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Women's Liberation and the Left in New Haven, Connecticut 1968-1972
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Radical History Review 81 (2001) 15-33

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Women's Liberation and the Left in New Haven, Connecticut, 1968-1972

Amy Kesselman



Much has been written about the failure of the twentieth-century American left to achieve the elusive goal of a unified movement that speaks for universal freedom. Some scholars such as Michael Tomasky and Todd Gitlin have laid blame at the doorstep of "the principle of separate organization on behalf of distinct interests" that "raged through the 'movement'" in the 1960s and 1970s. 1 Rejecting the broad humanitarian goals of the left in favor of a worldview in which "race and gender were preeminent," identity-based movements, they argue, caused the "universalist impulse to fracture again and again." 2

While recognizing that race- and gender-based movements have generated legitimate critiques of discrimination and have produced valuable scholarship, Gitlin and Tomasky aim their guns at "identity politics," which Tomasky defines as a "politics based on personal identity, as opposed to doctrine or philosophical world view." For Gitlin, identity politics is that stage of a social movement in which the group emphasizes separate organizations and "searches for and cultivates distinct customs, qualities, lineages, ways of seeing or, as they come to be known, cultures." 3 Arguing that separatist groups are not able to unite with others if they cultivate a separate instead of a common culture, Gitlin asserts that there "was no going back from a separatism of spirit." Identity politics, according to Tomasky, "has proved to be a disaster for the left." 4

Critics of this point of view, such as Robin D. G. Kelley and Jesse Lemisch, have argued that identity-based movements have been crucial in generating analyses [End Page 15] that help people to, in Lemisch's words, "keep thinking about what thorough-going equality and real utopia would be." 5 In contrast to Gitlin and Tomasky, they point out that identity-based movements have often sought to connect their struggles with those of others, and they criticize a left dominated by white men for failing to incorporate the ideas generated by the feminist, black liberation, and gay movements. Kelley argues against seeing identity-based movements "as inherently narrow and particularistic" and concludes that "the failure to conceive of these social movements as essential to the emancipation of the whole . . . remains the fundamental stumbling block to building a deep and lasting class based politics." 6 Movements that purport to be "universalist," Kelley and Lemisch point out, often subordinate the priorities of groups with less social power.

Women's liberation is one of the main culprits in the Tomasky-Gitlin narrative, which highlights the early 1970s, when an autonomous women's liberation movement separated from the left from which it had emerged. According to Tomasky, "1970 was the moment when the American left cashiered traditional class-based politics for a new variant in which race and gender were preeminent." 7 Gitlin and Tomasky's critique of the separatist impulse of women's liberation is based on an interpretation of the relationship between women's liberation and the left that relies largely on the writings of national figures. But both the New Left and women's liberation were decentralized movements in the 1960s and 1970s. As Alice Echols has pointed out, "conflicts between the New Left and the women's liberation movement were a consequence of specific historical circumstances and not . . . the result of some inevitable and chronic antagonism." 8 To understand the dynamic by which women's liberation and the male-dominated left pulled apart, we need to look at not only what people wrote but also what they did, not only on a national level, but in the many localities in which women's liberation and various New Left organizations coexisted. 9 While activists had contact with each other, many of the events that have been described in histories of the movement as milestones in the development of feminism were unknown to most local women's liberation activists. 10 A local focus will reveal the dynamics of the relationship between women's...