Monday, August 30, 2021

Review: Personal Politics

[Sara Evans. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.]

Movement history. An interview-based and archival history of the emergence of the women's liberation movement in the United States in the late 1960s. It particularly focuses on the ways in which women's liberation came out of the experiences of women active in the civil rights movement and in the new left student movement earlier in the 1960s, including both the opportunities for growth and the development of new capacities provided by the time they spent involved in those movements, and the sexism and barriers they faced. This of course is a well established narrative for those us reading it in 2021, but I think when it was first published in 1979, this book was one part of establishing and grounding it. And it is great to read about the nuts and bolts of it all, even going in with some familiarity with the broad strokes of the history of movements in that era.

One minor point that I found fascinating: As I alluded to above, it's pretty well understood today that the new left was very sexist and that prior to the emergence of the explosive feminist challenge of the late '60s there was basically no space or language to name women's oppression in new left contexts. But I had never before encountered the point made in this book that the old left was actually slightly better in this area – still not anywhere close to good, particularly by today's standards, but the surviving socialist and communist organizations in North America and states and movements abroad that claimed the mantle of socialism in that era at the very least recognized what they called "the woman question" as politically real and serious, and that led to certain kinds of institutional (and in some instances even personal) practices *taking* the struggles of women seriously in a way that the pre-women's liberation new left just did not.

Another interesting point is the way that the book deals with race. On the one hand, there is often a clarity and directness to it that I read as a product of the lingering influence of Black and other liberation struggles of the '60s and '70s, that a book written a decade or two later might have replaced with more hesitance and euphemism, not just in terms of what words might get used but also when and where race would be addressed at all. On the other hand, there are a number of points where it felt like Black women disappeared from the book's analysis. Certainly not overall – it is very clear, for instance, on the important role Black women played in the civil rights movement in the south, and also the powerful influence that had on many of the white women who were also active there. But in terms of how it talks about the emerging feminist movement, you can see how it enacts erasures based on the implicit racial underpinnings of certain mainstream understandings of what does and does not count as feminism, as per various critiques by Black and other racialized feminists.

Anyway, this is a very readable, very interesting book, that does important work laying out in more detail certain history that many of us today know as a two-sentence summary, and as such I think it is worth reading. Recommended.


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