Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Rock Band

While the Graphics Collective engaged largely in praxis, with only some theorizing about the revolutionary potential of art to transform culture, this position was more forcefully articulated by Naomi Weisstein, an early theorist whose writings were read throughout the movement who founded the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Rock Band.

The band members saw themselves as

“involved in the process of creating a revolutionary women’s culture.”[1]

Reflecting what Audre Lorde dismissed as a Master’s tools approach, as Naomi Weisstein recalled the group started from the perspective that the dominant culture might be harnessed for the movement:

“why we didn’t try to turn to our own advantage the techniques used by the wider culture to keep us in our place. Why not see what would happen if we created visionary, feminist rock?”

Weisstein, a truly brilliant woman demolished the superstructure argument against her band from the CWLU leadership, who she recalled “held in low esteem … The idea of direct cultural intervention in order to change consciousness.” As a self-described “red diaper baby and  the daughter of a musician” Weisstein

“thought that constructing a new kind of political art — if you could pull off both the art and the politics– was a most worthy project.”

This use of art diverged considerably from that articulated by Estelle Carol who viewed it solely as propaganda.  In this regard art and politics could work together for the revolution.

By this point, Weisstein, a long time participant in New Left,  had begun to diverge from the classic Marxist interpretation that culture represented mere superstructure, while material conditions determined the base.

“Structure is the tip of the patriarchal iceberg. Subjugation and submission gets [2]inside our heads, and it takes direct confrontation with culture to extirpate them.”

In January of 1972, the CWLU mailed out a version of a position paper by the band which would be published eventually as “Developing A Revolutionary Women’s Culture,” in W:JL.[3]

The members of the rock band differentiated between “first culture, and later Culture.”  Culture with a little ” c” is “the way we do what we do,” an anthropological understanding of culture.    Capital C  “Culture” is the “leviathan” “the light show, the big fat day-glow technical work … that world is magic.” Both types have the potential to work for the revolution.

Rejecting the Marxist view that “culture change[s] when ‘objective conditions,’ the material basis of our existence, changes,” the authors note that “the example of Socialist countries, such as the Soviet Union” proves that “all that has changed is ‘the means of production,’ and expresses reluctance to “wait around” for “a just and generous society.”  Instead, they argue that Culture is the “queen pin in the achievement of social change” because Culture has the power to go beyond “explain(ing) why things are as they are” to offer “An explicit visionary Culture … in the realm of ‘what if’ a sort of early “celebration” to inspire “hope.”

So the CWLU band members asked themselves

“could we build that revolutionary, socialist feminist, humanist culture? Could we build it with rock?”

and answered in the affirmative because it was popular and could reach the masses and it challenged male-dominated rock scene.  Through lyrics, music could raise consciousness.   By taking on the role of rock musician who plays instruments, rather than the usual role of female singer,  by taking on the technical roles associate with bands, moving the equipment, and setting up, the band would break down sex roles.

RockWall Photo65

The essay ends with ruminations of power

 “culture isn’t everything, but then, neither is anything else everything.”

 “we need more culture, we need more power … a visionary culture will move us toward taking power, but we do want to examine the potential traps of a visionary culture: namely if our vision becomes to compelling, it may appear that we have in fact won.”

In other words, Capital C culture, the art, literature, music, anything that reaches towards the sublime caution against what would become criticized in activists women’s culture “culture, escapism, celebration and our need for power” can lead to counter-revolutionary directions by taking women’s eyes of the central goal.

The authors recount the events of a women’s music concert at Cornell where the women in the audience forcibly ejected men who were heckling the band: “the women thought that was all they needed. They didn’t realize that their power did not extend beyond the doors of our small woman-created environment” outside of which, in fact stood a bunch of pissed off, drunk frat boys.

Without a connection to the larger WLM, culture exists “in a vacuum”  The authors clarify that they are not arguing for what would come to be described as a separatists women’s culture, but rather “are simply interpreting, explaining, the relations of power, showing how they could be changed, providing a glimpse of changed power” so that women will be inspired “to go back out in that society and fight to change them.”  “Culture” will not, in itself, be able to carry on the campaigns or skirmishes in that battle, or win it”

This last caution, that power or agency may not result from “woman-created” culture was the major fear expressed by opponents of women’s culture, and it isn’t terribly surprising that the CWLU which attempted to create a broad umbrella for all WLM would evince both a belief in as well as trepidation towards the uses of culture.

A revolutionary women’s culture then situated the struggle to liberate women as connected to other struggles against racism, classism, and imperialism.  Revolutionaries might use culture strategically, but understood that culture itself could not be the revolution.

[1] From CWLU by Rothstein and Weisstein 1972

[3] Although Peg Strobel dates this to Jan 1973, the original copy I have is clearly postmarked January 9, 1972.  W: JL stopped dating its issues, and while the copy right on vol 3 (no 2) still read 1972, several pieces within the journal are copyrighted 1973


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