How the Combative Beginning of Women's Studies Shaped Feminist In-Fighting Today
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty


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How the Combative Beginning of Women's Studies Shaped Feminist In-Fighting Today

At the West Coast Women's Studies Conference of 1973, scholars in the new academic discipline gathered to discuss sisterhood, survival tactics, and how the conference organizers had marginalized basically everyone. The atmosphere was tense and chaotic...

On a sunny day in May 1973, inside a lecture hall at Sacramento State, one of the first Women's Studies conferences hadn't even finished and already some were considering it a failure. The final plenary session, intended by the conference planners to be a time for shared resources and sisterhood, had turned into an airing of grievances. The grim, institutional hall was packed, and a line had formed around the microphone: Young women in jeans paired with work shirts or peasant blouses had complaints for the conference organizers. Hissing and booing erupted around the room. At any given moment, it was difficult to tell whether the dissenters were on the side of the conference planners or a group of disruptors that had led a charge against them. Perhaps it was both.


The grievances? According to a coalition of younger women who read a statement condemning the conference organizers, the planners had neglected to consider the impact of class on participants by demanding a $4 registration fee. They had failed to provide opportunities for women of color to participate meaningfully in the conference. They had marginalized lesbianism by not scheduling any specific events about it during the workshop period. They had allowed women with children to be alienated because some people had made snide comments about kids being annoying in the hallway. Reading the transcript of the session is like watching the birth of the internet comment section in real time. "I felt intellectually raped by Robin Morgan's speech," Tori Chestnut, a student from Berkeley, announced into the microphone, to applause. Chestnut was referring to a barnstorming address by the notoriously militant feminist in which she described the lengths she would go to get men to drop out of her classes.

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According to some participants, the conference had started harmoniously enough. In a later essay, Ann Forfreedom, a community organizer based in Los Angeles, described women dancing hand-in-hand in a field on the tree-lined campus. There was a theater production of Alice in Wonderland, the screening of movies and slideshows by female filmmakers and artists, and a vaginal self-examination clinic—seemingly the ingredients for a 1970s feminist utopia. How did the atmosphere devolve so quickly?


The "cleavage" between the participants, as one writer later put it, reflected a growing gap in early feminism, and it was one that would come to define the movement as the decade wore on. The conference planners were women who believed that building women's culture and pushing for a revaluing of femininity should be the movement's central goals; they were cultural feminists. The students who argued back were radicalized by the 1960s counterculture, and many believed that "only socialism could provide the conditions for women's liberation," as one of the conference dissenters put it; they were the socialist feminists. One conference organizer, Kristen Amundsen, a professor of political science who published one of the first books on American politics and women, memorably called the conference a battle between the "matriarchs and Marxists." Though there was some overlap: conference planners who identified with the socialist feminists, younger women who understood the goals of the cultural feminists. Some people were moderates: well versed enough in socialism and the history of the Left, yet not particularly convinced by it, or by the cultural feminists' arguments for women's separatism. Others were angry because they didn't know or care about the divide and resented being forced to watch these groups air dirty laundry.

Florence Howe, founder of the Feminist Press, teaching a class. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When the conference organizers in Sacramento sat down to plan, they were aware that discord might ensue. The title of the conference—"Women's Studies: Survival in the 1970s"—intimated that the field might already be on life support. "I've already started to call it the first and last West Coast Women's Studies conference," one frustrated participant said into the microphone. The organizers also had a plan for what they would do if a physical fight broke out on the floor.


Conference chair Joan Hoff Wilson had worked the conference's unsteady footing into her opening address, touching on issues of class while underlining the importance of a movement centered on experiences all women have in common. "Our basic survival in the 1970s depends on our ability to define the femaleness of experience and establish a feminist intellectual foundation which can withstand economic adversity," she told the crowd.

Disruptors at the conference took offense at the implications. A common smear that emerged over the next few days was that Wilson was a racist because she didn't mention race in her speech.

The accusations hit Wilson hard; by the final plenary session, she was at the end of her rope. The last time she took to the microphone, she had a foreboding message: "Unless significant theoretical development takes place on the part of both the socialist feminists and the cultural feminists, we may well find ourselves participating in conferences like this one for the rest of the decade."

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At this point in time, women's studies, the concept, and Women's Studies, the academic discipline, were very young. The idea that the history of women could be worth studying only dated back to the mid-1960s, when a few intrepid political organizers held classes on the subject through the free schools of left-leaning activists. These led to consciousness-raising sessions, where women would get together to discuss issues of sexism in their political groups. Eventually they began to discuss issues of sexism in the world at large.


Other early Women's Studies courses grew from classes that female academics were already teaching. One such class was a freshman composition course called "Identity and Expression," taught by English scholar Florence Howe at Goucher College, a school that, at the time, was single-sex and attracted mainly middle-class women. The syllabus was composed of women's writing on women's lives. "My goal was not political; my goal was to stimulate them to not write boring prose," Howe told me. Howe came to Goucher after spending time teaching older women in Freedom Schools, the education wing of the civil rights movement, in the South. Howe had seen women write incredible pieces about the effects race had on their daily lives, and she wanted her students at Goucher, in more placid situations, to see their own experiences as valid, too, if only to improve their writing.

Howe's course began as a more straightforward freshman literature composition course in 1965, with a syllabus composed primarily of male writers. It started to shift focus when Howe asked her prim, reticent students if their parents treated them the same way they treated male children. The question stimulated debate—but not for the reason Howe expected. Growing up, Howe had one brother, and the way her parents treated them both stood out to her. They looked different—he was blonde, while she had black hair—and their parents had different expectations for them. They told him he was beautiful and angelic, and told her she was plain. They expected great things from him, and very little from her.


That experience had led her to think critically about the impact being a girl had on her life. But the young women in her classroom saw their childhoods differently. They insisted they had been treated equally—even if their brothers were expected to inherit the family business while they were expected to be housewives; even if their parents didn't understand their desire to get serious academic degrees or delay marriage and child-rearing as long as possible. In the classroom, the discussion turned into a respectful argument.

Women's Studies became a brain trust for and incubator of feminist ideas, even when the political movement faced backlash.

In the journal assignments the students did that week, however, Howe saw a breakthrough. Her students were writing vividly about their experiences, thinking about concrete details, telling stories. Howe had found a pedagogical method that seemed brand new. She created a syllabus focused on women writing about their lives, even though model essays, stories, and novels were hard to find at the time.

Howe started getting attention for teaching a course that focused openly on women. She told me that a journalist from the Chronicle of Higher Education trailed her and wrote about what he saw in her classroom, and she was asked to contribute an essay to College English, an important journal for the pedagogy of literature. Letters began to pour into her office asking an important question: Where could other teachers find readings by women to incorporate into their own classrooms?


Thanks to an industrious research assistant, Howe's office became the clearinghouse for ideas and reading related to the field she began to call Female Studies. She went on to publish ten volumes of collected syllabi and readings under that name.

Eventually, it be came clear to Howe that the limiting factor for her imagined educational movement was the lack of quality texts to teach in these courses—not because they didn't exist, but because publishing houses concerned about a small market had allowed them to go out of print. In 1970, Howe founded the Feminist Press, a nonprofit publisher that exists to this day, to resurrect some of this writing and build a new canon. The press popularized many near-forgotten texts: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, and many more. When Howe was invited to be the keynote speaker at the West Coast Women's Studies Conference, it was because the organizers at Sacramento understood the power of the work she had done to start a new movement in academia.

The first issue of "Ms." magazine. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1970s, second-wave feminism was reaching the height of its mainstream power: Ms. Magazine was founded in late 1971 and published its first issue in 1972, Title IX banning sex discrimination in education was passed in June 1972, and Roe v. Wade was decided in January 1973. But as the movement started to achieve more success, divisions in ideology and tactics began to multiply. Some believed in measured progress; others believed in demonstration and radical change. Some believed in changing hearts and minds; others believed in changing laws. Disillusionment and cynicism from the failed promises of the 1960s were setting in alongside broader appeal and awareness.


The first official Women's Studies program began at San Diego State in 1970, and today, the discipline is thriving—it's probably one of the youngest subjects to achieve a firm foothold in American universities: According to a census prepared for the National Women's Studies Association in 2007, the number of women's studies programs in the United States was "approaching 650." According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of conferred bachelor's degrees in women's and gender studies and area, ethnic, and group studies (which are assessed together in these findings) more than tripled between 1970 and 2014.

To read the account of the 1973 West Coast Women's Studies conference, you might be a little confused: Why did it survive? And why does it seem like feminism has made so little progress in terms of the problems that plague it?

Technology-mediated distance has allowed feminists to forget that disagreement isn't a real threat, but disinterest is.

One important reason is that those theoretical advances that Joan Hoff Wilson called for in her address at the West Coast Women's Studies conference—"to define the femaleness of experience and establish a feminist intellectual foundation which can withstand economic adversity"—actually happened. The 1970s were a productive period for writers thinking about what it means to be a woman, and why understanding that matters. Alongside the rise of feminists calling for a change in education, the women already working in academia—even if they were teaching a sexist curriculum—had started to organize. The American Historical Association launched a women's committee in 1969; the women's caucus of the Modern Language Association started the same year. Female professors worked alongside students, faculty wives, and female staff to lobby administrations to make changes in their curricular offerings and policies. In other words, there were already people inside institutions looking for the guidance a movement could offer. Once they had the resources and ideas, they weren't going to turn back. Women's Studies became a brain trust for and incubator of feminist ideas, even when the political movement faced backlash in the late 1970s and virtual banishment in Reagan's 1980s.


While many movements crumble under the kind of conflict displayed over the 1973 conference weekend, academic feminists endeavored to make those arguments productive. At first it was by displaying incredible gravitas; when Howe deemed the plenary session finished, she thanked the dissenters for their role in broadening the conversation. The conference organizers decided to publish a book of transcripts of the events so that future feminists could learn to deal with similar ideological splits.

bell hooks in 1988. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Today, that book is hard to find, even though many of the conflicts depicted speak directly to problems feminists face in 2016. You can see it in the disdain directed towards Lean-In feminism for being too capitalist, and Hillary Clinton's campaign and the millennial Bernie backlash show that people are still trying to figure out what takes primacy: investment in gender difference or devotion to leftist ideals. Attempting to integrate class and race into mainstream conversations has never felt so fraught.

Women's Studies has largely moved past these specific internecine struggles. The divide between "cultural feminists" and "socialist feminists" is thought of as an historical one now—scholars see benefits and drawbacks in both camps, and trying to understand these splits has instead helped people come up with new ways to understand identity. Concepts like intersectionality, queerness, white privilege, and gender performance arose because the lack of vocabulary to talk about identity was so frustrating to early feminists of all stripes, and these roots transformed the discipline into a place where disagreement was seen as productive and necessary, not destructive. When writing about the period, historian Marilyn J. Boxer said, "For many white, heterosexual feminists, the criticism directed at them by other feminists required a shift of focus from recognizing their anger at exclusion and subordination by men to facing anger directed at themselves."

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Throughout the 1980s, as feminist theory developed, writers often penned scathing responses to articles they read, and despite their differences in opinions, they continued to read each other's work to sharpen their arguments. Moving this conversation online has been a mixed blessing for feminist conversation. On the one hand, it's achieved some of the goals of the West Coast Women's Conference: broadening the conversation to those who can't afford a college degree or a conference entrance fee, providing platforms to theorize about things the mainstream might leave off the official program. But it's also allowed some of the worst problems—screaming, yelling, discord—to proliferate in unimaginable ways. The early feminist struggles rested on a baseline of civility; there's only so much you can scream without losing your voice. Technology-mediated distance has allowed feminists to forget that disagreement isn't a real threat, but disinterest is. It's hard to imagine now, but in the early 1970s feminism seemed like a fad, a craze that would pass, and the struggles over defining the movement kept scholars and activists interested even when mainstream culture moved on. Now, feminist scholars are more likely to talk about "feminisms," plural, an acknowledgment that different ideas about gender, culture, and justice have always existed. It's not necessarily clear which one has claims to truth or righteousness.

Whether that willingness to accept multiple viewpoints will trickle down to the mainstream remains to be seen. When bell hooks wrote an article critical of Beyoncé's Lemonade in May 2016, Black Twitter erupted with dismay at her shade—hooks argued that the beloved album, celebrated as a cultural product made entirely for black women, was "the business of capitalist money making at its best." As many feminist Beyoncé fans shouted, "NO!" at their computer screens, aghast that one of their heroes had questioned another, those of us with Women's Studies degrees just chuckled. In many of my theory classes, hooks emerged as the queen of the takedown. Her relentlessly critical perspectives helped us look at cultural objects with new eyes, even if we continued to enjoy what we were seeing.