Sunday, April 01, 2007

Lynne Segal: still making trouble after all these years…..

“Why feminism? Because its most radical goal, both personal and collective, has yet to be realised: a world which is a better place not just for some women, but for all women. In what I still call a socialist feminist vision that would be a far better world for boys and men, as well”. (Lynne Segal – Why Feminism?)

A socialist feminist who has figured prominently in my political landscape is Lynne Segal. I first read her book, “Is the Future Female” when I was around 17 years old and had been won over to the politics of Trotskyism the year before. The book for me was groundbreaking and made me consciously aware of my own feminism and what it is to be a woman. And how important and integral feminism was (and still is) to fighting for socialism. Many of my ideas around socialist feminism have been shaped by much of what Segal, Sheila Rowbotham, Elizabeth Wilson and others have written. And many of my ideas have evolved over the years thanks to these feminists.

I was pleased to see that Lynne Segal has written a kind of political autobiography called “Making trouble”. Segal was born and brought up in Sydney Australia. Her parents were both doctors so she had a comfortable middle class upbringing. Her paternal grandparents had fled anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and settled in Australia. Segal writes about how both her parents had a seemingly ambivalent regard to being Jewish. This too represented, she believes, the experience of anti-Semitism in Australia. It has featured later on in her life which has made her reflect on her political identity as an anti-Zionist Jew and becoming active in Jews for Justice for Palestine.

Later on in her teens and twenties she fell in with the Sydney “Push” “anti-utopian, pessimistic anarchists”. By the time she arrived in the London after completing her PhD during late 1970 with her toddler son the women’s liberation movement had exploded rather like the flour bombs that hit the stage during the Miss World contest in the same year. It was also time of the Angry Brigade, the ideas of Wilhelm Reich, Frantz Fanon, Bakunin, David Cooper and RD Laing. Not just the staples of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. She got a job lecturing at what became known as Middlesex Poly teaching Psychology.

Reading her recollections of the women’s liberation movement during those turbulent and exciting times made me nostalgic of my experiences of first becoming a feminist. Segal says that for her and “for those of my generation I was closest to it was the bonds we forged in collective efforts not just to wrestle with the world but also to change it”. She contacted other women active in that period and it reads like a litany of who’s who in feminism. Women with shared experiences, narratives, common political goals and the collective battle to change the structures of the world. It is interesting how other active feminists in hindsight see how the women’s liberation changed their lives and became personal journeys. Well, the “personal is the political”.

The women’s liberation movement was a time for women to politically express the injustice, violence, objectification, exploitation, marginalisation and oppression we face in all spheres of life. The pamphlet on Miss World aptly sums this up: “Why Miss World? We’re Not Ugly, We’re Not Beautiful, We’re Angry”.

To make sense of the world as a woman and this was liberation for many women who were brought up during the staid straitjacketed 1950s, Beauvoir’s “dutiful daughters”, the “dreamers of liberation” and what life could be one day like.

Again, hurtling through the 1970s and stopping at 1980 with the Beyond the Fragments conference (which went down like the proverbial lead balloon with the revolutionary left). The dissatisfaction Segal and Rowbotham had for the revolutionary left (Rowbotham’s chapter on the IS/SWP in Beyond the Fragments is well worth a read…) for the hostility towards feminism. Segal was a member of the libertarian socialist Big Flame at the time.

It was also a time for the creation of Spare Rib magazine, Women’s Press, Virago, Sheba Press, the influence and impact of Black feminism and Lesbian feminism on the women’s liberation movement. I remember Spare Rib which I bought regularly until it folded. The politics for me became all too problematic as they revolved around radical feminism (in my opinion, it's downfall). But Spare Rib had excellent coverage of international politics such as women active in the Republican movement in Ireland and struggles in South Africa, Central America and Palestine.

The women’s liberation movement sparked a social and political transformation and impacted on Left activism. For me politically reading Segal’s work in 1980s was an antidote to the rise of radical feminism in 1980s and how women’s oppression was predicated around pornography. Segal wrote about sexuality, sex and the whole issue of enjoyment for women. Sex was not a taboo for her. The later chapters of this book discusses the issue of ageing and the complexities of identity.

Radical feminism lacked the sophistication,class analysis and understanding of the contradictory nature of the oppression of women under capitalism and patriarchy. Segal was one of the founders of Feminists Against Censorship.

And now come full circle with the ever diminishing, fragmented and shrinking Left. The world, to Segal, seems a scarier place. But as she maintains the backward glances may be gratifying only more so if the shared stories and experiences of the past are shared with a receptive audience. She reminds the reader of the gains the women’s liberation movement made. But today those fragile connections have collapsed. Neo-liberalism, imperialism and globalisation are rampant, Capitalism is much more coherent in pushing its ideology.

But as Segal argues staying politically active, “means keeping hold of some narrative of the self”. The continuing building of new connections, activism, solidarity, bonds, attachments, comradeships and friendships. The overall upheavals and struggles in our refusal to abandon the collective spirit. The fight to transform this society into a better and equitable society.

What I liked about Segal’s book is that it reminded me of the grass roots activism which seems to be lost now (maybe I am being pessimistic?). I remember demonstrating, organising and campaigning actively back then from fighting for a woman’s right to choose to campaigning against closures of nurseries. Reading Segal’s book reminded me of my optimistic and youthful activism. In dialectical terms, wanting a better world and the dynamic for social explosions are always here “since the world will not stop changing”.

Lynne Segal is passionate, articulate, vibrant and dynamic in her candid recollections of the past and her socialist feminism.

Long may she rock!


Korakious said...

Suggested reading?

Louisefeminista said...

Yeah, I really really would recommend her bk. I mean for me, reading her first bk, Is the Future Female really had a fundamental impact on me and my politics.

She gives a good description of what it was like to be an active socialist feminist at the height of the women's liberation movement. But she also talks to other feminist friends and their experiences of the women's liberation movement and how it did fundamentally change their lives and outlook on life. And what it was like before the movement for women.

It really did remind me of grass roots collective activism and the kind of work I was first involved in when I was a teenager. The women's liberation movement challenged the way women were perceived and the hierarchies. It also attempted to engage with the Left and Segal (and Sheila Rowbotham et al) challenged the Left about their disregard and hostility towards feminism.

Interestly, Elizabeth Wilson, another active feminist in the 70s and 80s was a member of the CP and they seemed far more sympathetic to feminism.

I just think it is a worthwhile and informative read and I am biased cos I think Lynne Segal is a fantastic writer on socialist feminism. She has written extensively on sex, sexuality, identity, power and masculinities from a socialist feminist standpoint. And she has written many critiques on radical and postmodern feminism.

And there aren't many socialist feminists around of her calibre!

Korakious said...

So where should I start from?

Louisefeminista said...

Depends what you want to read about.

I would recommend Is the Future Female as it is still relevant for today. Her other bk written in 2002 Why Feminism takes stock of the feminist movement and why feminism is still relevant today.

A good overview of the women's liberation movement is the bk "Dear Sisters 1968-1977" by Linda Gordon. It is a mix of American and British feminism.

Sheila Rowbotham's bk "Promise of a Dream" is a well worth read and recommend it wholeheartedly as it is a fulsome look at the revolutionary left and the start of the women's liberation movement.

It really depends what you want to read about feminism and what you are interested in.

Louisefeminista said...

Oh and the Angela Davis bk, "Women, Race and Class"

AN said...

There has certainly been a major retreat by the left over liberation issues, and i sense from your review that Lynne Segal's book is good at capturing the vibrancy of the left in the 1970s - and we do indeed need reminding of that.

I am intersted in the conclusion: staying politically active, “means keeping hold of some narrative of the self”. as you summarise it: "building of new connections, activism, solidarity, bonds, attachments, comradeships and friendships"

becasue this is true, but is it adequate? (I am not proposing an alternative - it is what I propose as well, in the absense of any bigger project)

Louisefeminista said...

Yes, she is very good at capturing the left during the 70s. The activism, collectivism and the dynamism. And the whole exciting period for women as it definitely did have an impact on building awareness and making women consciously aware of their oppression.

I think her conclusion is basically correct as the Left is utterly weak and fragmented but we should endeavour to continue to make those connections and solidarities.

It may sound inadquate but I believe it has to be a start and the potential for social movements are always there.

And carrying on building these alliances is something socialists have always done and will continue to do.

neprimerimye said...

Segal may well be very good at describing the Womens Liberation Movement of the 1970's. What a shame she cannot recognise that her own contribution at the time weakened that movement by moving substantial numbers of activists away from the working class movement in search of a spurious 'autonomy'.

Note well that most of the middle class former student activists around the Beyond the fragments network and in similar sects ended up buried in the Labour Party sucking on the states tit for the grants that financed their various projects.

Meanwhile working class women remained exploited and oppressed by the boss class. Although some of those bosses are feminists these days so thats alright?

The moral of this story? Womens Liberation and feminism are incompatible.