‘No Sense of Freedom’, review of Sweet Freedom by Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell
In 1971, women’s liberation was a whisper and it was a joke. That year International Socialists (the organisation which is now the Socialist Workers Party) debated on the position of women for the first time – the women who presented the motion were jeered and many of the women who supported it were later isolated. Responses of other socialist and labour movement organisations were no better.
Unsure, feminists scoured the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to dredge up proof that the great masters really believed that women were oppressed. And between the quotes and undeniable fact that a large percentage of workers were women, the jokes began to fall flat and some of the issues were taken seriously. Typing and tea-making were done less willingly, and women began to speak at meetings.
Our misery turned to anger and our isolation to solidarity. We grasped at the threads of confidence and we began to find a voice. The Women’s Liberation Movement, directly and indirectly, went on to change the lives of most women and to put new and often revolutionary questions on the political agenda.
Eleven years after those tumbling beginnings, in Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell attempt ‘an account of feminist politics to show how far the objectives of the Women’s Liberation Movement have been resolved and met resistance.’
For all of us who owe the quality of our lives to the new awareness of the issues raised by the women’s movement, it is a sad, superficial and confusing book. There is no sense of the spirit of the movement, the rumblings of new life, the sanity of discovered self respect. There is no understanding of why and how women are oppressed. There is no feel for the lives of most women, their day to day struggles, the battles they still face – often as mothers, as girlfriends, as wives.
There is little mention of the new culture of women’s writings, films, new lifestyles, commitment to their own growth and development, concern with their own health and physical needs. The chapter on culture deals almost exclusively with the involvement and presentation of women in the mass media. Pregnancy, child-birth, relationships, the structure of emotions, guilt and the devaluing of all that is ‘female’ are ignored.
The early movement is often presented as a clique of friends, not as the breath-taking gust of fresh air that it was. Then after a series of disconnected chapters – the bulk of them on work, legislation and the trade unions, we pick up the Women’s Liberation 1982-style presented by Coote and Campbell as warring factions of separatist lesbians.
Is it really news that part time work is stigmatised because mainly women do it or that men are seen as breadwinners? That the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act achieved very little? That Tory strategy is to dismantle the welfare state making women the major casualties and the nurses of the casualties? It has all been said many times before.
All through the book you want to ask why? Why does this happen to women, why is it possible? And the authors present a series of confusing non-answers: men, the cuts, the shortage of women in powerful positions, the lack of positive discrimination. While they sometimes condemn men, they simultaneously accept ‘male’ definitions of what is political.
Women’s Liberation made the personal political. It showed that politics was not simply about men in the ‘outside world’; it showed that politics was right there in the kitchen, the bedroom and the labour ward. It showed that women could be active, showing people that what they did was already important and what they might go on to was their right. It began to demonstrate that the germs of hope for a very different society lay within the warmth and feelings that women had nurtured, once they were able to harness that warmth and not let it be used against most people in the maintenance of a ruthless, oppressive and miserable system.
Women’s Liberation is not and never has been about bringing women up to the level of men, but that essentially is what Coote and Campbell believe it to be. Men will have to hand over their power, they say. Get into the male pond and swim. We don’t want ‘male’ power and we challenge the ‘male’ pond. It is the ‘male’ view of the world that has held all women and most men in chains ten feet under.
Feminist politics is about changing the world and, maybe, eleven years after the jokes and the jeers, socialist organisations are beginning to see it that way. It’s a pity that Coote and Campbell have failed to make it any easier for them.
Women’s Voice 63, 1982