When progressives adopt an ahistorical critique of feminism, they risking aiding and abetting its subversion. Historian Kirsten Swinth offers a remedy with Feminism's Forgotten Fight.
Feminism's Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family
Harvard University Press
In one of the truly intelligent responses to the recent controversy surrounding actor Liam Neeson and his confessions of racist anger on an interview with ABC's Good Morning America, author and activist Yasmin Nair penned an insightful commentary on the ahistorical nature of a social media-driven society. Her point, a fundamentally important one, is that many commentators appear unable to think beyond an eternal present moment. In the case of Neeson, they fail to understand that being racist in the past does not mean one is necessarily racist in the present. But the point extends beyond Neeson, and beyond the desire of social media commentators to conflate past and present, agenda and outcome.
It's a point to which historian Kirsten Swinth would probably be sympathetic. In Swinth's sweeping study Feminism's Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family, she seeks to correct the popular historical record on feminism's struggle to restructure work and family, arguing that narrow and antagonistic interpretations of feminism's present-day accomplishments should not be conflated with its much richer and more ambitious historical aims and actions.
A myth has arisen, she argues, which says that second-wave feminism fought for women to "have it all" – family, motherhood, career, money, prestige, success – and then seeks to blame feminists for their failure to make this happen. This myth suggests, in some iterations, that feminists accepted a flawed, patriarchal image of corporate success and pursued it, failing to critique or challenge the problems inherent in the structures of patriarchy, capitalism and racism on which it was based.
Alternately, it suggests that elite feminists hijacked the movement and failed to understand or fight for the needs of poor, racialized, colonized, and otherwise marginalized women. In yet other iterations, it argues that "feminists overpromised", and are therefore the ones to blame for the failure of society to make good on those promises. The result of these (mis)interpretations of feminist history is that today feminists find themselves under attack on the one side from a powerful and retrenched conservative patriarchy, and on the other from would-be progressives who have uncritically accepted the myth that feminism is to blame for its failure to achieve all of its aims.
While anti-feminist conservatives have always been around, the splintering of progressive thought is a more recent phenomenon. When progressives adopt an ahistorical critique of feminism, they risking aiding and abetting its subversion. They also risk reinventing the wheel: trying to set what they think is a new agenda while failing to learn from feminism's long history in fighting for the exact same goals. In so doing, they risk repeating the struggles and often the failures of second-wave feminism, instead of building on feminists' rich efforts to reinvent society.
In contrast to this myth of the blame-worthy feminist, Swinth argues that post-WWII feminism engaged in a broad and creative effort not simply to tap into the privileges of elite white men, but rather to reinvent and rebuild society in a deeply radical way. Feminists undertook imaginative efforts to restructure family relationships; to redefine masculinity; to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth across lines of race and class; to support women's rights to choose either to have children or to not have children, and facilitate the family structures and supports that women in either scenario needed to achieve their dreams.
No, feminist movements have not been perfect -- and no one is suggesting that. Liberal feminists have sometimes capitulated on radical demands; white feminists have sometimes failed to stand up for women of colour; the anti-sexist men's movement inadvertently spawned the virulent sexism of today's "men's rights" activism. Tremendous achievements have sometimes slipped from the movement's grasp as a result of division and compromise. But Swinth's point is that the history of post-WWII feminism is far more complex than today's pundits make it out to be, and that we accept reductionist sloganeering at the risk of losing important lessons from our past.
One of the trademark responses of anti-feminists, Swinth observes, has been to co-opt the language of feminism in an effort to subvert public perception of feminist goals. Anti-feminists sought to brand themselves as defenders of "family", much to the outrage of feminists, who rightly pointed out that they were the ones truly concerned with the well-being of America's diversity of families: poor families, non-white families, immigrant families, single-parent families. What "pro-family" conservatives really seek is to retrench the primacy of the male breadwinner model; one in which white men have primacy of place and in which women essentially exist as household slaves.
Likewise, it was conservative forces that leapt on feminism's so-called failure to enable women to "have it all". They presented it as a structural contradiction within feminism – as though feminists had promised an unrealistic goal – while masking their own role in opposing equality-seeking projects. Women can have it all – it's just that they've been stymied in this goal by the conservative forces that fear or oppose equality, and which successfully marshalled political opposition to equity-seeking initiatives.
Swinth's main goal is to remind us of the variety and creativity of feminist activism in the '60s and '70s. Her book is a dense compendium of organizations, policies and struggles: a voluminous reference worthy of mining by researchers and activists alike. Her study is divided into three key areas in which feminists sought to redefine identity (self, fatherhood, and partners) and five key areas in which they sought to restructure social and work relationships (housework, care work, childcare, maternity, and flextime). Under each of these categories she examines American feminists' movement goals and organizing efforts through the '60s and '70s. It's a historical survey, crammed full of dates, organizations, bills and people. But it achieves the goal of depicting a rich and varied movement, full of difference, diversity, and idealism.
Swinth is attentive to the tensions and alliances between liberal, middle-class and poor women, and also between white women and women of colour. In fact, it is her thorough excavation of those tensions and alliances that really succeeds in reinforcing her argument that post-WWII 'second-wave' feminism was a more complex, diverse and idealistic movement than it is often portrayed as today. That's not to ignore the proper concerns of contemporary equity-seeking activists about its shortcomings, but to warn against the simplistic and often ahistorical reductionism with which second-wave feminism is often dismissed and derided. Just as socialism is witnessing a renewed surge in the political sphere, so the goals of second-wave feminism continue to percolate in the social and policy sphere, and there's much to learn from a rich movement history which is all-too-often glossed over.
From the origin of marriage contracts to the Women's Strike for Equality; from the near achievement of a Guaranteed Income to the fight for pregnant women and mothers' right to work; the historical sweep of Swinth's survey is impressive and enlightening. But it is in her main goal – reminding us that second-wave feminists weren't fighting merely for improved policies but to restructure and transform society and social relations between the powerful and the oppressed, the privileged and the marginalized – that Swinth's book achieves its most impressive moments. Most importantly, Swinth reminds us that the purpose of learning (and re-learning) this history is not simply academic; it is to equip us with the tools to pick up a struggle which for many seems to have stalled.
"Second-wave feminism changed how Americans think and act so dramatically that we can almost no longer conceive how profoundly the movement transformed our society," she writes, in conclusion.
"And it was not that feminists overpromised: their comprehensive conception of reorganized family and work lives carried wide appeal and elicited broad support. Rather, feminism's opponents clawed back. They successfully resisted the legislative, legal, and workplace changes the movement's champions sought. Their rhetorical triumph in distorting the movement's goals has buried the breathtaking scope of the feminist dream. It is time to recover that vision, and to tell the world what having it all truly means."