History is, for many, an identity forming activity, and it has long been central to feminism and the women’s liberation movement. From its inception in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist history in particular has helped us to “find answers and guides for [female] lives and struggles”. It has, in the words of historian Linda Gordon “a political aspect” and it was “created by a social movement for women’s liberation with a sharp political critique of the whole structure of our society.” The idea was that feminist history would transform not only women’s view of history, but of themselves as politically engaged actors.
The feminists of the second-wave made the history of women central to female identity. Similarly, the history of feminism has become central to my own feminist identity, and I think the movement as a whole can benefit from seeing itself as one moment connected by a long historical development. Not only in order to pay homage to our predecessors, but to critically assess their work and continually recast our own aims and assumptions.
The event in question, ‘In Conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement’ put on by the History of Feminism Network and hosted by the British Library, was an ideal forum in which to explore and work through some of this assessment. Comprised of various panels on issues of Feminist History, Reproductive Choice, Race, Sexualities and Class and Work, it set up dialogue between young feminist academics and activists and women who participated in the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s. The first two sessions – Feminist History and Reproductive Choice – started slowly, covering ground that I felt was not particularly engaging. Besides, my question was never fully answered – a problem that recurred throughout the day, with speakers departing on tangents rather than actually responding to the audience’s issues and queries.
The session on Race, however, picked up the pace. Unlike the first two, the academic’s questions were well chosen – broad enough to evoke interesting responses, but focused to prevent deviation. The speakers were particularly inspiring. Gail Lewis and Amrit Wilson handled questions from both the academics and the audience with masterful clarity, sensitivity and insight. Lewis in particular brought out issues relating to trans* women and carefully navigated problems surrounding intersectionality, both past and present.
From participating in online and ‘real life’ feminist forums, I expected the Race session to be the inevitable point of conflict – reflecting the complicated and frequently embarrassing relationship between feminism and racism. Instead, tensions arose in the Sexualities post-panel discussion. Frustratingly, questions revolved around misunderstandings and confusion, rather than any of the more real criticisms one could make about the choice of panel and their statements. The issue of trans* rose again, and it became increasingly clear that the day was bereft without a panel specifically on gender identity. Discussions of race had, encouragingly, been threaded through all of the other panels, only in Sexualities was there no mention. This omission was brought out by the audience, and frankly exacerbated by the panel’s response. All too often in conferences like these, questions from the floor are answered with no remit for response from the original questioner. While by no means perfect, the event was fluid enough for Amrit Wilson and Sue O’Sullivan – a member of the Sexualities panel – to engage. This engagement, however, indicated that issues surrounding race remain misunderstood and clumsily handled. O’Sullivan directed her attention away from precisely those aspects of Wilson’s talk that the latter wanted white feminists to address.
Finally, the panel on Class and Work. Both speakers were adept, eloquent and empowering. They elicited much applause. That neither were themselves working class was baffling, however both addressed this failing and the focus of their discussion circled instead around Socialist Feminism. This was the talk that most instantly resonated with my own understanding of feminism and my own moral compass. It struck a chord that the other sessions – no doubt in part my fault – fell short of doing.
Perhaps this shortcoming, at least for me, was for two reasons. First, this was an event designed to bridge generations: ‘Intergenerational Histories of Second Wave Feminism’. However, the tensions between these two waves of feminism were enduring and tangible. They permeated the discussion, resulting in a toxicity that was difficult to overcome. The younger generation visibly bristled at semantics, disliking even quoted archaisms. There was an obvious discord between issues that had been something of a work in progress for second wave feminists – things they had worked out painfully and gradually – and the same issues that seem obvious to the feminists of the twenty-first century and the age of Tumblr. Not that we have it all figured out, or get it right all the time, but they are nonetheless apparent as issues from the get-go.
Second, the academic nature of the conference echoes issues that the feminists of the second-wave brought up, but has since perhaps been lost – or subsumed beneath concerns about class and its associated identities. In the opening issue of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (1975) the editors wrote: “We came together over a year ago to found a journal which we hoped would begin to bridge the gaps between university and community women…after all, university women lead real lives in the ‘real world,’ and women outside the university make valuable contributions to learning.” Thus, a central component of 1970s feminism was the active combination of the academic and the lay – an attempt to unify female understanding of both historical and contemporary issues of women. I am an academic, I approach things largely from an academic perspective. However, for a non-academic conference open to the public, the event was overwhelmingly scholarly in its terms and focus. I don’t think it is desirable, or even possible, for someone to be a feminist academic and not simultaneously be an activist. However, it is most definitely possible – and indeed it is the majority situation – to be an activist and not an academic.
The day posed more questions than solutions. But, that is how a vibrant and alive movement should be. Feminism is frequently accused of infighting, of failing to find a coherent voice. Yes, it must learn to speak to, and on the part of, more women’s experiences of life and oppression. However, those that suggest we should speak in unison are damaging the life-blood of the movement. The numerical majority of the population cannot be requested to agree on every aspect – insistence to the contrary rejects female capacity to debate productively. The conference, despite its discord and disunity, was inspiring. It felt like touching, palm to palm, with women from across decades – joining in a movement, a sisterhood.