“I can attest that in New York City during the late sixties and early seventies, nothing was more exciting, or more intellectually stimulating, than to sit in a room with a bunch of women who were working to uncover their collective truths.”
My contribution to the New Statesman's series on rereading second wave feminism in the light of the so-called 'fourth wave' was published last week. It's now a couple of months since I read Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time - her memoir of the women's liberation movement, spanning the late 1960s to the middle of the 1980s - and felt that it has much to offer today's activists on the subject of conflict and infighting - particularly those who have, in the last couple of years, felt alienated from the movement and 'put off' by the very fact that feminists don't seem to agree on a lot of things and spend a fair amount of time getting angry about it.
The number of pieces written and time spent talking about 'call-out culture', 'toxic feminism', or whatever we're currently calling 'feminists publicly disagreeing about stuff' means that it can become the sole focus for many people. It's sometimes cited as the main problem with today's feminist movement, a 21st century phenomenon. But while the internet has added a new dimension to activist infighting, In Our Time reminds us that the struggles - who has power, who should speak for the movement, what it means when women achieve a public profile and platform, and which issues should be our main focus - have existed for decades, and that our aim should be to work through them rather than letting them define us, becoming the obstacle that cannot be overcome and the sticking point that stops women participating. In Our Time is a fantastic memoir of the achievements of the second wave of feminism and the way its activists brought issues into the public consciousness for the very first time. Times may have changed, but there is much to inspire us and much we can learn from.
"Brownmiller came to see these disagreements and denouncements as par for the course in the women’s movement. “You have to believe that the Sturm und Drang are worth it,” she writes - and it seems she did, very much so, until the last gasps of the second wave in the 1980s. Weakened by the ‘pornography wars’, the decade’s family values-obsessed mentality and economic necessity of getting a job and ‘settling down’, with the women’s bookshops, the feminist press and utopian dreams in decline, the movement’s militancy petered out. In Our Time’s challenge for feminists today is to encourage us to keep the balance – effecting change despite robust disagreement. The aim of feminism should not be the creation of a synthetic sisterhood focused on little more than affirmation and making women feel good about every choice they make. Neither should it be the constant assumption of bad faith on the part of women who are still learning, doing the best they can, and sometimes getting it wrong – the idea that trashing other women is progress."
Image: John Olson, from here