What Happened to the Women's Movement?-An Exchange

By Acker, Joan | Monthly Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview

What Happened to the Women's Movement?-An Exchange


Acker, Joan, Monthly Review


Different Strategies are Necessary Now

Barbara Epstein's answer to "What Happened to the Women's Movement?" (Monthly Review, May 2001) explains much of the decline of the intense, exciting, radical and socialist feminist organizing of the 1960s and 1970s, with its visions of societal transformation and women's emancipation. However, I think that she underemphasizes, or even ignores, some important parts of a comprehensive answer. These have to do with the daunting reality facing revolutionary visions, the strength of opposition to women's equality with men, and changes in economic and political relations that now seem to require new visions and ways of organizing.

Before I discuss these issues, I want to add to her comments on first wave feminism. Abandonment of a broad agenda, and of links to radical organizations were not the only reasons for the decline of first wave feminism. Decline was also a consequence of deep-seated but hidden antipathy to feminist claims within radical organizations, as well as a consequence of the successes of first wave feminism. My own experiences in the 1940s lead me to those conclusions. I grew up in the late 30s and early 40s with the firm belief that the women's movement had been a success, that women were equal to men, and that I could do and be anything I wanted, an individualistic perspective, I admit. The radical organizations I joined had campaigns against racism, but generally denied that any problems with democracy or equality existed for women within their own organizations. What problems there were in the larger society would be solved automatically as the working class triumphed. I began to see the fallacy, and the male privi lege, in these claims only as I had children and my low wage-earning capacity forced the decision that I be the homebound caregiver. I think that young women today have similar difficulties in seeing the continuing inequalities and subordinations. The second wave movement accomplished a great deal, as Epstein says. Young women do face a different world of possibilities than second wave feminists faced. It is easy to believe that all the problems are solved. But, they too may have rude awakenings.

The daunting reality facing radical and socialist feminist visions was, and is, not only that we have no gender and race egalitarian alternative to capitalism, but that the interweaving of gender and race with the economic, political, and social relations of capitalism is much more complicated and pervasive than we had imagined. To fundamentally change the situation of women, almost everything else must change. But, as Epstein recognizes, the constituency for revolution was never large, and the vision of revolution was unrealistic. In any case, a revolution led by New Left male radicals would probably have been disastrous for women and for the ideals of the New Left itself Instead, radical, socialist, and liberal feminists turned to specific and immediate projects for change. Much of the grassroots organizing, and the radical spirit of the movement, was focused on struggles for Affirmative Action, comparable worth, women's health care, and legal abortion, among many other issues. This division of labor within the feminist movement has achieved many, if somewhat separate, victories. And these victories should not be attributed only to liberal feminists. This is the strength of the women's movement and one reason it has survived. The general understanding of women's subordination within a critique of capitalist societies still exists, but, as many now recognize, this critique is too general to fuel specific organizing. I think that Epstein makes too broad a generalization when she says "feminists have lost their grip on a vision of a better world." I don't fundamentally disagree with her, but I would temper her nostalgia a bit.

Opposition to feminist demands has something to do with the decline of the women's movement as grassroots, radical organizing. …

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