There were squabbles and splits between individuals and groups, of course, but Winslow’s fascinating new account, Revolutionary Feminists: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Seattle (published today by Duke University Press), tracks both the infighting and the coalitions that emerged. It’s at once an inspiring, empowering, and exciting account, and a deeply felt tribute to the bold and irreverent Seattle feminists who pushed hard to organize the world’s first voter referendum on abortion and establish the first shelter for victims of domestic violence in the United States.
Winslow is professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Brooklyn College and the author of Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (1996), Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, 1926–2005 (2014), and several other books. She spoke to me about Revolutionary Feminists several months before the book’s release.
ELEANOR J. BADER: What drew you to socialist feminism?
BARBARA WINSLOW: I was somehow always a radical! When I was in high school, I picketed Woolworths, a store that refused to serve Black customers at its lunch counter. Then, when I attended Antioch College, I knew I wanted to do a semester abroad and chose the University of Leeds because it was the place you went if you were interested in left-wing politics. While I was there, I took a class with Peter Nettl, a famous sociologist, and remember wondering what the “woman question” was. I’d read Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963), but I thought she was writing about my mother’s generation. After I returned from Leeds, I got married and moved to Seattle. This led me to socialist feminism and an understanding of the transformational potential of both feminism and socialism. I’ve been a lifelong activist ever since, as well as a women’s and gender studies scholar. I founded the Shirley Chisholm Project on Black Women’s Activism at Brooklyn College CUNY.
Your book situates Seattle in the social upheaval that took place between 1965 and 1975. Few other accounts of the era mention Seattle, despite its pivotal role in the struggle for abortion and child care, and on behalf of victims of domestic violence. Why has the city been ignored?
Most histories of the women’s movement and women’s liberation are written from a national perspective and focus on famous, or at least well-known, feminists. Most of the more mainstream groups were working in Boston, Chicago, DC, and New York City, major academic, financial, and media centers. Local activism has, for the most part, been sidelined by researchers. In addition, until Starbucks and Bill Gates, Seattle was a provincial place and scholars would have needed to do a lot of granular research to uncover the impactful organizing that took place there.
You write that feminism “transformed every facet of our lives.” How did it do this?
Needless to say, there has been a lot of backsliding over the last few decades, but there has also been significant change. When I was growing up, I never saw a woman doctor, bus driver, or airplane pilot. The idea of women’s equality within marriage did not exist. Today, the majority of college students and medical and law students are women. Even the military has changed and allows women to fight and rise through the ranks. Sports are different than they were a half century ago and women athletes are now respected, even revered. My daughters’ lives and opportunities are greater, more expansive, than mine were. But I do worry that my granddaughter may have fewer rights than her mom, grandmother, or aunts.
Revolutionary Feminists offers a model of community organizing that made bold—some might say outrageous—demands. Although every generation has to determine what it wants to win for itself, what do you hope young feminists will take from the book?
I wrote the book for younger women, to show the importance of grassroots organizing. Seattle shows the pivotal role of Black women and Latinas in the women’s liberation movement and illustrates the organizing they did both as women of color and in intersectional, multiracial coalitions. I also hope the book disproves the misogyny that has long presented left-wing feminists as anti-family, anti-male, and anti-child. I want readers to see that women in the organized (and disorganized) left did work that was foundational for all liberation movements and understand that the Left has consistently played a constructive role in winning major reforms.
Furthermore, I want to stress that, although the majority of Seattle feminists who were active during this period did not have kids, we demanded publicly funded day care. This was our first demand, even before abortion. We wanted to ensure that it was possible for all women to be active in political organizations. That required child care.
LGBTQ liberation and opposition to involuntary sterilization were also on the radar of Seattle feminists. Can you say more about the connection between these issues?
Even before the Stonewall rebellion, many Seattle feminist organizations came out for lesbian rights, echoing New Left groups like Students for a Democratic Society. Old Left groups like the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party, however, remained homophobic, and members who came out were expelled. By 1972, though, pretty much every group on the left changed its position and accepted LGBTQ people.
Our opposition to involuntary sterilization, also called sterilization abuse, began in 1969. The Women’s Liberation Committee of the Peace and Freedom Party invited civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer to speak. I opened the program and spoke about the necessity of legalizing abortion. Hamer followed and told us that she had been sterilized without her consent. She had been badly beaten while registering people to vote and was taken to a Mississippi hospital. After she got home, she realized that she had been sterilized. When she said this, everyone listening literally gasped. We were appalled. We later learned that a white Seattle activist had also been involuntarily sterilized. As we investigated further, we discovered that sterilization abuse was prevalent among women of color and working-class white women. As we talked, it made sense to link abortion, sterilization abuse, and access to contraception; they were all part of the same struggle to win what is now called reproductive justice.
Looking back, do you have regrets or think some things might have been done differently?
We absolutely believed that we were going to win massive changes in how men and women related to each other and in making abortion, birth control, and child care accessible. We did not anticipate that there would be backlash, and we underestimated the strength of misogynistic, racist capitalism.
When we set up freestanding abortion clinics, we did it to offer feminist healthcare apart from the constraints of the broader medical establishment. We did not anticipate that isolated clinics would become easy targets for anti-abortion forces. We also did not anticipate that separating abortion from other kinds of medical care would have negative repercussions.
There were so many socialist-feminist groups in Seattle—the Freedom Socialist Party–Bolshevik, Freedom Socialist Party–Menshevik, Radical Women, Peace and Freedom Party, Seattle Liberation Front, Women’s Liberation–Seattle, and the Women’s Majority Union, among them. Were they able to put aside differences and work together as a united front?
All of the groups agreed that it was important to work outside of the Democratic Party. When it came to abortion, we all worked together. Clara Fraser, who was active in the Freedom Socialist Party, was working for a Great Society social welfare program when she learned that a bill was pending to liberalize abortion in the state. The sponsor of the bill had hoped to sneak it through the legislature, but when Clara learned about this, she convinced her boss to publicly support the measure. She then began organizing a pro-choice demonstration at the statehouse in Olympia. A bunch of us went and did what I call creative confrontational lobbying. We were not deferential, and our action ended up on the front page of the local newspaper. We framed abortion as a woman’s right and later developed plans for a statewide voter referendum, Referendum 20, on the issue. Washington was the first state in the country to do this. The vote took place in 1970, three years before Roe, and we won.
The coalition we pulled together to achieve this victory was broad: Black and white, professional and working-class. We went out into the streets, door to door, to gain traction for the measure.
You asked about mistakes. Looking back, I think we should have taken out a pro-Referendum ad in one or both of the Black newspapers. At the time, many Black nationalists were opposed to abortion and considered it genocide against the Black community. While there were lots of public debates on this, we could have better engaged the Black community.
Most socialist-feminist groups that were active in the 1960s and ’70s are now defunct. What happened?
When Nixon got rid of the draft in 1973, it was a conscious decision to derail anti-draft and anti-war protests and wind down US involvement. Similarly, Roe, decided in January 1973, deflated some feminist momentum. People were exhausted. On top of this, several Black Panthers had been murdered by the government and people were scared. The Left was basically defeated as neoliberalism set in.
In response, some activists turned to institution building and began setting up domestic violence programs, health centers, abortion clinics, and day-care centers. This had a conservatizing impact since the newly established programs had to pay salaries and rent. Some individuals felt they had to change their personal style and become more professional-looking.
In essence, we gave up revolution for reform. You also can’t discount the profound impact of 50 years of venomous anti-feminist backlash.
Are you discouraged?
No. We made lasting change. Women’s studies, gender studies, African American and Latinx studies exist on campuses all over the country. We have shelters. We have no-fault divorce. Sexual harassment is illegal. More broadly, there is a lot of good organizing going on all over the United States, much of it led by women of color. I find hope in this.
But we still need a lot more local activism. I hope people who want to do electoral work will run for their local school or library board. I hope they will run for local council seats and get involved in fighting climate change, promoting feminism, opposing racism, and resisting the pushback against LGBTQIA gains. I see this as the only way forward.
Barbara Winslow is professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Brooklyn College and author of Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (1996), Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, 1926–2005 (2014), and Revolutionary Feminists: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Seattle (2023).
Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in Truthout, The Progressive, Lilith, The Indypendent, and Rain Taxi.