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Cell 16

Recently, at my doctorate-completion party, my generous and thoughtful friends/comrades gifted me with a complete set of Cell 16's journal No More Fun and Games!. (They also gifted me with three bottles of awesome whiskey, because now that I have my PhD I am expected to have a bourgeois whiskey collection.) Since Cell 16 was founded in the late 1960s by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (at that time just "Roxanne Dunbar"), and I used later work by Dunbar-Ortiz for my dissertation, my friends decided that this would be an appropriate gift - and it was.

For those who don't know, Cell 16 was a radical feminist organization with Maoist overtones that emerged in the midst of the American leftist explosion in 1968. In many ways, the women behind Cell 16 are responsible for originating radical left feminism (intentionally setting themselves apart from Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem who they saw as "liberals"), and many of their ideas (such as the analysis of pornography and the possible patriarchy behind heterosexual intercourse) influenced radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin. In fact, it would be more accurate to call Cell 16 "anti-sex feminism" than Dworkin because they were advocating lesbian separatism and celibacy as strategies to prevent male control of the body. (And even if we disagree with this position, we can at least understand how - in male-dominated left movement - it was seen as a viable tactic to prevent men from thinking that their female comrades were sexually convenient.)

And yet Cell 16 cannot simply be dismissed as proto-Dworkinists or anti-sex feminists. Regardless of some of the problematic positions they took (and I would urge critics to understand that these positions are only problematic in retrospect because, at the time, they did make logical sense), I was struck in my initial reading of the small collection with the ideas and theories and analyses that are still extremely insightful and important.

Rather than embrace the liberalism of mainstream feminism that was, at that time, always bound to notions of Americanism and Eurocentrism, the members of Cell 16 were staunch advocates of revolutionary internationalism, of understanding how race and class connected to gender, and of revolutionary action. The group was not predominantly white - Roxanne Dunbar(-Ortiz) the founder, for example, is an indigenous woman - and this was one of its strengths. Nor was it afraid of embracing people and movements that its mainstream feminist counterparts would have found frightening.

Many feminists now forget how important the (now failed) revolutions in Russia and China were for women. I have heard some feminist comrades actually say "what did the Russian Revolution or Chinese Revolution ever do for women." The answer, of course, is quite a lot: birth control and abortion rights were first legalized (and also socialized) in Russia and secondly in China; women were given property rights that they did not possess anywhere else in the world; and all of the propaganda about Russia and China being "anti-freedom" can, in many ways, be dismissed when we read historical accounts and discover that women had more rights and freedoms in these places than they possessed in America. Cell 16 avidly proclaimed this position in numerous articles of their journal. In the second issue, in fact, Roxanne Dunbar cites William Hinton's Fanshen, the social history of the early stages of the Chinese Revolution, as required reading for feminists: "[this book] has deeply impressed every woman I know who has read it. For once we find out what happened to all the people in an historical situation. Hinton does not mention women patronizingly, but really regards women as persons. Women are visible in every facet, every aspect of the revolution. He even contends that the key to the revolution was the women. Not only is this study heartening because it includes women, it is a training manual for any would-be organizer." In issue four there is even an article entitled Women in the Soviet Union that celebrates (though also critiques) the way the Bolsheviks pursued women's liberation.

Cell 16 rabidly rejected gender essentialism and had no patience for the feminism that critiqued violence as being masculine, regarding women as natural care-givers and pacifists. Pat Galligan, in her article Violence and Self-Defense, interrogated this ideology, where women find violence abhorrent and male, in the following manner:
"Such an attitude reflects certain conceptions of the nature of women and the nature of violence which serves to maintain the oppression of females. Traditional ideology places 'women' on a pedestal. Females are seen as qualitatively different and better types of beings than males. Women are not supposed to be violent. Violence is brutalizing. Women are saved from this brutalization by being protected by men. [...] As long as women try to maintain a supposed moral superiority and refuse to stoop to violence, as long as they depend on men to protect them, men's power to oppress them is maintained."

Advocating self-defense classes (Tae Kwon Do and Karate), the organizers of Cell 16 would proclaim "WATCH OUT. MAYBE YOU'LL FINALLY MEET A REAL CASTRATING FEMALE."

This understanding of violence also informed Cell 16's internationalism. Where the editors of Ms. magazine at that time would dismiss Viet Cong female militants, or other third world revolutionary women (such as Leila Khaled), as "acting like men," Cell 16's journal celebrated, in articles and photographs, the event of women participating in revolutionary armed struggle.

At the same time, however, Cell 16 believed that it was necessary to be autonomous of male-based organizations because they knew that, and had experience of, these organizations sacrificing womens needs for short-term gains - as well as treating women like harem members and inferior intellectuals worthy of "being educated." In the first issue Maureen Davidica talks about "a call for separation, for radical women to disassociate themselves from male-oriented, male-dominated radical organizations." And though we might see this call as sectarian, we have to understand it within the context of the 1960s: Black Nationalism, after all, made the same claims, and Cell 16 was extremely inspired by this movement. Moreover, when we still have the problem of male-dominated organizations, we should be able to understand the necessity of this position. It was not as if Cell 16 was saying that this separation was ontological: it was a practical necessity; they maintained that it was possible to separate from the mainstream male-dominated movement and still be internationalist.

When the SDS accused Cell 16 (just like they had accused Black Nationalists) of "splitting the movement," Roxanne Dunbar would reply: "[t]he oppressive nature of the SDS is built into its structure, and not much will change if a few specially selected women are allowed to speak pedantically enough to share the power with the big guys." And Betsy Warrior, in her article American Radicalism: A Diseased Product of a Diseased Society, refers to the male-dominated radical movement as "the new 'bourg bag' the 'in' hip scene." More recently, in discussing her history with Cell 16, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz would say:
"people like Todd Gitlin write that the beautiful movement that existed in the '60s was ruined by us. They accused blacks of the same thing when they split off into black nationalist movements in the same way women had split the beautiful unity that these white boys had built up. We countered, those of us who remained leftists, that yes, of course we have to build into our women's liberation movement the absolute necessity of ending imperialism and racism and maintaining solidarity with other liberation struggles, but women have to become full actors and developers of strategy and we needed to be free from having this foot on our neck, and our souls and bodies being crushed, if we were to be in this for the long term."
The importance of Cell 16 - what it was attempting to theorize and build - still resonates with today's world of privileged activism. The insights cannot be dismissed because of those moments of "anti-sex radicalism" that, rightly or wrongly, we have been conditioned to see as absurd. Nor can Cell 16 be dismissed as "second wave feminism" when they were more avidly anti-racist and internationalist than many third-wave and post-colonial feminists of today who have no real solidarity or understanding of third-world womens movements (which is why Hisila Yami, organizer in the Nepal Peoples War, has dismissed the post-colonial feminists as "counter-revolutionary").

So thanks for my beloved friends/comrades for giving me this gift (and thanks also for the whiskey!) that reminds us of an important historical movement often ignored whenever we speak of 1960s/1970s radicalism.


  1. This is a really great post. My knowledge of Cell 16 was very limited before I read it, so thanks.

    "Many feminists now forget how important the (now failed) revolutions in Russia and China were for women. I have heard some feminist comrades actually say "what did the Russian Revolution or Chinese Revolution ever do for women."

    -I realized how important the female liberation of my Soviet greatgrandmother, grandmother, mother and aunts was only after I moved to Canada and then to the US. Having 3 generations of powerful career women precede you is hugely helpful and inspirational to a woman. I don't want to offend anybody's sensibilities, but there are many, many people in North America who have never even seen a powerful woman (except as some sad caricature on television.)

    Still, Soviet women paid dearly for their professional and personal liberation. They had to trade in their sexuality and everything that has to do with it in return.

  2. Yes, well said. I should have also added that Cell 16, in that same article, also mentioned the limits of this liberation... Of course, Cell 16 also had a strange (though I think it was understandable in the political climate of the time) notion of sexuality.

  3. JMP, thanks for your insightful comments. But, we were never "lesbian separatists." There certainly were lesbians in our group, but the majority were not only hetera, but married, including myself. We were mostly tweeking the movement girls who insisted they loved me and begged for their indulgence.

    Roxanne Dunbar

  4. Wow, thanks for posting here. Sorry for making that mistake: I was only just beginning to read the journals at the time I posted this, and other things I read about your group online were making this sort of claim - I apologize for the error. Again, glad this somehow found its way to you. (And honoured that you posted.)

  5. ahhh thanks so much for posting on Cell 16! this is amazing.

  6. Glad you liked it... If you ever get your hands on their journal you'll love them even more.

  7. Wow, I'd never heard of this group before. They sound awesome.

  8. It's amazing how many people never heard of Cell 16, despite their influence. Ah, the subterranean history of activism!


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