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WOMEN'S LIBERATION MOVEMENT:
ITS ORIGINS, STRUCTURES AND IDEAS
by Jo Freeman
was developed as a lecture given at several universities and colleges
in the midwest in 1970, and finalized as a paper for the December 1970
annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston. It was
issued as a pamphlet in 1971, and first published in Recent Sociology
No. 4: Family, Marriage, and the Struggle of the Sexes ed. by Hans
Peter Dreitzel, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1972, pp. 201-216. It was
reprinted several times.
in the nineteen twenties, feminism died in the United States. It was a
premature death. Feminists had only recently obtained their long sought
for tool, the vote, with which they had hoped to make an equal place for
women in this society. But it seemed like a final one. By the time the
granddaughters of the women who had sacrificed so much for suffrage had
grown to maturity, not only had social mythology firmly ensconced women
in the home, but the very term "feminist" had become an epithet.
fact, however, did not always coincide with social mythology. During the
era of the "feminine mystique" when the percentage of degrees
given to wmen was dropping, their absolute numbers were rising astronomically.
Their participation in the labor force was also increasing even while
their position within it was declining. Opportunities to work, the trend
toward smaller families, plus changes in status symbols from a leisured
wife at home to a second car and TV, all contributed to a basic alteration
of the female labor force from one of primarily single women under 25
to one of married women and mothers over 40. Added to these developments
was an increased segregation of the job market, a flooding of traditional
female jobs (e.g. teaching and social work) by men, a decrease of women
'e percentage of the professional and technical jobs by a third and a
commensurate decline in their relative income. The result was the creation
of a class of highly educated, underemployed women.
the early sixties feminism was still an unmentionable, but its ghost was
slowly awakening from the dead. The first sign of new life came with the
establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women by President Kennedy
in 1961. Created at the urging of Esther Peterson of the Women's Bureau,
in its short life the Commission came out with several often radical reports
thoroughly documenting women's second class status. It was followed by
the formation of a citizen's advisory council and fifty state commissions.
of the people involved in these commissions became the nucleus of women
who, dissatisfied with the lack of progress made on commission recommendations,
joined with Betty Friedan in 1966 to found the National Organization for
was the first new feminist organization in almost fifty years, but it
was not the sole beginning of the organized expression of the movement.
The movement actually has two origins, from two different strata of society,
with two different styles, orientations, values, and forms of organization.
In many ways there were two separate movements which only in the last
year have merged sufficiently for the rubric "women's liberation"
to be truly an umbrella term for the multiplicity of organizations and
first of these I call the older branch of the movement, partially because
it began first, and partially because the median age of its activists
is higher. In addition to NOW it contains such organizations as the PWC
(Professional Women's Caucus), FEW (Federally Employed Women) and the
self-defined "right wing" of the movement, WEAL (Women's Equity
participants of both branches tend to be predominantly white, middle-class
and college educated, but the composition of the older is much more heterogeneous
than that of the younger. In issues, however, this trend is reversed with
those of the younger being more diverse. While the written programs and
aims of the older branch span a wide spectrum, their activities tend to
be concentrated on the legal and economic difficulties women face. These
groups are primarily made up of women who work and are substantially concerned
with the problems of working women. Their style of organization has tended
to be formal with numerous elected officers, boards of directors, bylaws
and the other trappings of democratic procedure. All started as top down
organizations lacking in a mass base. Some have subsequently developed
a mass base, some have not yet done so, and others don't want to.
1967 and 1968, unaware of and unknown to NOW or the state commissions,
the other branch of the movement was taking shape. Contrary to popular
myth it did not begin on the campus; nor was it started by SDS. However,
its activators were, to be trite, on the other side of the generation
gap. While few were students, all were "under 30" and had received
their political education as participants or concerned observers of the
social action projects of the last decade. Many came direct from New Left
and civil rights organizations where they had been shunted into traditional
roles and faced with the self-evident contraction of working in a "freedom
movement" but not being very free. Others had attended various courses
on women in the multitude of free universities springing up around the
country during those years.
least five groups in five different cities (Chicago, Toronto, Detroit,
Seattle and Gainesville, Fla.) formed spontaneously, independently of
each other. They came at a very auspicious moment. 1967 was the year in
which the blacks kicked the whites out of the civil rights movement, student
power had been discredited by SDS and the New Left was on the wane. Only
draft resistance activities were on the increase, and this movement more
than any other exemplified the social inequities of the sexes. Men could
resist the draft. Women could only council resistance.
had been individual temporary caucuses and conferences of women as early
as 1964 when Stokely Carmichael made his infamous remark that "the
only position for women in SNCC is prone." But it was not until 1967
that the groups developed a determined, if cautious, continuity and began
to consciously expand themselves. In 1968 they held their first, and so
far only, national conference attended by over 200 women from around this
country and Canada on less than a month's notice. They have been expanding
exponentially ever since.
expansion has been more amebic than organized because the younger branch
of the movement prides itself on its lack of organization. Eschewing structure
and damning the idea of leadership, it has carried the concept of "everyone
doing their own thing" almost to its logical extreme. Thousands of
sister chapters around the country are virtually independent of each other,
linked only by the numerous journals, newsletters and cross country travelers.
Some cities have a coordinating committee which attempts to maintain communication
between the local groups and channel newcomers into appropriate ones but
none have any power over group activities, let alone group ideas. One
result of this style is a very broad based, creative movement, which individuals
can relate to pretty much as they desire with no concern for orthodoxy
or doctrine. Another result is a kind of political impotency. It is virtually
impossible to coordinate a national action, assuming there could be any
agreement on issues around which to coordinate one. Fortunately, the older
branch of the movement does have the structure necessary to coordinate
such actions, and is usually the one to initiate them as NOW did for the
August 26 national strike last year.
is a common mistake to try to place the various feminist organizations
on the traditional left/right spectrum. The terms "reformist"
and "radical" are convenient and fit into our preconceived notions
about the nature of political organization, but they tell us nothing of
relevance. As with most everything else, feminism cuts through the normal
categories and demands new perspectives in order to be understood. Some
groups often called "reformist" have a platform which would
so completely change our society it would be unrecognizable. Other groups
called "radical" concentrate on the traditional female concerns
of love, sex, children and interpersonal relationships (although with
untraditional views). The activities of the organizations are similarly
incongruous. The most typical division of labor, ironically, is that those
groups labeled "radical" engage primarily in educational work
while the so-called "reformist" ones are the activists. It is
structure and style rather than ideology which more accurately differentiates
the various groups and even here there has been much borrowing on both
sides. The older branch has used the traditional forms of political action
often with great skill, while the younger branch has been experimental.
most prevalent innovation developed by the younger branch has been the
"rap group." Essentially an educational technique, it has spread
far beyond its origins and become a mayor organizational unit of the whole
movement, most frequently used by suburban housewives. From a sociological
perspective the rap group is probably the most valuable contribution so
far by the women 's liberation movement to the tools for social change.
rap group serves two main purposes. One is traditional; the other is unique.
The traditional role is the simple process of bringing women together
in a situation of structured interaction. It has long been known that
people can be kept down as long as they are kept divided from each other,
relating more to those in a superior social position than to those in
a position similar to their own. It is when social development creates
natural structures in which people can interact with each other and compare
their common concerns that social movements take place. This is the function
that the factory served for the workers, the church for the Southern Civil
Rights movement, the campus for students and the ghetto for urban blacks.
have been largely deprived of a means of structured interaction and been
kept isolated in their individual homes relating more to men than to each
other. Natural structures are still largely lacking, though they have
begun to develop, but the rap group has created an artificial structure
which does much the same thing. This phenomenon was similar to the nineteenth
century development of a multitude of women's clubs and organizations
around every conceivable social and political purpose. These organizations
taught women political skills and eventually served as the primary communications
network for the spread of the suffrage movement. Yet after the great crusade
ended most of them vanished or became moribund. The rap groups are taking
their place and will serve much the same function for the future development
of this movement.
do more than just bring women together as radical an activity as that
may be. The rap groups have become mechanisms for social change in and
of themselves. They are structures created specifically for the purpose
of altering the participants perceptions and conceptions of themselves
and society at large. The means by which this is done is called "consciousness
raising." The process is very simple. Women come together in groups
of five to fifteen and talk to each other about their personal problems,
personal experiences, personal feelings and personal concerns. From this
public sharing of experiences comes the realization that what was thought
to be individual is in fact common; that what was thought to be a personal
problem has a social cause and probably a political solution. Women learn
to see how social structures and attitudes have molded them from birth
and limited their opportunities. They ascertain the extent to which women
have been denigrated in this society and how they have developed prejudices
against themselves and other women.
is this process of deeply personal attitude change that makes the rap
group such a powerful tool. The need of a movement to develop "correct
consciousness" has long been known. But usually this consciousness
is not developed by means intrinsic to the structure of the movement and
does not require such a profound resocialization of one's concept of self.
This experience is both irreversible and contagious. Once one has gone
through such a "resocialization", one's view of oneself and
the world is never the same again, whether or not there is further active
participation in the movement. Even those who do "drop out"
rarely do so without first spreading feminist ideas among their own friends
and colleagues. All who undergo "consciousness raising" virtually
compel themselves to seek out other women with whom to share the experience,
and thus begin new rap groups.
are several personal results from this process. The initial one is a decrease
of self and group depreciation. Women come to see themselves as essentially
pretty groovy people. Along with this comes the explosion of the myth
of individual solution. If women are the way they are, because society
has made them that way, they can only change their lives significantly
by changing society. These feelings in turn create the consciousness of
oneself as a member of a group and the feeling of solidarity so necessary
to any social movement. From this comes the concept of sisterhood.
need for group solidarity partially explains why men have been largely
excluded from the rap groups. It was not the initial reason, but it has
been one of the more beneficial byproducts. Originally, the idea was borrowed
from the Black Power movement, much in the public consciousness when the
women's liberation movement began. It was reinforced by the unremitting
hostility of most of the New Left men at the prospect of an independent
women's movement not tied to radical organizations. Even when this hostility
was not present, women in virtually every group in the U.S., Canada and
Europe soon discovered that the traditional sex roles reasserted themselves
in the groups regardless of the good intentions of the participants. Men
inevitably dominated the discussions, and usually would talk only about
how women's liberation related to men, or how men were oppressed by the
sex roles. In segregated groups women found the discussions to be more
open, honest and extensive. They could learn how to relate to other women
and not just to men.
the male exclusion policy, the rap groups did not develop spontaneously
or without a struggle. The political background of many of the early feminists
of the younger branch predisposed them against the rap group as "unpolitical"
and they would condemn discussion meetings which "degenerated"
into "bitch sessions." This trend was particularly strong in
Chicago and Washington, D. C. which had been centers of New Left activity.
Meanwhile, other feminists, usually with a civil rights or apolitical
background, saw that the "bitch session" obviously met a basic
need. They seized upon it and created the consciousness raising rap group.
Developed initially in New York and Gainesville, Fla., the idea soon spread
throughout the country becoming the paradigm for most movement organization.
date, the major, though hardly exclusive, activity of the younger branch
has been organizing rap groups, putting on conferences, and putting out
educational literature, while that of the older branch has been using
the "channels" and other forms of political pressure to change
specific situations of inequity. In general, the younger branch has been
organized to attack attitudes and the older branch to attack structures.
the rap groups have been excellent techniques for changing individual
attitudes they have not been very successful in dealing with social institutions.
Their loose informal structure encourages participation in discussion
and their supportive atmosphere elicits personal insight; but neither
is very efficient in handling specific tasks. Thus, while they have been
of fundamental value to the development of the movement it is the more
structured groups which are the more visibly effective.
rap groups tend to flounder when their members have exhausted the virtues
of consciousness raising and decide they want to do something more concrete.
The problem is that most groups are unwilling to change their structure
when they change their tasks. They have accepted the ideology of "structurelessness"
without realizing the limitations of its uses. This is currently causing
an organizational crisis within the movement because the formation of
rap groups as a major movement function is becoming obsolete. Due to the
intense press publicity that began in the fall of 1969, as well as the
numerous "overground" books and articles now being circulated,
women's liberation has become practically a household word. Its issues
are discussed and informal rap groups formed by people who have-no explicit
connection with any movement group. Ironically, this subtle, silent and
subversive spread of feminist consciousness is causing a situation of
political unemployment. With educational work no longer such an overwhelming
need women's liberation groups have to develop new forms of organizations
to deal with new tasks in a new stage of development. This is necessitating
a good deal of retrenchment and rethinking. Cities undergoing this process
often give the impression of inactivity and only time will tell what will
be the result.
there was little ideology in the movement beyond a something feeling that
something was wrong. NOW was formed under the slogan "full equality
for women in a truly equal partnership with men" and specified eight
demands in a "Bill of Rights." It and the other organizations
of the older branch have continued to focus around concrete issues feeling
that attempts at a comprehensive ideology have little to offer beyond
the younger branch a basic difference of opinion developed quite early.
It was disguised as a philosophical difference, was articulated and acted
on as a strategical one, but actually was more of a political disagreement
than anything else. The two sides involved were essentially the same people
who differed over the rap groups, but the split endured long after the
groups became ubiquitous. The original issue was whether the fledgling
women's liberation movement would remain a branch of the radical left
movement, or be an independent women's movement. Proponents became known
as "politicos" or "feminists" respectively and traded
arguments about whether "capitalism was the enemy", or the male-dominated
social institutions and values. They also traded a few epithets with politicos
calling feminists politically unsophisticated and elitist, while in turn
being accused of subservience to the interests of left wing men.
the influx of large numbers of previously apolitical women an independent,
autonomous women's liberation movement became a reality instead of an
argument. The spectrum shifted to the feminist direction, but the basic
difference in orientation still remained. Politicos now also call themselves
feminists, and many have left the left, but most see women's issues within
a broader political context while the original feminists continue to focus
almost exclusively on women's concerns. Although much of the bitterness
of the original dispute has subsided, politicos generated such distrust
about their motives that they prejudiced many women against all concerns
of Left ideology. This has led some feminists to the very narrow outlook
that politicos most feared they would adopt.
faced with a female exodus, the radical left movement has forsaken the
rhetoric of its original opposition without relinquishing most of its
sexist practices. Embracing the position that women are a constituency
to be organized, most New Left (and some Old Left) organizations have
created women's caucuses to recruit women to "more important activities."
These are very different from the women's caucuses of the professional
associations that have also mushroomed into existence. The latter are
concerned with raising feminist issues within their organizations. The
New Left women's groups serve much the same function as traditional ladies
widely differing backgrounds and perspectives of the women in the movement
have resulted in as many different interpretations of women's status.
Some are more developed than others, and some are more publicized, yet
as of 1971 there is no comprehensive set of beliefs which can accurately
be labeled women's liberationist, feminist, neofeminist or radical feminist
ideology. At best one can say there is general agreement on two theoretical
concerns. The first is the feminist critique of society, and the second
is the idea of oppression.
feminist critique starts from entirely different premises than the traditional
view and therefore neither can really refute the other. The latter assumes
that men and women are essentially different and should serve different
social functions. Their diverse roles and statuses simply reflect these
essential differences. The feminist perspective starts from the premise
that women and men are constitutionally equal and share the same human
capabilities. Observed differences therefore demand a critical analysis
of the social institutions which cause then.
concept of oppression brings into use a term which has long been avoided
out of a feeling that it was too rhetorical. But there was no convenient
euphemism and discrimination was inadequate to describe what happens to
women and what they have in common with other groups. As long as the word
remained illegitimate, so did the idea and it was too valuable not to
use. It is still largely an undeveloped concept in which the details have
not been sketched, but there appear to be two aspects to oppression which
relate much the same as two sides of a coin -- distinct, yet inseparable.
The social structural manifestations are easily visible as they are reflected
in the legal, economic, social and political institutions. The social
psychological ones are often intangible; hard to grasp and hard to alter.
Group self-hate and distortion of perceptions to justify a preconceived
interpretation of reality are just some of the factors being teased out.
women, sexism describes the specificity of female oppression. Starting
from the traditional belief of the difference between the sexes, sexism
embodies two core concepts.
first is that men are more important than women. Not necessarily superior
-- we are far too sophisticated these days than to use those tainted terms
-- but more important, more significant, more valuable, more worthwhile.
This value justifies the idea that it is more important for a man, the
"breadwinner", to have a job or a promotion, than a women, more
important for a man to be paid well, more important for a man to have
an education and in general to have preference over a women. It is the
basis of the feeling by men that if women enter a particular occupation
they will degrade it and that men must leave or be themselves degraded,
and the feeling by women that they can raise the prestige of their professions
by recruiting men, which they can only do by giving them the better jobs.
From this value comes the attitude that a husband must earn more than
his wife or suffer a loss of personal status and a wife must subsume her
interests to his or be socially castigated. From this value comes the
practice of rewarding men for serving in the armed forces and punishing
women for having children. The first core concept of sexist thought is
that men do the important work in the world and the work done by men is
what is important.
second core concept is that women are here for the pleasure and assistance
of men. This is what is meant when women are told that their role is complementary
to that of men; that they should fulfill their natural "feminine"
functions; that they are "different" from men and should not
compete with them. From this concept comes the attitude that women are
and should be dependent on men; for everything but especially their identities,
the social definition of who they are. It defines the few roles for which
women are socially rewarded -- wife, mother and mistress -- all of which
are pleasing or beneficial to men, and leads directly to the "pedestal"
theory which extols women who stay in their place as good helpmates to
is this attitude which stigmatizes those women who do not marry or who
do not devote their primary energies to the care of men and their children.
Association with a man is the basic criterion for participation by women
in this society and one who does not seek her identity through a man is
a threat to its social values. It is similarly this attitude which causes
women's liberation activists to be labeled as man haters for exposing
the nature of sexism. People feel that a woman not devoted to looking
after men must act this way because of hatred or inability to "catch"
one. The second core concept of sexist thought is that women's identities
are defined by their relationship to men and their social value by that
of the men they are related to.
sexism of our society is so pervasive that we are not even aware of all
its inequities. Unless one has developed a sensitivity to its workings,
by adopting a self-consciously contrary view, its activities are accepted
as "normal" and justified with little question. People are said
to "choose" what in fact they never thought about. a good example
is what happened during and after World War II. The sudden onslaught of
the war radically changed the whole structure of social relationships
as well as the economy. Men were drafted into the army and women into
the labor force. Now desperately needed, women's wants were provided for
as were those of the boys on the front. Federal financing of day care
centers in the form of the Landham Act passed Congress in a record two
weeks. Special crash training programs were provided for the new women
workers to give them skills they were not previously thought capable of
exercising. Women instantly assumed positions of authority and responsibility
unavailable only the year before.
what happened when the war ended? Both men and women had heeded their
country's call to duty to bring it to a successful conclusion. Yet men
were rewarded for their efforts and women punished for theirs. The returning
soldiers were given the G.I. Bill and other veterans benefits, as well
as their jobs back and a disproportionate share of the new ones created
by the war economy. Women, on the other hand, saw their child care centers
dismantled and their training programs cease. They were fired or demoted
in droves and often found it difficult to enter colleges flooded with
those matriculating on government money. Is it any wonder that they heard
the message that their place was in the home? Where else could they go?
eradication of sexism and the practices it supports, like those above,
is obviously one of the major goals of the women's liberation movement.
But it is not enough to destroy a set of values and leave a normative
vacuum. They have to be replaced with something. A movement can only begin
by declaring its opposition to the status quo. Eventually if it is to
succeed, it has to propose an alternative.
cannot pretend to be even partially definitive about the possible alternatives
contemplated by the numerous participants in the women's liberation movement.
Yet from the plethora of ideas and visions feminists have thought, discussed
and written about, I think there are two basic ideas emerging which express
the bulk of their concerns. I call these the Egalitarian Ethic and the
Liberation Ethic, but they are not independent of each other and together
they mesh into what can only be described as a feminist humanism.
Egalitarian Ethic means exactly what it says. The sexes are equal; therefore
sex roles must go. Our history has proven that institutionalized difference
inevitably means inequity and sex role stereotypes have long since become
anachronistic. Strongly differentiated sex roles were rooted in the ancient
division of labor; their basis has been torn apart by modern technology.
Their justification was rooted in the subjection of women to the reproductive
cycle. That has already been destroyed by modern pharmacology. The cramped
little categories of personality and social function to which we assign
people from birth must be broken open so that all people can develop independently,
as individuals. This means that there will be an integration of social
functions and life styles of men and women as groups until, ideally, one
cannot tell anything of relevance about a person's social role by knowing
their sex. But this increased similarity of the two groups also means
increased options for individuals and increased diversity in the human
race. No longer will there be men's work and women's work. No longer will
humanity suffer a schizophrenic personality desperately trying to reconcile
its "masculine" and "feminine" parts. No longer will
marriage be the institution where two half-people come together in hopes
of making a whole.
Liberation Ethic says this is not enough. Not only must the limits of
the roles be changed, but their content as well. The Liberation Ethic
looks at the kinds of lives currently being led by men as well as women
and concludes that both are deplorable and neither are necessary. The
social institutions which oppress women as women, also oppress people
as people and can be altered to make a more humane existence for all.
So much of our society is hung upon the framework of sex role stereotypes
and their reciprocal functions that the dismantling of this structure
will provide the opportunity for making a more viable life for everyone.
is important to stress that these two Ethics must work together in tandem.
If the first is emphasized over the second, then we have a women's rights
movement, not one of women's liberation. To seek only equality, given
the current male bias of the social values, is to assume that women want
to be like men or that men are worth emulating. It is to demand that women
be allowed to participate in society as we know it, to get their piece
of the pie, without questioning the extent to which that society is worth
participating in. This view is held by some, but most feminists today
find it inadequate. Those women who are more personally compatible in
what is considered the male role must realize that that role is made possible
only by the existence of the female sex role; in other words, only by
the subjection of women. Therefore women cannot become equal to men without
the destruction of those two interdependent mutually parasitic roles.
The failure to realize that the integration of the sex roles and the equality
of the sexes will inevitably lead to basic structural change is to fail
to seize the opportunity to decide the direction of those changes.
is just as dangerous to fall into the trap of seeking liberation without
due concern for equality. This is the mistake made by many of the left
radicals. They find the general human condition to be wretched that they
feel everyone should devote their energies to the Millennial Revolution
in belief that the liberation of women will follow naturally the liberation
women have yet to be defined as people, even among the radicals, and it
is erroneous to assume their interests are identical to those of men.
For women to subsume their concerns once again is to insure that the promise
of liberation will be a spurious one. There has yet to be created or conceived
by any political or social theorist a revolutionary society in which women
were equal to men and their needs duly considered. The sex role structure
has never been comprehensively challenged by any male philosopher and
the systems they have proposed have all presumed the existence of a sex-role
structure to some degree.
undue emphasis on the Liberation Ethic has also often led to a sort of
Radical Paradox. This is a situation the politicos frequently found themselves
in during the early days of the movement. They found repugnant the possibility
of pursuing "reformist" issues which might be achieved without
altering the basic nature of the system, and thus, they felt, only strengthen
the system. However, their search for a sufficiently radical action and/or
issue came to naught and they found themselves unable to do anything out
of fear that it might be counterrevolutionary. Inactive revolutionaries
are a good deal more innocuous than active "reformists."
even among those who are not rendered impotent, the unilateral pursuit
of Liberation can take its toll. Some radical women have been so appalled
at the condition of most men, and the possibility of becoming even partially
what they are, that they have clung to the security of the role that they
know, to wait complacently for the Revolution to liberate everyone. Some
men, fearing that role reversal was a goal of the women's liberation movement,
have taken a similar position. Both have failed to realize that the abolition
of sex roles must be continually incorporated into any radical restructuring
of society and thus have failed to explore the possible consequences of
such role integration. The goal they advocate may be one of liberation,
but it dose not involve women's liberation.
from each other, the Egalitarian Ethic and the Liberation Ethic can be
crippling, but together they can be a very powerful force. Separately
they speak to limited interests; together they speak to all humanity.
Separately, they are but superficial solutions; together they recognize
that while sexism oppresses women, it also limits the potentiality of
men. Separately, neither will be achieved because their scope does not
range far enough; together they provide a vision worthy of our devotion.
Separately, these two Ethics do not lead to the liberation of women; together,
they also lead to the liberation of men.
(c) Copyright 1971 by Freeman