New York Radical Women and the Limits of Second Wave Feminism

New York Radical Women protest the Miss America Pageant on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, 1969. (Santi Visalli Inc./Archive Photos/Getty Images)

At New York magazine, Joy Press has compiled an oral history of New York Radical Women (NYRW), a collective that existed from 1967 to 1969 and played a large role in defining second wave feminism in the United States. Its founders were generally younger and more radical than the women of the National Organization for Women (NOW), who’d come together in 1966 to address specific legislative failures in Washington, DC. NYRW focused more on elements of the culture that held women back.

The theatrics of the group’s organizing has been seared into the public’s imagination. In 1968, they protested the Miss America pageant by interrupting its telecast, crowning a live sheep on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, throwing objects symbolizing female oppression into a “freedom trash can.” The media called them “bra-burners” for this spectacle, and though nothing caught fire that day, the myth endured.

Along with their image-making, NYRW’s intellectual work, in the form of speeches, essays, pamphlets, and books laid the foundation for women’s studies as an academic discipline. Press explains:

These radical women coined concepts and slogans like consciousness-raising, “sisterhood is powerful,” and “the personal is political.” They wrote formative essays and books about sex and gender roles and misogyny that laid the foundation for women’s studies: Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” Pat Mainardi’s “The Politics of Housework,” Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal Is Political,” Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will.  (Some of these groundbreaking works debuted in the group’s mimeographed spring 1968 pamphlet, Notes From the First Year, and its sequel, Notes from the Second Year.)

NYRW members were a cross-section of mostly white, middle-class New Yorkers. They were housewives, academics, and journalists. Some had been activists previously and were alienated by the marginalized role of women in other progressive groups.

Despite its promise and growing popularity, NYRW met its demise when it split off into factions and lost relevance among an ever-broadening constituency of women who demanded recognition of their own diverse experiences. Chude Pamela Allen, Bev Grant, part, and Judith Weston discuss the gradual demise of the group, as they attempted to take on the Miss America pageant for a second time.

Allen: The limitations in the early Women’s Liberation Movement were that, for the most part, we were college-educated and primarily white. This was the period of [racial] separatism, when a lot of the black women that I knew weren’t interested in joining.

Grant: I get why black women wouldn’t join us — their experience was different. They were coming from a whole exploited and oppressed people, whereas we were coming from just trying to fight against the oppression of men. There are so many more layers of oppression for women of color.

Weston: I want young people to feel proud of us, which doesn’t mean we should sweep problems under the rug … but I want them to feel proud of a tradition, so they carry it on.

Morgan: For a long while when young women would ask, what do you have to teach us? I would say, only our mistakes. But we didn’t only make mistakes. We did lay down a trail as much as anybody can in a shifting society and a very violent time. There is a glorification of the ’60s and how great it was. But don’t envy us for having done it, do your own version of it.

A few weeks ago, I was at a party at a friend’s house when another black woman told me there was no way she would call herself “feminist.” Though I find the term useful to describe a way of engaging with the world and thinking about it critically, what she said is a common sentiment among women of color. Hip-hop artist Cardi B said pretty much the same thing in a recent profile for New York magazine. She told writer Allison P. Davis, “You know what? I’m not even gonna consider myself nothing,” when asked where she stood on the topic. Cardi went on to talk about how feminists wore “long skirts,” and “went to school.” Even though she agreed with feminism’s basic premises, there was something about the language and iconography of women’s movements that felt restrictive.

The woman at my friend’s party mentioned racism as her primary quibble with feminism. It’s true that during every iteration of the women’s movement in the United States, racism has been discernible. Suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton bristled when the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote. Feminist-identifying celebrities like Lena Dunham, have struggled with inclusivity, spoken of black men using racist stereotypes, and been dismissive of women of color who have come forward about sexual assault. (Dunham addressed most of the criticism and apologized every time, usually after being challenged by women of color, who have a long history of expanding the discourse of feminism in fruitful ways.)

Intersectionality, the idea of overlapping systems of oppression that takes into account an individual’s multiple identities and ways of existing, was coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. Before that, there is the work of the Combahee River Collective, and a century earlier, there was Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, pushing at the edges of women’s organizing, making it more dynamic, more relevant, more capable of achieving its loftiest goals.

In this moment of feminist reckoning, when the voices of women are rising up, spilling out, and demanding accountability and change, I wonder what is next. How can there be change that lasts? The kind that lifts up the voices of women-identifying folks and makes sure they all hold weight. The kind that opens up access to resources and completely reimagines structures of power rather than recreating the ones that exist.

Joy Press’s oral history offers a useful pause, a chance to assess how did we get here? So much of what we think of when we think of “feminist” can be attributed to NYRW, and Press and those she interviewed explore old rivalries and expose lingering blind spots within women’s organizing that must be acknowledged and addressed.

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