What happened to socialist feminist women's studies programs? A case history and some speculations.
My initial questions asked which programs my respondents thought identified as socialist feminist and what this meant; how socialist feminist affiliation affected institutional structures; how it was manifest in personnel, in program practices, in curriculum, in relationships with the community, university staff, and administration; how programs treated the topics of social class and U.S. imperialism; how socialist feminist approaches differed from other feminist perspectives; and what kind of conflicts developed and how they were resolved, I also asked whether respondents thought current women's studies programs incorporated the goals of earlier socialist feminist programs, and if so, whether these goals are now outmoded or transformed.
These interviews produced some apparently contradictory conclusions: socialist feminist women's studies does not now exist in U.S. universities; there were a few short-lived socialist feminist women's studies programs in the 1970s; socialist feminist practices and ideas were assimilated into mainstream women's studies in the 1970s--or the 1980s or 1990s; and virtually all women's studies programs today could he considered socialist feminist whether they know it or not. Some of these contradictions derive from differing definitions and some from respondents' differing institutional locations. All refer to the complex but still largely underground history of U.S. socialist feminism and of the changing contexts affecting academic feminism.
In order to understand these disparate views, I returned to the history of my own program at UIC. This case study helps me develop a more nuanced picture of one strand of women's studies within the evolving context described by my other sources. I revisit old statements of our courses, goals, and projects with current awareness of how our practices and theories were shaped by many factors, not all of which we realized at the time. The premise animating this inquiry is that socialist feminist women's studies was a discernible strand in U.S. academic feminism and played a significant role in shaping women's studies as a field. The interviews and case history presented here also help explain the rapid waning of explicitly socialist feminist women's studies programs despite some early successes. For this project, the defining characteristics of socialist feminist women's studies include antisexist, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, and antiracist ideology; egalitarian pedagogical practices; and attempts to transform university structures as well as expand new areas of intellectual inquiry with the ultimate goal of creating a society of economic as well as gender justice in the United States. This socialist feminism emerged from a women's liberation movement that included multiple radical but often competing perspectives. These perspectives drew not only on Marxist and other anticapitalist views, but also an egalitarian practices derived from the social experiments of the 1960s and the identity politics that were inspired by the Black Power movement. The socialist feminist programs whose history I trace were influenced by all of these perspectives, but differed from other strains within the women's liberation movement in their insistence on the centrality of class and race oppression.
I conclude that the specific circumstances of public universities in the 1970s helped shape socialist feminist women's studies programs and their conflicts regarding social class; that the relationship of theory to practice differs in socialist feminism from that in poststructuralism or liberal feminism; and that the history of U.S. socialist feminist women's studies is only partly congruent with that of socialist feminism more generally. In addition, I speculate that the sudden demise of socialist feminist women's unions in 1975-1977 was more likely to have been due to government intervention than has previously been thought.
As feminist historians have well chronicled, academic women's studies formed as one offshoot of Second Wave U.S. feminism, itself a developing strand of "the movement" of progressive politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some young white women activists began to theorize their subordinated position as women in analogy with the African American civil rights movement and Third World liberation struggles. In 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King circulated their document, "Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo," to other movement women, and some New Left women began to identify as feminists. (2) In 1966, the National Organization for Women was founded, and white people were told to leave the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and organize white people against racism. This emphasis on identity politics--that is, on organizing with and for the sake of groups with which one identified on the basis of ascribed characteristics like race and gender rather than on the basis of beliefs--helped Left activist women conceptualize "women" as a potential political group; and some predominantly white women's organizations combining New Left and feminist politics were formed, distinguishing themselves both from mass membership liberal feminist organizations like NOW and from the Old Left socialist and communist parties with their centralized leadership, covert action, and vanguardism. The Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU) was established in 1969 as a loose confederation of activist chapters. The CWLU's founding statement had a two-part structure, feminist and socialist, saying "we demand the right of all women to control all aspects of their lives," and "As radical women we demand the identification and elimination of all forms of oppression--class, caste, and colonial--and the formation of a socialist society in which all individuals have equal access to the material and experiential wealth of their world." (3)
In the fall of 1969 I moved to Chicago from Nashville, Tennessee, where I had been a low-key member of the Southern Student Organizing Committee (the white off-shoot of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), Students for a Democratic Society, and Nashville Women for Peace and Social Justice, and where I'd taught at Fisk University, a small, private, predominantly African American college, while completing my Ph.D. dissertation on Renaissance English poetry. (4) I came to what was then called the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle only a few years after it had begun its dramatic expansion from a two-year college for World War II veterans to a full-fledged university with a large new concrete campus near downtown Chicago. I was then married to a medical resident active in New Left organizations and had two daughters, one six weeks old and the other three years old. I promptly joined the New University Conference, a faculty organization with a socialist critique of universities as institutions for perpetuating ruling class power. At UIC, most students were the first of their families to attend college and worked an average of thirty hours per week for wages; many spoke a language other than English at home.
Our small group of young leftist faculty, mostly trained at elite universities, pondered our roles at a working-class urban university enrolling many people of color in a racially divided city during a time of imperialist war. A 1970 position paper by a male colleague indicated one strand of thinking in our group; it praised the Vietnamese struggle and exhorted us to "revolutionary" action: "We can organize students in revolutionary struggle in the same progressive fashion that other groups have organized their constituency by following the principle of relating to oppression in a revolutionary manner and offering concrete means of realizing revolutionary potential for changing society." (5) When the women in our group discussed feminism, the men dismissed it as a bourgeois distraction from revolutionary goals. We then split off, joined activist students, and formed a new group, Circle Women's Liberation Union, in 1970, affiliating with the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, whose name we echoed. We decided that our political work would be developing a university women's studies program and women's services on campus. Our founding collective sent a representative to CWLU meetings, and we also participated in projects sponsored by CWLU and other local progressive groups such as Action Committee for Decent Childcare and Mujeres Latinas in Accion. Meanwhile our campus group met to educate ourselves on women's issues and formulate strategies for political action with the university as our site. In addition, many of us remained in gender-mixed activist Left groups. For example, I was an editor for Health Rights News, the newspaper of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, from 1971-1974 while building women's studies at UIC.
Starting on International Women's Day in 1972, our UIC group sponsored a two-day Women's Liberation Teach-In. One invited speaker was Carla Kirkwood from the socialist feminist women's studies program established at San Diego State College in California in 1970. Workshops discussed beginning a women's studies program, establishing a group of men against sexism, and exploring the oppression of women before and after coming to campus. Other topics included consumerism, exploitation at work, childcare, health struggles, socialism, consciousness raising, political theory, gay liberation, Latina women, working women and capitalism, black women and women's liberation, and women in socialist countries. Some of these workshops were for women or men only, but most were mixed. (6) Thus in seeking to found our own program, we were already seeking out like-minded pioneers at other campuses, attempting multicultural and community alliances, and including socialist critiques of capitalist society and the university. These topics continued into the subject matter of our courses, which we first taught under a rubric for experimental courses in 1973-1974.
The UIC "Introduction to Women's Studies" of the 1970s was a three quarter, year-long sequence. As junior faculty, we taught these courses on unpaid overload for a few years, then had part of this teaching integrated into our official course loads, and the courses, too, were given regular women's studies (WS) designations. (7) The required readings for these core courses were almost all writings from the recent women's liberation movement. The fall course, "The American Woman Today," used popular feminist texts and anthologies: Robin Morgan's Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970), Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran's Woman in Sexist Society (1971), Toni Cade Bambara's Black Woman (1970), the Boston Women's Health Collective's Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973), and Tillie Olsen's short stories in Tell Me a Riddle (1961) along with such explicitly working-class and socialist texts as Elinor Langer's pamphlet, "Woman of the Telephone Company" (1970), Juliet Mitchell's "The Longest Revolution" (1966), and Barbara Ehrenreich's essay on "Socialist/Feminism and Revolution." (8) The syllabus indicated our effort to discuss the intersections of race and class with gender and an explicit interest in critiquing capitalist work and middleclass family practices. Films included Growing Up Female (1971) and later Union Maids (1976), which connected concerns about social class and labor activism in the 1970s with the Old Left labor organizing of the 1930s; one of the women in the film, Vicky Starr (Stella Nowicki in the film), spoke to the class. Readings about women of color and lesbians were assigned for most topics in addition to being the special focus of several weeks' classes.
Assignments for the course indicated our efforts to encourage our overwhelmingly female students to connect their present situations with their goals and society's for the future. The assignments also raised questions about U.S. racism, classism, and homophobia and adumbrated socialist alternatives to the capitalist status quo. (9) For example, the twenty possible paper topics ranged from now familiar prompts for analyzing sexism in the media to attempts to instigate activism, many incorporating a socialist feminist analysis. Some topics were "Interview, from your high school, women who did not go to college. How are their lives different/similar to yours; what are they doing now?" "Investigate and report the condition of non-academic women working on campus." "Plan and execute a political project or action (about a current women's issue)," and "Evaluate the socialist-feminist claim that the complete liberation of women is impossible under capitalism." Other topics called for analysis of the analogy between sexist and racist oppression or asked students to describe "an ideal world for women" and evaluate the barriers to its realization.
We designed the three introductory, ten-week courses to produce a full year's curriculum. After 'The American Woman Today" in the fall, the winter course was "Women in History, Literature, and Art," also focused on the United States, and the spring brought "Women in Other Cultures." The last course began with primate behavior and human biology, moving on to what we then called "Primitive Cultures," "Women under Capitalism," and "Latina Women in the United States." "Women in Socialist Countries" divided two weeks between a critique of the Soviet Union and a more positive view of Cuba and China, with collective members like me who had traveled to these countries showing slides and speaking optimistically about the potential of socialism for women while criticizing the homophobia, sexism, and authoritarianism of these societies. The course ended with visions of "Our Future" based in science fiction. Thus the whole year sequence was set up to reflect a basically progressive history, moving from the present back through the past and ending with various socialisms as both real and utopian possibilities. Because we knew that most students would not take all three courses, each course included critiques of racism, classism, and capitalism, and visions for the future combined with the encouragement of activist and community-based projects.
Course structure and program governance were also intended to demonstrate the collective, non-hierarchical alternatives to usual university practices that we believed worked against corporate individualism. Like many introductory courses, ours consisted of one large lecture followed by small discussion sections each week. However, the courses were planned and taught, not by individual professors but by a teaching collective of three or four faculty members plus graduate and undergraduate students who earned course credit for collective participation, joined occasionally by community members. A mid-1970s roster shows about seventy-five students divided into six small sections, each with multiple leaders. Unlike programs at San Diego State and State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo, where conflicts with university administrators erupted over undergraduates or community members teaching classes, our courses always stayed officially within university guidelines: all lectures and discussion sessions had at least one faculty member or graduate teaching assistant in the room along with the undergraduate or community collective members. (10) In addition, for many topics like reproductive rights, Black women's activism, rape, and women's legal issues, panels of community members spoke to the class. That is, we accommodated university rules on teacher qualifications to our own desire for varied expertise and community input by considerable volunteerism from junior faculty, community activists, and students. (11)
The teaching collective was time-consuming and labor intensive and therefore tended to exclude all faculty except a committed core, a factor that favored ideological similarity within the group. In addition to giving lectures and attending other instructors' lectures and discussion groups, the collective members met weekly as a group and often separately with our section leaders to debrief and plan future classes, and we also held frequent long evening meetings. Each summer a weekend retreat at Sandra Bartky's cottage on Lake Michigan combined a rural break with planning the next year's classes, topics, readings, assignments, task allocations, and guest speakers. A majority of the faculty and some of the students in the teaching collectives identified as socialist feminists. However, faculty with other views participated for several years, including pioneering radical feminist sociologist Pauline Bart, who got involved in spite of her critique of what she saw as the core faculty's masculinist Marxist politics. Some student collective members also had alternative goals for the group that were not realized, like communal living and income sharing. As a committed socialist feminist herself, Bartky wrote to the teaching collective about its political orientation: "I think that we ought to define ourselves politically (are we a socialist feminist collective?) and see to it that anyone who is serious about joining the teaching collective knows who we are and what we stand for." She suggested requiring candidate students to write why they wanted to join, followed by "an informal political discussion with us at which time we tell her what our orientation is, what we expect from members of the collective in terms of supporting collective decisions." This document expressed anxiety about student-led discussion groups, not on the grounds that students were unqualified but because of fear of "blowing it with the administration. ... We must assume that there will be informers and/or disgruntled students sooner or later," and faculty might therefore "lose a good bit of our credibility." (12)
Negotiating between our zeal to show students progressive alternatives to the status quo and our conformity to the basic rules of university structure required constant discussion. Grading was a contentious issue, with some collective members wanting variants from university policy, like giving all A grades. Instead, we decided on a modified contract grading system, with collective judgment on grades and at least two readers per paper, one of whom might be an undergraduate student. Governance of the program was also collective, with a consensus model of decision making that resulted in long meetings, but the socialist feminist majority generally prevailed, with others adapting or leaving the group. Other anti-individualist, anti-hierarchical practices that differed from university norms included meeting with university administrators in groups of two or more and rotating tasks rather than having a consistent single spokeswoman. Thus the governance of the program and our classes was experimental, in accordance with New Left and 1970s ideas of liberatory pedagogy, while remaining in conformity with unchanged university structures.
Other early women's studies programs were more radical than ours in pioneering alternatives to university hierarchies and structures. In the case of the first women's studies program at San Diego State, the entire faculty was a student collective made up of lecturers on temporary appointments. They had established women's studies as a socialist feminist enterprise but decided a few years later that this was impossible in the university environment. In a 1974 collectively authored pamphlet, "Women's Studies and Socialist Feminism," the San Diego State collective members described their decision to disband after four years, with the entire women's studies faculty leaving the university. (13) "This pamphlet is dedicated to all socialist feminists who work toward the development of a unified Socialist movement, a movement which has its base amongst Third World people, working-class people, gay people and women," they stated. They set forth a model of interlocking oppressions and sided with those "committed to the struggle to end sexism, racism, class oppression and heterosexual dominance in our society." However, they decided to stop putting their energies into maintaining women's studies as an academic unit where students taught other students but had to gain resources from the university and deal with what they called "bb" or "bureaucratic bullshit." Although there was apparently considerable controversy involved, this seems an understandable decision for a student group that realized it could not gain access to university salaries and regular teaching positions. Catherine Orr, who studied this program, recently commented that during its experimental years, it "was a student-run collective completely outside of the administration's control/jurisdiction." Marilyn Boxer, a skeptic about socialist feminism who later became the program's director, reported that some activists there had characterized themselves as "separatist Maoists" unsympathetic to university structures. (14) Thus the San Diego State student collective pioneered university-based women's studies programs and the mix of institutional recognition, egalitarianism, and leftist political and theoretical content that became typical of the socialist feminist strand of women's studies. However, because they were not willing to compromise on their anti-hierarchical ideals, they abandoned academic women's studies, presumably for community activism, and were replaced by more traditionally credentialed faculty, some of whom identified as socialist feminist. (15) Similar battles were fought at SUNY Buffalo over whether students or faculty-controlled decision making, with early socialist feminist faculty member Lillian Robinson reporting her discomfort at having to negotiate with administrators for proposals she personally thought unwise, but for which the majority of the student group had voted.
By the early to mid-1970s, many universities were founding women's studies programs, some with socialist feminist agendas and comparable intentions and conflicts. The Clearinghouse on Women's Studies reported in 1975 that the first two women's studies programs were established in 1970, followed by cumulative totals of 15 programs by 1971, 75 by 1973, and 152 by 1975. This list claimed 39 programs offering B.A. degrees in women's studies, 30 in state institutions. (16) Several of these early programs at state and urban schools were organized by women with socialist feminist orientations. My respondents variously named as programs with a significant socialist feminist influence those at California State College, Long Beach, City College of New York, Portland State, Ramapo College of New Jersey, San Diego State, San Francisco State, Towson State College (Maryland), University of Massachusetts at Boston, and several branches of the SUNY system as well as ours at UIC. These institutions were characterized by rapidly growing student populations from non-elite economic backgrounds and administrations that respondents felt considered women's studies less threatening than comparable new programs with a more visible community base like African American studies and Latin American studies; at UIC, African American studies had been founded in 1971 and Latino and Latin American studies in 1972, just preceding our first women's studies courses. (17)
As public and urban universities expanded, they were willing to hire women faculty and often to experiment with educational practices and community connections. Socialist feminist faculty also developed programs in connection with labor and other organizations. For example, Rosalind Petchesky helped found the first women's studies program at Ramapo in 1972, which formed alliances with community rape crisis centers and with auto workers at a Ford plant. "The thinking from the start," she says, "was to unite socialist feminist politics and pedagogy." These universities also often stated some version of the "urban mission" that permeated the early rhetoric at UIC. This rhetoric was replaced later at our university with more general aspirations to academic "excellence," then, after decades of falling state funding, revived with talk of community "engagement" and "access to excellence." (18)
In socialist feminist women's studies in the early to mid-1970s, then, (Paolo) Freirian and other progressive pedagogies were popular, and university administrators often countenanced such experimentation, at the same time that battles with administrators in early women's studies programs often centered on uncredentialed faculty and on who got to make hiring decisions. Linda Gordon described the "militant" women's studies program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 1970-1971 as established from the "bottom up" by student agitation. The student body had many working-class, first-generation students and many "returning" students who did not come to college directly from high school. Among their campaigns, as at UIC, was a sit-in with toddlers to agitate for a university daycare center for staff and student parents.
As far as I know, none of these programs except the early San Diego State collective explicitly declared itself socialist feminist in public pronouncements, although many key faculty so identified themselves in sympathetic surroundings. For example, Hester Eisenstein said "perhaps the WS program at SUNY Buffalo comes closest" to being an "explicitly socialist feminist program, although when I taught there we never used the label. We certainly assumed that an anti-imperialist and antiracist approach was part of WS." A 1972 essay by the SUNY Buffalo collective in Feminist Studies referred to the "materialist outlook" of their courses and stressed the "essential link" between women's studies and the women's movement; moreover, they claimed that "sexism, racism, and capitalism" were "intertwined" and none could be eliminated without the others. (19) References to the term "socialist feminism" are scarce in this period for a number of reasons, most obviously because the label was unevenly accepted in the early 1970s, with many progressive feminists calling themselves "leftists," "radicals," or "radical feminists," until the term "radical" came to be applied specifically, not to political leftists but to those feminists for whom sexism was at the root of all other social divisions. The term "socialist feminist" was probably most frequently used from the middle 1970s through the early 1980s, then was partly replaced in the 1980s by "materialist feminist," and is still occasionally used. For example, Nancy Holmstrom dedicates her 2002 edited reader, The Socialist Feminist Project, "To all the women and men engaged in socialist feminist struggles, by that name or another." (20)
In Chicago, the term "socialist feminism" came into use by 1972, when the Hyde Park Chapter of the CWLU issued a document entitled "Socialist Feminism--A Strategy for the Women's Movement." It declared " As socialist feminists, we share both the personal and the structural analysis. ... Our ideology must guide us, but also must be guided by the realities shaping our lives." (21) It defined socialist feminism against the "dogmatic sectarianism" of left political parties as well as against a mainstream feminism it characterized as too focused on personal empowerment, as lacking a structural analysis of capitalist patriarchy, and as complacent about the status quo. CWLU documents rapidly adopted the term "socialist feminist." According to Margaret Strobel, the term came into use a few years later in women's liberation unions on the East and West coasts. Emphasizing flexibility and an antagonism to doctrinaire posturing, this midwestern socialist feminism was anti-capitalist and "progressive" but lacked the theoretical rigor that some Marxist feminists thought necessary.
In April 1975, a Midwest regional women's studies conference was held at Indiana University in Bloomington organized around the theme, "What Is the Future of Women's Studies?" Faculty and student members of UIC women's studies held a workshop on teaching collectively. My notes from the conference include information on how the SUNY Buffalo women's studies program was organized and how much it paid its lecturers. Robinson, who identified herself as a socialist feminist there, asked her audience to consider what our strengths, weaknesses, allies, and strategies were and "who profits from women's oppression." She described Buffalo's courses about working-class women, imperialism, women under capitalism, and theories of feminism, topics she again discussed in her 2006 interview with me, when she noted that Buffalo had "had a collective structure, though no existing socialism worked like that."
In summer 1975, a conference on socialist feminism held in Yellow Springs. Ohio, represented the high point of this political tendency, with 1,500 people in attendance. It originated with the Dayton chapter of the New American Movement (NAM), a nationwide, mixed-gender, democratic socialist organization founded in 1971 that came to define itself explicitly as socialist feminist. The 1975 conference was organized by NAM's women's caucus and several women's liberation unions. Its belief was that socialist feminist politics was already imperiled, both because of the decline of Left activism after the Vietnam war ended and because of the increased backlash against the women's movement. (22) The call for the conference claimed that "recent highly organized attempts to stop passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and outlaw abortion seem to symbolize a dangerous opposition to the goals of the women's movement. FBI harassment of lesbian and feminist activists in the past year makes it clear to us that a unified women's movement, with a socialist feminist analysis of patriarchal oppression, is essential." (23)
One of the key NAM theorists of socialist feminism in the mid-1970s was Barbara Ehrenreich, whose essay, "Socialist/Feminism and Revolution," we distributed to students in our classes. It jokingly defined a socialist feminist, according to "our NAM women's group in NY," as "someone who goes to twice as many meetings." More seriously, Ehrenreich described socialist feminism as "a distinct political tendency on the left" characterized by "a totalistic understanding of the revolutionary transformation." Ehrenreich was not just reporting on socialist feminism but rather helping create it as a movement that could change individualist, bourgeois, racist, and sexist attitudes: "we do not seek individual solutions for individual women," she wrote, but rather a total social transformation that would not wait until after the revolution to liberate women. (24)
Thus in the mid-1970s, socialist feminism was characterized by a melange of ideas and practices, differently emphasized in different locations, but with a constant core belief that capitalism, sexism, U.S. imperialism, homophobia, and racism were unjust and intertwined. The practices associated with socialist feminism came together from disparate sources--those developed by the women's liberation movement, such as consciousness-raising rap groups; by New Left efforts toward participatory democracy, including rotating meeting chairs and spokespeople; by progressive ideas about non-authoritarian education, like those of Freire's 1968 Pedagogy of the Oppressed; and by U.S. versions of "speaking bitterness" in Maoist China, the supposed source for the "criticism/self-criticism" sessions we held at the end of all our meetings.
The founding conference of the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) in 1977, which I attended, included a significant minority of socialist feminists who caucused at the conference. (25) In the same year, the Combahee Collective issued its now widely anthologized call for intersectional analysis, saying, "We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe the work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses." (26) However, the explicit socialism of the statement was not as salient as its antiracism in later discussions of this document, which was highly influential in geneologies of intersectional analysis and of feminist theory by women of color.
Between 1975 and 1978, the trajectories of socialist feminism as a political movement and socialist feminist women's studies diverged. The socialist feminist women's liberation unions dissolved, while academic women's studies grew. The end of the Vietnam war collapsed the movement's mobilization for peace, and many leftist organizations weakened. As we experienced it at the time, the end of the women's liberation unions was a result of "trashing," or deliberately destructive tactics, by small groups of well-trained, self-identified Maoists who charged the socialist feminist unions with being racist, bourgeois, and theoretically unsound. The trashers did not offer alternative theories. In Chicago, the handful of women in the Asian Women's Group could plausibly charge racism against the overwhelmingly white Chicago Women's Liberation Union, which worked in alliance with Black and Latina feminist organizations but never recruited more than a handful of women of color to its own ranks. In a few years, sectarian Maoists simultaneously destroyed socialist feminist women's liberation unions from Los Angeles to Chicago to Boston--the most effective and well-coordinated thing they ever did. (27) And to what end? Unlike other sectarian leftists, the women who trashed the CWLU did not actively recruit converts to their own organizations, appear at city-wide demonstrations, or develop alternative theories.
I now think, therefore, that these supposed Maoists were themselves or were influenced by FBI provocateurs. In The World Split Open, Ruth Rosen charges the women's liberation movement with "the politics of paranoia" about government spying, but she also documents FBI files on the women's liberation movement and on its infiltration of the Socialist Workers Party, which in turn infiltrated the women's movement. Although she documents that the U.S. "government did conspire, quite consciously, to heighten that atmosphere of fear" and suspicion, she thinks that this infiltration did not "decisively alter the trajectory of the women's movement." The highly edited FBI files she quotes are often silly and inaccurate, describing women's hairstyles and confusing dead theorists and live communist activists. However, we now know how vicious and insidious FBI attacks were on African American civil rights groups and antiwar activists. I doubt that COINTELPRO, the counter intelligence program of the FBI, actually stopped its covert activities under court order in 1976. and I suspect that the released papers on the women's liberation movement are only the most useless of its reports. (28)
Meanwhile, as socialist feminist women's unions dissolved, academic women's studies gained strength. At the 1979 NWSA Conference, a socialist feminist caucus formed after picketing a display of women around the world presented by the U.S. Agency for International Development. For the 1980 conference, it scheduled sessions on "Ethnicity and the Family as a Matrix for Socialist/Feminism," "Third World Women and Imperialism," and "Socialist/Feminist Pedagogy: What You Teach and How You Teach It." For the 1982 NWSA conference, proposed task force topics included "Response to the Reagan Budget" and "Socialist-Feminist Organizing Projects, Socialist Feminism and Anti-Racist Struggles." (29) Socialist feminists establishing women's studies programs tried to change their universities but also adapted to them--or, as in the case of the original San Diego State collective, left the university altogether. Universities did change, but not always in the directions we sought. It was easier to incorporate leftist content into the smorgasbord of a large public university's course offerings than to institutionalize and maintain alternative structures. For many of us who identified as socialist feminists, especially in public universities, increasing knowledge, changing attitudes, and galvanizing enthusiasm for women's activism seemed at once to fulfill our political goals and to provide us with rewarding employment. Yet contradictions continued to arise. Rather than change the whole university, we mostly concentrated on modeling the progressive alternative classes and programs I've described--with our teaching collectives, community panels, leftist content in courses; collective leadership of the women's studies program, including students and staff; and alliances with ethnic studies programs and off-campus groups.
At UIC, one of the central points of friction as well as one of the most cherished ideals was the notion of collective leadership. We believed it was more egalitarian, less individualistic, and more congruent with socialist feminist ideals than traditional forms of leadership, but we did not see a contradiction between faculty dominance of the teaching and governance collectives and these egalitarian goals. Nor, despite our belief that social class should be understood as a fundamental social hierarchy, along with race, sexuality, and gender, did we analyze our differences within the collectives in class terms. Students in the collectives rotated frequently as they progressed through school, while the core faculty members stayed, received salaries, and developed their expertise. Over time, the distance widened between the faculty-then mostly white, heterosexual, partnered, and fairly well to do in comparison to staff and students who were more likely to be poorer, younger, lesbian, single mothers, and/or women of color. The most visible and contested class divides emerged between students from less privileged backgrounds--and unsure of the access their educations would give them to higher incomes--and the untenured faculty who were perceived as rich by students while themselves feeling economically insecure.
At UIC the deans of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to whom we reported, were initially amenable to annually appointing a Women's Studies Committee that was the program governing body and that we ourselves selected. We continued this basically collective functioning with our first official director, Strobel, who arrived in 1979 and served until 1990. Despite her having omitted her political connections from her vita, the search committee found her political writings elsewhere and so knew her democratic socialist feminist politics as well as her academic credentials when recruiting her. (30) As deans pushed toward more traditional lines of authority, Strobel remained committed to collective process, although the practice was not always smooth. She wrote to the Women's Studies Committee about her dissatisfaction with the inefficient parallel structure that had evolved between herself and the office staff member, who also served in the teaching collective. The teaching collective lasted in attenuated form at least until 1993, but with gradually fewer members and then for only for one of the introductory courses. (31)
Several faculty I interviewed also reported conflicts between collective versus more hierarchical structures. For example, Deborah Rosenfelt characterized the program at the University of California, Long Beach, as collective, whereas the one at San Francisco State was "more structured in terms of its working committees, but perhaps even more rooted in a commitment to the community." She says that at Long Beach in the 1970s, "our decision-making structure was consciously non-hierarchic and collective, with part-time faculty, staff, students, all participating in virtually all decisions. Our meetings were long (one might even say endless), as we thrashed through a whole range of political, institutional, and curricular issues. ... There was a sense that we were an insurgent formation (not language we would have used then) opposing a patriarchal academy."
Success in altering university structures and hierarchies of authority was always partial. Those few programs that tried to overturn academic hierarchies most thoroughly, including San Diego State and SUNY Buffalo in the early 1970s, had rapid turnover as school administrations resisted these experiments and sought to make the urban public universities more similar to prestigious private ones. Few women's studies programs were ever completely staffed by people calling themselves socialist feminists, and no program transformed its university; in that sense it is true that a fully successful socialist feminist women's studies never existed. Donna Haraway says, "I am not aware of WS programs that were 'socialist feminist' to the exclusion of other feminist idioms in the '70s, although several programs had socialist feminism as a core organizing axis in courses and among faculty and students and community people central to the programs." However, by the late 1970s, socialist feminism had entered the taxonomies of textbooks on feminism and feminist theory in parallel with liberal and radical feminisms.
From the late 1970s through the 1980s, several movements that affected both universities and women's studies programs combined to make the label of socialist feminist less viable. First, the conservative backlash meant that women's studies, which had been rapidly institutionalized through the 1970s, faced increasing battles in the following years, less for legitimacy than for funding, and defense against these attacks resulted in more mainstreaming.
Second, and most important throughout the 1980s, was the growing influence of women of color in the field of women's studies as writers, theorists, faculty, and administrators, not just as students and subjects of study. The earliest socialist feminists, coming from anti-imperialist and civil rights movements, had made antiracism essential to their ideologies but had not always acknowledged the theories of women of color or joined women of color in their organizing. In some cases university ethnic studies were pitted against women's studies for resources. Women of color faculty who were antiracist, materialist, and anti-imperialist might still be impatient with Marxist labels. By the 1980s, many socialist feminists acknowledged the intellectual leadership of U.S. women of color and later global and postcolonial feminists. Many women's studies programs that prospered past the 1980s were proudest of themselves for establishing cooperative alliances with African American and other ethnic studies programs. For example, Judith Newton reports that at the University of California at Davis, "We definitely built a program that emphasized intersectionality. The emphasis on class was there from the beginning and on economic change and justice, but race was the big change. We became a program that was about race as much as it was about gender, and ... half women of color [faculty] with students to match. ... After we started meeting together [with the ethnic studies programs] ..., we were taken a lot more seriously."
A third movement was the "theory revolution," in which the post-structuralist theories of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and later Judith Butler encouraged skepticism about all metanarratives, including the Marxism loosely underpinning socialist feminist thought. However, "theory" meant something different to Marxists than it did to poststructuralists, so that a disjunction sometimes developed between a Marxist approach that believed a "correct" analysis could best lead to successful social change and more flexible, less teleological, poststructuralist approaches. While the governing and pedagogical practices of socialist feminist women's studies became more similar to the rest of academe's, socialist feminist theory followed a somewhat different trajectory. From the standpoint of radical feminists--that is, those most focused on patriarchal oppression as the origin of other oppressions--Marxist-based thinking, including socialist feminism, was another tarnished masculinist ideology. From another direction, poststructuralists faulted socialist feminism as theoretically unsophisticated and inattentive to unconscious forces and to language. Some former socialist feminists were persuaded of the greater explanatory power of the new theories, especially as queer theory developed in the 1990s.
Thus, for many socialist feminists, poststructuralist skepticism about metanarratives undermined Marxism and with it socialism feminism, which had a strong set of political and pedagogical positions but a less clearly defined theory, despite agreement that patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism, and imperialism were mutually reinforcing. The strength of socialist feminist women's studies was largely in its syncretism and pragmatism, its enthusiasm about New Left classroom practices, and its flexible progressive ideology, which avoided Old Left dogma. Having dropped the term "socialist" as outmoded, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, some former socialist feminists called themselves "materialist feminists" in the 1980s and 1990s, only to find this term misunderstood as the individual greediness of the Madonna song "Material Girl." (32) Yet most socialist feminists still opposed capitalism and U.S. empire while heartily endorsing postcolonial and global feminists into the new millennium. For instance, Eisenstein says, "I identified as a socialist feminist [in the 1980s] to distinguish myself from the mainstream/white liberal movement in the United States." After the end of "statist socialism, however, I began to think I needed to reclaim socialism again; and as a white woman of the globe, I needed to name my anti-racism" in "a more inclusive feminism." Ellen Messer-Davidow speaks to the historical evolution of these political labels: "I know what we feminists meant in the '70s and '80s by liberal, radical, and socialist feminist thought," she says. "But I don't think these labels capture what's going on today, not just because we have many race-, ethnicity-, and nation-based strains of feminism, but also because the world we're analyzing has changed. Global capitalism is replacing corporate capitalism, the diffuse 'war on terror' instead of wars between or within nations, and different forms of systemic discrimination in the U.S. succeeded Jim Crow, sexism, and so on."
No Marxist theory has led to an ideally egalitarian socialist society. Despite occasional past defenses of China or Cuba, the scholars I interviewed all expressed dissatisfaction with socialist feminism as a discrete, coherent, or adequate theory for the present time, despite considerable continuing agreement with socialist feminism's basic principles. Some of those socialist feminists who identified most firmly as Marxists came to find the democratic socialist stream of socialist feminist theory lacking in comparison, particularly with regard to the analysis of social class. For example, Bonnie Zimmerman judges that "U.S. women's studies programs never did a very good job of addressing social class and did not incorporate analyses of imperialism until the transnational movement came along. Instead they focused almost obsessively on race and gender, with intermittent interest in race and sexuality." Eileen Boris says she teaches about "racialized gender within class society" and concludes that "we still don't have a good rethinking of class," rendering the analyses of intersectionality weaker. Contrasting the United States with England and Scandinavia, Rayna Rapp similarly quips that "it's so American not to deal with social class."
In the 1980s, as socialist feminism regularly appeared in taxonomies and theory texts, the Reagan conservative backlash was already in place. Katie King says that "The term 'socialist feminist' had the most salience to me in the early '80s, I think, and yet strangely it seemed to be something people were 'reviving' even though it hadn't existed ... in that form in my local venues" at the University of California, Santa Cruz: "In the early '70s we were anti-imperialist radical women, not socialist feminists." Indeed some socialist feminist practices and ideas, like community internships and anticorporatist thinking, were assimilated into or paralled by developments in mainstream women's studies in the 1970s-and 1980s and 1990s-while other socialist feminist practices, like collective leadership and meetings by consensus, were dropped for more conventional procedures amenable to university administrations. Patsy Schweickart concludes that "The label [socialist feminist] has disappeared. ... 'Radical' feminists have disappeared too. Poststructuralists and queer theorists have absorbed all." In comparison with Marxist feminism, she feels that "socialist feminism was never theoretically solid," and "socialist feminist theory didn't develop." There is "no unified field theory" of oppression, she claims, and "class" remains a "nebulous, complicated term" in the United States. "It's not clear who the capitalists are either": "we (faculty) all have stocks in our retirement funds." Yet while "socialism is invisible, it informs values and commitments to equality."
The scholars I interviewed varied in their degrees of optimism about the future of socialist feminist women's studies in the light of changing world conditions. Judith Stacey also questions whether or not "socialist feminism is a thing anywhere" now and finds it "no longer a useful label." With the "world now so far to the right," she upholds "a politics of resistance on many fronts that sometimes conflict," all of which might fall under the rubric of "materialist feminism": "Exploitation is central," yet "I don't see socialism as a contemporary viable project. I'd love to have it to kick around, but now we're less utopian and pick our struggles where it's possible to make a contribution." In contrast, Beth Richie believes that there is "more invoking of the politics of socialist feminism now" than in the 1990s, especially among activist academic women of color impatient at the lack of attention to white supremacy and to the analytical insights of women of color. There are more diverse women in the academy now, but she still wonders, "where is the radical politics?"
Thus based on these recent interviews and old documents, what I now see as having characterized socialist feminist women's studies was a historically specific conjunction of people, theories, and practices, combining a critique of the limitations of capitalism with a utopian sense of possibilities for institutional and social change. Self-identified socialist feminists were committed to developing knowledges that would change universities and society at large in progressive ways. Universities did indeed become transformed, but often in directions opposite to the ones we imagined. That is, large public universities became more, not less, corporate, and less supportive of pedagogical experimentation. Some practices that we associated with socialist feminism, although not exclusive to it, became mainstreamed, if often divested of radical content, from sitting in circles to internships and service learning. Meanwhile, the "language of civic engagement provides genuine opportunities for serious work by academics with communities," as Strobel reminds me. (33) Alternatives to conventionally credentialed faculty are more common now than in the 1970s, but chiefly to serve administrative goals of cheap, flexible, and temporary non-tenure track faculty, not to imbue all of society with democratic knowledge production. I conclude that categorizing feminisms by ideological labels may be less useful than a historical analysis focused on the changing meanings and uses of our terms and practices. Yet it is also important not to forget the history of these once-powerful terms altogether. Socialist feminism was threaded through the understanding, development, and favored practices of many women's studies programs from the 1970s to the present. It affected and was changed by all the other developments in feminist theory, women's activism, and the uneven institutionalization of women's studies in the United States. At the same time, global conditions were changing, and conservative state governments eroded support for the public institutions in which socialist feminist women's studies programs had chiefly flourished. Experiential learning and interaction with unions, prisons, and organizations fighting violence against women are becoming more widespread. Some remnants of the critique of hierarchy popular among 1970s women's studies programs have now become good management practices. And the coalition building and work with men's and mixed groups fostered by socialist feminism continues to thrive.
Most of the people with whom I spoke for this project still identified themselves as Left, materialist, progressive, or socialist feminists. None repudiated progressive beliefs, although they indicated how their approach to local and global economic inequalities, heterosexism, and, especially, racism had developed over the past decades. Thus, by a narrow definition, we can agree that there were very few explicitly socialist feminist women's studies programs: they were relatively short lived; and none fully lived up to their hopes and ideals. A broader definition is much more positive, as the insights of socialist feminism join those of women of color, postcolonial, and queer feminisms to produce a more nuanced, yet still progressive and activist academic women's studies.
I'll end this essay by quoting the most optimistic of my informants, Lillian Robinson, who unfortunately died in September 2006. Robinson, happily working on what she called the "better side of the border" in Canada, concluded that "we won." Although no women's studies programs now call themselves socialist feminist, "they all have the emphases" on women and globalization from Marxist, antiracist, and feminist perspectives. "What we have is much more widespread anti-capitalist understanding than when we started," and "nobody who works in freestanding women's studies thinks women's liberation is possible in global capitalism. ... Some of the health of women's studies as a field comes from the fact that the essence of socialist feminism exists in programs now that don't think of themselves that way."
Preliminary versions of this paper were delivered at the panel on "Socialist Feminist Women's Studies Programs" I organized at the 2006 National Women's Studies Association conference, Oakland, California, 2006, which also included Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Barbara Winkler, and at the Cultural Studies Association conference, Portland, Oregon, 2007.
(1.) Quotations in the text below, unless otherwise noted, are from unpublished face-to-face and telephone conversations and e-mails gathered in 2006 and confirmed in April 2007 from the following people: Sandra Bartky, Eileen Boris, Marilyn Boxer, Hester Eisenstein, Linda Gordon, Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, Katie King, Ellen Messer-Davidow, Judith Newton, Catherine Orr, Ros Petchesky, Rayna Rapp, Beth Richie, Lillian Robinson, Deborah Rosenfelt, Patrocinio Schweickart, Judith Stacey, Margaret Strobel, and Bonnie Zimmerman. In addition, I thank respondents whom I do not quote directly: Karen Brodkin, Estelle Carol, Jamie Daniel, Sara Evans, Holly Graff, Nancy Hewitt, Florence Howe, Sue Levine, Claire Moses. Barbara Ransby, Stephanie Riger, Ellen Ross, Roberta Salper, Joan Scott, and Barbara Winkler. Published sources are cited in notes below.
(2.) Casey Hayden and Mary King, "Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo from Casey Hayden and Mary King to a number of other women in the peace and freedom movements." 1965, www.CWLUherslory.com/CWLUArchive/memo.html.
(3.) "CWLU Overview," www.cwluherstory.com/CWLUAbout/about.html.
(4.) I include some of this personal history in Judith Kegan Gardiner, "Rethinking Collectivity: Chicago Feminism, Athenian Democracy, and the Consumer Univeristy," in Women's Studies on Its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, ed. Robyn Wiegman (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), 191-92. Margaret Strobel also describes the UIC women's studies program in "Consciousness and Action: Historical Agency in the Chicago Women's Liberation Union," in Provoking Agents: Theorizing Gender and Agency, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 52-68, and in "The Academy and the Activist: Collective Practice and Multicultural Focus," in Florence Howe, ed., The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers (New York: Feminist Press, 2000), 155-69.
(5.) Craig Connolly, "On Program," mimeograph in my possession, dated August 1970, 2.
(6.) I'm referring to handwritten and dittoed notes in my women's studies program and course teaching files for the specified dates.
(7.) The courses had similar curricula from 1973 through 1979. I'm referring here to my course records for 1975-1976.
(8.) The mimeographed version I have is Barbara Ehrenreich, "Socialist/Feminism and Revolution," speech given at the National Socialist/Feminist Conference, Yellow Springs. Ohio, 4 July 1975. A close printed version is "What Is Socialist Feminisms" Win Magazine, 3 June 1976.
(9.) However, this doesn't negate the white-centeredness of our collectives and programs, and the "white women's comfort level with de facto segregation" described by Barbara Smith. "'Feisty Characters' and 'Other People's Causes': Memories of White Racism and U.S. Feminism," in The Feminist Memoir Project: Vorces from Women's Liberation, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), 479.
(10.) Informants about these schools include Hester Eisenstein, Elizabeth Kennedy, Catherine Orr, Lillian Robinson, and Deborach Rosenfelt. Also see Robera Salper, in this issue of Feminist Studies.
(11.) We paid small honoraria, usually $25, to community speakers from a budget for course materials.
(12.) We didn't ever require written statements. Sandra Bartky thinks that she wrote this unsigned document about 1973 to 1975; but she also says she changed her mind on some of the issues later.
(13.) Women's Studies Board. Women's Studies and Socialist Feminism (San Diego, Calif.: Fanshen Printing Collective, 1974).
(14.) In addition to my interviews with them, sources are Catherine M. Orr, "Challenging the 'Academic/Real World' Divide" in Teaching Feminist Activism: Strategies from the Field. ed. Nancy A. Naples and Karen Bojar (New York: Routledge. 2002), 36-53; and Marilyn Jacoby Boxer, When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
(15.) See Salper, this issue.
(16.) The Clearinghouse on Women's Studies, mimeographed sheet, contact persons: Florence Howe and Jane Williamson, "Trends in Developing Women's Studies Programs," includes a list of programs (1975). The numbers with a differently organized list are reported in Florence Howe, "New Curricular Focus in Women's Studies Programs: [table] Trends in Degree-Granting and Minor-Granting Women's Studies Programs." Women's Studies Newsletter 4 (Winter 1976): 1-2, 8-11.
(17.) UIC websites www.uic.edu/las/afam/welcome.html and www.uic.edu/las/latamst/about.htm.
(18.) "Report of the UIC 2010 Strategic Thinking Committee," http://tigger.uic.edu/depts/oaa/2010.
(19.) Christine Grahl, Elizabeth Kennedy, Lillian Robinson, and Bonnie Zimmerman, "Women's Studies: A Case in Point." Feminist Studies 1 (Summer 1972): 109-20. I also have an earlier version, labeled "working draft, not for publication." See also. Elizabeth Lapvosky kennedy who identifies herself as a socialist feminist in her edited book with Agatha Beins, Women's Studies for the Future: Foundations, Interrogations. Politics (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005). 2, although, as she remarked at our 2006 NWSA panel, she did not in her earlier work when on the SUNY Buffalo faculty.
(20.) For example, in the titles of Rosemary Hennessy, Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse (New York: Routledge, 1993); Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean, Materialist Feminisms (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993); Nancy Holmstrom, ed., The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).
(21.) Hyde Park Chapter of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, "Socialist Feminism--A Strategy for the Women's Movement" (1972), www.cwluherstory.com/CWLU Archive/ socfem.html.
(22.) Strobel, an active NAM member, personal communication to author, 2007.
(23.) "Socialist Feminist Conference Summer 1975," www.cwluherstory.com/CWLU Archive/socfemintor 1975.html.
(24.) Ehrenreich, "Socialist/Feminism and Revolution."
(25.) My handwritten notes from this caucus list 17 Participants.
(26.) Combahee River Collective (Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier), "A Black Feminist Statement," in Feminist Theory: A Reader, ed. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski, 2d ed. (1977; rpt., Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 311-17.
(27.) Anecdotal evidence of alleged Maoists and/or FBI or police informers targeting women's liberation unions for destruction was rumored at the time and subsequently. Margaret Strobel reports that a CWLU member who was in contact with women from the Twin Cities Women's Union noted strong similarities in the attacks from the Maoist left against the two groups. Personal communication to author, 2007.
(28.) Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (New York: Viking Penguin, 2000), 246, 239, 259. For the case of government surveillance against her, see Salper, this issue.
(29.) Letter, 4 May 1980, signed by Sharon Leder; undated circular on 1982 planning from Joan Smith. About seventy-five names are on the Socialist Feminist Task Force mailing lists from this period. Documents courtesy of Strobel.
(30.) Strobel, "The Academy and the Activist," 162-63.
(31.) Marilyn Carlander, "Item for Agenda of First Meeting Fall 1993," to Members of the Women's Studies Committee, FY 93, suggests writing a manual including information on "People and Practices (Job descriptions/ division of labor/ management personnel policies ... staff, teaching collective, TAs and RAs ...)." Minutes of the Women's Studies Committee Meeting say, "We need to have more discussion about the structure of the TC [Teaching Collective]." Actual decisions about its structure were left up to the faculty member Norma Moruzzi and teaching assistant Carrie Brecke.
(32.) Peter Brown and Robert Rans, "Material Girl," lyrics sung by Madonna Ciccione Ritchie in Like a Virgin album (1984). www.lyricsfreak.com/m/madonna/material + girl_20086925.html.
(33.) Strobel, personal communication to author, May 2007.
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|Author:||Gardiner, Judith Kegan|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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