Antiwar Activism and Emerging Feminism in the Late 1960s: The Times They Were A'Changing
— Barbara L. Tischler
THE EFFORTS OF women to end the war in Vietnam have been subsumed into a paradigm that suggests that, some time in the late 1960s, women activists left the antiwar struggle for the new feminist cause, leaving behind the movement that had initially ignited their activist energies. This story of ideological abandonment overstates the case. The variety of organizational, theoretical, and personal lessons learned in the antiwar movement profoundly influenced the organized, theoretically nuanced, and personally impassioned movement of, by, and for women, whose diverse constituent groups shared the idea of liberation from male authority.1
Women were among those who analyzed the war in imperialist terms and recognized the need to bring the struggle home. A female member of the Black Panther Party connected the accomplishments of revolutionary women in Vietnam to the need for women's revolutionary activity in the antiwar movement:
The Vietnamese women are out there fighting with their brothers, fighting against American imperialism, with its advanced technology. They can shoot. They're out there with their babies on their backs ... and they're participating in the revolution wholeheartedly, just as the Vietnamese men are participating in the revolution, in the national liberation struggle. The success of their national liberation struggle is just as much dependent upon the women continuing in the struggle as it is dependent on the Vietnamese men.2
Women whose revolutionary activity was a matter of life and death inspired those who were beginning to conceptualize such liberation struggles as part of their own search for identity.
As early as 1965, women were actors in the drama of war and peace that was enacted on the public stage after the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder. After the start of B-52 bombing missions, Helga Alice Herz, a Holocaust survivor, founding member of Women's Strike for Peace (WSP) in Detroit, and member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), set herself afire on a Detroit street corner, following the example of Vietnamese Buddhist monks. Herz left a letter in which she exhorted Americans to ”decide if this world shall be a good place to live for all human beings or if it should blow itself up into oblivion.”3
Herz's action did not go unnoticed. A month after her death, North Vietnam's Vietnam Courier, an English-language biweekly paper devoted exclusively to coverage of the war since its inception in April of 1964, observed that Herz's dramatic protest proved the existence of antiwar sentiment in the United States.
The paper also printed a letter from the Vietnamese Women's Union, which observed that the war ”stains the honour and tradition of the freedom and equality-loving American people.” WSP members Mary Clarke and Lorraine Gordon, who represented the group at a commemoration in Moscow of the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II, continued their journey to Hanoi, spending three days in an impromptu and unauthorized citizen visit. They stayed in private homes and visited bomb shelters and hospitals and held informal talks with North Vietnamese leaders.4
On December 22, 1966, four women activists accepted an invitation from the Vietnamese Women's Union to travel to Hanoi to see the results of American bombing and to bring information back to the antiwar movement in the United States. Barbara Deming was a member of an A.J. Muste socialist group; Grace Mora Newman, an activist from the Bronx, was the sister of Dennis Mora, of the ”Fort Hood Three”; Patricia Griffith was active in WSP in Ithaca, New York; and Diane Nash had been active in the Freedom Rides, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee).
At Hanoi's Thong Nhat Hotel, the Americans met representatives from Beheiren, the Japanese antiwar movement, trade unionists from Moscow, West German antiwar activists, and a camera crew from Cuba. They visited villages, hospitals, schools, and factories. Before returning to the United States, the women were allowed to visit two American prisoners, who presented them with notes to their families and messages urging an end to the war. The women also received the honor of an audience with President Ho Chi Minh.5 Although the American women who traveled to Hanoi did not place their trip in a specifically feminist context, their independent action as women flew in the face of assumptions in society at large and in the New Left that women needed to follow the direction of male leaders.
College age activists in the mid-1960s were part of the ”Baby Boom” generation, with the power of numbers and relative affluence on their side but little political power. Women faced the additional infantilization of their sex. Protected by families and the state from the privileges and demands of adult status and responsibility, white middle-class ”girls” were presumed to be spending their teenage and young adult years waiting for the husband who would continue to protect them.
Many women who had grown up with a ”good girl” image of themselves found it difficult to develop an independent position within the antiwar movement. Margery Tabankin, an antiwar activist student at the University of Wisconsin from 1965-69, stated:
Part of being a woman was this psychology of proving I was such a good radical, ”better than the men.” We felt we were motivated by something higher because we didn't have to go to war ourselves. Most guys didn't take women seriously, however. They were things to fuck . . . You went through this intense experience [at demonstrations], and you went back and had sex.[But] It [sex] was much more on men's terms.6
For women raised to value their ability to serve men, sexually and personally (Tabankin remembered that she had been so taken with organizer Tom Hayden that she even did his laundry when he visited Madison), it was difficult to break the pattern of gender subordination.
Women As Antiwar ResistersA clarion call for women's liberation within the antiwar movement in the United States was sounded at the Jeanette Rankin Brigade protest in Washington, D.C. in January of 1968. New York's Radical Women, not content to accept a traditional role in protesting the killing of the men in their lives, sought to transform the event into a call for women power. Shulamith Firestone called for women's unity, not simply as people who opposed the war but as women. She wrote in the pamphlet for the ”Burial of True Womanhood” March that women
have refused to hanky-wave boys off to war with admonitions to save the American Mom and Apple Pie. You have resisted your roles of supportive girl friends and tearful widows, receivers of regretful telegrams and worthless medals of honor. And now you must resist approaching Congress playing these same roles that are synonymous with powerlessness . . . Until we have united into a force to be reckoned with, we will be patronized and ridiculed into total political ineffectiveness. So if you are really sincere about ending this war, join us tonight and in the future.7
The ”Burial” action revealed deep fissures within the antiwar movement. Many male activists considered women's issues to be irrelevant. “Politico” women sometimes denigrated women's issues as frivolous in their own efforts to be taken seriously by male colleagues. In contrast, women activists who increasingly defined themselves as feminists could no longer be assumed to share the same faith in movement coalition politics that had fueled the antiwar movement just a few years earlier.
Other voices emerged that articulated a theory of political reform and revolution that asserted the superiority of women's theoretical understanding. In June of 1968, Valerie Solanis published the ”S.C.U.M. [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto” in The Berkeley Barb. She cast her argument in blatantly sexual terms and asserted that the presence of men was detrimental to the development of a true revolutionary politics:
No genuine social revolution can be accomplished by the male, as the male on top wants the status quo, and the male on the bottom wants to be the male on top ....The male changes only when forced to do so by technology, when he has no choice, when ”society” reaches the stage when he must change or die. We're at that stage now; if women don't fast get their asses in gear, we may very well all die.8
The language here is one of frustration and disgust: men have failed to end the war or to create a more humane society. For Solanis, there was no structural or organizational alternative but to challenge men to move out of the way. Claims for female superiority aside, antiwar women continued to be marginalized and unappreciated, even though the movement benefited from their expertise, organizational experience, and courage.
The Struggle Within SDSStudents for a Democratic Society (SDS) faced challenges from women to consider issues of participation and leadership, but with no theoretical analysis of the role of women in radical politics, the group was ill equipped to hear these challenges and act on them. The Port Huron Statement, the organizing statement of SDS written primarily by Al Haber in August of 1962, articulated a generational perspective on materialism, democracy, and the role of the university as an instrument of social reform but said nothing at all about women.
SDS leaders often asserted that women's issues were peripheral to the broader goal of ending the war. Nevertheless, the SDS National Council included a workshop on ”Women in the Movement” in December of 1965 whose position paper argued that
the problem of participation by women is a special problem—one that reflects not only inadequacies within SDS but one that also reflects greater societal problems, namely the problem of the role of women in American society.9
Although SDS women were not able to get the whole National Council to address the problem of women in the movement, their analysis was broad-ranging and refined in the same fire as that in which SDS had shaped its critique of the war, racism, imperialism, and American society itself.
A resolution passed by the SDS National Council in December of 1967 subsumed women's issues under the broader rubric of ”building the anti-imperialist movement in this country,”10 much to the dissatisfaction of women who saw women's liberation as distinct from anti-imperialism or the movement to end the war. This same resolution placed the responsibility for taking the initiative to ”discourage male supremacism in interpersonal relationships with both men and women.”11 The tone of this resolution, later reprinted in New Left Notes, was particularly offensive to women activists because it appeared to trivialize the issue of male supremacism by making it simply an issue between and among individuals. Further, it placed the burden of dealing with sexism on women rather than on SDS as a whole.
As the national SDS organization was struggling with dissent within its own ranks, individual women leaders subsumed the feminist critique of the organization into a broader analysis of women in American society. In March of 1968, Naomi Jaffe and Bernadine Dohrn argued powerfully against the pervasive sexism in mainstream consumer culture while also taking aim at the movement that defined women through men:
Over the past few months, small groups have been coming together in various cities to meet around the realization that as women radicals we are not radical women—that we are unfree within the Movement and in personal relationships, as in the society at large. We realize that women are organized into the Movement by men and continue to relate to it through men. We find that the difficulty women have in taking initiative and in acting and speaking in a political context is the consequence of internalizing the view that men define reality and women are defined in terms of men. We are coming together not in a defensive posture to rage at our exploited status vis a vis men, but rather in the process of developing our own autonomy . . .12
Even as she decried sexism in the movement and in society, Dohrn did not accept the centrality of women's issues in a revolutionary context. In March, she asserted that most women's groups were ”bourgeois, unconscious, or unconcerned with class struggle and the exploitation of working class women . . .”13 The rift was becoming pronounced for many women activists, as the very movement that had espoused freedom and creativity, especially in individual expression and sexuality, now trivialized their concerns as less than central to the real issue of class struggle and stopping the war.
Women in SDS and throughout the antiwar movement began to challenge the premise that a broad ranging attack on American capitalism and imperialism would mitigate the need for ending male supremacy. They refused to accept the idea that women's issues were marginal, but this refusal came at no small price. Women often had to choose between continuing alliances with men and the need to raise critical issues that the movement had failed to acknowledge. Women themselves were often split on the issue of ”which was more important—ending the war or ending sexism.”
Worst of all, women who spoke out in support of women's issues were attacked with a discourse filled with sexist and near-pornographic images. Coming from comrades in the struggle to end the war and create a new society, this was painful indeed. Activist Ellen Willis reflected on this experience:
It's hard to convey to people who didn't go through that experience how radical, how unpopular and difficult it was just to get up and say, “Men oppress women. Men have oppressed me. Men must take responsibility for their actions instead of blaming them on capitalism. And, yes, that means you.” We were laughed at, patronized, called frigid, emotionally disturbed man-haters and—worst insult of all on the left!—apolitical.14
A similar theme emerged in the connection of the personal to the political in the open letter written by “A Berkeley Sister,” “To A White Male Radical,” stressing the importance of personal connection in political relationships. In this instance, the woman veteran of the movement is willing to go her own way to avoid becoming oppressed by the very activists who had so recently struggled with her in the antiwar cause that, for so many men, was defined in specifically masculine terms:
I . . . will not accept your ridiculous role of self-reliance; it is inhuman, counterrevolutionary and opposed to the goals of Women's Liberation. Your reluctance to be close and open when all is said and done indicates that you make a rather limited socialist after all. Refusing vulnerability you are refusing friendship. Refusing acts of sharing you seem so sadly alone. Long ago, earlier feminists wanted to be tough like you. Only fifty years later did they realize how they had assumed the role of the oppressor. Like many Blacks they had silently slipped into the oppressor's habits and therefore truly failed. That is why you are an enemy.15
Women—A Force in the Antiwar MovementWomen did not always lobby for recognition of their issues from within established movement groups, preferring instead to stage antiwar events with a women's focus. For example, in February of 1966, women at Berkeley held a rally and protest at the Army induction center in Oakland four days after two army nurses were killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Connecting their own need for a separate movement with that of African-American activists in SNCC, the women declared that “parallels can be drawn between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society as a whole.”16
In June of the following year, the same theme emerged at the Women's Liberation Workshop at the SDS national convention. Workshop participants formulated an analysis of women's position in the United States, in the movement, and in their closest working and personal relationships with male colleagues:
As we analyze the position of women in capitalist society and especially in the United States we find that women are in a colonial relationship to men and we recognize ourselves as part of the Third World. Women, because of their colonial relationship to men, have to fight for their own independence. This fight for our own independence will lead to the growth and development of the revolutionary movement in this country. Only the independent woman can be truly effective in the larger revolutionary struggle. We seek the liberation of all human beings. The struggle for liberation of women must be part of the larger fight for human freedom. We recognize the difficulty our brothers will have in dealing with male chauvinism and we will assume full responsibility in helping to resolve the contradiction. freedom now! We love you!17
Women remained active in SDS and other movement groups, but by 1967, the die had been cast for activist women who perceived that the tension between mainstream movement participation and articulating grievances of their own could no longer be resolved. Women who experienced this tension were not content to accept the notion that their personal concerns were any less important because they spoke to issues of self-esteem, sexuality, and female equality. The National Organization for Women's founding statement in 1966 asserted that the time had come
for a new movement toward free equality for all women in America and toward a truly equal partnership of the sexes, as part of the world-wide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.18
The persistent focus on the personal as the starting point for political action drove a wedge between traditional movement activists and new feminists who refused to accept the hierarchies of the left any more than they were willing to accept hierarchy and patriarchy in society at large. By the 1970s, feminists could find themselves as estranged theoretically from their former comrades in the movement as from mainstream society. According to Ellen Willis,
a genuine alliance with male radicals will not be possible until sexism sickens them as much as racism. This will not be accomplished through persuasion, conciliation, or love, but through independence and solidarity: radical men will stop oppressing us and make our fight their own when they can't get us to join them on any other terms.19
Women's activism and the emergence of a feminist analysis emerged in some unlikely places. The war and the atmosphere in the United States in the late 1960s brought out an activist impulse, even an imperative to act, among women who might otherwise have pursued careers and lives with few political reference points.
Popular actress Jane Fonda and singer Holly Near, along with actor Donald Sutherland, participated in the “political vaudeville” show known as FTA, which toured the country for nearly a year in 1971 and was released as a film in 1972. FTA, “Free the Army,” “Free the Americans,” “Fun, Travel and Adventure” (the name of a popular GI antiwar newspaper published at Fort Knox, Kentucky), or, in military parlance, “Foxtrot, Tango, Alpha,” were all stand-ins for what came to be the political statement, “Fuck the Army!” Performed on and near military bases and in coffeehouses throughout the United States and in Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim, the FTA show satirized military life as well as United States foreign policy.20
In 1971, Jane Fonda was hardly the American woman most likely to become active in the struggle to end the Indochina War. Daughter of actor Henry Fonda, she had won an Academy Award for her role in “Klute” and was known for her jet-setting life style rather than political activism. Inspired by the intractability of the war, Fonda sought ways to support the peace movement.
In February of 1971, she helped to organize three days of war crimes testimony sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War called the Winter Soldier Investigation. Later that year, Fonda announced the formation of the FTA troupe to perform a show written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols. Hoping to provide an alternative to the apolitical entertainment offered by more traditional Hollywood stars, Fonda declared:
It has become disconcerting for many of us in Hollywood to see that Bob Hope, Martha Raye, and other companies of their political ilk have cornered the market and are the only entertainers allowed to speak to soldiers in this country and in Vietnam.
Apparently, the army brass agreed. When the FTA troupe proposed to present its debut performance at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the commanding officer Lt. General John J. Tolson III declared the show to be “detrimental to discipline and morale.”21 Five hundred GIs attended the show off base. Their reactions were mixed, many saying that they had hoped to see the sexy “Barbarella” rather than the newly-politicized Fonda. Coming to political consciousness at age 30, Fonda told Life magazine, “I never felt politics touched my life. But, as a revolutionary woman, I'm ready to support all struggles that are radical.”22
Fonda and husband Tom Hayden helped to organize the Indochina Peace Campaign, supported the Black Panthers and United Farm Workers, and campaigned for George McGovern, earning her the nickname “Hanoi Jane” that prompted death threats and the appearance of anti-Jane bumper stickers.
Sexism and the Woman SoldierWomen in the military utilized the emerging GI antiwar press as a vehicle for expressing frustration with the military establishment, dissatisfaction with their treatment in the military, and the political and humanitarian necessity of ending the war. Many of the articles and letters written by women and supportive men stressed that women were treated as inferior soldiers because of pervasive sexism in all branches of the service.
Women complained of sexual harassment and an inability to gain promotions. One medical technician, Spec. 4, wrote to Fragging Action about the special problems of being a military woman, citing frequent weight checks, the absence of weapons training because “as the story goes, one very hip sister threatened to do in her C.O.,” and the difficulty of attaining higher rank:
Well, where do the promotions come in? The hard part about being a woman in the green machine is that if you don't kiss the right ass or fuck the right people, forget about any more rank.23
Women who were dissatisfied with military life could not help being ambivalent about their newly found urge to speak out. They were, after all, volunteers, who entered the service with the expectation that the military would do something for them and would, at the same time, value their contributions. They did not call themselves “feminists.” GI women's narratives collected in recent years reflect this ambivalence as they reveal a strong nurturing, caring impulse. According to Renny Christopher, who has analyzed oral histories of both male and female veterans:
Women often felt that they were supporters of the men, and not participants in their own right . . . in addition to their own jobs they also had the responsibility of acting as mother, sister, and girlfriend to male soldiers. Having absorbed the gender role stereotypes of the larger American society, these women were expected to submerge their own needs, and to take care of the men, whose role as combat soldiers was valued more highly than that of nurses or “suppport personnel.”24
Like Black soldiers and those who openly opposed the war, women who gave voice to their grievances often experienced surveillance, restrictions, undesirable job assignments, and other forms of harassment. WACs at Fort Bragg were questioned and intimidated by base authorities in an effort to encourage them to “name names” to substantiate charges of drug use, homosexuality, or subversive activity against soldiers who spoke out against the war or aspects of military life. One WAC wrote that the tactics of publicly dragging people who were to be questioned off their jobs and threatening them with dishonorable discharges was working:
WAC company has got us WACs so uptight and paranoid about being reported to the CID as gay, that we avoid sitting together in the dining room or on buses. It gets pretty lonely here when you can't even be close friends with other WACs for fear of being labeled gay.25
From time to time, GI antiwar papers printed articles on individual acts of resistance by women, such as the refusal of a WAF at Travis Air Force Base to accept a transfer to the Philippines because of her opposition to American investment in Third World countries.26 They also occasionally printed attacks on sexism in advertising and on the controversy over legalizing abortion.27 These contributions helped raise the consciousness of military women and men to issues of sexism in the military and the relationship of that form of oppression to others.
Building An Alternative Feminist PressNew feminist activism outside the military or the traditional antiwar movement often took the form of new and radical publishing ventures. The alternative paper, off our backs, first appeared in 1970. Its seed money of $400 had been raised the previous year to start a GI antiwar coffeehouse. According to the editors:
(T)he name off our backs was chosen because it reflects our understanding of the dual nature of the women's movement. Women need to be free of men's domination to find their real identities, redefine their lives, and fight for the creation of a society in which they can lead decent lives as human beings. At the same time, women must become aware that there would be no oppressor without the oppressed, that we carry the responsibility for withdrawing the consent to be oppressed. We must strive to get off our backs, and with the help of our sisters to oppose and destroy that system which fortifies the supremacy of men while exploiting the mass for the profit of the few.28
Drawing on their experience in the antiwar movement, the women of oob made connections with women from all over the world, including Vietnam. Oob went through its own growing pains, factionalism, and splits, but it survived into the 1990s as a vehicle for radical feminist expression.
It should come as no surprise that women who participated in the antiwar movement often describe the experience as transformative. One female Harvard graduate commented that the war and the movement to stop it “changed my life—in the way I questioned everything, in the sense of involvement in something greater than myself, and in the sense of my outrage.”29 This sense of outrage was a major factor in keeping women connected to the revolutionary enterprise.
The new feminism has drawn its inspiration and sustenance from myriad sources, a few of which were described here. No linear tale of “progress” from one movement to another, the story of the new feminism is a complex tapestry of interconnections and apparent disconnections. When viewed from a feminist perspective, the experiences of the women described here make sense in both a national and a world context. Even unwitting sisterhood can be powerful, and, as Sara Evans suggested in 1979, this sisterhood has the potential to realize that power in varieties of activism both highly visible and as yet unrealized.
Valerie Solanis, S.C.U.M. Manifesto in The Berkeley Barb (June 7-13, 1968) in Judith Clavir Albert and Stewart Albert, The Sixties Papers: Documents of a Rebellious Decade (New York: Praeger, 1984), 463-4.
Ellen Willis, “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism” in Sohnya Sayres, Anders Stephanson, Stanley Aronowitz, and Fredric Jameson, eds., The `60s Without Apology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 94.
Renny Christopher, “'I Never Really Became A Woman Veteran Unitl . . . I Saw the Wall': Oral Histories and Personal Narratives by Women Veterans of the Vietnam War,” Vietnam Generation 1:3-4 (Summer-Fall 1989), 33.
See Carol Anne Douglas and Fran Moira, “Off Our Backs: The First Decade (1970-1980)” in Ken Wachsberger, ed., Voices from the Underground, Volume I: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press (Tempe: MICA press, 1993), 107-113.
The teleological progression from civil rights to the antiwar movement to the new feminism is a convenient but reductive representation of protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps unintentionally, films such as “Berkeley in the Sixties” present the history of dissent in this way, thereby muting the importance of events that do not precisely fit this chronological model. Sara Evans, in her pathbreaking analysis of the roots of the new feminism, assert that, by the early 1970s, “the women's liberation movement was infused with a vitality that was rapidly ebbing in other parts of the left” (Personal Politics, 211). The goal of this article, in the context of Evans' analysis, is to claim a larger and more influential role for women in the antwar movement, despite the problem of pervasive sexism.
ATC 85, March-April 2000