Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement
An On-line Archival Collection
Special Collections Library, Duke University
Dear Sisters in the Feminist Media,
First of all, greetings.
Second, I am enclosing a piece hopefully for publication in your paper, which is entitled "Mother Right: A New Feminist Theory". Having gone underground three years ago as a committed Leftist, and since become a radical feminist, I regard this piece as a distillation of what I have learned in these three years. The piece describes the process by which I became a feminist, and devotes a fair amount of space to my vision for the future, for you, for myself, for the planet.
The first part is in the form of an open Letter to my sister-fugitives in the Weather Underground. However, I intend it to be meaningful to many other women, and particularly women working in the left or on left causes. I expose hitherto unknown information about the Weather Underground, not merely to shock but to challenge other women to confront the oppression we face in the left. I urge women to leave the left and leftist causes and begin working for women, for ourselves.
The second part of the piece is structured around my political/religious vision as a feminist and as a woman. I believe that what basically unites us as women is our common biology, and that biology is therefore at the same time the source of our oppression and of our potential power. The feminist revolution will be at its root a religious transformation of society, in which society-wide recognition of the creative principle as female will take the place of worship of the modern (male) God, and women will simultaneously gain not merely respect but true power.
To all of you whom I know personally, and all of you whom I don't---yet, more thanks than I can say, and much love.
Jane Alpert [signed]
Letter from the Underground:
Dear Sisters in the Weather Underground:
I am addressing this piece to you, in spite of the fact that my concern at this point is with a far broader spectrum of women than your tiny band of forgotten leftists, because it was our arguments of the past year that convinced me to publicize my conversion from the left to radical feminism. I realized after these arguments that for me to keep silence would only support the illusion that the "underground" is united around the male politics which you still espouse, and these politics and practices are too reprehensible to me as a feminist to protect them by silence. I know that seeing this letter—which you thought you would receive as a private communication—here in print will shock you and that you will regard much of its content as a breach of the tacit code of honor among political fugitives. Nevertheless, my own politics demand that I share with all women my knowledge of the sexual oppression of the left, if only to warn other sisters against the pain that has been inflicted on us. Perhaps you personally will never open up to feminism; yet the experiences I am going to relate may speak more effectively to women involved in other branches of the left, from McGovern organizers to Socialist Workers Party members. And I have some hope that the impact of a public statement may do what none of my private arguments have succeeded in doing: persuade you to leave the dying left in which you are floundering and begin to put your immense courage and unique skills to work for women-for yourselves.
Since, this is an open letter, let me summarize for other women what you already know of my history, underground and as a feminist. I became a fugitive in May, 1970, a few days before my scheduled sentence for conspiracy to bomb military and war related corporate buildings in Manhattan. I was never a part of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] or of Weatherman, and although I'd had conversations with Weatherpeople which were influential in my decision to go underground rather than to prison, I lost contact with the organization shortly after I became a fugitive. I was a serious militant leftist at that time, and the most feminist activity I'd ever been involved with was the all women's newspaper Rat,which, despite its exclusion of men, remained thoroughly left-identified. In the last three years I have become a radical feminist. The change in my politics has not been sudden, and I want to go into its causes and its substance much more fully later in this paper. For now, I only want to set the scene of my renewed acquaintance with the Weather Underground by saying that when it occurred, I was decisively through with the left and had, at least mentally, rededicated myself to the cause of a revolution made by and for women.
It was in this general frame of mind, then, just about a year ago, that I was attending a public lecture and, a few minutes after seating myself, noticed a man sitting nearby who looked vaguely familiar. I would not have noticed him at all except for the fact that he was very obviously staring at me and at the same time making laughing, surprised comments to the people around him. I thought with some alarm that he must be either an agent or a dangerous fool, and I was both more and less apprehensive when I finally realized who he was.
It was Mark Rudd.
After I recovered from the shock, I became excited by this rare and unhoped-for opportunity to share experiences with a fellow-fugitive, and for a short time I relished it in spite of the problems. Rudd was living with a woman I hadn't met before, whom I'll call Caroline. She seemed to be a strong and sensitive person, and I would have loved to get to know her well, independently of Rudd himself. This was not possible because Rudd made it difficult for us to see each other without him, and because when the three of us were together, he made a practice of interrupting her and seemed to regard himself as the spokesman for them both. Nevertheless, his obvious dependence on her, combined with his frequent apologies to me for his manipulative behavior in past years (toward me in particular and women in general), gave me some hope that he had fundamentally changed and might even have become a sympathetic ally to the Women's Movement. I was soon disillusioned.
What finally woke me to the reality of this man's character was a conversation we had while Caroline was out of town. He made a special point of wanting to get together with me at this time, and as we were sitting on the front seat of a car on a rainy evening, he attempted to put our relationship on a more intimate footing by means of the following confession: he told me that approximately a year earlier Caroline had had a serious ovarian infection, which made sex very painful for her. This, he said, was the root of a whole range of "problems" in their relationship, ranging from his virtually raping her (he couldn't help himself, he said ) to his imagining himself in love with another woman. He described to me how titillating he found it that this other woman looked on him as a revolutionary hero, how she excited him sexually without satisfying him intellectually, how he couldn't resist the excitement of an affair with her though it was causing great anguish to Caroline. The affair ended, however, when he learned that the "other" woman was pregnant by him and that she wanted to have his child. He regarded the pregnancy as entirely her own fault, since she had stopped taking birth-control pills without telling him, and he explained that this willful and self destructive carelessness-as he saw it-was what had proved to him that "a man can’t politically educate a woman." It slowly dawned on me that Rudd was telling me this story: (1) because it proved what an irresistibly highly sexed masculine creature he was, and (2) because as a "liberated woman," not to mention a presumably pro-abortion feminist, he quite sincerely expected me to cluck a sympathetic tongue over his problem with this Dumb Chick.
I told Rudd in the strongest terms of which I was capable how appalling his behavior was to me, but though my failure to sympathize seemed to startle him, nothing I could say could convince him of the seriousness with which I regarded his crimes. "Of course I trust you," were his benevolently paternalistic last words to me. "I know you wouldn't do something like those Boston women who denounce Eric Mann [a Weatherman who served a two-year prison term]as a sexist pig who deserved his imprisonment."
While it wasn't possible for me to establish much of a relationship with Caroline—given the short time we were in the same geographical area and Rudd's obtuse omnipresence—I could at least look forward to getting in touch, through Rudd, with women in the Weather Underground. I was wary about this because I knew you Weatherwomen had never given a sign, publicly or privately, of being more receptive to a feminist point of view than Rudd himself was; that you had never risked the esteem of leftist men in any statement or action; and that the few statements of your organization which made reference to the Women's Movement revealed a complete failure to understand it and an intense interest to co-opt it. Nevertheless, I respected—and respect — you in a way I never could Rudd. I knew it was your strength that held the organization together when the men’s desperate egomania threatened to destroy you all. I could count on the fact that as women--and specifically as women fugitives--we shared certain experiences that could bring us closer together in outlook and feelings than would be possible with even the most sympathetic and sensitive man. Finally, whatever the risk, it seemed well worth it if I could give even one woman in our situation support that would help her stand up for herself, and for all women, against our oppression in a movement that puts our interests last.
Encouragingly, my very first meeting with one of you was a wonderful experience for me, and I was much moved by the warm reception and attention this woman gave me and my politics, and the genuine respect that I felt from her as well as for her. ( I suspect now, in the aftermath of other meetings, that this may have been partly because She was unprepared for the radical changes in my politics and therefore responded to me openly and honestly. The rest of you had, in advance of meeting me, already armored yourselves against revealing too much of your "personal problems" as women in a male organization.) For whatever reason, I was, as it turned out, all too ready to plunge into a dialogue in which I used my own skin as wallpaper while you sidestepped and evaded every issue.
Your resistance to discussing your personal experience, your trivializing of your own pain and suffering, your insistence that the oppression of others is more important than your own—these are part of the self-contempt that has been bred in all of us women, and I understand it as I understand myself. I can even deal with your more contrived evasions, the ones that were obviously developed only after years of building defenses against the threat that the Women's Movement seems to you. I can see why you overlooked security so that, apparently by chance, I ran into one more Weatherwoman than we had agreed I would meet during the brief time we were together, a woman who just "happened to be" rabidly antifeminist. I know what advantage you saw in circulating a vicious, unfounded rumor about a well-known feminist and then asserting she herself was not to blame for her errors because the Women's Movement was responsible for her psychological destruction. I can understand all too well the reasons for your flippant claim that it "bores" you to talk about men, a pathetic way to avoid admitting your oppression.
But the wall I cannot surmount is your insistence that if I really practiced sisterhood I wouldn't make demands on you in the name of feminism, but would respect your political path as equally valid to my own. You want me to accept your claim that you are no longer dominated by men, as you admit you were when you first joined Weatherman, as in fact we all are as long as we live under patriarchy. Yet in the same breath that you claim, "Women run the organization," you admit that of the five members of the Weatherman Central Committee, three are men. And you have no shame in telling me that one of these three is Bill Ayers, notorious for his callous treatment and abandonment of Diana Oughton before her death and for his generally fickle and high-handed treatment of women; and that another is Jeff Jones, who once told that dull-witted misogynist Robert Palmer that if I thought Weatherman was a male supremacist organization, I could "suck his dick." Or have Ayers and Jones now become feminists too-like Mark Rudd, who after a year's leave to overcome his "arrogance and insensitivity" (which you won't even call by its true name: sexism), you are admitting back into the organization?
The politico-feminist split is a real one, one that will vanish as soon as we accept ourselves as women first of all, but which will continue to divide us until we share that consciousness. It is you leftists, you male-identified socialist and liberal and pacifist and Weather-sympathizing women, who try to deny any significant difference between male politics and feminist politics. "We’re all just women," you say, and we are--but to you that is a phenomenon of the most peripheral possible interest, indeed it only seems to occur to you when under fire from the feminists. As long as you are letting men define your attitudes, behavior, and standards, then we stand on opposite sides of a line all too visible to me spite of your blindness to it, but which I know you too will see once you have crossed it. And to cross it you need do only one thing: let your own self-interest be your highest priority. I am not asking you to stop loving men, or to break all personal and emotional ties with the men who are important to you. I know that those ties are never broken out of a simplistic political decision but only when and if consciousness of oppression makes them so inconsistent with self-respect that they can no longer be borne. Even then it is with enormous pain and grief and in spite of an ever-reluctant part of ourselves that we separate from men we have cared for. I firmly believe that one can be a serious feminist and still live with and relate to a man and to men. The gulf that is between us is not that, but rather that you allow men to rule on your politics.
Believe me, I understand your side of it. I've been on that side— I've practically drowned on that side. Over a year ago I wrote an introduction to a book of the prison letters of Sam Melville, a man I loved and lived with who was killed in the Attica uprising of September 1971. I was already a feminist when I wrote that introduction and had theoretically rejected the politics that Melville had taught me and that he had lived and died for. Yet I had never found the courage or the words to tell him that while he lived, and especially while influenced by the powerful feelings that his murder aroused in me, I was incapable of writing the truth of his male supremacy—that underside of men's lives that only women know—in my eulogistic essay on his life. Since this is the last time I will ever write about him, I would like to tell some of that truth here.
I was very much pressured, against my own sense of tactics and timing, into playing the role I did in the group of radical bombers Melville half-led, half-dragged along with him. The pressure was of the kind peculiar and common to male-female relationships: he constantly threatened to leave me if I backed out. What he valued in me, besides having a dependable sexual partner and housekeeper, was what he took to be my "independence" and "self-sufficiency"—as he often told me. This made me useful to him as an ally, and further assured him that I had the quality he prized above all others in women: the capacity to love him devotedly, yet get along without him uncomplainingly whenever he chose to leave. The last letter I received from him exhorted me against writing narrow-mindedly of loving and needing him, instead of writing about great social truths (the ones he was concerned with, that is). "To speak of love, especially love between one desperate man and woman, limits our vision and ties us to the past." Yet the same letter ends on an explicitly sexual note: "Yes, sweet bitch, I love you. And if they ever let me out and the wind is right, I'll find you." This was typical; he would never "degrade" himself by admitting love for a woman in any fashion not immediately tied to his sexual pleasure.
A few months before we were arrested, Sam began a secret affair with a woman friend of ours whom I hadn't seen in some time. In order to keep us from comparing notes on his behavior, he told her he was no longer living with me. He also at least hinted to her that the sabotage of military and corporate buildings around the city was the work of himself and friends. I discovered his betrayal only by the coincidence of having acquaintances in common with the other woman, acquaintances to whom she had repeated Sam's hints. To this day I don't know how many other dangerous, possibly fatal, violations of security his masculinist need to boast led him to commit.
Some will say Melville's sexism was extreme just as his politics were extreme. Yet I have seen his behavior duplicated in the most bourgeois households by males of all political persuasions, economic backgrounds, ages, and skin colors. I never knew Sam to cook a meal for himself; he once wrote WASH ME in black Magic Marker on the side of the refrigerator as a cute reminder of my responsibilities; he threatened to leave me, and meant it, if I took up smoking cigarettes after having given them up to please him; he wouldn't allow our lease, our telephone, our utilities bill, our bank account, or anything else we shared to be in his name on the ostensible grounds that he was delinquent with his income tax and didn't want to be found through public records. The real reason, it turned out, was that he didn't want his wife to find him and demand the child support he owed her and hadn't paid in years.
He was sexually impotent unless he could fantasize the woman he was with as a prostitute and she went along with his fantasy.
At one point Sam joined a political group headed by Rap Brown. This group's attitude toward women was bigotry itself: they didn't include any and they didn't intend to. According to Brown himself, as quoted by Melville, women would be "a distraction from serious business." When I confronted Sam on this, he seemed slightly embarrassed but wouldn’t even commit himself to discussing male supremacy with his new idol, Rap Brown. Recalling this, I’m reminded ironically of the division of all-black bomber pilots stationed out of Texas during World War II who, despite phenomenal sacrifices and heroism, were forbidden the supposed privilege of being integrated with white battalions. How strange it is that not only the man I lived with but one of the most brilliant and sophisticated black militants of the 1960s should turn out to have the same kind of crass ignorance about women.
And so, my sisters in Weatherman, you fast and organize and demonstrate for Attica. Don't send me news clippings about it, don't tell me how much those deaths moved you.
I will mourn the loss of 42 male supremacists no longer.
My first year underground was very hard. Expecting to die for the Revolution in a matter of months, I was unprepared to find myself not only alive but living a rather unadventurous and secluded existence less than a year after "disappearing." I found it increasingly difficult to get along with the friends with whom I was still in touch, especially with the men who were becoming increasingly overbearing and critical of all my actions, as I was growing increasingly sensitive to their interference. Chafing at every restriction, hostile even to the one woman friend I really cared for, I finally decided to take off on my own, reasoning that it couldn't get much worse. I started to travel and for a few months roamed, almost aimlessly, from one community to another across the country.
As I traveled. I slowly became aware that nothing was less relevant to the lives of most people in this country than the white left, with which I still identified myself. The leftist ( and rightist, for that matter) distinctions between working class and ruling class, hippies and straight people, youth and Establishment, all seemed increasingly absurd to me. They seemed to determine nothing of certainty about anyone's attitude or political outlook. As I moved around, I could see more clearly than ever the oppression of black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Indian peoples. Yet at the same time I was learning concretely that women existed in well-defined subcultures within each white and Third World community. Finally, all my experiences kept reminding me of one fact of my own identity I was continually trying to forget: that I was a woman. Men, Third World and otherwise, young and old, hippie and straight, related to me as Woman, all my other interests or characteristics being, in their eyes, mere modifications of that one essential. Whether I was desired, rejected, abused, admired, ignored, treated with kindness or with hostility, it was basically because I was a female doing whatever it was I was doing. Women generally took their cue of how to relate to me from the way men related to me, or I to men. It occurred to me that this was no different from the way people I had known for years had related to me, but because we had known each other well I had been aware of the subtleties in our relationships to the point of being blind to the underlying structure. Of course I had heard feminists express these perceptions before, and had even asserted them myself occasionally, but I had never internalized them. I now began to think that if my politics were to be based on my own situation and not on someone else's perception of reality, I would have to deal with the fact that the rest of the world thought of me as a woman first of all, before it even listened to what I had to say.
Together with these discoveries, I began to realize the astonishing impact the Women’s Movement has had all over the U.S. in just a few years. I could see women everywhere—white, black, brown, Indian —responding in their daily lives to the fact that some women somewhere had said, "Men oppress us." I came to know Chicana women living in a barrio who were organizing, women’s health-care programs and women's antirape squadrons to patrol their own neighborhood. A white woman, mother of three, from a poor Southern family and on welfare, talked to me with great eloquence about how she saw the courts, the police, the welfare system, and her ex-husband as all part of the same male-run system, which women needed to talk over and run for their own benefit. A woman I met who had been born into a wealthy and traditional Japanese family told me she was filing for divorce against a husband who physically and mentally abused her because she refused to go through life suffering from the same causes her mother and grandmother had before her. These women—all random examples—would not necessarily say or think that they were part of the Women's Movement. But they demonstrated to me, among others, that the changing consciousness represented by the Women's Movement has been more far-reaching than any public-opinion poll on Women's Liberation would seem to show. As for the frequently heard opinion that Third World women support Third World liberation but not Women's Liberation, I believe that this is true chiefly of a few women who are highly regarded by Third World male radicals and hence are considered newsworthy by the media. Among the majority of Third World women, it seems to me that the Women's Movement is spreading and its ideas are having increasing effect, just as among white women.
The turning point of my personal rapprochement with feminism came when, a year after I’d left New York as a fugitive, I joined a women’s rap group composed of a half-dozen other women, of widely different economic backgrounds, ages, and family situations, brought together only by our common desire-or desperate need-to talk with other women about our lives. No one in the group knew who I was, or that I was wanted on a federal warrant. I know, though, that they all sensed my unspoken inner turmoil (if not the specific causes of it) and in response gave me more positive emotional and intellectual support than I could have imagined possible from a group of strangers. They sustained me through the crisis I underwent after Melville's murder and the dramatic upheavals in my consciousness involved in the experience. Eventually, when a series of circumstances forced me to leave the area in which I'd come to know them, they gave me, as a group, the help and strength I needed to face yet another move into the unknown.
The process of the consciousness raising group, for me and for the other women involved, was one in which we began to be able to define ourselves as individuals and as women. Some of us had previously conceived of ourselves as exceptional women, some of us thought being female necessarily meant being passive and dependent, but it soon became clear that we had come to the group each in a private panic of no longer knowing who we were. What we discovered in each other was the pulse of a culture and a consciousness which was common to us as women. We discovered it as something that had always been there, but that we had not previously recognized or felt able to trust. Trusting it—or gaining confidence in our thoughts, feelings, resentments, desires, and intuitions as attributes that we shared as a people and which were therefore valid—became the basis of beginning to trust ourselves as individuals.
I believe that the struggle to define oneself for oneself ultimately takes place in a realm of the mind in which one is always alone and unsupported. For some women the existence of a women's group or even a Women's Movement has not been a necessary precondition of that struggle. Individual women of genius—artists, scientists, philosophers, activists, and visionaries— have left us written and other evidence to prove that throughout the history of patriarchy some women have found it possible to call upon their inner powers to create and achieve and succeed. For each of these women, many others who were unable to leave us records have managed to define their individuality and assert themselves in the face of enormous male hostility. And yet the evidence we have proves ultimately only that no matter how many obstacles are in the way, a few women will possess the ability, determination, and special privilege to overcome them.
In considering social change it is of much more significance that today's Women's Movement has encouraged thousands of women who would never have done so before to discover and develop their unique talents, and to stand up against male prerogatives and values with originality and courage. Moreover, as increasing numbers of women are turning to art, science, and other creative efforts, a truly female—that is, a feminist—culture is beginning to take shape. It seems little short of miraculous that with so little in the way of facilities—still very few research grants, little access to the best laboratories, to substantial publishing contracts, and the like—our own culture has nevertheless managed to take root and flourish.
Feminist newspapers, literary magazines, cooperative child-care centers, anthropology collectives, legal clinics, poetry workshops, self-help medical clinics, counseling services, music groups, and graphics collectives are a few of the newborn alternative institutions providing the access for women whose values and vision are unacceptable to the patriarchy, or who choose not to pay the artistic and emotional price exacted by men in exchange for a share of male privilege.
Even more significantly, the products of these alternative institutions (and of the individual women involved with them or working on their own) is qualitatively different from the products of men and male institutions. For instance, a feminist all-women's rock band sounds different from a male rock band or from an all-women's rock band trying to reproduce male music; they are not only singing different lyrics but the melodies and harmonies and rhythms are different. Feminist anthropologists are approaching their subject from a different perspective and with different assumptions than male anthropologists, or women anthropologists in the past who had only male-defined standards and methods at their disposal. Feminist teachers are creating a different style of classroom situation with their women students. Feminist lawyers are helping their clients to use the law to help themselves. All of us are not engaged in such activities but many of us share in the changing consciousness that these women are expressing publicly. And in light of the accomplishments already generated from this changing consciousness, I think we need to take another look not only at the old male-supremacist assumptions about women's "nature" but also at some of the assertions of the Women's Movement so far. Just what is the powerful source of this consciousness?
For centuries feminists have asserted that the essential difference between men and women does not lie in biology but rather in the roles that patriarchal societies ( men ) have required each sex to play. The motivation for this assertion is obvious: women's biology has always been used to justify women's oppression. As patriarchal reasoning went, since "God" or "nature" or "evolution" had made woman the bearer and nurser of the species, it logically followed that she should stay home with the children and perform as a matter of more-or-less ordained duty all the domestic chores involved in keeping and feeding a household. When women work outside the home, we have the most menial and lowest-paid tasks to perform, chiefly because any labor a woman performs outside the home is thought to be temporary and inessential to her, no matter how she herself might be inclined to regard it. Naturally, then, the first healthy impulse of feminism is to deny that simply because women have breasts and uteruses we are better suited to wash dishes, scrub floors, or change diapers. As newly roused feminists, we retorted to evidence that women might be intrinsically better suited to perform some roles than others by pointing out that men have been forcing these roles on us for at least five thousand years. After such time, conditioning and habit are so strong that they appear to be intrinsic and innate.
However, a flaw in this feminist argument has persisted: it contradicts our felt experience of the biological difference between the sexes as one of immense significance To begin with, it seems obvious that biology alone would, in primitive societies, have dictated different roles and different powers as appropriate to each sex. And biological scientists have indeed assumed, for the most part, that the physical passivity of the female mammal during intercourse and the demands of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing clearly indicate a role of women as biologically determined, and inferior. In response to this, Shulamith Firestone, with the publication of The Dialectic of Sex in 1970, articulated the definitive feminist antithesis to this idea by denouncing biology as reactionary. Agreeing that biology had necessarily been an all-powerful determinant of social roles in the past, Firestone went on to argue that the advances of technology made this tyranny potentially obsolete. Women are still enslaved to their bodies not because of biology but because the patriarchy will not permit the use of technology to interfere with men's power over women. However, in Firestone's view, the dialectic of history, in which the sexual relationship underlies all other power relationships, indicates that A feminist revolution is inevitable. This revolution will put technology to work to literally free women from biology—from pregnancy, childbirth, and the rest —thereby eliminating the last difference of any importance between the sexes and ultimately causing the sexual difference itself to wither away, in the course of evolution, together with all forms of oppression.
I think that Firestone is visionary in perceiving the sexual relationship as the basis of all power relationships, and in predicting that feminist revolution will therefore result in the end of all oppression. However, the evidence of feminist culture, which has accumulated largely since the publication of her epochal book, suggests that her analysis of the role of biology was deficient and that a third possibility—which is indeed a new synthesis of the previous views —may well be correct. The unique consciousness or sensibility of women, the particular attributes that set feminist art apart, and a compelling line of research now being pursued lay feminist anthropologists all point to the idea that female biology is the basis of women’s powers. Biology is hence the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution.
The root of this idea lies perhaps in buried history. It has increasingly been acknowledged that the most ancient societies worshiped a female diety or deities, and that menstruation, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and all other phenomena associated with female biology were surrounded with taboos. Furthermore, a number of these ancient societies were matrilineal: property and social identity were inherited through the mother rather than the father. Whether women had any secular power in these societies is a subject of dispute, and most archaeologists and anthropologists have felt that women didn't have any power except over a few religious rites. But most archaeologists and anthropologists have been men, whose imaginations could not quite grasp a society in which women held real power, even a pretechnological society. (For example, the section on "Amazons" in the authoritative Oxford Classical Dictionary spends all of one sentence dismissing the notion the Amazon tribes ever existed--though these tribes were acknowledged by nearly every ancient historian who wrote about preclassical times.) Feminists in many branches of science and historical research have been reexamining the evidence for the existence of ancient gynocracies, or women-ruled societies. Among the more visionary and Iyrically persuasive (if somewhat factually problematic) of these recent studies is The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis. Davis hypothesizes that patriarchal society began only after barbarian male tribes violently overthrew the ancient, peaceful, and relatively advanced gynocracies, in which women were not only worshiped but were actually temporal rulers. These ancient gynocracies may have existed throughout Asia, northern Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the Mediterranean area and persisted as late as 2,000 B.C. in some areas, such as Crete. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Davis may be proved correct in the near future, and her thesis has been stated in a more tentative style than hers by several other highly respected scientists.
The feminist conception of these societies is that there was no such sharp division as now exists between home life and societal life. Industry was carried out in the home, travel was limited, and the life of the society centered around the life in the home, in which women were the decision-makers. Therefore women held power not only in the home but also in the tribe or clan at large. They decided not only family matters, but when to plant and harvest, when to go to war and make peace, questions of marriage and property, and all important disputes within the clan. Religion was so intrinsic a part of daily life that it was impossible for women to be at once worshiped in prayers and treated as inferiors in social relations. Instead, it could be argued, the very reason behind the enshrining of the female creative principle was the perception by women of the divine in their own image. Some of the extant literature which survived to a much later period seems to bear this theory out. For example, the Earth Goddess Demeter of the ancient Greeks is portrayed even in relatively late' Homeric oral poetry as a maternal figure with a special relationship to women and children, yet with enormous powers over men as well. By contrast, the stern, autocratic, blood-lusting, and supermasculine deity of the Old Testament is much more appropriate to a patriarchal society. The women this Jehovah curses as whores and heathens are perhaps the very matriarchal queens whose powers the invading masculinist forces needed to stamp out for their own purposes.
Whether or not the matriarchies existed and whether or not the question is even capable of proof, to raise the issue of the interconnection between female biology and religious and secular power is in itself of enormous importance. It seems to me that the power of the new feminist culture, the powers which were attributed to the ancient matriarchies (considered either as historical fact or as mythic archetypes ), and the inner power with which many women are beginning to feel in touch and which is the soul of feminist art, may all arise from the same source. That source is none other than female biology: the capacity to bear and nurture children. It is conceivable that the intrinsic biological connection between mother and embryo or mother and infant gives rise to those psychological qualities which have always been linked with women, both in ancient lore and modern behavioral science. Motherhood must be understood here as a potential which is imprinted in the genes of every woman; as such it makes no difference to this analysis of femaleness whether a woman ever has borne, or ever will bear, a child.
Biology alone is in no way an adequate explanation of what it is to be female. Women have been exploited in our society for at least five thousand years and female powers have been correspondingly frustrated and weakened. The effects of powerlessness on us are nowhere more obvious than in contemporary motherhood. In the patriarchy, we do not rise to a position of special esteem and authority when we have children. On the contrary, we are denied even the few options for meaningful participation in society that are available to us as childless women. We react to this powerlessness in a myriad of negative ways, ranging from overpossessiveness of our children (as in the hyper-tense Jewish-mother stereotype) to utter self-abnegation (as in the Madonna image) to child-murder (as in the myth of Medea). But feminist culture is based on what is best and strongest in women, and as we begin to define ourselves as women, the qualities coming to the fore are the same ones a mother projects in the best kind of nurturing relationship, to a child: empathy, intuitiveness, adaptability, awareness of growth as a process rather than as goal-ended, inventiveness, protective feelings toward others, and a capacity to respond emotionally as well as rationally. If matriarchy means a society in which these are qualities all human beings admire and strive to embody, a society in which the paradigm for all social relationships is the relationship of a healthy and secure mother to her child, then matriarchy means nothing less than the end of oppression.
Interestingly enough, the materialist analysis brings us to the conclusions similar to the ones I have just set forth from an idealist standpoint. In the Marxist dialectical-materialist view of history, the vanguard of the ''revolutionary class" is that group which is not only greatly exploited by the class in power but which is also performing labor which is essential to the functioning of society. The ruling class is thereby forced to respond to demands which it puts forth in the name of the oppressed. A third requirement is that the class be potentially collective; each member should not be severely isolated from every other. In classical Marxism, the "revolutionary vanguard'' is composed of the ''industrial proletariat" who must sell their labor to the capitalists in order to eat, whose labor is essential to industry and therefore to society, and whose work process is socialized. No revolution founded on Marxist principles has adhered to the classic pattern: in Russia the proletariat was a tiny minority with no influence at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and Mao had to rewrite both Marx and Lenin to suit Chinese conditions, defining the peasantry as the "vanguard" in that context. The industrial proletariat in the U.S. today is a larger group than in either prerevolutionary Russia or prerevolutionary China, but is not, by and large, an exploited one. Through unions they have acquired a significant share of power, and their right-wing, views did not spring from "false class consciousness" but rather from a hard-nosed sense of their own self-interest. Taken alone, Third World male industrial workers are much less privileged, and women in industry are the most exploited of all of these in respect to both wages and working conditions; but these very divisions of the "proletariat" show the obstacles to its solidarity more pointedly than anything else. However, if, with Firestone, we transfer our focus from economics to sex, that is, from production to reproduction, the Marxist terminology itself begins to make more sense. For there is very clearly a large group of women who by reason both of exploitation and importance to the society perfectly answer the requirements of the vanguard, and who are increasingly closely in touch with one another. These women are, of course, mothers.
Mothers live by their labor yet generally without standardized wages. If they have husbands who earn good money and are generous, they are amply supplied—but only so long as they can keep their husbands. Otherwise, they have little or nothing outside the necessities and whatever they do have goes to their children first. The only mothers who do earn a standard wage for the labor of child-rearing are those on welfare, and that pay is barely enough to sustain life. The job is without guarantees or security of any kind. Its workday is twenty-four hours, workweek seven days, no vacations, no holidays. Total dedication to the job is expected, and yet a woman who works "only" in the home is regarded, with some contempt, as an unemployed housewife. Women with children are the women who most frequently suffer from fatigue, headaches, listlessness, depression, insomnia, digestive disorders, loss of energy, nervous tension, and other illnesses common to women. If the women who work in factories were all replaced by men, it would represent some economic cost to industry but no alteration in the power structure or the basic assumptions of society concerning sex and class roles. The labor of these same women in the home, however-and of all women who work at child-rearing, whether of their own children, adopted children, or someone else’s children, for wages—cannot be replaced on a mass scale without cataclysmic changes in the social structure.
Mothers are a distinctly defined group. Nevertheless, their interests as a group are in no way opposed to the interests of women as a whole, but are rather intimately linked with these. For motherhood itself is only the concrete expression of that potential which defines all women. Accordingly, the domestic situation of women underlies the way we are treated on the job market. But the point of Mother Right is to reshape the family according to the perceptions of women, and to reshape society in the image of this new matriarchal family. Because motherhood cuts across economic class, race, and sexual preference, a society in which women were powerful by virtue of being mothers would not be divided along any of these lines. Nor would any new division between women, such as between mothers and childless women, arise, because the root of female consciousness are, I believe, one and the same.
Returning to my personal experience again, my self-interest in changing society is bound up with that of women who have children much more deeply than it is, for example, with women demanding equal pay for equal work, despite the fact that I am single, childless, and must work to support myself. If I had to sum up in a few words what I feel to be my own oppression in this society, I would say, "The enormous economic, social, and psychological obstacles against bearing and raising children of my own." While my situation as a fugitive seems to all but eliminate any hope that I might raise a child of my own, even these unusual circumstances are only slightly more handicapping than those any other woman faces when contemplating motherhood without marriage, or at least a stable relationship to a man. These obstacles and the tools to overcome them are beginning to be studied and developed by many different women, notably by lesbians who have or want to have children. The oppression suffered by women whose sexual preference is for other women is peculiar to patriarchy, it seems to me, and would be eliminated as soon as women cease to be pawns in male power games. If Mother Right were the informing principle of society, it would make no difference whether a woman lived with men or women, let alone with whom she slept. A woman would be powerful and respected simply as a woman, and particularly esteemed as a mother, regardless of whom she lived with. For far from being in a position to exploit a woman because she chose to live and/or sleep with other women, a man would consider himself fortunate if a woman only chose to live and/or sleep with him.
The conditions of life in the patriarchy are such that the overwhelming majority of women in the foreseeable future will continue to marry and to raise children and to regard that role as the central one in their lives. The majority includes millions of women who also have jobs outside their homes. The Women’s Movement is their movement not only because they are the majority, but because feminist consciousness springs directly from the role they play in society. Many segments of the Women’s Movement are now beginning to explicitly recognize this truth and to act upon it. NOW [the National Organization for Women] is making a major push to speak to the needs of housewives by agitating for an end to discrimination against married women by banks, insurance companies, and credit unions. Radical feminists are demanding less that women leave men, and suggesting that it might be more effective in building a revolutionary base if women instead move to become the heads of their families. Outside the consciously political segments of the Women’s Movement, housewives are beginning to unite and to agitate for their common interests, starting with lower food prices. More mothers are expressing their dissatisfaction and talking about their problems while not necessarily seeing these as related to the Women’s Movement; more women within the Movement are beginning to experience their feelings as mothers as feelings which are integral to their identities as women.
Demands relating to jobs, professional opportunities, and electoral representation will continue to be important, partly because the unequal treatment of women in these areas makes people aware of women’s overall inferior status, and partly because increasing numbers of women want and need to support themselves with jobs outside the home. But the Women’s Movement must, and will, begin to focus on those demands which relate concretely to women’s role in child-rearing. These more radical-feminist demands include: wages for all women engaged in child-rearing; paid holidays and vacations; collective childcare centers controlled by mothers with the participation of all members of the community, including fathers, older children, and childless adults; laboratories and research facilities to be turned over to feminist scientists so that research into contraception, fertility, pregnancy, and birth can be conducted in women’s interests; hospital and outpatient facilities related to women’s health to be run and staffed by women; self-help clinics, financed by the government but under community control, artificial insemination, sterilization procedures, facilities for extrauterine birth, and related technology to made widely available. Technology is a powerful tool which will free us to bear and raise our children in our own way at our own time. It must be turned over to women now, in order to prevent its becoming an even more powerful weapon against us and indeed against all life.
It is the uprising of women which will presage the end of oppression, but this uprising must be based on more than opposition to oppression and the definition of Woman as Other. It must be an affirmation of the power of female consciousness, of the Mother. The change which it will embody can perhaps be better imagined as primarily spiritual and religious, rather than economic and social, though they will include and embody the latter. Thus a more apt analogy that the Cuban or Chinese revolutions might be the Reformation or the Christian revolution, or perhaps the revolution made by the patriarchy itself when the ancient gynocracies were invaded. I use these analogies because of each of these cases the economic and political changes were enormous, but they followed rather than preceded sweeping changes in human consciousness. The ripples spread through the institutions from the masses of people, rather than the other way around.
These were not, and never will be, gentle ripples. Thc oppressor is equipped with the tools of mechanized violence as never before; we are only beginning to reclaim the ancient rage that will defeat his evil. Feminism is teaching us, again, the healing power of anger trained on the true enemies of ourselves and our children, and our anger will supply us the resources we will need against the Man's weapons. Yet, from another point of view, we may remind ourselves that the violence of this cataclysm is no more nor less than the outward sign of a struggle of the human spirit. It seems very significant to me that simultaneously with the contemporary rise of feminism, there is a great rise of interest in psychic and spiritual phenomena. Because the Women's Movement gets lumped with the left in many people's minds, it is mistakenly regarded as narrowly "political." Yet feminism concerns more shall political power, essential as that is. It is closely tied to theories of awakening consciousness, of creation and rebirth, and of the essential oneness of the universe—teachings which lie at the heart of all Goddess-worshiping religions.
We are on the threshold of what all the ancient wisdoms, many of them handed down from matriarchal times, teach is a new age of consciousness and simultaneously on what seems scientifically to be a threshold in the evolution of the species, as the genetic code is broken and life produced in the laboratory. Could it not be that just at the moment masculinity has brought us to the brink of nuclear destruction or ecological suicide, women are beginning to rise in response to the Mother’s call to save Her planet and create instead the next stage of evolution? Can our revolution mean anything else than the reversion of social and economic control to Her representatives among Womankind, and the resumption of Her worship on the face of the Earth? Do we dare demand less?
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