Carole R. McCann, Seung-kyung Kim, Emek Ergun, Carole R. McCann, Seung-kyung Kim, Emek Ergun
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Feminist Theory Reader
Local and Global Perspectives
Carole R. McCann, Seung-kyung Kim, Emek Ergun, Carole R. McCann, Seung-kyung Kim, Emek Ergun
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About This Book
The fifth edition of the Feminist Theory Reader assembles readings that present key aspects of the conversations within intersectional US and transnational feminisms and continues to challenge readers to rethink the ways in which gender and its multiple intersections are configured by complex, overlapping, and asymmetrical global–local configurations of power.
The feminist theoretical debates in this anthology are anchored by five foundational concepts—gender, difference, women's experiences, the personal is political, and especially intersectionality—which are integral to contemporary feminist critiques. The anthology continues to center the voices of transnational feminist scholars with new essays giving it a sharper focus on the materiality of gender injustices, racisms, ableisms, colonialisms, and especially global capitalisms. Theoretical discussions of translation politics, cross-border solidarity building, ecofeminism, reproductive justice, #MeToo, indigenous feminisms, and disability studies have been incorporated throughout the volume.
With the new essays and the addition of a new editor, the Feminist Theory Reader has been brought fully up to date and will continue to be a touchstone for women's and gender studies students, as well as academics in the field, for many years to come.
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Every account of the re-emergence of feminism in the United States in the late twentieth century notes the ferment that took place in 1967 and 1968. The five groups meeting in Chicago in May 1968 had, for instance, flowered from what had been a single Chicago group just a year before. By the time of the conference in 1968, activists who used the term “women’s liberation” understood themselves to be building a movement. Embedded in national networks of student, civil rights, and antiwar movements, these activists were aware that sister women’s liberation groups were rapidly forming across the country. Yet despite some early work, including my own, the particular formation calling itself the women’s liberation movement has not been the focus of most scholarship on late twentieth-century feminism. For the sake of this article and in the spirit of an ongoing conversation, I will begin by offering a definition specific to the moment:
Now, it is true that temporal boundaries are hard to draw. We can locate many of the first women’s liberation groups starting in 1967 and 1968, the moment described at the start of this article. There are, however, numerous precursor groups that make trying to define the precise originators difficult.1 Many identify the West Side Group in Chicago as the first, followed quickly by a group in New York City that later became New York Radical Women. But we also know that there was a radical black feminist group before that in New Rochelle and Mount Vernon, New York, and that other groups were appearing, apparently spontaneously, in many places, such as Gainesville, Florida, Seattle, Washington, and New Orleans, Louisiana. These original groups and their successors persisted until the mid-1970s, but changing contexts, structures, and ideas, as well as the enormous breadth of the movement, make it hard to locate the precise moment when women’s liberation merged or morphed into something else. What is interesting is that, by the mid-1970s, the label “women’s liberation” was pretty much gone, superseded by “radical feminist,” “socialist feminist,” “lesbian feminist,” “womanist,” or just “feminist.” Even though the women’s liberation movement was the spark that lit the fire, the term “women’s liberation” receded for many decades to brief mentions in accounts of the rise of late-twentieth-century feminism. It is only now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that we have the serious beginnings of a literature that explores and redresses this history. This article draws on the findings of this literature.2
Why has the women’s liberation movement been, until recently, such a minor footnote in the dominant narratives of late-twentieth-century feminism? One answer is that feminist historians, many of whom were themselves movement activists in this period, wrote—as historians are wont to do—about a more distant past. One can easily see the questions posed by the women’s liberation movement in the scholarship they produced on working women, suffrage, the dynamics of power in private as well as public life, gender ideologies, black women, and so on.3 Research on the materials produced within the women’s liberation movement, however, would not happen for decades, and, in the absence of empirical research, a series of misconceptions about Second Wave feminism came into being to fill the void.
Theoretical attention to Second Wave feminism emerged first among literary and social science scholars in the 1980s and 1990s, but their interest was more in the development of theory than on movement activism. It was these academy-based theorists who fixed the perception of 1970s Second Wave feminists as white, middle-class, self-interested, and anti-sex. In so doing, they were identifying a real weakness in feminist self-representations as well as feminist activism that lacked a language to adequately deal with the conundrums of gender, race, and class. Only in the 1980s did the vocabulary of intersectionality present a breakthrough that has become foundational to all feminist theory. However, feminists of the 1980s were not the first to think about the ways that oppressions occurred simultaneously, and the presumption of an almost total rupture with earlier feminist movement theorizing on race unfortunately, in my view, cut them off from important feminist roots.4
Popularized versions of Second Wave feminism have also generated myths that make it difficult to perceive the critical role of the women’s liberation movement in the re-emergence of feminism. The most popular one is the simplistic, media-dominated account starring “famous” women such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. It offers a chronology that traces major legal and legislative changes—Roe v. Wade, Title IX, and the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (era)—and relegates the women’s liberation movement to a brief mention, as if the radicals were on the edges of the movement, not at the center. Then there are the myths that come straight from the movement’s opponents—that the women’s liberation movement is populated by shrill, man-hating, ugly, anti-sex/over-sexed lesbians—which remain a genuine obstacle for contemporary activists and for the students in our classrooms. And finally there is the myth that the women’s liberation movement rejected its New Left roots because of the extreme sexism of that movement.
Many of us have chafed at these assumptions for a long time, and some have written books to challenge them. But very few have isolated this particular revolutionary moment for closer examination. Looking closely at women’s liberation activists pushes us to question whether the women’s liberation movement was all-white and middle class. This stereotype is frequently linked to other assumptions, such as that the movement was uniformly antisex, antimotherhood, and uninterested in labor discrimination. It is critical to note that women’s liberation emerged not only in a context of racial polarization in the broader society but also at a time when the left itself was self-consciously fragmented by race. Whites who had been most active in the black freedom movement were asked by their black comrades to leave the black movement and do antiracist work in their own communities. Black Power advocates insisted that minorities had to organize separately in order to discover their own power and to affirm identities that had been denigrated and marginalized by US culture. The result was that while feminism emerged in every facet of the 1960s freedom movement, it flowed in parallel streams with varying degrees of awareness of one another in the very early years. While the mainstream media’s face of women’s liberation most often was white and middle class, its actual actors were not. Benita Roth, Kimberly Springer, Maylei Blackwell, Sonia Shah, Cherríe Moraga, Paula Gunn Allen, and others have traced the lineages of feminism in African American, Chicano, American Indian, and Asian American movements.5 Roth’s work identifies the distinct paths taken by black, Chicana, and white feminist organizing efforts. The intersections of these streams become most visible at the local level. Anne Valk’s fine-grained study of Second Wave feminism and black liberation in Washington, DC, casts a wide net and yields a wonderfully complex story of their overlapping commitments. Rosalyn Baxandall analyzes an array of radical black feminist groups and writings in the 1960s and early 1970s, and Carol Giardina draws on black feminist writings and actions both before and after the self-designated early women’s liberation groups began to form to trace multiple lines of communication and mutual influence.6
As an expression of the New Left, women’s liberation was inspired by the models of anticolonial revolutions and by Black Power, models that often had different meanings for white women and women of color. Subsequent generations have rightly seen in the words of white women in the late 1960s and early 1970s an untenably unified concept of “woman”—the “we” that is critical to the project of building a movement but that is inevitably fraught by the impossibility of collapsing the diverse experiences of half the population. There is no doubt that white women too often universalized their own experience by presuming to speak to and for “all” women. But later generations failed to notice that women of color from the beginning raised the problem of their double and triple jeopardy, pointing out the sharp differences in experience when gender intersects with race and class. It simply will not do to erase the theoretical and strategic feminist voices of women such as Pat Robinson, Francis Beale, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Florynce Kennedy, Alice Walker, Elizabeth Martinez, Paula Gunn Allen, and Shirley Lim.7 Paying attention to these women pluralizes the “women” in the women’s liberation movement.
To acknowledge that conversations about race were difficult is altogether different from claiming that there were no such conversations. Women’s liberation was multiracial from the outset, and race was often at the center of its discourse, even if it took place in a context of racial polarization. Given the reality of segregated living and community spaces, the diverse voices of the women’s liberation movement did not always speak directly with each other, and when they did, they often did not listen well.8 This story is not reducible to anything simple or monolithic, and it deserves a serious and complex analysis.9 We have to clear away the myth that feminists were “all white” to get at the generative aspects of the conversations and debates that did occur and to understand why and how they were so difficult.
The emergence of intersectionality as a theoretical concept did not so much represent a break with former feminist theorizing as something that grew out of those early conversations and the conundrums that those debates revealed. In the 1960s and 1970s, there really was not a language with which to describe the simultaneity of race, class, and gender, and activists steeped in Marxist tradition defined their task as proving that the hierarchies of gender were fundamental forms of oppression against a long tradition in which sex was a “secondary” oppression, subordinate to the “fundamental contradiction” of class. Modes of analysis for race, class, and gender at that point formed separate streams with an assumption that only one of those could be “primary.” As a result, conversations regularly broke down, and women of color, quite rightly, often felt that their insistence on their double and triple jeopardy fell on deaf ears. Ironically, it may be that those who were most enamored of Black Power as a model embraced a kind of separatism that, by the mid-1970s, had produced the white and middle-class “feminist subject” described by Jane Gerhard. Gerhard’s analysis of the evolution of cultural feminism in the mid to late 1970s demonstrates how “the universal category of ‘woman’ in cultural feminism … relied upon psychologically essentialist readings of gender that attempted to elide racial difference.”10 Yet I would argue that it has been a mistake to read the works of people such as Carol Gilligan and Andrea Dworkin as descriptors of the movement as a whole, because that would have us lose sight of ongoing grassroots efforts to build coalitions across lines of race that never stopped.
Secondly, the women’s liberation movement, as a radical New Left movement, was confined neither to major cities nor to the United States. As someone who was active in the South, I have long chafed at the assumption that the movement was centered in New York with outposts in Chicago and Berkeley. The complex realities in the United States are just beginning to emerge in local studies such as Judith Ezekiel’s on Dayton, Ohio; Anne Enke’s on Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit; Anne Valk’s on Washington, DC; and Carol Giardina’s on Florida.11 The international links of the movement were also there from the outset. The very term “women’s liberation” owes much to Vietnamese and other anticolonial liberation struggles.12 Across the globe, antiwar and anticolonial movements during 1968 spawned feminist activism in countries as diverse as Japan, Mexico, France, Germany, Italy, and England. This feminist activism was not in imitation of what was happening in the United States. Each country had its own feminist history and roots, although the founding stories are remarkably similar. All of them shared a focus on personal freedom and a radically egalitarian willingness to challenge every form of hierarchy.13
Thirdly, the stereotype that women’s liberation activists were “shrill” and “ugly” points us to the militancy of the women’s liberation movement and the radical, utopian, sometimes apocalyptic, expectations of a particular moment in the New Left, both in the United States and around the world: the belief that everything could change, perhaps overnight. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, revolution seemed possible, even imminent. This meant that people threw their whole lives into the struggle, convinced that it could transform the world almost overnight.
The radicalism of the women’s liberation movement (compared to the liberal movement, which I hasten to point out also had some deep roots in the New Left) was its cultural challenge not to unjust laws but to the very definitions of female and male, the entire system then called “sex roles” by sociologists. Women’s liberation linked structural inequalities to lived personal experience; “the personal is political” erased boundaries between public and private. The writings of the women’s liberation movement, frequently cited and anthologized, were clearly foundational to everything that came later.14
The energy and intensity of those first two to three years cannot be overstated and are extremely difficult to communicate to people in a later, more cynical time. Arguments were fierce because the stakes were high. In many places that energy shifted very quickly from naming the problem to doing something about it: start a journal, write a book, create a daycare center, set up softball teams and karate classes, organize clerical workers, hold a demonstration, dramatize with guerilla theater. There is a reason that the August 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality was so massive and that the label that the media picked up for what women wanted was “women’s liberation,” even though the strike was initially called by now. Many members of now had been ignited by the militant language and public presence of the women’s liberation movement and embraced that label. In cities across the country, tens of thousands used humorous guerilla theater to underscore their angry critique of women’s subordination. They quickly got the attention of politicians who soon were falling all over themselves to figure out “what women really want,” making possible an avalanche of legal changes from congressional passage of the era and Title IX to public funding for rape-crisis hotlines and shelters for battered women.
Finally, the women’s liberation movement’s New Left roots have been obscured by the myth that it rejected the New Left because of exceptionally harsh sexism in those movements. This myth allowed subsequent generations to feel sorry for New Left women, to distance themselves from an experience they considered “outrageous” and “dated,” and to dismiss the other concerns of the New Left as irrelevant.
This stereotype grew from a widespread and cons...
Table of contents
Citation styles for Feminist Theory Reader
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2020). Feminist Theory Reader (5th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2194121/feminist-theory-reader-local-and-global-perspectives-pdf (Original work published 2020)
[author missing]. (2020) 2020. Feminist Theory Reader. 5th ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/2194121/feminist-theory-reader-local-and-global-perspectives-pdf.
[author missing] (2020) Feminist Theory Reader. 5th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2194121/feminist-theory-reader-local-and-global-perspectives-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Feminist Theory Reader. 5th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.