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The Women’s Movement and Women in SDS: Cathy Wilkerson Recalls the Tensions

The New Left facilitated the emergence of a new womenís movement in the late 1960ís. The rebirth of American feminism emerged in part from the New Leftís probing of the political dimension of personal life, but also from the discrimination many young women faced within the movement itself. While thousands of young women joined political groups with fervor and dedication, many were dismayed to find that their male comrades did not view them as equals. As SDS activist Cathy Wilkerson remembered, poor treatment from men within the movement sparked heated debates among women as to whether they should create a separate womenís movement. Such a movement appeared, with tremendous impact, in the late 1960ís and early 1970ís. [The material in brackets was added to the transcript shortly after the recorded interview.]

Listen to Audio:

WILKERSON: Then the other group that really came out of that work was developing the women’s movement. There was Charlotte Bunch and Marilyn Webb and me and several other women were all in a women’s group together. The whole fight about whether women should stay in the left or form a separatist women’s movement erupted there full blown and with total passion all within our little women’s group.

GRELE.: Can you go into some detail about that?

WILKERSON: I feel so awful about it, I’d really rather not [laughter]. It was just terrible. I mean it was wonderful in the sense that it all happened in this little, I mean we just thought we were a little, you know one of these million little women’s group. [we started to explore what is a “women’s issue.” Charlotte Bunch was writing and involved with IPS I think. Marilyn Webb was instrumental in starting the group and in figuring out what feminism was with SDS.] But actually out of it Charlotte Bunch became very involved in the lesbian separatist movement and was writing and doing all kinds of things. Marilyn Webb was very involved in the non-separatist lesbian movement [the mainstream feminist movement]. And I stuck with or went into SDS and Weatherman. [Later] every woman in there went in a different direction, I mean basically afterwards. It was very, you know, we were on the edge of really struggling it through in a good way, and all of us retreated to sort of very self-righteous arguments at the end. It became very acrimonious, although it never blew up because everybody liked each other too much. So everybody argued their positions tremendously defensively because we were all totally defensive about it. It just kind of left with a lot of bitter taste by the end of ‘69,or the beginning of ’69. And really all of it was “should women struggle in the left?” and the separatists said “No.” I think today probably all of those women, if we were together would probably agree a lot on the interrelationship of all the different focuses that the women’s movement and the necessity of all of them. But back then you couldn’t. So many women had been so brutalized in the left, and a lot broke down between women who had a [personal] relationship to the civil rights movement or the Vietnamese, personally, not just ideologically, and women who hadn’t.

I had gone on a trip to Cambodia in '67 and had met with the Vietnamese in Cambodia. We were suppose to go to Hanoi, but we got bombed out, so we ended up in Phnom Penh. And we met with both the NLF and the North Vietnamese there. I think my contact with the civil rights movement and with the Vietnamese meant that I could never become a separatist, because how could you justify this to them? They were fighting and they were losing their lives and I just couldn’t do that. But I had a totally self-righteous attitude toward the women who did want to become separatists. I absolutely believe [now] that a separate women’s movement was essential.

Those of us in the left were very defensive because we worked with men. [At the same time, we didn’t want to do anything that might weaken SDS and its support of the Black Panther Party and militant anti-war activity.] The men in our organizations demanded that we assert and re-assert constantly our loyalty to them, and not to the independent women’s movement. Women within SDS had to denounce separatism, you know, every five minutes in every discussion of women’s issues or they would not be allowed to continue. Yet when women tried to get together with separatists they were again challenged to say that working with men was bad, you know, all the time. Interestingly, it was within the women’s movement that a lot of people came together from different organizations. The women were made, within Weatherman, to criticize each other over their women’s politics and their support and interest for working with women. [Given that the young people in the Panthers were under such vicious attack, the argument that educated white women should focus on our own oppression did seem racist. Those who posed it as either/or dominated the argument.] That was part of the dynamic, was that not only did the men criticize, but the women were made to criticize each other to prove how honest they were. That created this enormous divisiveness and distrust among the women that came to characterize the organization.

Source: Interviewed by Ron Grele 2/17/85
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection