(A critique of some of its aspects.
In the 20th century, Feminism became a useful but problematic term with which to label all the various currents and strands of ideas originating from women who stood in opposition to the oppression of their gender. General opposition to the oppression of women was the principle factor that in practice unified feminism and stood as the practical bedrock upon which its various strands were built.
In turn feminist theory sought to strengthen the practical unity, purpose and direction of broad layers of women in opposition to their allotted position in the bourgeois ‘order of things’. This is why together with its day-to-day organisational forms (consciousness raising groups, conferences, campaigns and other events) it was often described as (and saw itself as) a ‘movement’.
The reaction of a majority of men during this 20th century feminist movement was dismissive and generally ‘reactionary’. Even much of the left, and this includes the so-called revolutionary left, patronisingly declined to engage with the struggle for women’s liberation. Most of the anti-capitalist left, for example, dogmatically suggested women would only cease to be oppressed – ‘after the revolution’!
This was despite the fact that the male-led ‘revolutions’ in Russia, China and the Eastern bloc countries – after decades – had not seen the liberation of women. Nor had working class men been liberated from exploitative wage-labour for that matter. Meanwhile women, from these Leninist, Trotskyist or Stalinist leadership perspectives, were generally advised to assist the men in more important task of overthrowing the capitalist mode of production. Only then would the men be able to become the ‘active’ patrons of efforts to achieving female equality. Patriarchy and left male patrifocality was not seen as any kind of a problem. But more of that later.
After achieving some recognition and gaining some statutory reforms and legal precedents, the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 20th century, gradually ebbed away until hardly a trace of the original ‘movement’ can be found in the 21st. Yet, originating in the USA and spreading elsewhere, it was an important movement while it lasted. For this reason it deserves to be considered in some detail for there is still clearly a need to address the issue of male-female socio-economic status and their personal relationships.
In many ways the situation of the majority of women – working class women in particular – is now worse economically and socially, particularly if we consider the result of the current systemic crisis of capitalism and the pro-capitalist elite’s campaign of enforced austerity. Even more so if we acknowledge the threats which emanate from the rise of patriarchal movements such as religious fundamentalism and if we factor in the position of women outside of the economically ‘advanced’ counties of Europe and the West.
Returning to the subject of the 20th century Womens’ Liberation Movement, however, it is important to recognise the following. The ‘movement’ contained within its overall practical position of oppositon to female oppression, substantial difference of principle, purpose and approach. Apart from published books and documents, these ideological differences were mostly hinted at but not dealt with in any great detail – at least in front of us men.
In order to understand 20th century feminism it was necessary to look beyond the general derogatory ‘male-stream’ stereotypes of feminists prevalent at the time (as men-hating failures or lesbian lothario’s) and to grasp the nature of these differences. And fortunately, for this task there were at the time many books and pamphlets available during the period of its flourishing. What appears – under the same title – in the pages section above was offered as a contribution to understanding 20th century feminism from my own first-hand observations and studies during that period. (Click here for the full article)
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2014)