I heard with great sadness of the death of Diana E H Russell last week. I reacted to the news in a very visceral way. My reaction was not only at the loss of a great feminist thinker, but also a recognition that the generation of women at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s are ageing – we are close to the end of an era.
Seeing her name took me straight back to the 1980’s.
I was working with young offenders and adolescents at risk. The ‘adolescents at risk’ was an obvious euphemism for teenage girls who were running away from home, living on the streets, acting promiscuously and considered at risk and therefore in need of the care of the state.
The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960’s and ‘70’s had raised the issue of child sexual abuse. Whilst few of the young women that I worked with revealed a history of child sexual abuse, it became obvious to me that I needed to learn more. And so, began years of reading and research into understanding child sexual abuse.
Diana Russell’s book ‘The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women’ was one of the first books I read.
I still have the hard cover copy bought in the 1980’s in my bookshelf.
This book was followed by Judith Herman’s ‘Father-Daughter Incest’, Louise Armstrong ‘Kiss Daddy Goodnight’ and ‘The Home Front: Notes from the Family War Zone’, Phyliss Chesler ‘Women and Madness’, Susan Brownmiller ‘Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape’, Florence Rush ‘The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children’, Linda Gordon “Heroes of Their Own Lives”.
It was these pioneering women who were determined to break open the taboo of incest, to challenge Freud’s notion of false allegations, and to lay open that child sexual abuse was not the ‘stranger-danger’ myth that we had been raised on, but one that happened in the family home, by fathers, brothers, relatives, friends of the family, and in our churches, our orphanages, our schools.
Of course, the professionals – the psychologists, the social workers, the psychiatric profession were also doing their research, hypothesising and developing theories about incest and child sexual abuse. Louise Armstrong explores the incest industry in rocking the Cradle of Sexual Violence. Family dysfunction was one theory that was popular at the time. Of course, it must be the mother’s fault.
As I was grappling with the family dysfunction theories I came across a short article by Liz Kelly which debunked the mother-blaming myths. I was on my way to developing an understanding of feminist critique of male violence against women and children.
In the 1990’s I did my masters research into child sexual abuse allegations and family law – and learned of the connections between domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Liz Kelly’s work on the continuum of sexual violence led me to a greater understanding of patriarchal male violence.
Up until this time I was focused on male violence within the home. Once my research was completed, I was able to broaden my feminist reading. Finding Gerda Lerner and her work on the creation of patriarchy, and the importance of women’s history and the patriarchal silencing of women’s voices and experiences opened another path for me to explore.
In early 2000 I had the privilege of joining the Feminist Agenda, an Australian based radical feminist email list. Here I was able to learn from, interact with wonderful radical feminists who were generous and helpful in guiding my learning. Betty McClellan, Sheila Jeffreys, Susan Hawthorne, Renate Klein, Bronwyn Winter were among the many radical feminist on the list.
Feminist fiction was also central to my awareness raising. Marilyn French’s ‘The Woman’s Room’ was one of my first, followed by Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series and ‘The Golden Notebook; Marge Piercy “Woman on the Edge of Time’; Margaret Atwood; Simone de Beauvoir and her autobiographies; – books that have a permanent place on my bookshelves to be read and re-read – and always discovering many more.
The issues of race and class were also feminist issues and I have been privileged to read Australian Indigenous writers such as Melissa Lucashenko, Doris Pilkington Garimara (The Rabbit Proof Fence), Larissa Behrendt, and most recently Tara June Winch and African-American authors such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lord, Angela Davis.
Maria Mies, Sylvia Federici , Susan Hawthorne and Vandana Shiva broadened my horizons as to the impact of patriarchal capitalism and colonialism on women throughout the world. And introduced me to the concept of eco-feminism.
I could fill several pages listing so many feminists who have made a tremendous and inspirational difference not only in my life, but in the lives of many women.
Whilst I identify some of the feminists who have been at the forefront of the radical feminist movement, a recurring theme in my reading is the importance of grass roots activism. These women and many more were not just researchers and theoreticians. They were also activists. As a result of the women’s liberation movement we have domestic violence refuges, rape crisis centres, created legislative change to protect women from male violence, and so much more. As an activist for close to 40 years, I have also met many women who have devoted their lives to support and care for women oppressed by patriarchy.
I want to pay tribute to these women. Despite the obstacles that women face – in speaking out, in writing, in research, in activism, women have persevered. They have documented the experiences of women’s oppression; they have developed and continue to develop radical feminist theory.
Gerda Lerner shows us how women’s voices, women’s history has previously been un-documented, seen as unimportant in the patriarchal world.
Our voices have risen up. I feel a deep gratitude to the women of the ‘second wave’ of feminism. Their work will live on. Younger women now have a history. No longer are they denied knowledge of our struggles and achievements.
“Men develop ideas and systems of explanation by absorbing past knowledge, and critiquing, and superseding it. Women, ignorant of their own history, did not know what women before them had thought and taught. So generation after generation, they struggled for insights others had already had before them.” (Lerner, p. 19, ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’)
The women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s has begun to develop a written history of women’s experiences, intellectual thought and knowledge.
Women’s voices can no longer be dismissed.
“Once the basic fallacy of patriarchal thought – the assumption that a half of humankind can adequately represent the whole – has been exposed and explained, it can no more be undone than was the insight that the earth is round, not flat.” (Lerner, p. 273 ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’)