By Christine Riddiough
More than 600 people gathered at Boston University at the end of March for a conference on “A Revolutionary Moment: The Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.” Hosted by the university’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, the conference was exhilarating and exciting. It provided an opportunity to discuss the many issues that face feminists today and to reflect on the work that was done decades ago.
Many of the conference panels focussed on radical and socialist feminism, a part of the history of the women’s movement that has generally been neglected both by scholars and the popular media. Representatives from socialist feminist organizations like the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, Bread and Roses in Boston and the Combahee River Collective discussed the organizing efforts and achievements of their organizations. Many people there had been involved in the New American Movement (one of DSA’s predecessor organizations), including filmmaker Julia Reichert.
In her opening keynote, Sara Evans, author of Personal Politics and University of Minnesota professor, described the origins of the women’s liberation movement in the New Left, anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. She noted that historians of the 1980s and 1990s are caught up in theorizing about the feminism of the ‘60s and ‘70s and describe it as a mainly white women’s movement that was superseded at the end of the century by an ‘“intersectional” wave of feminism in the ‘80s and later. She stated, however, that the women’s liberation movement was multi-racial from the outset. Its name owes much to the Vietnamese and was part of a worldwide eruption of women’s activism. Radical women thought that revolution was possible and imminent. This vision led to a willingness to experiment and to rethink root issues like the idea of gender.
Linda Gordon, professor at New York University and former editor of Radical America, in her closing keynote described the many progressive feminisms, from the 1930s to the present. In the 1930s the Communist Party was the only predominantly white group to critique racism and sexism. In the 1960s the women’s movement grew out of the New Left with a shared utopian courage to dream of something completely different. Gordon described women’s liberation as the largest social movement in the history of the U.S. She added that women’s liberation added two perspectives to radical thinking that are important in the current political debate:
- First, gender is not a characteristic of individual people but is rather the overall system that we live in. Thinking about gender in this way has implications for our overall political analysis.
- Second, the idea that the personal is political was a key concept for women’s liberation. It implies that power invades all aspects of our lives.
Gordon concluded that women’s liberation is not fundamentally about equality but about transformation.
These presentations raised important questions for us as socialist feminists, as did the conference overall. The attendees were a mix of academics and activists who tended to come at the issues from different perspectives. What are the roles of academics and activists vis-à-vis feminism today? How can they communicate more effectively? This is one of the first gatherings that I’ve been to that included both groups. Many of the older academics were and remain, in fact, activists, but many of the younger academics are coming to the topic from a purely academic point of view.
How can those of us who became activists in the 1960s and 1970s work more effectively with younger women? For many of us attending the conference who had been involved 40 years ago, the conference was a chance to reconnect with old friends and comrades. But there were instances where some of the younger women felt excluded. How can we bridge that gap?
The conference focused on the interaction of the New Left, civil rights and women’s liberation, but what about addressing other connections/intersections such as the connection to liberal feminism, often represented by NOW, and the relationship to the LGBTQ movement?
Papers from the conference will be available in the near future at the conference website: http://www.bu.edu/wgs/conference2014/.
Additional reports on the conference are available:
- Vivian Rothstein has written an excellent summary.
- CWLU Herstory website has another report.
- An article in the Boston University student paper describes the conference.
Christine R. Riddiough serves as a vice chair of DSA.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.