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After Black Power, Women's Liberation

At the SDS Convention in 1967, women were still saying such integrationist things as "The struggle for the liberation of women must be part of the larger fight for freedom." Many Movement women still are. But members of groups like the Southern Student Organizing Committee and New York Radical Women (a loose coalition of various radical groups whose representatives meet once a month) withdrew to start concentrating on their own problems. They couldn't become black or risk jail by burning their draft cards, but they could change society from the bottom up by radicalizing (engaging with basic truth) the consciousness of women; by going into the streets on such women's issues as abortion, free childcare centers, and a final break with the 19th-century definition of females as sex objects whose main function is to service men and their children.

All this happened not so much by organization as contagion. What has come to be known in the last two years or so as the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) is no more pin-downable than the Black Power Movement; maybe less so, because white groups tend to be less structured, more skittish about leadership than black ones. Nonetheless, when the WLM had its first national conference last fall, women from 20 states and Canada showed up on a month's notice. A newsletter, Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement, is published in Chicago. WLM-minded groups are springing up on dozens of campuses where they add special student concerns to their activities: professors who assume women aren't "serious" about careers; advisers who pressure girls toward marriage or traditionally feminine jobs (would-be Negro doctors are told to be veterinarians, would-be women doctors are told to be nurses), and faculties or administrations where few or no women are honored in authority.

In New York, WITCH is probably the most colorful outcropping of the WLM. It got started when women supporters of men being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee decided that a witch-hunt should have witches, and dressed up for HUAC hearings accordingly. (In the words of WITCH, "We are WITCH. We are WOMAN. We are LIBERATION. WE are WE. The hidden history of women's liberation began with witches and gypsies . . . the oldest guerrillas and resistance fighters, the first practicing abortionists and distributors of contraceptive herbs. WITCH implies the destruction of passivity, consumerism and commodity fetishism . . . the routine of daily life is the theatre of struggle.") It was the Witch Guerrilla Theatre that hexed Wall Street, and later, as part of a technique called "violating the reality structure," it "freaked out at a Wellesley Alumnae Fund-raising Bridge Party."

Quieter groups seem to be forming everywhere, from the New Women in Manhattan to The Feminists in Oceanside. Redstockings, the most publically active at the moment, has recapitulated the whole WLM in its short history. Women activists rebelled against their subordinate position, but still tried to work within the Movement until a peace-and-liberation protest at Nixon's Inaugural, where girls spoke and were booed by their own fellow radicals. After that moment of truth, they reformed as part of "an independent revolutionary movement, potentially representing half the population. We intend to make our own analysis of the system . . . Although we may cooperate with radical men on matters of common concern . . . our demand for freedom involves not only the overthrow of capitalism, but the destruction of the patriarchal system."

If all this sounds far-out, Utopian, elitist, unnecessary or otherwise unlikely to be the next big thing in revolutions, consider two facts: 1) the WLM is growing so rapidly that even its most cheerful proselytizers are surprised, spreading not only along the infra-structure of the existing co-ed Movement, but into a political territory where anti-Vietnam petitions have rarely been seen; and 2) there are a couple of mass movements, from highly organized through just restless, that the WLM might merge with, becoming sort of a revolutionary vanguard.

The older, middle-class women come first, the ones who tried hard to play subordinate roles in the suburbs according to the post-war-baby-boom-women's magazine idyll but found Something Missing. Betty Friedan, who explained their plight clearly and compassionately in The Feminine Mystique, named that Something: rewarding work. But when these women went out to find jobs, they found a lot of home-truths instead.

For instance, there is hardly a hierarchy in the country—business, union, government, educational, religious, whatever—that doesn't discriminate against women above the secretarial level. Women with some college education earn less than men who get as far as the eighth grade. The median income of white women employed full time is less than that of white men and Negro men. The gap between women's pay and men's pay gets greater every year, even though the number of women in the labor force increases (they are now a third of all workers). Forty-three states have "protection legislation" limiting the hours and place a woman can work; legislation that is, as Governor Rockefeller admitted last year, "more often protective of men." The subtler, psychological punishments for stepping out of woman's traditional "service" role are considerable. (Being called "unfeminine," "a bad mother" or "a castrating woman," to name a traditional few.) And, to top it all off, the problem of servants or child care often proves insurmountable after others are solved.


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