Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement was the first “national” newsletter of the women’s liberation movement. Produced out of Chicago by Jo Freeman it contains information from across the country, and as such provides the entry point into the major ideological disputes of women’s liberation.
VWLM started in October of 1968 and for the first few issues contained almost no mention of culture. However, that all changed early in 1969 when the women’s culture wars began. Close readings of VWLM reveal two points of origins, one in the criticisms by Marilyn Webb of the New York Radical Women at the counter-inaugural demonstrations in Jan 1969, and second in the study of women’s history as represented by WITCH.
In January of 1969, various New Left groups joined together to protest the war in Vietnam during the inauguration of Richard Nixon. Called the counter-inaugural, this event occurred just after women in the New Left had become completely fed up with sexism in the movement and begun to organize their own groups. The key players here are from New York and D.C. The D.C. group was largely represented by movement “heavy’ Marilyn Webb, a woman with some serious New Left cred, while the New York Radical Women were represented by the not-inconsiderable Shulamith Firestone, who would become the major theorist bridging the NL into radical feminism. There was apparently quite the throw down in D.C. over who represented women’s liberation “correctly.”
Both sides continued the battle in VWLM. In her version Webb objected to a sentence on the NYRW flyer which claimed “women’s liberation is the final revolution.” She suggested that the group clarify that two revolutions were necessary, both “economic” and “cultural.” In a rebuttal written by four members of the NYRW the following month, the women take Webb to task for being insufficiently Marxist herself. Following Engels, they argue that that women’s movement is NOT a “cultural” revolution and that “the family is not a ‘cultural superstructure.’”
Ironically on the same page as the NYRW response is an article about women’s history from WITCH, another radical feminist group that participated in the counter-inaugural, but favored agit-prop demonstrations over theoretical debates. In this piece, the authors argues women’s oppression has been cultural “the witchcraft purges were the political suppression of an alternative culture.”
As Robin Morgan, the moving force behind WITCH, writes in “WITCH at the counter-inaugural” “we entered into some very bad-vibe internecine power struggles between the New York and Washington women” although what really burned Morgan was the “yawn provoking slogan ‘Feminism lives.'” Ever determined to bring some verve to the WLM, Morgan and her fellow WITCHes quickly crayoned WITCH on the reverse of the placards, “threw together some songs and chants to make the marching endurable” and carried a prop “for an unplanned, play-it-by -ear theater action at the end of the march.” Apparently both the politicos and the feminists managed to unite in their opposition to WITCH: “on our arrival.. we found we were excommunicate, anathema, and also not welcome. … They had obviously been united by our presence, and had resolved to chew us ups. … We were gratified that our existence seemed to unify and give meaning to theirs, but we didn’t understand why.” Morgan ends her essay with the plea “there is room in the Women’s Movement for all of us, and the more styles, tactics, and approaches the better.”
|I wonder what these nice ladies who came to see Nixon thought of it all?|
So in effect, this one page above from March 1969 VWLM sums up the antipathy within women’s liberation to the use of culture, as well as the effort to understand culture historically as a means of women empowerment. The problem of course was that as the emerging women’s liberation movement was busily defending itself as NOT inherently anti-revolutionary, some women had little patience for the “different styles” represented by groups such as WITCH. In fact, they didn’t see these as style deviations, but as potential evidence that the left would use against WLM. However, to argue that one strand as opposed to the other represents the “true” faith of women’s liberation (qua Echols) is to mis-read history. Robin Morgan, and many other women interested in culture, were present from the inception of an independent women’s liberation movement. In fact, Morgan as part of NYRW organized a similar sort of protest in 1968 at the Miss America pagent. It wasn’t until later in 1969 that NYRW would splinter with one faction following Morgan and the other Shulamith Firestone. Therefore it is more accurate to describe the earliest forms of radical feminism as containing both strands, rather than privileging one.