Feminism’s Big Idea: The Trouble Between Us

An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement by Winifred Breines
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, 269 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Ellen Willis

The Trouble Between Us reads like a straightforward narrative of race relations within second-wave feminism, but it tells another story between the lines. In Winifred Breines’s account, white feminists with roots in the new left and the civil rights movement brought their brief experience of interracial community and their antiracist ideals into the women’s liberation movement, only to encounter fierce criticism and outright rejection from black women. As a result, their effort to understand differences among women and build interracial, interethnic coalitions came to set the agenda of white feminists on the left, determining how they would define feminist politics, what issues they would emphasize, and how those issues would be articulated. As Breines tells it, this is a tale of progress—however halting, tentative, and laden with ironies. Yet in fact it raises disturbing questions. Was the turn toward a politics of difference the logical next step in building a radical mass movement, or did it represent an impulse toward moral redemption that its exponents confused with politics? Did the emphasis on coalition-building increase the power of the feminist movement and advance political and social change—or did it contribute to the movement’s decline as a dynamic political force?

This book is a valuable addition to the literature on a subject that attracts more than its share of cant. Breines refutes the absurdly reductive but nonetheless widely held view that the early women’s liberation movement was a racist enclave devoted to the narrowest concerns of affluent white women. In her more nuanced picture, while the politics of the movement were marred by racially inflected arrogance, ignorance, parochialism, and naïve idealism, the white women of its left wing were always conscious of racial issues and aspired to integrate feminism with an antiracist, anticapitalist analysis and program. As for black women and other women of color, they were not absent from the movement, as so often portrayed; a small number participated in the “white” movement, and many more took circuitous routes toward inventing brands of feminism that met their needs. The notion that black women’s suspicion of women’s liberation was simply a reaction to white feminist racism is itself an idea that’s embarrassingly racist, putting white women at the center of the universe. It gives way in Breines’s book to a complex portrayal of black women’s politically difficult situation: the often conflicting priorities of race and gender politics, the contradictions of female activism and subordination within the black movement, the loyalties to and conflicts with black men, the distrust of and contempt for white women dating back to slavery. Clashing memories and interpretations of events that trace the faultlines between black and white women are as much Breines’s material as the sometimes elusive facts of the events themselves. And for the most part, her account jibes with the facts, and the debates over those facts, as I remember them—a virtue not to be discounted, given the blatant revisionism that so often passes for feminist history.

In a minor but revealing exception, Breines describes the radical wing of early women’s liberation as consisting of radical feminists, for whom “men were … the source of women’s subordination” and socialist feminists, “whose political goal was a socialist and feminist society.” In fact, at the start the division was more basic. As Breines more accurately puts it a few pages later, “Women divided between those who believed that capitalism was at the heart of women’s oppression, which meant that they maintained their connections to the male Left… while the feminists, who ultimately prevailed, argued… that not only capitalism but also male supremacy was responsible.” The new left women, believing that nineteenth century feminism was “bourgeois,” did not use the word “feminist” at all;they coined the term “women’s liberation” to avoid it. The self-proclaimed feminists, meanwhile, saw themselves as inheritors of the earlier women’s movement. The latter, who would spawn a variety of “radical feminist” tendencies, at the beginning put forward one fundamental big idea: that male supremacy was itself a pervasive system, extending to all areas of social life, that required us to draw on our own experience and rethink politics from the ground up. “Socialist feminism” was essentially a reaction to that idea—an effort to meld feminism with existing new left politics.

I make this point not to split hairs or rehash old factional fights but because it bears on the underlying question posed by The Trouble Between Us—whether it is possible to build a movement that bridges profound racial and class divides. Misguided as the notion of a transcendent sisterhood proved, in one respect the movement’s earliest feminists had it right: as second-wave feminism spread throughout the United States and indeed became a global movement over the next four decades, what propelled it forward and outward was the power of the fundamental big idea. Up and down the class ladder and within myriad racial, ethnic, regional, national, political, religious and cultural groups, women grappled with that idea and adapted it to their own situations and sensibilities, even as they debated and often vociferously rejected the formulations of the women’s liberationists. If adapting feminism often meant subordinating it to other concerns, or redefining it to neutralize its more threatening, socially disruptive features (especially “man hating”), new feminist constituencies also produced new insights, challenged the movement’s mistakes, and pointed out its blind spots, ultimately changing the canons of “mainstream” feminism. In passing through particular communities, the feminist idea had an unpredictable career; yet in recognizable form it endured.

Breines’s history, as well as a voluminous black feminist literature, shows that black women went through their own version of this process. Their politics evolved as they confronted the feminist idea in its various versions, filtered it through their experience of racial and sexual oppression and their history as activists in the civil rights and black power movements, and argued with white women, black men, and each other. In time, analyses of the relationship between racial and sexual politics by bell hooks, Michele Wallace, Ann DuCille, and others transformed feminist theory. All this happened independently of white feminists’ multicultural efforts.

How then are we to evaluate the contribution of the white socialist feminists, whom Breines sees as “the most politically leftist” of the early women’s liberationists and the most committed to antiracist struggle? Certainly understanding and taking responsibility for racism is central to any white radical’s political education, and promoting solidarity across racial lines would seem to be Organizing 101. Yet if the purpose of a movement is to foment changes in the larger social world, it’s far from clear how white socialist feminists’ preoccupation with the movement’s internal affairs translated into gains for either feminism or black liberation. Rather—and here Breines’s narrative confirms my recollections—the confrontation with difference tended to become an end rather than a means, in part because it was based on a dubious understanding of racial solidarity. Breines notes the shift of feminist politics from “understanding sexism and patriarchy” to “trying to work out political relationships with one another, ” and she refers critically to the self-flagellation and guilt that immobilized many socialist feminist groups. But these are symptoms of a more subtle problem.

A major source of racial tension in the early days of feminism was black female hostility to some of the movement’s more radical sexual-political ideas, particularly its critiques of the family and heterosexual relations. It would soon become obvious that different positions in America’s race and class hierarchy drove women toward different political perspectives, priorities, and core concerns. But did that mean that the sexual-political analysis that came out of (mostly) white feminists’ experience was invalid? That it applied only to white women and was therefore racist? Many leftists, white and black, took this position. Most white socialist feminists appeared to adopt a “soft” version of it, in which being antiracist did not simply mean respecting and engaging black women’s views while looking critically at how their own assumptions were shaped by race and class, but rather required them to defer uncritically to what they took to be most black women’s views and priorities.

Yet there were always black women who disagreed with the majority. And anyway, a greater degree of oppression does not guarantee better judgment. The initial resistance of most black female activists to sexual politics was to some extent defensive—the confrontation with sex and gender threatened to add new pressures and pains to lives that were already overburdened, personally and politically—while the privilege of white middle-class feminists was a political advantage as well as a limitation. Because they—that is, we—were free of other urgent problems, and perhaps less dependent on the goodwill of men and family members than any other female cohort in history, we could afford to focus our anger and theoretical firepower on our subordination to men and the suppression of our personal and sexual freedom. The terms in which we discussed these issues often excluded others: notoriously, our obsession with escaping our mothers’ housewife role was irrelevant to most of our black peers, whose mothers had always worked outside the home. Yet it was still true that all women suffered, in one way or another, from the basic sexist dynamics we attacked. Like the proverbial blind men feeling the elephant, we had hold of disparate parts; the elephant, however, was real.

Breines notes, for instance, that white feminists’ view of the family as the seat of oppression, “an analysis that identified women as its victims, often criticizing their own mothers for accepting a subordinate status,” put off radical black women who admired the family because “parents sacrificed to protect and nurture children in a harsh racist world. Women were often the backbone of the family, and younger women believed that the older women deserved recognition for this.” She judges our writing on the subject to be “mechanical and cold.” Undeniably, much of our antifamily rhetoric was moralistic and reductive in ways that reflected our secure position in the world, as well as our youth and childlessness. But if “the family” is understood as an institution—a historically rooted set of laws, customs, and social policies designed to regulate domestic life, child rearing, and sex—there is no contradiction between observing that its regulations have subordinated women, and respecting the sacrifices of mothers or recognizing that families are an essential social support not only for oppressed minorities but for most people. On the contrary, it’s because families, and mothers, serve primal needs that the institution has been such a powerful vehicle of social control. As different as the family lives of different social groups may be, all women, from the white upper-middle-class housewife to the single black “matriarch,” are rewarded and punished in accordance with the dominant culture’s familialist norms: those that distinguish between legitimate and deviant households; sanctioned and illicit sex; and good, feminine and bad, unfeminine women.

In short, the early feminists needed to refine their analysis of the family by taking into account other women’s pieces of the elephant. They needed to clarify the distinction between the family as institution and actually existing familial relations. Instead, the feminist left largely abandoned any serious critique of familialism for a feelgood, “my family’s ok, your family’s ok” pluralism. To be sure, the pervasive “pro-family” backlash of the late seventies was central to this retrenchment. Still, the politics of difference provided an impetus for replacing radical criticism of the system with liberal tolerance and “support for all families.” One result is a gay marriage movement that rarely questions why we need to be married to receive social benefits or have our relationships respected.

Breines’s prime example of interracial coalition building by socialist feminists is the 1979 campaign in response to a wave of murders of women in Boston’s black neighborhoods that were outrageously downplayed by the police and the press. Black women organized to protest, and white socialist feminists formed a support group to provide resources like fundraising, babysitting, and typing. What is wrong with this picture? The support group was meant to build trust by acknowledging black women’s leadership in a matter affecting their community; yet the very concept was a retreat from the radical recognition that male supremacy hurts all women to a liberal politics of “helping others.” And then, violence against women was an issue that already had ecumenical appeal; good will from the campaign was unlikely to carry over to alliances on more controversial subjects. In truth, antiviolence politics, precisely because of their attraction for masses of women who may strongly disagree about other issues, have been problematic for the movement. An emphasis on violence has often crowded out scrutiny of less dramatic daily patterns of male dominance as well as leading to dicey formulations like “pornography is violence against women.” Again, this is mainly because opposing violence is more compatible with the law-and-order ethos of a conservative culture than, say, militantly defending abortion, let alone criticizing the family. But the politics of difference, with its impulse to stress areas of agreement and avoid uncomfortable debates, has abetted this trend.

Breines regards the trajectory of white socialist feminists as a process of giving up “white nostalgia” for the romanticized interracial beloved community of the civil rights era and adopting a more hard-headed, modest view of interracial cooperation. Yet ironically, the underlying impulse of their politics seems to have been the desire to establish community among black and white women, along with their own moral credentials as antiracist. Indeed, in her account many black feminists have also been moved by hope for a women’s community, or, in the words she quotes from Ann DuCille, “the pain and disappointment of failed community.” Breines ends the book by hoping that young people will not suffer “the loss of each other” as her own generation did.

Radical movements do create community (just as communities give rise to movements), and they are often vehicles for activists’ moral struggles. But their reason for being is not to let people find each other or to improve their characters—it’s to oppose the social structures of unfreedom and inequality. The unwitting suggestion of The Trouble is that difference politics has been largely a diversion from that task.

Ellen Willis wrote on culture and politics and directed the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the journalism department at New York University. She was an early women’s liberation activist.

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