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Passion, bitterness and feminism

Posted by eGZact on October 19, 2007

‘What did you do in the revolution, Mum?’ ran the line on a 1970s poster, and the answer, ‘Oh, I danced’, nicely illustrates a mood in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and ’70s. In fact, joy was still swirling on the dance floors of feminism in the early 1980s and even then revolution figured in dreams. But from the mid-’70s, the Women’s Liberation Movement was also increasingly fraught with fragmentation and internal strife. Joy’s partner was often anger. Early feminists were frequently fuelled by fury. We were righteously and passionately angry about the myriad myths of women’s so-called inferiority. We shouted from the rooftops that women were oppressed and exploited throughout the world, and it was male power that benefited from the status quo. We scared ourselves with the realisation of how much needed to be changed — in society and in ourselves.


On the left and in the burgeoning counter-culture, where some early feminists hoped to find allies among the male comrades, they found derision instead. ‘Wait ’til after the revolution, love’, was the common refrain. From a different angle, the media was quick to take note of the new ‘women’s lib’ movement. There, anxieties produced by women’s militancy were quickly transformed into outrage and nervous titillation. Almost from the beginning the media misconstrued and belittled feminists and their concerns, creating the mocked and mythical persona of the humourless, sour, man-hating women’s libber.  

A press of our own  

Spare Rib magazine, first published in June 1972, made an immediate and widespread impact on the era. The magazine, seemingly a quintessential women’s liberation vehicle, in reality had a more mixed-up heritage. As one of its founders described, it started ‘because of the impetus of the women’s liberation movement, but it was also the daughter of the underground press. It was a product of the counter-culture and a reaction against it.’   

Its reception by some women in the early movement was mixed too — a parody called Spare Tit was soon produced which lampooned its supposed bourgeois feminist concerns. But by and large, love it or hate it, we bought it and read it from cover to cover.  Spare Rib’s initial project was to explore and record the reality, dreams, and struggles women were undertaking to transform society and their own lives. It had a highly optimistic, even utopian spirit. Women were learning how to have orgasms and how to fix cars, peeling away layers of internalised inferiority and daring to challenge exclusion from male-dominated work, demanding equal pay and shared housework from male partners, fighting for the right to abortion and birth control and for the right to have children.   It was all possible. It was all necessary. Sometimes it was exhausting. The struggle was righteous, personal and political. Once other women had seen the light they too would join the movement. The differences between women were not as important as the fact that we were all women. 

Seeds of self-destruction  

What happened to the optimism, confidence and excitement? My years at Spare Rib from 1979 to 1984 encompassed a time of great tearing and renting in the women’s movement.   At Spare Rib, groups increasingly attacked us from outside while internally we tore each other apart over contentious issues. These focused particularly on anti-lesbianism and heterosexism (the assumed naturalness and rightness of heterosexuality and its institutions), racism in the women’s movement in general and in the collective in particular, and charges of antisemitism.   

Looking back it’s not hard to see the seeds of self-destruction. But back then so many of us were caught up in the intensity of the moment, in love with the women’s movement and therefore determined to take on the internal challenges thrown up by feminism itself.  The differences and the inequalities between women, which became more and more apparent as the years rolled by, highlighted the exclusive nature of much of the women’s movement. In the mid-1980s Susan Ardill and I described how, ‘All through the 1970s the voices of excluded, ignored or patronised women sang angrily, accusingly about class, about race, about sexuality. Yet the practice of the white-dominated women’s movement, with a large and vital socialist-feminist presence in it, was unable to answer those voices.’  

The anger women had directed so confidently at the perpetrators of sexism was now ricocheting within the movement and Spare Rib, the most wide-reaching feminist publication, became the forum or repository for many of these struggles.   

Why did this happen?   

The answer is complex but here I am interested in exploring one avenue in particular. The slogan ‘the personal is political’ embodied a powerful insight which came out of early feminism. The original intent of the slogan was to signal that politics did not stop at the kitchen sink or the bedroom door.

Our experiences as women — in relationship to men, work, family, public and private life, informed an expanded view of what counted as political. However, when social and personal divisions and differences between women were articulated, experience and identity, touchstones of the slogan ‘the personal is political’ came into play between women. For instance, we didn’t have to prove men oppressed us — our experience as women proved it to us every day. This was powerful stuff. Women, so long hidden from history, were claiming their foremothers’ experiences and their own as important, valid, special. All this was represented in the pages of Spare Rib.  No one denied that the society we lived in was structured around class inequalities or that Britain was a racist society. Nor would many have argued that lesbianism was considered as fine and dandy as heterosexuality.

The hope that feminism could deal with these inequalities (and others) with less difficulty because we were all women was, to be fair, something many feminists understood was pie in the sky quite early on. Nevertheless, once the movement started to fracture, a kind of moralism developed with a tendency to harden experience and identity into rigid hierarchies. This, too, took more and more space in the magazine, as we compulsively washed our dirty linen in public.  

Losing sight of change  

The issues we came to grief over were real — and they remain, largely, disturbingly real today. The problem was not that we grappled with personal and institutionalised racism in society and within the women’s movement, or with antisemitism, or anti-lesbianism. It wasn’t that we clashed about whether women were essentially more peaceful than men as some women at the encampments at Greenham seemed to suggest. Nor was it because we had arguments about whether boys could escape macho conditioning, or if wearing make-up was pandering to male-defined notions of beauty and capitalism. All of these, to a greater or lesser degree, warranted serious feminist attention.  

The problem was that a movement for change got lost in these debates. The political positions we had started to hone as socialist feminists, radical feminists, revolutionary feminists, lesbian feminists, liberal feminists and black feminists in the mid-’70s, became snarled up in moral assertions of correctness. A proliferation of claimed differences between women defined the big questions and clamoured for attention in feminist groups and publications.  As Susan Ardill and I wrote: ‘For some “difference” became in itself an explanation, an organising method, a static and moralistic world view.’ Then what tended to get lost were strategies for change, transformation and the analyses necessary to take on fully the racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism — you name it — in society and within the movement. What got lost in an onslaught of resentment was the lightness of generosity, the passion of political dancing, and the brute but insidious power of the forces against freedom, transformation and women’s liberation.   

Transfigured but not transformed  

But don’t for a moment forget that the women’s movement was an amazing force. It should not be written off because of its weakness. It’s a mistake also to imply that these weaknesses were unique to it; other radical social movements of the time were facing similar struggles. No, the women’s movement’s legacy is a more contradictory and intriguing puzzle.  

Women’s liberation transfixed and transfigured me and millions of other women. Through it, I became who I am today. I was exhilarated by it, sometimes exhausted and angered by it. It didn’t liberate women or men: our early insistence that we did not want to be equal to unfree men, was swamped by a reforming zeal which has changed the landscape of women’s lives but not transformed it.   

Our history and our future have not been fully written.  

by Sue O’Sullivan, a member of one of the first consciousness raising groups in London who was editor of Spare Rib magazine from 1979 to 1984                                                      

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