The Practice and the Theory

Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, DC

Anne M. Valk.

Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008, 253 pp., $40.00, hardcover.

Reviewed by Patricia Hill Collins

Anne M. Valk’s Radical Sisters just may make radicalism popular again. During a time when many second-wave feminists look back nostalgically on the 1960s as a time when feminists had the right answers and took to the streets to combat patriarchy, Valk’s definition of “radical” is instructive. According to her, women who prioritized grassroots issues, who sought to transform rather than reform society, and whose activism connected to the broader demands articulated by the New Left, constituted the radicals. Eschewing pristine ideological positions, the women Valk chronicles in Radical Sisters were not brought together by any common, predetermined political agenda beyond their commitment to a particular social issue. They radicalized one another in the context of these issue-based struggles, their differences giving them new angles of vision on their own efforts and those of others.

Through meticulous historical exploration of women’s political activism in Washington, DC, Valk provides a nuanced analysis of how the synergistic relationships among multiple social movements and the women who moved among them produced a radical feminist politics. She examines the various paths women followed to political activism generally and looks at how political activism framed their understandings of feminist politics in particular. Chapters on welfare rights, reproductive control, black liberation, lesbian feminism, and sexual violence illustrate the overlapping and crosscutting constituencies for each issue. Eventually, a broad movement was stitched together through the willingness of diverse groups of women to build coalitions. This women’s movement was not organized around the familiar liberal, socialist, and radical feminist positions of Women’s Studies 101. Rather, it was, in Valk’s portrayal, a living entity, with intentionality and opportunity, happenstance and hard-edged grassroots organizing, luck and lobbying all vying for space.

Several themes in Radical Sisters stand out. First, Valk’s definition of radical enables her to cast a wide net around feminist politics, one that includes black and poor women, who often are defined out of feminism, as important political actors. She examines how the class and racial composition of grassroots organizations—particularly significant in Washington, DC, which was seventy percent African American in the 1960s—shaped subsequent understandings of gender. In a detailed chapter on the actions of the local branch of National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), Valk examines the political activism of poor black women whose activism is routinely categorized as “economic” rather than “feminist.” As mothers, these women became involved in political organizations because they wanted to fight for tangible benefits for themselves and their children, not because they were committed to feminist ideologies. Radical Sisters shows how debates within the NWRO about women, families, privacy, work, reproductive rights, and the role of the state resulted in a race-, class-, and gender-inclusive political framework. Although mainstream feminism now routinely claims to embrace this kind of inclusiveness, the NWRO’s struggles predate those of women’s liberation’s founding activists. The maternal politics that were a starting point for poor black women’s political activism foreshadow the social-issues agenda of contemporary global feminism.

Second, Radical Sisters sheds light on the layered, dynamic, and coalitional nature of mass-movement politics. The women’s movement was stitched together by grassroots organizations whose politics were rooted in particular experiences—it was not “owned” by any one group of feminists. For example, the converging campaigns to secure black liberation and end economic oppression inspired activist black women, including those who didn’t belong to feminist organizations, to support feminist demands. Activist black women came to realize that their efforts to empower and secure economic security for African American women required a gender analysis. Valk eschews versions of feminism in which women organize around a particular ideology, and then act. Instead, as she sees it, the issue for women’s movement participants was to build a coalitional social movement in which different groups could support one another and develop a discourse that explained why they all needed one another.

A third noteworthy theme in Radical Sisters concerns how the women’s movement’s agenda evolved in a context of coalition building. Some issues, such as sexual violence, lent themselves to coalition work better than others, such as reproductive control. Valk details the diverse ideological and strategic approaches women from welfare rights, black liberation, and women’s liberation campaigns brought to the issue of reproductive control. Because the very different social actors involved held disparate views concerning childbearing, access to safe and affordable healthcare, contraception, and abortion, they had difficulties reaching an agreed-upon agenda. In contrast, disparate organizations with overlapping or even competing agendas were able to coalesce around the issue of sexual violence. Everyone had to compromise to some degree. Reformist groups advocated pushing for changes in police practices, the courts, and healthcare institutions. However, because lesbian-separatist groups, such as the Furies, and black nationalist women insisted that patriarchy and racism were the sources of women’s oppression, and that sexual violence was a major enforcement mechanism of domination, they rejected reformist initiatives. All however, worked to together to plan and participate in major demonstrations that raised the issue of sexual violence for the general public.

Valk’s analysis of how competing agendas facilitated or hindered coalition building leads to another noteworthy theme: the relationship between theory and practice. According to her, feminist theory was not the exclusive domain of educated women or scholars. Instead, women in campaigns for sexual, economic, and racial justice developed explanations for their conditions and analyses of their oppression, in order to formulate short-term political strategies and long-term visions. They had to struggle to find ways to reconcile contradictory agendas. No single group could develop an overarching theory and then hand it out to the others. Theories emerged as group members addressed social issues that affected all women, albeit differently, depending on race, class, sexuality and other factors. Valk shows that feminism was a living, breathing entity, which arose from a recursive relationship between theory and action, as coalitions defined issues and developed strategies.

Radical Sisters’s unique approach makes several contributions to contemporary feminism. For one, because Valk focuses on the historical texture of women’s political activism as understood by the women themselves, she avoids sterile debates over what counts as feminism. The women in this book were too busy trying to change women’s lives and empower them to spend much time on definitions. For another, because Radical Sisters examines the diverse strands of women’s political action, Valk avoids misreading one strand of the women’s movement as universal; or worse yet, anointing one version of feminism as more radical than others. Finally, Radical Sisters provides a robust view of the dynamic nature of feminist action, in contrast to static, academic attempts to parse the features of various theories. Valk illustrates how the line between so-called radicals and liberals blurred, especially as the decade progressed. This may account for the success of the movement of those times: so-called insider strategies for reform coupled with outsider demands for transformation, and the blurring of distinctions between them.

Because Radical Sisters does not shy away from exposing real conflicts of interest, it provides a refreshing look at second-wave feminism. It suggests that the dominant narratives of second-wave feminism actually flatten the dynamic way its theory developed, and thus fail to show that second-wave feminism’s trajectory was not inevitable. The benefit of Valk’s historical, local approach is that it reveals the synergy between practice and theory that shaped feminism during this period. Indeed, Valk’s second look at second-wave feminism invites us to rethink what it means to be radical today.

Patricia Hill Collins is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is author of From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism and Feminism (2006).


Patricia Hill Collins Page 1 10/22/2008

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