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16 May 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 8:46am

Hannah Mudge on Susan Brownmiller: The backlash against the Second Wave

We're all empowered now... or are we?

By Hannah Mudge

This piece is part of the New Statesman’s “Rereading the Second Wave” series. Read the other essays here.


“Imagine a time – or summon it back into memory – when a husband was required to countersign a wife’s application for a credit card, a bank loan or automobile insurance, when psychiatrists routinely located the cause of an unsatisfactory sex life in the frigid, ballbreaking, castrating female partner, when abortion was an illegal, back-alley procedure, when rape was the woman’s fault, when nobody dared talk about the battery that went on behind closed doors, or could file a complaint about sexual harassment.”

The prologue of Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution asks us to imagine the birth of the second wave of feminism, and the myriad injustices that inspired a movement to push for change. In 1968 – the year she calls ‘the beginning’, the author was 33 years old, a freelance magazine journalist and newswriter for ABC, a ‘striver’ who ‘seethed in silence’ because she desperately wanted to be a correspondent but had been told that there was no place for her because they ‘already had a woman’ – a colleague who presented a five-minute broadcast entitled News with the Woman’s Touch. Putting her days as a civil rights activist behind her, she had spent the mid-1960s forging her career, frustrated at the men in the office who told her how lucky she was to be holding a ‘man’s job’. Sceptical when she heard that a group of civil rights and anti-war activists was getting together to talk about women, she nonetheless agreed to attend a meeting of New York Radical Women – an activist group formed in 1967 by, among others, Robin Morgan and Shulamith Firestone. What she found herself part of was a consciousness-raising group – and the discussion that evening turned to abortion. Before the night was out, Brownmiller had voiced her experiences of back-alley procedures.

Referring to that meeting as her “feminist baptism”, she writes: “My solitary efforts to forge my own destiny were fragments of women’s shared, hidden history, links to past and future generations, pieces of the puzzle called sexual oppression,” In speaking out, she had learned that she wasn’t alone. By the end of the year she had quit her job and devoted herself to activism. Now best known for her 1975 classic Against Our Will – a book widely credited with changing public attitudes about rape, in which she chronicled the history of the crime and argued against the most prevalent dismissive and victim-blaming attitudes of the time, Brownmiller spent two decades at the vanguard of women’s liberation. In Our Time is a fascinating memoir of the movement – its triumphs, its failures, its personalities and its infighting.

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“I can attest that in New York City during the late sixties and early seventies, nothing was more exciting, or more intellectually stimulating, than to sit in a room with a bunch of women who were working to uncover their collective truths,” writes Brownmiller of the impact that consciousness-raising – the simple act of ‘speaking from your own experience’ had on women’s lives. As consciousness-raising sessions became organised public ‘speak-outs’ – on abortion, rape, marriage, abuse, motherhood – as meetings in apartments became creative protests and sit-ins – the language of women’s liberation began to make waves. In Our Time charts the movement’s progress; from those initial get-togethers, dominated by “the interminable debate over whether the enemy was man or capitalism”, through the issues that united feminists and those polarised them with exhausting intensity.

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At a time when the second wave is much-maligned, its achievements frequently dismissed as the narrowly-focused battles of middle-class white women who couldn’t spot intersecting oppressions if their lives depended on it, Brownmiller’s intensely detailed memoir tells us otherwise. It was 1968 when the very first radical feminist conference included a session on forging better relationships with women of colour, following pleas for the movement to reach out to not only black women, but more working class women too. While emphasising the agonising efforts made to build a diverse movement, Brownmiller acknowledges the way accusations of elitism and racism were – and continue to be used – against the second wave, adding: “Criticism is easy; working for specific goals in an imperfect, complicated world is hard.”

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and unafraid to admit her mistakes, Brownmiller describes just how hard this could be. Young activists galvanised by righteous anger and intense theoretical discussion didn’t always have the experience and commitment to see their plans through to the very end, nor did they anticipate some of the objections their fellow activists would have along the way. Some activists at the infamous Miss America protest of 1968 were “excoriated” by their sisters for making placards emblazoned with ‘UP AGAINST THE WALL, MISS AMERICA’. The group of feminists who organised a conference on ending prostitution felt utterly defeated when a handful of sex workers turned up and disagreed with them, ‘speaking from their own experience’ and reminding the well-meaning activists that every woman’s story matters. While some issues – abortion, rape, sexual harassment – united a movement that helped to change legislation, others – lesbian separatism, pornography, and the thorny issue of publicity – caused painful rifts.

For the 21st century feminist, it is these rifts that provide many clues to what’s often bemoaned as the state of feminism today, and should inspire us to imagine a better way. “The bottom line was control,” Brownmiller writes. “Who had a right to speak for the movement? Whose strategy and tactics, whose worldview would triumph?” Women’s liberationists were visionaries, suspicious of hierarchy yet inspired by women with strong personalities and gifts for writing and public speaking. The activist and lawyer Florynce Kennedy called the often-vicious denouncements that ensured as the movement gathered momentum “horizontal hostility” – misdirected anger that would be better focused at male oppressors, rather than at other members of the sisterhood.

It’s currently fashionable to bemoan the ‘toxic’ nature of contemporary feminism, to talk about women feeling ‘put off’ and ‘alienated’ by feminists publicly fighting about which campaign matters more and whose opinion is correct, about who’s actually making a difference and who’s nothing more than an armchair activist. Blog posts and articles in the mainstream press talk of a movement in turmoil, of rifts that are impossible to work through, of angry women whose activism has managed to achieve nothing more than making others feel ‘guilty’ and ‘depressed’. At the other end of the spectrum, activists talk among themselves about being the courageous few who have the courage to ‘call out’ famous feminists and privileged voices, and make disapproving remarks about the sort of feminism that they perceive only appeals to middle class women or ‘baby’ activists who haven’t yet learned about the ins and outs of feminist theory. Those activists who start to attract the attention of the media and the publishing houses are scrutinised, their writings picked over almost gleefully for quotes worth sniping about. Many women have apparently already come to the conclusion that they want nothing to do with it. But what In Our Time makes clear is that ‘toxic feminism’ didn’t start with ‘hashtag activism’. All movements evolve, but some problems never go away.

“Getting your name in the paper was ‘personal publicity’ that made you a ‘star’, guilty of the sin of personal ambition. Verbal fluency and confidence were defined as the ‘advantages of class privilege’. Writing for a mainstream publication, even putting your full name on your work in a countercultural paper, was castigated as ‘ripping off the movement’s ideas’,” writes Brownmiller, introducing one of many accounts of the way she and others came to receive criticism. In 1970, a group of women started a petition against her, passing it around delegates at the Second Congress to Unite Women (the irony was not lost on the author). She was accused of ‘using’ other women and their ideas to further her career by having articles about feminism published in the mainstream press. It must be noted that despite denouncing such negativity, Brownmiller herself was not above taking a dim view of those she didn’t agree with who seemingly positioned themselves as leaders and spokeswomen. Her own personality clashes with other movement women are described on several occasions.

The media of the 1960s and 70s, as it still does today, undoubtedly contributed to the movement’s uneasy perception of ‘feminist stars’. In addition to the fixation on women because of their looks, their campaigns, or their controversial statements, activists with journalistic experience and connections were relied upon to represent the movement. Sometimes this did them no harm – Brownmiller writes that Gloria Steinem was Gloria the ‘media darling and invented leader’ before she was Gloria the ‘tireless, pre-eminent, unifying spokesperson for feminism’. Kate Millett fared less well. Appearing on the cover of Time magazine was just part of the ‘media avalanche’ that followed the publication of Sexual Politics. But after being accused of exploiting lesbian feminists and ‘ripping off’ their ideas, she felt pressured to come out. Millett’s disclosure, reported Time, was “bound to discredit her as a spokeswoman for her cause”. The media’s ‘making and breaking’ of Millett had, writes Brownmiller, run its course in just four months.

Brownmiller came to see these disagreements and denouncements as par for the course in the women’s movement. “You have to believe that the Sturm und Drang are worth it,” she writes – and it seems she did, very much so, until the last gasps of the second wave in the 1980s. Weakened by the ‘pornography wars’, the decade’s family values-obsessed mentality and economic necessity of getting a job and ‘settling down’, with the women’s bookshops, the feminist press and utopian dreams in decline, the movement’s militancy petered out. In Our Time’s challenge for feminists today is to encourage us to keep the balance – effecting change despite robust disagreement. The aim of feminism should not be the creation of a synthetic sisterhood focused on little more than affirmation and making women feel good about every choice they make. Neither should it be the constant assumption of bad faith on the part of women who are still learning, doing the best they can, and sometimes getting it wrong – the idea that trashing other women is progress.

If call-out culture is inevitable, we must not see it as the defining feature of the so-called fourth wave. Feminism today can only benefit from lessons learned and should strive to be inclusive, listening to women with diverse experiences. However, when ‘horizontal hostility’ becomes the most important thing about the way women are trying to live as feminists and fight for change, the way has been lost. The feminist movement needs all women fighting on all fronts, not merely seeking approval for whom they find fault with and who they publicly denounce (something that has become increasingly easy thanks to social media). One of the striking things about In Our Time is the sheer number of issues the movement campaigned on and the ways they found to do this – bringing feminism into mainstream consciousness and reaching out to women who never would have considered themselves radicals. Brownmiller writes that while ‘movement women’ decried the need for leaders, ‘mainstream women’ needed those famous feminists, the ones who could appear on television and speak truth in calm and measured tones.

Writing about the publication of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room in 1977, she recalls French’s agent saying: “The Women’s Room…wasn’t for those of us who had been in the movement; it was for them, the ones who were just beginning to understand about consciousness-raising and the politics of housework.” For many women who had spent the late sixties and early seventies bringing up children and ironing their husband’s shirts, reading the book provided the feminist awakening they had missed out on. Ten years after the formation of New York Radical Women, a new group of emerging feminists was discussing oppression in their living rooms. Today’s activists would do well to remember that feminist consciousness is a journey that takes women along different paths, and that first small steps need encouragement and direction – not derision and dismissal. We should return again and again to Brownmiller’s words: “Criticism is easy; working for specific goals in an imperfect, complicated world is hard.”