ifeminists.com: A central gathering place and information center for individualist feminists.   -- explore the new feminism --
introduction | interaction | information

ifeminists.com > introduction > editorials

Thoughts on Social Revolution
August 25, 2004
by Joan Kennedy Taylor

In the summer of 1970, a surprisingly large number of women marched down the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the amendment by which women won the vote. It was feared by many that the march had been inspired by "radical feminists," even perhaps Marxists, and many existing women's organizations were loath to join or endorse the march. I was there. I don't know who first thought of the march and did the initial organizing, what I do remember is that all sorts of women with all sorts of views took part. In other words, the march outgrew whatever specific vision its organizers had, and became a joyous coming together of women, mostly middle-class white women, who felt that together, they could help each other to change their lives.

And that march did mark the beginning of change. For many people, including myself, it began an involvement in the contemporary woman's movement.

The parallels between race relations and gender relations are sometimes surprising. When the feminist movement I am speaking of was revived in the late 1960s and early 1970s, much of what was asked for politically was modelled on the civil rights movement. A concern with sexual discrimination had been piggy-backed onto the outlawing of racial discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The idea of equal rights before the law that had long been a racial goal was expanded to include equal rights for women when the Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress in 1972.

But it became apparent to women that much of what they hoped for could not be completely addressed by the law. They wanted a change of attitude, on the part of women as well as men, and indeed such a social revolution did occur, as women poured out of their suburban homes into offices and educational institutions to change everyone's expectations of domestic life forever.

Now another segment of the population may be latching onto a social revolution of its own, paralleling the enthusiasm and perhaps the widespread change of the feminist revolution in our society.

I am speaking, of course, of the Million Man March that took place in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1995. Like the women's march, it called to a particular group, this time black men, not white women. Like the women's march, it was not endorsed by many existing organizations who were nervous as to the part the organizers expected to play. Like the women's march, it outgrew its organizers, so that 25 years hence, it may be that no one will remember the publicized part played by Louis Farrakhan. And like the women's march, people who went there came back with an inspiration and a sense of activism that is changing their lives.

A reporter for the New York Times interviewed "nearly two dozen men" who had all gone to the march on a bus chartered in Harlem by a businessman who belonged to a civic group called One Hundred Black Men. Their backgrounds and occupations were very different, but they all said the experience had affected them in ways that had nothing to do with Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. Some increased the community work they had already been involved in. One man joined the NAACP. One joined a church. One store owner decided to build a community center in the basement of his store to offer job training to unemployed men. A high school student was moved to "think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life." Another man was surprised to find himself "speaking to other black men that pass on the street or at work." In other words, they felt their consciousnesses had been raised.

Many of us who are not black men found our consciousnesses raised, too, by that march. The spectacle of so many people, coming together in such enthusiasm and in such an orderly fashion -- television news reports told us that in all those crowds there was only one arrest, for disorderly conduct, the entire day -- was very hopeful and moving. One of the men interviewed by the Times said that "there were a million men out there with not a marijuana cigarette or whiskey bottle in sight. It reaffirmed my confidence in the goodness of people."

This is how changes occur in society. First, individuals have to believe that change is possible. Then they connect with like-minded others. Then events occur that show them that they can connect with a significant number of like-minded others. And only then do they take action.

For social action to occur, it's important to know that others who agree with you are out there, so that social action is possible. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique gave its readers impressive research to show that many, many women were afflicted with "the problem that has no name" -- the isolation and lack of purpose of most housewives who had been taught that they should live entirely for others. And enough women responded to the book to make it a best-seller, thus creating awareness of a community. This in turn provided a catalyst for action.

The Million Man March provided a similar catalyst for many people. In a review last summer of a new book by Ellis Cose, A Man's World: How Real is Male Privilege -- and How High is Its Price, Stephen L. Carter wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Cose "learns what serious scholars already know, that the great majority of black males are not, after all, members of an endangered species (most are middle-class and employed)." Cose is himself a middle-class black male, an editor at Newsweek and the author in 1994 of a book about black professionals, The Rage of a Privileged Class, and this was apparently new information to him. (Not to Carter, who put it in a parenthesis.) It was probably new to the hundreds of thousands of middle-class black men who went to Washington, and suddenly saw each other, as many women did in New York in 1970.

Since the march, men all over the country who attended have held follow-up meetings. In Harlem, schools held seminars on it. The New York Urban League reported a record number of new volunteers, and several black fraternities report that their members want to establish new programs for young people.

In 1970, middle-class women started battered-women shelters, formed abortion-rights organizations, started consciousness-raising groups, started business networks, and changed the face of higher education. We connected with each other to make things better for other women, at the same time that we were inspired to make our own individual lives more meaningful. And by our doing all of this, "women's issues" became visible to society at large, which means, to the market. The market then responded with services, new educational institutions, new rules in old educational institutions, and eventually, a changing view of the work force.

It took time, and it wasn't easy. But it happened, and it's still happening.

How is society going to change as a result of the coming together of the majority of black men -- those who are middle-class and employed -- who are now discovering that what changes society is individuals taking individual action and forming and supporting organizations to expedite and magnify those actions? No one can predict it in its entirety.

That's the fascinating aspect of the market. As Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions, "Both the friends and the foes of economic decision-making processes refer to 'the market' as if it were an institution parallel with, and alternative to the government as an institution. The government is indeed an institution, but 'the market' is nothing more than an option for each individual to choose among numerous existing institutions, or to fashion new arrangements suited to his own situation and taste."

Poor Louis Farrakhan. A social revolution, unlike a political revolution, has no leaders. Or to put it another way, it has so many leaders than none of them can become pre-eminent. Simon Bolivar was "the father of his country," but who was the "father" of the Industrial Revolution? You can't come up with one name, any more than you can put a name to the "creator" of the contemporary feminist movement. Was it Simone de Beauvoir? Betty Friedan? Margaret Sanger? Rita Mae Brown? Germaine Greer? NARAL? Karen DeCrow? The original Heterodoxy? Ms. magazine? There were so many authors and books, so many new organizations, that who influenced you depends totally on who you are.

I didn't expect a specifically black men's movement. I've always been sympathetic to a movement for men parallel to the women's movement, to help them, too, to change their lives. But up to now, there has been no call large enough to galvanize large numbers of men to come together. Beating drums in the woods just hasn't done it.

But black men are in a unique position. As women have been (and still are), they are strongly subject to negative stereotyping. And perhaps the worst stereotype they face is the same one that women have faced over the years: the stereotype that the expectations of them that "society" holds means that they can do nothing meaningful to change their lot. One you interiorize that, it becomes true.

This is the stereotype that began to change in October of 1995.

This piece was originally published by the Association of Libertarian Feminists.

ifeminists.com > home | introduction | interaction | information | about

ifeminists.com is edited by Wendy McElroy; it is made possible by support from The Independent Institute and members like you.