Mainstream feminists never quite knew what to do with the welfare rights movement. Here was a group of mothers who, rather than wanting equal work and equal pay, demanded that the government support them while they stayed home and raised their kids. That didn’t sound like the kind of women’s liberation NOW’s supporters were fighting for. As for the mothers in the rank and file… well, they just didn’t look like feminists. For one thing, they were mostly “middle-aged” and “fat”—in the words of the movement’s most effective spokeswoman, Johnnie Tillmon—and many, like her, were black. The “ladies” may have looked like church bake-sale volunteers, but they were radical and acted it.
In 1825, William Thompson, a socialist economist, and Anna Doyle Wheeler, a writer and speaker on women’s rights, published a book-length tract with a title that is so strongly worded—Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretension of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery—that the modern reader may feel the need to flip back and check the publication date. And yet, hardly anyone reads the Appeal anymore. How could that be?
Probably the greatest misconception about the resistance is that it’s a youth movement. By an overwhelming majority, the leaders of the groups are middle-aged women—middle-aged white women, to be exact. A great many of them have never been involved in electoral politics before. Many never even went to a protest before they got on a bus to the Women’s March back in January. “The Democratic Party is really good at misreading energy on the ground,” says L.A. Kauffman, the author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. I’m afraid that consultants will swoop in, vacuum up phone and email lists, import kids from Brooklyn to get out the vote, then vanish again. If people newly roused to political action are going to stay roused, then the Democratic Party had better pay attention and follow their lead.
Kate Millett invented feminist literary criticism. Her urgent, elegant 1970 masterwork, Sexual Politics introduced a new and remarkably durable idea: you could interpret literature in light of its gender dynamics. You may wonder whether literature is the right medium for consciousness-raising, but you can’t deny that Millett made reading a life-changing, even world-changing, act. She is owed a posthumous apology for the shameful way she was pushed out of the limelight.