Magazine article The Nation


Magazine article The Nation


Article excerpt

The year is 1969. In a living room, ten women passionately tell one another secrets they have never before revealed. One woman describes the trauma of rape. Another reveals the beatings she has endured from her husband. Still another describes the sexually predatory behavior of the interns at her medical school. Meanwhile, one of the women, a paid FBI informant, strains to remember all the details so she can report them to a field agent, who will pass them on to J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI's infiltration of movements in the sixties is by now well-known. But those who have excavated the history of such surveillance have barely looked into the government's infiltration of the women's movement. As a result, so many questions remain unanswered. Did FBI informers act as agents provocateurs and saboteurs? Did they influence important decisions? Did they create a debilitating climate of fear? Did paid informers, as was the case in the black liberation movement, foment distrust, infighting and divisions among activists? And, most important, did they succeed in derailing the direction of the movement?

Never, in my wildest bouts of paranoia, did I imagine the extent of that infiltration. The FBI, it turns out, viewed the women's movement as a serious threat to national security. (Of course, the women's movement was dangerous, but not in the way the FBI assumed.) Many feminists, for their part, worried that agents and informants were among them, contributing to a climate of fear.

The FBI's surveillance of the women's movement began as part of COINTELPRO, an FBI domestic surveillance program begun in 1956. Although the FBI did not officially employ women agents until after Hoover's death in 1972, its regional offices paid dozens--possibly even hundreds--of female informants to infiltrate the women's movement. Hoover, moreover, remained adamant that constant surveillance of the women's movement be maintained, in his words, for the "internal security of the nation." In 1968, Hoover redefined the COINTELPRO mission: "It was to 'neutralize' the effectiveness of civil rights, New Left, anti-war and black liberation groups."

Americans first heard about COINTELPRO and learned something of its scope when a "Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI" broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in March 1971, removed secret files and subsequently leaked them to the press. Soon after COINTELPRO was exposed, several agents resigned and blew the whistle on the bureau's crimes against ordinary citizens. After Hoover's death the agency issued a public apology and vowed to reform itself. In 1974 Senator Frank Church held Congressional hearings that further exposed the program and confirmed some of the New Left's and women's movement's worst nightmares.

The Church Committee interviewed FBI officials and agents who had orchestrated the infiltration of the women's movement--not only in Chicago, New York and Berkeley but in Kansas City, Missouri; Columbus, Ohio; Lawrence, Kansas; Cleveland, Ohio; Seattle; Gainesville, Florida; and dozens of other cities and small towns all over the country. When questioned, agents repeatedly dodged the accusation that they had uncovered nothing subversive in the women's movement. Still, they admitted, all records would remain in the bureau's files. The Church hearings officially ended COINTELPRO, but that didn't mean that infiltration and surveillance of the women's movement stopped. According to Brian Glick, whose book War at Home is an account of the FBI's post-Church surveillance, "the Bureau continued to infiltrate and disrupt feminist organizations, publications, and projects." Its view of the women's movement is revealed by a 1973 report listing the national women's newspaper off our backs as "armed and dangerous--extreme."

Why did the FBI spend so many years infiltrating the women's movement? In the middle of the cold war, Hoover never stopped looking for communists. …

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