But as long as a racist, sexist,
capitalist society continued to oppress different groups differently,
it would be necessary for each group to bring its own experience
to bear, in its own way. We had learned from history that unless
women are articulating their own demands, these demands are not
taken up by progressive movements. The example cited most often
occurred 100 years earlier when women abolitionists, who had worked
hard to free the slaves, wanted to demand universal suffrage for
women and men, rather than simply suffrage for black men. Male abolitionists
told them, “This is the Negro’s hour. Don’t ruin
it by adding your cause too.” The wait turned out to be a long
one. We were determined not to be trapped into thinking that the
issue of our liberation had to wait until “after the revolution.”
The goals of the autonomous women’s movement differed, too,
from the notions of government commissions on the status of women.
We thought of ourselves as revolutionaries; we did not just want
equal rights for women in this society—we did not want a bigger
piece of the existing pie—we wanted a different, socialist
society. From our analysis we thought we could not win either equality
or liberation for women without a total social transformation.
At first we had identified the problem merely as “male chauvinism”—the
attitude of condescending to women and undervaluing women that men
(and women) acquired as part of their upbringing. Two Bread and
Roses members wrote, “Chauvinism is when we spoke in meetings
only to find the next speaker responding to the speaker before us—as
if we did not exist; it is when we found men repeating ideas that
we had formulated earlier, as if they were original; it is why most
of us never spoke at all in meetings.”
When “chauvinism” was the enemy, we still thought we could
solve the problem by trying to reform individual men; an attitude
was, after all, merely an attitude. However, as we attempted to
explain our thoughts to comrades, friends, and lovers, we met more
resistance than we anticipated.
One famous example that quickly entered early Women’s Liberation
lore took place in 1969 in Washington, DC at a counter-demonstration
to Nixon’s first inauguration, sponsored by a coalition of
anti-war groups. Ellen Willis, a Redstockings member from New York,
describes what took place: “Our moment comes, M. from the Washington
group gets up to speak. This isn’t the protest against movement
men, which is second on the agenda; just fairly innocuous radical
rhetoric—except that it’s a good looking woman talking
about women. The men go crazy. ‘Take it off, Take her off the
stage and fuck her.’ They yell and guffaw at unwitting double
entendres like ‘We must take to the streets.’”
There were some men who supported us. Others said it was our problem,
not theirs. Others denied that this was an issue on the Left or
for the Left. Often the response was liberal and paternalistic,
patting us on our heads and approving of “doing our own thing,”
while the men would go out to make the revolution.
We had underestimated the power of male supremacy on the Left and
in society. By male supremacy we meant the institutional, all-encompassing
power that men as a group have over women, the systematic exclusion
of women from power in the society and the systematic devaluation
of all roles and traits which the society has assigned to women.
We came to realize that we had to confront and attack male supremacy
as a whole system.
This understanding required new strategies for change. Thus we set
about creating out own organizations and our own movement, seeking
to build a presence so strong and so visible that other political
groups and society’s institutions would have to take heed of
our critique and demands.
What We Did
One of the ways we made the new movement visible was through street
demonstrations. Most notable among the large demonstrations that
Bread and Roses organized were the International Women’s Day
marches, held annually on March 8. But the bulk of our political
work went on less visibly—in collectives, in general meetings,
in small actions known as “zaps,” and in project groups
organized around specific goals.
From the first, structure had been an issue of contention in the
new women’s organizations. Many of the founding members had
gone through long debates within the New Left, and especially SDS,
about structure; these debates had revolved around criticism of
representative democracy and were moving toward “participatory
democracy,” with the slogan “let the people decide.”
Explicit in this political direction was a distrust of formal structure.
Many Women’s Liberation activists equated structure with hierarchy,
with emphasizing status differences and stimulating passivity rather
than active participation. Most women’s groups opted for minimal
visible structure. A description of the typical Bread and Roses
gives a sense of what this meant. “Mass meetings” (assemblies
of the general membership) were held weekly. Often 75 to 100 women
attended—most of us rarely if ever having been in a room with
so many women.
It is 8:00 PM on a Friday night and the room is filled. Some women
are laughing and joking in small groups. A few people are reading
leaflets or notes they’ve written to themselves. Some are arguing
over a recent article or political action. Between 8:00 and 8:15
several women start suggesting that the meeting begin; it takes
a while for this sentiment to waft across the room. After the meeting
has come to order, announcements echo from many parts of the room—calls
for actions or study groups, a description of a new women’s
journal, a report on a recent demonstration. Stragglers wander in,
many of them quietly, recognizing their disruption; a few playing
kazoos, openly challenging the idea of order and schedule. Most
meetings have at least one substantive political topic to discuss.
The discussion is carried on haphazardly, with emotional interjections
of “This freaks me out” or “I’m uncomfortable”
often superseding substantive debate.
The interjection of “This freaks me out” in a Bread and
Roses meeting was the near equivalent of a “point of order.”
Whatever was being discussed would be put aside to deal with a particular
woman’s feelings. In part, this followed from a belief that
women have similar feelings and experiences; if one person is uncomfortable
with the direction or atmosphere of a meeting, so probably are many
others. In part it was an attempt to remedy the past injustices
of women not being heard. The style of emphasizing feelings over
structure made strides in the direction of democracy and egalitarianism,
but sometimes forfeited progress in planned discussions. In extreme
form it tended to install a “tyranny of structurelessness”—without
clear procedures or responsibility for conducting meetings, power
could drift to those with the clearest preconceived goals or the
most skill in public speaking.
The over-all loose and decentralized structure helped give rise
to the popularity of “zap actions.” Zaps were often one-shot
deals in which a group of women would go to some public place to
expose the sexism of an institution or activity. Often theatrical,
zaps usually featured costumes or skits as well as leaflets. The
point was to reach new people, women and men, in new ways and to
give a quick jiggle to spectators’ normal way of seeing things.
An example of a zap action is the Bread and Roses “Ogle-In”
of July 1970 where men in a busy shopping area were given women’s
traditional treatment of stares, whistles, catcalls, and pinches.
“Don’t hide it all under a suit,” the women urged.
Another zap targeted a Boston counter-cultural radio station whose
broadcast of an ad for a local drug program ended with “And
if you’re a chick, they need typists.” In response thirty
angry Bread and Roses women stormed the station protesting its sexism.
They presented the station manager with eight baby chicks, pointing
out that “women are not chicks.” The statement they presented
explained: “The male supremacist assumption was that ‘chicks’
by their very nature type; we do fifteen words a minute at birth
and work our way up.” Many phone calls later, they modified
the ad to, ”If you’re a chick and can type, they
need typists.” Could a radio station get away with an ad that
ran, “And if you’re black, we need janitors?”
In the project groups Bread and Roses members pursued more specific
objectives. Work and/or study groups generated ideas and actions
around racism, imperialism, and class. But the most concrete issues
involved control of our lives, our bodies, and our work.
Taking control of our bodies was basic. Redefining our sexuality
was a starting point for many women. The idea that Papa Freud and
various boyfriends and husbands had defined a women’s orgasm—occurring
“from the friction of the penis in the vagina”—was
mind-boggling. Reclaiming our sexuality became an important part
of consciousness raising. Women realized that “our bodies have
been kept from us,” and then we set about taking them back.
Seeking more knowledge about our bodies led us to a critique of
sex education and the health-care system. In Boston a Bread and
Roses project began trying to find non-sexist gynecologists to recommend
to women—and compiling a warning list of doctors to avoid because
of their demeaning attitudes and practices toward their women patients.
This group went on to create a health course for women, which was
taught at adult education centers, YWCAs, high schools, and colleges,
first in Boston and then all over the country. Thousands of copies
of a booklet from this course, “Women and Their Bodies,”
were distributed by the New England Free Press. Women throughout
the nation wrote to Bread and Roses asking for advice and information,
telling their own particular horror stories about doctors. As
Bodies, Our Selves,
it has become a classic for women.
Two more specific demands for reclaiming our bodies were for safe
birth control and legal abortions. The growing awareness of the
dangers of the Pill and the number of unwanted pregnancies pointed
to the inadequacy of present forms of birth control. We discovered
later that sterilization was being foisted on many poor and Third
World women without their choice and sometimes without their knowledge.
We came to understand that the basic issue was choice: the right
to choose when or whether to become a mother. The right to control
our bodies became a basic cry.
Within this campaign perhaps the most sustained effort centered
around abortion. Any woman on the street could be raped; any woman
who engaged in sexual intercourse could accidentally become pregnant.
Although many reform groups had sought to liberalize archaic abortion
laws in the past, the Women’s Liberation Movement sought the
repeal of all laws limiting abortion and the provision of free abortions
After many years of struggle, women’s efforts seemed to be
successful with the 1973 Supreme Court decision, which legalized
abortion. (Recently, however, forces of reaction have zeroed in
on publicly funded abortions and organized to end them.)
Another key issue was childcare. We didn’t need a political
analysis to tell us that primary responsibility for children fell
to women. In many cities, Women’s Liberation groups addressed
the issue of childcare from the start, by creating their own alternatives.
In Boston women organized playgroups that rotated child-care responsibilities
among parents and other interested people. Another frequent tactic,
there and elsewhere, was to make demands on institutions where women
worked or went to school to set up childcare facilities there.
Work itself was a third important area of concern. Beyond equal
pay for equal work, we sought to end sex segregation and sex-role
stereotyping—to challenge the way work was set up.
Bread and Roses had an office workers’ group whose members
met and talked together and tried to interest co-workers in Women’s
Liberation. Secretaries in one downtown accounting firm began dividing
up their work themselves, refusing to make their bosses’ coffee,
and decorating walls with Women’s Liberation posters.
A fourth area of concern was making ourselves strong women. Many
of us studied karate and other forms of self-defense; subway stations
were stickered with signs proclaiming “Disarm rapists,”
with a picture of a woman administering a karate kick to a man.
Members of Bread and Roses taught women how to street fight, how
to stay together when attacked, whether in a political demonstration
or walking down the street.
A Women’s Community & Culture
As women turned to each other for affection and support that we
had previously sought in men, many sensual feelings were liberated.
Some of us made love with women we loved; some of us “came
out.” For some women lesbianism was an extension of the desire
to be completely self-sufficient. Or, many times, the women’s
movement provided a safe enough place to open up new sexual feelings.
But also, at times, women who were already lesbians found it difficult
to be “out” in the Women’s Movement. Tensions arose
as both heterosexual and lesbian women felt guilty or forced up
against the wall about their choice. Was lesbianism the logical
extension of feminism? (As one woman put it, “Feminism is the
theory, lesbianism is the practice.”) Or was it just one natural
outgrowth of our feelings and activities? Both straight and gay
women could not help but internalize the heterosexual bias of the
dominant culture and we had to identify it and fight it. However
much tension there was, though, an important new option was opening
for women, bringing the possibility of being in more egalitarian
and respectful relationships.
There were other tensions besides that between gay and straight.
Conflicts arose too between married women and single women. The
whole process of changing our relationships with women and men was
not easy; it was not always a barrel of fun. We spoke of “struggling”
toward new types of relationships because it was indeed a draining
task and painful, even as it was energizing.
The theoretical expression of this struggle toward a women’s
community was the concept of “sisterhood.” In part this
was a political name for the feelings of closeness, respect, and
solidarity. In part it reflected our desire for the intensity, permanence,
and reliability of a “family.” Also, the family metaphor
was borrowed from the black movement, where people called each other
“sister” and “brother” to indicate solidarity
and the creation of a community separate from “the Man.”
We felt, too, the potential power of great numbers of women banding
together in “sisterhood.” And counting on other women
as sisters challenged the idea that individuals had to make it on
their own. We quite consciously provoked the surprise and dismay
of straight liberal groups who would ask for one speaker on Women’s
Liberation and get three; they would ask, “Who is the speaker?”
and the Bread and Roses group would respond, “We are.”
the creation of a women’s community was the creation of a new
women’s culture, expressed in poetry, music, dance, song, spraypainting,
and a host of other media. Individually and collectively, we rejected
the old values and sought to express our new values in many different
forms. Publications mushroomed…. We sang new songs, often written
collectively, at demonstrations and sometimes at meetings….
Where before, to dance, you had to go to a mixed party and wait
for a man to ask you to dance with him —now you could just
Some women took up traditional “feminine” crafts. At the
same time, many learned traditionally masculine skills. Sometimes
these were called survival skills; they included self-defense, auto
mechanics, carpentry, electrical wiring, and plumbing.
We also made serious attempt reach out to as-yetuninvolved women
personally. We spoke in groups of two and three and four in as many
places as we got invitations: churches, colleges, temples, YWCAs,
women’s organizations—to high school women, older women,
housewives, and suburban women. What we said touched women’s
lives and they responded. Bread and Roses also held weekly orientation
meetings for new women. Hundreds of women came to these weekly meetings
wanting to become part of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Television and newspapers, quick to recognize an important new option
was opening for women, brought the Movement to far more people than
we ever could have. Spreading the word was a help, but the words
they used weren’t always helpful. In diffusing information,
they generally defused the message. A sensational image emerged:
ugly man-haters, “bra-burners.” Or “Women’s
Lib,” a glib popularization that had none of the emotional
meaning of “Liberation,” but suggested a fad, a craze.
Those media figures who tried to be sympathetic usually weakened
the message to the need for women to have equal pay at work and
maybe get some help with childcare. But others pandered to people’s
fear of change and some women readers and viewers became afraid
that Women’s Liberation meant they would be drafted into the
army (though mostly we opposed both the draft and the army) or would
have to become competitive career women interested only in success.
Still, our ideas about the need for basic change in sex roles, work,
and the family touched many women. Those who could find us swelled
the ranks of the decentralized Women’s Liberation organizations;
their newly stimulated feminist rage brought us new insights.
a time, these first Women6;s Liberation organizations began to wane.
This was in the context of a New Left that was, in the early 1970s,
seeing most of its organizations factionalize and disintegrate. Our
commitment to minimal structure and leaderlessness, while avoiding
some of the tendencies toward factional rivalries, infighting, and
leadership conflicts that plagued much of the Left, besieged us with
problems of keeping an organizatioommunication and responsibility,
and recognizing and holding accountable the leaders who did emerge.
Many of our insights, however, have continued to spread. What we
called male supremacy—the idea that women are not equal to
men in this society—is accepted as fact by many people and
the idea that this inequality should be changed is accepted by a
great number. Sexual politics—that any relationship, even a
one-to-one encounter, between a woman and a man is mediated and
shaped by the fact that men as a group have more power than women
as a group—can no longer be denied. We were talking about power,
not just discrimination. Recognizing the structured, institutionalized
nature of that power pointed, for many women, to the need for collective
rather than personal solutions.
The political is no longer conceived to be solely in the realm of
government or even (in the traditional leftist sense) solely in
the world of economic forces and economic exploitation. Issues that
were once considered private—sexuality, the family, how you
look and act— are now seen as political. Personal life does
not merely reflect politics; it is politics. Even more important
was our understanding that power relations are internalized by both
men and women and that they are continually being reproduced in
our daily lives.
Following from this was our insight that we must change ourselves
in order to change society—we became the raw material of our
own politics. The need for all people to try out more parts of their
personalities and be less stereotyped into rigid sex roles is more
and more commonly recognized. We successfully challenged the idea
that men are doers and women are objects; that men are providers
and women are nurturers; that men are presidents and women are secretaries.
Out of the ashes of the first organizations have risen numerous
projects, such as community health-care centers, rape crisis centers,
women’s schools, and daycare centers. When we in Bread and
Roses and the Women’s Liberation Movement first said that the
personal is political, we meant to point to the political nature
of what too many people still feel are “private” personal
issues difficult or impossible to change. We meant, too, that there
could be no personal or individual solutions to the pains of everyday
life, generated as they are not only by the structures of government
and economics, but also by the structures of sexuality and gender.
biography attached to her 1979 essay says, “Ann Popkin has worked
in the Women’s School, the New England Marxist-Feminist Study
group, the Boston Women’s Union, and a local socialist-feminist
collective. She has made films and taught media & society, women
& media, and community studies at the University of California
at Santa Cruz.”