Revolutionary Feminists: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Seattle

This book about groundbreaking feminist radicals provides valuable insights into organizing in the 1960s and ’70s, but is flawed by political animosity.

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Radical history doesn’t get much respect. Mainstream academia is uninterested. Busy activists have little time to write up their own accomplishments and their viewpoint is considered intrinsically suspect.

In the case of a new history of feminist radicalism in Seattle, a writer with past involvement in the movement she documents has produced a valuable account that is unfortunately marred at times by political hostility.

A history waiting to be told

Barbara Winslow’s new book, Revolutionary Feminists: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Seattle, tells the story of the city’s feminist upsurge amid the rebellious 1960s to early ‘70s. Radical Women (RW) is one of three socialist women’s groups Winslow focuses on. The book also profiles the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), whose foundational commitment to feminism was instrumental to the birth and development of Radical Women.

Winslow, now Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College, was a participant in Radical Women’s founding in 1967, along with FSP’s dynamic Clara Fraser, independent radical Gloria Martin (who later joined FSP), Students for a Democratic Society notable Susan Stern, and others from the Old and New Left. At the time, Winslow was a member of International Socialists, a group that was anti-feminist — even opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1968, Winslow was part of a split in RW that opposed adopting a socialist program and firm organizational structure. Winslow then joined a competing group, Women’s Liberation–Seattle.

Revolutionary Feminists is replete with exciting episodes from the Seattle movement and in many cases gives credit to FSP and RW for their groundbreaking ideas and multi-issue, multiracial activism.

For example, she states, the FSP “played the most decisive role in the early formation of the radical women’s liberation movement.” And she credits Radical Women for being “one of the very few activist multiracial socialist feminist organizations with women of color in the leadership.” She notes that at one point her group, Women’s Liberation–Seattle, was the largest of the feminist radical organizations, but that “Radical Women was active everywhere.” She cites Radical Women’s collaboration with the Black Panthers, participation in labor battles, fights for childcare, leadership in the lesbian/gay movement, and more.

As the other women’s liberation groups faded from the scene, Winslow observes, “After the collapse of most of the other Left feminist organizations … Radical Women emerged as the leading voice of socialist feminism.”

So what’s the problem?

Despite the rich and absorbing history, there are places where the author’s political animosity breaks through. Winslow falsely claims that when Radical Women and FSP formally affiliated in 1973 on the basis of shared socialist feminist ideas and a record of respectful collaboration, that it meant Radical Women was subordinate and “no longer an autonomous women’s organization.”

She repeatedly uses a New Left characterization of the FSP’s Clara Fraser-led feminist majority as “FSP-Bolshevik,” while a short-lived anti-Fraser splinter group is dubbed “FSP-Menshevik.” These snarky labels were never used by the groups themselves and will add confusion for future historians.

When Winslow credits RW and FSP with having “continued to attract working class women of color, who have held prominent positions in the organizations,” she adds that this was despite their “dogmatism and sectarian behavior.” Ouch!

The most damaging claim is in a surprisingly brief four-page section on the lesbian/gay movement in Seattle. Without evidence, she asserts falsely that Radical Women and FSP initially “had an antihomosexual policy.” She says the groups “formally supported lesbian and gay liberation after 1972 but offered no reflections on their earlier position.”

All surviving early members state emphatically that RW and FSP were never “antihomosexual.” Several were interviewed for the book by Winslow who never hinted that she had reached this conclusion, which she bases on other groups’ histories of homophobia.

Given the chance, the organizations could have dug into their archives to cast light on members’ thinking prior to 1972 when the queer movement burst out in the city and lesbian and gay activists were enthusiastically joining and becoming leaders in RW and FSP. When challenged on this issue, Winslow refused to concede any errors.

Proceed with caution

On balance, Revolutionary Feminists is an important telling of little-known history and is well worth reading for those able to sift out its occasional bombshells. Hopefully, it will encourage current radicals to investigate Radical Women — still alive and immersed in organizing some 50 years after the demise of the other organizations Winslow portrays.

Truth be told, it’s the well-grounded principles and democratic structure rejected by Winslow that have kept revolutionary socialist feminism alive. Check out the offerings at RedLetterPress.org to learn more from the history-makers themselves.

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