The Women’s Movement

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Writing in 1972, Joan Didion’s thoughts on the progressiveness of the “Women’s Movement” were charged with skepticism and distaste. Noting that second wave feminism felt overly simplistic and overlooked moral ambiguities, Didion’s evaluation of 1970s female activism is not only a testament to her perceptive, unforgiving outlook on the movement’s faults, but also serves as a nuanced portrait of her writing prowess.


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To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone “oppressed” to break them: every revolutionist is presumed to understand that, and also every woman, which either does or does not make 51 percent of the population of the United States a potentially revolutionary class. 

“The new feminism is not just the revival of a serious political movement for social equality,” the feminist theorist Shulamith Firestone announced flatly in 1970. “It is the second wave of the most important revolution in history.” This was scarcely a statement of purpose anyone could find cryptic, and it was scarcely the only statement of its kind in the literature of the movement. Nonetheless, in 1972, in a “special issue” on women, Time was still musing genially that the movement might well succeed in bringing about “fewer diapers and more Dante.”

That was a very pretty image, the idle ladies sitting in the gazebo and murmuring lasciate ogni speranza,1 but it depended entirely upon the popular view of the movement as some kind of collective inchoate yearning for “fulfillment” or “self-expression.” In fact there was an idea, and the idea was Marxist, and it was precisely to the extent that there was this Marxist idea that the curious historical anomaly known as the women’s movement would have seemed to have any interest at all.

Marxism in this country had ever been an eccentric and quixotic passion. One oppressed class after another had seemed to finally miss the point. The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having. The minorities seemed to promise more, but finally disappointed: it developed that they actually cared about the issues, that they tended to see the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus as real goals.

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International Women’s Day march in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Bonnie Reilly Schmidt.

If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. Let us transcend, via technology, “the very organization of nature,” the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, “that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.”

The feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism. They were being heard, and yet not really. Attention was finally being paid, and yet that attention was mired in the trivial. Even the brightest movement women found themselves engaged in sullen public colloquies about the inequities of dishwashing and the intolerable humiliations of being observed by construction workers on Sixth Avenue.2

Cooking a meal could only be “dogwork,” and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one’s own forced labor. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their “freedom.” It was a long way from the notion that that first step in changing that role was Alix Kates Shulman’s marriage contract (“wife strips beds, husband remakes them”)3 reproduced in Ms.: but it was toward such trivialization that the women’s movement seemed to be heading.

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African American women struggled to find resonance in the Women’s Movement. Image courtesy of PBS & WGBH Educational Foundation.

The ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own. The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves. The bitter fancies assumed their own logic. That many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package.

“It is the right of the oppressed to organize around their oppression as they see and define it,” the movement theorists insist doggedly in an effort to solve the question of these women, to convince themselves that what it going on is still a political process; but the handwriting is already on the wall.

These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what culture has done to them than the theorists ever did, and they also tell us, I suspect, that the women’s movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.

The following books were the basis of Joan Didion’s reflections on the women’s liberation movement. 

 

See Joan Didion’s original “The Women’s Movement.”


1. Italian quotation from Dante, meaning “abandon all hope, ye who enter.”
2. Didion seems to perceive the women’s movement’s fixation on sexual harassment as regressive, finding irony in how feminism was supposed to be an empowering movement, yet was thriving off of issues of dealing with female fragility.
3. See an abridged version of Alix Kates Shulman’s controversial “A Marriage Agreement” from 1970.

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