U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Politically Correct”: A History (Part II)

This is the second in a series of posts on the history of the term “politically correct” as a pejorative. (You can read the first post here.) In this post, I want to explore in more detail what I gestured toward at the end of the last post: the (mostly) pejorative use of “politically correct” within Second Wave feminist polemics.

My impression from some initial primary source spelunking for this series of posts – a great deal of that in off our backs, for reasons of logistical accessibility — has been that activists in the emerging women’s liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s took up the political terminology circulating in some quarters of the Left and turned that terminology into a critique of calls for revolution and liberation that only reinforced, as these critics saw it, the subordination and oppression of women. I say “liberation movements” following the lead of Benita Roth, whose Separate Roads to Feminism explores the emergence of practically simultaneous, somewhat interconnected, and yet politically distinct feminist liberation movements among Black, Chicana and white women.[1]

As Roth points out, those distinct feminisms grew out of a larger shared milieu of social activism on the Left, and all three groups shared some experiences and concerns in common – including, it seems, a familiarity with and concern for the deleterious effects of an insistence on political correctness. So, Black and Chicana activists speaking in the pages of off our backs also viewed an insistence on “politically correct” thinking or rhetoric as an obstacle to effective collective action. For example, speaking as part of a 1981 roundtable on “Issues Confronting Third World Women Writers and Editors” covered in off our backs, Cherrie Moraga noted that third world women activists “can learn from those mistakes made in the name of politics, of political correctness.” [2] Meanwhile, the members of the Combahee River Collective concluded “A Black Feminist Statement” with a caution against insisting on adherence to a “correct” ideological line or practical outcome. “Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving ‘correct’ political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics.”[3]

At this point in my research, I’m not clear on the extent to which these critiques of political correctness offered by women of color grew out of conflicts unique to their own movements or were commenting on more general, shared problems. I think tracking down some of the archival sources upon which Roth draws in her book would help answer this question – and of course I would be grateful for further/other suggestions, so please feel free to add those in the comments. It does seem clear to me that the pejorative references to “politically correct” ideology coming out of white feminist liberation movements at this time –for example, the passage I quoted at the end of my previous post on the subject – were part of an attempt to establish a new foundation for egalitarian social transformation that entailed a rejection of the “politically correct” as that term was understood and championed by what Robin Morgan famously termed “the counterfeit male-dominated Left.”

The epithet “counterfeit male-dominated Left” appeared in Morgan’s blistering 1970 manifesto, “Goodbye to All That.”[4] The essay, originally published in “the women’s issue of Rat” (January 1970), became “as widely known,” Michael Kazin wrote, “as any document by a woman radical since the 1848 declaration at Seneca falls.”[5]  Morgan’s essay was a sweeping indictment of various men and movements – groups on the Old Left, the New Left, the Civil Rights/Black Pride and Chicano Pride movements, and an assortment of characters in the counterculture, from Hugh Hefner to Hugh Romney (known in later years as “Wavy Gravy”).

Morgan argued that sexist exploitation and objectification was a damnable flaw in (among others) the “male-dominated peace movement,” the emergent ecology movement, the Revolutionary Youth Movement(s), the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, various champions of “Hip culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution,” and Weatherman.

Let’s run it down. White males are most responsible for the destruction of human life and environment on the planet today. Yet who is controlling the supposed revolution to change all that? White males….It seems obvious that a legitimate revolution must be led by, made by those who have been most oppressed: black, brown, yellow, red, and white women—with men relating to that the best they can. A genuine Left doesn’t consider anyone’s suffering irrelevant or titillating; nor does it function as a microcosm of capitalist economy, with men competing for power and status at the top, and women doing all the work at the bottom (and functioning as objectified prizes or ‘coin’ as well). Goodbye to all that.[6]

Amid Morgan’s “goodbyes,” her critique of Weatherman — she skewered the group as the “Weather Vain” – stands apart from the rest of her argument because she addressed a great deal of her critique to the women involved in the Weather Underground. Morgan said goodbye to “the Weather Sisters who (and they know better – they know) reject their own radical feminism for that last desperate grab at male approval that we all know so well, for claiming that the machismo style and the gratuitous violence is their own style by ‘free choice,’ and for believing that this is the way for a woman to make her revolution….Goodbye to the illusion of strength when you run hand in hand with your oppressors; goodbye to the dream that being in the leadership collective will get you anything but gonorrhea.”[7]

This section of Morgan’s critique was excerpted in Harold Jacobs’s Weatherman (1970), a sourcebook that includes not only various manifestos and reports written by members of the group, men and women, but also criticisms by (purported) ex-Weathermen and other activists on the Left dedicated to a politics of radical egalitarianism and liberation but averse to the violent tactics and doctrinaire tendencies of the Weatherman group.[8]

Jacobs summarized Weatherman views on women’s liberation as follows:

Weatherman is…anti-separatist. It believes a separate women’s movement is likely to fail because it tends not to clearly define American imperialism as the enemy and because the fight against male chauvinism can best be waged by men and women struggling together against their chauvinism. (Weatherman does concede the need for separate women’s caucuses within revolutionary organizations to combat male chauvinism and to facilitate the unfolding of women’s leadership potential.) To help women repudiate bourgeois values and break out of subordinate roles, debilitating self-hate and insecurity, Weatherman calls for an end to all monogamous relationships and looks favorably on women developing ‘full sexual and political relationships with women’ alongside their relationships with men.[9]

A report written by Lorraine Rosal, originally published in New Left Notes on August 23, 1969 and excerpted in the Jacobs book, gives some sense of the way this approach worked (or didn’t) in practice. The piece begins with “self-criticisms” of various shortcomings evident in the beginning stages of a Weatherman action in Columbus, Ohio that summer, including an initial timidity on the part of both women and men who were nervous about participating in direct action. “The more we dwelt on our fear,…the more we felt unable to live up to our international duty, and accept our role as urban guerrillas concretely aiding the liberation struggles of the Third World.” That fear and “internal emphasis,” Rosal wrote, “led to all the pitfalls of reactionary liberalism.”[10] She explained:

In the Columbus project, and particularly in the women’s caucus, our growing liberalism had bad effects on our attempts to deal with male chauvinism and male supremacy. Firstly, we dealt with chauvinism simply by attacking chauvinist and paternalist remarks by men. Our criticisms were handled liberally and personalistically. Secondly, we began defending each other in political discussions because we were women, not because we were politically correct. Often if a man criticized a woman for a counterrevolutionary action or statement, another woman would react in a man-hating way against the man who made the criticism. We failed to act upon our understanding that what side any person is on in an ideological struggle should be determined not by one’s sex, but by one’s understanding of the political differences involved. Thirdly, we often did not criticize each other in front of the rest of the collective….The result of these three things was that we began to use chauvinism as a bludgeon. And this served to hamper the development of political trust and led to disunity within the collective. The women’s caucus we formed had become nothing but a tea group.

Here is a critique of liberalism as an ideology of individualism that impeded radically egalitarian and collective political action. This critique asserts that political stances grounded in personal identity, political loyalties built on a “personalistic” basis (i.e., solidarity as women) rather than an ideological basis, are counterproductive – counter-revolutionary, in fact. A “politically correct” understanding, in this passage – and in this historical context – would be one that subordinated women’s objections to male chauvinism within the movement to the more important “ideological struggle” for a worldwide socialist revolution. A focus on combating sexism or chauvinism within their own context – an “internal emphasis” – was misplaced, and they needed to suppress their individualistic objections in order to work toward ending oppression for everyone.

Morgan, among others, wasn’t buying it. “To hell with the simplistic notion that automatic freedom for women—or nonwhite peoples—will come about zap! with the advent of a socialist revolution. Bullshit. Two evils pre-date capitalism and clearly have been able to survive and post-date socialism: sexism and racism.”[11]

In their revolutionary struggle to end sexism and racism, activists in the emerging women’s liberation movement soundly rejected any suggestion that they had a duty to be “politically correct.” In a sense, feminists — white, Black, and Chicana – represented a vanguard movement of the Left in disavowing political correctness as a value.

But, alas, I have gone long on this post, so I will have to save further exploration of these themes for next week. In the meantime, I would be very grateful for any comments or suggestions on my findings so far.

___________

[1] Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[2] Cherrie Moraga, quoted in “women in print,” off our backs 11, No. 11 (Dec. 1981), 10. See also Pat Norman, quoted in “first black lesbian conference,” off our backs 10, No. 11 (Dec. 1980), 5.

[3] The Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement” [1977], in The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1997).

[4] Robin Morgan, “Goodbye to All That,” in Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2000), 53-57.

[5] Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 2011), 238, 305n55.

[6] Morgan, 53.

[7] Morgan, 53-54.

[8] Harold Jacobs, editor, Weatherman (Berkeley, Calif.: Ramparts Press, 1970).

[9] Jacobs, 303.

[10] Lorraine Rosal, “Who Do They Think Could Bury You?”, [New Left Notes, Aug. 23, 1969], in Weatherman, 147.

[11] Morgan, 55.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. LD: Part Two is as exciting as the first part. You are a speedy writer. Yes you are absolutely right that the part of the Second Wave to which you refer could be read as an early criticism of PC, on the Feminist Left. I had never thought of that before in fact. BTW Robin Morgan and excerpts from the Weatherman book were both on our socialist reading group – the really strict one. I wonder how this connects to your PhD.

    I am going to do some digging into some of my archives to look for some things that could help. I do know I have some pretty early and radical Feminist stuff from the early 1970s. I hope it will be of some use to your project. Cheers and as always I enjoy reading your posts (and Greene, and others on here too)

  2. Wow! Mitch, I am thrilled that you would be willing to share some archival sources with me. What a wonderfully kind offer. Can’t wait to hear (see?) what you find! (And thanks too for the kind words about our writing here.)

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