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Lessons from Redstockings: A Movement Goes for What It Wants

by Adrien Hilton

Almost 40 years ago, the New York radical feminist group Redstockings pledged in its manifesto: "This time we are going all the way." Redstockings, still ongoing, now pledges "for as long as it takes" and to engage "generations teaching generations."

As part of a newer generation of feminists, I got involved in organizing the Redstockings Women's Liberation Archives for Action to help contemporary activists learn from early radical feminists by making available the original documents from the 1960s. I'm learning, too, about the importance of a movement that goes beyond individual feminism.

For example, in 1969 Redstockings held the first speakout on abortion. Women testified about their then-illegal abortions. Redstockings handed out a flyer that said women were the experts on their experience. Young women defied both custom and law to speak out publicly about their illegal abortions. One young woman, unable to get an abortion, spoke out about enduring the pain, danger and stigma of childbirth and then giving the child up for adoption.

By speaking out, these women dramatized and launched women's liberation organizing tactics and ideas. I learned that these strategies were instrumental in bringing about the Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.

For years prior to Roe v. Wade, groups of lawyers, doctors and clergy in New York State advocated for reforms of abortion laws in the state. The reforms being sought would have helped only a small minority of women. The reformers said a woman should be able to obtain an abortion if she already had four children, if she were a victim of rape or incest, or if she were deemed mentally unstable.

Instead, the women's liberation movement argued that all women must have the right to abortion for any reason. Following the strategy pioneered by Lucinda Cisler, active in NOW and New York Radical Women, activists opposed reform of the abortion law and argued for repeal of all laws. They knew from their experiences doing consciousness-raising that the kinds of reforms being brought to the table wouldn't help them or most women. Most women needed abortions because they didn't want to be forced to have a kid when they didn't want to -- it wasn't only women in extreme cases. In 1970, New York State passed the most liberal abortion law in the country, legalizing abortion through the second trimester in most cases.

Before I began working on the Redstockings archives, I thought we had abortion today simply because of these Supreme Court justices who determined in Roe v. Wade that a woman should have this right. I had no idea that there was a movement pushing for repeal of all abortion laws; that women in New York were breaking up state assembly hearings of so-called experts on abortion reform, saying that reforms weren't good enough and wouldn't serve all women. Until I read it in the Redstockings publication, Feminist Revolution, I didn't realize how the combination of protests, speak-outs and legal action forced politicians into a corner. And when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v Wade, it used the New York State law as its model.

Previously I had an individual sense of feminism. I didn't shave my legs in high school and college because my mom told me I would regret the time and energy involved in upkeep. I thought this set me apart and made me a little better than other women. I completely missed the point that Redstockings argued then -- and still -- that there are no individual solutions.

I learned that a movement must go for what it really wants in fact, that was the title of an article in Feminist Revolution. Because Redstockings and other feminists were pushing for repeal of all abortion laws, they were going for what they really wanted -- the best case. They weren't wheeling and dealing, compromising and strategizing about reforms that weren't good for all women. This set a standard. Later, after a newly liberalized law was passed in New York State, a proposal was made to add restrictions. Governor Nelson Rockefeller opposed rolling back the liberal abortion law and adding restrictions, warning conservatives that it would further mobilize the forces for repeal and result in no law at all. We didn't get repeal, but we did get something better than if the movement had sat politely and pushed for less.

A movement of women pushing and fighting for this change that I benefit from is far more exciting and powerful to me than Supreme Court justices laying down the law. This history makes me want to get involved. And it makes me understand better the power of the union of women to advance our rights and win full liberation.

May 19, 2009

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Adrien Hilton has been active in the feminist movement for four years, working closely with Redstockings and the Women's Liberation Birth Control Project/Social Wage Committee in New York City and with Gainesville Women's Liberation in Florida. She is an archivist at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives at New York University.

Also see "Higher Ground, Not Common Ground" by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Mobilizing for Reproductive Justice" by Loretta J. Ross in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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