...on BBC1 last night called 'Angry Wimmin'. It was about the rise and fall of radical feminism in the UK in the 1970's and a kind of 'where are you now?' for the leading figures in the movement at the time. It did my heart good to see all the old footage and all the old faces - literally old; those women are in their 50's and 60's now.
Back in the day, when they were young, they broke away from the political Left where, as feminists, their arguments for the liberation of women were brushed aside with words to the effect of "Yes, yes, yes. We'll deal with all that when the real battle's been won" by the men who, of course, were in charge and organising the agenda. The women were expected to make the tea and sandwiches, mind the children and be sexually available to the men. Socialist feminism didn't appear to further their liberation at all while men were in charge.
Having identified that the main oppression faced by women didn't originate with capitalism but with patriarchy and men, they formed their own movement and a large part of the programme focused on the radical separatists. Some women tried to erradicate males from their lives altogether. They set up women only houses where even boy children weren't allowed. One woman explained how her brother (whom she loved very much) came to visit her with his girlfriend and he had to sit outside in the car while his sister and his girlfriend were indoors chatting. Another woman explained how she left her children with their father to join an all women house. She had both a girl child and a boy child but couldn't separate them by taking only her daughter with her so she left them both; such was the strength of her conviction that women only spaces were the key to the liberation of all women that she left her children in order to achieve her aim.
And they wore comfy clothes, these women. And shoes they could run in. Gone were the strict diktats of the fashion industry. Gone were any notions of having to buy beauty products in order to try to make oneself attractive to men. Nope, there was none of that for them. They were trying to find out who they could be as just themselves without the negative and negating influence patriarchy and men have on women and their lives. They were exploring their potential as women.
But it was all pretty fair. If you couldn't have a boy child in an all women house, nor could you have a male cat. This movement was totally female oriented. Totally.
The programme lingered a while with political lesbianism but not in a lascivious way - nor did it examine the issues of political lesbianism too closely. I guess that's for another programme... But the feeling was clear - all women for women: and men are the enemy. Male violence against women was identified as the major tool of patriarchal oppression - domestic violence, sexual violence, prostitution and pornography - male violence, or the threat of violence, against women was (is?) the major tool that curtails our lives, keeps us frightened of and dependent upon men; keeps us powerless. Action soon followed. Women marched against rape in the streets, set fire to sex shops, protested in numbers against the various ways men blatantly oppress women. They were loud and they were angry, they were strong and they were united. They were a force to be reckoned with.
Someone from WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) in London said about how they'd have a meeting on Wednesday nights where they'd bring stuff they'd seen that week - a new strip club or sex shop, some sexist advertising maybe - and by Friday they had an action ready and would go along to wherever it was and cause mayhem. They were protesting against patriarchy's appraisal of 'women's place' and how that impacted on all women, everywhere. Nowhere at all did any of them blame another woman for her 'complicity' in the oppression of women. Academic radical feminist analysis at the time placed responsibility for the oppression of women fairly and squarely on patriarchial systems of oppression. It still does. Radical feminists did not - and still don't - point the finger at other women.
The programme showed lots of the old feminist slogans and almost all of them still ring true today but the one that gets me every time is "NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT".
You can see how the patriarchal establishment became worried. These women were seriously challenging the status quo and 'ordinary' women were agreeing with them! 'Ordinary' women were becoming politicised, starting to question things, objecting to the way they were marginalised by society, struggling out of the boxes they'd been forced into as girls by the expectations of men. 'Ordinary' women were recognising their own oppression and that of women everywhere. There was a potential uprising happening and, such was the rising level of feminist consciousness - sisterhood, if you like - the establishment was unsure which way to turn but, obviously, this whole movement had to be squashed somehow.
Unfortunately, the establishment didn't have to lift a finger. Feminism ate itself. Passionate (compassionate?) feminism was splintered by identity feminism. Where those women had been fighting for the generic liberation of women the movement was splintered when issues other than common genitalia were introduced.
Maybe the initial movement was too small. It didn't take into account the particular oppressions faced by disabled women, black women, ethnic minority women, lesbian disabled black women, vegetarian women, vegan women, women against the bomb, etc. But I don't think it could have. I believe those women who marched and torched and ripped and shouted and yelled and left their children and their families etc. were fighting for the basic liberation of all women and, as a result, were unable to specify the particular interests of those who felt marginalised by the fight. I think they were fighting for the liberation of women as a Class and I think that, without the rise of identity feminism, they'd have achieved more for women than they were able to at the time. The establishment, after all, was running scared.
The GLC (Greater London Council) under the leadership of Ken Livingstone (bless his heart, I'm absolutely sure his intentions were honourable) set up a Women's Committee as a direct result of the actions of WAVAW and Angry Wimmin and they did lots of good work. For example; it was discovered that women travelling on London Transport did feel scared and vulnerable when faced with endless adverts that depicted their physiology as sexually titillating and available to men so a Code of Practice was introduced that went some way to eliminate sexist advertising on the buses and tube in London. The Women's Committee had a funding budget for women's projects - most of which went into supporting childcare schemes but, even so, this free'd many women from 24 hour childcare duties and enabled them to become participating members of society.
Some of these ideas caught on to some extent. National Government has a Minister for Women (albeit a shared post these days). My local (Labour) council had a Women's Officer in the 80's while they were in power. 'Women's issues' were taken more seriously as a result of those angry wimmin. But when the funding for 'women's issues' was withdrawn the avenue for any political change was closed.
But they helped, those angry wimmin. We have Refuges for women escaping domestic violence and sexual trafficking and we have Rape Crisis Centres for women who have experienced sexual violence. Both hugely under-funded but at least we now have a network of organisations to mop up the damage done after male violence against women. Progress, of sorts.
I think there are lessons to be learned from those Angry Wimmin and what happened to their passion. They just cared about women and the shit that happens to us - they didn't give a flying fuck about what the establishment thought about them, they just wanted the patriarchal oppression of women to end - but their movement was destroyed by the blinkeredness of factions. It made me think. It made me think, in particular about how and why women as a Class are so easily separated from one another when we're ostensibly fighting for one another. It made me wonder whether we're still caught in the faction motivated but media driven backlash of identity feminism. Oh yes, the media quickly caught on to the political divisions within feminism - and they still wheel them out as 'news', even now.
It even made me wonder about 'feminist' as a label. 'Feminist', for me, is about fighting for women's freedom from patriarchal oppression. For me, the freedom for an individual woman to lapdance for some bloke comes way after the freedom of all women from the after effects of that action. I'm not an identity feminist, in spite of all my 'ism's', and I'm aware that what I do impacts on the lives of other women. Women as a Class matter to me so it's women as a Class first, for me. I can't be pro-pornography or pro-prostitution because i) I recognise the harm often (usually?) done to the individual and ii) I recognise the harm done to women as a Class by both pornography and prostitution. As a result, I can't defend them - at all. Ever. I have no feminist tools that enable me to say "this is good for women as a Class". Is there a 'women as a Class centred pro-pornsitution' person out there who can argue this with me?
I just really hope that support for 'performing' sex for male gratification doesn't bring down the fragile women's movement now the way that the passion of those Angry Wimmin was decimated by the self-obsessed factions in the 70's.
We all just want better lives for women, right?