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Whatever Happened to the Struggle for Women’s Liberation?

Chicago, Illinois

“BITCH” HAS gone from a sexist epithet to the name of a popular feminist magazine. Liberal newspapers like the New York Times have declared that the latest women’s “revolution” is to opt out of the paid workforce and embrace full-time motherhood. Many feminists defend the war on Afghanistan for delivering “liberation” to Afghan women. And now Democrats like Hillary Clinton call for finding “common ground” with opponents of abortion rights. What the hell happened to the struggle for women’s liberation?!

Socialist Worker columnist and frequent CounterPunch contributor Sharon Smith doesn’t just go after the low-hanging fruit of the right wing to account for the miserable state of working-class women in the U.S., she handily dissects the failings and limitations of the politics of liberalism in Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation (Haymarket Books, http://www.haymarketbooks.org). In a sharp departure from most current writings on women and sexism, Smith refuses to shy away from political theorizing and takes on debates in anthropology and foreign affairs with a journalistic style that is engaging, fact-filled, and often witty.

In her chapter on “The Origins of Women’s Oppression,” Smith challenges the main arguments against Frederick Engels’ Origins of the Family, State and Private Property and defends the Marxist understanding of the “world defeat of the female sex” as an outcome of the rise of class society. Debates that raged in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s over the origins of women’s oppression have long subsided and the view that sexism has always been with us because it is an innate feature of all men now reigns supreme. Many young progressives will be surprised to read that the theory of patriarchy is not the only–or even the most historically accurate–left-wing explanation for sexism.

In addition to some new material, Women and Socialism includes essays that have previously appeared as articles in International Socialist Review. The book will contribute to a healthy debate on the Left about what’s behind the wholesale retreat in women’s politics today. In “What Ever Happened to Feminism?” Smith documents women’s political and economic losses by challenging the strategies of organizations like the National Organization for Women and politics of leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf. Smith doesn’t pull any punches:

Has feminism changed–or are feminists of the 1990s betraying modern feminism’s founding principles?Ö Occasional lip service aside, mainstream feminism has never sought to represent any other class of women than the upper-middle class. Feminism has merely evolved to reflect the changing circumstances of this class of women.

In her chapter on “Women and Islam”–which ought to be debated in every women’s studies class today–Smith exposes the reactionary role feminists played in defending Bush’s Afghan war. Wittingly or not, acts such as the Feminist Majority’s “petition” thanking Bush for “liberating” the women of Afghanistan not only reek of European chauvinism, but they helped give cover for his next imperial adventure in Iraq. Smith goes on to write:

Furthermore, feminists such as [Eleanor] Smeal, a regular guest on television news programs throughout the war, helped ratchet up anti-Muslim racism on the war’s other front: the war at home. While the USA PATRIOT Act sailed through Congress after September 11, thousands of Muslims were rounded up and detained indefinitely without charges or the right to legal representation in the name of “fighting terrorism.” In a typical rant, Smeal stated, “We have become the bad guys; they are blaming all of their economic ruin on the West. They think we don’t like Muslims so instead they become more fundamentalist: ëWe’ll show you, we’ll be more Muslim.'”

Activists who remember the mass demonstrations for abortion rights and clashes outside abortion clinics with right-wingers set on imposing their beliefs on women’s bodies often wonder what happened to those struggles. They need look no further than the surrender of the Democratic Party to the Right on this issue, one of the last remaining points of difference between the two major parties. Even the new Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said in February, “I don’t think we need to be the pro-abortion party.” Throughout the book, Smith disputes the strategy of looking to the Democrats as the saviors of abortion rights and chronicles the rise and fall of the abortion rights movement.

In addition to the persistent economic gap between men and women and the horrible impact of Bill Clinton’s welfare repeal on poor women, in particular, there is a political toll that has been exacted by the collapse of the women’s movement organizationally and ideologically. Sexist language and images once again pervade popular culture and even among some young feminists it is considered ironic to embrace your “inner cunt.” But there is nothing ironic about the soaring poverty of working women and the inequality women continue to face on the job, as class-action sexism suits against companies like Wal-Mart attest. These tragedies are compounded by the lack of any coherent left-wing analysis of the lessons of the past women’s movements and how to build anew. Smith’s book should be devoured by every student of struggle–and then acted on at once.

SHERRY WOLF is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review and can be reached at sherry@internationalsocialist.org.