Feminism/ Sisterhood term paper 11121

Feminism term papers
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Historically, women have been relegated to a limited role in society. In our male

dominated culture, a considerable number of people view the natural role of women to be that of

mothers and wives. Thus, for many, women are assumed to be more suited for childbearing and

homemaking than for involvement in public life. Despite these widespread and governing beliefs,

women, frustrated and tired of their inferiority and subordination, began seeking personal and

political equality, including equal pay, reproductive choice, and freedom from conventional

societal restraints.

Massive opposition to a demand for women’s equality with men prompted the

organization of women to fight collectively for their rights. The birthplace of American feminism

was Seneca Falls, New York. Here in 1948, at a landmark convention, the first wave of women’s

rights activists gathered. Their primary goal was to obtain voting rights for women (Moore 1992,

21). In the mid 1960’s, the seeds of oppression (which spread from earlier civil movements) were

scattered and sown among other dissatisfied women. These seeds began to take root, and grow

dramatically, initially within the context of the growth of more general and widespread left

radicalism in Western societies. As a result, beginning about 1965, the second wave of women’s

rights activists began to emerge with an autonomous agenda for female liberation. The

movement’s objective was to secure equal economic, political, and social rights for women.

The women’s liberation movement was composed of an association of women working

together in a common cause. Young radical women who had been active in the Civil Rights

Movement gathered in small groups and began to focus on organizing in order to change

attitudes, social constructs, the perception of society toward women, and, generally, to raise the

consciousness of their sisters.

The women adopted the phase “Sisterhood is Powerful,” in an effort to express succinctly

the aim of the movement. This slogan was also an attempt to unify women by asserting a shared

connection and circumstance, and thereby to build fundamental and lasting cohesion. “Sisterhood

is powerful” was embraced by the women in order to convey a common identity of sisterhood,

one firmly grounded in family-based concepts of interdependence. Biological sisterhood is an

easily understood relationship within the nuclear family.

According to social identity theory, one way to define an “in-group” is to define an

“out-group” (Hinkle and Brown 1990, 48). The liberation movement attempted to define females

as the “in-group” and males as the “out-group,” with the two groups distinctively and sharply

separated. The rallying cry “Sisterhood is Powerful” was primarily designed to solidify the

identity of the “in-group.” However, in reality, it is easier to define racial groups than it is to

define gender groups as separate divisions, since black people and white people are generally

geographically and socially separated from each other, white men and women are not.

In order to incorporate women successfully into the movement, it was essential to broaden

and expand the meaning of sisterhood to that of a common bond between women. Consolidated

by sisterhood, by a common connection of gender, heterogeneous women were expected to

develop an allegiance and common purpose. Although the women working within the movement

were mostly white and middle class (Tax, 319), the slogan “Sisterhood is Powerful” was directed

at all women - married and single, young, middle aged, and old, mothers and daughters, of every

race and religion, rich, poor, employed, unemployed, women on welfare, and those with different

cultures and sexual orientations (DuPlessis and Snitow, 15). The objective of the slogan was to

foster a common identity for the multifaceted group of women who were committed to (or might

be committed to) women’s liberation. Empowerment for women was considered both possible

and attainable only within the context of this type of common identity. Therefore, by organizing

collectively these women would acquire capacity to become a force with which to be reckoned.

Equally important, as a cohesive group, the women would be difficult to divide and suppress.

According to the ideology of women’s liberation, the solidarity of those joined in sisterhood

guaranteed not only the ability, but also the means required to obtain their goal of equal

economic, political, and social rights for women.

In the United States, where a patriarchal society dominates, an isolated woman lacks

personal and political power and carries little, if any, influence. Indeed, the majority of females in

the women’s liberation movement clearly understood from earlier experiences that the solitary

voice of a woman would be treated by men as inconsequential, and would therefore have little

impact in the political arena. The women’s movement steadfastly believed that a communal voice,

expressed en masse, and delivered as a unified message, would carry behind it the influence and

clout to actuate change.

Initially, the movement consisted of numerous small informal local groups, concentrated in

the eastern cities. Participation in the groups increased through personal relationships. By the

early 1970’s, tremendous excitement was generated among women, and almost immediately like

minded groups began to spring up throughout the United States. Within these widespread

groups, there were several areas of conflict and disagreement - particularly about race, class and

sexual orientation. There exists in women’s shared condition a host of differences: “Women with

their multiple identities, allegiances, and needs complicated the assumption that there was one

universal identity for all women” (DuPlessis and Snitow, 8). Animosity and division between

women increased as the groups multiplied.

One of the first divisions within the group occurred between the “politicos” and the

feminists (Freeman, 184). The “politicos,” an arm of the new left wing, perceived capitalism as

the source of women’s oppression. Seeking revolution rather than reform, their goal was to

eradicate capitalism. The feminists, on the other hand, blamed male supremacy for women’s

situation. The feminist solution rested in the change of attitudes, personal relationships and male

dominated institutions (Freeman, 191). According to feminists, “ ‘women’ was a constructed and

conventional role, created by men for their convenience and satisfaction” (Densmore, 81).

Discord of this kind resulted in ‘trashing”- women who disagreed with each other’s ideology

openly were personally attacked by women with contrasting convictions and given the cold

shoulder by those in the majority (Freeman, 191). Many who were trashed “dubbed themselves

‘feminist refugees’ and summed up their feelings: ‘sisterhood is powerful,’ it kills sisters”

(Freeman, 192). “Sisterhood,” a proposition of solidarity among women, became a means to limit

dissent and began to divide more than to unite. Long (1998) pointed out “there were no

guarantees against competitive hostility, against confidences betrayed. Indeed our very concept of

sisterhood was rather idealized, as if among real sisters competition does not exist along with love

and attachment” (330).

An equally incompatible area of conflict focused around the lines of gender and sex. Love

was regarded as an institution, and marriage and motherhood denoted intimate relationships with

men. “Sisterhood” was to serve as a justification for separation and isolation from men.

According to feminists, married women were unable to participate fully in the movement since

most of their interest, loyalty, and devotion were said to lie with their family (Epstein, 144). The

more radical elements of the movement (a portion of the broader movement appeared to be taking

over and trying to force its agenda on the rest) were against marriage and were in favor of

autonomy “limiting to one third of their membership women who lived with men” (Shulman,

288). Several expectations about the relationship between men and women were proposed:

Men were expected to be kept at a distance, celibacy embraced (Densmore, 78), male babies

declared the enemy, sons, husbands and lovers eliminated from women’s lives (Wolfson, 278).

These stringent expectations were too much for many women; for many, the movement became

impossible to join, and for others it became impossible to continue to participate. Activist Alice

Wolfson (1996) , mother of two sons, dropped out because she failed to understand the feminist

ideology that resulted in “ identification of male children as the enemy, a ban on male babies from

the women’s liberation offices and coffee houses, and actually debate when a male baby became

the enemy” (281). She found it impossible to “support an analysis that excluded half the human

race, two of whom were her own sons” (Wolfson, 281). Other women in the movement with

sons “protested that they cared only for women” and activist Barbara Epstein (1996) suggested

that feminism had managed to create an arena of conformity and oppression in which one could

not count on being able to speak honestly (145). Once Epstein published her views, others in the

movement refused to associate with her politically (145).

One of the reasons why women’s liberation failed was the inability to create an identity of

“sisterhood.” The inability to create this identity was due to the failure of the ideology of gender

separation -- men had to be defined as the enemy. In order to adopt this identity women were

required to reject half of their lives and turn their own husbands and sons into the enemy. It is

difficult, if not impossible to get women to reject men as the enemy, just as it is to get men to

reject women as the enemy. Equally important, there are numerous cross-cutting identities of

women. Women are dissimilar: They are mothers, daughters, wives, homemakers, and

breadwinners. To create “sisterhood” among these multiple identities is indeed a difficult if not

impossible task. Among women leading diversified lifestyles and holding contradictory

convictions, it is impossible to attain a uniformity of identity and purpose. Individual women

asserted their own identity and too many parameters divided them. This heterogeneity undermines

“sisterhood.” Women, also have different ideologies: Radical, conservative, liberal, and

moderate. Phyllis Schlafly, leading advocate of conservative issues, led her flock and rallied

against women’s liberation, successfully defeating the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.

The women’s movement itself moved women into the world of men, the working world

the labor force. Women become integrated in the workforce and this reduced the effectiveness of

sisterhood as a rallying point for women. Once incorporated within the workforce, women

become more like men in order to succeed. Workforce integration also reduces the

distinctiveness of “sisterhood.” “Sisterhood” and its promise of solidarity for women’s identity

was an imaginary nexus, too narrow in its ideology and too broad in its scope.

In summary, to be successful in politics groups must be able to develop a

“we-consciousness” among their members. Women are simply too diverse to accept the idea of a

common “sisterhood.” Without shared identities, the women’s movement is easily fragmented

along lines of ideology, class, race, etc., and its political strength is dissipated.

References

Densmore, Dana. (1996). “A Year of Living Dangerously.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann, (Eds.). (1998). The Feminist Memoir Project. New York:

Three Rivers Press.

Epstein, Barbara. (1996). “Coming of Age; Civil Rights and Feminism.” ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, &

Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Freeman, Jo. (1996). “On the Origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement from a Strictly

Personal Perspective.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow,

Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Hinkle, Steve, and Rupert Brown. (1990). “Intergroup Comparisons and Social Identity: Some

Links and Lacunae.” Social Identity Theory; Constructive and Critical Advances, ed.

Dominic Abrams and Michael A. Hogg. New York: Springeer-Verlag.

Long, Priscilla. (1996). “We Called Ourselves Sisters.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Moore, Richard. (1992, August 2). “Birthplace of American Feminism.” New York Times, pp.21.

Shulman, Alix, Kates. (1996). “A Marriage Disagreement, or Marriage by Other Means.” The

Feminist Memoir Project. ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three

Rivers Press.

Tax, Meredith. (1996). “For the People Hear Us Singing Bread and Roses, ‘Bread and Roses!

Bread and Roses!’ ” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow,

Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Wolfson, Alice, J. (1996). “Clenched Fist, Open Heart.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Bibliography

References

Densmore, Dana. (1996). “A Year of Living Dangerously.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann, (Eds.). (1998). The Feminist Memoir Project. New York:

Three Rivers Press.

Epstein, Barbara. (1996). “Coming of Age; Civil Rights and Feminism.” ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, &

Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Freeman, Jo. (1996). “On the Origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement from a Strictly

Personal Perspective.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow,

Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Hinkle, Steve, and Rupert Brown. (1990). “Intergroup Comparisons and Social Identity: Some

Links and Lacunae.” Social Identity Theory; Constructive and Critical Advances, ed.

Dominic Abrams and Michael A. Hogg. New York: Springeer-Verlag.

Long, Priscilla. (1996). “We Called Ourselves Sisters.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Moore, Richard. (1992, August 2). “Birthplace of American Feminism.” New York Times, pp.21.

Shulman, Alix, Kates. (1996). “A Marriage Disagreement, or Marriage by Other Means.” The

Feminist Memoir Project. ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three

Rivers Press.

Tax, Meredith. (1996). “For the People Hear Us Singing Bread and Roses, ‘Bread and Roses!

Bread and Roses!’ ” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed. DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow,

Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Wolfson, Alice, J. (1996). “Clenched Fist, Open Heart.” The Feminist Memoir Project. ed.

DuPlessis, Rachel, & Snitow, Ann. New York: Three Rivers Press.

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