The Geography of the Women’s Movement

Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism

By Anne Enke
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, 369 pp., $23.95, paperback
Reviewed by Ann Snitow

It’s the fortieth anniversary of 1968, and people like me who were there are being wheeled out to testify about what it was really like. What led to the worldwide political and cultural explosion—one so alluring and various that it early acquired the stature of myth, sealing its fame and fixing it, too, as a hall of mirrors? The growing literature on the 1960s in the US renames, reconfigures, and sometimes re-appropriates the material, but it rarely comes near to dispersing the central riddle: how did Americans combine the experience of so much trauma with so much vitality? Whether the decade is remembered as a cautionary tale or a utopian dream, its cascade of social changes inspires one to raise fundamental questions about how social transformation happens.

A central pleasure of Anne Enke’s Finding the Movement is the way she makes an end run around many of the established, contentious traditions of sixties studies. Her subject is the extraordinary breadth and staying power of the women’s liberation movement, and rather than exploring origins, intellectual debates, important texts, or famous players as keys to understanding she asks instead: how did it happen? If, as historians Linda Gordon and Rosalyn Baxandall claim, “Feminism is the largest social movement in the history of the United States,” how did it achieve such reach, still proliferating today, even in places where the word “feminist” is never spoken? How is it that, in spite of increasingly heavy resistance, bits and pieces of feminist ideas, practices, and desires—some of them extremely radical—have entered American life everywhere and transformed general assumptions and expectations?

Casually smashing the bicoastalism that has been a problem in much of feminist historiography, Enke studied how, in the 1960s and 1970s, feminism moved through four Midwestern cities: Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago. By beginning with the minutiae of “how,” she finds an exciting next question: “where?” She travels from location to location—from women’s coffee houses to public parks, from feminist bookstores to battered women’s shelters. Eyes close to the ground, she develops a map showing the local pathways diverse women traveled as they seized the freewheeling energy of that time to take over or create spaces where women had not gone before.

This close-to-the-ground perspective through the spaces of everyday life makes feminism look different. With space at the center, the old stories recede, leaving room for new ones to emerge. The usual stars such as Gloria Steinem make fugitive appearances at a distance, while women’s soft ball teams take center stage; the sacred text Notes from the Second Year (edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt and published in 1969) becomes the chance catalyst that leads one woman in the Midwest to search for a place where she can meet others who think such thoughts. The loud movement debates between radical feminists and politico-feminists are only noises off, while lesbian/straight splits dissolve into multiple complexities, as different groups struggle to name themselves, their sexualities, and the locations of their social life.

Enke’s fine-tuned attention to detail brings into view new aspects of old questions. She gives us a close analysis of how women moved the line back and forth between public and private to suit their needs. But some boundaries were more moveable than others. White women often expressed a wish to break color lines, but the race-drawn borders of neighborhoods were more powerful than these abstract wishes, creating walls stronger than good intentions.

Still, for all the limitations, women roamed more freely than ever before. In her microdescriptions of how daily life changed, Enke shows how, sometimes, “feminism exceeded feminist identification.” In other words, for some, proclaiming a feminist identity was the way to participate in change, while for others, simply going to the new places and presenting themselves in new ways contributed to the transformation of the world we all now inhabit.

Enke moves beyond the old lesbian/straight debates to build a thick historical description of “the place of lesbians in the movement.” In her narrative, lesbian culture is central to how feminism begins to elaborate ideas about women’s independence—but this story is woven into many others. Lesbians are everywhere in this fascinating book, but as shape-changing presences, seeding the feminist movement and sustaining it in all its multiple meanings for women both lesbian and straight.

Along with lesbianism, Enke puts class and race differences at the center of her story, and—rare feat—she never sacrifices any one of these dimensions. Sexual style, race, and economic access to the marketplaces of pleasure and sociability all set the direction a particular woman may follow to find her identity and express her desires. Groups mix frequently, but white advantages place limitations on the encounters. For example, black women who ventured to the lesbian bars in North Chicago were treated as outsiders. As one woman recalled, first they had to show a driver’s license: “But that’s not enough: ‘You need your Social Security card, you need your Communion card—ha ha ha—you have a passport?’” Some black women side-stepped the “heavy-duty [butch-femme] roles” of traditional black bars on the one hand, and exclusion from mostly white bars on the other, and invented new spaces, such as the gay pride picnic on Lake Michigan: “What started as a lesbian potluck is now 18,000 – 20,000 African Americans.”

I’m sorry that I have only enough space to describe a few of Enke’s case studies here, because together they build up a complex picture of successes, failures, and contradictions. Enke sees the limits of action and the shortfall of desire wherever she looks, but at the same time she has a little loose love for the far-flung doings of independent women everywhere. She treasures not only the creation of stable institutions that lasted into the 1980s but also the cobbling together of ephemeral women’s resting places, where, briefly, those who had never cooked before became purveyors of excellent soup, good coffee, and women’s community.

For example: Chicago’s Pride and Prejudice Books. It began as a commune in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in 1969 and morphed into a second-hand feminist bookstore—Chicago’s first. It never made money but became a place of “unplanned and ephemeral action.”

Although almost lost to feminist archives, Pride and Prejudice did leave…traces. Where did women on the North Side go for pregnancy testing? Where did this feminist painting come from? What about this flyer advertising Chicago’s first lesbian band and all-women dance? Who ran the mimeographs of Roscoe Street Blues, the newsletter of La Gente (a coalition of former street gangs turned community organizers)?

One source of conflict at the store was the close proximity in the refrigerator of the urine for pregnancy testing to the lentils and beans for dinner. But the chaos of the place gave it extraordinary resilience. As a staging ground, Pride and Prejudice was both small and inclusive, domestic and public, market and antimarket, political and apolitical. Sixties culture embraced these contradictions and, in the case of Pride and Prejudice, one can see how feminism grew strong in part because it was nurtured in the fertile soil of sixties counterculture. The land was fat, and people could live quite freely on the excess, whether they identified with political movements or not. These free and easy practices in turn gave political movements wings.

One of Enke’s richest studies of how “apolitical actors directly engaged political processes” is the case of women’s softball teams in Detroit. In the 1950s and 1960s, girls had hardly any serious athletic training in school. Their bodies were constrained by their clothes, and lesbian sexuality was unspeakable. In this world, both black and white girls with athletic talent languished. But in 1964, with the creation of the Motown Soul Sisters softball team, tough, quasi-respectable girls began playing to win.

Male teams tried to warn women off public diamonds by gay-baiting and race-baiting them, but the women resisted identification as black-only (though many teams were) or as lesbian-only (though many team members admitted to Enke that lots of the players were “that way”). Without rhetoric, softball put women’s bodies and lesbian sexuality on view in glorious sunshine. Here were new public images of powerful, sexually thrilling women.

One of the most exciting stops on the space continuum Enke is developing is Women’s Advocates, a battered-women’s shelter in St. Paul. The battered women’s movement brings up essential questions about privacy and publicity. Who gets to keep her life private, and who has no choice but to be hauled into public view as a “case”? Carefully following each thread, Enke shows how the private and public became entangled even as the women’s movement struggled to sort things out. Women want both to be free and active in public space and to have control of their own private boundaries. The story of the Women’s Advocates shelter makes a wonderful feminist parable of this complexity.

At first, Women’s Advocates members brought battered women, their children, and their pets into their own homes. Then, their husbands and neighbors objected. The police refused to help the Advocates to establish privacy, assuming that a man had the right of access to his own property—his wife and kids—even if that meant trespassing on a privately owned house. (In fact, by law, men didn’t have the automatic right of access that in those days they so often assumed.) Once Women’s Advocates moved into a home of its own, the same problem arose. The house was private property. Who was to be allowed in? Surely not the angry husbands! The Advocates sought to make the space safe from overentitled, marauding men. They installed bells and whistles, alarms and locks. They darkened the windows and barred the doors. In other words, they created a safe prison for the afflicted. 

Then, one of the Advocates visited a shelter in Canada. It was full of light and wide open to the comings and goings of women, children, and the men in their lives. Women’s Advocates decided to take down the barriers, to become less a haven in a heartless world and more a part of the community, demanding its services and its recognition.

Women’s Advocates went still further. Instead of assuming that men were the enemy, they began to look at violence in lesbian relationships and at shelter residents’ violence toward their children. What could they say to a mother who claimed she beat her daughter to toughen her up for the world out there, where nothing is private or safe and one must fight to survive? The Advocates decided to continue opposing the spanking of children in the shelter, but they became self-conscious about their role as enforcers and they developed a broader understanding of violence and its multiple meanings and sources.

Enke gives us an account of feminist political values as they are struggled over in action, day by day. Taken cumulatively, the record she provides in this book of the flexibility, genius, and solid achievements of the modern women’s liberation movement—in all its varied forms—is simply astonishing.

Finding the Movement is published by Duke University Press in its Radical Perspectives series, overseen by a group from the distinguished journal Radical History Review, which has been run by a collective of Marxist historians for more than thirty years. But this book could not have come from this intellectual bloodline before the 1989 fall of Communism in the West. It departs from the traditional hierarchies in both Old and New Left thinking that privilege unions over neighborhood mobilizations, and self-conscious cadres over political actors who have no sustained analysis. Many of Enke’s groups would once have been called pre-party formations, or incoherent populist eruptions, or cultural associations more about style and feeling than about material change. Enke sees strengths and weaknesses in her disparate groups, but she gives political unclarity its due as part of any mass political movement.

The endorsement of Enke’s book by mostly sixties-generation radical historians is moving evidence of their openness and flexibility, and a sign of their own skepticism about the rhetoric of the past. In the unsigned series introduction, the editors write that “many of us are currently struggling with the issue of what it means to be a radical historian in the early twenty-first century.” The question of how to place the Left into historical context inevitably vexes Left radicals in a post-Communist situation, leaving them to search for new vocabularies to describe the dynamics of their own past. Just how central was Left thinking to the cultural upheavals that changed so much in the sixties? In our current situation, ideology has acquired a bad name and ad hoc, local political formations are now in favor—a shift in values that Enke’s book reflects without remark.

Movements form and dissolve, trailing ideas but not necessarily structured by them. One way that Enke rescues the vitality and transformative power of the sixties is by disassociating the sixties’ success from the long-term ambitions of Left projects. In her work, the Left is a faction, one that often slides out of view. In the meantime, local struggles for space, meaning, and justice continue, building their appeal out of local conditions.

If all this reminds you of the Obama campaign, it should. We have yet to see where his (sometime) disaffiliation with Left ideas will carry us. But Enke’s love for local organizers as they search for a politics of shared space, just access to the public sphere, and creative acts of self-realization is suggestive for political activists in our current moment, searching, as the historians’ collective says, for what “radical” means now.

This book signals an open way of studying how politics becomes the daily bread of citizens in general. I’m one who believes in the long-term applicability of many of the Left critiques of capitalism, but a new generation of scholars is asking basic questions about how such a critique can become generally shared, popular, powerful. Enke’s book has the potential to suggest how mass political movements for social justice might work in America.

One last note, directed not so much to this book as to the current practice of academic writing: Enke finds it necessary to repeat the trinity, race, sex, and class, every few lines. Were she inattentive to these variables beyond this bow ad altarum dei we would have an example of false claims and of hypocrisy. But Enke’s work is so subtle and complex about these categories, undermining them as often as accepting them, that the trick of crossing herself with these terms is merely redundant, making the reading far more tiresome than it should be.

I wish Enke could go back to her amazing spaces with a camera and make a documentary about the women she has written about. I, for one, would travel far to see what the Motown Soul Sisters looked like playing ball before the great diversity of women who thronged to see the game. We rarely hear the voices of Enke’s interviewees, and then only as illustrations of a point. Enke has made a brilliant political contribution here. I hope she finds many forms in the future to communicate the texture of political experience and the depth of her insights about how we all walk the shifting spaces of this world.

Ann Snitow teaches literature and gender studies at the New School for Social Research. Her current activist and writing projects are about feminism in East Central Europe.
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