SOCIALIST FEMINISM -- A STRATEGY FOR THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT
By Hyde Park Chapter, Chicago Women's Liberation UnionHeather Booth
Contact:H. P. Chapter
819 West George
Chicago, Illinois 60657
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We have written this paper to express and share with other women ideas for a new strategy for the women's movement. Currently there are two ideological poles, representing the prevailing tendencies within the movement. One is the direction toward new lifestyles within a women's culture, emphasizing personal liberation and growth, and the relationship of women to women. Given our real need to break loose from the old patterns----socially, psychologically, and economically----and given the necessity for new patterns in the post revolutionary society, we understand, support and enjoy this tendency. However, when it is the sole emphasis, we see it leading more toward a kind of formless insolation rather than to a condition in which we can fight for and win power over our own lives.
The other direction is one which emphasizes a structural analysis of our society and its economic base. It focuses on the ways in which productive relations oppress us. This analysis is also correct, but its strategy, taken alone, can easily become, or appear to be, insensitive to the total lives of women.
As socialist feminists, we share both the personal and the structural analysis. We see a combination of the two as essential if we are to become a lasting mass movement. We think that it is important to define ourselves as socialist feminists, and to start conscious organizing around this strategy. This must be done now because of the current state of our movement. We have reached a crucial point in our history.
On the one hand, the strengths of our movement are obvious: it has become an important force of our time, and it has also succeeded in providing services and support for some women's immediate needs. Thousands of women see themselves as part of the movement; a vaguely defined "women's consciousness" has been widely diffused through rap groups, demonstrations, action projects, counter-institutional activity, and through the mass media. Women in the movement have a growing understanding of common oppression and the imperative of collective solutions. With the realization that what we saw as personal problems were in fact social ones, we have come to understand that the solutions must also be social ones. With the realization that all women lack control over their lives, we have come to understand that that control can only be gained if we act together. We have come to understand the specific needs of various groups of women and that different groups of women have different ways in which they will fight for control over their own lives.
On the other hand, the women's movement is currently divided. In most places it is broken into small groups which are hard to find, hard to join, and hard to understand politically. At the same time, conservative but organizationally clever entrepreneurs are attaching themselves to the movement, and are beginning to determine the politics of large numbers of people. If our movement is to survive, let alone flourish, it is time to begin to organize for power. We need to turn consciousness into action, choose priorities for our struggles, and win. To do this we need a strategy.
Our movement's strategy must grow from an understanding of the dynamics of power, with the realization that those who have power have a vested interest in preserving it and the institutional forms which maintain it. Wresting control of the institutions which now oppress us must be our central effort if women's liberation is to achieve its goals. To reach out to most women we must address their real needs and self-interests.
At this moment we think that it is important to argue for a strategy which will achieve the following three things: 1) it must win reforms that will objectively improve women's lives; 2) it must give women a sense of their own power, both potentially and in reality; and 3) it must alter existing relations of power. We argue here for socialist feminist organizations. We are not arguing for any one specific organization but for the successful development of organizations so that we may be able to learn from experience and bring our movement to its potential strength.
To make this argument we have written this paper. It has been designed as follows:I. Socialist Feminism----the concept and what it draws from each parent tradition. (pgs. 3-8)
II. Power--the basis for power in this society, and our potential as women to gain power. (pgs. 9-14)
An applied example of our strategy (pgs. 15-19)
III. Consciousness----the importance of consciousness for the development of the women's movement, its limitations, and its place in a socialist feminist ideology. (pgs. 20-23)
IV. Current issues and questions facing our movement----A socialist feminist approach to respond to and develop a context for our programs and concerns. (pgs. 24-28)
V. Organization----the importance of building organizations for the women's liberation movement and some thoughts on organizational forms. (pgs. 29-31)
The ideas that we are presenting are probably shared by many women in the movement, but so far they have not been articulated or identified nationally. We are not organized partly because our tolerance for different approaches, which our ideology encourages, makes it hard to present a new or contrary position. Furthermore, certain factors in our movement work against any kind of organization. Fears of elitism, the emphasis on personal alternatives and strengths, fear of failure, disbelief in the possibility of winning, and even fear of winning, have all played a role in our hesitancy
We are addressing the paper now to women who share our ideas of socialist feminism, whether they are women working in the movement, women who have never been active, women who have dropped out of the movement, or women working in mixed organizations. We hope that it may provide a common language in which we can begin to talk, a context in which we can meet to plan how to move.
I. SOCIALIST FEMINISM
We choose to identify ourselves with the heritage and future of feminism and socialism in our struggle for revolution. From feminism we have learned the fullness of our own potential as women, the strength of women. We have seen our common self-interest with other women and our common oppression. Having found these real bonds as women, we realize we can rely on each other as we fight for liberation. Feminism has moved us to see more concretely what becomes of people shaped by social conditions they do not control. We find our love and hate focused through our feminism----love for other women bound by the same conditions, hate for the oppression that binds us. A great strength we find in feminism is the reaffirmation of human values, ideals of sisterhood: taking care of people, being sensitive to people's needs and developing potential.
From feminism we have come to understand an institutionalized system of oppression based on the domination of men over women: sexism. Its contradictions are based on the hostile social relations set into force by this domination. This antagonism can be mediated by the culture and the flexibility of the social institutions so that in certain times and places it seems to be a stable relationship. But the antagonisms cannot be eliminated and will break out to the surface until there is no longer a system of domination.
But we share a particular conception of feminism that is socialist. It is one that focuses on how power has been denied women because of their class position. We see capitalism as an institutionalized form of oppression based on profit for private owners of publicly-worked-for wealth. It sets into motion hostile social relations in classes. Those classes too have their relations mediated through the culture and institutions. Thus alliances and divisions appear within and between classes at times clouding the intensity or clarity of their contradiction. But the basic hostile nature of class relations will be present until there is no longer a minority owning the productive resources and getting wealthy from the paid and unpaid labor of the rest
We share the socialist vision of a humanist world made possible through a redistribution of wealth and an end to the distinction between the ruling class and those who are ruled.
We have come to understand that only through an organized collective response can we fight such a system. Sisterhood thus also means to us a struggle for real power over our own lives and the lives of our sisters. Our personal relations and our political fight merge together and create our sense of feminism. Through the concept of sisterhood, women have tried to be responsive to the needs of all women rather than a selected few, and to support, criticize and encourage other women rather than competing with them.
Our Vision--Socialist Feminism is Desirable and Not Possible Under the Existing System
The following would be among the things we envision in the new order, part of everyday life for all people:
--free, humane, competent medical care with an emphasis on preventive medicine, under the service of community organizations
--peoples' control over their own bodies--i.e., access to safe, free birth control, abortion, sterilization, free from coercion or social stigma
--attractive, comfortable housing designed to allow for private and collective living
--varied, nutritious, abundant diet
--social respect for the work people do, understanding that all jobs can be made socially necessary and important
--democratic councils through which all people control the decisions which most directly affect their lives on the job, in the home, and community
--scientific resources geared toward the improvement of life for all, rather than conquest and destruction through military and police aggression
--varied, quality consumer products to meet our needs an end of housework as private, unpaid labor
--redefinition of jobs, with adequate training to prepare people for jobs of their choice; rotation of jobs to meet the life cycle needs of those working at them, as well as those receiving the services.
--political and civil liberties which would encourage the participation of all people in the political life of the country
--disarming of and community control of police
--social responsibility for the raising of children and free client-controlled childcare available on a 24-hour basis to accommodate the needs of those who use it and work in it
--free, public quality education integrated with work and community activities for people of all ages
--freedom to define social and sexual relationships
--a popular culture which enhances rather than degrades one's self respect and respect for others
--support for internal development and self-determination for countries around the world
We outline this vision to be more concrete about what a socialist feminist society might mean or try to be. This vision of society is in direct opposition to the present one which is based on the domination of the few over the many through sex, race and class. While there are concessions that it can make, the present form would not or could not adjust to the kind of people-oriented society outlined above.
Contradictions--An Alternative Is Necessary
Socialist feminism is not only desirable but it is also necessary because the current system of capitalism is not stable and cannot last in its present form. However, this does not mean that the society will inevitably become socialist. A fascist or barbaric form is also an alternative. The system that will replace capitalism will be determined by the orientation and power of groups fighting for alternatives. Hence, we must struggle to bring our vision of socialist feminism to fruition.
Contradictions are phenomena necessary to maintain the system but by their own internal logic produce forces destructive to it. A knowledge of them helps explain the chaos around us, giving a stable context to understand the historically changing process we are in. Such an understanding also helps us pick out weak spots of the process, points for defense and attack. Examples of these contradictions are all around us in varying degrees of severity. Sexism and capitalism reinforce one another, shape each other and have shaped us