The US women’s movement can only be understood in the context of the history of the United States, a nation founded by white settlers on land taken from its indigenous peoples, who were subjected to forced relocation and genocide. At its founding, its economy was based on a system of agriculture totally dependent on the enslavement of kidnapped Africans; as the US became industrialized, the exploitation of successive waves of immigrants became central.
It is thus no accident that, from its beginning, the fate of the US women’s movement has been inextricably intertwined with that of natives, African Americans and immigrants. Strategic and practical differences over the relationship between feminism and the rights of these oppressed groups have divided American women at crucial points. And yet, despite these differences, we have united to win basic human rights for women, all women.
The early leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the US were abolitionists, activists in the movement to end slavery. In 1869 they split over the 14th Amendment, which gave the vote to male but not female former slaves. Woman suffrage was at this time considered a radical demand. Feminists were divided over whether they should hold out for this, no matter how long it took, or whether the post-enslavement situation of black people, as represented by black men, demanded immediate remediation, meaning both black and white women would have to wait.
Similar debates could be heard during recent Democratic primaries, between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, and between those who wanted Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders in 2016. This fault line was not, as the media would have it, one of demographics – white vs. black, old vs. young, college educated vs. blue collar – but of politics. Economic equality; systemic violence and discrimination against black people; the dispossession of Native Americans for profit and fossil fuels; and sweeping rightwing promises to deport Muslims and undocumented immigrants were all issues in 2016. While gender questions are entwined in all of these issues, they were not always noted as such.
Within the women’s movement, the debate has been largely between liberal feminists, who see gender equality as possible to obtain within the current political and economic system, and leftwing feminists, who see gender as so intertwined with race, class, and other social questions that fundamental economic and political changes are necessary. Both liberal and leftwing feminists today say they are “intersectional,” meaning they want to deal with the way class, race, gender, sexuality and other factors overlap. But they have different approaches to doing so.
A similar fault line ran through women’s movement politics in the late Sixties and Seventies. (Neither sector – liberal or leftwing – was made up only of “white feminists,” as younger academics later characterized it, and there was considerable crossover and back and forth, as documented in Mary Dore’s recent film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.) The young radicals in women’s liberation, of whom I was one, worked on a wide range of issues including the Vietnam war; abortion and reproductive rights; sexual freedom and gay rights; union struggles; and support for the black and other national liberation movements. But though we were enormously influential culturally, we never built national organizations with broad programs that were stable enough to last. Meanwhile, liberal feminists built strong, tightly controlled national organizations that were ideologically on message, skilled at using the media, and good at raising money. They pursued a strategy of working through the Democratic Party and focused increasingly on electoral politics and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
With the Reagan era, the economic gains of the postwar period were halted and the long descent into a polarized and drastically unequal economy began. At the same time as they pursued an economic counter-revolution, conservatives launched a broad mobilization against women’s liberation, affirmative action, gay rights, and other democratic advances. They fought the ERA in electoral and propaganda campaigns; organized a Right to Life movement against abortion; mobilized bigotry and fundamentalism against gay rights; did extensive union-busting; organized a hate campaign against “welfare queens;” and undercut free expression with censorship initiatives that were thinly-disguised attacks on increased sexual freedom for women and gays. Under this right wing assault, much of the women’s movement disintegrated, along with the rest of the left; what remained were reproductive rights organizations and the mainstream groups in Washington. As these were forced more and more into a defensive posture, their ideas and methods of work became increasingly cautious.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the organizations that are the public face of liberal feminism had become old, bureaucratic and top-down, shaped by careerism and Washington politics. Their organizational culture is so permeated by US free market business ideology that they can be called corporate feminists: they build top-down organizations, concentrate on fundraising, and think in terms of their brand and market share, not of building a broad movement. Their political allegiance belongs to the Democratic Party rather than to any mass base of women, and their politics are utterly shaped by interaction with the state, so their focus is always on what will help with lobbying, what will help in the next election. While women with their skills and access to power are a key part of the kind of coalition we need to achieve reform goals and hold the line against the right, they are not sufficient to build a big tent democratic movement.
Under their leadership, in the thirty-year period of retraction and conservative hegemony that followed Reagan’s election, the feminist movement focused on a corporate vision of feminist goals – ending the glass ceiling, for instance, rather than raising the floor and giving everyone a living wage. For the most part, the big feminist organizations avoid issues like globalization, war, or the environment, and hold back from union drives and campaigns for welfare rights. Increasingly they and their international counterparts favor huge celebrity-driven fundraising events that supposedly show the reach of the women’s movement: Power Feminism.
As mainstream liberal feminism became more conservative and corporate in style, many younger feminists began to distance themselves from it in order to express broader social goals. As Linda Burnham, research director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, puts it: “Every progressive social movement worthy of the name is ultimately about a liberatory project that extends outward, beyond those most affected by a particular form of inequity. It calls on each of us to combine with others and to commit our better, more selfless, justice-loving selves to building a society that lifts up the full humanity of all who have suffered discrimination, indignities, oppression, exploitation, abuse.”
When feminism doesn’t do that, the movement loses credibility. Because the liberatory project Burnham names is fundamental to leftwing feminism, periods of leftwing expansion, when masses of new people became politically active, have tended to coincide with times of growth in the feminist movement. In such periods of expansion, the feminist movement and the left see that they have common interests: before World War I, these included birth control, woman suffrage, and the organizing of women into unions; today’s demands include defense of Planned Parenthood, a higher minimum wage, an end to police violence, and equal rights for ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. These common interests provide the basis for a united front of women that can bring together women from many movements – feminist, LGBTI, labor, African-American, immigrant rights – around particular demands. Women in each of these movements will have their own priorities, goals and preferred tactics, which they will struggle for within the united front. The direction and strength of the movement as a whole will depend on which groups are strongest ideologically, which have the best organization or the deepest pockets, and which can mobilize the most active members.
This potential of such a united front can be seen in the vast Women’s March of January 21, called as a counter-inauguration protest to announce a general opposition to Trump’s platform and signal women’s leadership in this resistance. The Women’s March brought together the left wing of the women’s movement, led by embattled and mobilized working class and minority women and queers like those in the National Nurses Union, Black Lives Matter, and the encampment at Standing Rock, and the mainstream liberal feminist organizations and politicians. Its main message was a defense of diversity; the idea was to strike a symbolic blow against racism and nativism and hatred of women and sexual minorities.
The call to the march said: “The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us. We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us. This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society.”
The call was so successful it spread all over the world, so demonstrations were held not only in Washington but in 652 other US locations and many other countries. In the US alone, the Washington Post estimated that least four million marched, making this the largest protest in US history.
The march, as well as all the activity leading up to it in such places as Ferguson and Standing Rock, signals that the US is now in a period of leftwing opposition and awakening similar to that before World War I. In this new period, ossified and compromised vehicles of liberal feminism – along with top down corporate control of the Democratic Party – will have to change or end up abandoned at the side of the road. But leftwing success in building a revitablized united front of women is not inevitable. In fact, leftwing sectarianism could doom it. In the 1930s, the hegemony of the Communist Party, which combined lack of interest in women’s rights with the desire to control popular movements, foreclosed the possibility of the kind of leftwing women’s movement that existed in the period before World War I. Only in the rebellious atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s did such a movement again become possible, mostly taking the form of autonomous, project-driven socialist-feminist groups. While the achievements of these groups were considerable, their lives were brief and, by the late seventies, most had either disintegrated or become a battlefield for small Maoist parties. Rather than seeing socialist-feminist groups as part of an autonomous social movement whose work and organizational integrity should be respected, the parties of the New Communist Movement saw them as a place to recruit and a battleground for struggles over “the correct line.” Consumed by fighting, the last and strongest of the socialist-feminist groups, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, disbanded in 1977.
Today signs indicate that the US is now entering a new period of leftwing organizing. But, although it is growing, the American left is still very weak. There is no commanding organization and no generally agreed-upon analysis. The very meaning of terms like “anti-imperialism” is in flux—some think it means they should support Assad and others that they should oppose him. Meanwhile conservatives label everyone from Hillary Clinton to Angela Davis as “the left.” In such a time of confusion, there is an inevitable temptation to draw lines and try to define an authentic feminist left.
After the Women’s March, a group of leftwing feminist academics decided it was time to separate the sheep from the goats. Since the Women’s March people had already declared March 8 “A Day Without Women;” they decided, as part of an international network, to up the ante and declare a general strike of women. They wrote: “The massive women’s marches of January 21st may mark the beginning of a new wave of militant feminist struggle. But what exactly will be its focus? In our view, it is not enough to oppose Trump and his aggressively misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies; we also need to target the ongoing neoliberal attack on social provision and labor rights…. Lean-in feminism and other variants of corporate feminism have failed the overwhelming majority of us, who do not have access to individual self-promotion and advancement and whose conditions of life can be improved only through policies that defend social reproduction, secure reproductive justice, and guarantee labor rights. As we see it, the new wave of women’s mobilization must address all these concerns in a frontal way. It must be a feminism for the 99%.”
But do we want a feminism for the 99%? Or a feminism of the 99%? And how can we know what that would look like and what language it would use so early in the game? Clearly what we need now is a very big and powerful women’s movement, a united front of women, with room for different interests and organizations and politics. Their ideas must battle it out, but the best way to do so is in practice, around concrete programs and tactics, not in polemics and slogans. At a volatile time when millions of people are still figuring out what they think, it is dangerous to draw lines too soon. Our history demonstrates that it takes time for movements to mature. Better to let all kinds of ideas come out and flower, and then criticize the ones that prove wrong in practice, than to set a tone that will limit the growth of the movement now.