The NYT‘s magazine this weekend has a cover story about Judith Clark, one of the women caught up in the violent decline of the New Left in the 1960s best encapsulated by the Weather Underground.
Taking their name from the infamous Dylan lyric “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” the Weathermen consisted of splinter group of SDS that formed in 1969 of white radicals left adrift when the black power movement kicked them out and seized the far far left of American political activism.
Their superior attitude and increasing embrace of violence made them somewhat suspect to the emerging women’s liberation movement, which struggled to decide how to relate to this self-styled revolutionary, (male) vanguard. The first issues of Women: A Journal of Liberation, contained several editorials outlining the wrongs done by Weathermen. In the Fall 1969 issue, Ellen C DuBois co-authoring with Suzanne Gordon, defended women’s liberation against encroachment by Weathermen. “The national action: a women’s perspective” (60) responds to the call by Weatherman faction of SDS to support “a National Action in Chicago” with an emphatic rejection because the “women’s action” planned for the event is “women doing a ‘men’s action.’ SDS’s conception of women’s liberation is not one in which women determine the nature of their own struggle, but rather one in which women imitate men”(60).
In the Winter 1970 issue, Bread and Roses, a Boston based group, offered another editorial, akin to one written by Ellen DuBois, who was a former Bread and Roses member, before moving to Chicago. This much longer piece again addressed the question what should the WLM do about the Weathermen. Following Juliet Mitchell’s very early Women, The Longest Revolution (1966) the un-named authors argue that women have to “make revolutions for themselves” while joining with others to “fight racism and imperialism as part of the fight for our own liberation,” but still concludes that women need not work with the Weathermen.
Thus to say that activists in WLM were not too kindly disposed towards the women of the Weathermen is a bit of an understatement, and they, in turn, viewed women’s liberation as bougie, middle-class nonsense. The first issue of Women: A Journal of Liberation contained a position paper “weathermen on women” in which the authors argue that “the women’s militia is growing in quality and quantity” but that “a women’s liberation movement is counter-revolutionary”(59).
From 1969-1972 the Weathermen, now calling themselves the Weather Underground carried out a series of armed robberies and bombings that while meant not to kill, did lead to several deaths. In order to avoid prosecution, members of the Weather Underground went permanently underground. That life gave some of the women time to reflect and in 1972 “women of the Weather Underground” published “A Note from Underground” which appeared in Women: A Journal of Liberation in 1972. The un-named former New Left women apologize for not taking women’s liberation seriously, and argued that the struggle to end sexism meant not only overturning the state but also men who oppress women. The authors expressed the belief that the future of women is tied to that of the “third world” and that such a future will be reached via separatism, as in “a separate women’s movement,” although they retained the right to work in solidarity with men who share their struggle.
However, this mea culpa faded in comparison to the open letter published by the most famous woman underground, Jane Alpert. In “Mother Right,” published in off our backs (July-August 1973) and Ms. Magazine (summer 1973), Alpert took on the narrative of women’s oppression that ties it to biology arguing that while
the first healthy impulse of feminism is to deny that simply because women have breasts and uteruses we are better suited to wash dishes, scrub floors, or change diapers … However, a flaw in this feminist argument has persisted: it contradicts our felt experience of the biological difference between the sexes as one of immense significance
She also takes on Shulamith Firestone, the most prominent American to merge women’s liberation with Marxism, with whom she shared some points, but to reach a very different conclusion:
In Firestone’s view, the dialectic of history, in which the sexual relationship underlies all other power relationships, indicates that a feminist revolution is inevitable. This revolution will put technology to work to literally free women from biology from pregnancy, childbirth, and the rest thereby eliminating the last difference of any importance between the sexes and ultimately causing the sexual difference itself to wither away, in the course of evolution, together with all forms of oppression.
I think that Firestone is visionary in perceiving the sexual relationship as the basis of all power relationships, and in predicting that feminist revolution will therefore result in the end of all oppression. However, the evidence of feminist culture, which has accumulated largely since the publication of her epochal book, suggests that her analysis of the role of biology was deficient and that a third possibility which is indeed a new of the previous views may well be correct. The unique consciousness or sensibility of women, the particular attributes that set feminist art apart, and a compelling line of research now being pursued lay feminist anthropologists all point to the idea that female biology is the basis of women’s powers. Biology is hence the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution.
Alpert, citing The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis, instead advanced a matriarchalist viewpoint of history rather than a narrative that tied women’s liberation to Marxist visions of history
matrilineal: property and social identity were inherited through the mother rather than the father.
Thus while one strand of women’s liberation revised the Marxist narrative by replacing production with reproduction as first form of oppression, Alpert now argues that women’s liberation should rest on women’s reproductive capabilities
feminist culture … based on what is best and strongest in women, the qualities …. a mother projects in the best kind of nurturing relationship, to a child: empathy, intuitiveness, adaptability, awareness of growth as a process rather than as goal-ended, inventiveness, protective feelings toward others, and a capacity to respond emotionally as well as rationally.
Although this argument now appears profoundly essentialist, it contained some aspects of the arguments that preceded it, particularly in the precedence it gave to emotion over theory. The Editors of Women: A Journal of Liberation had extolled the possibilities of a movement based on emotion. The emphasis in CR as described by Kathie Sarachild is on feelings as a valid means of analysis and the idea is repeated often in manifestos of women’s liberation.
Alpert, who wants to recuperate biology rather than reject it, argues that the origins of emotionality in women lay not in their socialization, but in their biology.
It is conceivable that the intrinsic biological connection between mother and embryo or mother and infant gives rise to those psychological qualities which have always been linked with women, both in ancient lore and modern behavioral science. Motherhood must be understood here as a potential which is imprinted in the genes of every woman; as such it makes no difference to this analysis of femaleness whether a woman ever has borne, or ever will bear, a child.
This biological determinism did not sit well with activists in the women’s liberation movement who had carefully disentangled biology from the argument to instead stress the role of socialization. In effect, Alpert brings us back to the first issue of Women: A Journal of Liberation which focused on nature v culture. The narrative crafted in that issue, which mirrored the general position of women’s liberation as a whole, rested on the notion that sex roles are learned and thus can be changed, while Alpert suggests these traits are innate, and thus immutable. Since the latter argument served very different, anti-feminists, ends for so long it is not hard to see why so many activists objected to this argument
Because Alpert then argued that these biological traits provided the foundation of what she called feminist or women’s culture, the idea of culture became bound up with the notion of matriarchy, even though earlier WLM activists had discussed a very different kind of “revolutionary women’s culture.”
Anticipating no doubt the rejection of this analysis by the Left, Alpert defends her argument as reaching the same conclusions as a Marxist analysis and argues that mothers are a “vanguard” group, although not in the strictly Marxist sense as women are isolated from one another. Noting that the vanguard group has never fully functioned in revolutions as anticipated by Marx. Alpert argues that
if, with Firestone, we transfer our focus from economics to sex, that is, from production to reproduction, the Marxist terminology itself begins to make more sense. For there is very clearly a large group of women who by reason both of exploitation and importance to the society perfectly answer the requirements of the vanguard, and who are increasingly closely in touch with one another. These women are, of course, mothers.
For Alpert, all prior analyses of oppression ( from Marxism) and understandings of the woman as other (from de Beauvoir) are inadequate because they are reactionary and oppositional. Instead “the uprising of the women” leading to “the end of oppression” must be based on “an affirmation of the power of female consciousness, of the Mother,” although Alpert makes clear she means all women as potential mothers, as opposed to literal mothers.
Reaction to Mother Right was mixed and off our backs published a series of articles alternately praising and condemning Alpert. However, when Alpert “came out” from underground in 1974 and turned herself into the FBI all hell broke loose in the women’s liberation movement. Because Alpert depicted herself as “committed to Woman’s Revolution and to building women’s culture” many of her ideas are often attributed to all activists interested in women’s culture. This conflation was furthered when support or condemnation of Alpert became something of a proxy fight over the ideological trajectory in the women’s liberation movement. An open letter of condemnation spurred the circulation of a petition in support of Alpert. The wording of the petition, signed by many women, not only those interested in women’s culture, could be interpreted as protesting against censorship of Alpert in the feminist press and not necessarily for her politics or positions, but it has not always been understood as such. In Echols’ Daring to Be Bad, for example, support for Jane Alpert is one of the signal moments in the ‘ascendence” of “cultural feminism.”
In The Politics of Women’s Culture, I argue instead, that the Alpert case is one of the steps in which women’s culture becomes conflated with “cultural feminism” because there were, from the inception of the women’s liberation movement, activists who drew on ideas of women’s culture, not necessarily derived from biological determinism, or historical matriarchy, to craft narratives of empowerment out of the experiences of women’s oppression in the past.
More parallels are found in the NYT piece on Judith Clark, which largely focuses on the role motherhood played in Clark’s “radical transformation.”