Damned Whores and God’s Police, liberation and the power of activist language: A guest post by Jon Piccini


A few days ago, a conference wrapped up celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the feminist classic, Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers. A bestseller in its publication year of 1975, as historian Michelle Arrow points out, it has also greatly influenced not only the rise of feminist historiography in Australia, but also society itself, famously selling over 100,000 copies and remaining in print over multiple editions to this day.

The conference allowed for a discussion of just how much Australia – and the world – has changed since the hey-day of the second wave feminist movement. An all-star lineup of men and women from a diversity of fields reflected on how much has been achieved, and what still is to be done. The book itself was obviously central, and its effect on Australia was lauded by all, yet in many ways Summers’ book might be to modern readers a strange work, almost alien.

Summers herself even found re-reading the book to be a surprising experience, particularly due to the language the book employed, or rather, didn’t. “It seems extraordinary today but in the mid-1970s we did not use terms like “domestic violence”, “sexual harassment”, “date rape” or “glass ceiling” because they had not yet been coined.” Activists of the period did not possess today’s highly developed language and understanding of the complexities of female oppression.

Yet, what interested me – as historian of 20th century activism – re-reading the book, was the language that was in it. Words like ‘Liberation’, for example, which seem out of place in the activist lexicon of today. Terms which Steve D’arcy in his work on shifts in activist rhetoric calls that of the ‘New Left’. This language employed words such as liberation, solidarity, oppression and the people, and was the inherited by the many activist groups of the sixties and seventies from the civil rights movement in the USA and anti-colonial struggles in the third world. And it had a decidedly collectivist hue, concerned with webs of power and privilege in a highly stratified capitalist society.

In the book’s final chapter, “Prospects for Liberation”, Summers defines liberation thusly:

Liberation is all about altering the most fundamental tenants of our social organisation; it is about abolishing privilege and exploitation and consolidated power. Unless the interrelationship of all determinants of an oppressed person’s existence are taken into account then we are not talking about liberation. We are merely concerned with juggling the levels of the existing social hierarchy…the concept of liberation explicitly challenges the present distribution of power in society and the fact that a small group of people control the lives of the majority (p. 463-5).

A few things are evident in this brief definition. Firstly, the idea of Liberation is tied to challenging what Sixties (broadly speaking) activists saw as ‘the system’, enwrapped in layers of exploitation and power. Secondly, these layers of oppression could not easily be untangled – there was little point challenging women’s oppression in the workplace, or in education, if you were not to challenge the totality of the ideological state apparatuses which governed women’s (and everyone else’s, to varying extents) lives under capitalism.

Summers also defines liberation in opposition to three other conceptual frames – equality, freedom and rights. And it is in these three frames that much contemporary feminism is framed – it is rare outside of the far-left socialist milieu to find a self-identifying ‘women’s liberationist’. Instead, demands for ameliorating the dreadful conditions of women under 21st century capitalism are often framed around these very terms Summers attacks – freedom of choice, women’s equality and respect for human rights.

So, why does Summers so stridently oppose these activist discourses, which today almost monopolise the language not only of the mainstream feminist movement, but many other progressive causes? In short, none of these terms ask the questions that the framework of the ‘New Left’ did. “Equality of the sexes”, Summers puts it, “has become a new and constantly reiterated catch-cry, an unimpeachable goal which requires no rationalisation and little explanation” (465).

As such, everyone form the League of Women’s Voters to the Liberal Party had adopted its rhetoric. Equality for these groups meant that “women ought to be squeezed into the existing system”, leading them to be “slot…into an extant exploitative sexist class system”. Looking into the future, Summers thought it unlikely that even a Liberal government would turn back the path to women’s equality, but in the end what would be achieved but “the right to be equally exploited alongside men” (465)?

This idea of ‘rights’ – now held up in the form of “Human rights” as the universally applicable political ideology of the present – is largely absent from the book, at least in a positive sense. Instead, demands for objectives like “the right of women to control their bodies” are presented as “generalised and often fairly abstract”—needing to be reimagined in line with local circumstances (460). For instance, in Australia “we could not expect a Bill of Rights…to necessarily alter women’s cultural impotence”, Summers argues, highlighting that the sort of government level changes and laws that are the mainstay of rights activism do little to alter those social relations of exploitation that the language of liberation highlight (466).

The idea of ‘freedom’ comes in for equal criticism – how can we demand freedom of choice – to choose an abortion, or to choose what sort of life we want to lead – when our present scope of freedom is “limited by a form of social existence which is hierarchical, stratified and patently unequal”. Freedom is “usually related to law and to custom” within the apparatus of the sexist, capitalist state and culture, while liberation highlights that “one cannot simply select…one level of the hierarchy to fight against, because all are interconnected”. (463)

This discussion of language and its powers might appear pedantic. What does it matter what words activists use, so long as the meaning is communicated? Indeed, Summers herself makes several positive references in the above mentioned article to the “struggle for equality”, seemingly in contradiction to her previous opposition to the term. As Steve D’arcy points out in his discussion of activist languages, activist words and phrases shift in meaning over time and activists could (and do) use the term equality, for instance, to argue for something closer to liberation.

But still, looking at the language employed in Damned Whores and God’s Police makes one ask questions – particularly why the language of liberation – and the ‘New Left’ vocabulary as a whole, went in to such decline during the 1980s and 1990s. D’arcy asks whether the waning of ‘New Left’ discourse “in the wake of the Reagan/Thatcher era and the wave of defeats inflicted on the Left in those years, indicate that the new vocabulary is not so much innovation as errancy, straying from radical politics in the direction of a de-fanged adaptation to defeat and political marginality?” D’arcy finds more complex answers to these questions, as I hope to in my new project looking closely at changes in Australian activist rhetoric in the post WWII period.

Dennis Altman, author of 1971’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation and an avowed liberationist who has lost none of his 1960s passions, gave a keynote at the #DWGP40 conference, asking why nobody argues for liberation anymore. Altman contended that perhaps the grand scope and ambition of liberation activism to remake the world might be seen as too utopian in 21st century Australia. However, he argued, it might be just what we need to find a path outside of capitalist hegemony.

Jon Piccini is a historian of social movements. His book, Global Radicals: Transnational protest, Australia and the 1960s is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. He tweets at @JonPiccini.

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