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Beyond Equality to Liberation
by Mary Lou Greenberg
The Red Detachment of Women
I will always remember the first time I realized that women did not have to live the way I had always assumed. As the '60s began to stir, I read Simone deBeauvoir's "The Second Sex" and my consciousness began to climb to another place: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." But I also wondered, What should a woman be, then, a being equal to men? Did that define her humanity?
In the heady mix of those times I soon realized my aspirations were bigger. I wanted to be a different kind of woman, a human being in a different kind of society, a revolutionary society where barriers of all kinds tumbled to the ground and all of humanity could flourish. I wanted much more than equality.
When the concept of women's liberation began to bloom in the late 1960s, it spoke to women's aspirations, stirring our passions to think, dream and create, and provoked action. Consciousness-raising groups, where women got together and talked personally about our lives, helped develop an understanding that women's "problems" were not individual but were shared by other women; that women did not have to accept abuse and degradation from men and society generally; that they did not have to accept their traditional role as wife and mother, and that this traditional role did not represent some "essential nature" of the female or reflect "the natural order of things."
As I read and grappled with Frederick Engels' Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State and other Marxist works – I and others learned that gender roles and traditions had been socially created over centuries based on how class society had developed. The conclusion was irresistible. We knew from our personal experiences that another way of living was definitely needed. Now we realized that the old roles and traditions were totally unnecessary and another way was indeed possible.
I had grown up in the '50s, a very oppressive time for women. My mother had cast aside her job as a music teacher in Los Angeles city schools and her wanderlust that had taken her on a trip to Asia in the 1930s to marry and be a traditional wife. I don't think she'd ever thought there was another possibility.
The women's liberation movement of the '60s and early '70s was a major challenge to all that stifling tradition, as well as to blatant inequality like being barred from many areas of work. ("Make sure you learn to type," my dad advised as I entered high school.) An important part of the overall struggle was for women to be treated as full participants and equals of men intellectually, socially, and culturally, in all arenas of society including personal and sexual relations.
At the same time, the most radical section of the women's movement, which included revolutionaries like me, did not see "equality" as the final goal. We wanted a different world, not just "equality" within the present one. We began to see that the emancipation of women was bound up with freeing the world from all oppression and exploitation, from a system, capitalism-imperialism, which was the fundamental cause of so much suffering. A system that destroys lives and dreams and turns people themselves into commodities to be bought and sold, controlled and thrown away. A system that needs and promotes traditional values, gender roles and inequality between women and men, different nationalities and races. At the same time, we saw that no real progress on any front could come about if women – half of humanity – were kept crushed and degraded in a subordinate position.
Another Way in Revolutionary China
The idea that it was possible to have a different kind of society became very real to me when I visited revolutionary China in 1971. Then-socialist China under Mao Tsetung's leadership exerted a big influence on people's thinking throughout the world at that time, from the Black Panthers and others in the U.S. to revolutionaries and radicals on every continent.
In China, I saw the revolutionary slogans "Women Hold Up Half the Sky," and "Whatever Men Can Do, Women Can Do," becoming reality, breaking centuries-old chains of the most brutally enforced subordination to men. Since then, I've read accounts of women who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution who describe how they grew up "gender-free," not thinking of themselves as "female," but as youth with a purpose to accomplish great things.
Scene from Red Detachment of Women
The women I talked to there, in cities, the countryside, universities and factories, said there was still a lot to be done to achieve full equality, but to me and others it seemed that they had accomplished more in a little more than 20 years that we could imagine in our lifetimes. No billboards or other images of women reduced to boobs and butts, no leering looks from men, and women had no fear walking down busy Shanghai streets at night. Plus collective child care, including nurseries in workplaces, and low or no-cost health care for all. And much more.
I was especially thrilled by the examples of strong, bold, self-reliant women portrayed in China's new cultural works – the ballet Red Detachment of Women, for instance – developed during the Cultural Revolution in the late '60s-early '70s. Strong women in toe shoes leapt across the stage with rifles, based on a true story of a women's military unit during China's revolutionary civil war. No ethereal fluttering swans here! A new standard for women – for female human beings – was being set.
Despite problems and shortcomings, China's unprecedented achievements during the socialist years 1949-1976, broke ground towards new human possibility and the advance towards communism, including great strides towards women's liberation. (Shortly after Mao's death in 1976, China's revolution was reversed, and today capitalist China has nothing in common with those revolutionary years.)
Gains in the '60s Not Radical Enough
It was a very good thing that the upsurge of the '60s, along with developments in the U.S. economy that necessitated more women entering the workforce, brought about significant changes in the status of women on a number of fronts – even though today women continue to be systematically discriminated against in the workplace and in many other ways.
But the gains did not go nearly far enough and, even so, have been the target of a vicious backlash since that time, especially concentrated around the critical question of abortion and the right of women to control their own reproduction. More fundamentally, gains on the equality front did not and could not change the basic framework of the capitalist system, its economic base and social fabric, where profit reigns over everything else – and which fosters and promotes the objectification and subservience of women in so many ways. Indeed, patriarchy and male domination are essential to the capitalist system – and to all systems based on exploitation.
A Declaration: For Women's Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity, a special issue of Revolution newspaper, put it this way: "while the fight for equality for women is an absolutely essential part of liberating women, by itself it is not nearly radical enough. If the fight for equality is restricted to the narrow horizons of the capitalist world, and if the system of capitalism is itself left intact, women can become 'at best,' the 'owners' of themselves as commodities, or they can gain control over others, treating them in effect as commodities – but they can never break out of the narrow and constricting confines of this exploitative set-up."
A particularly sharp example is the current debate over the role of women, and gays and lesbians in the military. I saw a sign at this year's Dyke March in New York City: Queers Into the Military – only with "Into" crossed out and the words "Out of" written in so it read, "Queers Out of the Military." The young woman holding it said that while she was against the "don't ask, don't tell" restriction for gay men and lesbians being debated then in Congress, she was also against anyone going into the military and invading, occupying and destroying other countries," "There shouldn't be this kind of military at all," she said.
Women in the U.S. military are more and more being brought into combat areas. But it's not a question of "can women fight" or "should they fight alongside men." The question is, fight for what and in what context. The goal and role of the Red Detachment of Women, for example, was very different from that of the U.S. military. Achieving equality in the U.S. military means only that women will have the same "opportunity" as men to control, oppress, terrorize and kill the Afghan people or the people in Iraq or scores of other countries. And they will still be sexual prey for their fellow male soldiers. As the horrific photos from Abu Ghraib showed, women are certainly capable of torturing and degrading others, "equally" with men. The young woman with the sign, "Queers Out of The Military," was exactly right.
The struggle for women's liberation today needs to go much farther in both theory and practice than it did in the past, building on the positive experience of the '60s and of past revolutions but also recognizing shortcomings in conception and method. Some of the first stirrings of my political consciousness were around the question of just what is a woman. The question that needs to be posed today is how we can get to a whole other place in history, a communist world, where human beings are not defined or constrained by gender, and where the struggle for the full liberation of women can play a decisive role in revolutionizing all of society and emancipating all of humanity.
Mary Lou Greenberg is an activist and contributing writer to Revolution newspaper.
Also see The Poet’s Eye curated by Judith Arcana in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see The Art Perspective presents a mini-retrospective of the art of Regina Frank in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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