Dear Sisters

In Dear Sisters Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon set out to document a “social movement that changed America.” They note that while women's liberation was “the largest social movement in the history of the U.S.,” reaching into every home, school, business, etc., very little has been written about it and no publication has presented the voices of its activists. Dear Sisters fills that gap. It is an extraordinary book of documents and should be read by everyone, cover to cover.

In their valuable introduction the editors express the hope that readers will not only come to a fuller understanding of the women's movement, but also that the book will correct some widespread misconceptions. These include that women's “libbers”:

  • Were privileged, white young women with no concern for working class women or women of color
  • Rejected motherhood
  • Considered children a burden
  • Ignored bread and butter economic issues and focused only on sex, violence, and personal issues.
  • Drew energy away from broader coalitions
  • Hated being women, rejected everything feminine
  • Were man haters
  • Were bitter losers because men had rejected them
  • Were humorless, prudish, and quick to take offense
  • Were spoiled, self-pitying whiners who exaggerated women's oppression

While some of these myths had a grain of truth to them, others did not—far from it—as the editors demonstrate. For instance, feminists never rejected motherhood but rather tried to improve its conditions; many feminists were romantically involved with men, had sons, fathers, male friends and coworkers that they loved; feminists were not losers but achievers and doers, often the most self-con- fident women. Far from being prudish, feminists were dedicated to liberating female sexuality.

Baxandall and Gordon give a brief history of the roots of “second wave” feminism and the women's liberation movement— from around 1968 or so to 1977 (women's struggle for the right to vote in 1920 is referred to as the “first wave”). These roots include cold war culture with its strict gender system as well as women's participation in early movements to ban the bomb, in civil rights, as part of the counter-culture beat generation, and in a growing youth rebellion. They also mention influential efforts within the system such as the creation in 1960 of a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, that called for equal pay for comparable work, child care services, paid maternity leave, and other measures.

The editors also point out that NOW, considered a stodgy, reformist, bourgeois organization, first “included more minority and working class leadership that the women's liberation movement did.” But NOW was mainly a lobbying effort around civil rights and did not challenge basic institutions, rather fought for rights within existing institutions.

Ironically, the main impetus for liberation came from those women who had worked alongside men mainly in the civil rights and anti-war movements. These movements talked of peace and justice, and equality, but their practice was often classist, sexist, and racist. Women were secretaries, domestic servants, moms, and sex objects to movement men.

Baxandall and Gordon look at women's liberation and its basic principles and makeup—what made it unique in the history of women's efforts to improve their situation. First, women's liberation worked for structural change, challenging the roots and source of male domination. Second, it realized the importance of changing not just structures but consciousness. Third, it looked at the interconnectedness of all aspects of women's oppression: work, family, image, health, sexuality, and so on. Fourth, it emphasized decentralization, full participation, and direct democracy, which it practiced most often through small consciousness raising groups. The editors also describe the three prevalent ideologies: Marxist feminism, socialist feminism, and radical feminism—then later cultural feminism.

Finally, Baxandall and Gordon sum up what they consider the women's movement's accomplishments including: legalizing abortion, major improvements in healthcare, raising consciousness about violence against women (rape and battering become crimes), public funding for women's shelters; changes in education, textbooks, and scholarship; major changes in women's involvement in sports; improvements in daycare, early childhood education, parental leave, unionization of women workers, improvements in wages; changes in culture, fashion, language; changes in expectations—that there is more than one possible option in life, marriage as an equal partnership and a refusal to live with a domineering man. Even now after years of backlash, demonizing, and trivializing, the editors point out that most citizens support what feminism stands for (even if they refuse to use the word)—equal rights, respect, opportunity, and access.

Feminism as a social movement dissolved in the late 1970s, according to the editors, because (a) social movements are often short-lived due to the “intense personal demands they make; (b) as people age they put more time into work and personal life; (c) women's liberation could not survive outside the context of other progressive movements. But feminism, Baxandall and Gordon point out, is not dead. They find it striking that, in the decades of backlash since mid-1970s, so few feminist gains have been rolled back, many have even gained momentum.

The main body of the book is organized into three parts: Origins, Bodies, and Institutions. Pieces were selected for “readability” and “accessibility” as well as breadth and variety to “present women's liberation completely and accurately.” The editors give background to many of the pieces throughout the book—unfortunately these helpful histories are printing in small type in boxes with gray backgrounds, making reading a strain). Documents include cartoons, poems, lyrics, posters, and drawings, but most are short leaflets or essays written between 1968-1975).

The first is an often referred to “kind of memo” written in 1965 by Casey Hayden and Mary King who were active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Titled “Sex and Caste,” Hayden and King draw parallels between the treatment of blacks in society and the treatment of women, who they say are caught in a sexual caste system. A caste system, they say, is difficult to define and therefore to overthrow. Women's role in this caste system is seen as biological and therefore immutable. They argue that women need more than legal solutions to their oppression, they need personal and institutional change.

This piece is followed by the lyrics of a Malvina Reynolds song “We Don't Need The Men” (1958). The second verse goes as follows:

We don't need the men,

We don't need the men.

We don't need to have ‘em around,

Except for now and then.

They can come to see us when   they're

Feeling pleasant and agreeable.

Otherwise they can stay at home and

Holler at the T.V. programs.

We don't care about them,

We can do without them,

They'll look cute in a bathing suit

On a billboard in Madagascar.

There are documents from early draft resistance that appeal to women as the mothers of sons. Later, in the hands of women's liberation, war resistance actions challenge the “support your man” thesis and first use the phrase “Sisterhood is Powerful.”

There is a document arguing for the relevance of feminism to lesbians. There is a statement from SDS women to “The Women of the Left” in which they demand proportional representation on all levels of society and full participation in decision-making. They condemn the mass media for perpetuating stereotypes and they demand total equality of opportunity at all levels, in all fields with no discrimination on the basis of women's childbearing functions. They demand that unions admit women on an equal basis and that women have complete control of their own bodies—with the dissemination of birth control information and devices free to all and affordable medical abortions. They argue for a reconsideration of the family unit, a revamping of marriage, divorce, and property laws that cause injustice to either sex, the equal sharing of responsibility for the home and child rearing; communal child centers staffed by women and men as well as non-profit food preparation centers located in all communities.

There is an essay describing an early campus group (1968) at UCLA called Sansei Concerns, later changed to Asian American Political Alliance, that began to question to role of women in the Asian American movement. “I remember one meeting with thirty people or so. We all went around the room and introduced ourselves. This one guy said, “My name is so-and-so and this is my wife; she has nothing to say.” That really stuck in my mind. I and the other women just exploded. That sort of focused what we had been feeling.”

New York Radical Women set down “Principles” to define their political approach (1968). Their statement foreshadows the pro-woman line:

“We take the woman's side in everything. We asks not if something is ‘reformist,' ‘radical,' ‘revolutionary,' or ‘moral.' We ask: is it good for women or bad for women?
“We define the best interests of women as the best interests of the poorest, most insulted, most despised, most abused woman on earth…
“We are critical of all past ideology, literature and philosophy, products as they are of male supremacist culture.
“We see the key to our liberation in our collective wisdom and our collective strength.”

“Angry Notes From A Black Feminist” by Doris Wright (1970) documents early examples of black women's challenges to sexism. “The Man to Sam may be Whitey, but the Man to women is any man.”

A Young Lords “Position Paper on Women” writes of Puerto Rican, Black, and Third World women's growing awareness of three different types of oppression: as Puerto Ricans, as women, and by their own men. This paper also looks at the complexity of the abortion question, pointing out that women of color have no access to safe abortions and that forced sterilization is being used against them.

Ellen Willis in “Letter to the Left” posits two “interdependent but distinct parts” to the American system: the capitalist state and the patriarchal family.

In a woman's takeover of the underground New York newspaper  The Rat, Robin Morgan says goodbye to a male dominated, sexist movement. “A genuine Left doesn't consider anyone's suffering irrelevant or titillating; nor does it function as a microcosm of capitalist economy, with men competing for power and status at the top, and women doing all the work at the bottom (and functioning as objectified prizes or ‘coin' as well). Goodbye to all that.”

In the “Platform” of Third World Gay Revolution we find the following:

  • We want the right of self-determination for all third world and gay people
  • We want the right of self-determination over the use of our bodies; the right to be gay anytime, anyplace; the right to free physiological change and modification of sex on demand.
  • We want liberation for all women
  • We want and end to hiring practices, which make wo- men and national minorities
  • A readily available source of cheap labor
  • Confined to mind-rotting jobs under the worst conditions
  • We want full protection of the law and social sanction for all human sexual self-expression and pleasure between consenting persons, including youth
  • We want the abolition of the institution of the bourgeois nuclear family
  • We want all third world and gay men to be exempt from compulsory military service in the imperialist army. We want an end to military oppression both at home and abroad

A “Statement” from the Third World Women's Alliance (1968) comments on the need for solidarity among third world women, noting that black men had thus far defined the role of black women in the movement. “We are speaking of oppression, we don't need reforms that will put white women into positions to oppress women of color or our men in much the same way as white men have been doing for centuries. We need changes in the system and attitudes of people that will guarantee the right to live free from hunger, poverty, and racism.”

Pamela Allen Parker in “The Small Group Process” talks of the need for as many women as possible to open up and share their experiences in consciousness raising groups, then later to analyze them, and only then will an ideology develop from the women's movement.

Jo Freeman's essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” points out that in avoiding all the traditional techniques for democracy (opinion polls, votes, group representatives) in favor of no structure that informal tyrannies can develop, that is, the movement will become a club or closed society, where people listen to others because they like them or they are friends; there is no obligation to be responsible to the group at large; a star system gets created; groups will flounder and tire of talking.

In “What Men Can Do For Women's Liberation,” Gainesville Women's Liberation recommends, among other things: set up a day care center at a place of work so more women can be free to work; exercise no job discrimination; refuse to work where women aren't given equal pay; encourage men to do what has been considered women's work; share housework without being asked; share in children's upbringing; don't make jokes about women's liberation.

In “The Women of La Raza Unite!” Chicanas resolve that, among other things, they will promote sisterhood; Chicanas must represented at all levels of La Raza; they want equal pay, improved working conditions, prostitution to be de-criminalized while those who reap profits from prostitution receive heavy fines and sentences; control over the abortion process, community controlled health clinics, child care, education classes, and withdrawal from Vietnam.

The “Redstocking Manifesto” declares that women are an oppressed class, that all conflicts between individual men and women are political, and that conflicts must be solved collectively. Ti-Grace Atkinson in “Radical Feminism and Love” states, “the phenomenon of love is the psychological pivot in the persecution of women.”

“A Historical and Critical Essay for Black Women” by Patricia Haden, Donna Middleton, and Patricia Robinson denounces the white power structure, calls for reproductive choice for black women, emphasizes the need for black women to study and theorize.

The Chicago Women's Liberation Union, one of the biggest and most active socialist feminist groups, attempted to insert feminist ideas into the existing body of Marxist theory. In “Socialist Feminism” they see feminism as an “institutionalized system of oppression based on the domination of men over women” and capitalism as “an institutionalized form of oppression based on profit from private owners for publicly worked for wealth.” They envisioned a classless humanist world with: free, humane medical care controlled by community organizations; people's control of their own bodies; comfortable housing for private and collective living; abundant, nutritious diet; social respect for working people; democratic councils through which all people control the decisions that directly affect their lives; scientific resources geared toward the improvement of life for all rather than conquest and destruction; varied consumer products to meet our needs; an end to housework as private unpaid labor; redefinition of jobs; free, public quality education integrated with work; freedom to define social and sexual relationships; support for internal development and self-determination for countries around the world; disarming of and community control of police. They argued for activism on two fronts: establishing counter-institutions combined with direct action—vision as well as confronting power.

In the Bodies section there are pieces on challenging the health care system; the origins of Our Bodies Ourselves; Self Help Clinics; the benefits of breastfeeding; a bill to allow fathers to attend births; a black women's health project; the pill and its side effects; abortion laws; Jane, an underground group of women who learned how to perform abortions; and sexuality. Anne Koedt's writes in “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm”: “Women have thus been defined sexually in terms of what pleases men; our own biology has not been properly analyzed. Instead, we are fed the myth of the liberated female and her vaginal orgasm—an orgasm, which in fact does not exist.”

There is a “Hooking Is Real Employment (HIRE)” flyer with the goals of lobbying for the decriminalization of prostitution and to claim prostitutes' rightful place in the women's movement.

The Chicanas  “Workshop Resolutions” focuses on sexuality and reproductive freedom. A “No More Miss America” leaflet protests the “degrading mindless-boob-girlie” symbol and Miss America as military death mascot. Sheilah Drummond writes of being fired for not shaving her legs. Fat Liberation issues a “Manifesto” saying, “We see our struggle as allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, financial exploitation, imperialism, and the like…we repudiate the mystified ‘science' which falsely claims that we are unfit.”

A flyer called “Little Rapes” documents experiences of being ogled and sexually harassed in public places. “Rape: The All American Crime” comments: “Our society glamorizes rape by calling it a crime of passion. It is a crime of hate. It is the most ugly, brutal manifestation of man's power over woman. Until our bodies are truly our own, until men can no longer assert ownership over us, rape will continue. We will always be ‘asking for it'; we will always be ‘bringing it on ourselves.' Because if male society really admits the crime of rape, it admits the crime it has perpetrated against us since the beginning of recorded history. And that is not a crime mankind is willing to face, or to stop.”

In the Institutions section Eleanor Holmes Norton writes about familites in “For Sadie and Maud,” “…we have a chance to pioneer in forging new relationships between men and women. We have a chance to make family life a liberating experience instead of the confining experience it sometimes has been.” Julie Coryell writes about keeping her own name, naming children after the mother, and how to go about changing your name back.

Alix Kates Shulman describes how she and her husband were doing okay in terms of sharing housework etc. until they had a child, and then traditional roles took over. After six years, they finally reassessed and came up with a marriage agreement based on principles of equality and with job assignments to break down gender roles.

“Communal Living” argues for its benefits: allowing people to live more cheaply, less wastefully, while breaking up the traditional nuclear family. Another article on “The Five of Us” describes the benefits of sharing children in a communal situation. “Hippie Communes” describes the horrors of living with boorish, sexist men.

In “Speaking of Spock” Jo Ann Hoit challenges Spock's Baby and Child Care, the bible of child- raising for an entire generation. Hoit shows how Spock's advice to “parents” assumes the traditional nuclear family, acting as if all Moms were at home as primary caretakers, while fathers are designated as “helpers.” Interestingly, statistics show that 30 percent of non-white mothers of children under 3 were working, as were 18 percent of white mothers. Twenty-five percent of white mothers of children from 3-5 years were working, 52 percent of non-white. Forty percent of white mothers of children form 6 to 17 years were working, as were 57 percent of non-whites.

An article on “The Single Motherhood Experience” points out that there have always been single mothers. In 1900, 10 percent of mothers were single but most didn't choose to be. The women's movement defended women's right to raise children on their own or with other women.

“Why Day Care?” by Louise Gross and Phyllis Greenleaf argues, “It is quite clear that free public day care centers would be an important means for liberating women from the traditional tasks of child rearing…. A day care program which has a sexually integrated staff—and salaries in keeping with the value of this work—would make child-rearing a desirable…occupation.”

Adrienne Rich writes in “Women's Studies As a Pledge of Resistance,” “Man shall no longer make the world in his image.”

There are further articles on the politics of housework, wages for housework, women in the armed forces, gays and work, sexual harassment in the workplace, an American Federation of Teachers' resolution on women's rights, office worker organizing, a stewardess strike, an open letter to Local #1299 of the United Steelworkers Union, and welfare activism, all of which testify to the breadth and militancy of women's liberation.

The section on cultural institutions includes a satire “Anatomy is Destiny or…Just Like Daddy” by Virginia Morgan: “It is now the 21st century, and man is no longer the dominant sex with wo-man being the ‘second sex,' the way it had been and indeed the way it was ‘supposed to be' in all previous centuries…. Indeed, the stronger genetic makeup of woman, her superior resistance and longevity, have made her the representative sex of the human race with man (or rather, ‘no-woman,' as is he now terms) having become a sort of appendage—necessary for the propagation of the species.”

In “Days of Celebration and Resistance: The Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, 1970-1973, Naomi Weisstein writes: “To combat the fascism of the typical rock performance where the performers disdain audiences and the sound is turned up beyond human endurance, we were extremely interactive with our audiences, rapping with them and asking what songs they liked and keeping the sound level at a reasonable roar. We were playful, theatrical and comical.” The band was very successful but ultimately two conflicts (that recurred throughout left projects) arose: one was the tension between expertise and enthusiasm.” Weisstein writes: “The myth about equality in skills was so strong that not one of us had the temerity to say, “You're not good enough for this band. Get better or quit.” The second problem was leadership. “The movement applied the same thinking [re expertise] to leadership, declaring that there should be none…. But no matter how self-abnegating leaders were, it was not enough. The utopian vision became cannibalism, and the movement ate its leaders: in city after city, they went down.”

There are also poems, the story of women invading the Boston Globe, stickers to be pasted over sexist advertisements, Chicana art, and a history of women's music.

This is such an exciting book that I wanted more, but there are limits to how many documents the editors could find and/or get in. Still a bibliography of classic feminist work would have been useful. I would have liked more on culture, particularly the media, women's magazines, etc. Some excerpts from things like Sara Evans's Personal Politics and the Ehrenreich & English pamphlet “Witches, Midwives and Nurses” might have been nice. Perhaps something from Bernice Reagan or Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi. There is also nothing much on anarchist feminism whose challenge to elitism clearly influenced the movement. Also some writings on how women's liberation insights and politics might have influenced and changed other left movements would have been of interest.   But perhaps these are all for another book.

I could quibble about the class issue within the women's movement, not to mention that a great deal of the material came from Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but not Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, etc. But as someone who was in the mainstream at the outset of women's liberation, I know it reached far and wide, even if participation was not totally exemplary or the material isn't all recorded here.

By the time you get through reading Dear Sisters, it is clear why, as the editors state in their introduction, “the women's movement was the largest social movement in the history of the U.S.”  But it is not clear why women's liberation as an organized force disappeared. The cumulative effect of the pieces in Dear Sisters is so positive and inspirational that it leads one to ask, in frustration, what the hell happened? Clearly, women's liberation at its best was poised to become a serious movement for total revolutionary change, for a humanist democratic, participatory society. Why, then, did we give up, leaving the field to NOW, sectarian organizations, single-issue (often more reform oriented) campaigns, separatism, and lifestyle feminism? Certainly, many of the above efforts have been of value, but why is the only lasting feminist organization with any impact one with a hierarchical structure and corporate funding?

Whatever the editors say about social movements only lasting for a short time, or women getting on with our lives, or the demise of the left in general, still, these explanations have never really sufficiently explained to me why Bread and Roses, Chicago Women's Liberation Union, and the many exemplary radical third world organizations that existed at the time didn't hold a summit and take the necessary steps toward forming a national, decentralized women's liberation organization with a truly democratic structure and process and a revolutionary program— working on two fronts: direct action against the existing classist, racist, sexist power structure and building alternative democratic institutions. I hope the answer isn't, “Because building an organization with a program and a political mission statement is inherently elistist.” I hope that one of the things that made women's liberation so threatening to the status quo—its challenge to male supremacist hierarchical institutions and consciousness—wasn't also the cause of its demise.

Surely, the organized movement didn't disappear because we had won. The editors of Dear Sisters write: “That there is still a long way to go to reach sexual equality should not prevent us from recognizing what we have achieved. If there is disappointment, it is because women's liberation was so utopian, even apocalyptic, emerging as it did in a era of radical social movements and grand optimism.”

If by utopian, they mean so different from mainstream consciousness as to be impossible to implement in six years or so, then okay. But I see nothing utopian or apocalyptic about much of what is in Dear Sisters. The lesson here is that we should pick up where we left off, add in some insights from third wave and Green feminists, and get going again.

The final verse of the title poem, “Dear Sisters” by the New York Radical Feminist Cabaret goes:

Oh Sisters Dear

Dear Sisters Dear.

I implore you not to doubt, or wait, or fear.

Be united in our fight.

Sally forth for all our Rights.

Feminism is the Truth.

Oh Sisters Dear.

Yeah, no doubt, no fear, no waiting, feminism is the truth. Now that's more like it. Bring it on, Sisters (and, yes, Brothers too), bring it on.                  


Lydia Sargent is a playwright and actor/director. She is also co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine.