While the women’s movement was just beginning to ferment in 1969, Linda Gordon was a young woman working toward a Ph.D. in history and teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. One night, a friend took her to a dinner party where she heard a woman say the most unbelievable things. Women were expected to be the passive partner in romantic and sexual relationships, this woman said. It’s discrimination. “Some people say it’s like a click,” Gordon says, describing the feeling of hearing these sentiments for the first time. “It was like, That’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?“
That dinner-party conversation, led by the writer Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, changed the course of Gordon’s life. Yet as Dunbar-Ortiz remembers it, “It seemed to me she was a full-grown feminist.” Nearly five decades later, Gordon is a leading historian of the women’s movement in particular and social movements in general. A professor of history at NYU and the author of eight books ranging in topic from the women’s movement to Cossack uprisings to the life of the photographer Dorothea Lange, Gordon has both participated in and documented the rise of women’s liberation, or feminism, as we now call it.
That feeling of a “click” — that you’ve discovered something at once so foreign and so obvious that it changes your entire perspective — has in many ways characterized Gordon’s academic career. Along with Astrid Henry and Dorothy Sue Cobble, she co-wrote a book, published last summer, called Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, in which each of the three writers tackles a separate chapter.
“I still feel that a lot of people have tremendous misunderstandings about the women’s movement,” she says. Sitting behind a desk in her small office at NYU’s history department, on Washington Square South, she pulls out the bottom drawer and props up her feet. “It’s important to understand that there were a lot of women’s groups that were really part of the socialist feminist stream. They were concerned with economic issues, they were concerned with health — it was not all about abortion and sexuality, which is what dominates, and I wanted people to understand that.”
In the introduction for Dear Sisters, a book of primary documents from the women’s movement in the Sixties and Seventies that she co-edited in 2000 with Rosalyn Baxandall, Gordon and Baxandall write, “It is hard to imagine an historical event as widespread and powerful as the women’s liberation movement that has been so poorly documented and reported…Even our most feminist students have absorbed inaccurate ideas and cliches.”
Does Women’s History Month magnify the inaccuracy and cliches? Commemoration is important to Gordon, and she’s happy that Women’s History Month exists. But she feels that such events tend to emphasize individuals over collective social action — as does feminism in general today.
“I do feel that to some extent, the movement has become very individualist, in which feminism means to a lot of women that I, individually, will not succumb to all of these gender standards. That I will resist, that I will be free, that I will not be at the beck and call of men, as opposed to a sense of being together with other people.” In contrast, Gordon’s own experiences in the women’s movement were characterized by a sense of solidarity, of connecting with other women and expressing the previously inexpressible.
“I teach and write about social movements in general, not just the women’s movement, and the secret ingredient that a lot of people don’t really talk about in terms of what makes social movements work is pleasure. I think people are often at their happiest when they are with other people who are not necessarily bosom buddies, but who have a sense of solidarity around an ethical issue that they really care about.”
In Boston in the Seventies, Gordon belonged to a consciousness-raising group, one of many that sprouted up around 1968 in Chicago, Boston, and New York, then spread to the entire nation and, eventually, the world.
“There was a feeling of fun that we had,” she says of her group. “This is the period of the birth of lots of fabulous rock ‘n’ roll, and we would play music and we would eat and we would get stoned.”
The process of writing Feminism Unfinished in some ways mirrored the cooperative nature of early feminist groups. Cobble, who teaches at Rutgers and wrote one section of the book, says that one of Gordon’s strengths is her willingness to collaborate.
“That’s sort of unusual for historians, who often work on their own,” Cobble says. “We just sat around her kitchen table and hammered out the things that all of us would emphasize in the chapters and that gave it some continuity.” She adds: “Sometimes academics can be a bit intolerant of other people’s opinions and of disagreements, and she’s just not that way. We had great fun disagreeing as well as agreeing.”
As a participant in the women’s movement, Gordon learned the value of collective action. But as a historian, she has learned that it’s harder to dramatize such action than it is to pick out one or two colorful personalities who come to stand for the movement as a whole.
“That’s a problem,” she says. “Personalities are really important. It’s complicated, and it has to do not only with how you write about these things but also with how social movements work, because sometimes the egocentricity of a lot of the male leaders can really drive you nuts. But on the other hand, you do need people who are willing to assume leadership.”
Still, when Gordon thinks about her students, she feels hopeful about the future of feminism. When she was a college student, she says, “there were some ways in which I didn’t really think I was a woman. I saw myself primarily as a student. Although there was discrimination, it was subtle and it was sub rosa and I wasn’t aware of it.”
But now, her female students have a completely different framework for thinking about themselves and their place in the world. “In a way, they may not think they’re feminists precisely because they take for granted all this change,” Gordon says, “and I’m happy about that. I want them to take it absolutely for granted.”