The Sound of One Hand Clapping: Women’s Liberation and the Left

FALL 1988


This is an expanded version of a speech originally given at an event organized by Monthly Review Press in 1984. I gave the speech again at a Madrid conference on the crisis of modernity, organized by Fernando Claudin’s Fundacion Pablo Iglesias in May 1985. The audience was almost entirely male, and, as I began to discuss what socialism had to learn from women's liberation, the man who organized the conference came into the room and fetched everyone he thought important to leave and meet Claudin. The room nearly emptied.

The managing editor of Monthly Review had asked me to give them the paper for when I returned from Spain. After it had not only been accepted but actually been typeset, somebody there took exception to some of my formulations and she decided the piece was too critical of Marxism. She said, "Why, this could almost go in Dissent," meaning it was impossibly social-democratic.  I said, "Well then, I'd better send it there."  So I did and they printed it, but it had no impact because, well, maybe it wasn't social democratic enough or maybe not that many feminists saw it there. As with "Woman and Her Mind," fourteen years before, parts of which had been reprinted by radical feminists and other parts by Marxist feminists, it seemed like some of my ideas were acceptable to one group and some to another, but my writing as a whole just didn't fit the mold.

          I first made contact with the women’s liberation movement twenty years ago, in the fall of 1968, when Linda Gordon showed me a copy of a magazine called No More Fun and Games, put out by an organization called Cell 16. No More Fun and Gameshad a message that was entirely new to me, though it resonated through my subconscious like a bell to which I was already tuned. Its voice was angry, raw, and full of pain, combined with a kind of bitter triumph at seeing the situation for what it was. I fell in love with the voice of women's liberation, and for all its occasional stridency love it still.

          I am not talking about the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW had been around since 1966, but nobody I knew belonged to it. My friends and I thought of it as an organization for people our mothers' age, who lived in places like Brookline, where we never went. We were movement girls, not career women; NOW's demands and organizational style weren’t radical enough for us. We wanted to build a just society, not get a bigger slice of the pie. Besides, we were generational sectarians; we didn't trust anybody over thirty.

          Cell 16, a radical feminist cadre group led by Roxanne Dunbar, was more interesting, but we had disagreements with its program, which combined theoretical work with karate. Cell 16 directed its main attack on the nuclear family, calling upon women to leave their husbands and children and live celibate lives in feminist collectives. Although parts of its analysis were compelling, many of us felt that its program had limited appeal. We were interested in building a mass movement, not joining a cell.

          So, in the summer of 1969, Linda, I, and some others sent out a call saying, more or less, "Women who feel ugly, stupid, oppressed-—come to a meeting." The room could hardly hold them all. We held another meeting. More women came. We divided into small groups, mainly on the basis of friendship networks and neighborhood, though some groups were organized around a common interest or need, like starting a day-care center or an abortion campaign or doing media work. All the small groups were linked by an umbrella organization, which we called Bread & Roses after an early women's union song.

          We saw ourselves as building an autonomous movement rather than a separatist one. We were very proud of this distinction, by which we meant we would work mainly on the oppression of women, but would combine this with work against the war, racism, and the class system . We were socialists or anarchists and, like many movement people at the time, we thought The Revolution was more or less imminent. But we didn't know what that meant in relation to women.

          Because many of us were intellectuals, we went to the library to find out. But the more we studied, the less we seemed to know: women's history seemed one vast blank page. Most of the histories in the library had titles like Great Queens and Empresses. [Notable exceptions include Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle (1959) and Aileen Kraditor's The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement 1890-1925 (1965).]  We came to realize that this didn't mean there had been no women's history; it meant no one had thought it important enough to preserve. One result was that a number of us became historians.

          Around the same time that Bread & Roses developed in Boston, similar organizations sprang up elsewhere, all quite spontaneously. There wasn't any central committee; there weren't any traveling organizers; there wasn't any money. Women would read a manifesto written in another city or hear a speech by someone and form a group. Often the groups had no clear organizational structure or principles of unity.

          Bread & Roses never wrote down what it stood for; consequently it attracted many women who weren’t socialists. In those early years, all you had to do was hang out a shingle that said Women's Liberation and they would beat down the door. We tried to develop a program, but we had no idea how to do it. All we came up with was an enormous laundry list of demands coupled with a utopian vision.

          Of course, we didn't know how to do anything we were doing; we were making it up as we went along. Some of us had political experience—red-diaper babies and women from the Civil Rights movement or Harvard Radcliffe SDS. But they had experienced Marxism mostly as a style of parental or male domination; they thus had strong anti-leadership and anti-structure prejudices. Others, like me, were new to politics and had never studied any theory. My ideas about organization, which favored structure, came out of "common sense," what would work and what wouldn't. I kept trying to get people to develop a strategy. It was like asking a small group of friends to develop the atom bomb: We didn't have a clue.

          A lot of my push for a strategy came from a hunger for organizational coherence and a rational division of labor, so that I wouldn't have to feel personally responsible for everything. My phone number had gone out on the national grapevine as a Bread & Roses contact number, and for two years my phone didn't stop ringing. I developed an aversion to the instrument that stays with me to this day.

          Bread & Roses had no elected or appointed leaders. Of course people took leadership; they always do; but sentiment against this was strong, so they had to be very diffident about it. This often meant their creativity was stifled and things didn’t get done that should have.  It also meant our organization, unlike SDS, did not produce any mini-Stalins.

          We tried to develop theory by wringing it out of our own experience. It is difficult to draw theory from your own experience. If you have had a wide experience, are creative and intelligent, and have a lot of help from friends, you may produce things of lasting value. Often these conditions do not apply. At our worst, we produced a fair amount of subjectivist, self-serving rubbish, class-bound, race-bound, characterized by a massive ignorance of most of the world. At our best, we changed our readers' lives. And at least we talked in ordinary language, not Marxist or Gueverist jargon; in 1970, that was enough to make us remarkable.

          Bread & Roses lasted three or four years; the date of its final demise is unclear. During that period we accomplished a great deal. We held large and spirited demonstrations, produced a significant pamphlet literature, some of which is still being read, developed a cadre of activist intellectuals that has had considerable influence on the women's movement as a whole, gave birth to the collective that went on to write Our Bodies, Ourselves, a best-selling sex education manual, had influence on educational policy at all levels, and reached hundreds of women. But we couldn't get ourselves organized.

          All the good things about Bread and Roses took place in the small groups we called collectives; these focused on personal-political discussions and theory . We also had big meetings every two weeks to deal with questions affecting the whole organization. These big meetings were bloody hell: a hundred people and no chair, on principle. People would sit there, not knowing how to begin, with their hands raised. Finally somebody, often me, would begin to call on them in sheer exasperation.

          Inevitably, most of the real decision making got done informally, outside of these meetings, leading to a feeling of exclusion and resentment on the part of the majority and a feeling of overwhelming responsibility on the part of the informal leadership. I learned all about anarchism in practice in Bread & Roses; the experience made me into a Leninist for a while.

One Hand Clapping

          In 1971 , I worked with a group of women for months in a last-ditch attempt to puIl together some program for Bread & Roses. But we didn't know how to focus our thinking and the conference we called to discuss our ideas was a shambles. I was in despair. I felt responsible for world history and didn't know how to make things come out right.

          How could I find out? Could anybody teach me what I needed to know? I had to study. I immersed myself in Marxism, Leninism, and the writings of Mao Tse Tung, hoping to learn how to organize in a way that would work. By a progression that seemed inevitable, the books led me from Boston to Chicago, where I worked in factories and hospitals, joined a Marxist-Leninist organization now defunct, learned a lot, and was finally expelled for a large number of deviations. The feminist spots on my politics would not come out, no matter how hard I scrubbed.

          My story has much in common with that of other women, past and present, who tried to raise women's liberation issues within a socialist or Leninist context. [There is substantial literature on this problem. See Mari Jo Buhle's Woman and American Socialism 1870-1920 (1981) and my The Rising of the Women (1980).]  A pattern of male repression, exclusion, devaluation and just not getting the point runs like a thread through the history of the left. With few important exceptions, left-wing movements have been overwhelmingly led and controlled by men and serviced by women: men making speeches, women making coffee. As a result, our hundred-odd years of socialist history is lopsided, reflecting the ideas, history, and experience of only half the species.

          Within left-wing organizations, the "woman question," as Leninists quaintly call it, is commonly treated as a petty-bourgeois diversion from the class struggle, its concerns trivial items to be placed on the bottom of an agenda and skipped for lack of time. Women who try to stimulate discussion of it are normally encouraged to tum their attention to more important matters. If they persist, their political stand is called into question: "Do you think the concerns of petty-bourgeois women are more important than the exploitation of the working class, the crisis of imperialism, the black struggle?" Or the offender may be assigned to the organization's Women's Commission, in which case her status is bound to suffer—for, in the socialist tradition, comrades assigned to the Women's Commission are usually those considered incapable of anything important.

          The socialist movement has paid the price for such stupidity. Its theory does not accurately describe the world and its practice does not prefigure any future society most of us would want to belong to . No wonder it has reached an impasse. How could a theory and practice based—at best—on the experience of only half the human race possibly be adequate?

          Take, for instance, the treatment of women's popular movements in both theory and practice.  Because these movements do not fit in with Marxist theory, they are usually ignored. Classical theory teaches that the working class begins organizing at the point of production, moving from labor unions to a political party and from economic questions to political ones. "What's for dinner?" is also an economic question, but it has seldom entered the realm of Marxist theory, because dinner is the province of women. And who, indeed, was it that lined up in front of butcher shops in Poland, complaining year after year about the lack of meat? And what role did these market queues play in the growing number of strikes, broader campaigns for workers ' control, and eventual links made between workers and intellectuals that became Solidarity? It 's hard to tell from analyses that treat women in queues as an abstract economic precondition.

          There is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that women who go to the marketplace, trying to feed their families, can be a key element in revolutionary situations. Like the women who couldn't buy any bread, so they ganged up and marched to Versailles in 1789 to get " the baker and his wife," transforming the French Revolution in the process. Or the similar crowd who kicked off the Russian Revolution in February 1917. From Crossroads in South Africa to the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to Love Canal, popular women’s movements have arisen when a political crisis has had some disastrous effect on family life. Yet who has attempted to chart the place of such movements in forming revolutionary consciousness and building toward mass mobilization? [The main analytic work on women's popular movements has been done by Temma Kaplan; see her Crazy for Democracy: Women's Grassroots Movements (1997)  and Taking Back the Streets: Women, Youth, and Direct Democracy (2004).]  The scarcity of literature on this subject is a testament to the onesidedness of the socialist tradition.

          Let us for a moment forget the classical Marxist picture of male workers engaged in socialized labor in the factories, while their wives remain in the semi feudal bastion of the privatized home, a drag on their developing consciousness. Let us imagine instead a working-class marketplace in some major city—Paris, Barcelona, New York. Hundreds of women come there every day, dragging their children, to buy meat or fish, dairy products, vegetables and bread. They never have the money to buy all they want, but they make do. When times get worse, they have to cut back—leave out milk and protein, concentrate on starch and vegetables. Finally times become so hard they cannot buy even enough bread to feed their families. Perhaps there is no bread available. The children are starving.

          What do they do? What will happen to the working class in this crisis? According to the theory that tells us class consciousness develops in the workplace, nothing, until the men organize a union and strike for a higher family wage, or the women and children go out to work. In fact, what often happens in a real subsistence crisis is that the women go to the marketplace, mill around, talk, get riled up, and start a free-for-all with peddlers or distributors, or a march on the city government. They aim their protest not at the factory, the place of origin of the family wage, but at the marketplace, where they do much of their own work. And in situations of prolonged crisis, like France in 1789 or Poland in the late 1970s, their consumer protest may lead to much more.

          If the working class, as represented by its women, has developed a form of militant response to economic and social crisis that has repeated itself time and again, and socialist theory continually ignores it, that theory has been blinded by sexism. An understanding of when and how women mobilize must become a central part of our view of the working class and social change. If we knew more about how such mobilizations actually work, perhaps we could help them last longer and link up to other movements. A socialist movement that gave women equal weight might even make the details of food, shelter, education, reproduction, and the welfare of children central to its program, rather than seeing them as part of the "superstructure."

          Our socialist theory and history have not done this. Their development has been so profoundly gendered, it has been crippled by one-sidedness. The famous Zen riddle asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" It is the sound we have been hearing for the last hundred years.

Gendered Thinking

          Although all thinking is gendered, male thinking has ordered the ways we learn to think about politics. Socialist history can be used to illustrate all the criticisms feminists habitually make of male practice: its lack of attention to people's personal needs, excessive abstraction, and preoccupation with seizing power even if that means one must, in Brecht's phrase, "embrace the butcher."

          But feminist thought is equally gendered. My capsule history of Bread & Roses could be used to illustrate all the traditional socialist criticisms of "backward" women who refuse to look beyond their own noses, personalize everything, and cannot think abstractly. Reacting to leftwing theorizing that was detached from real life, we scorned abstraction and tried to draw everything from direct experience. In the process, we crippled ourselves. After all, abstract thought—combined with much experience and investigation—gave us the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" and the Communist Manifesto.

          The gendered character of the thinking and practice of the women's liberation movement determined both its strengths and weaknesses. Our strengths were drawing theory from real everyday experience; a basic democratic spirit that tried to avoid hierarchical relations inside our organizations; a commitment to involving more and more people; and a willingness to let different ideas and styles of work coexist—sometimes even seeing that diversity as a strength. These strengths gave women's liberation great influence. We changed the way of thinking and living of millions of people, at least in the West, even though we had little real organization and most of our leaders were media-appointed spokeswomen.

          Our weaknesses were the flip side of our strengths. We had no strategy. Our theory was either so nitty gritty it couldn't get up to the strategic level, or so highfalutin and academic it floated above it. Our organizations lasted five minutes. We didn't know how to keep them going, partly because no one would take the long-term responsibility to keep things together. In the organizations I've been in, people fought to avoid power, not to get it. They didn't have the time or money to be leaders, or the social support. Or maybe the guts. It's not easy to be a leader in a movement that hates leaders.

          Female political culture (by this I mean the ways most women are comfortable thinking and working together) got us into a box we couldn't think ourselves out of. We said revolution meant the transfer of power from one class to another, but we were terrified of power. To us, power meant oppression; we knew what it felt like to be the object of other people's power and we couldn't stand the thought of acting like bosses or fathers and being hated.

          So, instead of developing strategies, we had fantasies of the future society. In these fantasies, nobody had power; everything was shared or dispersed. Society was the Peaceable Kingdom, with lots of individuals and little groups going about their business making useful things, being nice to each other. This makes an interesting contrast to the most potent male political fantasy, Lenin's, where power is concentrated rather than dispersed and the party becomes a perfectly functioning machine with one mind and one will. Both fantasies represent extremes of gendered thinking. How could anybody believe that building a human machine would bring liberation? And how could anyone think fleeing conflict and avoiding power would change the world? These are not rounded, developed political strategies rooted in the experience of both men and women, but fantasies—reactive, lopsided dreams of power or antipower, reflecting centuries of deformed gender arrangements .

Three Themes

          Certain themes arose in the women's liberation movement that have something in common with various other women's movements of the past and present. When we know as much about women's popular movements as we do about feminism, we will be able to see whether these themes are, as I suspect, basic threads that run through women's political culture.

          One is equality and/or recognition for women and her work. Usually that has meant extending the rights of man to women. This may include taking measures to make their situations more equivalent. Though there is a healthy dose of bourgeois individualism inherent in the rights of man, rather than interpreting this selfishly, classical feminism has emphasized the social utility of individual contributions. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's essay "The Solitude of Self" stresses the radical isolation and uniqueness of every human soul, concluding that each of us must fight to develop her own political ideas and give them shape, for we can never be sure anyone else has exactly the same ones.

          The emphasis is very different in the Marxist tradition, which devalues subjectivity and avoids the personal voice, characteristically attacking "bourgeois individualism" and exalting collective wisdom. In practice, this has often meant combining leadership cults with the slavishness of the beehive. Why one extreme or the other? Doesn't Stanton's dream amount to Marx's idea that the free development of each can be the free development of all? Perhaps a less distorted political culture could develop an idea of socialist individualism, where the individual and society are in a dialectical relationship.

          From the time of Lysistrata and The Trojan Women, peace has been a second theme in women's political culture. Women's movements have often, though not always, opposed war; this is another area where they diverge from both the dominant culture and the Marxist left. In 1915, while most socialists were voting for war credits, women from all over the world, including the belligerent countries, ran the blockade to meet in the Hague for an international peace conference, three years before Zimmerwald. Lenin criticized these women because they were not class conscious and anti-imperialist. We don't oppose war per se, he said; we want to tum the imperialist war into a civil war.

         The feminists at the 1915 peace conference suffered from gendered thinking in the opposite direction, believing that women, as mothers, were innately pacifist and would rise up to oppose the war. But, whatever their lack of realism, the women pacifists saw that World War I was fundamentally wrong and antilife, as well as crudely macho. And they had the guts to risk their lives to try to stop it.

          A third theme in women's political culture is that of creating alternative social spaces or liberated territories: buildings or plazas or neighborhoods that embody a culture of resistance. [In her ground-breaking Personal Politics (1979) Sara Evans explored this theme in relation to the women's liberation movement. positing as a precondition for any movement "social spaces within which members of an oppressed group can develop an independent sense of worth in contrast to their received definitions as second class or inferior citizens."] Such free spaces can become symbols of enormous weight and poignancy: the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, where Argentinian women came to demand an accounting for their "disappeared" children, became a symbol of their indomitable perseverance, as well as a concrete place where they made contact with and recognized one another.

          In our own daily life, alternative social spaces are more mundane: institutions like settlement houses, experimental schools, and battered women's shelters. But in the right hands, even a City College classroom can become a community of resistance, freeing its citizens in ways not intended by the powers-that-be. Because alternative institutions have a strong component of do-gooding and social service, Marxists have sometimes opposed them, fearing small escape valves that might defuse revolutionary sentiment. But these social spaces do not buy people off. They help them become more human, even if only for a few weeks, or a few hours a week. Certainly it is preferable to live humanely all the time, but most people find this impossible under capitalism. It is better to have some practice doing it than none at all.

          When I first became a socialist, I assumed that people in the movement would be good people; they would treat each other with respect and solicitude, and differ in every way from the moral norm. After all, if socialism's human relations were no better than capitalism’s, why bother? In the years that followed, I met few people who lived up to this dream; many held it in their hearts, but became impatient and tired, as I did myself. It was hard to reconcile making a life—the pulls of job and family—with stopping even a few of the horrors around us, let alone changing the world. Visionary language dropped out of socialist discourse, which became bitter, defensive, and flat.

          The socialist movement can't get on without the dream and language of transformation, applied to job and family as well as international politics. Socialism needs the ability to dream as much as women's liberation needs the ability to think strategically. Only by creating a political culture that is not split down the middle by gender, can any of us find the answers we need to change the world.