Echols sets herself the task of insisting on the importance of “radical feminism” to the history of women’s liberation generally and more specifically to the history of “second wave” feminism. Echols published the book in the late 1980s when what the women’s movement was dominated by what Echols calls the “cultural feminism” which placed a vision of a separate women’s culture grounded in a frequently mystified notion of feminine energy; and the “liberal feminism” of NOW, which sought inclusion o
I don’t want to imply that Daring To Be Bad is a polemic. At its core, its a thoroughly researched study of the groups of women who rejected NOW’s liberal vision and grappled with the question of how their “vanguard” vision–some accepted the term, some wouldn’t have–related to the experience of “ordinary” women. For the most part, they failed to answer the question in satisfactory ways. Like the New Left and Black Power movements, radical feminism had collapsed by the mid-1970s, largely because it became entangled in layers and layers of ideological arguments over issues like lesbianism, hierarchies within the movement–several groups rejected all forms of expertise and assigned tasks, including public spokeswoman status, by lots–; and, by the mid-1970s, the relationship between middle-class white women and the poor and/or non-white women who saw the issues from a very different angle. Echols does a very good job delineating the evolving differences between the organizations and tendencies within radical feminism. Appropriately, she builds those stories around the powerful and often problematic presence of women like Ti-Grace Atkinson, Ellen Willis, Anne Koedt, Jane Alpert, Kathie Sarachild, Susan Brownmiller, Roxanne Dunbar and Shulamith Firestone. That’s a good list of women, but I did find myself wondering at times why Echols didn’t talk about the arc of someone like Adrienne Rich, clearly radical but yet part of the web of radical feminist organizations. That’s important in part because Rich had closer relationships with black women at the time, especially June Jordan and Audre Lorde. There’s a bit of the bicoastal bias that effects almost all histories of the radical sixties. We learn a lot about New York, Boston and Washington, and a bit about Gainesville and the Bay Area, but the only heartland city that receives any attention at all is Chicago. (I mention this in part because the only one of the main players I knew at all was Ellen Willis who when I met her was working with the GI Coffee House movement in Colorado Springs. Like civil rights, feminism happened everywhere. That’s not really Echols’ story to tell, but I’d love to see women’s historians start developing the micro studies that thicken our sense of the movement. They may be doing that in journals, but as far as I can tell the research hasn’t surfaced in book form if it’s happening at all)
I emerged from the book saddened by the fact that today radical feminism exists as a major force only within the realm of academia. Liberal feminism has almost entirely eclipsed the visions that asked more fundamental questions and promised–in a utopian manner for the most part–more profound social transformations. But for me and many others–some of whom aren’t consciously aware of the connections–radical feminism deserves the credit for allowing me to live a less oppressive life and be a better father, husband, teacher. Daring to Be Bad is the best introduction I’m aware of to a history that needs to be remembered.