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Juliet Mitchell: Looking back at Woman’s Estate

Sarah Shin 3 February 2015

Image for blog post entitled Juliet Mitchell: Looking back at <i>Woman’s Estate</i>

"The political movement of ‘women’s liberation’ from the 1960s, after a “backlash”, has diversified into all the elements of feminism’s “fourth wave”; but its success has been enormous. It was another beginning, not an end.

"I think that all movements could gain in different ways from the implementation that we initiated in the making the personal, political. This is their legacy, our heritage."       

On the occasion of the new edition of Woman’s Estate, Juliet Mitchell looks back at how the joy and practical experience afforded by Women's Liberation—and its tensions with other protest movements of the time—inflected its writing, making the personal political.

The many characteristics of the women’s liberation as it was played out particularly in the federation of small groups of the London Women’s Liberation Workshop were typical of the wider movement. Everywhere had its particularity; there were general successes and specific failures. Often, mistakenly, but typically, the first is read in terms of the second. In many or most places women do not have equal jobs, equal pay or control over their own bodies but this does not mean that we have not in many places won the rights to these. In Marxist terms, these are ‘reforms’; in feminist politics, they are steps on the road to revolution. Their implementation will have to be fought for over and over again – that is the nature of demanding radical change. Other rights such as that to universal girls’ education or to sexual non-violence will have to be prioritized. The political movement of ‘women’s liberation’ from the 1960s, after a “backlash”, has diversified into all the elements of feminism’s “fourth wave”; but its success has been enormous. It was another beginning, not an end.

The legacies of the sixties and seventies are numerous but a number can cohere around the second wave’s notion and its initiatory implementation of what became, and has stayed as, a ‘mantra’: the “personal is the political”. This theme is not the intellectual focal-point of Woman’s Estate; instead it is articulated throughout its form, which is what I want to address. 

Woman’s Estate had a very long gestation and a ‘shot-gun’ birth. I wrote it in six weeks in the winter of 1969-1970. There were a number of reasons for this time-scale. In retrospect the most interesting is the surprise, almost shock I had on reading it for this generous and welcome new edition in the excellent Radical Thinkers series. When it was published, I was deep into writing Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), which is preluded at the end of Woman’s Estate.This meant that, for me, in a way this was a first-time reading. I wrote the book, must have proofed it but had never really read it to think about. What matters I realize is that all this time I have misremembered it. I have always assumed that I had been able to write it so quickly because its core was already in place as an article, “Women: the Longest Revolution” published in 1966 in New Left Review. In my false memory, the book was just an extension of the already written article. In fact, it isn’t like that at all. I had re-read “Women: the Longest Revolution” occasionally over the fifty years since I wrote it – but never in the context of its place its destination in Woman’s Estate. Last week I re-read it in its stand-alone version in New Left Review, the journal where it was originally published. Immediately I saw that Woman’s Estate, through the women’s liberation movement that the book is about, had transformed the article.

It is something of this transformation that I want to try and capture here. It has to do with the ‘personal is the political’. Between Woman’s Estate and “Women: the Longest Revolution” there is a reversal. The reversal is that this most impersonal of articles, in fact represents the ‘personal’ and the most personal of movements, Women’s Liberation, represents the ‘political’. I had split the article up and added socialist-feminist writers to the list of Marxist authors singled out by the original article. More importantly I had embedded its theory in an account of the materiality of women’s position, materiality grasped both by updating my scholarly knowledge from the period of gestation and thanks to the practices of the women’s movement, adding practical experience. Hidden beneath the article and the questions it raised, there is unacknowledged personal anger and pain. These emotions manifoldly multiplied underlay the practice of the movement I described in the book.

I was just too young, still at school, progressive, co-educational, genuinely gender-egalitarian to suffer the 1950’s era of the ‘feminine mystique’. Its bell did not toll for me. Instead I hit the experience of discrimination for the first time in the extraordinary privileges of undergraduate life in Oxford University: on arrival we were calmly told men get first and fourth class degrees; women get seconds and thirds. They did, we did. There too, embedded within its public school hegemony, I had my first encounter with the largely benign differential treatment of (young) women. I can remember happily lying on a breakwater on Brighton beach where I had gone with a new boyfriend and three male friends; I was totally baffled and asked them why they personally (and as I felt, pointlessly) all ganged up to tease me. They looked at me puzzled, and my boyfriend eventually said: you really don’t know why, do you? I didn’t.  My wartime rather independent early childhood, a communal home-life, a deeply feminist full-time working mother, the importance of the very small school I attended from age three to seventeen had left me gender-naïve and wondering. It also probably left me overly sensitive to what was to come. Personally privileged as I was, I felt on my own pulse what most women have to be resilient to withstand most of the time. Of course women are not the only ones, nor of course, is, or was, it all there is or was. My point is different: reading the article and the book separately makes it evident that “Women: the Longest Revolution” was written against the pains that proceeded the joy the women’s movement offered. Read together with the one tucked inside the other demonstrates what a liberation struggle can achieve in the transformation of what it struggles against.

I would date the beginning of Woman’s Estate to a camping holiday with the same Brighton/Oxford boyfriend, on the wonderful but oh so wet west coast of Scotland in the so-called ‘summer’ 1959 or 1960. Interested by then in existentialism (not women), I was escorted out of a bookshop in Oban as though I had asked for pornography when I tried to buy The Second Sex. I remember when I finally read it back at college as well as being hugely impressed at its range, depth and sweep I had, from my gender naïveté, a silly thought: maybe it’s as bad as that for women in France, but surely not in England! The germs of wanting to find out more were taking root. De Beauvoir has always remained very important for me and I am immeasurably proud to feature in her autobiography as the young English woman who changed her mind about psychoanalysis!

At the beginning of the sixties, by now part of a group of left-wing thinkers and activists, I tried to take on home-grown feminism. I reviewed for one of the papers we were creating, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks. Youth-and-Oxford clever, I prefer not to remember this first foray into writing about women: instead I recall my chagrin at being roundly ticked-off by a senior (male) colleague for having the nerve to have any criticism at all!

After false starts with the giants of de Beauvoir and Lessing, I thought I had better knuckle down to work on the actual position of women in Britain. I got a contract on the subject for a book which for various reasons never saw the light of day. I had finished chapters on the suffrage movement and education and done a fair amount of research on women at work. All this provided an important sediment when it came to my quick writing of Woman’s Estate. For suffrage I had used the then dusty and largely unused Fawcett library near Victoria station. For education there were no secondary sources and I tried to glean meaning from endless government blue books. Between De Beauvoir 1949 and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 one could count the books addressing the discriminatory treatment of women on the fingers of one hand.  Picking up what was happening, 1963 started to change all that.

Ban the bomb, the Aldermaston marches, Cuba, Vietnam. I was a very young university teacher with militant students, women and men in Leeds University in the early sixties. In the early-to-mid sixties, in Europe and America youth and students were gathering. In 1966 with “Women: the Longest Revolution” just published I went to New York to a Socialist Scholars Conference. Feminism had ‘officially’ started there. If we want a date it would need to be 1966 with the foundation of the National Organization of Women. But of course, to achieve that, its beliefs preceded its organization. When Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, de Beauvoir had selected a chapter for translation in Les Temps Modernes. Women who had known, or known of, the rampant male infidelity and female domestic incarceration of the 50’s were meeting. I realize now they were mostly slighter older than me – witnesses, if not victims, of the feminine mystique.  The pill and changing mores potentially  freed  women heterosexually. There was Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Adrienne Rich, Flo Kennedy for starters. People and places were coming together.

To my amazement “Women: the Longest Revolution” had hit the ground running: there wasn’t yet fertile soil but something was stirring world-wide. To my joy it was pirated as a pamphlet and in those days it was extraordinary to hold in one’s hand something one had written appearing suddenly in Chinese! In New York at the Socialist Scholars Conference, my ‘article was known’ and I was invited to women’s meetings which were still experimental. My memory of who was meeting is dim partly because it is cast in shadow by the starlight of Gloria’s electric tap-dancing for us.

When the American Movement took firm root in the UK a year or so later it at first overlapped with the Youth and Student Movement’s increasing militancy. We were there, active everywhere – not only in full-time establishment feminism. I joined sit-ins at Hornsey and LSE, sipping the improbable movement drink, Mateus Rose and talking, talking talking… Then gradually and insidiously had been the standard social and personal denigrations of women, the sexual contempt and inequities in the midst of those sexual and social revolutionary times began to have an effect on some of us. Though our energies were still in our revolutionary tasks, we hated these attitudes along with the tea-making roles to which we were too often assigned. Unfortunately, but naturally, we not only felt things personally, we also personalized our “oppressors”.    

This experience was felt by women personally from the men with whom they had worked and/or lived. Of course there were exceptions. Although they probably have no idea of it, to me those exceptions are men who are very dear to me to this day, illustrating through their importance, what was wrong around them. It was as though one lived on two levels: as agents of the struggles women and men were waging together against opponents but as less than second-class citizens within the practices themselves.

As with any protest movement, there is the personal experience of colonialism, of racism, of sexism that demands the liberationary struggle. The first stage in politicizing the personal, is to generalize the phenomenon. What changes the pain that must be protested, is the politics – the turning of many individual experiences into a collective struggle. Woman’s Estate celebrated the women’s movement by turning “Women: the Longest Revolution” from a tract for dark times into an element of an argument for a forward march to feminism’s future.

The women’s movement was born but it did not mean we abandoned the other struggles. Active in the student movement, I could only be a fringe participant-observer of the Black struggle so I went off to argue with the gender prejudices of Stokely Carmichael in Atlanta  (see Woman’s Estate), to walk alone the streets of Watts and, a highlight, to go at her request, and as her ‘sister’ to the trial of Angela Davis. I say all this to counteract the impression so often given that women were not everywhere in the struggles that led to 1968. Celebrating that famous year I was asked to take a delightful child of an on-the-run ex-Weatherman across Canada for safe-keeping in a Hippy commune; back in England as a founder member of the Anti-University of London which followed the ‘Dialectics of Liberation Congress’ of 1967, I ran a seminar on women. One tenet of the movement was that women who had had their educational potential realized should offer services to women who hadn’t.  It was from this seminar that the Peckham young mothers and housewives wrote a ‘seminal’ pamphlet and later Ann Oakley and I made it a founding strategy of the three collections of essays we edited on women.

The women’s movement forged its own politics as Woman’s Estate records. We had to immerse ourselves in what we were talking about – one group I was in decided to study the situation of homeworkers, a plight later taken up by the then Liberal party– we surveyed an area of Finsbury Park and applied for the work ourselves – memories of the string gloves I tried to knit shade into the superb epaulettes on the horse guards’ parade, sewn for years in a back room by an elderly lady; of a young one doing typing inside the play-pen so her child could explore outside it. When we said ‘the personal was the political’ it was certainly highlighting the formation of consciousness-raising groups but it was also the material presence of women’s lives that was indicated. In a street group we took it in turns to share the child-care whether or not we had children: then childless, my turn was Tuesday afternoons when I would often pile a gaggle of toddlers into my old mini to allow them to slide along the polished floors of the Tate (now Britain), chase the pigeons on the lawns and love William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar. The press only mentioned American bra-burning and UK disruptions of Miss World.

For the personal to become the political one first has to be aware of the personal. Next the political movement has to extend one’s awareness that one’s own individual personal is other people’s similar personal. When the first of the young Peckham mothers and housewives turned a story she was telling into a difficult recognition that she felt violent towards her small child, others gradually joined her to find, with all the specific differences, a common bond, common explanations. Here too at this first stage, people were personally hurt, personally blamed. This wasn’t therapy – the source sought was the external constraints women shared. As with my article, the underneath feeling which was masked by such things as an excess use of today’s ‘naughty step’. We had been doing what we were supposed to do to be good mothers, good writers of Marxist theory – but something underneath was escaping the constraint. We had to find this first, then change the feeling by sharing it, then change what was shared by changing what caused it. In the process there were arguments about how to create campaigns against the mother’s isolation, nursery-schools, wages for housework, paternal sharing, communal living. ..But these would have been abstract without women with other experiences trying to grasp the dilemma. The small groups of the Women’s Lib Workshop were there to explore the materiality of the personal, what were the practicalities and the experiences under consideration? It is at this interim stage that the ground usually shifts. I think that all movements could gain in different ways from the implementation that we initiated in the making the personal, political. This is their legacy, our heritage.        

I have to say I love the energy of Woman’s Estate; it is everybody’s energy addressed to anybody and everybody. The brief book transformed the long article “Women: the Longest Revolution”. A theoretical article written by one woman for left-wing men became a small part of a political argument in a political movement aiming for the liberation of all women.

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