Return to Main Feminist Movement page

by Jo Freeman

This article was written in the fall of 1969 for College and University Business and published in a special issue on REVOLUTION II: Thinking Female, Vol. 48, No. 2, February 1970, p. 63. It was reprinted in The New Feminism in Twentieth Century America ed. by June Sochen, Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath & Co., 1971, pp. 149-160.

Slowly, solemnly, the Witches filed around the Federal Building, faces dead white, staring straight ahead, flowing black capes swirling around them. "Our sister justice lies chained and tied," they chanted. "We curse the ground on which she died."
This was Halloween, the annual religious festival of the druidic witches, and a Chicago "Coven" of WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) had chosen the day to announce the beginning of a new, militant phase of the Chicago women's liberation movement.
WITCH is just one branch of the new women's movement that has been building up over the last few years. The guerrilla theater and action group made its initial appearance on Halloween in 1968 when a New York coven (thirteen) whisked down Wall Street to hex the financiers. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped five points the next day, and WITCH has been, expanding its activities ever since. On Halloween 1969, the target was not big money but big government as represented by the conspiracy trial going on in the Federal Building in Chicago. During, the same year, other women around the country were doing more than just casting hexes:

— In New York, 400 women filed suit charging that the state abortion laws unconstitutionally deprived women of the right to control their own bodies.

— Students at Grinnell College in conservative Iowa held a "nude-in when a Playboy representative came to speak on his magazine's "philosophy" to protest use of women's bodies as a commodity.

— Berkeley women held hostage an editor of a new underground newspaper, Dock of the Bay, until he agreed to stop publication of a special "Sextra" issue planned to raise money for the new paper.

— Women from several cities descended on Washington, D.C., in January 1969 to disrupt an inaugural tea given by Mrs. Richard Nixon and again in November to picket HEW.

— The second annual protest of the Miss America contest was held in Atlantic City. The 1969 protest against the use of women as sex objects was milder, with no undergarments thrown into a "Freedom Trash Can" or live sheep crowned "Miss America" as had been done the year before. Participants in the protest were cooled by the police, who segregated them on a small corner of the boardwalk, and by premature discovery of a women's liberation "plant" among the contestants in the beauty pageant.

— A feminist repertory theater was started in New York, and a private, tax-exempt Human Rights for Women foundation was founded in Washington, D.C., to help fund feminist projects.

— In these and other cities, women were organizing karate classes, agitating for day-care facilities, counseling women on where and how to get abortions, holding numerous women's classes with and without credit, on and off campus, attending more than two dozen regional conferences on women's liberation, with from 60 to 600 participants, and publishing four journals and numerous newsletters.

This fevered activity is only the outward and not always the most significant sign of a new consciousness among women about their "minority" position in society. Only a few years ago most people ridiculed the idea that women had a long way to go. Now women are beginning to recognize and articulate what a West Coast (male) psychologist called the "great reservoir of rage in women -- just under the surface." They are beginning to organize themselves into what is called the "women's liberation movement."

The movement actually has two origins, and in many ways there have also been two separate movements that are only now beginning to merge. One, composed primarily of young, white, middle-class, college-educated women, started as a spin-off of the youth and student movements that have been burgeoning over the last 10 years. The other movement has its roots deep within the Establishment and among some of its established critics. Its participants tend to be older, less political, and much more established in career or home. They too are predominantly white, middle-class, and college- educated but less consistently than the other movement's.
Many of the founders of the latter movement come from the network of people built up by the President's Commission on the Status of Women created by President Kennedy in 1961 and the subsequent 50 state commissions. Dissatisfied with the lack of progress being made on the recommendations to come out of these commissions, they met with Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," and others to form the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.
With the slogan "Full Equality for Women in Truly Equal Partnership with Men," NOW has a topdown structure and an office in New York. It has grown to some 3,000 members, 10 per cent of whom are men, and tends to concentrate on eliminating employment discrimination and laws affecting women's rights.
Since its formation, Now has been joined by such other specifically women's rights organizations as WEAL (Women's Equity Action League), FEW (Federally Employed Women) and several small groups. All these organizations are beginning to join hands with the much older National Woman's Party (NWP) to work on the Equal Rights Amendment. The NWP came into existence right after the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1920. It was the daughter of the radical Congressional Union for Women's Suffrage, which under the leadership of Alice Paul had carried on most of the serious agitation (marching, picketing, fasting) that preceded passage of the amendment. Unlike its more moderate sister, the National American Woman's Suffrage Association, which later dissolved into the League for Women Voters, the radicals decided that the battle was not yet won. Ever since 1923, Alice Paul and the NWP have been lobbying for another amendment providing that "equality of rights under law shall not be abridged or denied by reason of sex," and they have twice had it out of committee onto the floor of the U. S. Senate.
In 1967 and 1968, unaware of and unknown to NOW or the state commissions, younger women began forming their own movement. Here too, the groundwork had been laid some years before. The different social action projects of recent years had attracted many women, who were quickly shunted into traditional roles and faced with the self-evident contradiction of working in a "freedom movement but not being very free. Nor did their male colleagues brook any dissent: They followed the example of Stokeley Carmichael, who cut off all discussion of the issue at a 1964 SNCC conference by saying, "The only position for women in SNCC is prone." In 1967 women in five different cities (Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Seattle and Gainesville, Fla.) spontaneously, independently, began to meet together. Some came from the New Left groups, some from the southern civil rights movement, and some from the free universities. Unknown even to each other, they began groping for an understanding of why politically aware, affluent, well educated, white women should feel so downtrodden.
For months they met quietly to analyze their perpetual secondary roles in the radical movement, assimilate lessons learned in study groups, or reflect on their treatment in the civil rights movement. They were constantly ridiculed by the men they worked with and continually told that what they were doing was "counter-revolutionary" because it would further splinter an already badly fragmented movement. In many ways this very ridicule served to feed their growing rage. One immediate result was that all the groups, independently banned men from their meetings. In part they borrowed this idea from the then rapidly expanding Black Power movement, which taught the women the importance of running their own show. But their many concurrent bitter experiences also made the ban on men a tactical move, as they learned that female discussions were much more open and honest when there were no men around.
Despite resistance from the men, the women eventually used the infrastructure built up by the civil rights and student movements, the underground press, and the free universities to disseminate women's liberation ideas. In 1968 the groups discovered each other, and at Thanksgiving that year the first, and so far, only, national women's liberation convention attracted over 200 women from around the country and Canada on less than a months notice. Many of them had not been involved in the New Left or other radical activities and were perplexed by the overblown rhetoric used by their more political sisters in the heated debate over whether the women's movement should be a separate one or kept within the radical movement. Nevertheless, they returned to their cities turned on by the idea of women's liberation and since then the movement has expanded at an exponential pace.
This younger women's movement tends to operate as a loose confederation of sister chapters with at best informal ties. However many cities are now setting up centers to coordinate activities and reach the larger public. As there are no national structures and no membership lists, no one really knows how many women are involved. The best guesses are around 10,000. The number of chapters is also indeterminable. The basic organizational form of the movement, these small groups of 10 to 30 women meet regularly to talk, write or plan actions. They are generally formed on the basis of locality, occupation, marital status, or politics, and some of the more permanent ones have colorful names which add considerably to the political alphabet soup.
Included are: WRAP, Women's Radical Action Project, Chicago; WITCH, everywhere; Redstockings, New York; UWIL, Union for Women's International Liberation, Los Angeles; Women's Majority Union, Seattle, and Cell 16, Boston. Many groups just call themselves Female Liberation, Women's Liberation Front, or Radical Women. It is by these latter terms that the movement as a whole will be referred. The phrase "women's liberation movement" is used for the total new surge of feminism, however, and should not be used to identify just the younger branch which often uses that term to refer to itself.
Nationally the WLF spans a spectrum from an extreme radical feminism that recognizes no other social problems than those of women (these women are often called man-haters, and a few don't object to the term) to women radicals who disdain the word feminism and feel that women's issues should be subsumed under other political concerns. Some areas have become particularly identified with one side or another. Thus, Washington, D.C. and Chicago are highly political, while New York and many of the southern groups are strongly feminist.
Contained in the all-embracing concept of "liberation" is a positive program which gives the WLF an entirely different tone from other student groups. It also makes the radical women seem a good deal quieter than other radicals, because most of their current energy is concentrated on themselves.
When asked what kinds of activities WLF engages in, one West Coast organizer bluntly stated, "We talk to each other about ourselves. That doesn't sound like much, but it turns out to be dynamite. As we exchange experiences, we begin to realize that all these discontents we thought were individual, personal problems have common, social causes. Women have been kept isolated from each other in their individual homes. We've been taught to see each other as enemies, as competitors. Now we're changing that. We're changing our attitude about ourselves, about other women, about society. The revolution is what is happening in every woman's mind." The intense, often personal discussions which form the core of current WLF activity have not resulted in any detailed programmatic outline. But one thing that has been decided is that sex roles have to go.
To date, all societies have divided labor on the basis of sex, as well as other factors. The sex roles differ with the cultures, but all cultures carefully shape children from birth to fit accepted concepts of masculine and feminine behavior and to believe that these concepts have some eternal validity. In our society, these roles are reflected in our movies, our fiction, our advertising and our opinions; they stereotype women, and men, as rigidly as any ethnic minority.
The new feminists feel that these roles are degrading, confining and anachronistic. While they might have been necessary in the primitive society in which they were developed, they have no place in the complex technology of the 20th Century. Now it is individual ability that is important in performing most socioeconomic functions, not muscular strength nor the possession of a uterus. For the first time in human history, we have, the potential to liberate all people to be creative self-fulfilling human beings.
The women's liberation, movement feels that one of the greatest barriers to this potential for liberation is the way our society automatically assumes that all people have, or ought to have, particular abilities or interests determined by their sex and treats them accordingly. While men are also adversely affected by this stereotyping (and therefore men cannot be liberated until women are), it is particularly bad for women because the basic values are male, and the basic structures are set up to benefit men. One example often given is the fact that if a man is drafted, his job must be held for him by law, and his scholarship or place in school usually is. When he returns he is given the honors of a veteran and other more tangible benefits such as those available under the G.I. Bill. But if a woman gets pregnant, she is likely to lose her job or be forced to drop out of school, and often she cannot return for several years because the major responsibility of caring for the child is hers. This is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide state child care facilities, and those women who seek other means of caring for their young children are made to feel guilty because they are "neglecting" them. These discrepancies in the treatment of men and women have rarely been pointed out until the last few years.
One of the primary goals of the movement is to break down discriminatory structures and sexual stereotypes. The new feminists feel that men and women should share the privileges and responsibilities of work, home and children. Each person should be free to choose the extent of his or her participation in both domestic and economic spheres. To do this requires changes in the social structure and changes in people's ideas about what women can and should do.
In their discussion groups, women are learning a whole new concept of themselves and how to stand up and fight for what they want. Their purpose is to change people's heads, and enough heads have been changed so that the ideas of women's liberation are taken much more seriously by many more people than they were when the groups were first formed two and a half years ago. "Even those who felt themselves the most enlightened laughed at us at first," declared Joreen, a founder of the first group and one of those who prefers not to use a last name because it is inherited from her father. "But they aren't laughing any more. Most people don't understand women's liberation, so they try to ignore it. But they can't. Its silent, subtle and subversive. It is spreading everywhere, because it is an idea whose time has come. Discussions may be the main thing now, but this verbalization of the rage within women is only the first step. Eventually it will erupt into action and no one will know quite how it happened."
So far, the most frequent eruptions have been the sporadic WITCH actions. The intent of this WLF offshoot is to use theatrical means to "blow people's minds." Apart from the hexes, most public actions by the radical women tend to be symbolic, like the Miss America protests. Because so much of women's "oppression" involves individual attitudes, there is a good deal of individual confrontations.
Although women's liberation is not primarily a student phenomenon, perhaps the most disruptive action to date has taken place on 'a campus. When the University of Chicago erupted in January 1969 with massive protests and a two week sit-in over the firing of radical feminist professor Marlene Dixon, women's issues were not lost in the shuffle. It was largely due to the efforts of Mrs. Dixon, now teaching at McGill University, and the primarily undergraduate WRAP, that women's liberation issues were publicly aired in Chicago for the first time. Protesting the general attitude of the university toward women, WRAP demanded more women faculty and more courses on women, objected to advisers who recommend marriage instead of a continued academic career and teachers who disparage women as a group in class or who see them primarily as sex objects.
Women in the professional schools began to form caucuses in their departments to analyze their problems as professionals. Women in one caucus even formed their own separate organization -- the Association of Women Psychologists. The need for this is perhaps indicated by the closed mind response of a council member of the American Psychological Association to a request that accreditation be withheld from the department that cannot show nondiscrimination. With a shocked expression on his face he declared: "You can't make that demand. We haven't even conceded that to the blacks yet." This statement at last September's Washington conference prompted one surprised woman to comment: "This just shows that women are even a second class minority group. We can only ask for what blacks have already got."
Organization of women professionals and graduate students has just begun, and indications are that it will be one of the most potent forces to hit the academic world since SDS. Concerted efforts are being made to organize women horizontally through their professional organizations, and vertically on their campuses by departments into what has the potential for becoming a tightly-knit national structure. Although it is not yet clear what specific institutional changes the caucuses will demand of higher education -- beyond those already expressed at the ASA, APA and APSA conventions, their mere existence serves to strengthen the position of women in the departments.
According to Sociologist Alice Rossi, long-time radical feminist, "The caucuses make it easier for women to do things for themselves -- they don't have to wait until the institutions deign to do something. just organizing provides a support group which helps women get through graduate school, confront the usual put-downs by male professors and colleagues, understand that many of the problems they face are structural, not personal, and open up new fields of inquiry by pointing out the flaws in sex role conceptions. The solidarity function of the caucuses is as important as the institutional changes demanded."
The caucuses are interested not only in the condition of women in the university, but also in what the university teaches about women. Their conclusion is that it teaches them nothing good. "There is an anti-woman bias inherent in the social sciences we are being taught," declared a graduate student in sociology. "Women are rarely studied by the predominantly male social scientists, and when they are the data are always interpreted to justify their inferior position." She went on to point out that new studies are just being done "which show that women are taught the same kind of self-hate and group-hate that blacks and other minority groups have suffered from. Children respond to the expectations others have about them, particularly parents and teachers, and girls learn early that they are not supposed to amount to much of anything. We live in a society which rewards high achievement -- outside the home -- yet a recent University of Michigan study shows that even college women have learned to fear success as something which is 'unfeminine.' As students we can't even look to our professors for examples of how to act as women professionals because all but a handful of them are male."
These conclusions are resulting in a concerted effort to include more courses on women and more material on women in regular courses. This demand has often mystified most professors because they don't see anything particularly lacking or wrong with what is already being taught. Some of this confusion is cleared up by social psychologist Judith Long Laws, one of the few researchers on women respected by the new feminists: "Most of the work on women in the social sciences is derived from three myths," she said. "They are (1) anatomy is destiny, in the tradition of Freud; (2) women aren't serious about work, therefore working women shouldn't be taken seriously, and (3) the individualistic fallacy, which says 'excellence will out' despite prejudice, and then points to the lack of great achievements by women."
Dr. Laws went on to say that the field of "women studies" is just beginning to open up as these assumptions are being questioned and that this development is being accelerated by the growing women's liberation movement. She predicted that within a few years forward-looking universities will be hunting for people to make their reputations in this field. But "in the short run, they will have to hire women to research and define these problems, because it will take men a long time to get the sensitizations necessary to do so, and the women aren't going to wait." Several foundations have already indicated their interest in financing relevant studies, so "women studies" may soon rival "black studies" as the newest interdisciplinary area.
While graduate students and faculty are becoming concerned with their situation as professionals without necessarily feeling they are part of the women's liberation movement, the movement has been spreading to the undergraduates from off campus. For a long time it was of no interest to undergraduate women, who, living in the most egalitarian situation they will ever know, were simply not familiar with the problems. However, now that women's liberation has become "in" many are discovering that it does in fact have much to say to them.
One Iowa woman student said, "How many times have we been told 'You'd better get a teaching certificate, just in case' rather than encouraged to go on to, say, science." At Cornell College, the women complain they are tired of the "shame of graduating without a 'Mrs.,' or "the feeling you're going to die if you don't get a date on Saturday night." A recent Florida graduate talked of "the split personality you develop. You have to be competent in school and then act like a helpless little girl on dates to keep the male ego bolstered."
Although the women's movement did not start on the college campus, higher education has a good deal to do with its cause. The number of women, and men, going to college has risen steadily until today, more than half of all college age youth are in college. There is always a direct correlation between revolt and education. In the case of women, it is proving impossible to "keep them barefoot and pregnant" when they have B.As and Ph.Ds. Like their male counterparts women want to use what they have learned, and very little of their higher education has anything to do with housekeeping and childcare. It is no more surprising that college-educated women are in the forefront of the women's liberation movement than it is that a higher percentage of women with degrees work full time than do those of lesser education.
The campus is also providing a testing area for new interpersonal relationships which are having a strong effect on the traditional family structure. Women no longer go from the house of their father to that of their husband. They go to college first. There the experience of college roommates provides a model of living with someone else in an egalitarian relationship which is transferred by both men and women into marriage. The developing practice of living with someone of the opposite sex as a test of compatibility before marriage is still another transitional stage. This new "gradualism" of family formation, which incorporates at least some egalitarian experiences, is providing the time necessary to work out new living arrangements which was not possible under the rigid, traditional system.
The campus is not a major source of women's discontent, but it may turn out to be a major focal point of their anger. It manages at one and the same time to incorporate an egalitarian philosophy with an authoritarian structure. While women students are, theoretically at least, told they are the intellectual equals of men, they have only to look around them to see the lack of women among their teachers and their disproportionate staff positions.
For the young female activists of today, the university is a ready made example of hypocrisy they find so deplorable. If higher education doesn't listen to some of its own advice and change some of its own policies to further equalize the position of women in its own departments, it may find that it has educated its women students to make the changes themselves.