the phrases “women’s culture” and “cultural feminism” are thrown about A LOT in writings by women’s historians.  I’ve been searching for the origins of these terms, both of which were used in the WLM before being adopted by academics.

Courtesy of ECD, I have this LOVELY document “Socialist Feminism II” (1968-1971) a letter by Ellen Cantarow to the other members of Bread and Roses, a Boston area WLM group.

I was pretty darn excited to come across this unpublished source since in 1969 Cantarow, along with Elizabeth Diggs, Katherine Ellis, Jane Marx, Lillian Robinson, Muriel Shien, had authored for the Women’s Caucus of the NUC a much-reprinted statement “I am (furious) female” its parentheses not only presaging postmodernism, but its rejection of culture prognosticating the disdain for “cultural feminism.”

[A]cceptable activities [for women] include all kinds of work that can be done in isolation such as writing, painting, and music, as well as the “arts and crafts” activities such as potting, weaving, sewing and making hand-painted place mats and  Christmas cards.  . . .  What is the large social function of these activities?  Most important, they perpetuate the status quo by stabilizing the function and position of women in society.  Any frustrations she may feel are co-opted if she can express them in these accepted ways.  The heretical alternative is for a woman to assert herself in the male world, the public world, in which fulfillment involves communication, social inter-change, self-assertion, and implies the exercise of the masculine traits of organizational ability, rational analysis, and the application of theory to practice.


The source of this hostility become clearer when Cantarow begins to discuss in Socialist Feminism II the counterculture, for which she shares the basic New Left skepticism.

… to what extent our communes, music, dress, may actually be instrumental in shaping a context of socialist revolution is hard to say.  It seems to me, thought, that it doesn’t become an agent of change unless we bring it into the context of our political work within given institutions.

In other words, unless transformed into an attack on the base, culture merely remains movement in the superstructure and no real revolutionary potential exists.

Although Cantarow doesn’t specifically use the phrase “cultural feminism” or “women’s culture” I still found this an enormously useful piece of this larger puzzle that I’m trying to assemble.