"Letter to the Left": A Call for Women's Liberation


Ellen Willis was a journalist, feminist, and cultural critic, best known for her political essays. She also drew on her Jewish background in essays on religion and anti-Semitism. In 1969, she co-founded a radical feminist organization called Redstockings. The excerpt below is taken from her essay, "Letter to the Left," which was written in 1969 to explain the need for a movement focused specifically on women's liberation. Whereas many on the Left identified capitalism as the source of all social problems and inequalities, Willis argued that patriarchy – the social system based on governance by or dominance of males – was the root of women's oppression, and that women's oppression would not be alleviated by dismantling capitalism alone. Willis submitted this letter to The Guardian, the leading national Left newspaper of the time, but the editor refused to publish it.

Letter to the Left, Excerpt

… You say, "the basic misperception is that our enemy is man, not capitalism." I say, the basic misperception is the facile identification of "the system" with "capitalism." In reality, the American system consists of two interdependent but distinct parts – the capitalist state and the patriarchal family.

…. The social organization for the production of new human beings is the family system. And within the family system, men function as a ruling class, women as an exploited class. Historically, women and their children have the property of men (until recently, quite literally, even in "advanced" countries). The mistake many radicals make is to assume that the family is simply part of the cultural superstructure of capitalism, while both capitalism and the family system make up the material subculture of society. It is difficult to see this because capitalism is so pervasive and powerful compared to the family, which is small, weak, and has far less influence on the larger economic system than vice versa. But it is important for women to recognize and deal with the exploited position in the family system for it is primarily in terms of the family system that we are oppressed as women. If you really think about our exploitation under capitalism – as cheap labor and as consumers – you will see that our position in the family system is at the root.

Our position here is exactly analogous to the black power position, with male radicals playing the part of white liberals. Blacks answered "We can't work together because you don't understand what it is to be black; because you've grown up in a racist society, your behavior toward us is bound to be racist whether you know it or not and whether you mean it or not; your ideas about how to help us are too often self-serving and patronizing; besides, part of our liberation is in thinking for ourselves and working for ourselves, not accepting the domination of the white man in still another area of our lives. If you as whites want to work on eliminating your own racism, if you want to support our battle for liberation, fine. If we decide that we have certain common interests with white activists and can form alliances with white organizations, fine. But we want to make the decisions in our own movement." Substitute man-woman for black-white and that's where I stand. With one important exception: while white liberals and radicals always understood the importance of the black liberation struggle, even if their efforts in the blacks' behalf were often misguided, radical men simply do not understand the importance of our struggle. Except for a hip vanguard movement, men have tended to dismiss the woman's movement as "just chicks with personal hangups," to insist that men and women are equally oppressed, though maybe in different ways, or to minimize the extent and significance of male chauvinism ("just a failure of communication"). All around me I see men who consider themselves dedicated revolutionaries, yet exploit their wives and girl friends shamefully without ever noticing a contradiction.

Willis, Ellen. “Letter to the Left,” in The New Left. Boston: Sargent, 1969. Permission to use granted by Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Discussion Questions

  1. Review: What oppressed group is Ellen Willis discussing in her essay?
  2. How is this group being exploited, and by whom?
  3. Explain the analogy Willis draws between this oppressed group and Black Power.
  4. Do you think this analogy works? Why or why not?
  5. Why do you think Ellen Willis had to write a letter to explain the need for women's liberation? Why were some other activists on the Left skeptical of the women's liberation movement?
  6. What has Willis learned from the Civil Rights Movement?

Tableaux Vivants

With your group, plan two tableaux vivants ("living pictures" in French) that will help teach your classmates about the document you just discussed. What would a painting or photograph illustrating this document look like? Recreate that picture with members of your group stepping in as the characters represented.

  1. The first tableau vivant pose should illustrate "the way things were"—the circumstances that the activists wanted to change, (based on your document).
  2. The second pose should illustrate that change (based on your document). In the second pose, each member of your group should be clear who their character is, what role that character plays, and what s/he believes. (see below)

After completing your poses, you will be asked to communicate the following to your classmates about the document you discussed, while staying in character:

  • Who is Ellen Willis? Who are you?
  • What concerns do you have?
  • Is your activism focused within the Jewish community or more about the broader community?
  • How, if at all, do you see your struggle as connected to the Civil Rights Movement?
  • How do you plan to bring about the change you want to see? (if known from the document).

You should also be prepared to answer other questions posed by other students in the class, while staying in character.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. ""Letter to the Left": A Call for Women's Liberation." (Viewed on October 24, 2021) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/documentstudies/letter-to-left-call-for-womens-liberation>.


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