Sisterhood Historically, women have been relegated to a limited role in society. In our male dominated culture, a considerable number of people view the natural role of women to be that of mothers and wives. Thus, for many, women are assumed to be more suited for childbearing and homemaking than for involvement in public life. Despite these widespread and governing beliefs, women, frustrated and tired of their inferiority and subordination, began seeking personal and political equality, including equal pay, reproductive choice, and freedom from conventional societal restraints. Massive opposition to a demand for women’s equality with men prompted the organization of women to fight collectively for their rights. The birthplace of American feminism was Seneca Falls, New York.
Here in 1948, at a landmark convention, the first wave of women’s rights activists gathered. Their primary goal was to obtain voting rights for women (Moore 1992, 21). In the mid 1960’s, the seeds of oppression (which spread from earlier civil movements) were scattered and sown among other dissatisfied women. These seeds began to take root, and grow dramatically, initially within the context of the growth of more general and widespread left radicalism in Western societies. As a result, beginning about 1965, the second wave of women’s rights activists began to emerge with an autonomous agenda for female liberation. The movement’s objective was to secure equal economic, political, and social rights for women.
The women’s liberation movement was composed of an association of women working together in a common cause. Young radical women who had been active in the Civil Rights Movement gathered in small groups and began to focus on organizing in order to change attitudes, social constructs, the perception of society toward women, and, generally, to raise the consciousness of their sisters. The women adopted the phase “Sisterhood is Powerful,” in an effort to express succinctly the aim of the movement. This slogan was also an attempt to unify women by asserting a shared connection and circumstance, and thereby to build fundamental and lasting cohesion. “Sisterhood is powerful” was embraced by the women in order to convey a common identity of sisterhood, one firmly grounded in family-based concepts of interdependence.
Biological sisterhood is an easily understood relationship within the nuclear family. According to social identity theory, one way to define an “in-group” is to define an “out-group” (Hinkle and Brown 1990, 48). The liberation movement attempted to define females as the “in-group” and males as the “out-group,” with the two groups distinctively and sharply separated. The rallying cry “Sisterhood is Powerful” was primarily designed to solidify the identity of the “in-group.” However, in reality, it is easier to define racial groups than it is to define gender groups as separate divisions, since black people and white people are generally geographically and socially separated from each other, white men and women are not. In order to incorporate women successfully into the movement, it was essential to broaden and expand the meaning of sisterhood to that of a common bond between women.
Consolidated by sisterhood, by a common connection of gender, heterogeneous women were expected to develop an allegiance and common purpose. Although the women working within the movement were mostly white and middle class (Tax, 319), the slogan “Sisterhood is Powerful” was directed at all women – married and single, young, middle aged, and old, mothers and daughters, of every race and religion, rich, poor, employed, unemployed, women on welfare, and those with different cultures and sexual orientations (DuPlessis and Snitow, 15). The objective of the slogan was to foster a common identity for the multifaceted group of women who were committed to (or might be committed to) women’s liberation. Empowerment for women was considered both possible and attainable only within the context of this type of common identity. Therefore, by organizing collectively these women would acquire capacity to become a force with which to be reckoned. Equally important, as a cohesive group, the women would be difficult to divide and suppress.
According to the ideology of women’s liberation, the solidarity of those joined in sisterhood guaranteed not only the ability, but also the means required to obtain their goal of equal economic, political, and social rights for women. In the United States, where a patriarchal society dominates, an isolated woman lacks personal and political power and carries little, if any, influence. Indeed, the majority of females in the women’s liberation movement clearly understood from earlier experiences that the solitary voice of a woman would be treated by men as inconsequential, and would therefore have little impact in the political arena. The women’s movement steadfastly believed that a communal voice, expressed en masse, and delivered as a unified message, would carry behind it the influence and clout to actuate change. Initially, the movement consisted of numerous small informal local groups, concentrated in the eastern cities.
Participation in the groups increased through personal relationships. By the early 1970’s, tremendous excitement was generated among women, and almost immediately like minded groups began to spring up throughout the United States. Within these widespread groups, there were several areas of conflict and disagreement – particularly about race, class and sexual orientation. There exists in women’s shared condition a host of differences: “Women with their multiple identities, allegiances, and needs complicated the assumption that there was one universal identity for all women” (DuPlessis and Snitow, 8). Animosity and division between women increased as the groups multiplied.
One of the first divisions within the group occurred between the “politicos” and the feminists (Freeman, 184). The “politicos,” an arm of the new left wing, perceived capitalism as the source of women’s oppression. Seeking revolution rather than reform, their goal was to eradicate capitalism. The feminists, on the other hand, blamed male supremacy for women’s situation. The feminist solution rested in the change of attitudes, personal relationships and male dominated institutions (Freeman, 191). According to feminists, ” ‘women’ was a constructed and conventional role, created by men for their convenience and satisfaction” (Densmore, 81). Discord of this kind resulted in ‘trashing”- women who disagreed with each other’s ideology openly were personally attacked by women with contrasting convictions and given the cold shoulder by those in the majority (Freeman, 191).
Many who were trashed “dubbed themselves ‘feminist refugees’ and summed up their feelings: ‘sisterhood is powerful,’ it kills sisters” (Freeman, 192). “Sisterhood,” a proposition of solidarity among women, became a means to limit dissent and began to divide more than to unite. Long (1998) pointed out “there were no guarantees against competitive hostility, against confidences betrayed. Indeed our very concept of sisterhood was rather idealized, as if among real sisters competition does not exist along with love and attachment” (330). An equally incompatible area of conflict focused around the lines of gender and sex. Love was regarded as …