EssaysRace/ismsSex & GenderThe Left

The Women Did It?

A reply to Eli Zaretsky

We are living through dark times. Many lament the decline of a vibrant Left in American politics; why the right has been ascendant for the past quarter century is a matter worth extensive exploration. Zaretsky’s “Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left,” however, both underestimates the deep roots of the American right and overestimates the power of feminism (Perlstein, Lowndes). In doing so, Zaretsky makes it difficult to rethink the possibilities and obstacles for the Left now. Zaretsky’s account of feminist politics runs amuck because of the ways in which he links feminism with madness and distances it from radicalism and race. Let us untangle the ways in which Zaretsky puts these elements in play in ways that distort past, present, and future.

Let us begin at the beginning — with madness. Zaretsky starts with a fine recognition of Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012), and her work as a radical feminist thinker (The Dialectic of Sex) and activist. Shortly after Firestone wrote her astonishing book, she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and Zaretsky, quite rightly, calls this tragic. But then, using Susan Faludi’s piece in The New Yorker about Firestone’s difficult life as his source, he continues: “Faludi touches on a related topic.” A related topic? In the first of several such slippages in the piece, it turns out that the split between the Women’s Liberation Movement and the New Left was “tragic,” too, and that, like Firestone, the psychological atmosphere in which she worked was also “truly mad.”

This pathologizing of the women’s movement seems to cordon women of the Left off from the Left more generally, since it is these crazy women who abandon the New Left. These linkages give rise to this extraordinary thought: “As I see it, it is partly thanks to this split that there is no Left in the United States today.” Men of the New Left have been saying this with varying degrees of thoughtfulness or bitterness or hurt feelings for decades. This idea does not qualify as “rethinking.” “The separate or autonomous women’s movement” did introduce its own forms of distortion, isolation, or contradiction but, as at some points Zaretsky concedes, these were not so different from the kinds of schisms and failures of community to be found in the New Left, Old Left, Occupy, etc.

Zaretsky offers to exonerate the women’s movement from being motivated by “anger and irrationality,” but the conjunction of these words repeats the slippage in the argument. Feminist anger was neither “irrational” nor “mad.” Moreover, we thought we could well afford this rage. With the historical ignorance so common at that time, radical feminists of 1968-to-1970 thought the Civil Rights and Left movements from which Women’s Liberation arose were there to stay. The goal was to deepen Left values and analysis, to add feminists’ new understanding of how domination works in the private spheres of life.

It’s with some sorrow that we entirely disagree with Zaretsky’s judgment that women’s departure was a definitive wound that helped take down the New Left. Alas, there is no way that women were key, or important, or recognized as needed in the New Left. Women were what they call in the army “non-essential personnel.” Ann knows; she was there. Women would talk and — now famously recorded in a hundred memoirs — a man had to say the same thing to get that idea heard. Mostly, women didn’t say much. Why bother? In this atmosphere (too normalized to be recognized as mad), neither men nor women thought women were important actors in the movement. But we trust Zaretsky to be observing something. What?

As he eloquently grants, women were the helpers, the servers, the lovers. Could he mean that men needed this support much more than men ever knew or acknowledged or women ever dared to claim? This would make sense, but then what becomes of the subsequent argument that it was specifically women’s departure that was the tragedy? Surely this is a group tragedy, a shared pathology, what Dorothy Dinnerstein called “sexual arrangements and human malaise.” The New Left weakened and lost momentum and appeal to a large constituency for many reasons, and the mixed messages of feminism take their place in this long list.

Zaretsky moves from feminists’ break with the New Left to consider the “decline of a radical tendency within feminism” more generally. Though obviously radical feminism has been weakened, diluted, misunderstood, and co-opted by everything from Sarah Palin’s campaign to neoliberal business identities like those described in Lean In, in which women do everything — run corporations, have happy families with un-neglected kids, etc., etc. — the sad fact is that feminism in America was never a Left movement. Ann remembers regretting this; in many groups she was called “the politico” for her Left identification. As Zaretsky says, whole “ancient and vulnerable institutions” were being swept away, and feminist mobilizations in response reached far beyond the Left locations like trade unions or universities and landed: in Black women’s softball teams in the Midwest; in alternative counter-culture spaces that sometimes included Left fellow travelers but often not; in anti-domestic violence movements where Marxist ideology was never mentioned. Though one key cause of violence, that women were viewed as property, was right there in Engels, discussions of domestic violence didn’t mention him. The Left vocabulary and basic structure of ideas came and went in the astonishing proliferations of feelings, analysis, mobilizations that can only — and only loosely — be called “women’s movements,” “feminisms” — all with the “s” added.

Zaretsky is passionate about the awfulness of the “trashing” of leaders in the Women’s Liberation Movement. Again he uses Faludi: trashing was “like a cancer,” though he concedes that some feminists criticized this madness at the time. This kind of infighting was indeed common, particularly in New York, but a look at the varied memoir essays in The Feminist Memoir Project (eds. DuPlessis and Snitow) might offer a more nuanced picture in which trashing is not at the center of early women’s movement groups or organizing projects. Zaretsky himself seems to feel he’s gone too far in naming trashing as unique to women’s movements or without internal critique. He shifts to a comparison between American movements, which puritanically focus on behavior, and European ones more focused on structure. Agreed. But the example Zaretsky gives of “the personal is political” as one more typically American, private, individualistic complaint flattens the complex history of this concept. “The personal is political” was the great structural insight the women’s movement offered. It was meant to reconfigure public and private, a useful project for Leftists everywhere. Its later incarnation as “the personal is sufficient in itself” as a form of politics is indeed a falling away from earlier movement intentions. But this is a complex generational-historical shift that lines up with the loss of Left political movements in general — as, in some places, Zaretsky notes himself. The proliferation of feminist ideas into neoliberal sites is but one aspect of feminism’s extraordinary reach in many directions, not only as a cooptation by neoliberals but as a new consciousness available in many other progressive forms of politics in the United States today.

The words Zaretsky cites from Barbara Deming tell a large part of this story: “Our lives, women’s lives, are not real to [men] — except in so far as they support the lives of men.” The breakdown in many relationships and institutions made such a thing sayable. And for better and worse, the Left will have to confront the fundamentally different shape of the political facing the young today.

Finally, Zaretsky does some puzzling footwork about why — unlike the autonomous women’s movement — African American movements are not guilty of abandoning the Left and adopting a narrow identity politics. Where the New Left operated with a conception of linked fate, in which none would be free until all were free, feminists, according to Zaretsky, shifted from solidarity to identity politics. Here a different logic is said to prevail in which the personal is political morphs into liberation for some, but not for all. Multiple oppressions within the identity frame, according to Zaretsky, were challenged separately rather than together. It is this shift from solidarity to identity that Zaretsky identifies as the blow feminists launched against the Left.

What then of race? In the final paragraph of his post, Zaretsky turns to race and is quick to specify that African Americans did not follow the same misguided identity politics that derailed radical feminists. “The civil rights movement was not simply a movement for rights, but also aimed at destroying a racially organized state, namely the Jim Crow South. As a result, the civil rights movement was the expression of a group struggling collectively for its origins as a people. This gave black power a different valence than the other movements of the sixties such as the student movement, the antiwar movement and women’s liberation.” The slippage here from “Civil Rights” to “Black Power” is startling since Black Power organizers often faced the same critique Zaretsky aims at radical feminists here. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and others often were attacked as “separatists” damaging the drive towards “racial equality” of earlier phases of the movement. Exactly what distinguishes black power from the radical feminists in Zaretsky’s argument is not at all clear. Zaretsky hints that there is a relation to American nationalism that makes movements for racial equality less individualistic and identity based. But the distinction is tough to maintain.

Numerous accounts of sixties politics have documented the artificiality of separating identities into neatly separated demographic groups. What exactly is it that makes women an identity and race a people? Rather than trying to maintain this distinction, we suggest that more can be gained from attending to the ways in which lives and politics traverse multiple identities (Omolade, Lowe, Cohen). Identities, movements and states are necessarily heterogeneous social formations. All identities are vulnerable to divisive appeals; all can be framed in ways that link identities into polyglot forms. The difference lies not in the identity itself but in the politics through which peoples are mobilized. There is no way to inoculate race from the critique Zaretsky has launched against women. Better to specify the ways in which all identities are vulnerable to narrow appeals.

Paradoxically, Zaretsky’s arguments are anchored in the very ideas of identity he seeks to critique; he uses the demographics of groups to describe a far-flung politics that doesn’t resolve clearly into the generalizations he is making. The subtext seems to be, white feminists abandoned broad progressive goals and chose individualism and a separation from the Left’s larger visions and desires. Feminisms (of both white and black women) were more messy and ambitious then and now than Zaretsky allows.

Much is at stake in our disagreement with Zaretsky. As all historians know, how one narrates the past sets future possibilities. The splits Zaretsky describes are a common retrospective closure of the story. Feminists’ break with the Left was never so fast and clean as Zaretsky claims. Political change rarely occurs in such an orderly manner. Recapturing the heterogeneity of the feminist movement, and attending to its enduring entanglements with the American Left, requires that we rethink the dominant narrative of the Sixties that Zaretsky rearticulates here. Doing so changes our sense of past resources and future possibilities of progressive politics in the decades ahead.

Also for you:

Ann Snitow

Previous post

RIP Stuart Hall

Next post

The Social Condition: Religion and Politics in Israel