by Juliet Mitchell
Pantheon Books (1972)
Women’s Estate is about the history of the modern women’s liberation movement. Women’s liberation began in the US in the late 60s and quickly spread to Britain and the rest of the industrialized world. Mitchell compares and contrasts women’s liberation with the earlier feminist movement of 1880-1920, as well as tracing contemporary political influences that shaped it.
Mitchell traces the modern feminist movement to the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963. In 1966, Friedan would co-found National Organization for Women (NOW) with Gloria Steinem (see Did the CIA Use Gloria Steinem to Subvert the Feminist Movement?). Mitchell classifies NOW as a “reformist” group that limited itself to winning isolated reforms (affirmative action laws, legalized abortion and access to birth control, etc), as opposed to women’s liberation groups which sought to overthrow patriarchy and male-dominated society.
Owing to the immense media attention it received, women’s liberation was the most public revolutionary movement in history. According to Mitchell, its main influences were the mid-sixties black liberation movement, the student movement and the youth (aka “hippy”*) movement.
She traces the official origin of women’s liberation to a protest at Nixon’s 1969 inauguration in which female speakers were taunted with sexually explicit insults. This was the last straw in a long frustrating period in which male antiwar activists edged women out of decision-making and relegated them to typing and tea making.
By 1970, there were women’s liberation groups in all of the developed world, except for Ireland, Austria and Switzerland.
Although women typically experience the most extreme levels of poverty and oppression, the women’s liberation movement, like the earlier suffrage movement, was mainly led by middle class women. According to Mitchell, it’s common for the oppression of underprivileged women to be passed off as natural and unchangeable.
Mitchell devotes most of the book to an analysis of the politics of oppression and the cultural factors (especially so-called “family values) that cause women’s oppression to appear invisible.
In her view, this is why consciousness raising groups were so essential to women’s liberation. By openly sharing their negative treatment by men, women were astonished to learn other women had similar, often identical, experiences. This helped them to acknowledge their individual frustration and suffering was, in actuality, a political problem.
As Mitchell puts it:
The first symptom of oppression is the repression of words: the state of suffering is so total and assumed, it’s not known to be there.
*According to Mitchell, the hippies rebelled against social manipulation and emotional repression by the political establishment without seeking specific political change.