Pente on Rocha, 'The Weatherwomen: Militant Feminists of the Weather Underground'

Author: 
Mona Rocha
Reviewer: 
Graeme Pente

Mona Rocha. The Weatherwomen: Militant Feminists of the Weather Underground. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2020. 235 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7665-4

Reviewed by Graeme Pente (University of Colorado Boulder) Published on H-Socialisms (October, 2022) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56629

Feminism and the Weather Underground

In The Weatherwomen: Militant Feminists of the Weather Underground, historian Mona Rocha analyzes the feminist theory and practices of women of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) in the 1970s. She offers a compelling intellectual history of what she calls the “militant feminism” of WUO and, especially, of its women members. In five tightly argued chapters, Rocha explores the commitment of WUO to feminism and disrupts the traditional “wave metaphor”—common in women’s history—by elucidating the intersectional beliefs of the Weatherwomen that historians more typically associate with the chronologically later third wave. Central to her approach is “listening more carefully to the Weatherwomen’s voices” and taking seriously the positions they articulated (p. 13). In this way, Rocha seeks to overcome the stereotypical portrayals of the WUO, both then and now, as simply a sexist organization.

Chapter 1 recounts the history of the WUO and situates the group in relation to the radicalism of the 1960s United States and to other leftist organizations of the era. Rocha notes the growing disillusionment of many sixties reformers after the high-profile assassinations of the era, the increasing willingness to abandon the principle of nonviolence as such groups as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Young Lords seized headlines and influence, and the rising internal divisions within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) out of which the WUO would emerge. In its theoretical orientation, the WUO—which changed its name from “the Weathermen” in December 1970 as a sincere gesture of gender inclusivity—drew on Western Marxists (Herbert Marcuse) as well as anti-imperialist revolutionaries (Che Guevara) and the intersections between them (Régis Debray). Rather than feeling shame for its predominantly white and upper-middle-class membership, the WUO sought to leverage these attributes in the propaganda of its deeds, believing that “the existence of such whites, and actually seeing them fight [alongside African American militants], will hit hard at the core of [white America’s] racist being in ways no words or analyses alone can do” (p. 31). Thus, the planned actions of the “Days of Rage” from October 8 to 11, 1969, saw WUO members march, tussle with police, damage property, and protest the trial and treatment of the Chicago 8, which included leading Black Panther Bobby Seale. The December 1969 police assassination of Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago convinced the WUO to become an underground guerrilla movement, and the members engaged in a carefully plotted series of bombings during the early 1970s that targeted symbols of US imperialism but intentionally did not kill any people. Subject to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) infiltration and police pursuit, the group faded in the late 1970s.

In chapter 2, Rocha highlights the organization’s struggle with sexism and the role that its women members played in transforming its internal culture. Again, she places the WUO in historical context, noting the prevailing gender attitudes of the 1960s and the struggles of similar organizations. The parent group SDS had suffered its own issues with sexism that the WUO inherited. About one-third of SDS members were women, but few of those women held leadership roles within the movement. SDS women were beginning to change that culture, and many Weatherwomen would press their male colleagues on their attitudes. Many Weatherwomen viewed themselves, and acted, as capable fighters—itself a reversal of mainstream attitudes about appropriate gender roles. They confronted male members, occasionally in physically violent ways, though more commonly in criticism/self-criticism sessions within collectives such that some of the men began to self-identify their tendencies toward male chauvinism. On at least two occasions, Weatherwomen forced men from their leadership positions or out of the organization entirely. Rocha admits that the WUO suffered from sexist behaviors, but she seeks to restore agency to the Weatherwomen by recounting their efforts to change the organization from within. As a result, chapter 3 examines the leadership opportunities taken by Weatherwomen, such as Bernardine Dohrn, Diana Oughton, and Susan Stern. Rocha argues that such instances of women’s leadership were exceptional not only in mainstream society but also in leftist organizations of the era. She explores the roles these three women played in planning strategy, voicing WUO positions, and executing actions.

The final two chapters explore the WUO’s relationship to women’s history and the wave metaphor. Rocha argues that the WUO disrupts the traditional wave metaphor as a chronological tool: that the predominantly white, middle-class feminism of the second wave can be situated in the 1960s and that the third wave’s more inclusive perspective on intersectional issues of sexuality and racialized women emerged in the 1980s. Instead, Rocha advocates the use of the numeric waves conceptually. The Weatherwomen articulated anti-patriarchal positions consistent with the second wave while being distinctly third wave in their solidarity with women of color, especially in the WUO’s embrace of Third World anti-imperialism and their theorizing of non-heterosexual relationships as revolutionary in “breaking down bourgeois values” (p. 151). The fourth chapter rejects contemporary women’s organizations’ assertion that the WUO was not a feminist group, showing how many of the Weatherwomen’s positions were consistent with second-wave feminism, such as their criticisms of women’s “second shift” in the home, their opposition to gender norms, and their support for abortion rights. The fifth chapter evaluates the WUO’s efforts to theorize and practice “inclusion of all women’s subjectivities and an unrestricted ... sexual liberation of women” (p. 134). For example, the “smash monogamy” campaign, though originating among the Weatherwomen and not the Weathermen, was something of a failure for putting pressure on couples who did not wish to separate. In their recognition of the particular challenges facing women of color in the United States and abroad, the Weatherwomen, in Rocha’s view, advocated intersectionality.

This concise work is clearly written. Rocha is careful to define all of the concepts that she deploys, making this book accessible to a broader audience than its subject matter might first suggest. For sources, Rocha leans heavily on a handful of memoirs from both Weathermen and Weatherwomen; histories of the WUO; and a variety of articles, poems, and position papers written by Weatherwomen. She also uses the memoirs of one or two FBI infiltrators and some FBI files. One wonders what kind of view the FBI had of the organization’s women or whether, one might suspect, the police agency was largely unconcerned with the WUO’s feminism. The statute of limitations on classified documents may also have hindered Rocha’s access to government records. Nonetheless, Rocha makes a compelling case for the militant feminism of the WUO’s women and the degree to which even sympathetic histories have accepted the stereotype of the group’s sexism. Indeed, in one revealing episode involving Detroit-area Weatherwomen delivering a lecture to a literally captive audience at McComb Community College, Rocha shows how two recent histories erase the feminist message of and the women’s role in planning the action. Contrary to received opinion, the WUO was a feminist organization, both of its time and ahead of its time.

Citation: Graeme Pente. Review of Rocha, Mona, The Weatherwomen: Militant Feminists of the Weather Underground. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56629

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