British socialist Judith Orr looks at the radical women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, and why it declined
It is hard to imagine just how different the world was for women before the 1960s.
When my mum got married she had to leave her job in a bank. It was assumed that her husband would keep her and she would look after the home. This was not unusual—in many jobs married women were not employed. It was difficult for a woman to get a mortgage without a man’s guarantee.
These were the days before the pill. Sex before marriage was seen as shameful and if a single woman got pregnant it was devastating. Abortion was illegal and many women risked their lives going to the backstreet, or were forced to give their baby up for adoption.
The radical political movements of the 1960s blew apart this repressive and stifled world.
The gains women made then—some abortion access, easier divorce, freedom to express our sexuality and the principle of equal pay—changed the lives of millions.
The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was born in the US among students radicalised by the mass black civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. In Britain, the WLM developed from the struggles of women workers for equal pay.
The two movements had different characteristics but both were rooted in the effect of the long post-war economic boom. This had pulled increasing numbers of women into the workforce and into further education. For example between 1960 and 1965 there was a 57 per cent increase in women being awarded degrees in the US (the same figure for men rose by 25 per cent). Suddenly a whole generation of women had new expectations.
The universities of the US became centres of struggle and debate. By 1967 thousands of women had been on marches and protests. They had fought for black civil rights, opposed the war in Vietnam and challenged the state.
Yet they faced sexism in their own political organisations and felt sidelined and trivialised by the mainly male leadership.
It seems shocking that such brilliant radical movements did not take women’s rights seriously. But when the movements exploded in the 1960s they did so in a vacuum.
The socialist tradition had been decimated by the witch-hunts of McCarthyism. In the US, there was no Labor-type party or revolutionary left to speak of. The shadow cast by the experience of Stalinism made many feel that socialism had nothing to do with liberation.
Women activists began to organise their own workshops, write papers and talk about their oppression.
The movement in the US was dominated by the idea that women had to organise separately. Meetings often involved women talking about their personal lives—a process described as “consciousness raising”.
Groups, dominated by college educated middle class women, spread to cities all over the US. Although it was never a truly mass movement in terms of numbers and activity it did articulate the dashed hopes and frustration of millions of women.
Elsewhere, such as in Britain and Australia, the experience of the women’s movement was shaped by the greater influence of the left and class politics.
The presence of Labor Parties, the higher density of trade union membership, and an organised revolutionary left made a difference.
It meant that there was an understanding of the socialist tradition of fighting for women’s rights. These influences ensured the demands of the British and Australian WLM reflected the needs of working class women—free abortion and contraception, equal educational and job opportunities, childcare and equal pay. Strikes of women workers like the London office cleaners were seen as very much part of the movement.
Debates in the movement
But there were problems. Ideas about women needing to organise separately divided the movement. In fact bitter experience showed there was nothing inevitably “sisterly” or democratic about women-only organisations.
By the late 1970s the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was in decline.
There was a growing rift between those who saw the struggle for women’s rights as linked with that of the working class, and those who were more influenced by radical feminism, in particular the theory of patriarchy.
In essence this theory declared that the root cause of women’s oppression was male power. Soon patriarchy became the dominant theoretical explanation of women’s oppression.
It was widely accepted that all men benefited from women’s oppression, and that therefore all men had an interest in maintaining it. This led to some organisations refusing to campaign alongside men—or even alongside women who worked with men in political campaigns.
But there is no male conspiracy to oppress women. The real cause of that oppression—class division—works against working class men as well.
To take low pay, for example. It is not the case that men benefit from women being paid less. It simply means that in the majority of working class families, where both men and women work, the overall income will be less. Paying women less only benefits the bosses, who gain in profit.
When the left started to be characterised as “inherently macho” it signalled just how far the rightward drift had gone. Beyond the Fragments, an influential book by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, was published in 1979. It was an outright attack on the left that claimed Leninist politics was oppressive to women.
Radical feminists argued that socialist politics were not part of the solution, but part of the problem.
Even working class struggle and trade unions were increasingly dismissed in this manner.
This disintegration of the WLM led some women—usually the most privileged—to look to individual solutions. These were women who could pursue careers in the big corporations while employing nannies and cleaners to carry the burden of housework.
The image of a businesswoman in shoulder pads and high heels became a 1980s cliché. But the success of the few women who broke through the “glass ceiling” did nothing to advance the position of the majority of women.
For others, the Greenham Common peace camp in the early 1980s provided a model. This was a women-only protest against US nuclear missiles in Britain.
Greenham Common came to embody the radical feminist view that men were biologically driven to be aggressors while women were naturally peacemakers. Yet Margaret Thatcher’s warmongering was proof that women are not naturally non-violent.
In Australia, the movement retreated either into individual self-help projects like Women’s Refuge Centres or turned inward, focusing on organising social and cultural activities without attempting to take up any of the political issues in the wider world.
In the end, many of those who had been at the forefront of the WLM ended up playing the system rather than trying to smash it.
These are the women who are the government ministers, lawyers and managers of today.
They have benefited from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s that put equal opportunities on the agenda. But their lives have little in common with those of the mass of ordinary women.
The fight continues
The battle to win real women’s liberation is still to be won. We face pay inequality, attacks on abortion rights, welfare cuts and a massive rise in sexism in popular culture.
History has shown that the fate of women in society is tied to the fate of the working class. We have won the most gains when the working class has been on the offensive.
We have never been in a better position to challenge our oppression as part of a collective—women are now half the workforce. But the fight must be for more than just equality under capitalism.
Class remains the deepest divide in society, defining our health, education, housing, jobs and pay and even our life expectancy.
Winning equal pay with men would be progress, but not victory. Recent figures show the richest 20 per cent of Australian households own 63 per cent of wealth in the country, while the bottom 20 per cent own just 0.2 per cent. Equal pay can still mean gross inequality between the minority and the majority.
For socialists the fight for women’s liberation is part of a struggle for the emancipation of the whole of humanity.
Socialist Worker UK