Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements
in America’s Second Wave
Benita Roth’s book aims at documenting feminist organizing by white, black, and Chicana women in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and at challenging received ideas about women of color’s relationship with second-wave feminism—namely that women of color in the U.S.A. originally failed to take an interest in feminism, and that their own feminist organizing was only subsequent, hence secondary, to white women’s second-wave feminism. The author is intent on developing an intersectional approach to feminism in order to highlight the fact that black and Chicana women’s feminisms in the second wave developed autonomously from white women’s, in response to the intersection of oppressions that were specific to their own communities. Roth indeed bases her analysis on the fact that white, black, and Chicana women’s feminisms alike originated in prior movements—the New Left and freedom movements, the Civil Rights and black liberation movements, and the Chicano movement respectively.
Her theoretical ambition is furthermore to prove that purely structural explanations of social movement emergence fail to account for the actual development of second-wave feminisms. For instance, relative deprivation theory—according to which white women mobilized as feminists as a result of a structural role strain between their high degree of expectations as middle-class women and their low degree of rewards in society at large—provides a biased view of black women’s perception of feminism by leading to the conclusion that they did not join (white) second-wave feminism because they enjoyed relative equality with the men in their communities. This view not only posits black women’s political identity as secondary to white women’s, but misses the crucial fact that middle-class status does not mean the same for white and black women, so that qualitative and quantitative socio-economic inequalities with whites—including white women—became the reference point for black women activists.
Furthermore, Roth argues, relative deprivation is out of keeping with the fact that even N.O.W., liberal and middle-class as it was, emerged from an already established activist network, rather than as an aggregation of aggrieved individuals, and that its creation resulted from a contradiction in their political roles, rather than in their private interests. Such a structural explanation thus fails to properly account for the actual circumstances of the emergence of second-wave feminism, which Roth carefully documents. She therefore proposes to take a ground’s eye view of social movement mobilization and identity formation, in order to take into account not merely structure and structure changes, but also what these meant for white women, black women, and Chicanas—which requires not placing “too much emphasis on the ability of structure to directly compel activism” (p. 46).
The second chapter of Different Roads to Feminism deals with the emergence of a feminist movement among white radical activists in the New Left, examining the dynamics of facilitation—mainly in terms of access to movement resources—and constraint—having to fashion a new activist identity—this entails. Roth argues that the grievances notably expressed in the wake of Casey Hayden and Mary King’s 1964 anonymous S.N.C.C. paper were initially meant to spur activist men into reconsidering gender roles in the movement. The separation of feminism only occurred as movement men denigrated the feminist agenda, instead of co-opting or integrating it: only when they thus proved to be “just men”—no better than the “straight” world outside the movement—did white feminists redefine the boundary between allies and opponents to construe their movement constituency (or audience) to be only women, but all women in America. This shift however happened early enough (by 1971) so that white feminists actually tapped very little into New Left movement resources, which further highlights the fact that explaining social movements mainly—let alone exclusively—in terms of resource mobilization can only be a limiting approach.
The third chapter, dealing with black women’s feminism, opens with a critique of scholarship which exclusively focuses either on black women’s lack of participation in the (white) women’s liberation movement, or on black women’s activism that is not self-identified as feminist: feminist self-identification, Roth claims, did exist among some black women even as they were not affiliated with white feminist organizations. Black women’s feminism must be understood in the context of historical shifts within the Civil Rights movement, since until the mid-1960s black women in a predominantly southern, community-based movement suffered less leadership denial than white women in New Left movement, for example. As the Civil Rights movement’s base got younger and more northern in the mid-1960s, they got to play a less recognizably crucial role. In addition the 1965 Moynihan Report—laying the blame for the poor social condition of black communities in the United States on the allegedly matriarchal structure of the black family—triggered a masculinist response among black men, which especially resulted in black nationalism’s increased adherence to traditional gender roles in the family and the movement as a way of regenerating the black community. Roth documents the many initiatives in the mid-1960s—i.e. no later than the emergence of white feminism in the New Left—to challenge this ideological shift from within the black liberation movement, particularly by claiming that masculinism played the game of white capitalism, and was in fact counterproductive for black people in America. The Third World Women’s Alliance, a feminist group which emerged within S.N.C.C., for instance, established an early black feminist consciousness in the interstice between opposition to black masculinism and wariness of white feminism: early black feminists came to conceive of themselves as “a ‘vanguard center’ whose liberation would mean the liberation of all” [p. 91].
It was the black liberation movement’s reluctance to incorporate a feminist agenda—feminism was actually stigmatized as anti-revolutionary—which led black feminists to organize autonomously; they did not however join in with white feminists, particularly as they diverged in their approaches to the family, white feminists tending to challenge the family altogether, whereas black feminists purported to criticize it so as to reform it. But the main obstacle to black feminists’ identifying with white feminists was black women’s reluctance to align themselves, give up part of their agenda, and work exclusively on gender oppression. Roth then documents the emergence, demise and legacy of such diverse organizations as the (liberal) National Black Feminist Organization and the (radical) Combahee River Collective. The latter in particular provided an alternative to monist versions of political identity, as either black, or feminist, and for instance allowed for the articulation of a strong black lesbian collective identity in the interstice between black liberationist masculinism and lesbian feminist separatism, neither of which could be an option for black lesbians. The subsequent impact of such articulations of collective identity proves that, far from being a later variant of (white) feminism, black feminism in effect had a decisive impact on the subsequent development of the various forms of second-wave feminism.
In the fourth chapter, Roth dissents from authors who view Chicana feminism as indigenous to the Chicano movement and sides with those who conceive of it as emerging from within the Chicano movement, but in conflict with it. She nevertheless concedes that Chicana feminism in the 1960s and 1970s did maintain closer ties with its movement of origin than either white, or even black feminism did. Unlike black liberationist masculinism, which emerged partly in response to the exogenous attack of the Moynihan report, carnalismo—i.e. Chicano masculinism—was articulated in endogenous terms of tradition: Chicanas thus had a free hand to study and politicize Chicano history in order to challenge it, without running the risk of further endangering their community as black women did. Such groups as Las Hijas de Cuauhtémoc, far from advocating separatism from the Chicano movement, approached the role of women in the Chicano community as the result of a political process, hence something that could be altered politically, instead of an element of an immutable tradition that was coextensive with Chicano collective identity.
Some Chicana feminist critiques of carnalismo thus construed it as a colonial imposition, hence an obstacle to authentic Chicano cultural assertion. Though they were met with a severe backlash—harsh criticism, accusations of vendidismo (being sell-outs), in some cases even physical molestation—Chicana feminists insisted they were not separatists and in effect framed feminist issues as Chicano issues, by claiming that machismo—not feminism—was the true hindrance to Chicano liberation. Some activists thus took pains to identify Chicana feminist figures in the past in order to prove that feminism was indeed more intrinsic to Chicano culture than submissive female roles: “Asserting indigenousness for Chicana feminism itself was a counterclaim to charges of feminist vendidismo, and thus was useful regardless of whether or not it was true in all parts” [p. 163]. Chicana feminists further adopted an assertive stance on the Chicano family: whereas white feminists tended to turn their backs on the family they were intent on making it egalitarian, and insisted on Chicano family values of solidarity while stigmatizing the “Anglo” family’s materialism.
Apart from Chicano history, another theme which Chicana feminists strategically distorted was indeed their relationship with “Anglo” feminism: although, for Roth, there is no denying that it “provided the conceptual tools for Chicanas battling sexist practices in nationalist organizations,” [p. 169] Chicana feminists opted for a policy of dissociating themselves from white feminism so as to safeguard their capacity for critiquing the Chicano movement while cooperating with it. As a result, by the mid-1970s, Chicanas had built up an autonomous feminist movement: “Developing a sometimes sympathetic, sometimes conflictual but ultimately distant, relationship with the white women’s movement, Chicana feminists ultimately chose to organize in ways that brought them closer to the Chicano movement,” Roth concludes [p. 176].
After devoting three separate chapters to intramovement dynamics, Roth then further develops her theoretical exploration by focusing on intermovement dynamics in the social movement sector of the 1960s and 1970s to account more precisely for the emergence of separate feminist movements among white, black, and Chicana women. In what may strike one as Benita Roth’s most debatable premise, the proliferation of political identities in the social movement sector is here unequivocally presented as a risk of fragmentation: that it was thus perceived, this reviewer would claim, does not imply it was necessarily so. This, Roth nevertheless convincingly argues, explains why feminism appeared as such a threat to existing movements, since it could not only drain valuable resources—a serious practical problem as women customarily did the movements’ “shitwork”—but also divert movements’ participants away from their original revolutionary aims—an ideological threat. But Roth also resorts to intermovement dynamics to challenge in particular Steven Buechler’s claim that women of color showed no interest in (white) women’s liberation due to white feminists’ class and color “unconsciousness.” On the contrary, she argues, white feminists were highly class- and race-conscious, if anything, due to their movement’s origins in the Civil Rights and New Left movements, and made a conscious decision to set gender ahead of race in their agenda, for fear of being faced with the same ideological and practical dilution to which they had exposed their own movements of origin.
The author nevertheless refrains from placing any kind of judgment on these strategies, and instead sets them in a context where “organizing one’s own” had gradually become the unchallenged ethos of social movement in the U.S.A.. Roth traces the origins of this ethos back to S.D.S.’s 1962 Port Huron Statement, which coined the political identity “student,” and identifies S.N.C.C.’s later expulsion of its white volunteers as “an affirmation of a growing consensus about how authentic radicalism was achieved, rather than its first moment” [p. 203]. The hegemony of this ethos in the social movement sector in turn helps understand why not even a joint movement of feminists of color was ever seriously envisioned. In fact, such black feminists as Joan Brown and Helen Fannings grant that white women are quite as entitled to organize their own as women in other communities.
Benita Roth’s book is a major contribution to the study of
second-wave feminism in the United States firstly because she brings
to light the simultaneous emergence of three distinct feminist movements
among white, black and Chicana women, and secondly because she challenges
received notions about black and Chicana feminists’ relationship
with white feminism. This she does by making sociological sense
of the universalistic stance of the (white) women’s liberation
movement in light of its emergence within the New Left movement.
She thus clarifies the intersection of race, or ethnic, and gender
issues by subtly weaving her case study with a crucial theoretical
discussion. The weight of the argument in effect also owes much
to the rhetorical and stylistic clarity of the writing. Benita Roth
nonetheless tends to resort on occasion to debatable premises, as
to the dangerousness of identity proliferation, which paradoxically
smack of a somewhat functionalist approach to the study of social
movements. But her book provides a very useful and stimulating insight
into how to reconcile the structural strain which prevails in American
social movement theory, with a micro-social approach concerned with
social actors’ actual experience and subjectivity.