Focus: The difference between feminism and women’s liberation

Focus: The difference between feminism and women’s liberation

Amanda Sebestyen

This special issue of Discover Society – Feminism, then and now – has been edited by Finn Mackay and Sue Scott. It has a strong emphasis on politics and activism, as well as on feminist research and scholarship because we wanted to capture a sense of change across all these fronts between the early 1970s and 2016. We were committed to acknowledging the importance of this history and also to celebrating feminisms continuing energy and the commitment of the feminists now. The most obvious differences between this and a feminist publication from the 1970s is the inclusion of pieces by men who are committed to feminism and to challenging oppression.

It is important to appreciate what has been achieved, but also to continue to undertake research and activism in relation to all the oppressions and disadvantages that continue to face many, women across the world. Social Science research which focused on the position of women or which problematized gender was very thin on the ground in the early 70s. There is now a rich seam of such work across many areas and Discover Society is committed to publishing more examples of it in the future. In this special issue we have aimed to bring together articles on a wide range of topics, with both global and local significance and have and timed publication to coincide closely with International Women’s Day. However we would wish to stress that the issues covered are issues for women every day.


The women’s liberation movement has always been rumbustious, cantankerous and full of vehement dissension. It’s the other side of that fighting, self-searching, Utopian character  we need in order to imagine that we could change the world.

It may be hard to understand just how feudal the post-war agreement on women’s role remained, well into the seemingly radical 1960 and 1970s. As JK Galbraith remarked as late as 1973, women had become a servant class ‘available, democratically, to almost the entire male population’. It certainly felt like that.

Women from other more openly patriarchal societies today may recognise a landscape where over 90% of the female population either were or had been married, where rape in marriage was legal until 1991—lagging behind Russia 1922, Poland 1932, Norway 1971, Italy 1976, Canada 1983, and Ireland in 1990 , but just before the USA 1993; where a woman could only open a bank account or take out a mortgage if it was countersigned by a male guarantor (other instances linger on well long past the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975). In the England of 1969 when the women’s movement began, I hardly ever saw a young woman unglued from the side of a young man, social life outside the couple was unnoticeable. Single women in bars or hotels were assumed to be in the sex industry and usually barred. We are still living the aftermath of those times with the current outrage over changes to women’s pensions in the UK.

Now the appearance of the social landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. Consider the line-up of international male and female leaders marching under the ‘We are Charlie’ banner in Paris, a sight shocking only to a tiny fundamentalist sect whose magazine censored the photograph. Look at the eating places where women can enjoy dining alone or with each other – something I literally never saw until my visit to New York in 1978.(1)

We – feminists – did not only prise apart the stereotypes but started to confront gender itself, leaving a lasting legacy of lesbian and gay equality still being fought around the world . However, an integral system of exploitation does not just go away. For those of us ‘materialist feminists’ who saw unpaid labour as the base and centre of women’s oppression, the question was always: what happens to all that work? (Delphy 1970; Delphy and Leonard 1992). Would we fight for equality in an unequal society? This last was a question that often seemed to divide our movement down the middle, with socialist feminists sometimes seeming to say ‘Not at that price’.  The radical feminist answer, I felt, was ‘Yes, but only on the way to something bigger’. Unfortunately neither of our maps for the world allowed for the huge changes taking place around us in an opposite direction.

Issues which were central to our fight remain intractable ,  confronting younger women all over again: childcare, the sex industry, misogynist culture and weaponised humour. The Everyday Sexism site and later book reveal the outrage and hurt of Third Wave working women who believe in empowerment but find themselves enduring a barrage of sex-harassment every day. The freshness and naivety of their outrage has given them tremendous grassroots power to record and shame their attackers and make other men pledge to behave better.  In this they resemble the First Wave of suffrage feminism with its redemptive aspirations: ‘We are here not because we are lawbreakers; we are here in our efforts to become lawmakers’, in the words of Emmeline Pankhurst.

But in the Second Wave women’s liberation movement we probably did view ourselves as law-breakers: “We are against marriage. Behind every ideology we can see the hierarchy of the sexes. We identify in unpaid domestic work the help that allows both private and state capitalism to survive. We detest the mechanisms of competitiveness and the blackmail exercised in the world by the hegemony of efficiency. We want to put our working capacity at the disposal of a society that is immune to this…” (Lonzi 1970)

Across the world we resisted the pull to ‘exercise a ruling function’ as the only accepted proof that females were good enough: “What is meant by woman’s equality is usually her right to share in the exercise of power within society, once it is accepted that she is possessed of the same abilities as man. But in these years women’s real experience has brought about a new awareness, setting into motion a process of global devaluation of the male world. We have come to see that at the level of power there is no need for abilities but only for a particularly effective form of alienation… Existing as a woman does not imply participation in male power, but calls into question the very concept of power.” (Lonzi 1970)

The current emphasis on equality as a metric – how many women at the top table – is inimical to us second wave feminists and is also baffling the young women making up the Fourth Wave of insurgent feminism. As so often in life, grandmothers and granddaughters may have more in common than mothers and daughters. In the generation which came after us, women now in middle age made an important place in the world. Some who might once have called themselves post-feminist are calling themselves feminists now. They have been part of the move away from that feudal, all-for-love, millennia-long unpaid labouring role for women and into a more gender-equitable neoliberal world where the individual achievement is valued above the collective. Now these women are up against power structures that won’t budge, and an underside of slavery, trafficking and exploited migrants without rights; some actually providing domestic labour for feminists with careers, a dilemma Kate Clanchy (2008) explores poetically.

At this point we veterans of a long political movement , based on sharing experiences ‘from the underneath’,  can feel  we have something to tell the world again.

There’s a reason why so many feminists of the UK’s Second Wave find themselves identifying with the embattled movement, which Jeremy Corbyn’s election has started inside the Labour party. At a time when Social Democracy is in crisis and its core policies in health, housing, education and welfare can only be advocated on platforms categorised as far left, we recognise the avalanche of abuse unleashed against anyone who challenges the structures of accepted power. We have literally been there ourselves.  As Roberta Hunter Henderson put it in a recent position paper in the Older Feminist newsletter:

He [Corbyn] has of course been vilified and ridiculed by most of the media but so were we in the 70s. Feminism is no longer so unacceptable these days, thanks to our resilience and all the equal rights campaigning of recent years.  But equal pay is of little comfort to the two women a week murdered by their partners, or trafficked or raped. Our politics is anti-patriarchal and goes deeper than equal rights (progressive though that is). Consciousness raising exposed patriarchal values and we must continue to confront them.The personal is political and  the social is also political. Economic growth, as GDP, now has priority over the real needs of citizens who are expected to contribute as ‘aspirational’ consumers. Wealth creation overrides increasing economic inequality.For my part I feel our first priority should be global: the protection of the planet without which there is no politics. We are part of an international community, part of history.  Our relations with other nations should be principled and co-operative while conscious of the effect of past injustices:- we create our future but we inherit a past. At home our priority should be the sustainability of the environment, not an ever increasing GDP; community cohesion confronting elitism and financial manipulation; protection for the weakest and most vulnerable; and encouragement and creative space for the young instead of debt and disenfranchisement. Hope not fear, NHS not Trident…

We, the ‘grandmothers’ should create a space for our collective voice. There is an active Fourth Wave of feminism and a growing protest movement. I believe we are part of both but with a distinctive contribution to make.

For five years , a network called 70s-sisters has been meeting in small groups across the UK to explore what we are experiencing now: ageing, loss, death, pleasures, politics. We have returned to consciousness raising as our central form of activism:

We assume that our feelings are telling us something from which we can learn… that our feelings mean something worth analyzing… that our feelings are saying something political, … Our feelings will lead us to ideas and then to actions. (Amatniek/sarachild 1973)

We are impressed with the potency of social media organising  among younger feminists but unsure how they provide the same experiences of solidarity. As a young LSE student asked Christine Delphy following a showing of the filmed biography Je ne suis pas féministe, mais… on 8 January 2016, ‘How do we do solidarity now, when the idea of doing a good job precludes solidarity?’ Delphy’s reply was that ‘Solidarity is never easy because we have several identities; solidarity is always to be defined in the context of a particular struggle.’ Inside the film itself she had noted that the most important ideas often came out of informal conversations among a group of women. Our own network is now ready to step out in public, using words and actions to make an impact through ‘a new Think-and-Do Tank’ called the Feminist Forum: ‘We want to use our political experience to participate in politics now and in the future. We work together on many issues, but each member speaks for herself.’

The differences among us are important and can’t be smoothed out without destroying a live creative voice. Later feminists have found this too. This is why Finn Mackay’s book comes most vividly alive when it enters into the arguments that are dividing feminists today. She is inspired by the Reclaim the Night protests of the 1970s and has done more to revive their spirit in the 21stcentury than any other activist. As we march through 21st century streets to a noticeably less hostile reception than we used to get in the past – and with police permission! – I’m still always touched to see the original list of The 7 Demands of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement printed on all the new leaflets. Mackay’s treatment of our first wild protests (half Halloween, half Angry Brigade) feels almost reverent. But lists of superlatives fail to communicate that past excitement, and the need to fill in past feminist history feels dutiful. It is in the second part of this book , when McKay deals with the conflicts among feminists which have come out of organising the march, that she really makes important connections. Her treatment of the Transgender controversy seems to me to be just exemplary, and she also has terrific things to say about Judith Butler. In both cases McKay looks inside her own experience, as well as outwards to building a movement aimed at overthrowing patriarchy – which is the essence of feminism.

I should not have been surprised that I caused the biggest ruck of my life by compiling a mock-academic chart called Tendencies in the Movement in 1978. In more polite form it lived on in Ann Oakley’s Subject: Woman. Last June, for a discussion on Feminism Then and Now, I attempted a new sketch of a chart to map the different waves of our movement. Here is an excerpt:

1st Wave 2nd Wave 3rd/4th  Wave
legal and illegal actions  spontaneous/illegal protests                           authorised protests  
critical of marriage   anti marriage extending marriage to everyone  
parliamentary focus extra-parliamentary action  digital activism
women’s rights women’s liberation  women’s empowerment
Redemption Revolution  Equality
targets: restrictions/ dual standards   sex roles/ division of labour gender itself  
unchanged:  rape rape rape  
ongoing:  unequal pay unequal pay unequal pay

Recently I’ve been going on to imagine a genealogy of change for social movements, which seems to make sense in the context and experience of our particular surge: Prophets; Rebels; Theorists; Pioneers; Mainstreamers; Professionals; Careerists;

The cycle is never complete of course and a new movement ferments and raises itself up. Arguing fiercely, as always.

Kathie Amatniek/ Sarachild (1970) Consciousness Raising, a radical weapon in Notes from the Second Year, New York, New York Radical Feminists
Clanchy, K.(2008) What Is She Doing Here?: A Refugee’s Story. London,Picador.
Delphy, C (1977) L’Ennemi Principal 1970/ The Main Enemy W.R.R.C.P., London,
Delphy, C. and Leonard, D. (1992) Familiar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies, Cambridge, Polity Press,
Galbraith, J.K. (1973) Economics and the Public Purpose: Boston
Hunter Henderson, R. (2015), position paper for a Feminist Forum.
Lonzi, C. (1970) Sputiamo su Hegel, Rivolta Femminile  C
Mackay, F. (2015) Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement, London, Palgrave
Oakley, A. (1982) Subject: Woman, London, Fontana.

(1) ‘Feminism USA’ interviews by Amanda Sebestyen with Linda Gordon, Betsy Warrior, Robin Morgan, Spare Rib issues 75-77, October-December 1978.

Thanks to Emily Knipe at the Office of National Statistics for data.


Amanda Sebestyen joined the women’s liberation movement in 1969 and the first UK radical feminist group in 1972. She worked on Spare Rib magazine from 1977-1981: The history of feminism and Spare Rib – The British Library. Her Publications include ’68-’78-’88: From Women’s Liberation to Feminism (editor) Ultra Violet books 1989); The Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz (introduction) Virago: London, 1987), No Turning Back (co-editor, The Women’s Press 1981)  chapters in Sisterhood is Global (ed Robin Morgan, Doubleday/Penguin 1984), Spare Rib Reader (Penguin 1982) , On the Problem of Men (ed Friedman & Sarah (Women’s Press 1982), Once a Feminist (ed Wandor, Virago 1990). Since 1997 she has worked with Roma and Congolese refugees. She is a founder member of The Network for Social Change and the Edge Fund. For the past five years she has been part of the 70s-sisters network of Second Wave women’s liberation activists, as described in Coming back – a liberation voice | Peace News

Image credit: Jill Nicholls – IMDb