The '60s: Reversing correct verdicts goes
against the will of the people
The Sexual Revolution and Dreams of a New World
By Li Onesto
Revolutionary Worker #991, January 24, 1999
It is really ironic and perverse that the conservatives have tried to turn Bill Clinton into a symbol of the '60s. And their current Inquisition has become an occasion for them to blame the '60s for a "decline in morals" and things like "infidelity." The right-wing ideologue William Bennett--who is on a mission to "correct the country"--criticizes those who oppose the current Inquisition for tapping "into a new attitude in the country toward sexual relations, one that has been deeply influenced by the sexual revolution." Of course such critics fail to acknowledge that cheating men was a phenomenon before the '60s--it's long been a "privilege" of men in patriarchal society. And with a number of sexual scandals hitting various Republican figures, one is tempted to label their reign in Congress as "patriarchs plus Viagra." But these right-wing attacks on "the '60s" and the "sexual revolution" have been going on for quite some time now.
Newt Gingrich has said the country went on a detour from the "highway of American values" with the "counterculture" of the 1960s. The right-wing publication The American Enterprise characterized the '60s as "days of confusion" and a "national nervous breakdown." In a 1995 talk to the Christian Coalition convention, Missouri Senator John Ashcroft said, "The infection of the mantras of the '60s affected the immune system of America. It began to accommodate the lowest and least rather than the best and highest." And Robert Bork's reactionary book Slouching Toward Gomorrah opens with two chapters devoted to the "revolutionary nihilism" of the '60s which, in his words, turned "to dreams of revolution and the destruction of institutions."
I remember those days in the '60s when my own life turned to "dreams of revolution and the destruction of institutions." I remember how liberating the "sexual revolution" was. I remember growing up in Berkeley, in a time when the whole "American way of life" was thrown up in the air--to be scrutinized, challenged, exposed and, for many of us, rejected. And as part of that we were on the trail of a whole new way of looking at relations between men and women and women's role in society...and a new morality based on equality, women's liberation, and not treating people like things. As one historian noted, the women's liberation movement that rose in the 1960s "transformed most people's assumptions about what women were capable of and had a right to expect from life."
We were a generation that grew up with birthmarks from the '50s--when Black people had separate drinking fountains and women were expected to do all the housework and childcare with no complaints. But the '60s ushered in a decade of upheaval and turmoil.
When I was little, I watched TV shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best--where mothers were always at home and baking cookies (wearing pearls and high heels), like the movie Pleasantville. But my mom, like many other women, had to get a job in order to support our family. And my sixth grade best friend's mom also had to work. She was divorced, trying to raise two kids by herself, and I remember some adult describing my friend as being from a "broken family"--as if divorce somehow scarred children for life. My friend's father lived in L.A. with his girlfriend--who he couldn't marry because she was an airline stewardess and would get fired if she wasn't "single"--or gained too much weight or got older than 32.
When I entered junior high in 1967, we girls had to wear dresses that touched the top of our knees. The boys couldn't grow hair past their collar. In gym class, we were taught "girls' basketball" where you had to shoot after three steps (I guess they thought we'd strain ourselves or look "unladylike" if we did a lay-up). The "sex education" was a joke. Birth control was unavailable. Abortion was illegal. At the time I went from being a girl to becoming a woman--there was a hell of a lot to rebel against!
The first organized protest I remember in junior high was after two girls got suspended for wearing pants to school. Soon after this one of my friends got suspended because he wore a peace symbol on his shirt. And this was Berkeley after the Free Speech Movement that had rocked the UC Berkeley campus. In protest, a lot of girls started defying the rules and wearing pants to school and more people started wearing peace symbols and anti-war buttons. Before things got out of hand, the school decided to officially change the rules.
I grew up aware of the restrictions society placed on women and how in general women were considered inferior to men. But more than this, I remember how quickly things began to change and how fiercely women started to rebel against the chains of women's oppression. The "traditional family" where women stayed home and took care of the kids was clashing up against the reality of more women entering the workforce and going to college. And as women began to raise their sights, they rebelled against traditional roles, sex discrimination and sexist ideas and practices.
When I was in high school in the late '60s and early '70s, millions of people were protesting the Vietnam War, the Black Liberation Movement was on the rise, and women's liberation was on the agenda. Women were marching in the street against the war and were part of the national liberation struggles of Blacks, Chicanos and other oppressed nationalities. And a women's movement was growing rapidly. In 1968 a coalition of women's peace groups held a protest and convention in Washington, DC that drew 5,000 women. Meanwhile more radical women--who didn't like the way the convention organizers portrayed women as "wives and mothers of fighting men"--staged a funeral procession at Arlington Cemetery carrying a dummy of "Traditional Womanhood" laid out as if for burial.
Large women's groups, small collectives, and women's newspapers sprung up around the country. Numerous statements and position papers were issued about women's oppression and the goals of women's liberation and there was fierce debate over all kinds of questions. More radical and militant women saw this as a struggle against the system and criticized those who wanted to "work within the system." There was discussion about racism and how to involve Black women in the women's movement which was overwhelmingly white. There was debate over whether "men were the enemy" or whether women's oppression was rooted in the patriarchal system of capitalism.
In 1968 an ad in an underground newspaper announced the formation of "A female Liberation Front...To question: all phallic social structures... To demand free abortion and birth control on demand... and the communal raising of children by both sexes and by people of all ages..." Other editorials advised women to learn karate for self-defense, remain single, avoid having children and stop putting on make-up to attract men. In New York a group of women invaded the marriage license bureau to protest the oppressive patriarchal nuclear family. They recommended eliminating marriage and raising children communally. And like the Black revolutionary nationalists who discarded their slave names, some of them announced new last names--rejecting the patriarchal tradition by which women took their father's name until married and their husband's after that.
The right to abortion was a life-and-death issue. Before abortion became legal, estimates were that 500 to 1,000 women a year died from back-alley abortions. In 1969 it was reported that 6,524 women suffering from septic and incomplete abortions were admitted to the New York City Hospitals alone. The Jane Collective was set up in Chicago to help women get safe, illegal abortions. Women's lives were being torn up. And it went far beyond a health issue: the right to decide whether or not to have kids was at the heart of women's liberation. Without this right, women were like slaves. Women wanted safe abortion, on demand and with no apologies. From 1969 to 1970 massive demonstrations of women took the streets around the country to demand the end to all laws against abortion.
Thousands of "consciousness raising" groups formed around the country--some simply a form for women to share their problems, while others aimed to raise revolutionary consciousness about women's oppression and the need for women to take political action. "Speak-outs" also became a popular form in the women's movement and in 1969 the radical women's group Redstockings organized a mass public meeting where 12 women spoke before a crowd of 300, publicly describing for the first time what they had to go through to get an illegal abortion. That same year, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective was formed and produced the best-selling book Our Bodies, Ourselves--which covered subjects from sexuality, abortion, venereal disease, and pregnancy to "Women, Medicine, and Capitalism."
There were protests against the sexist way women were portrayed in the media and sit-ins and confrontations against major publications like Newsweek and the Ladies Home Journal. Women disrupted a CBS stockholders meeting and invaded the San Francisco Chronicle. There were protests against treating women like commodities and sex objects. One of the more humorous confrontations involved students at Grinnell College in Iowa who staged a `nude-in' to confront a representative from Playboy speaking on "The Playboy Philosophy." When they demanded that the Playboy rep also take off all his clothes, he fled. In 1968 the live telecast of the Miss America pageant was disrupted when a demonstration of women invaded the event carrying a live sheep. In 1969 a Women's Liberation march, "Free Our Sisters! Free Ourselves," in New Haven, Connecticut demanded freedom for Black Panther women in prison who were pregnant and were being denied proper medical care. And in January 1971, 300 women gathered in a small church in Manhattan for the first mass speakout against rape.
When I think back to these liberating times I am more starkly struck by the reactionary nature of the current attacks on the '60s. When people like William Bennett rail against the '60s sexual revolution we have to ask, does he mean we should go back to a situation where untold numbers of women were being beaten and raped with no public outcry? Where women did not have the right to control their own reproduction? Where women were expected to submit to the suffocating role of traditional "homemaker"? Where marriages between Black and white were persecuted? Where people couldn't get divorced without a humiliating court case? Where adultery was actually a crime?
As Mao Tsetung said, "Reversing correct verdicts goes against the will of the people."
The '60s was a unique and exciting time to be a young woman trying to sort out my own "sexual identity." I had grown up with an older brother and sister and had seen them go through painful dating rituals, subjected to old fashioned, hurtful and oppressive sex roles. As my girlfriends and I got involved in anti-war protests and the struggle against national oppression, a whole new world of experiences opened up to us--in which we felt emboldened as strong women who could contribute equally to the struggle. We weren't afraid to challenge men around us. We weren't afraid to be assertive and say what we thought. We called men out when they treated women in a chauvinistic way. And when we demonstrated in the streets--there was no "women safely to the back." We fought side-by-side with the men against the police.
This was a time of creative chaos, passion, sexual experimentation and endless philosophical debates. We would stay up all night talking about the kind of society we'd make if we ruled the world. How there would be real equality between men and women. How sex between men and women would not be tied to economic necessity or sexist notions of beauty and romance -- but would be based instead on mutual respect and equality. We studied history, economics and philosophy to try and figure out the root cause of women's oppression. And we argued about whether women could ever be equal under capitalism--or whether women's liberation could only be achieved by overthrowing the system and fighting for a classless, communist world.
As I became more conscious of how U.S. imperialism oppressed people all over the world, I began to hate America and all it stood for. I began to consider myself an anti-imperialist, a revolutionary. I identified with the revolutionary women fighters in Vietnam. Along with many of my friends, I saw our struggle in the U.S. as part of a tremendous upsurge of anti-imperialist struggles worldwide. And we came to believe that if we wanted a world free of oppression we needed nothing short of armed revolution. At the time I was in the Asian Student Union at Berkeley High, and as a fundraiser we silk-screened T-shirts with the image of a strong Vietnamese woman with a rifle slung over her shoulder--that T-shirt became my uniform my senior year.
The Cultural Revolution in China was also going on during this time and it had a profound effect on me--including in the way I thought about women's liberation. Here was a socialist society where "women held up half the sky!"--a society where the masses of people were consciously fighting to get rid of class society and all inequality and oppression, including the oppression of women. Class struggle was continuing in Mao's China, challenging all the feudal institutions and ideas that had kept women in a subordinate position. Women who visited revolutionary China talked about how, for the first time, they could walk through the streets without feeling the threat of rape. And they came back with stories of how collective childcare and communal kitchens were making it possible for women to play a full economic and political role in society. Mao's China expanded the horizons for what I thought was needed and possible in terms of achieving women's liberation.
We saw the interconnection of things--how the relations in the family were connected to the property relations in society. We saw things in a social way: children were the concern of all--not property of their parents; and having kids was not the most important thing women could do. We saw that the most important contribution of women was to revolution, to changing all the traditional social relations and ideas for humanity. The words from Mao's poem "Ode to the Plum Blossom" captured this sentiment: she craves not Spring for herself alone /to be the harbinger of Spring she is content/ when the mountain flowers are in full bloom/ she will smile mingling in their midst.
Today conservatives rail on about how '60s "free love" and "liberal ideas about sexuality" brought about a "decline of morality." But the truth of the matter is, the '60s was a time when millions of people were trying to deal with women's oppression and develop a more enlightened and liberating sexual morality. People fought blatant sex discrimination in the workplace and schools. Suburban housewives got together to talk about oppressive family relations and how women's lives were used up by mind-numbing tasks of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids. There was a new and refreshing openness about sex and lots of experimenting with new sexual relations in which we rejected the puritanical and oppressive strictures of no sex education, "no sex before marriage," and no pleasure.
Because of the '60s, more broadly in society, people's ideas and practices with regard to the role of women are generally more progressive than they were in the 1950s. And a lot of hard-fought advances for women's equality were achieved in the '60s, like reproductive rights and educational and job opportunities. We recognized it was up to the masses of people to revolutionize society. And those of us who were revolutionaries certainly didn't think the reactionary institutions of the imperialist state--the courts, laws, senate chambers, special prosecutors and Grand Inquisitors --could solve these problems... or had the right to say or judge anything in society, including issues of sexual morality.
Today, bourgeois politicians talk about "personal responsibility" and how it is up to individuals to confront and solve their own problems. But the '60s was a time when millions of people started to identify the problem as the whole economic, political and social set-up under capitalism. We believed it was up to the masses of people and society as a whole to solve these problems. And one of the exhilarating things about the '60s was that, even though we were just teenagers, we felt it was up to us to change the world. Many of us were rebelling against "the whole rotten system" and the nuclear family and traditional sex roles came to be seen as part of the whole oppressive structure of economic and social relations that had to be rejected and abolished.
The '60s was a time when we tried to set new standards of equality for the way women and men related to each other--whether it was at work or school, in a meeting to plan a demonstration or in bed. And people were also trying new ways of living and raising children--setting up communal living situations where everyone collectively took up the tasks of housework and taking care of the kids. No child was considered "illegitimate." Divorce, which had been seen as a sign of "failure," came to be recognized as a liberating thing for lots of women. And many people rejected traditional marriage as the accepted measure of people's love and commitment for one another.
For people like William Bennett who are trying to impose and enforce "family values"--the code word for traditional patriarchy--these things in the '60s were awful. But for all those who want an end to inequality between men and women, these experiments and insights of the '60s are things to learn from and build off of.
As a revolutionary, I look back at the '60s and see that a lot of times people were trying to reform a system that by its very nature is patriarchal and oppressive to women. And things people tried, like "free love," sometimes ended up being a new way women were messed over. There was also a tremendous amount of struggle within the revolutionary movement against male chauvinism--like the women in the Young Lords Party who fought to replace "machismo" with equality for men and women in their party platform. And there was struggle over the need to take up women's liberation as part of making a revolution to get rid of all forms of oppression.
But with regard to women, the main thing about the '60s was that it was a time in which millions of people, in different ways, were struggling against the institutions and ideas that kept (and still keep) women down. And within the revolutionary movement, we were fighting for new revolutionary standards--where there was equality between men and women, where sex and people were not treated like commodities, and where fighting the oppression of women was at the heart of questions of "love" and sexuality. We were looking for a new, revolutionary sexual morality.
In his essays about revolutionary morality, Bob Avakian writes about developing a new communist morality. He talks about how the basis for communist morality is contained, in a concentrated way, in what Maoists refer to as the "4 Alls"--the abolition of all class distinctions (or "class distinctions generally"); the abolition of all the relations of production on which these class distinctions rest; the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production; and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations. And he goes on to say:
"Communist principles include, as decisive aspects, the goal of overcoming all inequality between men and women and between different peoples and nations. The communist viewpoint and methodology makes clear that the oppression of women is inextricably bound up with the division of society into classes and all the exploitation and oppression that has accompanied this for thousands of years, and that the abolition of this exploitation and oppression and of class distinctions themselves is inextricably bound up with the emancipation of women. In other words, the emancipation of women is a vital part of the `4 Alls,' and all aspects of sexual and family relations must be evaluated essentially in terms of how they relate to this emancipation."
The '60s really shook up America. But the old ruling class continued to rule, the old system remained in effect. And so, with the changing of conditions and relations within the U.S. and in the international arena, a lot of the progressive things that were achieved through the '60s upheaval was turned around--some of it co-opted, some of it corrupted, and some outright crushed. But not all the culture from the '60s has been reversed, and that is a continuing bone in the throat of defenders of the capitalist system.
The right-wing Christian fascists hate the '60s because it was a time when one of the main pillars of "the Judeo Christian tradition" and "traditional values"--the forceful assertion of patriarchy--was challenged by millions of people. People like William Bennett see the '60s as a horrible time when "what is good about America" was turned upside down. But the truth of the matter is that, in terms of bringing about the liberation of women, the problem is not that the '60s was "too radical"--the problem is it didn't go far enough! Now it's up to the new generation to unleash the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)