This spring brought home to militants of both sexes the surprising fact that the Women’s Liberation Movement, which up to then had appeared to be merely so many small groups meeting at infrequent intervals, had in fact grown to the point that it could, without any extraordinary effort, muster 600 women for a weekend conference at Oxford. It thereby established itself as a force to which the Left in Britain will have to pay serious attention.

The conference brought to the surface the host of conflicting positions and ideologies present in the movement. In terms of concrete achievements it was disappointing: the very balance of the agenda between the presentation of semi-academic papers (one day and a half) and political/organizational questions (the last afternoon) was a real obstacle to any serious analysis of the state of the movement or plans for the future. The question which the last afternoon was supposed to deal with—‘Where are we going?’—was never answered, and the conference, instead of launching a unified movement, confirmed the fact that it is at an early stage of formation: no policy, no organization, no action—except at the local level.

Even the knowledge of this, however, is a step forward. Furthermore, it became clear to the women present at the conference that they are not isolated but represent an extremely fast-growing movement. In this sense the conference was a watershed: from now on, if the movement is to challenge the oppression of women in an effective way, it will have to tackle a whole new range of theoretical and practical questions, since the kind of activity typical of small local groups will no longer do. While at present the majority of members resent any organization beyond a co-ordinating committee, and insist on ‘democracy’ and a ‘no leaders’ policy, it is also clear that the only way forward is proper organization capable of working out a common practice and defining the area of its political intervention—both of which are lacking at present.

Closely connected with this is the question of the relationship of the Women’s Liberation Movement to organized politics. The Left’s attitude to the oppression of women becomes therefore of crucial importance. Unfortunately, if one surveys the organized Left in Britain, it becomes clear that the most prevalent view is that women’s liberation has nothing to do with politics. The theoretical justification offered for this view takes the form of searching for formulae which, by encapsulating the ‘problem’ of women, will make it less bothersome or disappear altogether. The three main lines of argument appear to be the following:

1. ‘Women are not a class, and hence there is no need for a separate movement’. The first part of this argument is true, but this does not mean that the second is true also. For one of the key tenets of Marxism-Leninism is that, under the leadership of the working class, revolution is made by all oppressed sectors of society. This argument in fact denies the experience of every single revolutionary movement, past or present. The fact is that women’s oppression is a structural part of class oppression, and no class struggle is complete without a movement expressing this oppression. Even the existence of a revolutionary party would not abolish the need for mass organizations of this kind—precisely because such a party is not a mass organization.

2. ‘Because of the type of work that women are engaged in (isolated small-scale production for immediate consumption, dominated by an ambiguous relationship to the immediate beneficiaries of this labour), women are comparable to the peasantry or petty bourgeoisie and hence incapable of producing a revolutionary consciousness.’ This argument, which reduces politics to economics, becomes an excuse for non-action. It is true that women, on their own, could not produce a revolutionary consciousness. But this does not mean that they do not have revolutionary potential. The Chinese revolution, for example, was successful because, among other things, it revolutionized the oppressed peasantry. Every feminist is, therefore, one step ahead of those who propound this argument in her understanding of the dynamics of the class struggle: for even if this remains simply at the level of an attack on men, it is founded on the reality of oppression—whereas the argument above submerges this reality into a bourgeois problematic external to the left, thereby negating the latter’s role as spokesman of all the exploited sectors of society.

3. ‘Female oppression is like racial oppression: its rationale is a biological difference between the oppressor and the oppressed. Therefore a movement based on it (even if possible) is essentially a deviation from the class struggle.’ This argument reveals, once again, a mechanical approach as to what constitutes class struggle. There is a suggestion in it that the working class is male, and that women should wait until men (joined at best by the third of the female population which works for wages) make the revolution. The argument sounds suspiciously like a male-chauvinist one, wrapped in so much ideological camouflage. The main question is the following: if a sector of the population is oppressed on a biological basis, what is the connection between this and their socio-economic exploitation? How will this change after the revolution? Will it automatically disappear, or will it be dealt with in a series of legislative measures handed down to the female masses?