The Feminist Movement- What Happened and Why?


There is much media attention on the 50 year Anniversary of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique published in 1963. Friedan’s book is touted as the beginning of the “Feminist Movement.” However in the 1960s when second wave feminism was born there were two branches of Feminism. One, has been repressed. The other celebrated. One was Friedan’s and later Gloria Steinem’s. It was a gender only movement fighting for gender equality within the United States as it was, with its racial and class hierarchy. It was dominated by privileged educated women. The other branch of the women’s movement was the class conscious “Women’s Liberation Movement” which emerged from the radical Anti- War and Civil Rights movements.
The original Women’s Liberation Movement was a movement of both race and class integration, a vision of justice for all. It saw female liberation as the basis for social revolution. In fact, an article called “Female Liberation as the Basis for Social Revolution” appeared in one of the earliest publications of The Women’s Liberation Movement, “Notes From the Second Year,” issued by its founding group “Red Stockings” in 1970. Other statements of that period stressing the unity of race, class and gender oppression were issued by The Third World Women’s Alliance in 1969, and The Third World Gay Revolution (1969). These original documents are reprinted in Dear Sisters: Dispatches From The Women’s Liberation Movement (Baxandall & Gordon, Eds. 2000).Friedan was the president and a founder of NOW, the National Organization of Women which works for legislative reform. She also helped to found NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League. Both groups demand legislation, lobby legislatures and endorse candidates. They stress particular projects to integrate women into an America which is increasingly stratified into a privileged 1% minority and a suffering 99% majority, in which the poorest people are single women of color with children. Women’s Liberation was a movement rather than a list of projects. It captured the lives of millions of women who mobilized in direct actions for child care, the end to sexism in and outside of the home. The original movement embraced race, class and gender.
What Happened?
One thing that happened was the enormous funding that the CIA allocated to its operative, Gloria Steinem. Although it is not discussed on US television, the net is replete with information about Steinem’s CIA employment from her days as a student informing on US students attending world youth festivals, to her gender only subversion of the Women’s Liberation Movement:
What Gloria Steinem, Henry Kissinger Have In Common: CIA Pay
Gloria Steinem discussing her time in the CIA
Inside the CIA with Steinem
Black Feminism, the CIA, and Gloria Steinem
The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America
As a founding mother of the Women’s Liberation Movement which was as enthusiastic as it was naive, none of us imagined the influence of the CIA on our movement. Through CIA subversion led by Steinem, and our naivete, the movement became a largely gender essentialist, set of projects within the capitalist system. It became an attempt to create equality for women with a system of ever greater economic and social inequality. These days people would be far more astute than we were.

0 thoughts on “The Feminist Movement- What Happened and Why?

  1. The CIA part is new to me, never heard that before. The woman’s movement has help a lot of people across
    race and gender lines. Is there a clear leader in the women’s movement now? Gandhi worked selflessly for the lowest of the low and across faiths and geographic barriers. In my opinion his example should be studied and copied. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for this article, with the bibliographic material attached. I was an organizer in the hard Left. I didn’t meet many of the New York intellectuals who played these CIA games. Though just an average member, even I was approached by the CIA (three times) to work for them. Their knowledge of the New Left was extensive. They destroyed the Black Panther Party. They created Kwanza through the creation of the Black Activist Ron Karenga ‘the Elephant’ in LA. They fronted and created the Symbionese Liberation Front. So those who make fun of them, didn’t know them. I wasn’t in any Marxist organization that didn’t have a CIA infiltrator in it. Not one. Even PLP (the Progressive Labor Party). We did manage despite that, but they made it very hard. Never, never underestimate the Enemy.

  3. The women’s movement made huge improvements for women. The kind of routine dismissal of women as non serious incompetents is now far more difficult than it used to be. Even though 43% of women’s jobs are still pink collar jobs, and women are paid 77% of what men are for similar jobs, there is no longer a stigma for women who work outside of the home. Women are no longer suspect if they are unmarried. In fact, for the first time in US history or since they recorded such data in 1880, the majority of US woman are single. All US women, are freer to have children outside of marriage. In fact, 42% of US children are born outside of a marriage. Women are freer to elect not to have children. The fastest growing kind of household is of people living alone. The fastest growing kind of family is a couple with no children. Women have gained independence and power within the capitalist system which remains unchanged and in which the gulf between the 1% and the 99% grows every year.I agree we should NEVER underestimate he enemy.

    • Gender equality should be a given, rather than something fought over. That said, I cannot understand why you celebrate single parent families. It takes a village to raise a child, but it also helps with 2 loving parents. My father died suddenly when I was 13 and was a handful for my mother to raise. I don’t think she celebrated being a single parent. She struggled with it, even with all of her courage.

  4. Hi Harriet
    It makes me sad that you write a really lucid blog entry with damn good references, with almost zero response. We should have passed the ERA. It would have made a real difference. Yes, Yes to the “progress” you noted, but my wife is an executive in health care, and she still remarks on the phenomenon of speaking at a meeting with no response, and then later a man repeats what she said,and the response is that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I mean what is this sh*t! When are we men going to genuinely listen to women and interact with them as actual human beings. My wife has learned how to push against this “invisibility” riff, but it makes me very sad that she still has to. So end of lament. Thank you again for your piece. Also for outing again Gloria Steinem.

  5. The CIA is also not supposed to assassinate people. It does. I’ve seen my CIA file. Most of it was domestic. They read their brief as whenever communism was involved, they kept track. Especially if the person/people in question also travelled abroad, or took orders from entities abroad. The FBI and the CIA have been and still are rivals more often than they cooperate faithfully. This is not restricted to the US. In the former USSR the GRU and KGB used to step on one another’s shoes often. IMHO the best intelligence agency for the buck is Mossad.

  6. I am not advocating single parenting. I am celebrating the end of the idea that an unmarried mother is a sinner and her child is “illegitimate (most single moms are divorced with one child). I am also celebrating the end of the idea that being married is the path to legitimacy as a woman. Part of the problem here is that the US government abandons its single mothers and children. The average single mother pays 70% of her income on rent. Their salaries reflect the fact that they cannot network after work, they most often cannot leave the children to further educate themselves, men do not pay adequate child support because often they cannot and often the use the system to avoid paying. 84% of single parents are women.
    Being single as moms is not the problem. Swedish single moms and their children live very differently from their US counterparts. They earn 98% of male wages. They have subsidized housing. Their children have first priority for free or heavily subsidized child care, after school programs, classes for children, educational support, etc. They are not left alone to cope and neither are their children.
    The new F35 war planes the US is investing in cost $400 billion dollars. This could easily pay for quality child care and education in educational parks to which children are bused to the highest quality school and after school programs free to all children. Single mothers suffer in the US because they and their children are neglected. We should not return to the measure of a woman or mother as her marital status. Instead we need to help with high quality services.

    • Who said that the liberation of women is inextricably linked to the liberation of men? When we look at the household as a system we see that much of the inequalities are foisted upon by societal pressures in achieving economic success. When success is determined by how much time you spend in the work environment —- something has to give. And in the case of separation and divorce (the most common form of single motherhood) as long as fathers are looked upon strictly as checkbooks resulting in sole custody and limited alternating-weekend access to children, we will continue to perpetuate the gender inequalities that plague our society.

  7. Thank you for reminding of what this string is about: Injustice to women. No “civilized” country in the world treats women as we do, nor childbirth. How odd, that people who are hysterical about the “right to life” make no provision at all for nurturing children and their mothers.
    Harriet, what you say here is the single most important issue facing the US . Unless we form a healthy environment for engendering our children we will continue to self destruct as a nation.
    The F-35 contributes nothing to the nature of conflict with “terrorism” in the present geopolitical arena. Nothing. Yes China and Russia are developing such planes and N. Korea ICBM’s which will carry nuclear weapons. But if we continue to get seduced in this profound nonsense, we will, like the Romans, become irrelevant. N Korea is starving its population to build the ICBMs and Russia is not far behind. China is a breath away from economic chaos and environmental disaster.
    For what it is worth, I am completely with you in what you say.

  8. Are you seriously suggesting that Steinem’s connection to CIA pointed to CIA’s control/undermining of women’s movement? That’s a shocking and highly irresponsible claim that is given no substantiation in your references. What seems to be the complaint is her connection to black feminism as a black man-hating endeavor. This smacks of the Ishmael Reed brand of anti-feminism lobbed at writers like Alice walker. And how does it support the view that the CIA subverted the women’s liberation movement_?? God when it comes to feminism everyone feels licence to simply make shit up without hardly anybody blinking an eye. Shame on you

  9. Read the references including The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America: Hugh Wilford … › … › Americas › United States › 20th Century. They speak for themselves. They speak to why the women’s movement became a gender only movement instead of a movement for social revolution. Read before you condemn.

  10. I was pleased to see this very brief reminder that Friedan’s arm of the movement was the conservative arm. I hadn’t heard the Steinem/CIA stuff, but I lived on the left coast (Seattle) and our perspective was very different — there were New York feminists, who seemed to constantly be bickering over headlines, and then there were the rest of us. Steinem, of course, was also NOW, and only a small minority of people my age (undergraduate) were at all involved with NOW, the liberal feminist wing — those were older women, better off, with good jobs and press agents who’d all graduated from elite Eastern colleges, so far as we could tell.
    But it does disturb me that you conflate socialist, radical, and lesbian feminism — I can see arguments that lesbian feminism was a subcategory of radical feminism, but not that socialist and radical feminism could be lumped together on race, class, and feminism. It was radical feminism which developed gender politics — as I think the Redstockings manifesto said, “We always take the women’s side.” The first radical gender theory arose from radical feminist thought — lesbian rights, marriage as slavery, exploitation of women’s bodies, rape as an act of power and not sex, and so forth. NOW was relatively intolerant of sexual difference, and allowed men to join; radical feminists did not want men in any room women were meeting or planning, for complex but valid, reasons. Socialist feminists were the ones conscious of class as the basis for discrimination, read Engels fiercely, and worked really hard to involve women of color — far more than radical feminists, who at the beginning simply took the analysis that gender was the dividing line and race and other divisions were secondary. Social feminists pushed childcare and other access to jobs; radical feminists spearheaded the motto, “Free abortion on demand.” We worked together a lot; ideology only divided us because socialist feminists also tended to remain in socialist groups and had established political goals and methods, while radical feminists were inventing everything new, as far as they could tell.
    The failure of the movement — and I think it floundered years ago, though the internet has the potential to bring it back — came about as the younger feminists started developing adult lives and communities, and the liberal feminists, who looked far less threatening than the New Left feminists, became more mainstream and started getting jobs. Then the disparity of income and class became really clear: the “leaders” of the liberal movement became paid feminists, while the grassroots leaders had to work for a living and then do activism as best they could as volunteers.
    Of course, that’s an inevitable stage in social movements — ask the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, or… well, anybody who was there, as we were.
    I’m glad you’re still fighting. I suspect a lot of us are. Even though Those In Power don’t seem to have left our place cards at the table where the feminist elite are now dining.

  11. This is a very old tired story that means nothing anymore. Gloria Steinem has been a steadfast feminst for almost half a century, travelling and speaking and writing tirelessly. We are lucky to still have her on our side. This is a foolish, old, musty battle, like Stalinists and Trotskyists fighting it out into and past the grave. Give it up, get a life, and join the present day, with all its relevant and sufficient challenges

  12. Gloria Steinem has indeed been a steadfast feminist. The question is, What kind? She has stood for female equality within corporate capitalism, a system of the 1% versus the 99%. That is not the feminism of the original Women’s Liberation Movement which was part of a social revolution. It was our idea that if we, of all colors and persuasions, we at the bottom rose up, we would bring everyone with us and create an America with a chance for all lives to flourish. Gloria Steinem is the queen of what has happened to US feminism. It has made impressive changes in job opportunities for women and crucial legislative gains and institutions such as rape crisis centers and abortion clinics. However the majority of the mass of people living in poverty in our ever more striated class society are women and children. Corporate feminism means what we have privileges and opportunities for those who are educated and childless. The majority of US women have children. Women who are unmarried and childless make slightly more money than men do. Mothers earn only 70% of what men do whether they are fathers or not. Only the rich single mother has a chance because daycare FOR EVERYONE was not in Steinem’s program. Only wealthier Americans of course including women have quality healthcare. Quality health care was not in Steinem’s program. Only wealthier women can afford healthful quality food. Healthy fresh food for everyone was not in Steinem’s program. We are in an America in which men and women and everyone in the 99% is suffering. We need a class aware as well as a gender and race aware movement. Steinem’s job was to stifle that. She did it and does it well.

  13. One of the things we have to remember is that by subverting the class aspects of the women’s movement and guiding that energy into the system’s legislative channels, the movement became a series of laws and institutions helpful for all women, but like the rest of the established class system most helpful for privileged white women. The movement lost the militance that is necessary to even preserve those establishment gains. Abortion is now unavailable in 87% of the US. It is constantly eroded by a militant religious right. Birth control itself is questioned. We still are the only nation in the developed world without family leave and one of the few in the entire world without paid maternity or paternity leaves. The only other nations which offer zero guaranteed paid maternity leave are Somalia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Lesotho- We are in great company. Of course wealthy women can afford these privileges. Who is there to fight to preserve the rights that women’s liberation won with the militant energy that fought for gender class and race justice?

  14. Harriet, when you first told me about Steinem’s CIA connections I tried to follow it up and assess the evidence but apart from being short on time my heart wasn’t fully in the task: for a start I doubted I would get to the bottom of it and it would be more something historians would come to conclusions about later, but more significantly it didn’t seem that important. It seemed implausible that the CIA, which destroyed the Panthers in much more brutal fashion, would have the creative capacity to generate or promote one brand of feminism to undermine another; but suppose they were that smart, so what? It’s not because of them that bourgeois feminism, as we called it at the time, was so appealing to white middle class American women: it was appealing to them in its own right, and would have grown hugely whether the CIA covertly supported it or not. It is always easier and more understandable and obvious to struggle for one’s own liberation and advancement without linking them to those of others less privileged. How many socialist men have been all for their liberation and blind to women’s? True, for many privileged women and some men, their first discovery of feminism did lead them to connect their own liberation to everyone else’s, and that’s what made that period of consciousness raising an amazing time, and it’s hugely important that you and others who caught that Women’s Liberation consciousness have been working for it ever since. But to blame the political marginalization of that consciousness on individuals like Steinem sounds like a kind of scapegoating, perhaps to avoid facing the plainer fact that the prevalence of American cultural traits like individualism, meritocracy, racism, and consumerism would always have made it less attractive. I’m not saying the struggle isn’t worth pursuing or even that it can’t eventually be won to some valuable degree, but it will take much bigger shocks to the American polity even than lost wars or extensive recessions for it to have much of a chance. Indeed, the consciousness must be kept alive and kicking so it is available when conditions make its widespread acceptance more possible, and I and many others thank you for the work you are doing.

  15. The CIA alone could not have subverted the Women’s movement or the Civil Rights Movement either. What they did would have been impossible if we were more sophisticated and class aware. For example, we might have wondered, rather than just be so pleased, when MS Magazine could come out on glossy expensive paper and contain no advertising at all. We might have wondered where the money came from? You are right that in the beginning of a movement against an unjust power structure the most primitive response is to just switch places and leave the unjust system in place. It was much easier to reject men and hate whitey than to reject any form of discriminatory gender system and extend our strengths together or reject racism and all other arbitrary divisions between human beings. However, it is much easier for those divisive tendencies to triumph if they have extensive subsidy. What would have happened if the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement remained with the 2 assassinated leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X who both emphasized class unity at the time they were shot to death. What would have happened if the leaders of Women’s Liberation did not emphasize THE REVOLUTION WITHIN, the title of Steinem’s book, but emphasized social revolution as a requisite for women’s liberation and men’s too? Those are questions that make CIA subversion a smart tactic. No one could accuse Steinem of not being smart. She was a darling of the CIA for just that reason. The move to subvert both the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements is well described in a book whose name is the name of the operation, THE MIGHTY WURLITZER. It was well named. The Wurlitzer organ could be played to sound like different instruments depending of which of the stops one pulled. Dave is of course correct, no one cause is responsible for the redirection of a mass movement. However, a charismatic person with huge money can certain help change a movement . Steinem’s role has been masked. The information is available on line and in journals but it has been largely silenced. How come?

    • Thanks, that’s a helpful response, putting more perspective on the claim about Steinem. The loss of Martin and Malcolm seems to me to have been a devastating loss, so I am not minimizing what leaders can do.

  16. Iam glad that people are engaging this discussion. We have to respect the desperate need to change our ever more extensive discrepancy between the 1% & the 99% and those forces which tolerate inequity, of course including feminists who operate within the system of grotesque inequality.
    The US leads the developed world of wealthier nations in every social blight related to inequality:
    the level of trust between people
    mental illness
    drug and alcohol addiction
    lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality
    lower child educational performance
    teen births
    imprisonment rates
    rates of social mobility.
    This is extensively, meticulously documented in THE SPIRIT LEVEL, (Wilkenson & Pickett 2009.
    If that book, published 3 years ago, seems dated, UNICEF just released their latest Innocenti Report 11, on child well being in developed nations. Our performance is a disgrace. Anyone caring needs to acknowledge that the mean greed of our capitalist America needs to be addressed.None of our values including opportunities for women can be addressed without acknowledging and changing the system in which America operates. Steinem is mute on these issues.

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