I remember the pictures of the Czech leader Dubcek, after he had been arrested and then released before the final show-down. He told us, with that wry sad smile of his, that when offered a cup of coffee before his interrogation he had scooped up all the sugar available - he knew he would soon need it.
While all this was happening, the student revolt in France, USA, Germany and Britain was a backdrop which did not interest me much. I was then 45, had brought up my son on my own, was working as a trade press journalist, and had been a left-winger ever since I was 20. I spent 15 years in the Communist Party, leaving in 1956.
Yes, the bell tolls for 1956, just as it does for 1968. Here now, in 1988, they are talking about "rehabilitating" Bukharin and some of the older Bolsheviks murdered on Stalin's orders. As far as I know they haven't yet got round to the so-called "suicide" of Jan Masaryk in 1948, felt by many Czechs to be no such thing, but political murder; nor have they faced the implications of the judicial killings of Slansky, the Jewish Czech leader and his comrades. The latter deaths open up the whole question of Soviet antisemitism, since Slansky always appeared to be a loyal Stalinist as well as a Jew. I am a Jew by birth, though not by observance since I became adult. Left-wing antisemitism, then as now, cut to the heart my idealism and devotion to the Socialist cause.
1968 was the final betrayal for me of all the ideals, the work, the dedication, indeed the obsession that had been the major part of my life and of the lives of so many like me. We had believed that Socialism was really here in the world - in the USSR and the "New Democracies", and in China - here to stay. It was the finest effort human beings could make to get rid of oppression, to become "new people". It was, we thought, worth living and dying for.
I wasn't interested in the students' revolution. I thought of them as privileged children, able to take part in all their exciting events because of the work my generation and those before me had put in to make their privileges possible. (I myself left school at 16, though marked down as "university material" - I eventually got there when 1 was 60.)
I was overcome with sadness when Rudi Dutschke was shot, and overwhelmed, in a way, with admiration for all the mad daring - except that it reminded me of the romantic heroic novels and films about Rupert of Hentzau or Richard Hannay. Poor Rudi didn't escape unharmed like Douglas Fairbanks or Ronald Coleman.
It came through to me pretty quickly that women were getting the worst part of the students' new deal. They were obviously being used by men, sexually and for all the other services of the usual kind. It was men, men, men who were the heroes. I remember looking for news of women, sometimes reported, but always in an understated denigratory sort of way, unless there was also a sexual titillation to be achieved.
When all the demagogy of "revolution tomorrow" came along, I dismissed it as nonsense... Look what was happening in Czechoslovakia, what did these students know, or it seemed care, about what was really happening to the revolution?
The final defeat was fixed for me not in 1968 itself, but on January 1st 1969. A student (yes, a student) Jan Palach set himself on fire and burned to death in the main square of Prague as a protest against the betrayal of Socialism and of his country. We saw the flames. Against that, pictures of London School of Economics students tearing down the college gates (because they didn't like the syllabus?) just didn't seem to matter.
I realise now that the anti-Vietnam War movement was colossally important. I realise too that something was happening to young people that I have never understood. I only came near to getting a glimpse of it in the late 70s - say 1978 - talking to younger feminists who felt they had been not only inspired but in some way moulded by the events of '68. At the time my work in the rag trade only showed me rather cynically that the young had become a new and substantial market for consumer goods - in one year alone I think, 7 million yards of denim were made into jeans in this country.
I did see in 1968 that the behaviour of the police - both in America where they shot down students, and in this country where they trampled them under horses' hoofs - had come out again into the open: brutal and oppressive, unchanged from the 1930s when the father of my elder son had been beaten up at the anti-fascist rally at Olympia, with the police looking on and clearing the way for the fascists.
But when the New Left talked about Marxism, Trotskyism, Maoism in tones of rigid dogma, it was, for me, all just a nonsense. In particular, I saw and heard no analysis of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which first of all I had welcomed. I had thought, yes, once bureaucrats get into power they become tyrants: unsettling them is useful. But after a year or so I realised something of what actually was happening - the unthinking, uncaring destruction of people and of culture, and the setting up of an even more rigid bureaucracy. I rejected the Cultural Revolution entirely, and with it the Maoism of the New Left.
A bitter aftermath of that period for me is what happened to Chang Ching (Jiang Qing), widow of Mao and leader of the so-called "Gang of Four". She was used as a scapegoat for the Cultural Revolution and sent to prison, where as far as one knows, she still remains. Descriptions of her, after her arrest, as a " white-boned demon", a "perfidious serpent", a "Harridan" and a "trollop", are distinctly sexist in tone. It appears that the Chinese authorities had little difficulty in transferring massive blame on to this woman for much of their own guilt.
At that time, and earlier, one of my most important reasons for being a left-wing fighter was my belief that Socialism stood for the emancipation of women, and that only in Socialism was there the opportunity for us women to become part of the human race. If the 1968 events showed me anything, it was that this was just not true. Socialist men were just like men everywhere else, women being allowed token action and rhetoric, but only really required for cooking, laundry, sex - and as scapegoats.
Above all, in the US and the West generally, the advent of the birth control pill had given men the final opportunity to get rid of all sense of responsibility about sex. They had not had much until then, but somehow, somewhere, they had still recognised that sex with a woman usually meant the chance of a baby, and they would be called upon to do something about it (even if they sloped off somewhere and hoped never to be heard of again). Now, with the Pill, they could exploit women completely, with no comeback. If the woman became pregnant it was her own "fault". And the pressure on women to provide constant sex was something new. Of course we had always been importuned, but against a background of the nuisance, shame, danger, trouble and financial expense of an unwanted pregnancy. We had some "excuse" for drawing back, if we wished. Not so any longer.
If indeed women in 1968 had been achieving real sexual partnership and mutual co-operation with men, that would truly have been a revolution. Of course no such thing was happening. But there was something else in the wind - something enormously important - based to a large extent on a conviction that no such real partnership was possible in the foreseeable future. In America the Women's Liberation Movement was under way, and in Britain the first meetings had begun, though I didn't know about them for another two or three years. Were these an offshoot of the 1968 students' revolts? I don't think so. The roots of the WLM were much older. I was introduced to the work of Simone de Beauvoir in the forties by a friend, now 80, who was my transformer into understanding the power of consciousness-raising for women (though we did not call it that). She was a feminist in a period when the word was hardly known.
By 1978, things for me had really changed. By then I had been working in the WLM for about eight years. That period was my "bliss to be alive" time. Those years really did break my shackles, release the chains - all those cliches - they really happened to me.
Of course there were dissensions, differing opinions, women got heated. But I had been in politics for over thirty years. It was all part of life for me. The basis of universal sisterhood, the struggle to raise our consciousness and free ourselves from the ultimate oppression - of believing that men had the right to oppress us - was the most important thing that ever happened to me. My identity was not only personal. I was a woman among women. Whatever our sexuality,class, religion, age, disability, or even (I believed) race, this overthrow of our inner put-down was the real revolution and would lead to the final egalitarian just society.
By 1978 we had found ourselves, our voice. We had, I believe, irrevocably, broken down major barriers that had confined the female spirit. The rage let out was, to some extent, to turn back against women themselves and lead to what I believe is a temporary fragmentation of the liberation movement. But the spirit had been released, and is released.
By 1978, I was working in a women's group which asked itself whether women had always been "the subordinate sex". We found, by research, that we had not. We also found ultimate sources for this Great Lie which has had such disastrous consequences for women (and indeed for the earth) in the male-centred religions which dominate the world. Their woman-hating, woman-obliterating thrust has shaped society and poisoned our view of our selves. I looked for and found evidence of other societies where the female way of life, its biology and its values were honoured and not degraded. Menstruation was not "unclean" or "the curse", it was a sacred time. Childbirth and motherhood were actually treated as important, not given mere lip service. Older women were respected for their experience and capabilities. The sense of the divine included female personages or aspects. Above all, women were not sexual slaves of one husband, but autonomous in their sexuality. Children did not have to be of one known father, so that women did not have to be herded into confinement to ensure paternity.
I approached this work in a purely political and intellectual manner at first; in fact, the reason I went to College was to find out more and to achieve some scholastic affirmation for what I was retrieving. But there was an added effect. As I read invocations to goddesses and looked at their pictures, and found out why, for example, George or Michael or Perseus killed the dragon (then as now an elderly powerful female) and was rewarded by having a young submissive damsel in bondage to him, there came some unfreezing of my spiritual sense. From being a confirmed atheist I moved to an awareness of a new dimension.
I cannot describe this in rational terms. It happened when we were studying an area we called "Goddess in the Landscape". We visited ancient sites that we had reason to believe were scenes of early goddess worship. Many of them are built in the shape of a huge woman -you can see one at Arbor Low in Derbyshire, another atScara Brae in the Orkneys and several in Malta. These massive stone and earth sites were sacred not only to the earth goddess but also to the Queen of the Heavens and to the Mistress of the Underworld. It appears that they were not only temples but to some extent models of the moon's phases, and certainly indicated the equinox and the solar round.
It was in taking part in simple rituals on such an occasion as an equinox or solstice at such a site, that I was opened up to feelings that I had never before experienced. These goddesses had been murdered, wiped from the earth and from our knowledge. Just in the same way, women have been continually degraded, belittled, made to feel as if they were nothing and no-one. Yet their ancient monuments still remained and their enormous achievements in astrology and other sciences are only now being recovered.
In visiting these Goddess sites and marking the changing seasons regularly, I felt an enormous sense of one-ness with our foremothers. It went with a feeling of awareness of union with a universal force that contained a powerful female element, divine and cosmic, made out of heaven, earth, the oceans, rivers, trees, animals and all natural objects and all those that had gone before and were yet to come.
I felt that for us females to be raised from our oppression in the here and now we had to raise theidea, the concept of the Female. This led to the work I have been doing for the last decade.
I research the past and talk, give workshops, slide shows, classes and discussions on such subjects as Female Aspects of Deity, or Images of Women's Power in the Past. Never in an academic manner or to make some scholarly point; always because finding out about our history empowers us for the present and future struggle against our oppression, and for a just and rightful way of Living.
By 1988, the splits and dissensions in the Women's Liberation Movement have cast it into a thousand thousand pieces. We hurtled (rather like some star) towards a dream of universalism. The various differing energies inside the whole shot off in a mass of different directions, but I think each piece, each spark has the essence of the whole within it. We were torn apart too, by the energy of our own liberation and sadly we felt we had to turn on each other, rather than on the male domination system, when we could not achieve the whole as quickly as we wanted.
Each separate oppression - class, race, age, colour, sexuality, disability, or any other - needed its own separate care, space, exploration. The old rigorous linear "Movement", on the march, forging ahead (all those patriarchal images) has broken down into varying groups of women and even individuals or twos and threes, breaking out, demanding recognition, refusing put-down. In 1988 I see signs that women are coming together again in larger groups, but more aware of their different needs, more tolerant of diversity.
There is no space here to go into my own odyssey. All I can say is that I was woken from rapturous dreams of universal sisterhood. I see now that women do still exploit women, that all the particularities are important. Yet above all and including all is the need to understand that women as women are oppressed. They have need of each other's recognition and support in their universal struggle, no matter how different their situations may seem.
I need to say here that my own view of the next phase of the Women's Liberation Movement is that the personal struggle between women and men now has to be recognised and women given support. The Women's Movement will need to recognise women who are working with men and will need to take part in their lives and their struggles. If we are to get anywhere now, men too must change, must become aware of their oppressive powers, and the use they make of them, and must face egalitarianism with women. This may need a huge amount of work on their part - and that is their business. To the men who say "why should we?", women's answer is that it is time to do so.
As for politicians, union activists, freedom fighters, (who all include women, and at one time myself), we all have to see that no matter how much we rant about justice and freedom, unless we specifically recognise and struggle against the exploitation of women and the power base of men, we will achieve nothing. Male-oriented politics leads to nothing but pain, suffering, war, torture, and if we continue in the same manner will probably lead to the end of human life on earth.
Women as well as men have drunk the poison of patriarchy. We all have to sweat it out, vomit it up, to get rid of it. What does this mean? Simply, that women will have to be recognised and recognise themselves as normative, powerful members of the human race, not its under half. When this starts, the revolution will really have begun.
I can't end, in 1988, without a reference to the disaster of AIDS. My grandchildren are now young men, I look around and see a new generation of women and men practically on the verge of being wiped out. There is only one point I can make. I hear a lot from men about how terrible it is to have to connect sex with death. I say: women have always connected sex with death, for generations until only this century it has been for many women a nine months' journey to death. Every time a woman underwent sexual intercourse she was put in danger of death through childbirth. In many places of the world this is still the case, and it can still be here.
I don't know what will happen about AIDS - no-one does. Women are now in danger from it as well as men. I only feel it is telling us something about man's continuous exploitation, rape and torture of Nature and of women, and his scorn for them. Perhaps "safe sex" will lead to care and responsibility and forethought and recognition of one's partners' needs, and tenderness instead of force. Perhaps the male urge for dominance and machine-like methods of prowess for "fun" will be mellowed by his greater understanding of what things have always been like for women. Emotions and caring may be esteemed instead of demeaned. If it needed an all-out plague to set us free, then let us take advantage of the lesson it teaches us.
Sebestyen, Amanda, Ed. '68,'78,'88 From Women's Liberation to Feminism 1988