January of 1969 The Mobe at the Counter Inaugural

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The rift between NY and DC split wide open a year later during protests at the Presidential inauguration. Organized by The National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, the Mobe, as it was known, was decidedly New Left in orientation with substantial crossover with SDS in the all male leadership .[1] The MOBE left one spot for a female speaker, Marilyn Webb, from the group D.C. Women’s Liberation.  Considered by some women’s liberationist activists to be too sympathetic to the male left, Webb was not acceptable as a representative of all women.  Therefore a second speaker, Shulamith Firestone, was added.  Ironically both women’s speeches were poorly received and it seems unlikely that the audience understood the nuanced differences between their two viewpoints on the position of women in “the movement.”

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Once again, the Chicago VWLM carried the debates of NY and DC women, while remaining neutral.  An editors note to VWLM #6 (February 1969) explained “Ugly faction fighting highlighted the women’s activities.  Two women, Marilyn Webb and Shulamith Firestone gave speeches … We are printing these because we think it is important that our movement discuss politics differences openly.”[1]  Once again, the debated hinged on how to justify women’s liberation as a movement.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Webb’s speech exemplified the approach she advocated around the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.  She attempted to placate men in the Left, while exhorting women to organize.  Again, Webb and Firestone agreed at many points, but reached vastly different conclusions.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Both Firestone and Webb understood women as “victims” who were oppressed.  However, Webb spoke from the plural “we” to appeal to the women in the audience to “join this struggle and march with us today,” reflecting her continued interest in using women’s liberation to organize women.    Firestone’s speech largely addressed “you men” in the audience and excoriated them for not understanding that women are more oppressed than men

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 “we are controlled and more than you were are controlled.  It is not just nasty capitalism that is doing it all either.  Though obviously that must be eliminated if we are to get it pulled out at the root, but let’s start talking about where you live baby … whether capitalism and all those other isms doesn’t just begin at home.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Quoting Marx, Firestone concluded “social progress is measured by the position of women” (9)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 However, more than targeted audiences separated Webb and Firestone, as the two factions made clear in VWLM.  Webb submitted a piece from the perspective of one of the  organizers in the host city, D.C. women’s liberation[i] received proposed protest materials from women’s groups intended to participate in t he protest.  Webb claimed that she had merely objected to a sentence on the proposed flyer from the New York group that proclaimed “women’s liberation is the final revolution.”  She suggested that the group clarify that two revolutions were necessary, both “economic” and “cultural” and that “the second was only possible given the first.” In Webb’s view working for the economic revolution in order to get the cultural revolution meant that women could not cut themselves off completely from the Left.  She outlined what she viewed as “three distinct views on organizing and ideology within our movement” the first positions women as “the vanguard of the revolution” and is akin to “black nationalism.”  The second views women as a “constituency” similar to “the working class, blacks etc” and while women may organize separately, everyone is working for the same revolution “as participants in the class struggle” and finally a third position is that women’s liberation, while “part of a revolutionary movement” works “as a separate arm” addressing gender specific issues in the “superstructure” such as “capitalist definition of so the family, work consumption leisure, lady-likeness and male supremacy.”[ii]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This seemingly innocuous statement belied the fundamental question facing women’s liberation, was sexism secondary to class oppression and what would free women economic revolution or total cultural upheaval?  These divisions were exacerbated by Webb’s use of gendered language to describe the New York group as “shrieky” and filled with “hysteria.”    These questions represent more than pragmatic strategies, and rest on fundamentally different understandings of the origins and nature of women’s oppression.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0  

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Firestone did not write a piece for this issue herself, instead asking that VWLM publish an account written by Ellen Willis, another member of NYRW and a close ally.  Willis rejects “the standard radical view” of women’s liberation “as a branch of the left” and of women “as a constituency.”   She argues that the women’s liberationists who want a separate women’s movement were born out by what happened at the MOBE, women were omitted from the male-authored press releases and program, as well as the list of causes, and the male organizers failed to stand up to male hecklers in the crowd.  Having shown that New Left men weren’t truly supportive of women’s liberation, Willis moves on to outline why then women must work for their own revolution and why that revolution will look so different.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Proclaiming women as “an independent revolutionary movement, potentially representing half the population,” i.e. a fourth position not recognized by Webb,  Willis dismissed “anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist analysis” as insufficient for women’s situation. That revolution cannot be limited to “women” as a “special interest group,” because women’s “oppression transcends occupations and class lines.”  Specifically rejecting the notion that women are oppressed with the men of their class, Willis argued that men, and those men closest to them, the men of their own class, oppress women.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0  “Radical men have power positions that they will not give up until they have to.  They will support our revolution only when we build a movement so strong that no revolution at all is possible without our cooperation.  To work within the movement is to perpetuate the idea that our struggle is secondary” (5).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Women’s struggle is “revolutionary” because it involves two revolutions in one, “not only the overthrow of capitalism but the destruction of the patriarchal family.”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Women must instead “develop a group consciousness” which Willis clarifies is  “a specifically feminist radical consciousness.”  The foundation for women’s group identity? “Femaleness, like blackness, is a biological fact, a fundamental condition.”[i]  Men in this formulation are not only the enemy but also have tainted socialist ideology, which Willis terms “male-oriented radical analysis,” when she suggests that women outside the New Left “may have a clearer perspective” and goes so far to suggest that radical women may even have to ally with reformist groups like N.O.W. Consciousness based on shared femaleness, rather than class solidarity, leads to women’s revolution.  Because “women are the only oppressed people whose biological, emotional and social life is bound up with the oppressor,” their revolution will be emotional as well as economic. “We must provide a place for women to be friends, exchange personal grief’s and give their sisters moral support.” This is a long way from Webb’s argument for a primary economic revolution and a secondary cultural one.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In the next, and last issue of VWLM, both Firestone and a group of four NYRW wrote rebuttals to Webb’s article. The NYRW members take Webb to task for being insufficiently Marxist: “the tipoff to our ideological disagreement is Marilyn’s labeling the women’s movement  “cultural’ as opposed to ‘economic’ revolution.  She should do some homework – Engel’s Origin of the Family, for a start.“   They insist that the family must be understood as an “economic class structure” on its own, “intertwined with but distinct from the capitalist structure” and view “women’s sexual, reproductive and maintenance functions” as economic functions, exploited by “the ideology of male supremacy.”  Firestone refused to address Webb’s analysis on her terms instead claiming only two positions existed “women for women all the way, and women who are afraid to be for women all the way.”  The sort of solidarity based on sharing that Willis and Firestone envisioned didn’t come down to doctrine.  Women’s revolution wasn’t about ideology, but emotions.  As the NYRW 1968 statement of principles proclaimed “We regard out feelings as our most important source of political understanding.”    In focusing on doctrinal differences, women only hurt themselves.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Ironically, at least for the story of women’s culture, on the same page as the rebuttal /defense of Firestone is a piece about WITCH, the third, but seldom discussed, group from women’s liberation involved in the fracas at the Counter-Inaugural.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 This article, by Chicago WITCH participants Nancy Stokley and Sally Stein explained that “Like other oppressed groups, women have not been allowed to develop a consciousness of their own history.”  After providing a revisionist history of witchcraft, the authors explain that the witch was chosen as a revolutionary image for women because they did fight hard and in their fight their refused to accept the level of struggle society deemed acceptable for their sex.”  WITCH antics proved so successful at garnering media attention, although much of it negative, that WITCH actions began occurring around the country.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 WITCH emerged out of NYRW, but took yet another divergent path in explaining women’s liberation as revolutionary.  In “WITCH at the counter-inaugural,” published in RAT, Morgan wrote as though she didn’t even know the New York group:  “we entered into some very bad-vibe internecine power struggles between the New York and Washington women” although what really burned Morgan was the “yawn provoking slogan ‘Feminism lives.'”  Ever determined to bring some verve to the WLM, Morgan and her fellow WITCHes quickly reversed the placards and crayoning WITCH on the reverse, “threw together some songs and chants to make the marching endurable” and carried a prop “for an unplanned, play-it-by -ear theater action at the end of the march.”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Apparently both the Webb and Firestone factions disapproved of WITCH tactics.  According to Morgan “on our arrival . . .  we found we were excommunicate, anathema, and also not welcome. . . .  They had obviously been united by our presence, and had resolved to chew us up. . . . We were gratified that our existence seemed to unify and give meaning to theirs, but we didn’t understand why.”

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 While Morgan ended her essay with the plea “there is room in the Women’s Movement for all of us, and the more styles, tactics, and approaches the better,” the problem was that as the emerging women’s liberation movement busily defended itself as not inherently anti-revolutionary, some women had little patience for the “different styles” represented by groups such as WITCH.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 While Webb’s objections might be understandable, Morgan as part of  NYRW  had organized a similar protest in September of 1968 at the Miss America pageant.[i]  Her yippie-inspired provocative street theater events known as zap actions, may have upset Willis and Firestone, but Morgan’s approach and the demonstration tactics of WITCH were completely in keeping with the NYRW statement of principles, which offered an extended argument about “culture”

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 “we take as our source the hitherto unrecognized culture of women, a culture which from long experience of oppression developed an intense appreciation for life, a sensitivity to unspoken thoughts and the complexity of simply things, a powerful knowledge of human needs and feelings.”

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 NYRW statement of principles explicitly repudiated that sort of theoretical infighting that occurred at the Counter Inaugural by stating

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 “we ask not if something is reformist radical revolutionary or moral … we ask not  if something is political .. we are critical of all past ideology” instead they embraced a pragmatic form of activism  “we ask is it good for women or is it bad for women? … we ask is it effective? Does it get us closest to what we really want in the fastest way?”

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 However, despite this commitment,  NYRW was in the process of slowly falling apart over a schism represented by Firestone v Morgan perhaps explains why the two women came separately to the counter inaugural. [ii]

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [i] Robin Morgan confirms that Firestone did not participate in the protest.  Naomi Jaffe did prior to leaving WITCH for the WeatherUnderground. [twitter 3/3/12]

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [ii] WITCH organized their first action in Oct of 1968, but the differences between Morgan and Firestone became too difficult to maintain within NYRW and in February of 1969 Firestone co-founded Redstockings.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0  

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [1] VWLM #6 Feb 1969 p. 1

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 [1] After a May 20-21, 1967, National Anti-War Conference in Washington, DC, the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War In Vietnam became known officially as the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [i] According to Valk D.C. women’s liberation formed out of women’s participation in The January 1968 Jeannette Rankin Brigade, an event that united, the women who would end up fighting at the MOBE.   D.C. women’s liberation also organized the first national women’s liberation conference which again brought together the groups that would factionalize at the MOBE.   However, Volk characterizes the group as “closely tied to the  New Left and anti-war  activities in D.C. and elsewhere” (64), a telling difference from the

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 [ii]Webb ended with four conclusions, 1. Ideology and political differences can no longer be pushed under the rug 2. If we define and work out positions together, we will not be put in this situation again 3. We’ve got to do a better job on the local level of explaining what we are about to both men and women 4. We’ve got to use this newsletter to argue our positions publically.  A third party observer drew even more practical conclusions  “in a rally situation the speeches should be directed around the action and the rationale for our involvement as women in that action 2. People aren’t interested in factional disputes  women need a common strategy 3. Need to be more flexible in speeches.  4. Prepare to meet hostility 5 speak early and be brief

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0  


Source: https://politicsofwomensculture.michellemoravec.com/january-of-1969-the-mobe-at-the-counter-inaugural/