“Next Time, We’ll Get it Right: Race and Women’s Liberation in America” (2009)

whitewomensrightsWomen in the US have the right to vote, can run for and hold office, have access to public education, and have a certain degree of financial independence from men, but women are not free.  While women today have attained certain formal equalities and enjoy a few gains as a result of their self-organization and resistance, these gains have turned into their opposite and have served as a more advanced justification for patriarchy.  Furthermore, women’s liberation has been a combined and uneven development, not a linear one, and has time and again hinged on how women chose to respond to the question of race.

At the close of the Civil War and the passage of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, a section of the women’s movement who had been supportive of the cause of abolition broke ranks and opposed voting rights for people of color; the most infamous being Susan B. Anthony, a stalwart abolitionist who later criticized Frederick Douglass for his marriage to a white woman.  Such racism would have disastrous consequences for the women’s movement for decades to come; consequences which not only ensured white supremacy’s victory and the continued subjugation of people of color, but which had the irony of binding women ever closer to their own virtual enslavement.

It was precisely because of this racist opportunism within the women’s movement that women were allowed the franchise sixty years after black freedmen in the South.  White women now married to the forces of white supremacy, Reconstruction and the gains that came with it eventually fell.  This failure to recognize the centrality of race in the maintenance of women’s oppression and the crown jewel in their own movement, delayed the hopes for freedom for all for another hundred years.

During the 1950s, a period of ascendancy in wages and technological expansion, women were told by everyone from official society to advertisers that they were never freer.  Feminists like Betty Friedan propagated that a woman’s entry into the official labor force would be her emancipation.  How could this be when men, as wage laborers, were being brutalized by automation; were generating vast sums of surplus value for which they had no decision in how it would be generated or how the resultant wealth would be appropriated?  Though she correctly spoke to their subordination in the home and their unhappiness in being merely a tool for the servicing male labor power in The Feminine Mystique, she failed to see how women were not outside it, but integral to the capitalist mode of production. The only reason men were able to perform such grueling work in the first place was because their own labor power was being reproduced by women with whom they lived.  Their laundry, their food, their homes, their children, etc. were all prepared and cared for and provided men with the capacity to return to work for another day.  Not only that, but women were supplying the wage labor of the future who would eventually be exploited capital.

Women saw what “real” work was doing to men who were no happier.  Some women believed that housework was every bit as valid and productive as so-called productive labor and that the State should be providing wages for it.  After all, they figured, when a capitalist hires a worker he gets two for the price of one.  During the war when they filled factories that had contracts with the State, daycare was provided to women free of charge.  And while many supported equal access to jobs in the new post-war “prosperity”, they knew that the work of housekeeping and child rearing would still fall on them.

The early 1970s saw a new wave in feminism, a tendency of which foregrounded a clear anti-racist politics.  Just as “Black power” in the predominately male factories benefited white workers when the former would slow down the line in response to a racist insult by a foreman or union boss, easing the pace of work for everyone, white women saw that the Black struggle and the women fighting to lead it were raising demands that benefited them also.  This movement, though not a monolith, looked to address race head-on and to link women’s emancipation with the overthrow of white supremacy as well as to bring all forms of labor under the control of the workers themselves.

Not only were women in this period struggling for wages for housework, for a more democratic distribution of household responsibilities, and for control over household labor, they also wanted control over their own bodies.  Women formed consciousness-raising groups to discuss their struggles at home, to educate themselves about their own bodies (that was then exclusively a male profession), and for final decision over unwanted pregnancies.  Women for years were pressured into marriage, pressured into sex, many times raped, and then were called immoral for wanting abortions.  With the victory of Roe v. Wade after over a hundred of years of violent struggle, women have access to these procedures, though they are constantly under attack both directly in terms of its reversal and indirectly in terms of defining limits to abortion.

With family planning clinics now offering abortion procedures, we should reflect again on the uneven development of women’s liberation.  Advocated by Margaret Sanger who contributed to the creation of birth control and contraceptives and advocated women’s knowledge of their bodies, these clinics were to initially serve both the purposes of birth control as well as sterilization of women of color.  Black women were thought to be a rung above chimpanzees and that it was the duty of civilized women to tame them.

For some feminists, institutional recognition alone means victory; having women gynecologists alone is a victory.  Anti-racist and Black feminists have argued that these laws and the specialization of these functions while a significant milestone, is not enough.  It is has only been when women had full control and full knowledge of their bodies from below that they had made any inroads into their own liberation.  In the years leading up to the passage of Roe v. Wade, the Jane Collective was responsible for providing women access to doctors who would perform the procedures to women for a nominal or sliding fee.  The demand became so large that eventually the doctors taught the women how to safely perform them.  It was a huge step forward in the self governing capacities of women.

Unfortunately, this new wave in feminism, like all of the movements of the period, failed to overcome its own contradictions.  Nevertheless, it provides an inspiring context to women’s struggles today as well as to the labor movement in general in our attempt to create a truly democratic society.  At at time when our society is on the brink of collapse, our only hope is for a resurgence of popular energies and mass movements which take the reins of society and lead us out of modern barbarism.

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