THE women’s liberation movement was a loose alliance of women and feminist thinking that emerged in the United States and other developed countries during the late 1960s and persisted throughout the 1970s.
In June, 1967 Jo Freeman attended a “free school’” course on women at the University of Chicago led by Heather Booth  and Naomi Weisstein. Freeman invited them to organize a woman’s workshop at the National Conference of New Politics (NCNP), to be held in Chicago over Labor Day weekend in 1967. At the conference a woman’s caucus was formed, and it (led by Freeman and Shulamith Firestone) presented its own demands to the plenary session.  In response to their demands, the women were told their resolution was not important enough for a floor discussion. While threatening to tie up the convention with procedural motions they succeeded in having their statement tacked on to the end of the agenda. Through that effort their demands were never discussed.  Towards the end of the conference, National Conference for New Politics Director William F. Pepper refused to recognize any of the women waiting to speak and instead called on someone to speak about the American Indians. Five women, including Firestone, rushed the podium to demand to know why. William F. Pepper then patted Firestone on the head and said, “Move on little girl; we have more important issues to talk about here than women’s liberation,” or possibly, “Cool down, little girl. We have more important things to talk about than women’s problems.” A meeting was called together by Freeman and Firestone for all of the women who had been at the “free school” course and the women’s workshop during the conference. This meeting spawned the first Chicago women’s liberation group. This group was known as the Westside group because it met weekly in Freeman’s apartment on Chicago’s west side. After a few months of meeting, Freeman started the newsletter called Voice of the women’s liberation movement. This newsletter circulated across the country (and in a few foreign countries), and gave the women’s liberation movement its name. Many of the women in the Westside group went on to start other feminist organizations, including the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Within the year, women’s liberation groups sprang up all over America.
In 1968, the first American national gathering of women’s liberation activists was held in Lake Villa, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. That same year, at the University of Washington, a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer reflected on a meeting about white college men working with poor white men, and “noted that sometimes after analyzing societal ills, the men shared leisure time by ‘balling a chick together.’ He pointed out that such activities did much to enhance the political consciousness of poor white youth. A woman in the audience asked, ‘And what did it do for the consciousness of the chick?’” (Hole, Judith, and Ellen Levine, Rebirth of Feminism, 1971, pg. 120).  After the meeting, a handful of women formed Seattle’s first women’s liberation group.  Also in 1968, 100 women protested the Miss America Beauty Pageant because it promoted “physical attractiveness and charm as the primary measures of a woman’s worth,” especially the swimsuit portion of the contest (Echols, Alice “ Nothig Distant About It”, 1994, pg 149). Also in 1968, Notes from the First Year, a women’s liberation theoretical journal, was published by New York Radical Women.
The first Women’s Liberation Conference took place in Britain, during 1970, at Ruskin College. Also in 1970, Australian feminist Germaine Greer published her book, The Female Eunuch. Also in 1970, Sisterhood Is Powerful, An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement edited by the American feminist Robin Morgan, was published.
The first women’s liberation march in London occurred in 1971.
The ideology of radical feminism in the United States developed as a component of the women’s liberation movement. Within groups such as New York Radical Women (1967–1969), (no relation to Radical Women, a present-day socialist feminist organization), which Ellen Willis characterized as “the first women’s liberation group in New York City”, a radical feminist ideology began to emerge that declared that “the personal is political”  and “sisterhood is powerful”,  formulations that arose from these consciousness-raising sessions.
This paper was developed as a lecture given at several universities and colleges in the midwest in 1970, and finalized as a paper for the December 1970 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston. It was issued as a pamphlet in 1971, and first published in Recent Sociology No. 4: Family, Marriage, and the Struggle of the Sexes ed. by Hans Peter Dreitzel, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1972, pp. 201-216. It was reprinted several times.
Sometime in the nineteen twenties, feminism died in the United States. It was a premature death. Feminists had only recently obtained their long sought for tool, the vote, with which they had hoped to make an equal place for women in this society. But it seemed like a final one. By the time the granddaughters of the women who had sacrificed so much for suffrage had grown to maturity, not only had social mythology firmly ensconced women in the home, but the very term “feminist” had become an epithet.
Social fact, however, did not always coincide with social mythology. During the era of the “feminine mystique” when the percentage of degrees given to wmen was dropping, their absolute numbers were rising astronomically. Their participation in the labor force was also increasing even while their position within it was declining. Opportunities to work, the trend toward smaller families, plus changes in status symbols from a leisured wife at home to a second car and TV, all contributed to a basic alteration of the female labor force from one of primarily single women under 25 to one of married women and mothers over 40. Added to these developments was an increased segregation of the job market, a flooding of traditional female jobs (e.g. teaching and social work) by men, a decrease of women ‘e percentage of the professional and technical jobs by a third and a commensurate decline in their relative income. The result was the creation of a class of highly educated, underemployed women.
In the early sixties feminism was still an unmentionable, but its ghost was slowly awakening from the dead. The first sign of new life came with the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women by President Kennedy in 1961. Created at the urging of Esther Peterson of the Women’s Bureau, in its short life the Commission came out with several often radical reports thoroughly documenting women’s second class status. It was followed by the formation of a citizen’s advisory council and fifty state commissions.
Many of the people involved in these commissions became the nucleus of women who, dissatisfied with the lack of progress made on commission recommendations, joined with Betty Friedan in 1966 to found the National Organization for Women.
NOW was the first new feminist organization in almost fifty years, but it was not the sole beginning of the organized expression of the movement. The movement actually has two origins, from two different strata of society, with two different styles, orientations, values, and forms of organization. In many ways there were two separate movements which only in the last year have merged sufficiently for the rubric “women’s liberation” to be truly an umbrella term for the multiplicity of organizations and groups.
The first of these I call the older branch of the movement, partially because it began first, and partially because the median age of its activists is higher. In addition to NOW it contains such organizations as the PWC (Professional Women’s Caucus), FEW (Federally Employed Women) and the self-defined “right wing” of the movement, WEAL (Women’s Equity Action League).
The participants of both branches tend to be predominantly white, middle-class and college educated, but the composition of the older is much more heterogeneous than that of the younger. In issues, however, this trend is reversed with those of the younger being more diverse. While the written programs and aims of the older branch span a wide spectrum, their activities tend to be concentrated on the legal and economic difficulties women face. These groups are primarily made up of women who work and are substantially concerned with the problems of working women. Their style of organization has tended to be formal with numerous elected officers, boards of directors, bylaws and the other trappings of democratic procedure. All started as top down organizations lacking in a mass base. Some have subsequently developed a mass base, some have not yet done so, and others don’t want to.
In 1967 and 1968, unaware of and unknown to NOW or the state commissions, the other branch of the movement was taking shape. Contrary to popular myth it did not begin on the campus; nor was it started by SDS. However, its activators were, to be trite, on the other side of the generation gap. While few were students, all were “under 30” and had received their political education as participants or concerned observers of the social action projects of the last decade. Many came direct from New Left and civil rights organizations where they had been shunted into traditional roles and faced with the self-evident contraction of working in a “freedom movement” but not being very free. Others had attended various courses on women in the multitude of free universities springing up around the country during those years.
At least five groups in five different cities (Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, Seattle and Gainesville, Fla.) formed spontaneously, independently of each other. They came at a very auspicious moment. 1967 was the year in which the blacks kicked the whites out of the civil rights movement, student power had been discredited by SDS and the New Left was on the wane. Only draft resistance activities were on the increase, and this movement more than any other exemplified the social inequities of the sexes. Men could resist the draft. Women could only council resistance.
There had been individual temporary caucuses and conferences of women as early as 1964 when Stokely Carmichael made his infamous remark that “the only position for women in SNCC is prone.” But it was not until 1967 that the groups developed a determined, if cautious, continuity and began to consciously expand themselves. In 1968 they held their first, and so far only, national conference attended by over 200 women from around this country and Canada on less than a month’s notice. They have been expanding exponentially ever since.
This expansion has been more amebic than organized because the younger branch of the movement prides itself on its lack of organization. Eschewing structure and damning the idea of leadership, it has carried the concept of “everyone doing their own thing” almost to its logical extreme. Thousands of sister chapters around the country are virtually independent of each other, linked only by the numerous journals, newsletters and cross country travelers. Some cities have a coordinating committee which attempts to maintain communication between the local groups and channel newcomers into appropriate ones but none have any power over group activities, let alone group ideas. One result of this style is a very broad based, creative movement, which individuals can relate to pretty much as they desire with no concern for orthodoxy or doctrine. Another result is a kind of political impotency. It is virtually impossible to coordinate a national action, assuming there could be any agreement on issues around which to coordinate one. Fortunately, the older branch of the movement does have the structure necessary to coordinate such actions, and is usually the one to initiate them as NOW did for the August 26 national strike last year.
It is a common mistake to try to place the various feminist organizations on the traditional left/right spectrum. The terms “reformist” and “radical” are convenient and fit into our preconceived notions about the nature of political organization, but they tell us nothing of relevance. As with most everything else, feminism cuts through the normal categories and demands new perspectives in order to be understood. Some groups often called “reformist” have a platform which would so completely change our society it would be unrecognizable. Other groups called “radical” concentrate on the traditional female concerns of love, sex, children and interpersonal relationships (although with untraditional views). The activities of the organizations are similarly incongruous. The most typical division of labor, ironically, is that those groups labeled “radical” engage primarily in educational work while the so-called “reformist” ones are the activists. It is structure and style rather than ideology which more accurately differentiates the various groups and even here there has been much borrowing on both sides. The older branch has used the traditional forms of political action often with great skill, while the younger branch has been experimental.
The most prevalent innovation developed by the younger branch has been the “rap group.” Essentially an educational technique, it has spread far beyond its origins and become a mayor organizational unit of the whole movement, most frequently used by suburban housewives. From a sociological perspective the rap group is probably the most valuable contribution so far by the women ‘s liberation movement to the tools for social change.
The rap group serves two main purposes. One is traditional; the other is unique. The traditional role is the simple process of bringing women together in a situation of structured interaction. It has long been known that people can be kept down as long as they are kept divided from each other, relating more to those in a superior social position than to those in a position similar to their own. It is when social development creates natural structures in which people can interact with each other and compare their common concerns that social movements take place. This is the function that the factory served for the workers, the church for the Southern Civil Rights movement, the campus for students and the ghetto for urban blacks.
Women have been largely deprived of a means of structured interaction and been kept isolated in their individual homes relating more to men than to each other. Natural structures are still largely lacking, though they have begun to develop, but the rap group has created an artificial structure which does much the same thing. This phenomenon was similar to the nineteenth century development of a multitude of women’s clubs and organizations around every conceivable social and political purpose. These organizations taught women political skills and eventually served as the primary communications network for the spread of the suffrage movement. Yet after the great crusade ended most of them vanished or became moribund. The rap groups are taking their place and will serve much the same function for the future development of this movement.
They do more than just bring women together as radical an activity as that may be. The rap groups have become mechanisms for social change in and of themselves. They are structures created specifically for the purpose of altering the participants perceptions and conceptions of themselves and society at large. The means by which this is done is called “consciousness raising.” The process is very simple. Women come together in groups of five to fifteen and talk to each other about their personal problems, personal experiences, personal feelings and personal concerns. From this public sharing of experiences comes the realization that what was thought to be individual is in fact common; that what was thought to be a personal problem has a social cause and probably a political solution. Women learn to see how social structures and attitudes have molded them from birth and limited their opportunities. They ascertain the extent to which women have been denigrated in this society and how they have developed prejudices against themselves and other women.
It is this process of deeply personal attitude change that makes the rap group such a powerful tool. The need of a movement to develop “correct consciousness” has long been known. But usually this consciousness is not developed by means intrinsic to the structure of the movement and does not require such a profound resocialization of one’s concept of self. This experience is both irreversible and contagious. Once one has gone through such a “resocialization”, one’s view of oneself and the world is never the same again, whether or not there is further active participation in the movement. Even those who do “drop out” rarely do so without first spreading feminist ideas among their own friends and colleagues. All who undergo “consciousness raising” virtually compel themselves to seek out other women with whom to share the experience, and thus begin new rap groups.
I cannot pretend to be even partially definitive about the possible alternatives contemplated by the numerous participants in the women’s liberation movement. Yet from the plethora of ideas and visions feminists have thought, discussed and written about, I think there are two basic ideas emerging which express the bulk of their concerns. I call these the Egalitarian Ethic and the Liberation Ethic, but they are not independent of each other and together they mesh into what can only be described as a feminist humanism.
The Egalitarian Ethic means exactly what it says. The sexes are equal; therefore sex roles must go. Our history has proven that institutionalized difference inevitably means inequity and sex role stereotypes have long since become anachronistic. Strongly differentiated sex roles were rooted in the ancient division of labor; their basis has been torn apart by modern technology. Their justification was rooted in the subjection of women to the reproductive cycle. That has already been destroyed by modern pharmacology. The cramped little categories of personality and social function to which we assign people from birth must be broken open so that all people can develop independently, as individuals. This means that there will be an integration of social functions and life styles of men and women as groups until, ideally, one cannot tell anything of relevance about a person’s social role by knowing their sex. But this increased similarity of the two groups also means increased options for individuals and increased diversity in the human race. No longer will there be men’s work and women’s work. No longer will humanity suffer a schizophrenic personality desperately trying to reconcile its “masculine” and “feminine” parts. No longer will marriage be the institution where two half-people come together in hopes of making a whole.
The Liberation Ethic says this is not enough. Not only must the limits of the roles be changed, but their content as well. The Liberation Ethic looks at the kinds of lives currently being led by men as well as women and concludes that both are deplorable and neither are necessary. The social institutions which oppress women as women, also oppress people as people and can be altered to make a more humane existence for all. So much of our society is hung upon the framework of sex role stereotypes and their reciprocal functions that the dismantling of this structure will provide the opportunity for making a more viable life for everyone.
It is important to stress that these two Ethics must work together in tandem. If the first is emphasized over the second, then we have a women’s rights movement, not one of women’s liberation. To seek only equality, given the current male bias of the social values, is to assume that women want to be like men or that men are worth emulating. It is to demand that women be allowed to participate in society as we know it, to get their piece of the pie, without questioning the extent to which that society is worth participating in. This view is held by some, but most feminists today find it inadequate. Those women who are more personally compatible in what is considered the male role must realize that that role is made possible only by the existence of the female sex role; in other words, only by the subjection of women. Therefore women cannot become equal to men without the destruction of those two interdependent mutually parasitic roles. The failure to realize that the integration of the sex roles and the equality of the sexes will inevitably lead to basic structural change is to fail to seize the opportunity to decide the direction of those changes.
It is just as dangerous to fall into the trap of seeking liberation without due concern for equality. This is the mistake made by many of the left radicals. They find the general human condition to be wretched that they feel everyone should devote their energies to the Millennial Revolution in belief that the liberation of women will follow naturally the liberation of people.
However women have yet to be defined as people, even among the radicals, and it is erroneous to assume their interests are identical to those of men. For women to subsume their concerns once again is to insure that the promise of liberation will be a spurious one. There has yet to be created or conceived by any political or social theorist a revolutionary society in which women were equal to men and their needs duly considered. The sex role structure has never been comprehensively challenged by any male philosopher and the systems they have proposed have all presumed the existence of a sex-role structure to some degree.
Such undue emphasis on the Liberation Ethic has also often led to a sort of Radical Paradox. This is a situation the politicos frequently found themselves in during the early days of the movement. They found repugnant the possibility of pursuing “reformist” issues which might be achieved without altering the basic nature of the system, and thus, they felt, only strengthen the system. However, their search for a sufficiently radical action and/or issue came to naught and they found themselves unable to do anything out of fear that it might be counterrevolutionary. Inactive revolutionaries are a good deal more innocuous than active “reformists.”
But even among those who are not rendered impotent, the unilateral pursuit of Liberation can take its toll. Some radical women have been so appalled at the condition of most men, and the possibility of becoming even partially what they are, that they have clung to the security of the role that they know, to wait complacently for the Revolution to liberate everyone. Some men, fearing that role reversal was a goal of the women’s liberation movement, have taken a similar position. Both have failed to realize that the abolition of sex roles must be continually incorporated into any radical restructuring of society and thus have failed to explore the possible consequences of such role integration. The goal they advocate may be one of liberation, but it dose not involve women’s liberation.
Separated from each other, the Egalitarian Ethic and the Liberation Ethic can be crippling, but together they can be a very powerful force. Separately they speak to limited interests; together they speak to all humanity. Separately, they are but superficial solutions; together they recognize that while sexism oppresses women, it also limits the potentiality of men. Separately, neither will be achieved because their scope does not range far enough; together they provide a vision worthy of our devotion. Separately, these two Ethics do not lead to the liberation of women; together, they also lead to the liberation of men.