The Rights Revolution of the twentieth century were deeply connected to one another, with activists known for their work in one movement having cut their teeth in the others. These movements were also profoundly influenced and connected to struggles of the past, with older movements having either been where activists began their activism or were mentored by senior members in the struggle. Additionally, many historians and sociologists are tweaking the narrative of “feminisms” by displaying how the feminist movement has been a continual movement and how many different feminisms have co-existed throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Feminism did not “go silent” at times but has always been present in different ways.

Transcript for- Feminisms: The Interconnected Rights Revolution
Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Produced and recorded by Marissa Rhodes, PhD & Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD


Elizabeth: We often think of the various rights movements of the mid-twentieth century as separate, disconnected movements unaffiliated with one another. There was a Civil Rights Movement, a Women’s Liberation Movement, a Gay Liberation Movement, a Black Power Movement, a Chicano Movement, an Indian Rights Movement, an Environmental Movement, a Nuclear Freeze Movement, and on and on… Essentially in “history,” these movements exist in silos. However, these different movements were deeply connected to one another, with activists known for their work in one movement having cut their teeth in the others. These movements were also profoundly influenced and connected to struggles of the past, with older movements having either been where activists began their activism or were mentored by senior members in the struggle.

Marissa: Additionally, as historians consider the grassroots efforts and various social movements that made up the mid-twentieth century, special attention should be paid to how movement organizers or people navigating a cultural scene saw themselves. Many effective organizers and people who made the most headway in asserting their identity were not specifically identifying with a larger cause or ideology. Its only with contemporary analysis that their contributions to larger social and cultural movements are attributed to a “movement.” Through first-person interviews in a myriad of scholarship, it is clear that subjects saw themselves as navigating an important part of their identity or agitating for a specific cause of maximum importance to them. Rarely did they see themselves as working within, or identifying with, a larger movement. According to scholar Martin Duberman, those attributing action to a movement are typically historians who are “ ‘sociologizing’…reducing three-dimensional lives to statistical cardboard—and then further distancing the reader with a specialized jargon that claims to provide greater precision but serves more often to seal off and silence familiar human sounds.”[1]  Now, we are not going to critique “sociologizing” by historians — because it surely has its place in historical analysis — but we are going to probe how these different movements are less siloed than many believe. This will of course come as no surprise to many of our listeners. For our purposes in this podcast episode we are going to think about change over time as it relates to the Rights Revolutions of the mid twentieth century; the change being, how we understand these movements as interconnected.

Elizabeth: This episode will be as much historiography and literature review as it will be content. As always, our episodes rely on the scholarship of other historians. We’ll be name dropping throughout the episode and you can always go to our website, digpodcast.org for a full transcript and bibliography of this episode, as well as our full catalog of over 150 episodes. 

Marissa: Furthermore, women’s historians have been pushing against the idea of feminist “waves” for a while now, yet we still use the moniker. Historians Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry in their co-written book, Feminism Unfinished, argue that commentators on women’s history often focus on either “first wave feminism” or the women’s movement leading up to 1920 when white women won the right to vote, or movements in the 1970s, aka “second wave feminism.” Essentially the wave metaphor paints feminism as being active, then becoming comatose, until it later reawakens.[2] Instead, many historians and sociologists are tweaking the narrative of “feminisms” by displaying how it has been a continual movement and how many different feminisms have co-existed throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Feminism did not “go silent” at times but has always been present in different ways. Dorothy Sue Cobble writes, “there was no period in the last century when women were not campaigning for greater equality and freedom. Feminism has been not a series of disconnected upsurges but a continuous flow.”[3]

Elizabeth: Feminism Unfinished is a good “synthesis” book that pushes against many of the myths of the feminist movement.[4] First, they challenge the myth that feminism was predominantly upper-middle-class and white by discussing activism from all demographics of women, men, and nonbinary folks, showing how womyn are a diverse group with different needs and priorities.

Marissa: Women’s movements always had some measure of collaboration with other social movements. In the 1930s and 1960s many feminist activists joined with racial and economic justice movements, and from the 1970s onward understood to varying degrees the importance of recognizing the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Elizabeth: However, as much as Feminism Unfinished establishes this continuity of women’s movements over the last century, it also highlights how women’s rights movements did not always reach their potential collective power due to lack of inclusivity and failure to recognize the movements’ inherent intersectionality. Feminist movements have long understood the links between oppression based on gender, race, and class, but did not always capitalize on the collective power that organizing between movements could achieve.

Marissa: Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that gave women the right to vote, the women’s movement split over whether they should focus on securing that right for all women, including African American, Mexican American, Native American, and Asian American women. Or if gender-based protections in the workplace should be expanded and protected.

Elizabeth: The National Woman’s Party (NWP) opted to move forward with the Equal Rights Amendment. In response, feminist organizations like the National Women’s Trade Union League, the National Consumers’ League, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and others joined together to focus on social justice issues in opposition to the NWP’s ERA. Instead of focusing on strict legal equality of women and men, they wanted to preserve the gender-based rights they had already gained.

Women’s Suffrage Parade in New York City, May 4, 1912.

Marissa: Because the mainstream women’s movement split over this distinction, neither agenda made much progress in the 1920s as they did not utilize their full potential voting power by aligning their goals. In the traditional narrative, this is the “end” of first wave feminism and things don’t pick back up until the late 1960s. But, if we only look at the “waves” metaphor, we miss the organizing and activism that took place during the mid century. People were organizing for women in a variety of ways throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Women in the Left and the Communist party were particularly active in organizing for gender-based and race-based social justice.

Elizabeth: World War II was a watershed moment for many American women. As Dorothy Cobble writes, “For women were not only having babies after the war ended. More than in previous generations, postwar women combined marriage, child rearing, and employment. They were having more children and spending more time in paid jobs. Stay-at-Home Mom was giving way to Working Mom and Working Wife. Employers preferred women as the postwar service economy soared, and more children and more consumer goods required more breadwinners. Fewer women quit working once they married; young mothers left their children sooner to take full- and part-time jobs; and as life expectancies increased, more middle-aged women sought employment once their children were grown,”[5]

Marissa: Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’ study on lesbians in midcentury, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, showed how this change in American culture also affected how lesbians socialized and later, organized. As more women, and hence, more lesbian women now worked more and spent more money, they also had more freedom to go to bars where they could dress more freely. The growing lesbian bar culture made it easier for lesbians to find each other, support each other ,and challenge sexism in American society. Bars became centers of socialization and community for lesbians during the, 1940s, and 1950s. Kennedy and Davis argue that bars and house parties served as places of socialization for lesbian populations that simultaneously served to inspire a consciousness of resistance against oppressive cultural norms regarding homosexuality. These social gatherings proved to be difficult to materialize but, in the end, afforded a previously unknown avenue of life for lesbians

Elizabeth: Kennedy and Davis’ study on lesbians in midcentury, while not explicitly shown as being connected to Stonewall, demonstrates the cultural circumstances lesbians created for themselves, and why the bar scene being dismantled by the government enforcers at the Stonewall Inn led to such a heated resistance. Thus, the Gay Liberation Movement, seemingly instigated at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969, was actually a product of other rights movements and the social conditions created during the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Duberman asserted that Stonewall has been “transmogrified into simplistic myth,” with “the decades preceding Stonewall… [being] regarded by most gays and lesbians as some vast neolithic wasteland,” though a number of historians have worked to correct that myth.[6]

Marissa: Martin Duberman’s book Stonewall explores how several different activists during the riot at the Stonewall Inn had developed their political and social consciousnesses in various arenas. Duberman used the stories of a diverse cast of activists as a vehicle to explore the history and cultural context of the LGBTQ+ community prior to the events at Stonewall.

Elizabeth: One of Dubermans subjects was Yvonne Flowers, a Black lesbian, was among the main leaders in the Stonewall riots. Before she became involved in the movement to liberate the LGBTQ+ community, she was actively engaged in the other major causes of the 1960s- opposition to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. A cause that particularly engaged her, was “demonstrations for community control in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district” and “joining a lie-in at the Downstate Medical Center building site to protest the lack of black construction workers.”[7] The Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict of 1968 was “essentially between poor black parents and the mostly white, Jewish teachers who taught their children. Claiming that the teachers were doing a lousy job of it, the parents fought for control of the school board.”[8] Flowers was definitely aligned with the Black parents, “and she took vigorous part in the assorted marches and meetings that attempted to rally support for them.”[9] However, for Flowers, it was a challenge to remain engaged for an extended period of time. “She was reluctant to deal with the endemic homophobia of the left, and felt she could not pass as straight even if she had wanted to participate in  that kind of subterfuge.” This marks a significant connection between working for civil rights and the realization that queer liberation was a necessity for Flowers.

Audre Lorde and Yvonne Flowers, interview 1984.

Marissa: Another one of the leaders at Stonewall was Karla Jay. In her time at university in New York City in the mid-1960s, Jay became interested in activist politics. In 1968, during her senior year when students organized against Columbia University’s “insensitivity to its black neighbors” when it attempted to expand campus into predominantly Black neighborhoods, they seized a campus building in protest.[10] These events radicalized her “in several directions at once” and it “put her straight on the road to feminism.”[11] She became involved with several National Organization for Women meetings, “but had quickly decided they weren’t for her; she found the organization too oriented toward winning legislative changes, and overall too tame.”[12] She joined Redstockings, “a radical feminist group founded by Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone in February 1969,” a few months after its founding and worked to “explain to other women how they could form their own consciousness raising groups.”[13]

Elizabeth: Jay was not just immersed in radical politics, she was connected to and disappointed by the lesbian bar scene, which, as Kennedy and Davis have shown in decades past was pioneered by lesbians as a means to “develop a common culture, community, and consciousness.”[14] But Jay found the “bar scene uncongenial” and too restricting in its demands that “a choice between one or the other” in terms of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’.[15] For Jay, both the mainstream of feminism and lesbian culture proved unreasonably unradical. She believed in something more, as displayed by her leadership in the Stonewall Riots and activism in more radical feminist spaces.

Marissa: Not everyone in more radical spheres had the same experiences with ‘traditional’ feminist spaces that Jay had. Some younger women in the New York City tenant movement found common cause with the older generation of women organizers from the Old Left. The tenant movement’s activists developed a symbiotic relationship where young women provided major support for the movement and “older women became political mentors to the young volunteers, providing them not only with expertise on housing but also with a model of ‘actually existing feminism.’”[16] In addition to showing the connection between the older generation and the younger one, historian Roberta Gold, looks at the development of feminism in New York, specifically, through a lens of the housing organizers and tenant leaders and showed that the movement had many points of intersection with other movements. According to Gold, “tenant campaigns served as a parallel space, alongside other political movements, in which women’s leadership could and did flourish.”[17]

Elizabeth: During the early years, in New York City’s Lower East Side and Harlem, the central units of tenant organization were building and community councils. These women-led organizations organized rent strikes throughout the 1930s and 40s to assist renters in asserting their legal rights. Postwar renters further joined labor, liberal, and Communist organizations to campaign for three major tenets rights: Rent control, public housing, and building code enforcement. In the 1950s, urban renewal threatened city inhabitants since its policies did nothing to enhance the homes of low-income people and instead resulted in the demolition of neighborhoods, and the displacement of low-income people. By the late 1950s, however, women had organized the Metropolitan Council on Housing (MET) to oppose urban renewal. New conflicts arose in the 1960s due to a desire to enlarge Columbia University. Eviction notices were served on black residents of Morningside Heights, but leaders such as Marie Runyon pushed them to fight back. Young people also organized to protest the college expansion, one of those being Karla Jay, mentioned previously, who went on to be important in the Gay Liberation movement and the Women’s Movement. Other organizations, such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, assisted residents in fighting landlords who were not correctly maintaining properties.

Marissa: All of these organizing groups had women leaders whose primary concern was housing. Tenant rights protests continued throughout the 1960s and by the 1970s, organized squatters were attempting to free housing when landlords purposefully abandoned their properties to make way for luxury structures. Many of these squatters were young white feminists who saw links between housing and women’s problems. As younger women grew more interested in the movement, older feminists involved with tenants rights organizing stepped in to provide mentorship. Gold’s analysis of housing activism in the 1960s and 1970s reveals “a set of affectionate mentoring relations between two generations of radical female activists, thereby challenging many narratives of feminist politicization that focus primarily on young women’s rejection of what came before”[18]

Elizabeth: But like anything, people have competing interests. Over the last century there have been many other issues that feminists took different stances on. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, a major issue that divided feminists was pornography and sex work. One side of the argument supporting pornography and sex work viewed themselves as “pro-sex” and criticized their opponents as prudish. The opposing side criticized the pro-sex stance as “promoting patriarchal values.”[19] Cobble, Gordon, and Henry argue that this exemplifies the lack of a single feminist agenda. Much of the difficulty in successfully organizing the women’s movements inclusively stemmed from the misunderstanding or ignorance regarding issues faced by certain groups of women. For example, middle-class white women historically did not always take into account women of color facing racism and economic hardships that they themselves did not experience.

Audre Lorde, 1980. Photo K. Kendall.

Marissa: Sometimes the exclusion of minority groups was intentional, as was the case with LGBTQ+ communities during many years of the women’s movements. In the 1970s, some members of the older generation of feminists in particular feared that cooperation with LGBTQ+ communities would stigmatize the women’s movement. One of the leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Betty Friedan, supported this idea and announced at a NOW meeting in 1970 that a “lavender menace” threatened the movement.[20] Despite NOW adopting a resolution supporting Lesbian and Gay rights in 1971, the level of true support and collaboration varied. In 1985, Audre Lorde discussed this lack of acceptance, arguing that heterosexism and homophobia are “two grave barriers to organizing among Black women” because they prevent Black women from collaborating effectively on issues that affect them all, like racism and sexism.[21] She addressed some of the lingering false stereotypes regarding Black lesbians in an effort to dismantle them. This included the idea of Black lesbians as apolitical, which stemmed more from a lack of acknowledgement of their historical contributions than an actual lack of their participation. She also emphasized that Black lesbians posed no threat to Black families and highlighted instead their similarities to straight Black women. Because some women are afraid to be labeled as lesbians, she argued, they shy away from collaboration with Black lesbians, which prevents them from accessing their collective strength. She wrote, “It is not easy for me to speak here with you as a Black Lesbian feminist recognizing that some of the ways in which I identify myself make it difficult for you to hear me. But meeting across difference always requires mutual stretching and until you can hear me as a Black Lesbian feminist, our strengths will not be truly available to each other as Black women,”[22]

Elizabeth: Furthermore, Lorde articulated how not working towards inclusivity in the women’s movement results in isolation and a “waste of woman energy.”[23] With shared goals in mind, any movement would be stronger by allowing for cooperation with all affected and interested parties. As Lorde writes to her audience, “we cannot afford to waste each other’s energies in our common battles.”[24]Despite these barriers, the women’s movements and other intersectional movements saw benefits generated from the levels of organization achieved. In some cases these benefits were indirect and largely unintentional. For example, the women’s movement’s rejection of heterosexual marriage and traditional sexual roles as natural “opened up the common imagination to accept nonstandard sexual acts and romantic relationships,” which benefits all people.[25]

Marissa: Sara Evans book, Personal Politics, is one of the classic narratives of second wave feminism. It explored the growing disappointment of white women in the New Left and the Civil Rights Movement, including groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC.) In Evans telling, white women discouraged by the misogyny they experienced formed the Women’s Movement of the mid-1960s to the late 1970s that was influenced by “a particular set of experiences in the southern civil rights movement and parts of the student new left”, which “catalyzed a new feminist consciousness”[26] However, this feminist consciousness was largely unable to grapple with the intersection of gender, race, and class.

Elizabeth: Sociologist Benita Roth’s, Separate Roads to Feminism, chronicles how the Chicana Rights and the Black Women’s Rights Movement evolved simultaneously with white feminist movements. Roth argues that prior historians did not see large numbers of women of color in feminist organizations, so they assumed for the most part that feminists of color didn’t exist. However, Roth argues they were making their own movements based on their needs. For example, the Chicana Rights Movement grew out of the Chicano cultural nationalism movement that was growing on college campuses across the U.S.

Marissa: But even as the “separate” roads formed, there was always collaboration, even if it has been historically overshadowed. Historian Sharie Randolph’s reexamination of Florynce “Flo” Kennedy shows how the Black Power and Civil Rights movements and feminism were every bit as interconnected as other movements. Randolph uses the life, work, and activism of Florynce Kennedy, a Black lawyer and activist to examine the interconnected nature of Civil Rights and reproductive rights, and shows that a substantial amount of the inertia of “second wave” feminism was, in fact, driven by Black women pushing the envelope.Randolph argued that “by attaining leadership no positions within the predominantly white women’s movement, Black feminists  helped reshape the abortion rights campaign, introducing issues such as forced sterilization, poverty, and the need for affordable childcare.”[27] By pushing these issues, Black feminists drew the lessons and goals of the Black Power movement into the women’s movement. Black feminists brought Black liberation as a goal into the women’s movement, by viewing the two as inseparable, seeing “sexist and racist discrimination in forms that could not be pulled apart and fought separately.”[28] Randolph puts Kennedy up as a paragon of the interconnectedness of the movements by showing that “Kennedy moved between movements and organizations that scholars have come to think of as separate in hopes of bridging these struggles and forming powerful coalitions.”[29]

Elizabeth: Randolph argues that the role of Flo Kennedy was one of the most important influences in the fight for reproductive rights. Historians often emphasize white women’s role in decriminalizing abortion but Kennedy’s legal work, both in and out of the courtroom, were paramount for chipping away at laws that restricted women’s control over their bodies.Kennedy brought her legal and political knowledge to the campaign to repeal New York State’s restrictive abortion laws. She served as counsel for Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, which overturned New York’s anti abortion law,and her legal tactics were later adopted in Roe v Wade.

Marissa: Randolph contends that even though Florynce Kennedy was “a lead lawyer for [the Abramowicz] case and one of the country’s best-known Black feminists, her key role in helping to legalize abortion has long been forgotten and is absent from most histories of post-war feminism”[30] Randolph shows how essential Kennedy was to the fight for reproductive rights in establishing a legal framework that was used in Roe v. Wade, and how essential she was in intellectually and politically bridging the gaps between the women’s and Black liberation movements.

YouTube video of 1977 “Special Report” on Flo Kennedy. We could not find an uncopyrighted photo of Kennedy to place in the blog post.

Elizabeth: Therefore, despite the labels we give twentieth-century “movements” that tend to separate them into silos and allow for easy categorization, it is  clear that the social and political movements of the mid-twentieth century United States were deeply connected. Throughout this episode we’ve tried to keep hold of feminisms as running through these movements; showing both continuity, intersectionality, while also tracking change over time. The movements themselves were deeply intertwined, with activists known for their work in one testing the waters and developing their political consciousness and growing their understanding of organization and protest tactics in another. Though each of these movements had different specific goals, they broadly hoped to achieve the same ends: a more just, egalitarian, and democratic United States. Thus, it is critical to take a holistic view, as Florynce Kennedy did, and appreciate these individual movements as something broader, interconnected, and continuous.

Bibliography

Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements (Liveright, 2014).

Martin Duberman, Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America (Plume, 2019).

Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left (Vintage, 1980).

Roberta Gold, When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing (University of Illinois Press, 2014).

Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (Routledge University Press, 1993).

Audre Lorde, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities (New York: Kitchen Table:Women of Color Press, 1985)

Sherie Randolf, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Anne Valk, Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C. (University of Illinois Press, 2008).


Notes

[1] Martin Duberman, Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America. (Plume, 2019) xx.

[2] Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 52.

[3] Feminism Unfinished,

[4] Feminism Unfinished, 5.

[5] Feminism Unfinished, 26?

[6] Martin Duberman, Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America, (New York: Plume, 2019),  ix.

[7] Duberman, Stonewall, 175.

[8] Duberman, Stonewall, 175.

[9] Duberman, Stonewall, 175.

[10] Duberman, Stonewall, 149-150.

[11] Duberman, Stonewall, 150.

[12] Duberman, Stonewall, 213.

[13] Duberman, Stonewall, 214-215.

[14] Elizabeth Kennedy & Madeline Davis, “‘I Could Hardly Wait to Get Back to That Bar:’ Lesbian Bar Culture in Buffalo in the 1930s and 1940s,” in Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, ed. Brett Beemyn, (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1997), 67.

[15] Duberman, Stonewall, 145-146.

[16] Roberta Gold, “‘I Had Not Seen Women Like That Before:’ Intergenerational Feminism in New York City’s Tenant Movement,” Feminist Studies, vol 35, no 2 (2009), 387.

[17] Gold, 387.

[18] Gold, 387.

[19] Feminism Unfinished, 111-112.

[20] Feminism Unfinished, 89.

[21] Audre Lorde, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities (New York: Kitchen Table:Women of Color Press, 1985), 3.

[22] Lorde.

[23] Lorde, 5.

[24] Lorde, 7.

[25] Feminism Unfinished, 75.

[26] Sara Evans, 23.

[27] Sheri Randolph, ‘“Not to Rely Completely on the Courts:’ Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy and Black Feminist Leadership in the Reproductive Rights Battle, 1969-1971,” 137

[28] Randolph, “Not to Rely,” 137.

[29] Randolph, “Not to Rely,” 153.

[30] Randolph, Not to Rely,” 137.


0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.