Feminism was both the most lasting and the most radical of the strands of political thinking which made up the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s. From the vantage point of the time, feminist political thinking could be presented as an extension or auxiliary of the rainbow alliance of causes and aspirations which constituted the New Left. From the vantage point of the 1990s, a different account is possible. The socialism of the New Left, developing out of well-established traditions, and doubly checked at the end of the short twentieth century by the revolutions of 1989 and the ascendancy of the New Right, can be contrasted with the growth and diversity of the feminism of the New Left.
In a rough chronology of the development of feminist thinking in the last four decades of the chronological century, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s can be seen as producing arguments which, though they had not disappeared by the 1990s, were becoming much less prominent, whilst the body of more conventional feminist scholarship continued to increase. Whether one sees the late 1960s as the start of a ‘second wave’ of feminism, as Shulamith Firestone has termed it (Firestone 1971), or as a particular moment in a permanently flowing tide (Spender 1983), feminist argument formed a major component of the New Left, as both its major internal critic and its major legacy. And whether one talks of waves or tides, the chronology and context of feminism was different from that of other forms of political thinking. Though feminism flourished at the same time as the socialist, Marxist and anarchist components of the New Left, the contexts in which it did so were in important respects different. Though it was far from lacking roots, it had a tradition and a development which stood in important respects at one remove from those of socialism, and which was not