Generations of feminism

RP 083 () / Article

Politics makes comics of us all. Or we would weep. Sheila Rowbotham 1

I have been thinking for some time now about political generations. 2 Indeed, I began my last book, Straight Sex, with a reflection upon the enduring impact of those formative moments which first enable us to make some sense of the world, and our place within it – an unjust and shabby world, whatever our personal circumstances. Such moments remain all the more powerful if, like many of my own generation who became students in the 1960s, you have hoped – with whatever levels of scepticism and self-mockery – to participate in the making of history. They leave their mark, even as changing times cause one to rethink, perhaps even to renounce, oneʼs formative political presumptions. Yet, what often leaves erstwhile political crusaders with little more than mournful and confusing feelings of loss and regret – whatever our capacities for irony – is the way in which new narratives emerge as collective memories fade, writing over those that once incited our most passionate actions.

So it has been with Womenʼs Liberation, that second wave of feminism which arose out of the upsurge of radical and socialist politics in the late 1960s. It grew rapidly as a mass social movement, peaking in the mid-seventies before dissolving as a coherent organization by the end of that decade. If only indirectly, it affected the lives of millions of women. Now, however, a quarter of a century later, the sparse amount of thoughtful scholarship analysing the distinctiveness of that movement struggles for attention amidst a glut of texts delineating its contemporary academic progeny – largely scornful of its rougher parent, and the motley basements, living rooms, workplaces and community centres in which it was hatched. This is not just a female Oedipal tale, as disobedient daughters distance themselves from their mothersʼ passions, seeking reognition for themselves. It is also a sibling affair, as feminists contend with each other: fearful, perhaps, of being overlooked should we fail to keep abreast of new theoretical fashions; or unable to admit the tensions and contradictions of past attachments.

A small band of feminist historians, mostly in the USA, who are trying to recapture the diversity of the movement in which they participated, declare that they cannot recognize themselves, or others, in what they see as the distorting accounts of Womenʼs Liberation circulating in contemporary feminism. Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, for example, are gathering material for a multi-volume collection of literature from the movement in the United States. They are joined by others interested in archiving the local histories of Womenʼs Liberation, such as Patricia Romney, documenting a group of fifty women of colour based in New York and Oakland, California, who – with other Black activists in the sixties and seventies – became the forgotten women who ʻfell down the wellʼ (as Carolyn Heilbrun puts it) in subsequent rewritings of Womenʼs Liberation as exclusively white.3 These historians are aware of the dangers of their proximity to their own research, of how memories are muted or reshaped by subsequent perspectives and interests – whether oneʼs own, or those of younger recorders. At a recent symposium on the history of Womenʼs Liberation in the United States, Margaret (Peg) Strobel recounted that even when rereading her own diaries and letters she is amazed at their failure to match her current recollections of the events she has recorded there.4 Reading our histories through the interpretations of others can be more unsettling again. Contemporary texts reviewing recent feminist history provide sobering examples of how the past is inevitably read through the concerns of the present, often invalidating earlier meanings and projects and erasing their heterogeneity. The displacement of former struggles and perspectives, however, is all the more disconcerting when contemporary theorists start off from a critical fascination with problems of ʻexperienceʼ, ʻmemoryʼ and the ʻsilencingʼ of other voices, alongside a formal abhorrence of binary logics and apparent scepticism about generalization of all kinds. Yet, it is precisely the reckless generalization and false contrasts which astonish me when I read accounts of the distance self-proclaimed ʻninetiesʼ feminism has travelled from Womenʼs Liberation, and what now appears newly homogenized as ʻseventiesʼ feminism.



1. Sheila Rowbotham, ʻReclaim the Moonʼ, in Dreams and Dilemmas, Virago, London, 1983, p. 348.

2. This is a revised version of a talk given at the Radical Philosophy Conference, ʻTorn Halves: Theory and Poltics in Contemporary Feminismʼ, London, 9 November 1996.

3. Patricia Romney, unpublished notes prepared for roundtable discussion, ʻWriting about a Visionary Movement in the “Get Real” World of the ʼ90s: The History of Womenʼs Liberation in the United Statesʼ, at the 10th Berkshire Womenʼs Conference, North Carolina, June 1996.