Women: the struggle for freedom” by Sheila Rowbotham
This was published in Black Dwarf, on 10th January 1969 in an issue whose front page proclaimed 1969: The Year of the Militant Woman. (Sheila hated the cover, by the way)
Sheila was asked to join the editorial board of Black Dwarf in late 1968. As she recalls in her autobiography Promise of a Dream, she wrote furiously, sitting on her stool by the gas fire in the basement of her house in Hackney.
Our came all the concentrated thoughts and impressions which had been unconsciously accumulating. It was the kind of article I would later recognise as one that builds up inside. In the spirit of ’68, I knew I must write not from received authorities on “women” but from my own observations and feelings..Now all those scattered experiences could take a new shape. As the words splattered out in to pages it felt as if I had reached a clearing.
Surprisingly, for such an important article in the history of British feminism, it has never been been published in full in any collection on the 1960s, So I have typed it up…
Ok so you’ve heard it all before
Ok so you’re bored
We still get less pay for the same work as you
We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful
In which we have any responsibility
We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised.
The present setup of the family puts great strains on us
Either we are struggling to combine badly paid work with bringing up a family or we are unable to do work for which we’ve been trained.
The area of taboo on our sexuality is much more extensive and the double standard still pervasive.
Some women still never experience orgasm.
So what are we complaining about?
All this and something else besides
A much less tangible something – a smouldering, bewildered consciousness with no shape – a muttered dissatisfaction – which suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.
We went to drive buses, play football, use beer mugs not glasses. We want men to take the pill. We do not want to be brought with bottles or invited as wives. We do not want to be wrapped in cellophane or sent off to make the tea or shuffled onto the social committee.
But these are only little things
Revolutions are made about little things
Little things which happen to all the time, every day
Wherever you go, all your life.
Here the subordinated relates to dominator
Here the discontent focuses and here the experience is felt, expressed and articulated, resisted – through the particular.
The particular pummels you gently into passivity.
So we don’t know how to find each other or ourselves
We are perhaps the most divided of all oppressed groups. Divided in our real situations and in our understanding and consciousness of our condition.
We are all in different classes.
Thus we devour and use one another
Our “emancipation” has often been the struggle of the privileged to improve and consolidate its superiority – The women of the working class remain the exploited , oppressed as workers and oppressed as women.
We are with families and without them.
Hence we distrust one another.
The woman with a home and children is suspicious of the woman with no ties, seeing her as a potential threat to her territorial security.
The single woman feels the married woman is subtly critical because she is not fulfilling her “role” as homemaker,
She feels she is accused of being unable to be a woman.
They tell us what we should be.
As we grow up, especially from puberty, we are under intensive pressure to be “acceptable” – not to put ourselves outside the safety net of marriage.
From small girls we are taught that failure means not being selected by men – the same of being a wallflower. The sign of intelligence and sublety is a contractual bargain as we hand over our virginity for a marriage document, a ring and the obligation of financial support. Orgasm is a matter of merchandise. And remember THEY don’t like us to be too clever. Well might she go to university but men want someone who can cook.
The emphasis in our education tends to be much more on integration, the encouragement of active criticism, of intellectual aggression is rare. The cautious virtues predominate. We are in an intellectual double bind. We are assumed to have nothing to say, find it difficult to assert that we want to say something, are observed to say nothing, are assumed to have nothing to say.
To stray from the definition of what “they “ want is to risk being rejected in a double sense. There is a “moral” force behind this urge to conform. The girl who is critical of the stereotype presented to her can be condemned not simply like a boy as a rebel but as a slut as well. The latter is much more difficult to cope with. There is still the whole dirty, frightened, patronising world behind slut, tart, old slag, nymphomaniac, dolly, bird, chick, bit of stuff, bit of crumpet, old bag, silly cow, blue stocking. These words have no male equivalents.
The girl who for some reason breaks away intellectually is in a peculiarly isolated position. She finds herself straddled across a great gulf, which grows wider, while she is pulled both ways. A most perilous and lonely condition, comparable to that of a black or working class militant. In the process of becoming interested in ideas she finds herself to some extent cut off from other girls and inclines naturally towards boys as friends. They do more interesting things, discuss wider topics. She really defines herself as a boy. Other girls appear curious and rather boring, passive and accepting. She has little to say to most of them. The social contempt in which women are led confirms this. She is constantly being told she is “quite good for a girl”. Femininity becomes synonymous with frivolity, stupidity and narrowness. It seems obviously better to be a man. Doesn’t she feel like a man, do their things, talk their talk. It is natural for her to define her situation in terms of a kind of sub-maness.
They tell us what we are.
The image is constantly reaffirmed. The book she reads and the films she sees are almost invariably by men. The women characters created by them, however sympathetically and with whatever intuit understanding, must of necessity be the projection of their response towards women. One is simply not conscious of men writers or men film makers. They are just writers, just film makers. The reflected image for women they create will be taken straight by women themselves. These characters “are” women.
Throughout this process the educated girl probably takes her “emancipation” as being beyond question, not worth even starting discussing. The suffragettes happened a long time ago. Men will readily accept her as different, an exception, an interesting diversion. She lives in fact as a man. There might be a hint of strain over her virginity, a flicker of doubt, the discovery of a strange duplicity lurking still in men. But no connection is obvious. She cannot see a condition of women.
It is not until she becomes older, grows less decorative, has babies. That the rather deep cracks in the gloss of “emancipation” appears. She has the rest of her life to explore the limits and ambiguities of her “freedom”.
And what a spurious freedom.
We walk and we talk and think as living contradictions. Most of us find the process too painful and not surprisingly settle for limited liberated areas. We give up struggling on every front and ease into a niche of acceptance.
We become the educated housewife desperately searching for dignity and fulfilment through ever more elaborate cooking recipes or constant redecorate schemes, suspicious and defensive about women who are unmarried women or women who work.
Or the occupational variant of this Proopism doing a womanly womaness to a very male style. They are of course simply avoiding the issue in a peculiarly complicit and false way.
Obversely we become the popular (distorted) image of the suffragette. A tweedy sensibly shod battle axe with a severe hair style and a deep voice, advancing aggressively on the male world and the board room. The sexual corollary of this the retreat into lesbianism.
Both share a profound distaste for the male. Emancipation is doing without men.
Our other retreat is into sexuality. Because women have traditionally been deprived of the power to make “free” choice, our bodies have been part of somebody else’s belongings., we prove that we have control, that we are liberated simply by fucking. But if the definition of our constraint is not extended beyond sexuality we are only entrammelled in a greater bondage. We may not be choosing but reacting, ironically under the compulsion of our real subordination. We could be expressing in our sexual life the very essence of our secondariness and the destructive contradictions in our consciousness, through the inability to meet and communicate and love with a man at every level. The same “free” woman could still expect men to pay for her, buy her expensive presents. She must of course be excessively preoccupied with her appearance and regard other women’s men as fair game. After all she needs constantly the reassurance that she is wanted and beautiful because only through these is she capable of defining her freedom. We shelter as well as retreat. We take refuge behind the privilege of class and education, using the manner and accent of the rulers to secure respect and serious consideration, a protected dignity at the expense of the working class, and a protected liberation based on the underpaid labour of an au pair.
Most of us live a particular combination of these or run the whole gamut knowing them for subterfuge – at certain moments struggling through and beyond them all. But it seems that capitalism condemns all people to live deceitfully. How can we be expected to live otherwise?
They have nothing to say to you if you’re earning £8 a week, or if you’re poor and working class and in a VD clinic.If you’re economically exploited and socially despised you exist outside the bounds of these emancipations. They forget that we are oppressed within the class system.
Moreover they never go beyond confirmation or denial of what men say we are. We never tell them what we are. We never take hold of our definitions. We consequently admit our failure to be whole.
Marxists have quite rightly always stressed that the subordination of women is part of the total mutual devouring process called capitalism. No one group can be liberated except through a transformation of the whole structure of social relationships.
But this has been twisted into a rather glib justification for inactivity and quietism.
- Wait until the revolution, we’ll dole out your equality then. (Oh no you won’t, power never concedes remember).
- Of course we know the bourgeois family exercises a conservative constraining force and through its structure subordinates the woman especially. But people won’t give up their families. They like them therefore the whole liberation of women is a dead issue. (What about a bit of praxis comrade to break down the sexual division of labour – washing up floors, scrubbing.)
OK so the revolution will sort everything out. But what about releasing a whole lot of people to work for it? What about showing thousands of women the revolution is something to do with them? True we won’t get far without really radical change. True there is the whole rigidity of job structure, unequal pay, deep cultural, presuppositions – in fact capitalism. Meanwhile what’s wrong with finding out really what people resent, what’s wrong with presenting them with alternatives which spring from an understanding of their discontent. Don’t ask women if they regard themselves as victims of as victims of an exploitative capitalist society, don’t ask them if they think their relations within the family are unauthentic. Ask them how they feel about their pay and being pushed around at work, about being patronised as fluffy little things, about always baby sitting. Why is marriage a matter for dirty jokes or the very mention of the wife enough to get a laugh. Why those strange stag rituals, the psychosomatic illnesses, the mysterious fatigue, the desolateness of so many women.
There are infinite practical possibilities, which could be made to happen under capitalism but would be more feasible under socialism and would help illustrate what it’s about. For example, the campaign for equal pay and economic independence is crucial. As for the family, why simply nursery schools, why not crèches at the workplace of both the father and mother with time off from work to play with the children, who would get to know both parents too. Or numerous street and flat co-operatives for looking after children, for baby sitting and visiting the old. If adolescents, whether young workers or people at school, didn’t want to live at home why couldn’t they go in flats which they ran themselves. These would provide another means of looking after old people.
Certainly these would mean a real liberation for many women. But subordination is not an affair of economics or institutions only. Nor is it only to do with contraception , abortion, orgasm and sexual equality, important as these are.
It is an assumed secondariness which dwells in a whole complex of inarticulate attitudes, in smirks, in offsides, in insecurities, in desperate status differentiation. Secondariness happens in people’s heads and is expressed every time they do not speak, every time they they assume no-one would listen. It is located in a structure in which sexes are tragically trapped. The man as much as the woman, for each time he tries to break through, he meets the hostility of other men or the conflicting demands of those women who prefer the traditional sex game. It is only women who can dissolve the assumption. It is only women who can say what they feel because the experience is unique to them.
Only women can define themselves. To define yourself you have to explore yourself, you have to find yourself as a group before you can say how you regard yourself as a group. It is only by understanding your situation as a group that can relate it to the system through which you are dominated.
This means a certain withdrawal into the group and a realisation on the part of the elite of a common identity… the privileged woman has to extend beyond her elite consciousness to learn the extent of her common condition with the unprivileged woman. Only then can women really challenge the external definition imposed on them, become sufficiently conscious to act and thus be recognised as being there. The enemy is not identified as man. This is as futile as as a black white student conflict. The ally is not the woman who supports and benefits from capitalism. It is all people who are being crushed and twisted, who want space and air and time to sit in the sun.
But the oppressed have to discover their own dignity, their own freedom, they have to make themselves equal. They have to decolonise themselves. Then they can liberate the colonisers.