Exploring Feminism's Complex Relationship with Political Violence: An Analysis of the Weathermen, Radical Feminism and the New Left

Article excerpt

We're SDS women fighters and we're part of a Revolutionary Army that's gonna take this country away from the few and give it back to all the people including women. We need women fighting to win this battle, and we can't let women remain slaves under capitalism.

from SDS pamphlet 'Women Rise Up', 1969

While substantial research has been done into the general belief systems of radical left wing organisations in the US during the 1960s and 70s, little feminist scholarship has examined the ideologies and experiences of leftist women's relationship with violence at this time. Indeed, there is a dearth of work on women who commit or support violence for political reasons in general. Explanations for why women commit political violence often do not take into account the socially constructed relationship between women and violence, and ignore the fact that violence is a gendered construct linked to societal norms of masculinity. Psychologically, women who have participated in violence have been considered 'deficient in their socialization process' and 'more out of touch with reality than their male counterparts'. (1) Many also assume that women are innately non-violent and commit political violence merely to mimic men or access the masculine realm of power. Because of these one-dimensional views, though nearly one-third of the arrests of violent political activists in the 1960s and 70s were women, little is known about their lives and revolutionary goals. (2)

Within the discourse of current feminist politics, the use of violence, even political, is often a source of contention. For instance, when liberal feminists advocate women's full participation in the military, other feminists question the imperialist nature of the military and whether anyone, man or woman, should participate in such an institution. (3) These tensions concerning women's relationship to political violence date back to the second wave feminist movement in the US in particular, as many wrestled with questions of working within the system versus challenging it through violence. The civil rights movement and the antiwar movement encountered similar quandaries as they also wrestled with the concept of peaceful protest versus violent action. Thus, during the late 1960s and early 70s most organisations within the American Left were splintered as they debated what type of action would most successfully implement radical change. (4)

In this article I explore the belief systems of the New Left organisation the 'Weathermen', a splinter group from the organisation Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that internally supported sexist hierarchies and exalted violence as the primary means of social change. The Weathermen's advocacy of violence often encouraged women to embrace aggression and 'me-too' politics, which reinforced popular feminist critiques of masculine power and its association with violence. In order to understand the variety of feminist engagements with political violence, I discuss contemporary (primarily white and middle class) feminist essentialist and pacifist critiques of violence, as well as an analysis of feminists who, similar to the Weathermen, embraced political violence. For example, radical feminists like Jane Alpert and Robin Morgan criticised the Weathermen's violent tactics while other feminists such as Ti-Grace Atkinson and Valerie Solanas advocated that women 'pick up the gun' in order to destroy patriarchal society. While these three primary belief systems concerning violence--pacifism, essentialism, and pro-violence--emerged within radical feminism in the US during the 1960' and 70s and have come to define feminist attitudes to violence since that period, this article argues that women who commit, advocate or condemn political violence are complex beings that cannot be easily categorised. Indeed, the myriad of belief systems within feminism concerning women and political violence reflect the broad range of ideas and tensions within American feminist discourse. …