Setting the Feminist Record Straight
|Winter 2012||Vol:XIII-4||Whole #: 52|
Freedom for Women: Forging the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1953-1970
By: Carol Giardina
Gainesville, Florida: The University Press of Florida, 2010, 336 pp., $29.95
Reviewed by Lynn Chancer
Carol Giardina’s Freedom for Women, a study of the development of American second wave feminism from1953 through 1970, is a well-documented, thorough, and often fascinating history of a period of intense social movement activism: the exhilarating and intensive early days of the women’s movement. Giardina’s book vividly depicts the passionate radicalism of feminists during these too easily forgotten years. As I write these words, though, "Occupy Wall Street" has brought comparisons with protest movements of the 60s into mass cultural consciousness; in so doing, it provides an evocative context within which to reflect on Giardina’s detailed historical study.
Several points stressed in Giardina’s book seem particularly worth exploring here, in New Politics, a journal devoted itself to chronicling and forwarding social movement debates spanning decades and generations. Giardina explores the relationship between the women’s and other movements during the 50s and 60s as well as how the plural term "feminisms" came, of late, to critically displace the singular "feminism." She also discusses how theoretical influences interact with other kinds of "activist" involvement. But while each of these themes is nicely developed in this book, I sensed that the first theme was by far the most salient for Giardina. Above all, perhaps, Freedom for Women sets out to correct what the author — who participated herself in early feminist organizing — believes to be a serious and ongoing interpretive error.
According to Giardina, an inaccurate narrative has stubbornly persisted in both scholarly writings and popular cultural treatments of the origins of second wave feminism. This is the idea that the "male chauvinism" women encountered in other movements — in particular, within the civil rights movement and on the left — caused early feminists to start their own organizations out of anger at the sexism and hypocrisy they encountered. However, as Giardina contends, the problem with this interpretation is that it overlooks the invaluable skills and experience that women gained in myriad organizations from the NAACP through activism in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). Indeed Giardina does a beautiful job of showing the courage women from different class and racial backgrounds commonly exhibited in traveling to Mississippi, for instance, to do dangerous SNCC work around 1964. Through their participation in the civil rights movement and in the Old and New Lefts, women learned that they could lead — and lead effectively — in addition to actually seeing how political organizing can change both the world and oneself. It is this sense of agency gained elsewhere, and of cross-movement synergies, that Giardina posits is too often left out of histories of radical feminism that tend to portray — she cites Alice Echol’s Daring to Be Bad as one example — 60s protest movements as antagonized from, rather than interconnected with, one another. Thus whereas dominant interpretations stress (for example) that Stokely Carmichael told SNCC women their best position was "prone," a more nuanced story can also be told about humor and comradeship that characterized many day-to-day interactions of social movement life.
No doubt Giardina’s point is well taken and her account persuaded me — to a fair extent. But I also wonder whether a third interpretation needs to be stressed that combines a) the interpretation that the women’s movement emerged from, and against, virulent sexism encountered in the civil rights movement and on the left and b) the interpretation that women’s participation in 60s race and class-based organizing was actually far more valuable than has often been recognized. The very consciousness-changing character of organizing against racial and class injustices surely revealed a glaring contradiction between working for equal rights and facing subordination within one’s own organization and interpersonal relationships. Consequently to acknowledge that experience gained was valuable, and also that thereby sexist hypocrisies became clearer so as to "jump start" the women’s movement, can be themselves mutually synergizing — rather than either/or — takes on recent history.
Of course, on the one hand, Giardina’s corrective certainly matters. Anyone who knows even a tad about the history of U.S. social movements will be familiar with the fragmentation and divisions — between left sectarian groups, and among race ‘versus’ gender feminist politics — that have pitted progressive groups against one another insidiously, affecting an increasingly marginalized state of U.S. progressivism through different waves of social movement activism. In this sense, Giardina’s interpretation is a helpful one. Ditto for another kindred theme that Giardina demonstrates, namely, that the early women’s movement was cross-racial and cross-class in participants and leaders. This is in contrast to another dominant historical interpretation which has portrayed the early movement as overwhelmingly white and middle-class. But by showing in Freedom for Women the initial significance of feminist figures like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and Zoharah Simmons — among other important African-American women — Giardina makes it clear that the women’s movement was integrated across class and race from its beginnings. In this regard, Giardina’s work is fine and deserves to be oft cited. Based on her thorough research, she argues that referring to the development of American feminism (singular) makes more sense than alluding to feminisms (plural) — even though the latter term has become habitual among writers hoping to dissociate themselves from the movement’s allegedly one-dimensional past.
On the other hand, though, I found myself wondering whether in her eagerness to compensate for historical inaccuracies, Giardina’s own interpretation veers slightly too much in the opposite direction. For unless the validity of women’s anger at the "contradictions" they encountered — i.e., sexism in their own organizations rendered all the more galling for taking place in movements dedicated to overcoming injustices — is equally highlighted, another crucial historical lesson may also be overlooked. Yes, playing gender against race and fragmentation on the left are ongoing problems of progressive organizing in America. But so is ongoing sexism and the unfortunate "social fact" that neither feminism nor feminisms have managed, by 2011, to successfully attain many of the major goals Giardina reminds us were so dear to early feminists whether liberals, radicals and/or socialists: secure and affordable abortion rights and reproductive freedoms for all women; universal and high quality child care; economic parity; freedom from violence and abuse, to name a few.
Consequently, part of the problem may be that feminists have not rebelled from sexism encountered in other organizations, and at the hands of sexist individuals enough — i.e., some of the feisty independence Giardina vividly recounts has become watered down over the last several decades. For example while there is every reason for progressives to be thrilled about the unfolding of Occupy Wall Street, and the return of class politics this bodes, I wonder whether gender issues and problems of sexism are being discussed within this movement with necessary concern and awareness. In the wider culture, it was just recently that a young French woman was quoted saying her socialist mother advised her not to prosecute Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual harassment because he was an influential figure. On the Republican side of the spectrum, and back in the U.S., Herman Cain vigorously accused a woman who accused him of sexual harassment of lying. Neither in France nor in the U.S. was a movement near at hand to defend women who are, years later and in their own ways, insisting — as did Carol Hamlisch decades ago — that the "personal is political." Rather, as Giardina notes, a decline began in the 70s that moved the feminist movement from the offense to a defensive position from which it has still, I fear, to recover.
Nonetheless, bearing Giardina’s fortifying recollections in mind, there may be reason to pause here on a hopeful note. If (American) history repeats itself, then perhaps — like the first and second waves — future waves of feminism will likely take both inspiration and rebellious energy from new bursts of social movement activism. Moreover something I loved about Freedom for Women was the credit it gives to theoretical not just "activist" influences on early feminism’s unfolding: undoubtedly, as Giardina emphasizes, Simone deBeauvoir’s The Second Sex had a huge effect on second wave women as did other seminal early feminist writings like Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful. If Giardina is right, then it is also silly to divide between the ‘theorists’ and the "doers" (as can be an old American social movement propensity). Again, both matter — not only one or the other — so that we can only hope, too, for new feminist classics to appear in writing which will inspire us, yet again, in practice.