Caste, class and consciousness – getting to the idea of women’s culture.
In the last 1960s as anti war protesters were beaten on the streets of Chicago, and angry blacks were clubbed by police under the guise of “riot” control, the response to women organizing for their own liberation among various “movement” people was twofold, either outright laugher at the notion that women were oppressed, or indignation that women felt their oppression compared to the horrors facing men in Vietnam or blacks in America. Therefore the earliest activists in the WLM, most of whom came out of either the New Left, anti-war, or civil rights movement spent a great deal of time explaining exactly why women needed their own movement.
This complex set of cultural, historical and political circumstances that gave rise to a large scale organized movement of women working on behalf of their own liberation means that the this early ideology of the WLM is marked by a mixture of influences. I’ve been working lately on tracing the usages of language as I discovered that the term “women’s culture” really doesn’t emerge until 1974-1975.
The earliest language used to describe women is that of caste, which comes from the civil rights movement, and offered the WLM an analysis of the dynamics of oppression. Perhaps the most famous of these arguments occurred in 1965 when Mary King and Casey Hayden circulated a working paper “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo.” “There seem to be may parallels that can be drawn between the treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society as a whole …. A common law caste system that operate sometimes subtly by forcing them to work around or outside hierarchical structures of power which may exclude them.” Ironically, although the piece has been claimed as a founding document for the WLM, King and Hayden did not forsee this development “the chances seem nil that we could start a movement based on anything as distant to general American thought as a sex caste system”
Caste language continued as women began working for an autonomous movement. Roxanne Dunbar and Vernon Gizzard in “Caste and Class” (written while she was a member of the Boston group Cell 16 and distributed by them, c. late 1969, later parts were incorporated into female liberation piece for Sisterhood is powerful) offers a historical explanation for viewing women as a caste, “the clearest historical analogy of the caste status of females is African slavery in the ante-bellum south.” Like Hayden and King, Dunbar sees women’s oppression as functionally similar to racism “in order to fully understand the power relations of black and white in American society and of male and female in all human societies we must understand the caste system which structures power, and within which caste roles we are conditioned to remain.” (2)
Oddly enough given the title, Dunbar and Vernon Gizzard never addresses the issue of class. However it is clear from the two quotes which introduce the essay, one from marx, the other from engels, both of which emphasize “the domestic slavery of women” that dunbar and gizzard mean to show that women comprise a class in the Marxist sense because of the the sex caste system which makes the wife “the proletariat” or “the first property.” This unification of women under a caste flew in the face of the idea that women themselves were dispersed among the various economic classes, and Dunbar’s claim that women were “classless” proved quite controversial.
The notion of women as a caste never really caught on, and instead the language of sex class became far more prevalent in WLM writings, owing in large part to Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, which begins with the sentence “sex class is so deep as to be invisible’ In this argument, women are marked by their relationship to reproductive labor as members of a class in the same way that working people’s relationship to physical labor marks them as members of the proletariat.
Finally however it was consciousness that came, more than any other term, to signify what exactly the
WLM sought, “to reinstate a fractured consciousness” as Firestone put it. Whether it was freedom from false consciousness of Marxism or the double-consciousness of DuBois, raised consciousness would become the hallmark of early women’s liberation. The notion of consciousness grew out of, more than any other writer, the work of Kate Millett. In her oft reprinted 1968 essay, “Sexual Politics,” later incorporated into her book of the same title, Millett argues “social and cultural revolution in America and in the world depend on a change of consciousness of which a new relationship between the sexes and a new definition of humanity and human personality are an integral part.”
Located the revolution, first, inside one’s head, albeit it a state to be arrive at in a group context, took the women’s liberation movement off in many different directions. Unlike concomitant social movement with concrete goals, ending racial discrimination, ending a war, or even the new left’s lofty idea of economic revolution, the outcome of WLM was not necessary clear.* For some, the insights of feminist combined with other ideologies to produce socialist, anarcho-, or liberal feminism, which narrowed the field of outcomes considerably.
For both Millett and Firestone the target was nothing less than the totality of “culture” with all that word entailed, the organization of relationships between people, the values and beliefs of that organized group, and its aesthetic outputs. It all had to be reconceived. “feminists have to question .. the organization of culture itself” (Firestone). “Why does no one ever remark that every avenue of power in our culture … is entirely in male hands?” (Millett).
Online access to both Millett and Firestone at Marxist.org
*in this way it resembled most closely black power/nationalism