so I came home from California to a lovely ex libris set of Women:  A Journal of Liberation, the first “glossy” WLM periodical published out of Baltimore.

The first issue was dedicated to that old chestnut, nature v nurture.

Having finished a conference paper and revisions to a journal article, I’m getting back to the book.  Since I’ve been away for so long, I’m going back to the primary sources, combing through W:JL for references to culture.  Combined with the conference paper and I’ll have my first chapter on the origins of “women’s culture” in the women’s liberation movement (I’m going to back ground it with Voice of the WLM, and use the CWLU as my “case study”)

In particular, I’ll be looking for deviations from the standard New Left disdain for culture as counter-revolutionary.  However as the topic of this special issue indicates, the idea of “culture” is tied up in two discrete discourses.  The first uses of culture in the WLM were largely anthropological.  In that sense, culture was not use to refer *only* to what we now think of as “high culture,” but to the broader beliefs, practices and ideals that pertained to a group of people.  Most importantly, this social science concept of culture gave rise to understandings of sex roles.

W:JL is radical feminist in orientation.  From the editorial in the first issue (Fall 1969) “in every historical period of social upheaval, the woman question has emerged.  This is so because women have always been oppressed.  This time, the consciousness of women is extending beyond being a special constituency within the struggle.  Now Women realize that because of their special oppression and experience, they have creative insight and ability to contribute leadership to the total shaping of history (1).”

This emphasis on “creativity” is of course most interesting too me.  While the authors may mean to imply “thinking outside the box” I find the use of language associated with art (high culture) fascinating.  They continue “The potential creativity within the masses of women who are beginning to question their roles and identity is great and should not be destroyed by insistence upon rigid positions at this stage of our movement.  to insist upon hard lines is not only a simply way out, but very dangerous.”

Other relevant pieces in this issue include “Sex roles and Survival” by Margaret Schmid, which deals with what will become matriarchalist thought, an idea often conflated with the idea of women’s culture.  “recently there has been a tendency on the part of some women to try to prove that there have been periods (or at least a period) in history in which women were superior and dominant in a society.  If such a contention could be documented satisfactorily, this would be lovely, although largely irrelevant to present realities; however, the attempts which I have seen thus far have failed to present a case” (7).

This fits perfectly into my lead up to the highly influential work edited by Michele Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, Women, Culture and Society (1974), which included the titular essay by Rosaldo, as well as a reprinting of the oft-cited “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” (1972) by Sherry Ortner.

Ortner  explicitly denied the existence of any evidence for a matriarchal past.  Her use of culture references it as a systems of meaning by which humans transcend nature, culture = human consciousness and the products produced by it (n.b. which would include art).  Nature is everything else. Women get nature because of their physiology, their bodies reproduce other bodies as opposed to males who give birth only to thoughts, etc human consciousness, artificially create as deBeauvoir says. In fact because women are constrained to the domestic, due to their closer affiliation with nature, which is regarded as a “lower level” of society, while men “are identified … with Culture, in the old-fashioned sense of the finer and higher aspects of human thought “art, religion, law, etc.” (79)   Ortner traces the origins of the public/private sphere split familiar to historians, although oddly while she draws on feminist psychoanalytic work (Chodorow is published in the anthology), Ortner does not reference the concomitant historical scholarship.

The inclusion as well of poetry and art highlights something Ellen DuBois has been trying to get me grasp, opponents of women’s culture as a political strategy still enjoyed the burgeoning production of feminist art and literature.  They just didn’t want it to “become” the revolution itself.  So for example, this issue also included the announcement of a “women’s culture evening” (September 14, 1969) by Cleveland Radical Women, consisting “of art, music, playreading and politics compiled by themselves” (54).  The same group offered a skit “Sweet 16 to Baggy 36 — Saga of American Womanhood” as “a good presentation of some of the problems women face today” (54).

and speaking of ECD, she makes an appearance in this first issue, co-authoring with Suzanne Gordon an editorial pieces on “the national action: a women’s perspective” (60).  The question at hand is whether WL should support “a National Action in Chicago” called for by the Weatherman faction of SDS in October of 1969.

Other notable players from The Politics of Women’s Culture who appear in this issue include 

  • Starr Goode, who would go on to be involved in the Goddess movement, although here she co-authors with Peggy White an article entitle “The Small Group in Women’s Liberation”
  • Irene Peslikis, a member of Redstocking Artists who submitted a brief piece “resistance to consciousness” (Redstockings submitted a synopsis of their manifesto)
  • Kathy Barry authored a report on Detroit Women’s Liberation, the group that would give rise to the highly controversial “Fourth World Manifesto,” which seems to be hinted at in “we are also planning a confrontation with the radical Fifth Estate Paper which has taken a very disparaging position toward women” (51).
  • Barbara Burris, author of “Fourth World Manifesto” also makes an appearance submitting a letter describing the “sexual revolution” as “a male counter-revolution” (46).