Learning How to Bake

Socialist Review
JAN.-FEB. 1984


Is just frosting
On somebody else's
And so must be
Till we
Learn how to
             Langston Hughes

          It was once suggested to me that the women's liberation movement needed a Lenin. I laughed. We will never have a Lenin, I said, because no woman who was in touch with reality would ever have the kind of chutzpah he did; the world would have knocked it out of her before first grade. And how could a woman ever devote herself that wholly to politics-who would do her laundry? No, our Lenin won't be a woman. She will be a collective.

     The summing-up of collective experience is a cornerstone of both Marxism and the new social history. Feminist historians have spent the last fifteen years patiently brushing away the dust to find the archaeology of long-forgotten women's experience. But what about our own experience as a movement? When are we going to learn something from that?

          People who were around from the beginning of the women's liberation movement, as I was, are now hitting middle age. But we still haven't summed up our collective practice, much less drawn any strategic or theoretical lessons from it. For this reason we have been unable to connect what we did with our theory, or teach the next generation of feminists what we have learned. Our organizations have been local and short-lived but we have held no collective discussion and given little individual thought to why this is so, and why we have failed to build any national left-wing counterpart to the National Organization of Women or the National Women's Political Caucus.

          As an investigator of women's history I've encountered a number of Marxist-feminist organizations that burned themselves out in brilliant activity for a few years and then died, leaving not even a trace of ash behind them. Who knows about the radical women's neighborhood organizations of the Depression era? Not even Communist Party historians. Is this oblivion to be our fate as the left wing of the women's movement now?

          Our practical work has continued into the eighties, in women's counseling projects, women's self-help programs, battered women's organizations, groups concerned with violence against women, study groups, workplace organizing, clinics, reproductive rights organizations, gay rights groups, unions, schools, and neighborhood organizing projects.

          But this work has gone on piecemeal. Few of us sum up what we have done in writing so that others can learn from it; still fewer try to raise it to the level of strategy or theory.

          Meanwhile our theoretical work goes on largely within the confines of the academy and is done primarily by a different group of women than those doing practical work. The two groups have little contact with one another, and women intellectuals seldom have a clear notion of the kinds of theoretical discussion that would be most helpful to activists, let alone any way to connect, as intellectuals, with ongoing practical work outside the university. As a result, our movement's theory often has an academic flavor that puts off the women who need it most. Even so excellent a journal as Feminist Studies, which clearly has socialist politics, has had to situate itself in a university setting, and contains many articles more interesting to people in an academic discipline than to women doing practical work in our various campaigns, service organizations, or workplaces. This is an inevitable result of the separation between our movement's theory and its practice, and is even more true of other journals.

          We have produced only a little bit of theory that has considered strategic problems such as how to proceed organizationally, how the tasks of organizing women workers relate to the present labor movement, or what kinds of unity across class and racial lines are desirable or attainable. Even that small body of theory has been distorted by a lack of examples and a tendency to deal with questions in an abstract or polemical way. Much of the feminist movement's theory has avoided strategic questions altogether, focusing instead on subjects such as sex-role differentiation, gender biases in language, and other questions that can be fitted with more or less ease into departments at a university.

          Another cause of distortion in our theoretical work is the intellectual climate itself. For some years now a watered-down brand of Marxism has been chic in universities, and what passes for Marxist theory there often has little to do with material reality, let alone with the needs of any movement to change the world. When Marxism is floating in outer space, Marxist feminism is likely to be affected.

          Therefore there is a yawning gulf, an abyss, between our practice and our theory. The realm between, which should be inhabited by strategy and tactics, is a void. Our practice stops and starts, or in the case of individuals sometimes continues year by year, in the same dutiful way as housework. Our theory doesn't connect with it. Why? Partly because of who we are: the American left has never been any great shakes at theory, and what we used to call "the boy's movement" doesn't seem any better at it than we are. But many of our problems are greater than they need to be because we do not know how to think about them strategically.

     For instance, Socialist Review has posed the question, where is our movement going? But how can we figure this out until we know where we've been? Is the map for the kind of revolution we want to make already drawn? I don't think so. And while one may be able to learn to read a map without drawing one, there's no way to learn to draw one without drawing one. Until we can have some organized national discussion of the fifteen-odd years of work we have already done, we will be unable to orient ourselves intelligently to what we must do next.

          Perhaps Socialist Review, by initiating this forum, may be in a position to organize some process of collective summary that would result in greater understanding in the women's movement as a whole. Much of our strategic thinking has gone on behind our own backs because of our reluctance to face such issues head-on.   Here are some of the questions we have yet to deal with fully and constructively:
          In the early seventies, many of us talked about "moving the women's liberation movement to the left." People pursued two strategies for doing so, though most of us did not address the problem directly. One strategy, used mainly by the Socialist Workers Party, was to join mainstream feminist organizations like NOW and try to influence them. The other was to build activist, leftwing, feminist organizations in the hope that these would attract masses of women and influence the politics of the women's movement as a whole.
          My question now is, how successful were these two strategies?  Are they the only ones possible, or are there others we overlooked, such as those involved in united-front politics?

          What kind of relationships have left-wing feminists had to mainstream feminist organizations such as NOW and the NWPC? Did we participate in their organizations? Why or why not? Were these decisions correct or sectarian? How did they affect what happened to the women's movement overall?

          Why did we fail to build socialist-feminist political organizations that could last? Our most enduring groups have been small collectives or service organizations. Why?

     How did our organizations relate to black women, Hispanic women, Asian women, and the issues most important in their communities? How did we deal with class issues? Did we do any organizing that actually brought us closer to forming work relationships with organizations of third-world or working-class women, either at work or in the community? What were our successes? Or were we so consumed by white guilt we couldn't think straight and didn't do much but worry about it?

         In the late seventies I heard a lot about a necessary and inexorable split between socialist-feminists and Marxist-Leninist women. In the hindsight generated by a situation in which most of the organizations of both have bit the dust, how real was this? How much of it was sectarian nonsense on both sides?

          What about the gay-straight splits that have been one cause of our tendency to self-destruct organizationally? Are the major political differences in the feminist movement around sexual identification or more general political questions? For instance, there are gay and straight women on both sides of the controversy around anti-porn versus sexual-liberation politics. Other sources of conflict exist too, such as that between women who take issues of sexuality and sexual oppression seriously, and those who take a more traditional left-wing approach of shoving them under the rug.

          These are but a few of the questions a real summary of our work would have to entail. Who needs to do that summing-up? That's not so simple either.

          From the late sixties, many activists saw it as their obligation or desire to work not only in the feminist movement but also in left organizations; in solidarity and anti-racist work; in the mass movements against the war, imperialism, and nukes; and in various electoral efforts and neighborhood campaigns. Women who came out of the socialist-feminist movement and often went back into it were likewise active in Marxist-Leninist party organizations such as the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Party (M-L), the Communist Workers Party, the CP, and other socialist organizations such as the International Socialists, the New
American Movement, and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. They too have a responsibility to all of us to sum up their work.

     Some such summaries exist already, though mostly in the distorted form of "internal documents" discussing the shortcomings of one or another organization's approach to "the woman question." Many of these papers are the secret relics of organizational wars, purges, and splits, and are written in impenetrable jargon.  Nevertheless they deal with questions that are central to anyone seeking a revolutionary strategy that keeps women up front: how have women functioned in various democratic centralist organizations?  Does the lack of full democratic discussion affect them in particular ways? Have dissenters been disproportionately female, or have women mainly kept their mouths shut? What kind of organizing work has been done with women?

          And what about non-Leninist socialist organizations? Does their internal practice in regard to women differ drastically from that of Leninist parties, or do the local variants of both tend to be run by the same sort of man—or the same sort of in-group of men with a token female or two? How much attention do any of these groups give to women within the context of their organizing on other issues?

          Since they lived and worked mainly among working-class people rather than in movement communities, one would expect women in M-L organizations to have conducted campaigns that reached working-class and minority women more successfully than did the campaigns of feminist movement groups. Was this the case? If so, what kind of campaigns were most successful? How were the women they reached affected? And what about the women organizers—what did they learn from the experience?

          It will not be easy to get written evaluations of the work of women who once were members of M-L groups or socialist organizations, and who have left them or been purged from them or seen them fall apart. It will be even harder to get access to the experience and views of women still in them. Yet the women's liberation movement needs very badly to understand these experiences, as well as those of women who have been active in electoral campaigns, in the antiwar movement, the solidarity movement, and the national liberation movements. This is all part of the collective work of our movement, and taking stock of it is part of moving on.

          We all came from the same egg, the movements of the sixties.  We took divergent paths in trying to organize to change both ourselves and society. What we learned and what we accomplished is not written and not visible, though I believe that the left wing of the women's movement has had enormous effects on the consciousness and practice of the country as a whole and on the mainstream women's movement. We have had terrible struggles and splits on all sides. But there is no point in remaining married to the mistakes of the past. Surely anyone not completely burnt out or living in a fossilized state can see that a general discussion, a healing, is necessary if we are to go on as a movement. If Socialist Review or anybody else can provide a home for such discussion, now is the time.