Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Between the New Left and the New Right: Can Women Trust Men?

In the course of their struggle for women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wondered whether they could rely upon the men who had at least seemed sympathetic to their cause. This question has probably arisen in the mind of every active feminist who has engaged in the day-to-day hard work of reform and consciousness-raising. What political path should feminist activists in more recent times walk as they pursue their objectives? Within the last forty years, the political culture of America has experienced two movements—from the left and from the right—that solidified developments and political philosophies of the previous century; these movements, in turn, would leave their mark on the polarized political landscape we traverse today in the early 21st century.*

The revived women’s movement would at first embrace the New Left in the 1960s, but this alliance for a number of feminists would not turn out to be a match made in heaven. Feminists could not forget the words of Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a prominent figure in the Black Power movement who liked to joke that women’s proper position in the movement was “prone.” An expression of the countercultural Yippees—“shake a chick’s tit instead of her hand”—also did not endear these leftist revolutionaries to women activists. A male leader of the New Left dismissed female organizer Shulamith Firestone with the comment: “Move on, little girl; we have more important issues to talk about here than women’s liberation.”

To many women leaders the much-vaunted sexual revolution seemed to be really a male-dominated quest for sexual supremacy. Sexual freedom was a guise for guiltless sex, emotional detachment, experimentation with drugs, and the exploitation of women. By 1968, when protest against the Vietnam War reached a new height and student political protests had turned violent on college campuses across both Europe and the United States, those values of the counterculture that women had embraced and advanced, love and community, had degenerated into promiscuity and self-indulgence. As one observer put it, the free expression of sex gave women “the obligations of an impersonal lust they did not feel but only believed in.” Male sexuality and desire, not deep emotional attachment, characterized the Sexual Revolution. Male leaders of the socialist and Black Power movements were more interested in advancing their respective agendas of toppling Western capitalism and advancing African American males; women, it seemed, were merely pawns to be manipulated and relegated to the background.

Famously, Robin Morgan, in a piece entitled “Goodbye to All That” (1970), gave voice to this disillusionment and announced her own departure from the New Left: “Goodbye, goodbye, forever, counterfeit Left, counter-Left, male-dominated cracked-glass-mirror reflection of the Amerikan nightmare. Women are the real Left.” Women activists begin to ask questions about their movement: Are we treated equally and have senior leadership positions? Are we unwittingly promoting the male attributes of sexual exploitation and violence? Should we continue to work within the male-dominated left or pursue our goals without men altogether? By the early 1970s many feminists begin to see New Left men as strange bedfellows indeed. A decade later, however, they would face perhaps an even more hostile foe: the New Right.

Liberal feminists were achieving some legislative victories in the early 1970s. Then, by the end of the decade, just as feminists thought it was safe to go back into the water, the New Right reared its dorsal fin. A new conservative movement had already begun to emerge in the wake of Senator Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1964. For feminists, the movement seemed to be a revivified version of the traditional conservative threat—old wine poured into new wineskins; but this time their opponents were tanned and rested. By the late 1970s social conservatives and economic libertarians forged a tenuous alliance. Evangelical Christians, led by political savvy ministers like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, began to mobilize Nixon’s “silent majority” in order to peel back the counterculture. For their part, political and economic conservatives lamented the Democratic control over congress and sought to govern the country on the basis of classic conservative principles. The election of conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, former Hollywood actor and two-term governor of California, signified the coalition of these two disparate forces and heralded a new era, the “Reagan Revolution,” that promoted small government, big business, social conservative values, and a strong national defense with mixed results.

The 1980s seemed bleak to women who had been fighting for various women’s issues throughout the previous two decades. The states did not ratify the ERA by the deadline in 1982. Budget cuts in healthcare and welfare led to the so-called “feminization of poverty,” as the government focused its efforts on cutting taxes and crippling the Soviet Union. Some feminist critics interpreted women’s fashions and images of women on TV and film as a reaction to feminist gains in the 1970s. Pornography was on the rise. Women filed more sex discrimination charges than ever before. Reported rapes increased. It seemed as if serial killers and abortion clinic bombers lurked behind every street corner. Conservative talk radio started to dominate the airwaves. Church leaders and Republican senators talked about overturning the Roe v. Wade decision. Reagan’s overwhelming victory against Walter Mondale and his female running mate appeared to vindicate the conservative revolution and at the same time reveal, in the eyes of establishment feminists, misogynist sentiment throughout the country. Seven years later, in the televised Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas controversy, it seemed that men could harass women with impunity and be rewarded with high government positions.

NOW’s Statement of Purpose advances the idea of creating a new image of woman by working with men “in an active, self-respecting partnership.” No doubt individuals can find loving and mutually respectful partnerships with members of the opposite sex. But can women achieve their lofty goal of full equal rights in the broader framework of the public sphere by forming a partnership with men who express sympathy for the cause—the Frederick Douglasses and William Lloyd Garrisons of today? At any rate, while feminist leaders currently walk hand in hand with the Democratic party, they know to look both ways before they cross the street.

* This directional reference to political affiliation comes originally from the French Revolution. In the National Assembly, the Girondins, or moderate republicans, literally sat on the left side, while the Jacobins, radical republicans, sat on the right side.