Sunday, January 7, 2018

Feminist Activism across the Generations

I took a break from writing projects for the holidays and with my Elena Ferrante book now in the hands of McFarland publishers, I’m ready to tackle a new expanded version of Feminism in Philadelphia, tentatively titled Building the Feminist Movement, Building Feminist Institutions: Feminist Activism across the Generations.

Feminism in Philadelphia charted the growth of the second wave feminist movement with an emphasis on NOW, the major engine of institutional change. This is certainly not the complete story of the history of second wave feminism in Philadelphia. Many low-income women, disproportionately women of color, struggled in obscurity for racial and gender justice; their actions were not recorded by the local press, and they were much less likely to leave detailed records. No doubt, much of what occurred was not documented, or if documented, not deposited in libraries or archives accessible to me.

Although NOW may have been the focal point, it was certainly not the only locus of feminist activity in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and 1970s. NOW activists were focused primarily on changing the rules by which society was governed and opening up government, business and what had been traditionally male occupations to women. Some, like Philadelphia NOW founding member and psychologist Jean Ferson, were also involved in the consciousness raising movement, the feminist therapy movement and the emerging women’s health moment. There were other feminists focused primarily on creating feminist free spaces—book stores, clubs, music festivals—rather than building feminist organizations. There were feminists who did not belong to explicitly feminist organizations like NOW but worked tirelessly for gender justice in their unions, their professional associations, in educational institutions and religious organizations. There were those who wanted nothing less than total revolution and were impatient of and often contemptuous towards those trying to change existing social institutions. The energy and creativity was enormous.

When conditions are ripe, a handful of dedicated activists really can transform the world. The changes in the status of women in my lifetime have been enormous and some have become so much a part of the air we breathe that we no longer perceive the extent of the changes.

Feminism in Philadelphia focused on activism and advocacy, but a major strand of the story was left untold—the enormous energy put into building feminist institutions. The service organizations founded on a shoe string by committed feminists--the battered women’s shelters, the rape crisis centers--were beginning to receive significant funding from government and from private foundations. Yes, the funding came with strings attached and the radical edge of some of these organizations was blunted, but more women were receiving services and the women who had been providing them for free could now get jobs as service providers.

By analyzing the struggle to build these institutions, I intend to try to complete the story of second wave feminism in Philadelphia, to the extent that such a story can ever be fully told. The history of feminism in Philadelphia is a case study, a microcosm of the trajectory of second wave feminism, a story unfolding in similar ways in cities across the country. The dividing line between political activism and institution building is not always easy to draw, with many individuals and organizations involved in both. The resources available for building feminist institutions were for the most part available only in urban areas and hence their concentration in large cities like Philadelphia.

I intend my analysis of this history to be a springboard for an exploration of the very different approaches of a younger generation of feminist activists who reject the organizational model of the older progressive organizations with their hierarchical structures and elected leadership. As our society becomes increasingly mobile and use of internet technology more widespread, NOW’s geographically based chapter model with face-to-face meetings as its major organizing tool, strikes some younger members as an anachronism. Many younger feminists are creating more fluid, internet driven forms of feminist organizing rather than the hierarchical structures NOW’s founding generation developed. But can social change be achieved without the kinds structured organizations that fueled the second wave feminist movement?

Yes, the January 2017 Women’s March bubbled up from the grassroots. Established feminist organizations eventually signed on, but the initial impulse came from the grassroots. It’s too soon to tell if all that amazing energy will lead to real change. We’ll have a better idea after November 2018.

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