Near the end of the 1960s, a certain Mrs. Olefsky worked at the Boston University Student Union Coffee Shop. After tripping over some wires one day, she hurt her back but was never given proper treatment or time off. Her boss, Mr. Day, called her “lazy,” and wouldn’t excuse her from work even after she discovered she needed an operation. On behalf of Mrs. Olefsky, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a nation-wide student organization that supports “Racial Equality, Disarmament, Jobs and Abundance, Civil Liberties, and Liberal Education,” created a flyer to demonstrate their support for the female worker. The following passage is presented under the heading “The Road to Women’s Liberation”:
“If Mrs. Olefsky’s boss were named Mrs. Day instead of Mr. Day, it wouldn’t make a difference. Fighting for more women bosses or building alliances with women bosses won’t help Mrs. Olefsky one bit! Man or woman, a boss is still a boss.” (Support Mrs. Olefsky! flyer, SDS)
Two tensions may be observed in this description of the Olefsky case: both between the boss and the employee, and between the man and the woman. These two tensions are negotiated by highlighting the urgency of one form of oppression (boss over employee) at the cost of devaluing the other (man over woman.) Indeed, a dismissal of female subjugation as an unimportant concern and emphasis on the supposedly more important fights against capitalism and for “social justice” was characteristic of SDS during the New Left movement.
How did rhetoric and argumentation employed by SDS in the 1960s enable its members to maintain or conceal tension between genders?
Holding the “Mrs. Olefsky” flyer in my hand, I wondered what logic and rhetoric SDS used to make the claim that the real “Road to Women’s Liberation” required that one first fight off “Mr. Day.” By simultaneously arguing on the one hand that capitalism was the real cause of women’s oppression, and on the other hand that only men were fully equipped to fight capitalism, SDS trapped women in a rhetorical vicious cycle of oppression. Several historians, and myself to some extent, believe that this vicious cycle was only broken when women’s groups themselves broke off from the sexist SDS.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was indeed the largest student network of the American New Left Movement (1960s~70s). Founded in 1962, the organization’s membership primarily consisted of adolescents belonging to white, middle upper class families. It is impossible to state only one goal the organization was trying to achieve during this period of political turmoil, given that internal agendas rapidly changed over time. On the one hand, a pamphlet from the early 60s states that SDS combats 1) poverty 2) racism and 3) “corporate and military rule in public affairs.” On the other hand, Barber argues that the New Left in general defined itself as purely antiracist. In reality the causes and focuses of SDS varied based off of chapter location and point in time. One fact is clear, however: despite its heavy dependence on membership of women, SDS for a very long time did not explicitly state women’s liberation as one of its goals.
The general assumption among SDS members at its inception was that freedom of men—whether from racism, the capitalist system, etc.—meant freedom of women. One SDS pamphlet from 1967 declares, “Our [SDS’s] hope is human freedom. We seek a society in which men have, at last, the chance to make decisions which shape their lives,” equating male freedom to human freedom. Some historians argue that, due to neglect of female members, the feminist movement not only coincided but caused the collapse of SDS. I began to wonder if conditions for women in SDS were really so horrible as to cause the collapse of the most powerful student organization in American history and proceeded to read personal accounts of female SDS members and interview former member Heather Booth.
Sarah Evans, author of Personal Politics and a member of the nation’s first women’s group at University of Chicago, describes the discontent of female members of SDS as a process of gradual awareness, or a “rising consciousness.” She quotes SDS member Casey Hayden as stating that, regarding the beginning of the New Left Movement, “If on some level the men thought of the women as secondary, the women were not aware of it then.” This is understandable; given the fact that one would not expect the absence of a stated cause (women’s rights) to mean immediate neglect of it. Historians and feminists realized only much later that SDS’s founding document, the Port Huron Statement, mentioned nothing about women in stating its mission to free all men from racism and “the System.” Even today debate exists over whether or not this call for a revolution was inherently sexist. When I interviewed Heather Booth, former U Chicago SDS member and wife of Paul Booth, a full-time SDS employee, she told me that she doesn’t recall it being called sexist and that she remembers it as “a call to action by young people as a driving force for change for a real democracy.”
Consciousness was slow to rise, Evans suggests, because personal experiences of sexism were not shared and thus not seen as a widespread problem but rather an individual obstacle or an emotional moment of discomfort at a chance occurrence. This, of course, was not the case. Says Booth, “I did find many of the men in SDS had styles that were not fully respectful of women or styles that were designed to show they were each the smartest, rather than ones that were more collaborative and raised up all who wished to participate.” According to Booth, “when ‘the Woman Question’ was first discussed in 1965, there were some who denied it was an issue.” Public denial of women’s right to equality was evident in a letter from SDS members Jane and Terry (last names not identified) to organizers Ken Cloke and Bernadine Dohrn in which Jane recounted an incident where a university class actually voted that women were not equal to men. One underground New Left newspaper, The Rat, founded by former University of Texas, Austin, SDS Vice President Jeff Shero, regularly featured discussions of pornography, crude sexual puns, and photos of nude women. The Rat—which received its funding from sex advertising—is an example of one of many publications which received little SDS criticism or backlash, hiding under the guise of “liberation” literature.
On a timeline, one would say that the shift towards a women’s liberation movement occurred from 1965-69. Maren Carden, author of The New Feminist Movement, provides different motives for women joining the movements: to some, they were “less threatening, more amusing…[than other New Left groups.]” Whatever the motive, the fact that a movement was forming was becoming very clear by the beginning of the 70s. Barber divided New Left women of this time into two camps: the radical feminists and politicos.
The radical feminists consisted of women who felt that, despite their hard work in the New Left Movement, recognition was lacking. One of the most famous protest-quotes in this camp—in an article by SDS activists Naomi Weisstein, Evelyn Goldfield and Sue Munaker—goes as follows:
“We were still the movement secretaries and the shit-workers; we served the food, prepared the mailings and made the best posters; we were the earth mothers and the sex-objects for the movement men. We were the free movement ‘chicks’–free to screw any man
who demanded it, or if we chose not to–free to be called hung-up, middle class and uptight. We were free to keep quiet at the meetings–or, if we chose not to, we were free to speak in men’s terms. If a woman dared conceive an idea that was not in the current limited ideological system, she was ignored and ridiculed. We were free, finally, to marry and raise liberated babies and clean liberated diapers, and prepare liberated dinners for our ass-hunting husbands or ‘guys we were living with.’ What men just can’t dig is that we, females, are going to define our movement, that male advice is paternalistic—no less so than when given by a white to a black” (Gilbert, 2001).
Eventually the result of radical feminist discontent was the breaking-up of student groups like SDS and the creation of new women’s groups such as the Feminists, Radical Feminists, Bread and Roses, Redstockings, and Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH).
On the other hand, the politicos—people who believed capitalism caused women’s oppression–tended to place the burden of sexism on women, rather than on flaws in how SDS was run. Politicos like Jane Adams wrote articles calling for “Women T-O’s” in SDS’s most widely read publication, New Left Notes. Such articles admitted the lack of female leadership in SDS but argued that women must take initiative in training themselves to work around—rather than against—the “totality of their oppression.”
Heather Booth mentioned in my interview that, “while it may make it easier to understand the overall dynamic by looking at these categories and there were people who fell in one or the other, there was a much wider variety in reality—people not only believing some of each or other alternatives.” Indeed, there was overlap between “politicos” and “radical feminists,” and members also switched positions over time.
For feminists, legitimizing women’s problems may have begun with utilizing capitalism as an excuse to mobilize; but for politicos, explaining sexism through the “system” became an effective means of delegitimizing women’s concerns for male chauvinism.
One SDS activist, Mary Salzman-Webb, made it very clear that she believed women were not and should not be anti-men; instead women should “see men as victimized by the system just as we [women] are.” Still, Salzman-Webb was once drowned out while giving a speech at an SDS rally by male chants of “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” “Rape her in a back alley!” “Take it off!” Regardless, people such as herself and Bernadine Dohrn continued to argue that if male chauvinism existed, it was created by capitalism.
The answer revealed itself in a Marxist understanding of authority and possession of labor. In “On Equality for Women,”Jane Adams asserts that male chauvinism isn’t surprising in the context of capitalism: “With men spending 8 hours a day taking shit from his foreman, he needs someone to be boss to; to prove his manhood. And the woman then proves her humanity by bossing her kids, and the cycle continues.” In other words, a proletarian man wants sexual possession of his wife if he can’t have any physical possession of his labor. And male dominance over women is not very different from a mother’s domination over her children. Note how this rhetorically equates a wife to a child in relation to a husband.
Capitalism was also seen by politicos to oppress women in the very way it distorts and isolates the traditional family in which these power dynamics function. In the 1968 New Left Notes essay “Marxism and the Family”, capitalism was seen as having the effect of isolating the family from a community that would otherwise share mutual compassion and necessary material. The result of such isolation is believed to be the subjugation of women. When families are isolated from one another, the “slave status” of women (cooking, cleaning, etc.) is hidden away because individual problems with male chauvinism are seen to be psychological rather than societal (this is similar to the feminist argument for “consciousness raising,” only with a Marxist root). The article goes on to argue that as long as families are isolated from one another they play a major economic function that perpetuates capitalism. The perpetuation of capitalism is negative for women in that it leads to the perpetuation of “women myths” as well.
According to politicos, women are misunderstood (and poorly treated) by men because the latter are swindled by free-market “women myths.” In “A Call for Women’s Liberation,” Sue Munaker argues that capitalism, through advertising and mass production of clothing, makeup, etc., has the effect of perpetuating “women myths”: myths which prevent real comprehension of women by men. Such “myths” include the desire to have children and raise a family; the desire for women to remain chaste; the desire for women to remain in the home; etc. Capitalist espousals of such myths are supposedly what cause SDS men to immediately assume female members aren’t interested in speaking up at meetings, or leading political discussion.
“Marxism and the Family” argues that feminists are people who in the past have created legal reforms (e.g. the right to vote) that have made female oppression only tolerable; Marxists would truly eliminate male chauvinism. The solution to women’s woes, according to Salzman-Webb, was to look at the example of the Vietnamese woman, who, by militantly fighting free market forces alongside men, garnered the other sex’s respect in society. In an article entitled “Women: We have a Common Enemy,” Salzmann-Webb states that the following “facts” cannot be denied: “The [Vietnamese] woman has won her equality both in law and in fact only because she participates in the social and political struggle and in production work…The Vietnamese woman has literally won her equality with a weapon in her hand and through the sheer strength in her arms.” This “Vietnamese woman” example is a rhetorical tool that would appear over and over again in politico arguments and documents dismissing the feminist movement, and was naturally given extra weight than it may appear to hold now, given the context of a war that was constantly on the minds of citizens across the country.
Webb also stressed the importance of getting rid of female “Uncle Toms” like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Organizations like NOW were useless in that they were only concerned in working within the framework of the current abusive American capitalist “system.” In fact, politicos accused groups such as NOW of “blindly attacking men,” instead of attacking what made men worthy of attack (the free market).
The Marxist Analysis of sexism as used by politicos was criticized in several ways, both by contemporaries and retrospective historians. For example, in the late 1960s the editing company Cammer and Shapiro wrote in a letter to Bernadine Dohrn stating that they refused to publish her article “Reply to Ramparts” because they disagreed with the article’s analysis that capitalism oppresses women by making them victims of advertising and the market. Dohrn in “Ramparts” suggested that capitalism exercises its power by “trapping [or isolating] women into the role of consumers.” According to Dohrn, isolated women, who are given the brief power of purchasing decisions (e.g. groceries), are given an illusion of freedom under the “system.” Cammer and Shapiro, however, argued that while small decisions in family purchases might be made by women, large decisions on item
s such as cars and homes were still made by men; capitalism didn’t change the status of men’s authority in the home, much less create any compelling “illusion.” Further, the company pointed out a flaw in women-oppression logic that would only be brought out into the mainstream by the arrival of third-wave feminism: distinguishing factors of race. According to Cammer and Shapiro, the idea that capitalism traps women into the role of consumers “ignores the dual role of women as mothers and workers and, in the case of black women, their position as black working mothers, a triply exploited status.”
Cammer and Shapiro end their letter by attacking the “women myth” concept: “Women in under-developed countries are not as exposed to advertising and are not as commodity oriented as American women, but it could not be claimed that they enjoy any greater freedom or emancipation than American women.” Clearly, according to the company, emancipation from consumerism does not mean the emancipation of women.
Contemporaries also couldn’t give up the fact that sexism predated capitalism, and that historically one of the first forms of women’s emancipation actually was provided by industry: women were given an avenue of earning money outside of the home (in factories). The clash of ideologies is made clear in “Marxism and the Family” when the author quotes Engels in saying “The first premise for the emancipation of women is the introduction of the entire female sex into public industry.” And in response to Salzman-Webb’s famous Vietnamese woman example, feminist Marge Piercy pointed out how comparing the SDS woman to a Vietnamese one does little to empower women. Piercy illustrates this through a picture of a man pointing to a poster of a Vietnamese female soldier saying, “Now that is a truly liberated woman. When I see you in that role, I’ll believe you’re a revolutionary.” In essence, Piercy says, the classic politico “Vietnamese woman” example allows men to forestall giving long-due respect to female SDS members.
In retrospect, historians like Barber have critiqued the fact that SDS politicos were often unmarried, childless young women who had not experienced the hardships of those they spoke for. I personally believe that one of the largest flaws in politico argumentation is the lack of female agency present in the rhetoric. For example, in “Two Whores and a Nun,” a female SDS member argues that “Women cannot be free until men are free…George [an example of a proletariat male] needs to feel resourceful, competent, and useful in a world which denies him a social context for his work that will fulfill these needs…Or else he needs Martha [example of a pleasant proletariat wife]; and we can be Marthas no more.” This statement suggests that men downtrodden by the capitalist system need to either fulfill themselves in terms of challenging work or rigid housewives. But why are these the only two options for life fulfillment? And why is there no assumed agency on the part of Martha to reject or question George’s needs? One reason may be because it was assumed amongst SDS members that women simply “weren’t ready” to take a strong stance against capitalism, much less any stance against men they perceived to be oppressing them. Martha’s life is subject to George’s sense of existential lack of fulfillment because she is assumed to be intellectually incapable of a) comprehending the “true” source of her oppression and b) fighting it.
According to Marc Gilbert, author of The Vietnam War on Campus, the New Left at its emancipation “embraced assumptions about the inherent limitations of women as active agents.” As the women’s movement began to grow in SDS, concerns of such “limitations” presented themselves in many forms by both men and women. For example, in one 1967 edition of New Left Notes, an anonymous reader wrote “A Letter to the Women’s Liberation Groups” which argued that, though the women’s fight may be well-meaning, “you have to be aware of putting women in leadership positions who are sufficiently underdeveloped, precisely because of women’s historically lower caste position, that the experience will lead to an erosion, rather than a development, of their self-confidence.” Across the nation, SDS members’ cries for greater female leadership clashed with decrees that women “weren’t ready” for challenging positions, and that promotions would have retroactive effects on women’s liberation.
If an SDS member already believes the “System” argument , an unprepared women leader would not only be dangerous to the fight against capitalism but also to herself in that she would, again, a) not be intellectually prepared to recognize her source of oppression and b) would not be prepared to fight it. The prolonged existence of capitalism, caused by her leadership, would inevitably crush her.
In analyzing sources of female incompetence, Myrna Wood, author of “The Principles of the Women’s Liberation Movement,” argued that women were “…semi-effective (if that) in the work of building the movement.”According to Wood, part of what effectiveness depends on is ability, which is “to some degree hampered by the oppression of their [women’s] socialization” (1967). Wood defines socialization as “the process through which one is taught from childhood to adjust and conform to the canon prevailing attitudes of the society…and one’s ‘inherent’ attribute.” Socialization, according to Wood, is also the process through which women internalize ideas of inferiority.
Politicos, however, used the concerns of women’s socialization as an opportunity to incorporate capitalism into this analysis. The politico interpretation of female incompetence argues that capitalism, via “women myths,” advertising, isolation of the male and the family, etc. had historically discouraged women from pursuing educational and professional paths in life. According to Webb in “Women: We Have a Common Enemy,” “We [women] are made to feel that the traditional view of women as feather-headed, frivolous, and infantile is indeed the case. This view has been cultivated by capitalist society in bolstering the consumer economy; for example, the advertising world shapes women consumers on the basis of their sexuality and home-making roles.” Capitalism is thus an all-encompassing form of oppression for females: because it historically has oppressed women, women are incapable of fighting their own oppressor. Naturally, they must ally men in groups like SDS, but only to the extent that they do the organizational work they were socialized to do (paper work, posters, etc.) This is so that their lack of skill does not slow down the fight that will eventually set them free.
It is under this rhetorical framework that the “Mrs. Olefsky” campaign discussed in the introduction is served. Fighting for more women bosses won’t help Mrs. Olefsky one bit. From a politico perspective, the woman boss is herself the product of an inferior system that has made her ill equipped to lead. A woman boss will only prevent skilled women from cropping up and will profit off of popular women myths and other functions of capitalism. But from the feminist perspective (and many others) this specific argument—along with the “women aren’t ready” argument itself—is riddled with flaws.
While Wood argues that one part of “member effectiveness” in SDS depends on ability (and thus socialization), she argues that the other part depends on the “opportunity to participate fully and to develop politically.” Wood argues that this aspect of effectiveness is “severely restricted by male chauvinism within the movement. Even educated or exceptionally able women are restricted by prejudice.” According to radical feminists, the reality of
women’s oppression in SDS was visible not only in distant factories or corporate offices but in everyday meetings held at local college chapters of the student organization. According to Evans, historically, intellectual work in SDS was seen as a male task. In 1963 the SDS Bulletin released twenty-seven articles; only one was by a woman. Women never authored even 10% of the total articles relating to “Politics and Economics.” Facts such as these made feminists wonder whether it was indeed the capitalist “women myths”—or male SDS members themselves—that really discouraged female revolutionaries from leaving the home and taking up intellectual work.
Criticism of the politico argument could be found in articles like “A Call for Women’s Liberation.” Munaker states that although one popular complaint about female SDS members has to do with their “inadequacy” (they aren’t ready), the truth of the matter is that women were hesitant to challenge men and thus mostly appeared “inadequate.” One main reason women feared challenging men was because male SDS members utilized what Evans called “intellectual jargon.” According to Evans, the male intellectual mode (which ranged from using a vocabulary exclusive to a text to speaking in a loud, domineering voice) was present everywhere in SDS. This intellectual mode was negative for women in that it was an oppressive and exclusive use of verbal skills. According to Piercy, women had trouble using jargon because of lack of practice. But the lack of practice wasn’t caused by capitalism; it was caused by male exclusivity.
The Harvard-Radcliffe SDS, for example, was run by a tiny clique of men who at one point laughed at the idea of reviewing a theoretical book written by a woman. This is exclusivity on the academic level. On a conversational level, sexism was present on at an SDS women-problem workshop held at Champaign-Urbana University, Illinois in 1965. In the mixed-sex group former member Todd Gitlin recounts the discussion in the women’s workshop shifting to “whether women were essentially passive.”
He recalls how a certain Barbara Haber urged the group several times to move to a warmer spot when it was cold outside. According to Gitlin, “Sitting next to Barbara, Al Haber ‘nudged’ his wife and said, ‘Watch this.’ He repeated the same proposal in the same tone of voice. Everyone moved.” According to Piercy, only women willing to act like those figures that SDS supposedly fought against—the “stereotyped American frontiersman”—could be heard. Women who refused to participate in the male jargon were seen as crippled—or “not ready” to fight in the Movement.
There are several potential explanations behind why people in SDS may have chosen to espouse politico ideology. On a psychological level, Marge Piercy suggested that it was easy for radical women to accept exploitation in the name of “larger” (politico) societal struggles for justice because of their socialization since childhood to “immolate themselves to the male and the family.” Carden suggests that men encouraged politico rhetoric because they feared that the women’s liberation movement would deflect from the cause that immediately impacted their lives—the draft. Booth, however, did not find this to be a singular concern amongst males in her chapter: “I don’t know that there was a fear that the draft—and more importantly the war—would not be a focus till it was ended. It is also true that there are many reasons people act as they do and I’m sure [there were] some who didn’t want their specific issue…to lose support as the priority.” Barber argues that it is not a coincidence that some of the most outspoken politicos in SDS were also some of the most powerful females of the movement: elected secretaries, and inter-organizational leaders. He suggests that by playing against the women’s movement, a female SDSer could garner male leaders’ support to her own individual political advantage within SDS.
Whatever the explanation behind politicos motivation, discovery of cracks in the politico rhetoric of SDS eventually made women search for doctrines that gave them more space and leverage to fight their own fight whether it was one against capitalism, racism, or sexism. In the fight against capitalism, for example, women began breaking from SDS to join groups like the more radical Weathermen and Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYM II). Although the two groups inherently disdained the call for women’s liberation as much as SDS did, Barber points out that the very fact that male supremacy was verbally addressed by the groups made them attractive to women. While SDS hardly felt the need to use strong language against male supremacy in its “International Women’s Day” edition of New Left Notes, both Weathermen and RYM II declared that male supremacy had to be “smashed” and “destroyed” (2008). A linguistic legitimation of women’s concerns over sexism made the two groups’ campaign against the system more appealing that that of SDS.
Others joined groups that fought purely against sexism. Evans argues that women’s liberation groups were appealing to those who were victim to SDS politico logic for various reasons. She states that a crucial ingredient for women’s liberation groups was a focus on personal issues: greater discussion about family, marriage, and the pill, rather than alienating discussions of “the System.” Because they were all-female, women’s groups were also a space where the politico “not ready” argument was no longer viable and women were no longer excluded from intellectual discussion. Thus, Naomi Weisstein, a member of a women’s liberation group at U Chicago, stated: “The women’s movement really gave me my voice. Before I was never really good, but with the women’s movement I [was] thunderingly effective.” In the women’s movement, females who felt they “weren’t ready” could become ready, whatever the fight might be for the future.
The politico argument claimed: 1) Women are oppressed by capitalism, as opposed to by men, and 2) Women aren’t ready to fight off capitalism just yet because of the inadequate skills capitalism has offered them. I believe the result of combining these two elements is a rhetorical vicious cycle which made female revolutionaries of the New Left Movement dependent on male leadership—and thus forced to be constantly tolerant of male forms of sexism, whether that involved cat-calls or exclusion from intellectual discussion. I call this only a rhetorical vicious cycle because both contemporary and retrospective criticism showed that these two arguments were not ideologically consistent. People recognized that the capitalist system couldn’t be the only cause of sexism in that sexism predated capitalism. Female SDS members also realized through consciousness-raising activities that their “inadequacy” in fighting capitalism could be just as much fostered by SDS male exclusion as it was by capitalist socialization. The politico rhetoric used by members of SDS was temporarily able to conceal tension between genders in the name of fighting “side by side” against the “System.”
By: Ellia Higuchi, Contributing Writer
All images found via Google Image Search.
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