The Chicago Womens Liberation Union: On the Cutting Edge of Protest Against Sexual Objectification (2000)
Tim Hodgdon was a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History
at Arizona State University when he wrote this. He is now a Ph.D
teaching at St. Thomas University, Fredericton,
NB in Canada.
Origins of feminist consciousness of sexual objectification
Second-wave radical feminists concern with the issue of sexual objectification dates from the earliest days of the movement. That concern first became publicly visible on 7 September 1968, when perhaps as many as two hundred women converged on Atlantic City, New Jersey from throughout the eastern United States to oppose the Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol perpetuated by the Miss America pageant.
Days prior to the event, the members of New York Radical Women (NYRW) had publicized their intention to protest . . . an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent [them] by staging a day-long boardwalk-theater event that would include Picket Lines; Guerrilla Theater; Leafleting; . . . ; [and] a huge Freedom Trash Can into which the demonstrators would throw bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle, etc. . . . NYRW encouraged women to bring any such woman-garbage you have around the house. . . .
But a magazine of a somewhat different genre, self-described as Entertainment for Men, numbered among the publications discarded that day. Perhaps inspired by the NYRW leaflets assertion that Miss America and Playboys centerfold are sisters over the skin, someone thought to bring a copy of Playboy to the protest. A reporter for the New York Times noted that, in the exhilaration of the moment, the women ripped up the magazine before dumping it into the trash can.1
At the same time, womens liberationists confronted among men of the counterculture and the New Left an ethos of revolutionary sexuality consistent with those movements broad commitment to, in the words of sociologists Jack Whalen and Richard Flacks, self-liberation-freeing impulse and emotion from social repression and psychic inhibition-and the fostering of persons aware of their needs and desires, and capable of expressing them.
As with other dimensions of the culture of youthful radicalism, this revolutionary sexuality reinforced male privilege, requiring womens unquestioning sexual availability for its fulfillment. Womens liberationists criticized the celebration of mens sexual self-interest evident in what the members of Bay Area Womens Liberation termed in 1969 a flood of pornography coming out of the hippie culture and the white male movement, primarily revealed through their underground press. . . .
A year later, two members of the same collective observed that radical men had merely transferred the same old shit from [the] plastic, cosmetic wrapping of the Establishments glamorized beauty culture to a cheaper, tie-dyed package, and expected us to swallow it more willingly. Nevertheless, as historian Mari Trine has argued, womens liberation continued and furthered many of the ideas about sexuality that appeared in the underground press, asserting womens right to a self-determined sexual subjectivity. Even as they distanced their new movement from the male-dominated left, many womens liberationists believed fervently that sexual pleasure undermined the repressive Protestant ethic. In their revisionist notion of revolutionary sex, the sexual objectification of women by men stood in antithesis to sexual freedom.2
The movement protested against sexual objectification in a variety of creative ways, depending on local conditions. The Chicago Womens Liberation Union stood on the cutting edge of this wave of protest as it crested in 1970. Playboy Enterprises made its headquarters in downtown Chicago, and Hugh Hefner lived not far away, in the notorious Playboy Mansion. The CWLU decided to take their concerns to Hefners front door.
The CWLUs contribution
The determination to confront Hugh Hefner as a purveyor of images of women as sexual objects sparked many demonstrations in 1970, including one at his Playboy Mansion in Chicago. On 15 April, Hefner hosted a party to raise funds for the local Moratorium Against the [Vietnam] War committee. That evening, perhaps two hundred demonstratorsmostly women, but men, too, bearing a big [Viet] Cong flaganswered the CWLUs call to action. Penny, a member of the Union, wrote that many other womens liberationists in the area had been chafing to do a Playboy action, anxious to expose the hypocrisy of Hefners stated opposition to an unjust war abroad while profiting from his own unjust exploitation of women at home. Shelley, another member, wrote that the demonstrators objected to Hefners Playboy Empirebuilt on the concept that a woman is a mindless, big-boobed cunt, another accessory to a playboys total wardrobe. The protesters exhorted guests to sign your checks, but dont go in! Only one couple decided to follow this course of action, but Penny asserted that over half [of] the paying guests didnt show up. She also claimed that Hefner withdrew financial support of a civil-rights fundraising dinner for Charles Evers, black mayor of Payette, Mississippi, because a board member of the sponsoring organization had helped to spoil his party.3
Women angered by the degrading image of the Playboy Playmate of the Month and other manifestations of American beauty culture staged further protests in 1970. More than fifty activists in the Boston area demonstrated outside that citys Playboy club on 28 March. A few weeks later, a group of about twenty men burst into a conference of college fraternities at the same club, chanting Free our sisters, free ourselves! The following month, the womens-liberationist newspaper Off Our Backs parodied the Playboy centerfold by publishing one of its own, dubbed Mr. April. Shortly after the 15 April protest at Hefners mansion, Playboy published Morton Hunts Up Against the Wall, Male Chauvinist Pig, touting it as an exposé of womens liberations blind hatred of men. The article prompted renewed picketing in June by both women and pro-feminist men in Chicago. Elsewhere, a few women withdrew from beauty pageants, while an ad-hoc group, Sisters Against Sexual Slavery, gathered in downtown Century City, California, to mock a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, Girl-Watching Week, with an ogle-in of their own. New York City womens liberationists staged a protest to liberate bunnies outside a local Playboy club on 9 June.4
However, the appeal of beauty culture and the Playboy empire as targets for concerted action seems to have waned as 1970 drew to a close. The number of protests against Hefners enterprises reported in the feminist and countercultural press declined after 1971. Laura Lederer offered a plausible explanation when, in 1980, she reminisced that more serious and crucial battles (or so it seemed at the time) were being fought in the arenas of reproductive rights . . . and crisis intervention in response to growing awareness of sexual violence and woman-beating as widespread threats to womens safety and human rights.5
1."No More Miss America! Ten Points of Protest," reprinted in Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970), 521-523; Charlotte Curtis, "Miss America Pageant is Picketed by One Hundred Women," New York Times, 8 September 1968, 81. Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the protest's organizers estimated that two hundred women picketed the pageant ("FBI Probed Women's Lib for LBJ White House," Arizona Republic 15 September 1991; Robin Morgan, "Women Disrupt the Miss America Pageant," in idem, Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist [New York: Random House, 1977], 64).
2.Jack Whalen and Richard Flacks, Beyond the Barricades: The Sixties Generation Grows Up (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 13; Bay Area Womens Liberation, "Stop the Pornies, Tooth and Nail" (Berkeley, Calif.) 1, no. 2 (1 October 1969): 12; Sandy [Boucher] and Ellen, "A Good Time Exposed by Al"l, It Aint Me, Babe, 6 August 1970, 17; Mari Trine, Revolutionary Sex: Continuities in the Underground Press and Womens Liberation Movement Publications, paper presented at the Twenty-First Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association, New Orleans, La., 11 October 1996, 1-2; quote appears at 1.
3.Penny, "Mindless Sex Objects", Chicago Seed 5, no. 3 (1970): 5, 7, 18; Shelley, "Storm the Winter Palace", Chicago Seed 5, no. 3 (1970): 5.
4.Boler, Lake, and Wynne, We Sisters, 263. On Mr. April, see Carol Anne Douglas and Fran Moira, "Off Our Backs: The First Decade (1970-1980)", in Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam-Era Underground Press, ed. Ken Wachsberger (Tempe, Ariz.: Mica Press, 1993), 110. Morton Hunt, "Up Against the Wall, Male Chauvinist Pig!" Playboy: Entertainment for Men 17, no. 5 (1970). "Men Picket Playboy", Everywoman, 31 July 1970, 4; "Contestant Quits Auction", Fifth Estate (Detroit), 2-15 April 1970, 14; Ann Forfreedom, "First L.A. Ogle-In", Everywoman, 11 September 1970, 5; Judith Hole and Ellen Levine, Rebirth of Feminism (New York: Quadrangle, 1971), caption to photo appearing between pp. 242-243.
Copyright 2000 by Timothy Hodgdon. Please do not reproduce without his permission. You may contact him at:
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