The configuration of gender relations in the student movement is very different today than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Female students have far more power than women of my generation ever had. They are the majority in most classes and are preparing for a life of autonomy and self-reliance, at least autonomy from men if not from capital. But relations with men are more ambiguous and confusing. Increased equality hides the fact that many of the issues the women’s movement raised have not been resolved, especially with regard to re-production. It hides the fact that we are not engaged collectively in a socially transformative project as women, and that, with the advance of neo-liberalism, there has been a re-masculinization of society. The truculent, masculinist language of “We are the Crisis,” the opening article of “After the Fall,” is an egregious example of it. I fully understand why many women feel threatened rather than empowered by it.
The decline of feminism as a social movement has also meant that the experience of collectively organizing around women’s issues is unknown to many female students and everyday life has been de-politicized. What priorities to choose, how to balance waged work and the reproduction of our families so that (learning from the experience of black women) we keep something of ourselves to give to our own, how to love and live our sexuality—these are all questions that female students now must answer individually, outside of a political framework and this is a source of weakness in their relations with men. Add that academic life, especially at the graduate level, creates a very competitive environment where those who have less time to devote to intellectual work are immediately marginalized, and eloquence and theoretical sophistication are often mistaken as a measure of political commitment.
A crucial lesson we can learn from the past is that in the presence of power inequalities, women must organize autonomously even to be able to name the problems they face and gain the strength to voice their discontent and desires. In the ‘70s, we clearly saw that we could not speak of the issues concerning us in the presence of men. As the authors of “Direct Action as Feminist Practice ” so powerfully write, you do not need to be “silenced,” the very power configurations that rob us of our voice take away our ability to name the specific working of this power.(6)
How autonomy is achieved can vary. We do not have to think of autonomy in terms of permanent separate structures. We realize now that we can create movements within movements and struggles within struggles, but calling for unity in the face of conflicts in our organizations is politically disastrous. What we can learn from the past is that by constructing temporary autonomous feminist spaces we can break with psychological dependence on men, validate our experience, build a counter discourse and set new norms—like the need to democratize language and not make of it a means of exclusion.
I am convinced that coming together as women and as feminists is a positive turn, a precondition for overcoming marginalization. Once again, women in the student movement should not let the charge of “divisiveness” intimidate them. Rather than being divisive, the creation of autonomous spaces is necessary for bringing to the surface the full range of exploitative relations by which we are imprisoned and expose power inequalities that unchallenged would doom the movement to fail.
« Political Work with Women and as Women in the Present Conditions: Interview with Silvia Federici » in Reclamations, Issue 3, December 2010