Knowledge Trouble – Practice, Theory and Anxiety in late 1970s Feminist Movements

The British Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the late 1970s was marked by intense anxiety and discussion about the status of ‘theory’. At their last national conference held in Birmingham in 1978, the WLM buckled under the weight of a decade of collectively generated, epistemic and ideological complexity, cut across by social divisions of race, sexuality and class. In the aftermath, a radical feminist day workshop was held at the White Lion Free School, London, in April 1979, partly ‘out of a sense of desperation at feeling that none of the most evident and vocal factions at the plenary represented the politics of very many women in Women’s Liberation.’1 The meeting was also an occasion to unpick the movement’s ideological and, increasingly theoretical, density.

The papers presented at this workshop were published in the pamphlet Feminist Practice: Notes from the Tenth Year! (Theoretically Speaking). Notably, there was commentary on a new kind of activism occurring alongside the movement: academic feminist publishing. Diana Leonard’s article ‘Is Feminism More Complex than the WLM Realises?’ analysed three academically-oriented journals that were launched at the end of the 1970s: Women’s Studies International Quarterly (1978), m/f (1978), and Feminist Review (1979). ‘To judge by the language, style (footnoting, bibliographies), assumed previous knowledge, etc,’ she observed, ‘they are clearly directed at those in colleges and universities and the “educated general reader.”’2

Leonard argued in the pages of these academic journals, a new dynamic was at play that juxtaposed ‘theory’ and ‘the WLM’, a juxtaposition that can also be characterised as between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. This served, she argued, to de-skill the expertise produced within the movement, as ‘movement sources’ were overlooked in favour of citations of recognised scholarly work. She noted how the politics of feminist knowledge was undergoing transformation, so that ‘only those skilled in philosophy, sociology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, or what Mao or Lenin said on Imperialism, etc, can produce adequate accounts of the oppression of women, because only they have the tools and realise how complex it all is. The rest of us had better give up.’3 This instated a racialised and classed distinction between ‘voices and living examples of activism’ and ‘voices of and living examples of scholarship and theoretical development’ that would, Gail Lewis observed, have a negative and lasting impact on the reception of Black British feminist knowledge.4

Leonard reserved special criticism for m/f, a journal that emerged from discussions at the ‘Patriarchy’ conference held in 1976, because of its psychoanalytic and post-structuralist lens. m/f’s first issue featured the article ‘Woman as Sign’ by Elizabeth Cowie, an article that reminds us that the theoretical instability of ‘Woman’ present in m/f was not separate—or an outlier from—the legal, cultural, social and political reconstitutions of ‘Woman’ practiced in the WLM since the late 1960s. Furthermore, political aesthetics, perhaps especially evident in film, were an important strategy through which feminist subjectivity—mediated at the time through the sign of ‘Woman’—was probed and articulated in the WLM. Most importantly, the content of m/f indicates that deconstructive approaches to feminist politics were an element of 1970s knowledge politics. They were not, in other words, the sole outgrowth of an institutionalised postmodernism c.1989 onward, imposed on an ‘innocent’ feminism from without.

Even so, the spectre of theory haunted these new academic journals. Theory trouble, first animated in the British WLM by Revolutionary Feminists in 1977, called into question the political focus of the movement. Lacking a proper theory, they argued, the WLM risked sliding into liberal mediocrity. While many disagreed with the Revolutionary Feminist position and, indeed, rejected the theory they developed, the broader point they made about the role of theory in the WLM, how and why it was needed, hit a nerve.

The first editorials of m/f and Feminist Review made clear their theoretical allegiances or, we might say, their allegiance to theory. Feminist Review proclaimed that ‘to grow and struggle successfully all political movements have to develop both a theory and a political strategy […] There is a genuine fear that in the attempt to theorize our situation we shall lose the forcefulness of each woman’s personal testimony to her experience of oppression.’ In response, the tendency ‘has been to deny theory in favour of instant politics.’ The journal began with the ‘hope that Feminist Review will act as a vehicle to unite research and theory with political practice, and contribute the development of both.’5

The crafting together of theory and practice nonetheless remained an elusive problem for those whose politics straddled the practice/theory ‘divide.’ In her 1981 Feminist Review article ‘The Material of Male Power,’ Cynthia Cockburn invited her readers to take note of the ‘physical’ concentration of male power, ‘bodily physique and its extension in technology, […] buildings and clothes, space and movement.’ Doing so, she argued, ‘allows things that are part of our practice (“reclaiming the night”, teaching each other manual skills) a fuller place in our theory’.6 What Cockburn pointed out was the inability of the theoretical writing of the time to ‘reveal in theory what we know in practice’.7 The things activists do—the actions through which feminist knowledge remakes the world, part of the mesh of ‘instant politics’—become almost taboo. Certain theoretical moves have to be made, Cockburn suggests, and a particular political imagination cultivated, to allow quotidian acts of organising, re-skilling and re-tooling the ‘fuller place’ they might acquire. The important point made by Cockburn is all too easily lost because it is articulated askance, embedded in an article focused on the material compositions and re-compositions of male power. It is especially telling that she is unable to flesh out how such forms of power were constituted by the practices of women’s liberationists. The discourse to describe practice, in theoretical terms, was simply not there.

Cockburn is not be criticised for a failure to substantively theorise the material aspects of feminist politics she was part of. Rather, it is to demonstrate that comprehension of lived, historical action is sometimes suppressed by the very ideas that seek to reveal or understand it. Theory emerges in a historical context, in other words, but this doesn’t mean that such theory should be allowed to describe the actions of history, especially when theory misses important parts out: the ‘physical’, the sensory, the doing and thinking. The discussions that juxtaposed the theory and practice of WLM that evolved in the late 1970s have, however, had a lasting impact on how its histories are understood. Until now, the intellectual history of British feminism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has mostly been written by theorists, rather than historians. What this means, as a consequence, is that the intellectual history of feminism in Britain has been dominated by theoretical epistemologies that have naturalised—while also disavowing—the hierarchical opposition between theory and practice upon which they were built. This opposition exists precisely because of the historical context in which feminist theory, as a form of academic knowledge, emerged. It is time now for historians to write the history of that theory and, concurrently, write the intellectual history of feminist practice.

The featured image shows the cover of Feminist Practice: Notes from the Tenth Year! (Theoretically Speaking) (London, 1979).

  1. ‘We are the Feminists that Women Have Warned Us About:* Introductory Paper’, in Feminist Practice: Notes from the Tenth Year! (Theoretically Speaking) (London, 1979), 1–4, at 1. []
  2. Diana Leonard, ‘Is Feminism More Complex than the WLM Realises?’, in Feminist Practice: Notes from the Tenth Year! (Theoretically Speaking) (London, 1979), 30–37, at 30. []
  3. Leonard, ‘Is Feminism’, 34. My emphasis. []
  4. Gail Lewis Discusses Black Feminist Texts’, British Library, London, C1420/14. []
  5. Editorial’, in Feminist Review, 1/1 (1979), 1–3. []
  6. Cynthia Cockburn, ‘The Material of Male Power’, in Feminist Review, 9 (1981), 41–58, at 55. []
  7. Cockburn, ‘Material,’ 43. My emphasis. []

Published by

D-M Withers

D-M Withers writes about the histories of late twentieth century feminist movements. Their latest work Virago Reprints and Modern Classics: The Timely Business of Feminist Publishing will be published in 2021 as part of Cambridge University Press’s Elements in Publishing and Book Culture series.

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