Ellen Willis's Reply
In January 1968, Ellen Willis went to Washington to take part in a demonstration against the Vietnam war and for black liberation, which was staged to coincide with Richard Nixon's inaugural as president. At the demonstration, women in the group had asked to make a statement about their subordinate position within the New Left and on behalf of their own liberation. When they tried to make what they described at a "moderate, pro-movement statement," Willis reports, men in the audience "booed, laughed, cat-called and yelled enlightened remarks like 'Take her off the stage and fuck her.'" Instead of reprimanding the hecklers (as was done during an unpopular speech by a black GI), male organizers hurried the women off the stage.
On her return to New York, Willis wrote an article entitled "Women and the Left," in which she argued that the New Left was dominated by men and its theory, priorities, and strategy reflected male interests. Radical men woiuld not take women seriously, she insisted, unless "we build an independent movement so strong that no revolution at all is possible without our cooperation."
The article elicited criticism in the form of letters-to-editor, one of which Willis answered. Although the editor chose not to publish her reply, it is a cogent statement of the thinking of young women who would come to be known as radical feminists. (From Women's America: Refocusing the Past)
I was disturbed by your comments on my Guardian article, not because you disagreed but because you accused me of not thinking seriously...
You say "the basic misconception is that the enemy is man, not capitalism." I say, the basic misperception is the facile identification of "the system" with "capitalism." In reality, the American system consists of two interdependent but distinct parts-the capitalist state, and the patriarchal family. Engels, in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, explains that the material basis of history is twofold: the means of production of commodities, and the means of production of new human beings. The social organization for the production of commodities is the property system, in this case the capitalist state. The social organization for the production of new human beings is the family system. and within the family system, men function as a ruling class, woman as an exploited class. Historically, women and children have been the property of men (until recently, quite literally, even in "advanced" countries). The mistake many radicals make is to assume that the family is simply part of the cultural superstructure of capitalism, while actually both capitalism and the family system make up the material substructure of society. It is difficult to see this because capitalism is so pervasive and powerful compared to the family, which is small, weak, and has far less influence on the larger economic system than vice versa. But it is important for women to recognize and deal with their exploited position in the family system, for it is primarily in terms of the family system that we are oppressed as women. Of course, capitalism also exploits us, but the way in which it exploits us is primarily by taking advantage of, turning to its own purposes, our subordinate position in the family system and our historical domination by man, which stems from a time when the family system was all-powerful and the state did not yet exist. If you really think about our exploitation under capitalism-as cheap labor and as consumers-you will see that our position in the family system is at the root. This does not mean we shouldn't fight capitalism. Unless the power of the corporate state is broken, there can be no revolution in the family system. Furthermore, to attack male supremacy (i.e., man's class dominance in the family system) consistently inevitably means attacking capitalism in vulnerable areas. But if we simply work to destroy capitalism, without working to destroy male supremacy on all levels, we will find that the resulting revolution is only vicarious....
So much for ideology. Now for some practical politics. Our position here is exactly analogous to the black power position, with male radicals playing the part of white liberals. White liberals (and radicals, too, before they get wise to themselves) made exactly the same argument you're making. "Racism affects us too, we should work together, divisions between us only help the common enemy." (Incidentally, I thought you were being a little disingenuous in saying there's no "women's issues." A women's issue-or a black issue-means, in the accepted usage, a way in which women are oppressed because they are women, or blacks because they are black. This doesn't mean that men, and whites, are not affected by such issues.) Blacks answered, "We can't work together because you don't understand what it is to be black; because you've grown up in a racist society, your behavior toward us is bound to be racist whether you mean it or not; your ideas about how to to help us are too often self-serving and patronizing; besides, part of our liberation is in thinking for ourselves and working for ourselves, not accepting the domination of the white man in still another area of our lives. If you as whites want to work on eliminating your own racism, if you want to support our battle for liberation, fine. If we decide that we have certain common interests with white activists and can form alliances with white organizations, fine. But we want to make the decisions in our own movement." Substitute man-woman for black-white and that's where I stand. With one important exception: while white liberals and radicals always understood the importance of the black liberation struggle, even if their efforts in the blacks' behalf were often misguided, radical men simply do not understand the importance of our struggle... All around me I see men who consider themselves revolutionaries, yet exploit their wives and girl friends shamefully without ever noticing a contradiction. Anyone who was at the incredible rally in Washington knows it will be a long time before the majority of men, even those on the Left that should be closest to us, grasp that we have a grievance, and that we are serious, When they do grasp this, then we can talk about working together.
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