Tuesday, November 29, 2011

“Who Is Controlling The Supposed Revolution?”: Feminism Enters a More Radical Phase

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe feminism in the late 1960s when women activists moved from more pragmatic issues like workplace discrimination to the hard struggle against the ideology of male supremacy.

Soon, young female veterans of the civil rights movement gravitated towards more dramatic forms of protest than filing lawsuits. In 1968, a group called New York Radical Women (NYRW) organized a burial for “traditional womanhood” at Arlington Cemetery near Washington, D.C. Participants “organized an actual funeral procession with a larger-than-life dummy on a transported bier, complete with feminine get-up, blank face, blonde curls, and candle,” remembered participant Shulamith Firestone. “Hanging from the bier were disposable items such as . . . curlers, garters, and hairspray. Streamers floated off of it and we also carried banners such as “DON’T CRY: RESIST.’”

This event marked one of the first exercises in “street theater” that would be employed by the “second wave.” The Youth International Party, or Yippies, had hit upon street theater and humor as a form of protest and one of the Yippies’ founders, Abbie Hoffman, had made a scene on August 23, 1967, when from the visitors’ gallery at the New York Stock Exchange he tossed anywhere from 30 to 400 $1 bills onto the exchange floor, causing some brokers to laugh, some to shake their fists at the protestors and some to foolishly scramble for the money. The Yippie love of absurdity carried over into radical feminist groups like Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell (or WITCH), whose members donned black robes and hats on Halloween in 1968 and cast a “hex” on Wall Street, which they saw as the center of war and women’s economic exploitation.

During the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City September 7, 1968, 100 feminists from across the country picketed outside, throwing girdles, typing books, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, magazines like “Ladies Home Journal” and other “instruments of torture to women” into a “Freedom Trash Can.” Just as Yippies had nominated a pig for president outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, the feminists crowned a sheep Miss America to “parody the way the contestants (all women) are appraised and judged like animals at a county fair.”

WITCH disrupted a Bridal Fair at Madison Square Garden in New York City in February 1969. Before the event, they had – in a parody of the popular leftist slogan “Confront the Warmakers” glued stickers all over the city that said “Confront the Whoremakers.” As Echols notes, “Incredibly . . . they had not considered the possibility that the women attending the fair might resent WITCH’s characterization of them as prostitutes in the making.”

Inside the fair, WITCH activists donned black veils and sang, “Here come the slaves/off to their graves” before releasing white mice on the floor. WITCH received a lot of criticism from other feminists after this event, arguing that “actions such as these whose sole point seemed to be ‘we’re liberated and you’re not’ only served to distance the movement from their natural constituency,” as Echols put it.

One could argue that feminism splintered, or perhaps that it diversified. Radical feminists like those in WITCH split from what Echols called “politicos,” the ones who still believed that political lobbying and legislation were the most efficient ways to advance women’s rights. Dominated by straight women, NOW did not openly support gay rights until 1973, prompting lesbians to form their own separate liberation groups. African American women at times felt marginalized within groups like NOW and in 1973, they formed the National Black Feminist Organization. Latinas formed similar organizations.


In the early 20th century, many Marxists had encouraged workers to reject basing their identity on race, regional identity, or nationality and instead to think of themselves as part of a working class that crossed boundaries of color, culture and language. They encouraged workers to reject what they saw as “false consciousness,” identifying with the rich ruling class because of fantasies of economic advancement. Similarly, feminists challenged women to consider the ways in which they collaborated with sexism: by starving themselves to meet unrealistic societal expectations of thinness; by exposing themselves to poisonous hair dye and makeup to meet unrealistic standards of beauty; by giving up on careers to raise children; and by deferring to domineering fathers, husbands and boyfriends in order to not seem aggressive and “unfeminine.” Second-wave feminists encouraged such personal awareness of sexism and its harmful effects by promoting what they called “consciousness-raising.”

The technique was largely pioneered by the NYRW. The group would ask women to gather and speak about topics like rape, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, spousal abuse, economic dependence on men, employment discrimination and so on. Everyone was allowed to speak and to share their experiences. Such talks allowed women to not feel isolated and to realize their common interest in opposing male supremacy.

As historian Bruce Schulman noted, “women holding consciousness-raising sessions in the Boston-area discovered feelings of frustration and anger toward specific doctors and the medical maze in general” which moved them to “do something about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and non-informative.” These women conducted deep research on women’s biology and health issues and produced the bestselling book, Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and About Women. This volume, Schulman wrote, “became the bible of the women’s health movement and the inspiration for feminist health clinics and reforms in gynecology and obstetrics across the United States.”


In 1971, NYRW member Susan Brownmiller held a consciousness-raising “Speak-Out on Rape.” Women heard horrifying stories about sexual assault and discovered that rape was far more common than was typically thought. One woman told of missing her bus as she returned from home to Harvard University and accepting a ride with a young man who took her out for coffee and donuts. The young man picked up male friends and then drove the woman to a deserted garage.

They told me I’d better cooperate or I’d be buried there and nobody would ever know. There were three of them and one of me. It was about 1 a.m. and no people were around. I decided to cooperate.

Another woman told of being on a date with a New York University intern that had been arranged by her mother. He asked her if she wanted to see where he lived before they went to dinner and when they got to his room, “he threw me on the bed and raped me, just like that.

Afterwards, he got up as if nothing had happened. I thought to myself, I wonder what happens now. I kept thinking about my mother, she’d never believe it. I’ll tell you what happened next. We went out to have dinner. We proceeded along with the date as if nothing had happened. I was in such a state of shock I just went along with the rest of the date.

The speakout led to Brownmiller’s landmark 1975 study, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. The author detailed the brutal history of that crime and its pervasiveness. Brownmiller noted that rape laws evolved primarily as a way for men to protect their female “property” and to ensure the paternity of potential heirs. She described in painful detail how women were blamed for being raped because of how they dressed or if they acted in an allegedly sexually provocative way and documented the lengthy history of rape of children and the elderly.

If they filed charges against their assailants, rape victims routinely suffered humiliation in court as defense attorneys accused such women of being sexually promiscuous and of telling lies about a consensual lover out of spite. In any case, men routinely escaped conviction in rape cases because of the almost impossibly high bar set by the law. New York’s rape statute, for instance, required prosecutors to prove that the victim was raped “by force” (thus requiring a victim to physically resist), that “penetration” occurred, and that an additional witness had seen the accused near the location where the rape allegedly occurred.

Brownmiller also provided pioneering research advancing the notion of “marital rape” and “date rape”: the idea that violent sexual coercion of a wife by her husband or a girlfriend by a boyfriend is a crime. More controversial was her theory as to the political meaning of rape. In her most contentious passage, she suggests that all men see benefit in rape. “Men’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric time, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe,” she wrote. “From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

Brownmiller’s critics pointed out that she seemed to be blaming all men for rape and had implied, at least, that men have a biological drive towards sexual abuse. Just as extreme racism had driven some African Americans into black supremacist groups like the Nation of Islam, laws stacked against rape victims, and harming women economically drove a few women to the extremes of female supremacist thinking.

One radical, Donna Allen, wrote that men’s genetic makeup created inner tensions that programmed them for aggression and oppression. “Being XX, a woman feels total security that she is female,” Allen wrote, referring to the chromosomes that determine gender. “But the normal XY man does not have this same inner security about his identity. Vacillating between gentleness and aggressiveness, being genetically both, he tends to let himself be defined from outside.” Men, she said, resolved these internal conflicts by becoming authoritarian and giving themselves an unquestionably domineering persona.
One radical feminist group, Cell 16, saw men as so irredeemably violent that it urged its members to “swear off sex and relationships with men, to learn karate, and to live in communes – in all-female communes for those who were smart enough to be single,” as historian Alice Echols wrote.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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