Decline of Feminist Counter-Culture? Discussion (June 1998)


Decline of Feminist Counter-Culture? Discussion (June 1998)


Query From Suzanne Staszak-Silva 24 June 1998

I am considering a manuscript which chronicles the rise and fall of the feminist counterculture from the 1960s to the present for textbook publication. I wonder is such a book would be used in women's studies courses, feminism courses, and/or women's history courses. I realize it's difficult to ascertain a book's worth based on a few brief notes; however any input is very valuable.

The book has three goals: to describe how the New Left counterculture stress influenced women's liberation; to examine the ways feminists tried to use media such as music, film, television and advertising as counterculture tools; and to analyze the decline of the feminist counterculture.

...Is the author's basic premise (that the feminist countercultural movement has declined) generally accepted among women studies scholars?...

[Ed. Note...for full text of Ms. Staszak-Silva's questions, see Message Logs at H-Women Website: and click on Message logs, then on June, 1998.]


[Editor's Note: Most of the responses to the query from Suzanne Staszak-Silva were short phrases or sentences wedged between her original questions, as one would answer a survey. Hence I have, after contacting the respondents, forwarded those messages to Staszak-Silva at Greenwood Press.
However, several responses were more fully developed and can stand as points of departure for further discussion. Those messages are reproduced here. Bud Burkhard,Editor,H-Women]

From K. Anderson 26 June 1998

...No, I don't think it has declined--rather, IMHO it has been assimilated into the general culture and is less overtly talked about. Good economic times may have something to do with this?...

From Debra Michals 27 June 1998

I find this whole question of the decline of "feminist counter-culture" deeply troubling. Number one: how are you defining counter-culture? This is really crucial before you can determine whether there is/was a feminist counterculture and whether it has waned.

Linking feminism to the New Left is hardly a new tack. We all know that many of the seeds of early radical feminism came from women's involvement with a sexist politics in the New Left. But the New Left was only one tiny segment of the counter-culture. In fact, what about hippies, diggers, etc.? What about communal living arrangements and consciousness raising? What about black nationalism? What about the encounter group movement?

Second, am I the only one troubled by the deeply capitalist success/failure analysis implied by the word "decline"? That's way too easy. We seem to like to find winners and losers, but life and history is more complicated than that. It's more nuanced, and if you really wanted to do any service to feminist or other history, you would recognize that. Cultural/political movements -- and feminism was both -- ebb and flow. Look at the history of the women's movement in America back to 1848 and trace it along it's timeline. You see periods of immense activism, even outright radicalism. Followed by calm. That's the nature of humanity and certainly of politics.

When people feel challenged, they act fiercely; when they feel optimistic, they act from a reform-minded perspective -- or they don't act at all. I realize I am being somewhat ahistorical and more psychological here for the moment, but suffice it to say that there will always be intense moments of challenge throughout history just as there will be periods that I see as transition, adjustment, regrouping.

William Van Deburg wrote a wonderful book called "New Day In Babylon," which looks at the Black Power movement and essentially says, if you were looking for major political upheaval, then I suppose it failed. But if you look at the ways in which culture and social life was influenced irrevocably by Black Power, then it was an unquestionable success. The same can be said for second wave feminism.

I, for one, am a bit tired of people who are disappointed that a complete revolution didn't happen and therefore say the movement failed or is in decline.Feminism changed our lives, giving us equal opportunity employment, husbands who now do housework, fair access to credit - -the world is different because second wave feminism existed in all its forms. Everything from the legitimation of menstrual cramps as real, the clitoral orgasm as real and pre-eminent for women, the right of a woman to be in control of her own body and destiny (sexually, professionally and otherwise), and the celebration of female strength and power is all a product of the women's movement. We, as a culture, don't even make love the same way the world did before feminism -- it now matters to a man's sense of his machismo that a woman "gets off." In a pre-feminist, Hugh Hefner world, it only mattered if he got off. We have jobs, credit, expectations our mothers and grandmothers could never have, and whenever there is a political challenge, feminists rise up and bond together to fight any threat to our empowerment.

No, I haven't heard feminists talk about a social revolution the way some radical components of the movement did 30 years ago. No one is talking about over-throwing the system (though many of us would still like to), and no one is talking about ending marriage as a way of organizing relationships, or having communal child-rearing centers or other wonderful and revolutionary ideas. But that has as much to do with the apathy and contentedness of an economically prosperous 1990s. There is nothing about this decade that seeks revolution or counterculture. This is the calm, happy decade, so your analysis or question is better raised with the fact of the decade in which you live firmly in mind.

It's not that the project of studying revolutions and post-revolutionary moments is not a good one. But you must define your terms, and understand what you are trying to uncover and explain first. And no listserv can do that for you. A lot of good old fashioned research will.

From Tiffany Wayne 27 June 1998

K. Anderson wrote:

>In some places it has never even arrived! ... No, I don't think it has >declined--rather, IMHO it has been assimilated into the general culture >and is less overtly talked about.<

I think these are very good insights...though I prefer to think of it as "still arriving." :-)

There's a "rolling present" in the US which the media tend to ignore when (as Time Magazine recently did) they declare feminism dead. I've been performing women's history/music programs at campuses for nearly 20 years, and each year I'm amazed at how many campuses are nervous because I'm the first feminist they've ever had on their performing arts roster, and they're concerned about how I'll "go over!" It varies greatly from region to region, and within regions.

I agree that assimilation has a lot to do with the appearance that feminism is dead. So many little victories are taken for granted today, like al social critique). Actually some good points, but unfortunate as the only article a lot of people will read all year about feminism in the 1990s!