Spring 2005, Vol. 13, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Why a Feminist Movement?
Roads to Feminist Protest in Postwar 1960s and 1970s America

by Benita Roth

Benita Roth


How and why do women decide to protest on their own behalf? Why and when do they decide to challenge institutional authority? How do they come to challenge the local authority of those with whom they organize? In short, how and why do women activists sometimes become feminist activists?

These are some of the questions that are at the center of my research on gender, feminisms, and women’s social protest. When I first heard that the theme for the 2004/2005 Warren Center Fellows Program was “Strategic Actions: Women, Power, and Gender Norms,” I felt that the theme had been selected just for me. In working on the gender dynamics of social protest in a postwar American context, I always came back to questions of political decision-making by women activists, that is, strategy. In recovering, reflecting on, and reassessing the way that women in social movement organizations challenged mainstream views of women’s roles, I’ve come to be impressed by the complexity of the contexts within which women strategize, and by the way their strategies are shaped by women’s on-the-ground perceptions of opportunities and constraints.

There’s been considerable backlash in the past twenty or so years against the changes that postwar feminist movements have brought about in American society (more will be said about the use of the plural “feminist movements” below). There is little doubt that these and other oppositional movements have irrevocably changed people’s lives. Backlash against movements is, of course, a sign of movements’ successes, especially so when the movements in question have targeted for change relationships that many see as “natural” and immutable. But the scholarship on the variety and ubiquity of women’s protest makes clear that explicitly, self-consciously feminist movements are actually rather infrequent occurrences as political projects by women protestors. For me, it is precisely this combination of relative rarity and transformative potential that makes the question of “Why a feminist movement?” so compelling in trying to understand women’s agency in popular protest.

The genesis of my interest in the making of U.S. feminisms in the 1960s and 1970s—the “second wave” of feminist protest—began with a political puzzle that confronted me while I was still an undergraduate in the early 1980s, as I noted in the preface of my book, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge University Press, 2004). Both at my university, Brandeis, and in the activist community of the greater Boston area in which it was located, questions about racism in what was perceived to be the largely monolithic white feminist movement were inescapable. Racial and ethnic divides were the subject of many discussions and workshops; over and over, in group after group, the failure of white feminism to attract women of color—often characterized as the failure of women of color to be attracted to feminism—was bemoaned. While my experience at the time confirmed that many feminist groups were predominantly or exclusively white, it didn’t follow that the activist women of color I met were not feminists. I found this to be true both in the personal friendships I had and in doing coalition work in and around Boston; I continually met women of color who were feminist in their outlook, but were reluctant for different reasons to participate in all-white groups. Some activist women of color feared tokenism, but others were just more involved with community-based organizations and did not want to suffer the “combat fatigue” that joining yet another organization might bring. Adding to my puzzle was the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s, I was, along with others, reading more and more theory by feminists of color, and becoming more and more convinced by the analysis of the “intersectionality” of oppressions that feminists of color generated.1 Intersectional feminist theory constituted a mode of analysis and consequent vision of liberation from multiple oppressions of class, race, homophobia, and sexism that seemed to many feminists to be the logical next step.

I eventually moved back to my hometown of Los Angeles in the late 1980s and after having been active in various parts of the local feminist anti-violence movement, I began graduate school in sociology at UCLA. Although the organizations I had worked with in LA were somewhat able to mitigate racial divides by hiring diverse staffs, the larger anti-violence movement was still characterized by racial/ethnic divisions and largely consisted of racially/ethnically homogenous groups designed to serve different communities. I went back to graduate school in order to study social protest, and I found myself looking for a case for my dissertation research. The puzzle of why a vision of a feminist fight against the multiple fronts of oppression did not match the reality of racially/ethnically separate groups organizing on the ground once again presented itself, and shaped my research agenda.

The questions I asked to orient my research included the ones I began this article with, and, of course, became more specific. I wanted to know what had generated the divisions I found in the landscape of feminist protest that I confronted. In my research, I looked at the emergence of organizationally distinct feminisms in the 1960s and 1970s, finding that the picture of one feminist movement, organized by middle-class white women, was erroneous. Some Black women and some Chicanas (Mexican-American women) organized as self-conscious feminists at the same time as white feminists, and chose a label— “feminist”—that was not particularly popular within their own communities (not that white feminists necessarily won big popularity contests among male activists in the 1960s). While there were differences in what feminists who were situated in different oppositional communities wanted and organized for, there was also a fair degree of agreement about bedrock issues: reproductive choice, employment opportunity, an end to sexual violence, and even opposition to the Vietnam War. What, then, led to the development of feminisms that were organizationally distinct?

In order to do this work, I first had to reject the idea that the racial/ethnic divisions I encountered were somehow “natural.” I also had to reject the idea that the divisions were “only” about race/ethnicity, and not also about class; that is to say, I embraced the intersectional perspective that acknowledged that people have multiple social locations in interlocking systems of social hierarchy. Having been trained in a sociology program that emphasized macro-level structural and historical change, I also took the view that the organizational divisions in feminist organizing were influenced in part by the larger social movement political milieu—a milieu that shaped feminists’ access to resources and shaped their perceptions of the possibilities for effective political protest. I married this view with a “meso” (that is, mid-range) level look at movement organizations. I took very seriously the idea that large scale social divisions and social inequalities impacted feminist organizing, because of how activists on the ground were aware of the class divisions that existed between—and not just within—racial/ethnic communities. It is one thing, for example, to state that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had most of its roots in a growing Black middle-class, or that the Chicano movement represented the aspirations of an urbanizing community; it is quite another thing to assert that the status of being middle-class travels uninflected across communities. No less than other kinds of activists, those women forming feminist groups readily ascertained class inequalities, and these assessments mattered for how they decided to organize.

After visiting archival collections in libraries across the United States, and after conducting nine oral history interviews of my own, I argued that the second wave of feminism was indeed a second wave of feminisms, which reflected the deep class and racial/ethnic inequalities that existed among feminists who organized beginning in the mid-1960s. These inequalities, along with the overall structure of the social movement sector, and the place of emerging feminists within that sector, refracted feminist protest in the era into different, parallel, and largely separate movements organized around the political goal of the liberation of women. While that sounds like a strictly structural argument, I also emphasized that relationships with male activists in other existing movements—particularly those in emergent feminisms’ “parent” movements of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation movement, the Chicano movement, and the New Left—were crucial to how, and why, feminists decided to organize as feminists. Feminists didn’t just form their own groups to get away from male sexism; they engaged in prolonged debate with male activists about the political wisdom of feminist organizing, and they were noticeably aware of the potential consequences their organizing could have on their own communities.

This question of women’s awareness of the consequences of feminist organizing brings me back to the Warren Center theme, and the matter of strategic action by women challenging power and gender norms. How political activists make decisions about how and with whom to organize is a central question for social movement scholars. “Strategic” or “instrumental” action by social movement participants had often been counterposed in the sociological literature with “expressive” action, with the idea being that activists make strategy with their left-brain, sifting through choices with a cold cost-benefit eye, and then switch into right-brain mode when they assert identities through emotional, most often culturally-based, practices that have little to do with their concerns about political effectiveness. This simplistic dichotomy is being overcome by social movement scholars who are now writing with closer attention toward the specific circumstances within which activists make their decisions about how to act politically, that is, the nested boxes of opportunity and constraint that need to be perceived by activists in order to be actually available to them.

In my work on second wave feminisms, I argued for a different understanding of the way that politically invested activists constructed organizations within these sets of opportunities and constraints. Second wave feminists emerged from other movements for social change, those I mentioned earlier, with various degrees of loyalty to others in larger oppositional communities. Feminists used, or attempted to use, resources generated by those communities in order to press for their own issues. They shared values with others in those communities; feminists in each movement saw a feminist agenda as an extension of their movement’s values, a way of living up to community ideals. But the emergence of feminisms in a crowded social movement landscape already characterized by competition as much as by coalition complicated matters, especially when it came to the distribution of women’s energies within movement organizations. Feminists arguing for a new political agenda were seen as threatening, since most social movement groups relied on women’s labor to get the nitty-gritty details of organizing done, not to mention cooking for and cleaning up after meetings.

Ironically—and here is where I saw the inter-movement milieu of social protest mattering most—shared values among different racial/ethnic oppositional communities about how to organize validated separate feminist organizing. As feminists in various organizations debated the merits of autonomous organizing, they were not only talking about moving resources from place to place; they were influenced by a left political ethos of “organizing one’s own,” which positively sanctioned efforts by groups to organize their own communities, and thus achieve liberation through self-determination. “Organizing one’s own” came to be seen as the only authentic style of radical activism, and “one’s own” was defined as one’s own racial/ethnic community. Cross-racial/ethnic (and to some degree, cross-class) efforts by feminists were seen as wrong-headed politically. Instead, what was envisioned was a coming together of groups at some point in the future, after communities had empowered themselves. Thus, shared values about how to organize dictated separation—a separation couched as temporary and strategic, but one that was nonetheless far-reaching. The separate roads that Black, Chicana, and white feminists took in forming their movements left a legacy of divisions that shaped the terrain of social movement protest that I found as a college student in Boston and as a graduate student in LA. Going further, I would argue that some of these divisions are still present to this day.

Large scale research projects tend to have their own “spin-offs” that lead into new, but related, scholarly territory. My questions about women’s agency in protest organizations led to looking at another social movement organization, ACT UP/LA (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power/Los Angeles).2 Militant anti-AIDS protest arose in the mid-to-late 1980s in response to the AIDS crisis, but the idea of protesting in order to change the way institutions dealt with matters of health and disease had earlier and decidedly feminist roots in the women’s health movement. After participating in ACT UP/LA for a year, I became especially interested in the kind of burdens that gender inequality generated for feminist women in organizations where men shared their goals, groups where political agreement could help to compensate for the effects of gender inequality. My historical work on second wave feminisms and my ethnographic work on ACT UP/LA has led me to think theoretically about the different ways that institutions and organizations respond to feminist efforts; in more recent work, “Thinking about Challenges to Feminist Activism in Extra-feminist Settings,” I’ve looked at feminist efforts in mixed-gender settings, and the way that organizational structure and culture shape endemic problems that feminist face.3 One of the problems I theorize, for example, is related to this question of what happens to feminists in mixed-gender groups that are friendly to feminists. I argue that even in these social movement organizations, gender inequality will lead to a situation where feminists will likely suffer “compartmentalization”: a situation where the larger group agrees that feminist issues are important, but the task of addressing those issues is assigned to feminist members—that is, to women—alone. It seems to me that “compartmentalization” is a particularly insidious challenge for feminist activists, since organizational acceptance cannot erase the very real burdens that large-scale gender inequality imposes on women.

A second “spin-off” of my initial research project on racial/ethnic American feminisms is the chief project that I am working on while here at the Warren Center, “Harbingers of Feminist Possibility: Links between Vietnamese Nationalist Women and American Feminists in the Second Wave.” I’m in the early stages of gathering material for “Harbingers,” which is a project whose origins also reach back to my time as a graduate student at UCLA. During a class on international feminism, taken while I was looking at the archival record of grass-roots feminist journals of the 1960s and 1970s, I became intrigued by the question of the relationships, actual or imaginary, between first world feminists and Third World nationalist women involved in national liberation struggles. Typically, the “flow” of feminist thought is depicted as issuing from the West—or the North, or the developed “first” world—toward needy non-Western, globally Southern, sisters, who are seen as being impoverished both materially and ideologically. But many feminist scholars have argued that occasions of nationalist political revolt tend to give women the opportunity to take “uncustomary action.”4 Whatever the aftermath, during nationalist struggles, more egalitarian relationships between women and men become possible. As Kumari Jayawardena notes, the revolutionary fight against American forces in the 1960s was another example of Vietnamese women moving to the forefront of the nationalist struggle within a socialist movement where the “woman question” had been a constant element of debate throughout the early twentieth century.5

The examples of egalitarianism forged in struggle did not go unnoticed by activist women in American social movements. Looking at the underground journals and grass-roots newsletters that feminist movement organizations published—perhaps typed, mimeographed, and handed out is a better way to describe what these activists did—I discovered that a number of key New Left activist women who later became important figures in the (white) women’s liberation movement had traveled outside the country to meet with Vietnamese nationalist women (i.e. North Vietnamese) as part of their anti-Vietnam war activism. These meetings—there were at least five between the years 1965 to 1971, and I expect to find evidence of others—were reported in accounts by male activists, most notably Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden, but the meetings themselves appear to have been initiated by women. Gitlin wrote that major contacts with the North Vietnamese began in July of 1965, when members of Women Strike for Peace met with high ranking members of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) in Indonesia.6 In Reunion: A Memoir, Hayden wrote that American delegations from the peace movement that met with North Vietnamese included American women who later became key women’s liberationists, for example, Vivian Rothstein; Hayden even cites Rothstein's diary of the events in his recounting.7

Neither Gitlin nor Hayden asked the question of what it might have meant for women of the New Left—a movement, which unlike the Old (socialist) Left, had no history of a “woman question”—to see nationalist women in positions of power. Certainly, Vietnamese nationalist women were not “feminists” as such. They would not have used the label, as feminism was branded by their socialist movement (and other socialist movements in other places) as a “bourgeois” diversion from the revolutionary struggle that would lead to liberation for all. But it was possible that these nationalist women became role models for at least some U.S. feminists; otherwise, why did reports about them appear continuously in the emergent feminist press? Unfortunately, we have as yet little sense of the impact of these meetings on Rothstein, on the representatives from Women Strike for Peace, or on second wave feminists more generally, as the legacy of those contacts remains unexplored in a systematic fashion. Did American second wave feminists apply their own standards of “liberation” to the Vietnamese women, or were they were willing to accept a different vision of feminism because of their contacts with the Vietnamese? Who did so, and who did not? Did feminists in different racial/ethnic activist communities in the U.S. “romanticize” the Vietnamese struggle as some activist men seem to have?

Emerging feminist newspapers, magazines, and other journals actually featured recurrent images of a Third World woman—usually Vietnamese, sometimes Cuban, sometimes African—with a baby strapped to her back and a gun in her hand. What was she doing there? It is easy to dismiss these images as just another manifestation of American left romanticism, but my sense is that something deeper was going on for feminist activists seeking an ideological footing in their own oppositional communities. In the feminist grass-roots journals that I have explored, the image of the Third World nationalist woman is more than just an anti-Vietnam War illustration, although she is that. She seems to be set up by emerging first world feminists as a kind of model of feminist womanhood.

Significantly, for feminists of color—Black feminists and Chicana feminists—the Third World nationalist woman was seen as a compatriot, a compañera in struggle. Feminists of color made explicit links between their U.S. based feminist activism in communities of color and that of women in Third World national liberation struggles. One Black feminist organization, which grew out of the Civil Rights movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, even called itself “The Third World Women’s Alliance.” Thus, some U.S. based feminists of color chose to characterize their work as the local incarnation of worldwide, transnational struggles against domination, and in their press, they depicted the Third World woman as a sister in struggle.

With these three initial and potentially unequally weighted strands in my head—the meetings between U.S. based white female anti-war activists and Vietnamese women, the imagery of the Third World woman with a gun and a baby, the documentary evidence of a stance of solidarity with Third World women on the part of U.S. based feminists of color—I will be using this year at the Warren Center to bring the question of different roads to feminism to its transnational level. Increasingly, the world of protest seems to have become transnationalized, as information travels through new media that governments can only imperfectly impede. Money and other resources flow from foundations in one country to non-governmental organizations in another, and people travel across borders to protest global (and other kinds of) institutions. While debate still rages on the existence and extent of a global civil society, let alone a globalized social movement sector, what I hope to do is extend the transnational timeline for U.S. feminisms back by showing how awareness of women’s possibilities under a different set of circumstances influenced U.S. feminist perceptions of their own possibilities. The cross-pollination of ideas and ideology that I documented among different racial/ethnic feminist movements in the U.S. had its counterpart at the transnational level. Through the time spent at the Warren Center with colleagues—reading, sharing, and discussing across disciplinary boundaries—I will be trying to understand the back and forth, the ebb and flow, of feminist efforts that crossed boundaries of national space and historical time.


1. Those interested in intersectionality and feminist theory are encouraged to look at, among others, Frances Beal, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” in The Black Woman: An Anthology, ed. Toni Cade (New York: New American Library, 1970); Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” The University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989) 139–167; Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, eds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York: The New Press 1995) 357-383; Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2000); Deborah H. King, “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology,” Signs 14:1 (2000): 42–72; and Bonnie Thorton Dill, “Race, Class and Gender: Prospects for an All-inclusive Sisterhood,” Feminist Studies 9:1 (1983): 131–150.

2. Benita Roth, “Feminist Boundaries in the Feminist-Friendly Organization: The Women's Caucus of ACT UP/LA,” Gender & Society 12:2 (1998): 129–145.

3. Benita Roth, “Thinking About Challenges to Feminist Activism in Extra-feminist Settings,” Social Movement Studies 3:2 (2004): 147–166.

4. Rosemary Ridd and Helen Callaway, eds., Women & Political Conflict: Portraits of Struggle in Times of Crisis (New York: New York University Press, 1987); Sheila Rowbotham, Women Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972); and Guida West and Rhoda Lois Blumberg, eds., Women and Social Protest (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

5. Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1986).

6. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Toronto: Bantam, 1987).

7. Tom Hayden, Reunion: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1988)

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