The idyllic, even bourgeois, setting at the Admiralty Resort in Port Ludlow, Washington, belied the intentions of the 125 or so women who went to the annual Radical Women Conference. They were celebrating their tenth anniversary as the nation’s oldest socialist-feminist group. They were talking about revolution.
… members and interested nonmembers listened to presentations of Radical Women’s history and ideas and heard speeches from a New York labor organizer and feminist, Myra Tanner Weiss; Janet McCloud, a Tulalip tribe Native American; and various … speakers. Their discussion reviewed a long and surprisingly extensive history of organizing and a dogged determination to continue as a strong voice for socialism and feminism …
The above appraisal was the provocative prelude to a long front-page story in the February 1 issue of Seattle Sun, a popular weekly.
Near the close of the article, the reporter wrote, “No one doubts that Radical Women knows what it wants.” Hallelujah, women have arrived! It’s been a long time since Freud’s cranky remark, “Women! What in the world do they want?!” And if anybody held any lingering doubts, a few hours at RW’s rousing conference would have been enough to dispel them.
This Is the Revolution
Keynoter Myra Tanner Weiss captured the fervency of the conference:
“The women’s movement is happening all over the world! If Trotsky were alive, he would say, ‘This is the world revolution!’ Once the base begins to move, how long before the top begins to topple!”
Weiss, a founder of the Committee for a Revolutionary Socialist Party (CRSP), is a former leader of the Socialist Workers Party, which she left in the early sixties in protest against its cynical bureaucracy and anti-feminism.
She traced women’s plight in the SWP. This most advanced revolutionary party in the U.S., she said, consigned women’s rights to the distant future. “They thought women would be emancipated after the revolution, and the revolution would be made by men!”
Weiss illumined the scientific foundations and breathtaking potential of Marxist feminism. Hers was the long, historic view, radiant with revolutionary optimism.
The other side of the question — the grave problems and heartbreak rampant in many movements — was scrutinized by Native American leader and co-keynoter Janet McCloud.
Friend of the Earth
Striking a sombre note, McCloud scored the rape of the environment by industrialists, and urged RW to address ecological issues.
“Women must serve the earth,” she said. “Instinctively, women feel the threat to life because women are life and the source of life.”
She had kind words for Radical Women. “You will be a major force in the American movement for freedom. I know. I’ve always had profound respect for you because you live your ideology and have always respected the integrity of our Indian movement.”
Then she offered wise advice. “But let’s have less back-patting and more ass-kicking — we need to correct our mistakes and never be smug.”
McCloud is deeply worried over the decimation and crisis of Indian leadership: “It’s only through women that there’s any hope for the future.”
In the Beginning
The conference convened Friday night, January 27, with a spirited review of “1967-69: Shaping the First Socialist Feminist Organization.”
Founders Melba Windoffer and Gloria Martin wittily described the original RW, a hybrid of Old Left and New Left women, from which emerged — after stormy debates and splits — a purposeful and tenacious organization of radicals who popularized feminism and achieved leadership in the anti-war struggle, the childcare movement, the antipoverty program, abortion campaigns, divorce reform, affirmative action battles, etc.
In the 70s, members began to enter nontraditional trades, and RW was soon predominantly proletarian.
Assessing RW strength, founder Clara Fraser paid tribute to Windoffer and Martin: “These were women who viewed feminism as they viewed all social philosophy — through the prism of Marxism, of historical materialism. They never forgot the working class! This is the secret of our longevity, the glue that has held us together.”
Cindy Gipple continued the historical evaluation in her report “1970-73: Antiwar and the Days of Rage.”
Gipple projected the exuberance of the youth rebellion. “We jarred the country out of the suffocating complacency of the fifties and ushered in an explosive new era of radicalism!”
But New Left sexism and ideological frivolity caused its demise, she said. RW turned toward refinement of theory, reorientation to working women, and minority struggles — and survived.
Women Around the World
A special panel devoted to international feminism and radical politics featured dynamic speakers: Jesus Mena, Los Angeles CRSP organizer, on Mexico; Sandy Nelson, RW’s representative at the May 1977 International Women’s Conference in Paris; Angelica Merlino, a recent visitor to Italy; and a European co-thinker.
The speakers all attested to the rising impact of feminism on workers in other countries, and the difficulties of male radicals with the issue.
Minority Women: A Strategic Position
Two Blacks and one Chicana explored feminist leadership in minority struggles.
All three are engaged in ethnic and women’s rights work, linking these issues within both movements to sensitive minorities to feminism and alert white women to racism.
Yolanda Alaniz, president of United Workers Union-Independent, said, “Chicano unity can only come about if the Chicano movement also addresses our needs as workers, women, gays, and poor people.” She hailed emerging Chicana leaders as the force cementing Chicano militancy.
A retrospective account of the Black movement through the heyday of nationalism was rendered by Madlyne Scott, who had few kind words for Blacks who relegated Black women to exclusive function as sex objects and mothers of “revolutionary babies.”
“Black women are breaking out of this second-class prison,” she declared, crediting feminism as the spur.
Kathy Saadat from the energetic Portland, Oregon RW branch, said, “RW recognizes the characteristics of minority women which other organizations fail to see — either by design or chronic short-sightedness, both of which express their racism and sexism.”
The conference reaffirmed commitment to assisting, recruiting, and learning from minority women, who are decisive to socialism because of the manifold perils they confront.
Labor, Gays, Expansion
Major reports on RW’s impressive work in trade unions and highly significant gains in the beleaguered gay and feminist movements were submitted by Sarah White, Judith Scalise, and Val Carlson respectively.
Exuberant panelists from Oregon, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Alaska, and Olympia, Washington cited broad opportunities for radicals created by the failure of petty-bourgeois feminism, and recounted RW’s sectional advances in recruiting workers, gays, and minorities as testimony of its national expansion.
Constance Scott, outgoing RW Organizer, evaluated 1977 in a commentary on her Organizer’s report, Towards Nationwide Socialist Feminism (the main conference document).
After prolonged, vigorous (and often humorous) debate, the conference voted to delete a phrase in Scott’s paper on the “natural superiority” of women, which conveyed to many the connotation of a “master” sex. A public discussion will be launched on the scientific nature and theoretical significance of female physiology.
Mary Reeves, current RW Organizer, reported on goals for 1978. She emphasized the urgency of achieving a united front against the anti-feminist right, and called for continued attention to labor and gays, and intensified work with minority women. She also proposed expanding RW’s program with a section on the environment. All her proposals were adopted.
The Pause That Refreshed
The crowded agenda was relieved by nightly entertainment. Spoofs of past triumphs and disasters were hilariously staged, and the Sunday night banquet was sparked by a scathing “celebrity roast” of RW’s founders. The Bread and Roses Chorus performed musical comedy routines blending new satirical lyrics with popular scores. And a group of excellent poets read selections from their works.
The conference was open, intense, and incredibly exciting. Enough information and inspiration were engendered to sustain the delegates for at least ten more years of assault on the bourgeois colossus — if indeed it will take that long, given the contagious drive and maturing revolutionary professionalism of Radical Women.