What does `feminism' mean now? Does it mean something rather different to the `women's liberation' we talked about in the 1960s and early 1970s and, if so, why?
Hardly anyone talks about women's liberation any more, was the title of a review I wrote in 1986.(1) A perceptible shift in the terminology used for the visible manifestations of women's activism can be observed from the late 1960s through the 1980s; the term Women's Liberation Movement is gradually replaced by Women's Movement and this, in its turn, by `feminism,' though the latter remains a contested site.
Many former women's liberationists (some of whom would still see themselves as Marxists or socialists) are now using the term `feminism' to encompass their own practice, though they don't perceive this as within the historical tradition of mainstream `feminism' (represented by figures like Lily Braun, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst or Rose Scott), which has never been socialist.
Ann Curthoys argued back in 1975 in an article reprinted in For and Against Feminism that the kind of society feminism seeks is one in which sexism as well as "other structural inequalities and oppression" have been eliminated.
The older term `women's liberation' expresses this dual aim better than do our `new' terms `feminist' and `the women's movement' but probably we are stuck with `feminist' as a shorter and more linguistically flexible term. (Curthoys 1988, 21, my underlining)
But in fact, is it this linguistic flexibility of the term `feminism' that has contributed to the problem - does `feminism' mean anything much now? In 1986, Rosalind Delmar commented in an essay "What is Feminism?" in a book of the same title:
The fragmentation of contemporary feminism bears ample witness to the impossibility of constructing modern feminism as a simple unity in the present or of arriving at a shared feminist definition of feminism...it now makes more sense to speak of a plurality of feminisms than of one. (Mitchell and Oakley 1986, 9)
The Marxist left has often used the term `feminist' to designate radical or liberal feminism from which it distinguished its own theory of women's liberation. At the moment, `feminism' is in the process of being aggressively recuperated by gendercentred practitioners (see articles by Judith Allen and others in Watson 1990). However, the linguistic flexibility of the term `feminism' that has led to its incorporating women's liberation to some degree has also led to the marginalisation of the latter which, as I have said, is now rarely talked about. In the interest of clarity, we need to revive the term `women's liberation' to talk about the difference between `feminism' (as primarily a liberal cross-class practice) and the real Marxist tradition of women's liberation (even though this has been occluded and suppressed by decades of socialism being equated with Stalinism, see Lee Ack 1991). Socialist feminists have often reinforced the false equation of Marxism with the Stalinist practices of western Communist Parties; Sheila Rowbotham, for example, comments:
My generation...inherited a Marxism which had only continued in the western capitalist countries as a defensive body of orthodoxy surrounded by protective walls, encrusted with fear, stiff with terror, brittle with bitterness, aching with disillusionment. (1981, x)
Another reason why `feminism' doesn't mean much now for women's liberationists, is the rightward shift that, following the Kerr coup in 1975, has accelerated in the political climate generally. In the arena of women's movement activities there was a development away from the working class orientated campaigns around equal pay, childcare, abortion and so on, towards a central concern with rape, domestic violence, pornography and so on; and a shift away from militancy, towards welfare and working from within the system. Intersecting with this displacement, influencing and being influenced by it, has been a dominance of patriarchy theory ever class theory, even for feminists who might see themselves as Marxists. …