Women’s liberation, in fact and in philosophy

March 21, 2017

From the March-April issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: These excerpts from an abbreviated summary of a speech delivered by Raya Dunayevskaya at UCLA’s Women’s Week in April 1973 were first published in the August-September 1973 issue of N&L.

OUR SECOND WOMEN’S movement has to realize both the continuity and the discontinuity from the first women’s movement. The greatness of history is that in it you see your own age in a totally new light, and begin to know what to single out. For example, the greatest thing is the Black Dimension. The first women’s movement arose from the anti-slavery movement. They were a different world from the slave society they were fighting against not only because so many of the Abolitionists were slaves who had followed the North Star to freedom, but because the entire relationship among the Abolitionists, their whole idea of freedom, was so different.


Sojourner Truth

Take such a simple thing as one’s name. We are all very conscious now of that, and a lot of us aren’t using our husbands’ or even our fathers’ names. But way back in the early part of the 19th century, when one Black woman was asked her name she said, Sojourner Truth. They asked her how she ever got that name, and she said: I asked God and he said to sojourn, to travel all over the world and tell the story of how we are exploited, tell them about freedom, tell them the truth. So that is the name she took. Look at what a simple thing that is—a name. But it wasn’t only that she didn’t want to have anything to do with her slave name, or with slavery. She wanted the idea of freedom and travelling all over the world—”the world is my country.” That kind of identification of national and international means that the name she created was not just a name.


Harriet Tubman

Or take the white, middle-class women who were also an important part of the Abolitionist movement. All they were doing was preparing sandwiches and making picnics and raising money. Important as that might be, they began to see it wasn’t the same as what the Harriet Tubmans and Sojourner Truths were doing. They began to question why they shouldn’t also be free. When the suffrage movement arose from within the Abolitionist movement, it was on the basis of what they had seen women, Black women, could be—revolutionary force and Reason….

THE SECOND STAGE of the first women’s rights movement was a very sad stage. Once the Civil War was over and the 14th Amendment was finally passed, women still had no suffrage or other legal rights. The weakness in the dialectics of liberation at this point, however, was its isolation from the Blacks, and from the new kinds of struggles being fought by the working women who were going into the factories.

Susan B. Anthony had a paper called Revolution, and the motto under it read: “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” You would think that with such a vision and a philosophic view, they would have realized that isolating themselves from the Black and labor dimensions meant they were cutting their own throats. Lucy Stone was worse, and became an actual racist. She said she was not asking for freedom for the “dregs of society.” She made such class and racial distinctions about who deserves freedom that, no matter how brave they were, it not only took all the way from 1868 to 1920 to get the vote, but when they got it, it didn’t mean anything.

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony

When an Idea’s time has come, there are just as many contradictions and challenges as when the Idea was first thought of. In this country it is the Black dimension, the Black masses as vanguard, that is the crucial element. It is because it isn’t just an idea, but a movement. It’s going to act, to try to make the idea of freedom become real. And it is the kind of philosophy we have that will determine if we constantly check ourselves to see what has to be opened up, and enable us to see ourselves not as the fragmented people class society makes of us.

Otherwise you wind up with less than freedom. You may not be limited to just making sandwiches, you may even be able to enter the arts. Isn’t that great? The trouble is that you’re not changing society at its roots, at its exploitative, male-dominated roots. For those who think it’s enough to be for women’s rights, to go out for any and all careers, and to keep away from a revolutionary organization, means that they not only exclude themselves from the most serious, total work of reorganizing society, but cut themselves off from the working women, who are the source of the very theory they need.

WHAT WE’VE BEEN looking at in studying the first women’s movement was what was happening objectively in the world, objectively in this country. When we come down to our own age, we have to ask what was happening objectively again, that suddenly the quiescent 1950s, when the youth were supposed to be the “beat generation,” burst out into the revolt of the 1960s….In the 1960s we’re once again back to the Black Dimension. People laughed uproariously at Marxism and Freedom, which had just been published, because I said the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 was an entirely new stage that was related to the new stage in the Workers’ Councils of Hungary, where they had got rid of capitalism but wanted to be free from Communism, too, because it was just another form of state-capitalism. It became a world phenomenon, and a national phenomenon in 1960 when the Black youth in Greensboro, N.C., refused to move until they were served at the lunch counters.

The white students who were supposed to have been the beat generation went South—they thought they were going to do something for the Civil Rights movement of the Blacks. But when they got there they found that the Blacks who were asking them to set up schools had an idea of education that they had never dreamed of. Our education is factory-made, completely administered, designed to prepare those who will oppress others. But the Freedom Schools were asking totally different questions: they wanted an education so they could find out how to get rid of the Bull Connors for good. The white students suddenly realized that instead of helping the Blacks like social workers, they were learning a totally new dimension themselves. They came back North and realized that it wasn’t only the worker who is alienated, but the comfortable, middle-class whites going to a “great university” like Berkeley were just numbers put into a computer.

IT WAS IN February of 1965, when President L.B. Johnson first rained the bombs on Hanoi that, instead of having either just a Civil Rights movement, or a Free Speech movement, we suddenly had the birth of an entirely new generation of revolutionaries who were questioning everything in this society. The one thing, unfortunately, they still didn’t question was philosophy. They were all very proud of their pragmatism—but it didn’t help them too much.

It was at this point that the women began saying: “Now this is strange. I’m part of this great movement, and yet I’m cranking the mimeo machine instead of writing the leaflets.” Nobody could accuse them of not being revolutionary. They were questioning whether something wasn’t wrong with a movement that supposedly believed in a new society and yet practices the same division of labor as the one we live in. Not only that. Nobody could accuse them of being against Blacks. But when it came to the woman question there was Stokely Carmichael saying, “The only position for women in the movement is prone.” The women’s questioning brought us to an entirely new stage.

We were moving to the high point of 1968, and it was a high point internationally. In this country the anti-Vietnam war movement was still growing. And for the first time in an advanced country like France we had a near-revolution. It started as a student movement, but they suddenly realized why Karl Marx said the proletariat was the force for revolution. When you have 10,000 students in Paris on strike it looks very great, but if you have 10 million workers putting down their tools and stopping production, it is a very different situation.

WHY DID WE get only a near-revolution out of all this? Those who were concerned with where the philosophy was were likely to be told, whether by Mario Savio or Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “We will pick it up en route.” All they picked up was an aborted revolution….

SDS wound up in completely mindless activism. The women who had just begun the Women’s Liberation movement wound up “following their men” in all of the splits and factions. But it isn’t quite true they were just following their men. It was worse. They voted for the same resolutions the men did because that is what they really believed.

In a word, once you do not have a total philosophy of liberation, once you do not see that the dialectics of liberation are forces and reason, then there is no place to go but the so-called male-dominated, pragmatic, revolutionary groups that thought they could pick up philosophy “en route.”

We have to realize that even though we have an independent movement; even though we are not in isolation from the men or from the children, for that matter; even though we are not isolated from the other movements, it takes a great deal more than just activity. It takes the kind of unity of objective and subjective where you suddenly see that you cannot have a successful revolution without having the underlying philosophy that is the liberation of humanity….

To order, click on the book. See the dialectic of women's struggle unfolding.

To order, click on the book. See the dialectic of women’s struggle unfolding.


Celebrate International Women’s Day

“The truth is that what initiated the actual overthrow of Tsarism was the action of the women….Further, the truth is that all the revolutionaries—Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries—were advising against that action on International Women’s Day. The women dismissed their advice. Marching during wartime against the Tsar, as well as against their factory conditions, produced such massive, spontaneous support, not only from other working women but from housewives and women on the streets, that it finally impelled the male politicos to join them, and the revolution fully unfolded. That was fact and philosophy—but it didn’t make the politicos look at the activity of the women as Reason.”


“On my way to the talk in celebration of International Women’s Day…came the news of the most magnificent international event: tens of thousands of Iranian women were demonstrating against Khomeini, shouting ‘We fought for freedom and got unfreedom!’ Naturally, I began the talk with a homage to those Iranian women’s liberationists who had, with this act, initiated the second chapter of the Iranian revolution.”

—From Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution
by Raya Dunayevskaya

One thought on “Women’s liberation, in fact and in philosophy

  1. The essay speaks to us of the need of developing an emancipatory philosophy not after our revolutionary actions, but together with them. We cannot “pick up philosophy en route” or we will just end up picking up aborted revolutions. The word philosophy may seem “scary” to a lot of us, for there is a long history in which philosophy means an evasion from the world, a mere abstraction. To be sure, postmodern philosophy is part of this history. However, there is an emancipatory philosophy that is not just “useful” for human emancipation, but absolutely needed for it. Marx began this philosophy as the philosophy of revolution in permanence, and Dunayevskaya continued developing it during the 20th Century. Such philosophy helps us to unite revolutionary practice and theory–a unification totally needed if we ever want to give birth to a new society. This is what Dunayevskaya refers to when, in the essay, she states: “It is the kind of philosophy we have that will determine if we constantly check ourselves to see what has to be opened up, and enable us to see ourselves not as the fragmented people class society makes of us.”

    This emancipatory philosophy is not, of course, a private property of Left intellectuals. On the contrary: it achieves its greatest power when it is “adopted by”–or, better to say, when it arises from–the movements from below. The role of intellectuals is thus precisely to help this philosophy come to life from within the actions and thoughts of the subjects in resistance (for it already lies there). A midwife’s job, one could say. Consequently, the organizational practice of intellectuals, consisting in developing such a political-philosophical relationship with the movement from below, is crucial. At its bottom line, I think that is what Raya’s essay is encouraging us to do, so that we don´t leave philosophy, once again, out of the revolutionary equation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *