The Past and Future of Feminism

Over 600 people came to Boston University from March 27th through 29th to attend the conference “A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.” Though a great many of those who attended were themselves veterans of those heady years, others were of a younger, emerging generation of feminists looking to learn from them. This revealed how relevant the struggles of the past continue to be; with women’s reproductive freedom and basic everyday rights both under assault across the country, there is a clear need to continue the fight.

During the course of the weekend, speakers and participants grappled with a variety of questions currently facing contemporary feminists and feminism in general. One theme that naturally arose time and again is that of building links and solidarity -- across communities, orientations, traditions and age groups.

In her keynote address, Personal Politics author Sara Evans challenged the notion that the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was dominated by whites and didn’t prioritize questions of race and racism. By putting the women’s movement in a broader context -- one of global upheaval and revolutions -- Evans insisted that today’s intersectional feminists have more in common with yesterday’s feminists than one might be led to believe.

After the opening plenary, historians discussed how the emergence of the women’s movement helped shift the narrative in the United States. This was a movement that brought hitherto ignored misogyny -- such as rape and sexual assault -- out from the shadows and into the open. The decentralized nature of these movements -- often springing up in cities quite independent of each other -- may have made it harder for these groups to withstand attacks from the right at the end of the ‘70s, but there can be little doubt that today’s women’s studies programs and the growing willingness to talk about sex in a political way remain as a legacy.

There also abounded an urge to assess just how successful past formations of the women’s movement were. Different kinds of organization were discussed throughout the weekend, from the underground abortion service providers prior to Roe v. Wade to the Combahee River Collective, from Boston Bread and Roses to the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and other groups that organized in hospitals, workplaces, communities and campuses. Even the movement’s attempts to intervene in the realms of art, music and culture were discussed.

As attendees were reminded in the closing plenary, feminism is and has always been about much more than equality; it is about transformation. This theme naturally ran through sessions that focused on sexuality and identity, which presented attempts and theories that sought to break the restrictive binary of hetero/homosexuality and open up possibilities of a much freer sense of self. The ways in which the women’s liberation movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s enabled participants to reshape and explore their sexualities through relationships that broke the mold or defied easy categorization provided but a glimpse of what that might look like.

As one session emphasized, this spirit of redefinition and autonomy was key to all struggles at the time, in particular Civil Rights. Frequently female activists and leaders in the Black freedom struggle would end up bring their knowledge and enthusiasm into the women’s movement, and in turn bring the notion of women’s empowerment back to the fight for Civil Rights. Though every history book will tell us about Rosa Parks, all too often we fail to grasp just how key women’s participation and leadership was to the fight for integration.

Today’s feminists certainly face an uphill battle. Not only is there a backlash from the right placing reproductive rights in the crosshairs and turning a blind eye to an epidemic of rape and sexual assault; feminists also have to compete with the “Lean In” perspective, demanding that women work harder and adopt “male behavior” in order to get ahead in life. It is a perspective that takes movement and struggle entirely out of the equation, and is a dead-end as far as women’s empowerment goes. As Linda Gordon -- keynote speaker at the conference’s closing plenary -- reminded the audience, feminism remains unfinished. It also remains very relevant. Though those who struggled for freedom in the ‘60s and ‘70s are in no place to determine what comes next, it seems clear that a revived and strong movement is urgently needed.