Today, the case against second-wave feminists has done a 180, and they’re condemned as insufficiently intersectional compared with their present-day counterparts. Suddenly, ’70s feminism isn’t radical enough. In a smart, considered piece for Catapult about popular feminism’s blind spot with regard to class, the writer Kashana Cauley acknowledges second-wave feminism’s “success in passing Title IX, providing women access to a broader variety of jobs, liberalizing divorce laws, and establishing women’s studies programs in universities,” but describes it as “focused predominantly on middle-to-upper class white housewives who wanted to do more fulfilling work than cooking and cleaning.” This made me bite my lip because Cauley is a writer I admire and because I agree wholeheartedly with her larger point that feminism should pay more attention to economic inequality and reproductive rights and less to glitzy symbolism. I just don’t agree that second-wave feminism’s track record is so meagre.
It’s true that white women were second-wave feminism’s most visible spokeswomen, and some of those women—particularly Betty Friedan—strove to keep the movement’s image as mainstream and middle-class as possible; Friedan’s aversion to showing any association with lesbians was a notorious flashpoint. In her famous 1984 denunciation of Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, Bell Hooks wrote: She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. All true, but Friedan did not and does not define the feminist thinking and activism of her time. Somehow, in the intervening years, Friedan’s approach has been conflated with all of second-wave feminism, which is fantastically inaccurate.
A great corrective for this myopia is the fascinating anthology Dear Sisters: Dispatches From the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, a collection of broadsides, cartoons, manifestos, and other documents written, mimeographed, and published in the thick of things. The contents range from hot denunciations of sexism in various leftist political movements to foundational papers on feminist approaches to work, education, economics, politics, health, family, sexuality, reproductive rights, and gendered violence. It’s an eye-opener. The women who wrote these documents considered themselves revolutionaries and were far more likely to call for “the disarming of and community control of the police” and “free, humane competent medical care” than to urge other women to lean in. Feminism in the ’60s and ’70s was a lot more than just the National Organization for Women.
[This is one of the more balanced responses to the current second wave backlash that I’ve seen.]