- Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C.
Anne M. Valk's aim in this engaging, 280-page book is to unravel the murky complexity of second-wave feminism and the black civil rights campaigns in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and 1970s. In seven chapters, she investigates the intricate relations of numerous grass-roots movements and organizations, such as the D.C. Women's Liberation Movement, D.C. Area Feminist Alliance, and Gay Liberation Front. Valk offers absorbing portraits of movement figures like Mary Treadwell and Etta Horn, but the core strength of Radical Sisters is the delineation of the synergy, cross-fertilization, and antagonism between strains of feminism in Washington, D.C. This monograph, Valk's first, is thus instructive for those readers with a broad interest in social movement interactions and feminism in the United States. [End Page 146]
The book capably captures the points of both convergence and departure that characterized women's groups in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, Valk skillfully articulates how dogmatism stunted collaboration and consequently the longevity of certain organizations (the Metropolitan Abortion Alliance). Liberal feminists, Valk suggests, wanted legal and statutory reform and displayed a "fundamental faith in the soundness of America's economic and political institutions," whereas radical feminists, oft en far more bellicose, wanted to free women "within both personal and public realms" (4). Radical feminists, in some instances, advocated the toppling of America's capitalistic economy to terminate patriarchy, racism, and imperialism, thereby creating conditions in which an inclusive democracy would blossom. In other cases, pugnacious radical women established shelters for battered women, children's programs, rape crisis centers, and feminist publications such as Aegis and Quest. On the other hand, Valk correctly contends that the scholarly distinctions between radical and liberal are misleading and somewhat overplayed. She illustrates how "the line separating liberals and radicals oft en blurred" (8) and takes care to clarify how flexibility and adaptation also characterized interactions between movements like the Washington Area Women's Center and National Black Feminist Organization. In explicating these tensions and negotiations, Radical Sisters paints a picture of a dynamic and protean feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.
Valk's narrative begins with an overview of antipoverty and civil rights activism in the early 1960s, describing how branches of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) supported women participants in these initial efforts. Together, these groups campaigned to influence welfare policies, reproductive rights, and the socioeconomic status of women. Meanwhile, Valk traces the concurrent rise of radical feminists, who not only took cues from liberal feminism but also served to spark a fiery exchange of ideas about ethnic and class division in Washington, D.C., social movements. She then addresses this evolving dialogue as she unpacks and highlights the Black Power era. "Most Black Power advocates reacted negatively to organized feminism," she explains, "and black women sought to advance gender equality through racial oppression" (11). Finally, the narrative turns to lesbian feminism, another vital element of the fractionalized feminist landscape. According to Valk, the Furies, as the gay feminist collective was called, distinguished themselves by [End Page 147] attacking homophobia in extant feminist organizations, igniting discussion around feminist philosophy, and ultimately alienating others in the broader Washington, D.C., feminist movement.
Radical Sisters is based on solid research. Valk, who teaches and coordinates oral history projects at Brown University, visited 14 archives across the United States and places an emphasis on first-hand interviews. Still, there are problems with this book. Valk's straightforward narrative would have benefited from a less cavalier attitude to the historiography. She fails to acknowledge other scholars in American feminist and civil rights history, and does not present even a perfunctory overview of the literature. Without this contextual compass, the reader is left adrift, uninformed of the major debates in the field. As well, the introduction of a comparative methodology would have enhanced Valk...