Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements
Reflecting on the radical organizations and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s provides an important historical context for this discussion. Memoirs by women who were actively involved in these struggles reveal the pervasiveness of tolerance (and in some cases advocacy) of gender violence. Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown, each at different points in their experiences organizing with the Black Panther Party (BPP), cited sexism and the exploitation of women (and their organizing labor) in the BPP as one of their primary reasons for either leaving the group (in the cases of Brown and Shakur) or refusing to ever formally join (in Davis’s case). Although women were often expected to make significant personal sacrifices to support the movement, when women found themselves victimized by male comrades there was no support for them or channels to seek redress. Whether it was BPP organizers ignoring the fact that Eldridge Cleaver beat his wife, noted activist Kathleen Cleaver, men coercing women into sex, or just men treating women organizers as subordinated sexual playthings, the BPP and similar organizations tended not to take seriously the corrosive effects of gender violence on liberation struggle. In many ways, Elaine Brown’s autobiography, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, has gone the furthest in laying bare the ugly realities of misogyny in the movement and the various ways in which both men and women reproduced and reinforced male privilege and gender violence in these organizations. Her experience as the only woman to ever lead the BPP did not exempt her from the brutal misogyny of the organization. She recounts being assaulted by various male comrades (including Huey Newton) as well as being beaten and terrorized by Eldridge Cleaver, who threatened to “bury her in Algeria” during a delegation to China. Her biography demonstrates more explicitly than either Davis’s or Shakur’s how the masculinist posturing of the BPP (and by extension many radical organizations at the time) created a culture of violence and misogyny that ultimately proved to be the organization’s undoing.
These narratives demystify the legacy of gender violence of the very organizations that many of us look up to. They demonstrate how misogyny was normalized in these spaces, dismissed as “personal” or not as important as the more serious struggles against racism or class inequality. Gender violence has historically been deeply entrenched in the political practices of the Left and constituted one of the greatest (if largely unacknowledged) threats to the survival of these organizations. However, if we pay attention to the work of Davis, Shakur, Brown, and others, we can avoid the mistakes of the past and create different kinds of political community.
There are more examples—Betty Friedan was an abused woman, something that was either ignored or concealed by her fellow feminists at the time; Mark Rudd, leader of SDS and a later member of the Weather Underground, was known to be, at the very least, a sexual opportunist who used his position in the movement to extract sexual favors from women—until he was called out in Ms. by Jane Alpert. (BTW, why don’t we do more of that?? Seriously, Taylor Swift writing songs about Joe Jonas can’t be the Alpert legacy. Of course, I realize that there are many many reasons women don’t report assaults and abuse, but once something is fairly well known within a community, there should be more shouting than whispering.)
I’m not trying to shift discussion away from the examples cited in the Morris piece but since hers are all PoC, I figured it would be good to point out our fine white misogynists as well. Plus I am obsessed with Mark Rudd. (Morris does talk about white men assaulting women in the context of of social justice work in other parts of the essay—and points out how their privilege makes it even easier for them to get away with it.)
Contemporary progressive politics have been known to turn a blind eye when it comes to gender violence as well—a punk collective in the DC area recently decided to ignore the complaints of several women who had been sexually assaulted by the same guy, and to keep him as a member in good standing.
The only issue I have with Morris’ piece is the emphasis on how these misogynists might be informants. Isn’t it enough that they’re misogynists?