Aesthetic Politics — Chapter 1: The Crashing of the Second Wave

This is a five part series that will explore how the Left in the United States moved from a politics of building and challenging power to a politics of aesthetic, through the example of the feminist movement. Unlike traditional politics, aesthetic politics is more concerned about the politics of individuals, from unpacking their privilege to curating a proper social justice presence on social media. Also unlike traditional politics, aesthetic politics is completely inclusive. But that inclusivity came at a price — by refocusing feminism on messaging and presentation, it fell victim to the appropriation of corporations and their allied politicians who could pour more money and people into crafting these social justice images than any Leftist group could, all while still maintaining the same power structure. But the failures of 2016 brought many feminists to question aesthetic politics, and we may now be seeing the crashing of feminism’s third wave. Before that however, we have to start at another wave’s crashing.

The second wave of feminism crashed in October of 1991.

It had risen up in the 1960’s, inspired by both what Freudian psychoanalysis could reveal about gender roles and what Marxism could reveal about women’s exploitation under capitalism. This duality was most epitomized by a young woman who had dared to confront the nascent New Left without compromise: Shulamith Firestone.

Displaced from a Left that refused to take women’s liberation seriously, Firestone came to the conclusion that women should focus on women’s liberation primarily. Using the fundamental biological division of labor caused by sexual reproduction, Firestone asserted sex as the oldest, and primary, class. Shulamith was joined by women like Robin Morgan, who shared in her frustration with the New Left, and formed the group New York Radical Women.

But New York Radical Women did not last long. Shulamith’s ideas about the primacy of sex were opposed by a contingent of self-identified socialist feminists, under the principle that men’s liberation as working class people must be fought for. Rather than asserting either the primacy of class or sex as the fundamental division of labor, the socialist feminists asserted that all rights of all people must be fought for.

At the same time, Robin Morgan was inspired by the extravagant protests of a group called the Yippies. The consciousness raisings that New York Radical Women had been doing, groups of women sitting around in someone’s living room talking about the most depressing parts of their lives, seemed so dreary compared to the fanciful and fun performances that groups like the Yippies engaged in.

Morgan and some of these women split off from New York Radical Women and formed a group called Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell or W.I.T.C.H. Donning costumes and pulling off elaborate street theater, W.I.T.C.H. embodied a politics of aesthetic — the purpose of their actions was to perform, treating the masses as an audience rather than the target of political action. This focus culminated in February 1969 at a protest of a bridal fair.

The “witches” donned black veils, called women there slaves, posted stickers with the text “Confront the Whoremongers,” and released mice into the audience. The patent sexism of this protest (especially the idea that mice would scare women) was heavily criticized. It seemed more like pranks from Animal House than radical feminism.

While chapters of WITCH continued to hold sporadic actions, they never regained the prominence they had briefly held. Most of the women reunited with their less flamboyant comrades and resumed the tedious but effective consciousness raisings. Little did they know that in two decades the politics they had created, of a formal equality of oppressions and creating aesthetic rather than building power, would return.

To create a women’s liberation movement in a revolutionary model, Firestone penned a book called The Dialectic of Sex in 1970. In it, she extracted historical materialism from Marx and Engels and psychoanalysis from Freud, as tools to be used in a sex class war. But Firestone had been psychologically broken by decades of mistreatment, both by the New Left and by other feminists. Her new group Redstockings did not take off upon her founding, and would only re-emerge without her in 1973.

But while Firestone herself was no longer present in the movement, her ideas very much were. Along with Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, it provided women with their own uncompromisingly radical texts. These ideas were expanded upon in the 1970’s and 80’s by two influential thinkers: Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon.

Andrea Dworkin is an important figure in feminism today as a foil: she is everything that the movement claims has been discarded in the second wave. Dworkin is so obviously different from the feminists of today not just because of her political stances but the total lack of care about aesthetics. Her appearance, from disheveled hair to her weight, was often mocked by opponents and the press.

Dworkin’s focus, with legal guidance from Catharine MacKinnon, was on pornography. Dworkin wrote a book called Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Like Firestone, Dworkin saw sex as the primary oppression, but whereas Firestone looked at sex as a class system and psychological phenomenon, Dworkin saw it as a state of violence. The violence of pornography and sexual violence more generally necessitated a central aim of the women’s movement: safety. At first, even some liberal feminists like Gloria Steinem could get behind Dworkin’s “Take Back The Night” protests and other forms of action to radically assert women’s sexual autonomy.

But Dworkin did not just draw inspiration from other radical feminists. After writing her expose on women in the Republican Party, titled “Right-Wing Women,” her politics became increasingly fundamentalist. The singular focus of her crusade led her to collaborate with the Reagan White House in her relentless pursuit to abolish pornography, a goal the newly ascended evangelical Christian right wing was more than happy to aid.

This turn also lead her to put out her most infamous book Intercourse. While incorrectly cited as stating that all intercourse is rape, the book nevertheless took an extreme position in stark contrast to something like the pansexuality of Shulamith Firestone. “Intercourse,” Dworkin wrote, “is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” This fundamentalism would later lead her to make such bizarre arguments as women needing their own homeland as Jews had Israel.

Her willingness to collaborate with the right wing was distasteful, but it actually was not this which led to the feminist movement ostracizing her. It was her radical assertions about the fundamental violence of maleness that led feminists to want to distance themselves. But like W.I.T.C.H., Dworkin’s ideas would re-emerge later, claimed by the very movement founded in opposition of her.

What crashed the second wave of feminism however was not the so-called “feminist sex wars.” Rather, it was the inadequacy exposed by Anita Hill’s testimony against the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Despite the brave, history-making advocacy of Anita Hill seeking justice for the sexual harassment she received from Thomas, Justice Thomas was able to get confirmed by the Senate. Justice Thomas deftly used the term “high-tech lynching” to refer to Anita Hill’s testimony against him. The Democrats were caught offguard. They failed to understand the complexities of intersecting forms of oppression like racism and sexism. Nor did they seem to care enough to even attempt to.

The fundamentalist politics of Dworkin, or even the materialist feminism of Firestone, were also ill-equipped to handle the unique challenges that Black women and other women of color had always faced. While women of color had known and advocated for it since the 19th century, white feminists finally began to realize that a new kind of feminist politics needed to be created that was up to the challenge of making the political divisions clear.

This would initially be guided by Kimberle Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality. But what began as a way to describe how black women employees could be discriminated against by an employer that hired both black men and white women would become distorted by the concurrent neoliberalism that took a stranglehood of the Left in the 1990’s. This distortion created the predominant liberal feminism of today, a politics that reconciled the fundamentalism of Andrea Dworkin and intersectionality of Crenshaw by rendering it as an aesthetic politics like W.I.T.C.H.

Read the next chapter here.

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Emma Caterine

Emma Caterine


Feminist socialist writer fighting for econ justice. Views do not represent my firm, DSA, or my cats, who are sadly both ultra leftists.