Women’s Liberation Conference Celebrates 2nd Wave, Revs Up 3rd Wave

The Women’s Liberation Conference at Boston University, “A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” was a celebration of a moment in history, popularly known as the second wave of feminism, that changed the world forever. Throughout the three days of seminars, readings, films, and meetings, from Thursday to Saturday, March 27-29, attendees recalled the successes of that period and beyond while cautioning about dangers ahead, including confronting the present-day war on women that is seeing past victories being rolled back. Veterans of the second wave who led and participated in that revolution networked with young activists and academics from the third wave who today are carrying the movement forward.

Main conference organizer Deborah Belle welcomed the crowd and invited veterans of the second wave to stand. You could see by the number of attendees who stood that a major reunion was taking place. Many of the women had bios in Barbara Love’s Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975. But everyone who stood played a major part locally, nationally, or internationally in creating the change that marked the period.

In her opening remarks, Deborah noted that she had been inspired to organize the conference after repeatedly hearing a narrative of feminism’s history that was different from the one she remembered.

Feminist historian Sara Evans expanded upon that theme in her opening keynote address. “Why is women’s liberation a footnote in late-twentieth century history of feminism?” she asked. She stated four myths about the movement that needed to be cleared away to see the revolution: It was confined to members of the white middle class; it can be told through a chronicle of famous women and key pieces of legislation; participants could generally be described with such words as “shrill,” “ugly,” “anti-sex,” and “oversexed”; the movement was caused by extreme sexism in the New Left.

Throughout the weekend, the power of words and impressions was never far from many analyses. Carol Hanisch, a founding member of New York Radical Women, noted that an image of the period had it being one of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” even though it was really one of “study, struggle, and organizing.” Words that feminists used to describe events and issues lost their sharp edge. “Women’s Liberation Movement” became “Women’s Libbers,” then “the Women’s Movement.” “Abortion now” morphed into “choice.” “Roe was about privacy. After Roe, the Movement declared victory and the term was taken off the table. ‘Rape’ became ‘nonconsensual sex.” “Imagine,” she said, “a woman shouting, ‘Help! I’m having nonconsensual sex!” It was funny. It wasn’t funny.

Dana Dunsmore, a founder of Boston’s Cell 16 female liberation group, made a similar point. Asked why there was such a large gap between the second wave of feminism and the third, she said, “The second wave was so transformative that the next generation could imagine that the job was done and lose their drive.” But, she said confidently, “the third wave is doing a great job.”

I could see that in the sessions I attended and the women who I met. While many of the sessions were led by veterans of the second wave talking about the second wave, others featured third wave activists and academics sharing their research and activism. As a veteran myself of the sixties-era underground press, I found myself drawn to sessions involving media past and present. Thus, in one session, I heard third wavers Agatha Beins, women’s studies professor from Texas Woman’s University, talk about her research on the women’s papers of the seventies, and Tessa Jordan, communications professor from British Columbia Institute of Technology, discuss her research on Branching Out, Canada’s first national feminist magazine. In another, Maria Cotera, professor of women’s and Latino studies at the University of Michigan, shared updates on her impressive project to digitize primary archival materials about women of color.

As a man at a women’s liberation conference, I was considered an ally. I was also considered an ally when I attended, and spoke at, the conference in New York in 2012 to honor the one hundredth birthday of Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the early gay groups from the fifties, as well as a co-founder of Radical Faeries, a group for spiritual gays.

An ally is someone who isn’t from the group in question, as defined by members of the group in question, but is supportive of their social, political, sexual, and other goals. I stood out in Boston, one of a small handful of men among some seven hundred women. I stood out less so in New York unless you believe that you can always tell a gay man by looking at him.

In both cases, I was an “ally” because I wasn’t one of them, in the obvious sense. I’m not a woman. I’m not gay.

In the broader sense, though, which is how I saw it, I was one of them. We’re at least part of the same family.

The movements that they represented came out of the years and events from the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies that popular culture, in its less-than-nuanced way, now refers to as “the sixties.” Linda Gordon, a leader of Boston’s Bread & Roses feminist group in the sixties and now a professor of gender studies, social movements, and imperialism at New York University, gave the closing keynote speech in Boston. She defined the period of the New Left as beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ending somewhere in the mid-seventies with the early gay, lesbian, and environmental movements. I’m okay with those same parameters.

Other historians may begin or end a bit earlier or a bit later. I’m okay with those parameters also. For every individual the beginning was unique: attending a first demonstration, smoking a first joint, getting busted for the first time, getting laid for the first time and realizing that sexual mores were looser than what we learned growing up. Each ending was equally unique. For me, I entered the countercultural movement probably when I smoked my first bowl of weed out of a water pipe after tubing down the Salt River in Phoenix, Arizona, in the summer of 1968 with my friend Steve and realized that I could never again say I had never smoked dope. Two years later, I became a political activist when I got busted for the first time at a teach-in on racism at Michigan State University during the Student Strikes of May 1970 following the murders of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen. By that time, long-time veterans of the Movement were masking their personal burnout by declaring the Movement dead. For me, it was just starting; I considered it still happening even into the eighties, though by the end of the Reagan years we were on the defensive.

With my rising political consciousness and activism as a result of Kent State, I became a hardcore member of the underground press, that community of hundreds of primarily tabloid newspapers that promoted and debated the many sides of every issue affecting the gay, lesbian, feminist, Black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Asian American, military, psychedelic, socialist, Southern consciousness, rank-and-file worker, and other alternative voices of the period but came together to oppose the Vietnam War.

The underground paper that captured my greatest attention was Joint Issue, out of Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan, my home base during that time, but I traveled throughout the country, found my way onto newspaper staffs everywhere I went, learned about their local issues, and organized and wrote about events with them.

As I wrote in my introduction to the first edition of Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press,

The period was a vision as much as a reality. It was a time of experimentation. We made mistakes and learned from them. In the beginning, men attacked sexism while women typed their articles. In the end, women founded the feminist and lesbian press and men learned that it was okay to cry. For all its faults, the sixties was a magical period. A time warp opened up and those who stepped inside glimpsed the new paradigm that brought together the best visions of the visionaries and showed us, on a small scale, how to make them work. On the pages of the underground press, writers tried to reduce the vision to the written word and apply the strategies to a larger scale. Those who were touched remain touched.

I still believe that. To me, the Women’s Liberation movement was part of the larger Movement that also included, to begin, the GLBT, ethnic, and environmental movements. I may not have grasped at a gut level that one day I would be old but I at least knew it intellectually and demonstrated in solidarity with the Gray Panthers as they fought against ageist laws and practices. I had no physical defects that hampered my participation in society but I recognized that I was a mere TAB (temporarily able-bodied). The National Writers Union, whose union card I have proudly carried for now over thirty years, wasn’t even founded until 1981 but I supported unions in the sixties and still do. I knew the liberal programs for the poor weren’t perfect but I believed and still do that they were necessary and merely needed to be improved, not eliminated, and certainly not so that rich people could get richer, so I marched for welfare rights and child care and jobs and unemployment and every other issue that mattered to the poor among us. And I certainly supported the troops—the ones who threw down their medals and said war is wrong until we’ve tried all other options for peace.

Not everyone would agree with me about this holistic approach to the Movement. Some of the conference attendees in Boston were angry to even see me and my type there. At least one woman, at an open mic, declared that men had no business being at their conference and that any who were there should—assuming the voice of every woman in attendance—“kiss our asses.”

Fortunately, not every woman shared that perspective. Many approached me, out of intellectual curiosity, to ask why I had chosen to attend a women’s conference. I was pleased to share my reasons. Word got out. By the end of the conference, women were approaching me.

In my next post, I’ll explain why I was there and introduce what is to date the most extensive project ever to digitize underground, alternative, and literary publications from the fifties through the eighties; I’ll describe the economic model, which I hope grabs the attention of serious librarians who want to enhance their collections of digital resources without busting their budgets; and I’ll list some of the feminist and lesbian papers that are on board.

Stay tuned. And if you were part of an underground, alternative, or literary publication from the period, please get in touch with me. We need to talk.

Meanwhile, congratulations to the organizers and attendees of the Boston women’s liberation conference. We need more of these conferences, not only to study the women’s movement then and now but to study the other movements that made up “the sixties” as well, and to formulate strategies for applying the lessons of then into actions for now.

Also, for another report on the conference, check out my friend Sue Katz’s “Consenting Adult” blog site.