Stuck in the Middle: Chicago Between NY and DC

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Although consciousness raising is now the magical signifier of women’s lib, the function of consciousness was hotly debated in the early days of the movement.  The relationships between oppression, consciousness, and liberation had to be untangled even as references to consciousness appeared scattered throughout the earliest women’s liberation publications  [“radical consciousness” (VWLM Aug 1968) Opening editorial of Aphra “feminine consciousness”  (Sept 1969)  no more fun and games, Cell 16 Boston “awakening consciousness” “new consciousness” raise the consciousness group consciousness own consciousness VWLM Feb 1969 this issue is when raised consciousness seems to take over in this periodical at least [evenutally add clusters and collocates of consciousness]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As women attempted to formulate a rationale for their own movement, they struggle to articulate the precicse role of consciousness.  Was consciousness a necessary precursor to organizing women or part of the mobilizing process itself.  In the aftermath of one of the earliest splinter demonstrations by white women from the New Left, two positions on consciousness emerged.   Shulamith Firestone depicted consciousness, like de Beauvoir, as a form of oppressed subjectivity that required reclamation through acts of self-definition.   This consciousness was felt. As the NYRW  statement of principles would proclaimed “We regard out feelings as our most important source of political understanding.” [similarly the program for feminist consciousness raising Nov 1968 starts out with long discussion of feelings and culture]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Webb argued that organizing preceded consciousness because she sought to create a mass movement, much like men on the left were attempting to organize the white working class or mobilize draft resisters “In order for women to begin-to develop political consciousness and the power necessary to act on such a consciousness, we must organize”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 While geographically Chicago seems distant from the centers of what we now think of as the powerhouses of early radical feminism, Chicago played a pivotal role, both in disseminating early women’s liberation thought, but also as an ideological middle ground between the movement heavies of DC and the radical feminists of New York.  With a social feminist bent overall, the Chicago contingent had a foot in both camps, insisting with the politicos on the primacy of material conditions, but seeing the radical feminists point of view when it came to centering women’s liberation.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement (VWLM), the first national periodical of women’s liberation put out by Westside group member Jo Freeman.  The first issues (March 1968) carried an editorial by her that described “radical women” as “women who recognize the interdependence of radical change and women’s liberation.  Freeman emphasizes the need for “organizing” like Webb, but like Firestone, argues that “Only women can define what it to be a woman in a liberated society end we cannot allow others, by our inaction, to do this for us.” Even as it steered a middling course,  Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement (VWLM) played an important role in publishing accounts of the factional fighting between NY and DC.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The first skirmish occurred during the January 1968 Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a coalition of historical women’s organizations, such as the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (1915),  newer, but still, well-established organizations like Women Strike for Peace, as well as women from the New Left who organized a peace march in Washington, D.C.,  the first women’s march at the Capitol since the 1913 suffrage parade.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The conflict erupted when the New York Radical Women created a protest inside the protest that relied on agit-prop theater techniques.  Organized largely by Shulamith Firestone, who had left Chicago for New York by that point,  and KathyAmatniek (later Sarachild), the event made use of the symbolic space of Arlington Cemetery to stage a mock funeral for “traditional womanhood” with the image of women’s role during war “wives, mothers and: mourners; that is, tearful and passive reactors to the actions of men” providing the “corpse.”  The protest consisted of a funeral procession for

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 a larger-than-life dummy on a transported bier, complete with feminine getup, blank face, blonde curls, and candle. Hanging from the bier were such disposable items as S & H Green Stamps, curlers, garters, and hairspray.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The rallying cry “”DON’T CRY: RESIST ” linked the symbolic action to a desired political action  However the items suspended from the funeral bier presaged those that would be employed to protest the trappings of femininity at the Miss America Protest in September of that year. The Burial of True Womanhood targeted women’s oppression as much as it aimed at ending the war.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Now some sisters here are probably wondering why we should bother with such an unimportant matter at a time like this. Why should we bury traditional womanhood while hundreds of thousands of human beings are being brutally slaughtered in our names… Sisters who ask a question like this are failing to see that they really do have a problem as women in America…that we cannot hope to move toward a better world or even a truly democratic society at home until we begin to solve our own problems. … We must see that we can only solve our problem together.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 While the malethe New Left’s sexist dismissal of the Brigade’s action was sadly predictable, the criticism from other women stung bitterly. Rather “sol[ing] our problem together”   NYRW was met with condemnation, particularly from D.C. women’s liberation activists who viewed the protest as “apolitical” and playing into the hands of men on the Left who wanted to dismiss women’s liberation.   Two high profile members of the nascent D.C. group, Pam Allen and Marilyn Webb, published thinly veiled attacks on the protest in VWLM which reveal their profoundly different views of how women could achieve social change.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Allen focused on the many failures of the “radical women” to capitalize on the excellent opportunity to organize “militant” women.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “women … were interested in more than words. They were angry and wanted to ‘do something.’ ”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The tenor of that observation, combined with her remarks that women “wanted action, not rhetoric” and an emphasis on the need to “channel their feelings into constructive action” implied a divide between “doing” and “talking” with a marked preference for the former.  Protests that centered of rhetorical action and that invoked emotions, like The Burial of True Womanhood occurring far away from the center of power, at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia rather than on the Mall, were a far cry from Allen’s preferred “organizing civil disobedience-carrying signs in defiance of a police edict and confronting Congress on the Capitol steps.”

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Marilyn Webb’s article, although ostensibly a “call for a spring conference” also took a swipe at the action, which she claims “already knew was going ot be ineffective”.  Like Allen ,Webb focused on the need to organize.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In order for women to begin-to develop political consciousness and the power necessary to act on such a consciousness, we must organize.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 and argues that radical women attended the march solely for the purpose of organizing.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 We came because we, as radical political people, have learned from the a black movement here and the women of Vietnam that the only way we can be a force is to build our own movement.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Webb here speaks of “radical people” not “radical women” and of a “political consciousness,” again linking back to black consciousness.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 While consciousness raising had yet to be named as such (happened later in the year at the first national women’s liberation conference held in Chicago) “talking” as a means of developing greater awareness of women’s oppression, represented one strand of organizing women.  While this view is most strongly associated with NYRW, in this issue of VWLM. the Chicago WRAP group explained its value.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The Women’s Radical Action Project… formed last fall to discuss radicalism and women.At first our discussions were very groping. … as we gained a group identity and common understanding we could probe more deeply into such questions as the role of women in the radical movement the conflict between an identity as a women and as a person, and the relationship between issues of women’s liberation and radical action and education. … We also want to organize other women around issues that will make them realize their identify as articulate, intelligent, competent and political human beings.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Here WRAP positions talk, as Firestone had, as the necessary first step to producing analysis that can then be used to mobilize, recruit, and organize women.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 While Webb acknowledged the need for “dialog” and “to talk to people about our concerns,”  her preference is clearly for organizing,  as she ends her article with the plea “we as radical women have to organize ourselves.”  In contrast, the Chicago women positioned their rap group as a form of organizing, looking to sponsor a conference that would “draw many apolitical women and where we can present ideas on female consciousness and wider political issues.  These are just some ideas; we still need.to do a lot of talking. … But we’re organized, and we’re growing.”

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Although Firestone is strongly associated with what came to be called conscousness raising, her  analysis of the Burial of True Womanhood is quite similar to Webb and Allen’s.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 It was a great moment. But we lost it. … one good guiding speech at the crisis point which illustrated the real causes underlying the massive discontent and impotence felt in that room then, would have been worth ten dummies and three months of careful and elaborate planning

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 However, Firestone’s understanding of the “real causes” and the conclusions she draws are quite different.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 We confirmed our worst suspicions, that the job ahead, of developing even a minimal consciousness among women will be staggering

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 Firestone  sees the “talking” and “doing” as related in her defense of “dramatic action” as sometimes “most effective.” Her notion of “consciousness” rests on the analysis represented by the Burial’s desire to spur “organizing as women to change that definition of femininity.” Changing definitions of femininity, such as the offensive cover of Ramparts that featured the Brigade “reduced women to two tits with no head” and “perpetuates their status as sexual objects …  the basic form of oppression women must struggle against” meant that women’s liberation must challenge culture,  images and words, in protests like the Burial of True Womanhood.

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30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Cover Ramparts, February 1968

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Although Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement took no position on the Brigade or the Burial, they reacted with anger to men’s dismissal of women’s actions. The first issue (March 1968) included a “Male chauvinist of the month award” given to the editors of the NL journal Ramparts “for contributions to the cause of the oppression of women too numerous to describe herein but obvious to anyone who has read the February issue of the playboy of the left” (2) . The issue in question featured on the cover the headless torso of a buxom woman with a Jeannette Rankin For President badge pinned on her breast and the words “woman power” in small script over her shoulder.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 While the Brigade is often pointed to as the origins of the politico-radical feminist split, it provided cultural activists with one of their earliest opportunities to create a public action.  In this sense, the Burial of True Womanhood paved the way for the Miss America Pageant protest later that year, and for groups like WITCH.  For the story of women’s culture, the Brigade also included a serendipitous moment when historian Gerda Lerner spotted younger activists on the train back to NYC.  Lerner recalled that she had initially been “very upset” by “his group of wild-looking young women” who disrupted “a meeting that people worked months to organize. And we’re doing serious business. We’re talking about nuclear war.”   Lerner apparently chatted with Amatniek and Anne Koedt of NYRW for the entire trip back to New York City. While she warned the women from repeating the mistake of separatism that had doomed 19th century activists, she credited that discussion with starting to shifting her opinions about the women’s liberation activists. [Gerda Lerner Oral History Smith College)

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 And then we stayed in touch.  They sent me each a couple of pamphlets they wrote and I read those pamphlets and I thought they were very interesting.  …. as a result of this exchange with these women and what they sent me, I wrote an article called “the Feminists, A Second Look.”

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36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 +++++++

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 * to the historians ear, the name of the protest, and its content, immediately call to mind Barbara Welter’s 1966 article on the Cult of True Womanhood.  I’ve not been able to establish a definitive connection between this article and the title of the protest.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 **Pam Allen, RADICAL WOMEN AND THE RANKIN BRIGADE, March 1968, Vol 1, no 1, 3 and Marilyn Salzman Webb, CALL FOR A SPRING CONFERENCE, March 1968, Vol 1, no 1, 4.  Echols discusses the articles that evolved out of these pieces and were published in New Left periodicals,  The Guardian and New Left Notes, because her primary focus is the split between radical women and the New Left.  I’ve chosen to focus on the original articles in order to reveal the conversations that occurred among radical women.

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Source: https://politicsofwomensculture.michellemoravec.com/about-2/book-pre-fall-2016/consciousness/between-ny-and-dc/