The story of feminism in the 1980s is often told in terms of collapse: its highlights, or lowlights, are the defeat of the ERA, conservative challenges to women’s right to choose, and feminist organizations struggling to reassert themselves in an unwelcoming political environment. Most prominently, the feminist “sex wars” is said to have been a lightning rod for conflict within the movement, one in which second wave feminism destroyed itself. Beginning in the late 1970s pro-pornography feminists and anti-pornography feminists committed the movement to a fight over new laws that would make it possible to sue pornographers for damages.
Yet the division between those who saw pornography as vital to the protection of women’s speech and those who saw it as a violation of women’s civil rights, including their speech, has been oversimplified. In this lecture, I look at the many women whose views about pornography occupied a vital middle ground, as well as the role that the struggle over pornography played in producing a feminist public conversation about gender equality during a political period when women’s rights were being eroded by the state.