Feminist Phoenix: The Rise and Fall of a Feminist Counterculture

By Jerry L. Rodnitzky | Go to book overview

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Countercultural Failure: American Feminism, 1700–1960

Contemporary feminist radicals have difficulty finding their counterparts in American history. Their problem is the traditional American tendency to co-opt its radicals by either making partial concessions to their contemporary demands or by later making radicals historical heroes. This co-optation affects men and women equally. For example, both Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, clearly unsuccessful radicals of their different eras, are now enshrined in American textbooks as martyrs for religious freedom and political democracy, respectively. America has a way of neutralizing radical heroes by eventually accepting parts of their programs. But feminist radicals have always had a more basic problem in asserting their radicalism and retaining their radical image over time. Past feminists had to fight for more than their goals; they had to struggle for the right to be radical feminists—the right to argue that they had problems and grievances apart from and as important as those of men.

That struggle for a separate feminist condition and angle of vision was inevitably a countercultural movement. Yet, before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, countercultural issues were usually lost in the midst of broader campaigns which often won real social, political, and economic gains for American women. Unfortunately, these feminist victories sometimes secured the present by sacrificing the future.

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