Linda Gordon is perhaps one of the best known participants in the “Sex wars.” Her suspicions of efforts to control women’s sexuality go back to her work on birth control, and the eventual cooptation of the movement to liberate women’s sexuality by eugenicists for their own racist, conservative ends.
In the July August 1974 issue of Radical America like all historians involved in the WLM, Gordon framed her piece in frankly presentist terms
“today especially there are serious political misunderstandings that are sustain by … historical ignorance … today those who would argue that birth control is essential to women’s liberation must grapple with … suspicion of birth control as racist and elitist … based on actual historical evidence”
After positioning birth control as emerging from feminist and socialist movements, much as Dubois and Buhle had done for suffrage, Gordon notes that population growth issues were also a significant context for ideas about control of reproduction. This latter group she terms “population control” grew mostly out of desire of elites to limit the working class population, although Gordon notes that some utopian communitarians, such as Oneida, participated in forms of eugenics as well. Gordon detailed the decline of the left’s impact on the suffrage movement, which became solely reformist in the years after WWI. The fallback to a “social worker” perspective of birth control combined with A Eugenics movement that was very specific in the sort of population control they attempted to create. In short, the very women who wanted birth control for feminist reasons were the very women that eugenicists wished to see reproducing, educated middle class women.
Due to the shared social Darwinist perspective and a belief in progressivism, birth control advocates did not recognize eugenicists for the anti0feminists Gordon sees them as. Instead, they focused on the “negative eugenics” the lessening of “suffering through the prevention of hereditary birth defects ” and due to their own “racist and ethnocentric attitudes” birth control advocates did not criticize the population control attitudes towards “undesireable” types, such as immigrants, specific “racial” groups.
Using Sanger as a case study (so many articles about Sanger one’s head spins) Gordon details the “conservatizing of the birth control movement” after a sizable radical past, Sanger limited her self to single issue politics, eschewed civil disobedience and got in bed, quite literally, with the upper crust, when she married a millionaire. At the same time, she left behind her feminist defense of birth control and adopted a eugencist approach “more children from the fit, less from the unfit” in doing so she became the darling on the population control set, and the only woman recognized by them. Regrettably, birth control advocates seem to have followed Sanger’s path en suite, and thus “by the 1930s birth control had shed most of its feminism and general radicalism”
What began as a movement to liberate women’s sexuality by divorcing it from reproduction because a movement in support of “traditional sex role … mother hood as the necessary source of fulfillment for women … unquestioning acceptance of marriage and the only, and ideal, sexual relationship”
Lest anyone miss the cautionary tale herein, Gordon concludes by noting it the largest single causative factor in that new conservatism was undoubtedly the disappearance of the feminist movement.”
This historical fate seemed all too likely to befall the contemporary women’s liberation movement.
In 1976, the year in which all presidential candidates professed themselves born again, struck fear in the heart of leftists, who “ten years ago … were in the midst of a broad progressive upsurge.” Where had things gone wrong? CULTURE that is where, just as everyone had feared deep in their hearts. The positioning of women as “morally superior” as discussed by Buhle, Ann Gordon and Nancy Schrom in the 1973 issue of Radical America, rebounded against women, just as it was in the late 1970s.
In “Sex, the Family and the New Right” by Linda Gordon and Allan Hunter, which appeared in Radical America (1977) the seeds of what will become the polemic that starts the sex wars, Seeking Ecstacy on the Battlefield, are all present, although Gordon forbears from terming anyone a “conservative.” In particular she focuses on the need to be “pro-sex” a full five years before that terminology became central to the sex wars. “it is not easy to be pro-sex in our culture … Some socialists and feminists, especially because of their anger about the sexual or anti-heterosexual attitudes. … it is important, if at times difficult to project a view that endorses, even celebrates, the pleasures of sex. Sexual prudery today is a tool of domination”
Interestingly, the culture here to blame, is not women’s culture, but the “failure” of the left to adequately “address cultural or sexual issues in political work.” The authors offer an historical narrative of patriarchy not particularly dissimilar from that formulated in the early years of the WLM. Beginning in the “patriarchy was a system that prevailed throughout the world in agrarian societies.” With the advent of “production” the “patriarchal family remained the unit of production” until “industrializtion” spoiled the unity of family and labor. What feminists have failed to realize is that the destruction of the family has led to “loneliness, rootlessness, and disintegration of the social order” and that the effects of these shifts have been felt differently by different group in American society. The right has realized this and offered up the patriarchal family as the “answer,” not without considerable appeal to working class people. They have done this, according to Gordon and Hunter, by capitalizing on eight themes
Anti-feminism, hostility to youth, anti-sexualism, homophobia, defense of the conventional family, anti-civil libertarian bias, the work ethic and religion”
In what in retrospect appears like a foreshadowing of the partnership that will develop between anti-porn feminists and factions of the New Right, Gordon and Hunter caution that “these questions [about sexuality} wil be matters for judgment and it would be futile to search for clean and simple sexual morals. Such a search would lead to either moralistic repression or irresponsible individualism”
Still Gordon and Hunter are resolutely on the side of addressing violence against women as a key issue, while maintaining an absolute “freedom”of women to dress, to go, and to do as they like and eschewing any and all morally prescriptive sexual codes.
Gordon and hunter end with a plea to reintegrate the issues of family and sex into socialist activism by noting that the important feminist contributions of “the personal is political’ and the strategy of using c-r “do not run counter to, and even supports, the building of a working class socialist movement.”