In 1970 Radical America published its first special issue dedicated to women liberation. The articles’ sequence lays out a narrative justifying women’s liberation as an autnomous movement.
The first piece, authored by Selma James, wife of CLR James, Paul Buhle’s particular hero, worked from an Old Left/New Left position.“a woman’s place”, which became the foundation of the wages for housework movement exhibits some disdain for women “in women’s liberation” and points instead to women who “are women’s liberation,” meaning working class women She notes of the latter “the political consciousness of women is … irrelevant. What unites them is their self-consciousness.”
Gail Paradise Kelly, a graduate student in the education department at Wisconsin, later professor at SUNY Buffalo, also writing from the old left to New Left perspective, contributed “women’s liberation and the cultural revolution.” Kelly argues that the reason women in the old left had no consciousness of their oppression is that they conceived of revolution only in institutional forms.”
Kelly positions the women’s groups of the “old left” WILPF and WSP not as proto women’s liberation, as Amy Swerdlow tried to do years later for women’s peace activism. Telling her evidence of lack of consciousness among these groups rests of the identification of those women as “mothers and housewives.” Asking for peace so that “children will have a chance to survive” seems so obviously not a consciousness of one’s own oppression that Kelly doesn’t bother to defend it any further.
Kelly argues that the “influx” into the left that ultimately gave rise to the New Left came precisely because people ”were upset about their own oppression” Students in particular became the vanguard of the revolution around the corner. Kelly, rejecting the notion that the counterculture would lead to “Leary’s apolitical syndrome of drugs and withdrawal” argues instead that the position “if one lived the revolution, the revolution would come” represented “a very political and revolutionary step for the left” because she equates the “life style revolution” (a normally contempt-filled synonym for the counteruclture) with “cultural revolution.” The hallmark of the cultural revolution is, for Kelly, that recognition of individual oppression, rather than the distanced analysis of the “system” capitalism, military industrial complex, whatever.
Kelly notes also the incredible importance of “the militant black movement” for the emergence of women’s liberation: “if it was necessary for blacks to deal with their problems separately, then it was not only legitimate but mandatory for women to do the same.” However, Kelly cautions against believing “individual can be free in the midst of oppression” and instead insists that “radical women in women’s liberation do have a problem translating our changes in lifestyles into changes in institutions and in capitalism.” Kelly fears that radical women will “get caught up in our own sub-culture and, as a result, delude ourselves into thinking that change in the way we live is going to drastically affect anyone else.” She insists that “the problems of others more oppressed in reality than ourselves” must be met by moving “beyond our subculture to organizing and speaking.” Women’s liberation, as part of the cultural revolution to come “can serve as a means for revolution only if we go beyond developing a consciousness of individual oppression.” This notion of women’s liberation as a subculture leads to some strikingly familiar fears. Kelly views with ambivalence, women’s liberation a subculture from which revolution will be made, and as a potential trap in which revolution will be stymied.
What I’ve found so fascinating about this issue is the way that attempts to justify women’s liberation via a back and forth with the left are so incredibly parallel to the criticisms that would come later within women’s liberation of activists interested in women’s culture. In Kelly’s article women’s liberation could be replaced with the phrase women’s culture s and the results would be much the same as those later critiques. I’m happy to find confirmation of my theory that it was the deep suspiscion of culture inherited from their time in the New Left that made some participants in women’s liberation so ambivilent about the value of culture as part of the revolution.