Yours in Struggle: how secondwave feminist periodicals mediated internal conflict and formed political theory

Yours in Struggle: how secondwave feminist periodicals mediated internal conflict and formed political theory

Secondwave feminist periodicals: not to be underestimated

 By Bec Wonders

Women’s publishing experienced an unprecedented moment between the late 1960s and early 1990s in the U.K., the U.S., Canada, France and notable examples in India. Women’s bookstores, publishers, periodicals, distributors, editors and printers acted as a foundational mechanism for feminist theory to circulate and develop. During the secondwave of feminism, periodicals in particular made up the mortar which glued together different strands of thought and organizations, building the irregular but impressive superstructure of the women's liberation movement. It is through communication in secondwave feminist periodicals that we get a glimpse into the inner workings of the movement. With the advantage of being able to look back, we have a duty as feminists today to engage with these highly laboured documents. Secondwave feminists gifted the next generation of feminists with strategy, theory, experimentation, network-creation, politics - but perhaps most important of all: approaches for mediating internal conflict. Rather than starting from scratch, we have much to learn from these women, especially the ways in which they facilitated disagreements through the printed medium.

What is unique about the publishing of periodicals is how they enabled a growing feminist constituency to string together a network of women. Periodicals acted as a kind of feminist glue, which developed its adhesive qualities not merely through the publishing process itself, but importantly through the way circulation of communication allowed counterpublics to grow. The “open letter” section, a common spread found in secondwave feminist periodicals, is particularly noteworthy. Open letters, (or “letters to the editor”), are a familiar format for readers to share their opinion with a publication. However, the ways in which secondwave feminists made use of this format is of crucial significance to feminists today for two interrelated reasons: firstly, looking at letters in feminist periodicals provides an intimate, and overlooked, historical record of the disagreements and conflicts women were having within the feminist movement. Secondly, open letters were embedded in the context of the rest of the periodical, which meant that the larger project of women’s liberation and opposing viewpoints on how to achieve shared political goals were presented in unison. Not only was this a way of sharing solidarity across difference, but it is also an essential record for feminist to understand today, in order for disagreements and conflict to continue in good faith, rather than wiping the slate clean.

Feminist “letters to the editor” shaped political theory

It is the element of connection and communication that begins the process of political fermentation, without which feminist theory could not have taken hold as it has. Women's groups formed idiosyncratically across the world, linked by personal communications and public communications within feminist periodicals. Agatha Beins, Professor in Feminist Theory and Women's Studies at Texas Woman's University, argues that "the role of periodicals in creating and sustaining an imagined community for feminism should not be underestimated: they allowed readers to see themselves as part of a much larger entity."[4]

The letters section offered a quintessential forum for conflict and criticism to take place, as well as praise and appreciation. Historian and writer Sarah Schulman talks about conflict that makes sense in this context, as she says that “conflict, after all, is rooted in difference and people are and always will be different.”[5] She argues that failure to resolve conflict in organized groups often occurs because of stubbornness to integrate other points of view. This leads us to “often pretend, believe or claim that Conflict is Abuse and therefore deserves punishment.”[6] Periodicals as a format encourage a participating readership in order for its circulation to take effect. Disagreement and conflict within the pages of feminist periodicals are therefore a possible indication of an engaged and invested reading public. Margaretta Jolly, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, frames these letters within the larger project of spinning an idealized feminist "web," held together by a culture of relationality. Crucially, in order to reconcile the idealistic and the pragmatic conditions for developing an ethic of care, Jolly’s study approaches angry and disappointed letters as a substantial part of the feminist movement’s internal arguments. She argues that the letter format intends to hurt on the one hand, but on the other it simultaneously also signals an extension of comradery: “Although they often intend to punch, these fists have soft palms inside softer gloves, their epistolary framing signalling a continued longing for feminist love.”[7]

No matter how scathing the criticism may have been, letters responding to a particular author or train of thought are almost without fault signed with "in sisterhood," followed by the letter writer's name. Variations include "yours in sisterhood," "in struggle," "with love and hope" and "a sister resister." Women signalled their commitment to the wider feminist cause by signing off with a feminist slogan, which in the most generous interpretation can be read as a sense of solidarity across difference. This is in direct contrast to what Sarah Schulman has described as the practice of "overstating harm" in conflict resolution: "overstatement of harm is often expressed in 'shunning,' a literal refusal to speak in person with another human being, or group of people, an exclusion of their information, the active obstruction to a person being heard and the pretence that they do not exist."[8] In other words, despite possible irreconcilable difference, and sometimes personal tensions, women gestured towards the larger project of women's liberation by signing off "in sisterhood." The form of the letter can thus provide a hoped-for trust in its address, while also signalling that the women’s movement (and perhaps “sisterhood”) is by no means easily obtained.

Feminists periodicals enabled debates to take place over several issues, often publishing dissenting letters directed at the publication itself, and thereby encouraged differences instead of suppressing them. That is not to say that differences do not matter, or that they didn’t have a lasting impact on the trajectory of particular feminist strategies, but that the forum of a feminist periodical acted as kind of a mediator, aided by the analogue time of circulation to let various arguments sink in and resonate (or not) with women. Feminist periodicals offer insight into the inner workings of the movement, particularly the ideological conflicts which sometimes splintered groups, and at other times strengthened them. By looking specifically at the letters sections of these periodicals, the nuances and complexities of the secondwave women's movement are better understood and may counter the temptation to historicise an oversimplified uniformity that is often present in contemporary attitude towards the secondwave period.

Weaving together a feminist web

Meagan Morris writes that “the most dreadful condemnation stray feminists have to fear here is dismissal with the last dinosaurs of the late sixties.”[9] This is in response to the characterization of secondwave feminism as white, heterosexist, racist, and without a sense of intersectionality. What the periodical document can offer is a chance to re-narrate what has been a binary stereotyping of an incredibly diverse and networked movement. In highlighting overlooked feminist historical records, we become less inclined to think of liberation movements as linear, becoming more progressive with time, but instead circular, dealing with interrelated points of tension again and again. By reading feminist communications and letters, one may get a more nuanced understanding of internal conflicts, contradicting strategies, and the various tensions which shaped the way women interpreted themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to the larger feminist project.

It is then our responsibility as feminists not to let conflict disappear as bloopers in an otherwise supposedly uniform historicising but rather consider them of great importance for how we may re-engage instead of starting from scratch. By centring the letters in feminist periodicals, we also centre conflict, disagreement, but ultimately solidarity and a sense of collectivity among strangers. Letters are a legitimate and essential record in feminist history that must not be overlooked or trivialized. It shows that feminists were preoccupied with an exhausting amount of varying issues and were not shy to discuss their differences. The idiosyncrasy and diversity of varying publications indicate that there were many positions held, groups formed, and strategies conceived. The periodical as a medium influenced the formulation of feminist theory and action and acted as a medium for conflict to be expressed. By letting these conversations resurface, the feminist counterpublic that created and was fed by its textual and circulated medium is revived, and most importantly evidences its activity and duration.

 [1] Nancy C. M. Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” in Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues, ed. Sandra G. Harding (Indiana University Press, 1987), 168.

[2] See reference 1.

[3] Martha Allen, “The Development of Communication Networks Among Women, 1963-1983: A History of Women’s Media in the U.S.,” Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, 1988,

[4] Agatha Beins, Liberation in Print: Feminist Periodicals and Social Movement Identity (University of Georgia Press, 2017). 8.

[5] Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). 20.

[6] See reference 5. 20-21.

[7] Margaretta. Jolly, In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism (Columbia University Press, 2008). 63.

[8] Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse. 21.

[9] Meaghan. Morris, The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism (Verso, 1988). 69.