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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Feminism and the Left: An Historical Relationship Misunderstood

Rosalyn Baxandall, Linda Gordon.

Second wave feminism was a global movement and left no place in the world untouched by feminist critique and women's organizing. In these transformations, the US had an influence proportionate to its world power, and this produced mixed messages in the rest of the world. Today global antifeminism is often inseparably entwined with anti - Americanism, while women activists in both global 'south' and global 'north' often develop a similar critique of 'American-model' feminism as inappropriate, even antagonistic, to the interests of women in their societies. This critique has as much to do with how the history of the 1950s-70s social movements is written--often inaccurately - as with the theory and practice of the movements themselves. Anti-Americanism is an understandable response to the US government's diplomatic, military and economic policies, but the scholarship on feminism often fails to register the US women's movement's active opposition to these policies.

This paper argues that there was a complex and conflictual unity between the male-dominated New and Old Lefts and the women's movements. For example, US feminist organizations functioned as part of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Cuba solidarity movement, and many other international movements against neocolonialism. Women's liberation groups supported the Black Panthers, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Chicano Raza Unida and other Left movements among people of color. Feminist groups revitalized the union movement.

The close relationship between the women's movement and the Left gave rise to problems, however. The feminist critique of male self-importance produced hostility to leadership, often good as well as bad leadership. The New Left critique of bureaucratism, which most feminists accepted, resulted in an exaggerated and damaging anti-organizational bias. The New Left/feminist longing for brotherhood/sisterhood gave rise to a universalism which functioned to exclude and silence those whose experiences were not white and professional.


Rosalyn Baxandall  (United States)
American Studies
State University at Old Westbury

Rosalyn Baxandall is a Professor and Chair of American Studies at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Baxandall has authored numerous books as well as almost 50 articles, book reviews, on day care, working women, sexuality, reproductive rights and class, race and gender in suburbia, l945- 2000.

Linda Gordon  (United States)
Professor of History

New York University

  • Left
  • Feminism
  • Global

(30 min Conference Paper, English)