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A Look at Radical Feminism in America

A review by Jo Freeman published in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 20, No. 2, March 1991, pp. 186-7.

Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975, by Alice Echols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

At the end of the sixties a new social movement of and for women arose which has transformed our thinking about gender as well as bringing about many legal and institutional changes. The feminist movement was not a united movement; it had two separate origins from either side of the generation gap with different goals and different strategies. The younger branch never created a national organization, but its small groups were the source of many of the movement's most innovative techniques (e.g. consciousness raising) and most of its ideas. Echols' social and intellectual history documents much of the growth and infighting of the younger branch, particularly among those women who identified themselves as radical feminists. Although she covers only those women who fought and argued in five cities (Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and Gainesville, Fla.) she captures the flavor of their exchanges and describes the consequences of their debates with great precision. Indeed, so thoroughly does she document the many disagreements, that one finishes the book feeling that it should have been entitled Political Cannibalism and Civil Wars.
Radical feminists did not initially call themselves feminists. Since most came out of the new left, they thought of themselves as Radical Women. The first major split in the movement was between the "feminists" and the "politicos". The former argued that men were the enemy and women should be organized to defeat patriarchy. The latter maintained that capitalism was the enemy, and women should be organized as part of the larger Movement to bring revolution to an oppressive System. Unfortunately, the new movement did not know how to handle conflict; it rejected as "oppressive" and "male" all rules and forms of organization. Instead of a fruitful exchange of ideas, disagreement over direction was expressed as personal attacks; women who had new ideas and knew how to articulate them were denounced as oppressors.
As the left was breaking up, politicos broke from the left. Those women who survived the carnage went on to create socialist- feminism and lesbian-feminism. Although the latter is often thought of as a variant of radical feminism, Echols points out that it primarily originated with politicos who, at a time when leftists were going underground, saw lesbianism as the most radical option available to them. Since many radical feminists were also converted, the "gay-straight split" became the next major fission. However, within a few years most straight women either changed their sexual preference or left that branch of the movement. The early dictum that "the personal is political" gradually came to mean that one's political beliefs were best expressed through one's personal lifestyle.
The civil wars took their toll as most of the early leadership was purged or submerged. Those women who remained or joined later turned to building a community where they could be comfortable and left proselytizing to others. Echols only briefly describes a few of the concrete projects and institutions. Although hers is an intellectual history, this omission does leave the inaccurate impression that there were no concrete accomplishments. Instead she explores the way in which the definition of radical feminism underwent a 180 degree transformation in only a few short years. The eruption of difference led to a search for what women had in common. Cultural feminism replaced the original radical feminism as "the question of whether feminism entails the transcendence of gender or the affirmation of femaleness ... [became] the new feminist faultline." (p. 287).
Despite the irritating use of a few neologisms (e.g. problematicized), and one major omission (the attempted takeover by SWP/YSA), Echols' book is well written and thoroughly researched. Indeed its' detail is almost its downfall. As an introduction to radical feminism it fails to highlight key concepts or provide explanatory guidelines to facilitate understanding. However, for those who already know the outline of recent feminist history, Echols' fills in the spaces between its crazy twists and turns and describes the hues of its multiple party lines. As such, it's an invaluable resource for understanding the internal dynamics of an important social movement.