Interview with Carol Hanisch

The following is an excerpt of a 2013 interview of Carol Hanisch by Gabrielle Tree for her blog, Menantum, which unfortunately is no longer available.


GT: How did you become associated with the famous feminist phrase: “the personal is political”?

CH: After a stint in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and working a few years in the New York office of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a organization organizing for civil rights and civil liberties in the South, I became a founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). I decided SCEF should have a southern women’s liberation project which I would organize. This was early 1969 and not everyone on the staff was thrilled with the idea, even many of the women. What became the article “The Personal Is Political” was initially a memo to the women on the SCEF staff, trying to win them over to the new WLM and to consciousness-raising. Like other radical organizations, many in SCEF feared the WLM would “divide the working class.” They called consciousness-raising “therapy” and “navel gazing,” claiming such issues as access to abortion and men sharing the housework were personal, not political. The memo answered that accusation and got passed around the WLM and eventually was printed under the title “The Personal Is Political” in Notes from the Second Year, edited by Shulie and Anne Koedt. It’s still being reprinted around the world.

GT: What brought you to feminism generally and radical feminism in particular?

CH: Life experience, mostly. By 1967, I was 25-years old and had seen and felt the sting of sex discrimination and harassment on many fronts. My experience and contacts in the CRM led me to think about women as an oppressed group and taught me how to begin to fight it. I was, by then, a radical as I believed that it was necessary to get to the root of the problems, to change everything from the bottom up, not just be satisfied with a few reforms that didn’t serve everyone and could be taken away at any time.

GT: What does radical feminism mean to you?

CH: Digging up and destroying the roots of male supremacy, both the personal, individual variety and the institutional, structural variety. It means realizing that women’s oppression cannot be overcome without ending racism and achieving an economic and social system that supports equality for all, which capitalism certainly doesn’t. It means going for what we really want instead of what we are told we can get.

GT: I’ve heard you mention “movement work” in past conversations. What is “movement work”?

CH: A movement is when organizations of people join together into a powerful force to overcome exploitation and oppression and change society as a whole, not just to get ahead in one’s own life. Therefore, movement work is organizing with others to gain enough power to actually win. Sometimes it’s paid, but usually it’s not. It can be writing, marching, speaking, theorizing, organizing events or getting people to come to them, typing a leaflet, making phone calls, keeping organizational records—whatever is needed.

GT: Do you see a relationship between all types of oppression (sexism, ableism, racism, homophobia, etc)?

CH: And all of these cut across by economic classes too! This is a tough question to answer, especially in a few words. Certainly there is a relationship and people must be brought together to fight the “mutual enemy,” but each oppression has its own roots and its own history and sometimes contradictory demands. These can break down even further. For example: when it comes to racism, there’s a difference between the history of those who were slaughtered by European colonizers who wanted their land and those who were brought here from Africa in chains to work it and those who flee here from countries where U.S. imperialism has made life miserable. The demands of one group can put up a roadblock for another.

Fear of not being “politically correct” can lead to silence, which isn’t the answer either. We must find ways to deal with that without jumping out in front of each other or falling into name-calling. We need to be strategic. I don’t think most people are clear about that, much less ready to do it. We mustn’t be afraid of the arguments that arise. Uniting successfully across divides is very difficult and complicated. We need better theory about this, but it will most likely be worked out in the course of more practice.

We certainly have to be careful to not just mush everything together. Mush is weak. Genuine unity is strong. A recent example: women found it very hard to deal with the sexual harassment and rape at some Occupy camps because “gender” has replaced “sex” in the lexicon. The transgender women gained much attention for their own issues, but it was the born-women who were being raped and ignored. Humans born with wombs are no longer a recognized oppressed group by many, even while women’s oppression is rooted in our ability to give birth. Such confusions make organizing against male supremacy rather impossible.

GT: What kind of commitment have you made to movement work? What have you gained and/or sacrificed?

CH: It’s been the priority of my adult life. However, I’ve had to work at non-movement jobs to support myself except for a few brief periods. Still do. By working part-time so I’d have more time for movement work, I’ve suffered a lot of financial insecurity, which in turn has cut into movement work. I made a lot less money during my lifetime so I get less Social Security. I’ve had few vacations, can’t afford movies or concerts or keep up with technology like cell phones and iPads. I have a crisis every time the car or something breaks down.

Being so involved in the Movement also has caused a certain amount of isolation from the broader society. Much of corporate-created culture is unsatisfying once one takes off the rose-colored glasses. Then too, some people call you crazy or shrill or a “silly retro” or “too serious.” I get that last one a lot.

On the plus side, I certainly know more about how the system really works. I don’t believe that ignorance is bliss or that it leads to good decisions. I’ve benefited from the victories: abortion and other reproductive rights (limited though they may be), the right to wear pants and flat shoes in most situations, and a little more respect for women than before the WLM. There is more acceptance of a woman as an independent individual and we’re not considered a freak of nature by everybody if we don’t marry and have children, something I resisted because of the lack of proper support from men and society.

Fraught as it was with some painful intra-Movement struggles, the blossoming period of the WLM in the late 1960s and early 1970s were surely the most intense and rewarding of my life—right up there with the Civil Rights Movement. I’d do it again in a minute because I would have been miserable in a regular job leading the kind of life that would have been mine as a woman, whether in the public workforce or in the home. There’s so much more still to be won, but we did make the world a little better and I’ve benefited from that.

GT: What are some of the current obstacles facing feminist movement and how might we overcome them?

CH: Such a big question. It would take a book! Laying out the problems is certainly easier than figuring out how to overcome them. That will take a resurgence of a courageous, radical Women’s Liberation Movement.

One obstacle that makes it hard today is the difficulty of supporting oneself with a part-time, low-paying job as we were able to do until around the late 1970s when the cost of living, especially rent, began to skyrocket and wages and the economy were stagnating. But then, I remember the working people of Mississippi who worked from “can see to can’t see” and still managed to go to meetings and march and organize in the face of serious reprisals.

Another is the lack of a broad movement like we had in the 1960s where people were fighting around their own particular oppressions but were conscious of being part of something bigger and broader necessary for big changes. Many of the founders of the 1960s WLM came out of the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, anti-poverty, Left, and free speech movements and often continued to do work in those movements as well. Some have experienced a bit of this in the amorphous Occupy Movement.

However, there are specific roadblocks to a resurgence of a WLM that have to do with the direction the feminist movement has taken. When the WLM ran into the inevitable backlash—from both individual men and the establishment—many radical feminists lowered their sights or dropped out. We lost our drive as an encompassing force against male supremacy. When’s the last time you even heard that term? Single issue organizing or personal development and personal solutions have widely replaced the broader, collective struggle for the liberation of all women. As working for reforms replaced fighting for big, all encompassing change, the very language and ideas of the early radical feminism disappeared. Even the “Women’s Liberation Movement” became the tamer “women’s movement.” The abortion rights movement became the more acceptable “choice.” Wife-battering became “domestic violence,” insinuating that women are as responsible for the violence as were men. More recently, an amorphous “gender” has replaced a specific “sex.” Women afraid of offending public sensibilities are put forth and the leadership of radicals suppressed. The history of many of these problems are gone into in more detail in Redstocking’s Feminist Revolution and in the speeches on my website.

GT: I’ve been noticing that many of the people who do movement work from what critical race feminists in law call “the bottom”, are often unknown to the general public. For example, I had to go looking to find you and managed that only because of your website. Do you think this dynamic – not knowing the names of our movement workers who are labouring at the bottom  reflects a gap between activism and the academy?

CH: As the public face of “feminism” has largely moved to the academy, knowing the names is not the most crucial part of the problem! It’s the general public being cut off from the ideas, stirrings and demands of women as a whole. The academy is full of theorizing and research that have little to do with the lives of the masses of people and their needs. Too often they compete with grassroots movements rather than serving them. Even the good work that gets done in academia is often inaccessible to non-academics.

I don’t recognize the “women’s movement” that many historians write about. Histories of the modern WLM don’t even start with the founding years in the 1960s, but with the 1970s after Women’s Studies departments came into being many soon began teaching a safe, apolitical, “post-feminist,” individualist form of feminism. The mass media joined in. Many writers leap-frog over the several crucial years of organizing a militant mass movement before it washed out into various forms of individual struggle and reactionary forms of identity politics. Some of the early WLM writings may get included in their histories or may be quoted by professional writers and speakers from time to time, but the radicals who mushroomed the movement are given no contemporary platform, even in the history of ideas. Some of these academics are women we know from way back but they rarely invite us to their conferences or other events to discuss either the history or what we might be thinking now.

Likewise, establishment writers go to the celebrities for quotes—or they quote academics or each other. This is also the situation in other major movements for social change. Even the labor movement is largely led by lawyers, not people on the work floor. Professional intellectuals write the histories, speak in our name, and hold the conferences and in the process become gatekeepers, shutting out those people and ideas that are a serious challenge to the establishment. By ignoring (whether on purpose or out of negligence) the voices and activity of what’s stirring below, they contribute to the silencing of those grassroots voices so needed in the current dire world situation. They assume this as their right and this is how is should be since their position proves they are “smart” and “smart people need to run the country.” Today it is impossible to imagine that Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor sharecropper and a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, would be allowed to make that address to the Democratic Convention Credentials Committee that mesmerized a television audience in 1964 and helped us understand the situation in Mississippi.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe lawyers and the intelligentsia have an important place in movements, but they obviously aren’t getting very far without the wisdom and activity of the grassroots.

GT: What advice can you give to newer generations of feminists doing movement work?

CH: Dare to practice “we” feminism, instead of “me” feminism. Self-expression is nice but the liberation of our sex class is crucial to our real happiness. Uniting women is necessary to win; you can’t just “change yourself” because you aren’t the problem—male supremacy is. Join a group to work with or organize one, even if it’s small and informal. A movement without organizations is impotent. An organization without a broad and deep movement can achieve very little. We need both and we need to be aware of how they relate—another area needing more working theory. Get together a group of women and do consciousness-raising. Don’t be afraid to argue about what you want and need and how women can win big, now and in the future. Base your work in reality, not wishful thinking. We are not living in a post-feminist age. That won’t be true until we are post-male supremacy.

Organize at the grassroots and let its leadership bloom. Be authentic. Forget celebrity—either following one or trying to be one. Recognize the crucial leadership of those who so easily get drowned out by those farther up the ladder who are busy securing their jobs or are willing to compromise what doesn’t affect them directly. People are literally dying from too much compromising by those in charge who’ve got theirs, even though everyone would be secure if the needs of those on the bottom were met.

Learn from history so that you don’t spend your lives inventing the wheel and so you can protect yourselves better from the backlashes and dead-end side roads. Go to the original sources. Study what the people who made that history left for us, don’t just go to the latest second-hand interpretation being served up by those who have a stake in censoring the real thing. Interpret those original sources for yourself. Study the backlash. One good source for original papers is the Redstockings Archives for Action, now available on microfilm and owned by some libraries. Many important papers are also available on their website.

If you can find it, read Notes from the Second Year, edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. You’ll be amazed how accurately Cindy Cisler predicted in her article “Abortion Repeal (sort of): A Warning to Women” what compromising on abortion would bring. One of the best recent women’s liberation histories is Carol Giardina’s book Freedom for Women: Forging the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1953-1970, which breaks new ground incorporating the activity and influences of Black women in and on the WLM. Daring to be Bad by Alice Echols is especially thought-provoking in its recounting of the instructive conflicts that internally rocked the early radical WLM.

Some of us who made the WLM happen in the 1960s/early 1970s are still around for you to consult, but we’ve reached an age where we’re dying off or where the energy of youth has left us and the impetus for a new surge is more or less in younger hands.

Lastly, just do it. Set your sights high to make big changes. Don’t worry about measuring up to some person or group. Don’t think you have to come up with an earth-shattering event (nice but rare). Remember that social media is great for the details of mobilizing, but when it comes to organizing, theorizing and coming up with good ideas, nothing replaces face-to-face consciousness raising and discussion.

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