Marlene Dixon

art from radical america

Marlene Dixon, recently ousted professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, drew all the previous pieces together in a jeremiad for women's liberation to get organized:   “Unless the radical women get themselves together … a mass movement dominated by an ideology of “let us in’ (and not ‘set us free’) will develop.” 

Dixon's piece consists of a long sweeping history of the women's liberation movement beginning with the first conference over Thanksgiving Weekend 1968, which she compares to Seneca Falls in historical importance. While she lauds the group WITCH ‘with its wild and inspired poetic imagery” and “litany of oppression and rebellion” it is clear Dixon would have preferred the conference to have ended in a “structural framework for a movement.” Dixon sees the “women who have bolted from, or never belonged to established leftist organizations,” a group she labels “the ‘wildcat’ women,” as stymied by a lack of a coherent program when they face critics on the left,  women she describes as obsessed with“the invisible audience… male heavies.” 

For Dixon, the split was not ideological, politico versus feminist, so much as the audience to which factions addressed themselves “other women or movement men.” The communicative styles of these two factions wildcats v radical women point to some of the key issues at stake in the women’s culture war. “The recklessness and originality of the wildcats … the very woman-ness (irrationality, expressiveness, emotionality, anti-intellectualism”  Dixon argues “terrified Movement women” because they had long defended themselves against such characterizations by the movement men with whom they worked. The wildcat women “took women (as mystical, rebellious, expressive and mysterious) … while the leftist women were using the leader-intellectual model (the role from which all rewards flow in the movement as theirs)” Consequently the “wildcats” viewed the radical women as “unliberated” while the leftist women decried the wildcats as “hopelessly a-political and counter revolutionary.” 

Dixon then segues into a confrontation that occurred at a Black Panther Conference “United Front Against Fascism” (UFAF) in Oakland (July 1969). Women, fearing that time would run short for the “women’s panel” interrupted venerated Leftist heavy Herbert Aptheker. The Panthers, perhaps mistaking the women’s protest as FBI plants or attempts to infiltrated the conference, got a little jumpy, but in the end the women’s panel occurred.  All might have been fine, according to Dixon, had not some Left women appeared the next day to defend the Panthers in the form of decrying the anti revolutionary stance of the women involved the prior day contretemps. 

As Dixon describes it “their idea of defense was to attack the other women as counter-revolutionary lackeys of capitalism, objectively racist,” leading to some discussion among WL activists of denouncing the entire conference as male chauvinist.  While this never occurred, the events intensified “an increasing atmosphere of suspicion and distrust between those [women] who were still members of established organizations rather than independent women’s liberation  groups.” For Dixon, as long as the two factions in women’s liberation continue to address different audiences, the male left and other women, the fighting will continue.

Dixon cites women’s participation in the student protests at University of Chicago in January 1969 as evidence of women’s liberation's activist potential that is ignored by the male left.   Dixon laments that “the University of Chicago sit in is [just] a contemporary example of the fact that male supremacy weakens the entire Movement.  History is repeating itself.  From the Abolitionists to the Labor movement, women have been exploited” and viewed as secondary, mobilized “to the barricades when needed [and then] sent back to the kitchen.” 

Radical America
Marlene Dixon