Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will is one of the most important texts in the history of women’s liberation. There is no debate on its impact on the so-called second wave* feminist movement and on women being able to speak their truth. All movements for social justice need to understand their history in order to create their future. This does not mean we need to see foundational texts like Against Our Will as perfect. Unfortunately, Rachel Cooke’s interview with Susan Brownmiller, published last month in The Guardian, falls into the trap of refusing to acknowledge that our ‘foundational’ texts are not only not perfect but also not written only by white women:
Against Our Will finally came out in 1975, five long years after the first of the key texts of women’s liberation: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Though it would later be attacked by, among others, the black activist Angela Davis for its attitudes to race (in his piece, Remnick writes that Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case “reads today as morally oblivious”), its reception was mostly positive and it became a bestseller (much later, with pleasing neatness, it would be included in the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century).
Calling Angela Davis a Black activist rather than a Black Feminist Activist is deeply problematic. Davis was/ is a significant theorist and activist in the feminist movement. Her book Women, Race & Class, first published in 1981, is as radical and essential text as Against Our Will, Sexual Politics, The Dialectic of Sex, and The Feminist Mystique. The erasure of the term ‘feminist’ here implies that Davis’ critique was rude and unnecessary; that the experience of women of colour should only be spoken of in terms of sexism, and not the racism (or classism, disabilism or lesbophobia) that women experience. Failing to include the term feminist here doesn’t just imply that Davis isn’t a ‘real’ feminist, it completely erases her from the feminist movement.
The use of the term ‘attack’ rather than critical engagement reinforces the idea that Davis’ response was rude and unnecessary. Considering the fact that Emmett Till’s accuser has admitted to lying about Till wolf whistling at her, the insinuation here that Davis is the problem rather than Brownmiller’ representation of the murder of a teenage boy for the crime of being African-American is very concerning.
Firstly we need to stop using words like ‘attack’ to define discussion within the feminist movement. Critical engagement, debate, and self-reflection are essential to all social justice movements. No one should be above criticism and apologising is not a sign of weakness.
Yet, somehow we’ve arrived at a point where we split women into 2 categories: those we put on a pedestal and are absolutely banned from critiquing because they are ‘important’ and those whose work we must NEVER EVER read for fear of our brains imploding. Or, something equally ridiculous. This dichotomy plays straight into the hands of misogynists: we’re so busy back pedalling and apologising that we no longer recognise feminists as women. Women who make mistakes. Women who say stupid shit. Women who say deeply offensive things (and if they are on the pedestal we are definitely not allowed to mention the offensive language and actions). We don’t allow room for women to grow and change as actual human beings.
I am not arguing here for an erasure of past abusive comments, theories and actions or the dismissal of feminist texts which are deeply problematic. We need to acknowledge our actions and the negative consequences these had for other women. We also need to acknowledge that women can grow and change; that the true liberation of women will not happen if we ignore our history. Erasing Angela Davis from the feminist movement in order to protect Susan Brownmiller’s feelings and legacy are not the actions of women who are committed to feminist theory and activism. Against Our Will can be a seminal feminist text and be representative of the erasure of racism from feminist history. These positions are not a dichotomy. They are the true history of the feminist movement, where challenges from within are essential to the success of the movement.
Angela Davis is a Black feminist activist and academic. She did not ‘attack’ Susan Brownmiller. Davis simply demanded that the experience of Black women be recognised as reality; that sexism does not trump the intersecting oppressions experienced by women.
Patricia Hill Collins & Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, (Polity Press, 2016).
Angela Davis, Women, Race & Class, (Random House, 1981).
Bell Hooks, Feminism is for Everybody, (Pluto Press, 2000)
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonising Theory, Practicing Solidarity, (Duke University Press, 2003)
Cherry Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour, (New York Press, 2015)
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, (Haymarket Books, 2017).
* I prefer Liz Kelly’s theory of feminism as a tapestry which all feminists (and now womanists) create and recreate by adding new threads and undoing that which is now understood to be problematic, rather than feminism as a series of ‘waves’.