Lessons from the 1975 Socialist Feminist Conference

By Chris Riddiough and Peg Strobel

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On the weekend of July 4, 1975, what was likely the largest gathering of socialist feminists in U.S. history occurred. The National Conference on Socialist Feminism brought together more than 1,600 women in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Still others were turned away because of lack of space – organizers had expected about 600 attendees. The conference marked the high point of the nearly two dozen socialist feminist women’s unions. The Red Apple Collective, writing in the 1978 Socialist Review, noted that the women’s unions “had begun national, collective dialogue in existing unions, newly established unions, and small socialist feminist groups.” Yet only three years later many of those women’s unions had dissolved.

What happened and what can we learn from that experience? Two forces led to the dissolution of these socialist feminist organizations:

  • Internal conflict with ultra-left groups
  • Outside forces moving U.S. politics to the right

Initiated by the Dayton, Ohio, chapter of the New American Movement (NAM – one of the predecessor organizations of DSA), the conference was planned over nine months by representatives of NAM and several women’s liberation unions. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU), the largest of the autonomous socialist feminist women’s unions involved in the conference, played a leading role; others included women’s unions from the Twin Cities, Boston and New York as well as NAM representatives from Dayton and North Carolina.

The conference principles of unity were as follows:

1. We recognize the need for and support the existence of the autonomous women's movement throughout the revolutionary process.

2. All oppression, whether based on race, class, sex or lesbianism is interrelated and the fights for liberation from oppression must be simultaneous and cooperative.

3. We agree that socialist feminism is a strategy for revolution.

Some evaluations, the CWLU's for example, praised the energy coming out of more than 100 workshops on workplace organizing, community organizing and building a socialist feminist movement. Women who had little opportunity to learn from work being done in other cities were able to sit down and discuss organizing and strategy with other women from across the country. For example, six years after the Stonewall Rebellion launched the gay liberation movement, women from 15 cities and towns in the Lesbian Organizing Workshop talked about moving from working within a narrow base of political lesbians to a broader population of nonpolitical lesbians through sports organizing and about tensions between older and younger lesbians.

Other evaluations, like that from the Berkeley Oakland Women’s Union were more critical. Representatives of that group argued that the conference should build towards creating a nationwide socialist feminist organization, autonomous from any mixed-gender groups.

Representatives of Trotskyist women from Radical Women/Freedom Socialist Party criticized what they saw as a desire on the part of conference planners to limit debate and controversy, proving the "hypocrisy and treachery of the Stalinists and Maoists," while Maoists from such groups as the Communist Workers Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) viewed lesbianism as bourgeois decadence rather than part of a revolutionary agenda. The Anti-Imperialist and Marxist-Leninist Caucus called for "build[ing] a Marxist-Leninist Party. . . . There should be mass women's organizations which would deal with the special oppression of women, but under the leadership of a revolutionary communist party."

Today the ultra-Left seems largely to have disappeared as a force in left politics in the U.S., although groups like the RCP still have enough of a presence to disrupt conferences on women’s liberation, like that in Boston in 2014. Nonetheless, DSA would do well to reflect on the role the Left should play in building a movement for social justice in the U.S. For example, while most of the women’s unions had friendly relations with NAM, there was some unease in the idea of a mixed left group calling for a conference of socialist feminist women. Just a few years before that, as efforts were made to establish NAM, organizers came to Chicago to meet with potential members and leaders, yet neglected to meet with anyone from CWLU.

What can be the role of a socialist feminist organization with a largely male leadership? How can female leaders be developed? Someone recently asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg how many justices it would take to convince her that there were enough women on the Supreme Court. Her reply – nine. Perhaps what we need to aim for is, if not 100% leadership, an organization where every issue is viewed through the eyes of women.

This question is, if anything, even more salient in regards to the issue of race. The 1975 socialist feminist conference was overwhelmingly white. There was much criticism of this homogeneity but little in the way of proposals to change the reality. Particularly as we see the resurgence of a civil rights and social justice movement, we in DSA need to ask what role a racially mixed, but still largely white organization can play.

These are not simple questions. Clearly they are ones that, in the 40 years since the socialist feminist conference took place, have not been answered, but as we acknowledge the rise of domestic terrorism, violence against women and the resurgence of social justice movements, they are questions we need even more urgently to address.

Finally, today as 40 years ago, there are wealthy advocates for ever narrower views of social justice. From Scott Walker and Sam Brownback gutting education and social service funding to the Koch brothers preparing to buy the 2016 presidential election, those on the Right will stop at nothing to gain an iron grip on U.S. politics. How we can stop them is possibly the most important question of all.

ChristineRiddioughAID_100w_copy.png Christine R. Riddiough serves as a vice chair of DSA and was a member of and staff for the CWLU.
PegStrobelAID_100w.png Peg Strobel is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee and would have been a member if the CWLU if she had been in Chicago then.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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