to recap: my book begins with the narrative of history and culture that emerged from radical feminists to justify their separation from the New Left into an autonomous movement for women’s liberation. Roughly the argument went as such, following Engels, that women’s oppression was tied to the emergence of private property and the family because as reproducers rather than producers women were relegated to the home. Thus freedom for women was “valid” and would come with the destruction of the family and freedom from reproduction. In this narrative history is largely a tale of oppression used to explain why women need liberating.
I then examine an alternative narrative, largely crafted by women uninterested in convincing the New Left of much of anything, that simply accepted women’s liberation as a valid social cause and moved to use history and culture as a potentially empowering resource for women to redefine themselves “outside” patriarchy (and private property and the family and reproduction and ….). This expansive freewheeling approach seldom took the form of concrete theory or coherent manifestos and thus it has largely been lost in discussions of the history of the WLM. This version of history mined it for instances of agency to inspire women rather than for evidence of women’s oppression to prove that they were justified in seeking their own liberation.
Both of these groups had much to say about women’s culture and its relationship to potential liberation for women. For historians, the immediate reference was slave culture, for women out of the NL it was working class culture, and for a certain strain of activists/academics it meant any thing/way women were in the past. By the mid-1970s, these groups began to diverge, as women’s history became established as an academic discipline. I’ve been working of late on how/why those divergences took place.
Two moves among activists served to distance themselves from the past. By embracing as predecessors, women from the past, some women began to rely on a sort of matrophilic approach to history, going so far as to embody various historical figures. Even further, as the past became a grounds for locating models and mechanisms of empowerment, some women wandered back into prehistory to locate a period prior to the “invention of patriarchy.”
In different ways both of these moves began to sever ties between women in academia and those outside. “Embodying” pushed the limits, or rather completely transgressed them, of professional distance, while the prehistorical simply could not held to the same standards of evidence/verification since it properly belonged to anthropology and archaeology, not history.