Monday, November 15, 2021

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations

My new book Feminist Organizing Across the Generations, which traces the evolution of the feminist movement over six decades, will be released by Routledge on November 25. Unfortunately, it will first be published in a crazily expensive hardback version. Although I cannot ask my friends and colleagues to buy an absurdly over-priced book, I would appreciate those who have access to university libraries to order the book.

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations is very much informed by my perspective as a feminist activist. In turn, my choices as an activist have been influenced by my study of social movements--primarily the feminist and civil rights movements, both fueled by strong social movement organizations. A key theme of this book, emerging from both my research and my activism, is the critical importance of strong social movement organizations for achieving lasting social change.

The major social movements of the second half of the 20th century, the civil rights movement and the second-wave feminist movement, were fueled by structured, federated organizations comprised of empowered members with voting rights. I began this study with the assumption that 21st-century feminists, unlike second-wave feminists, were not committed organization builders; I discovered that assumption was incorrect. Although some young feminists are involved primarily in online activism and a relatively small number are members of NOW, many are building on the ground, multi-issue progressive organizations and bringing a gender justice perspective to these groups. Instead of explicitly feminist organizations focused on women’s rights, many young women are drawn to broad-based human rights groups in which gender justice is integrated into a more inclusive progressive agenda. They are becoming engaged in electoral politics and are increasingly drawn to socialist politics rather than to the liberal reform agenda associated with feminist groups such as NOW.

As I delved more deeply into the history of the feminist movement, I was struck by how many second-wave feminists were extraordinarily skilled at organization building. Part I, describes a generation of women who had worked as volunteers, building community organizations, labor unions, and political parties who were re-directing their considerable talents toward building organizations combatting the discrimination they experienced as women. They were also creating organizations to provide services to victims of gender-based violence and feminist health centers for women ill served by male-dominated medical institutions. Within a relatively short period of time, second-wave feminists built an extraordinary range of organizations, which transformed the political, economic, and cultural landscape.

Although I have centered my history of second-wave feminism in Philadelphia, the same trajectory was taking place all over the United States: the political movement to end gender discrimination, closely followed by the creation of feminist service organizations. In most cities and towns, the local NOW chapter was the major driver of institutional change. In Part I, my analysis of Philadelphia NOW is placed in the context of its network of relationships with other organizations, both national and local. This is far from the complete story of the second-wave feminist movement in Philadelphia. In the 1970s, women of color were organizing to improve women’s lives, but generally not under an explicitly feminist banner. Many were involved in civil rights organizations and in the movement for Black political empowerment;others were involved in grassroots neighborhood organizations. Much of the work of community groups and of small Women’s Liberation collectives was not documented, or if documented, not deposited in archives accessible to me. My subject is feminist organizations, feminism with a paper trail and now an internet trail.

Part II focuses on a major strand of feminist history often left untold—-the enormous energy put into building feminist service organizations founded on a shoestring by committed feminists, organizations such as battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers.
It is impossible in one book to document the range of service organizations nationwide; even with a focus on one location, the range of service organizations is beyond the scope of this study. Instead, I focus on the two kinds of organization most prevalent across the country—those providing services to victims of male violence (e.g., rape crisis centers and shelters for battered women) and those providing women’s healthcare services.

Although the advocacy groups and the service organizations were both outgrowths of the same movement, histories of the feminist movement have generally treated them separately, with historians and journalists documenting and analyzing the movement to end gender discrimination, and sociologists and social service professionals studying feminist service organizations. The feminist service organizations have received the least attention; to date there are only a handful of book-length studies. To my knowledge, there are no book-length studies that, like Feminist Organizing Across the Generations, examine both the political movement and the service organizations as closely related outgrowths of the same movement.

Many of the women who built feminist service organizations were influenced by the rejection of hierarchy and commitment to participatory democracy that characterized much of the late 1960s and early 1970s feminist movement—particularly that strand generally referred to as the Women’s Liberation movement. Just as it is difficult to completely disentangle the liberal reform strand of second-wave feminism from what was considered the more radical Women’s Liberation movement, it is difficult to clearly separate the political movement against sex discrimination from the movement to build feminist service organizations. There were activists who pursued both paths, and the broad support for the feminist movement encompassed both.

The service organizations often started small, sometimes evolving out of Women’s Liberation collectives; however, as government and foundation grants became increasingly available, some of these shoestring operations morphed into strong organizations with stable funding, becoming the locus of feminist activism in many communities. As NOW chapters waned in significance in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in many localities the service providers such as rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, and feminist health centers became the feminist movement.

By the late 1970s the multi-issue feminist movement had begun to fragment into separate movements: the anti-rape movement; the domestic violence movement; the abortion rights movement; the women’s health movement. The service organizations were certainly implicated in this tendency as they generally focused on one issue, although it’s not clear to what extent the service organizations were a cause or a consequence of the fragmentation. Suffice it to say, by the beginning of the 1980s we find fewer references to a unitary feminist movement.

As the movement grew in the 1970s, both activist groups such as NOW and feminist service providers increasingly grappled with racial differences among women—a particularly urgent issue for the rape crisis and battered women’s movement. The racial blind spots of many feminist service organizations led to the formation of service organizations specifically focused on the needs of women of color-–for example, the National Black Women’s Health Project and its network of local affiliates.

Part III shifts from the achievements and blindspots of second-wave feminism, which can be viewed from the perspective of some distance, to the much greater challenge of documenting and analyzing 21st century feminism, a landscape which is changing as I write. This study focuses on two periods in which feminist activism was unfolding within the context of a social movement—-20th century second-wave feminism and the 21st-century upsurge in social activism, much of which is led by young feminists. Although feminist organizing continued after the heyday of second-wave feminism, references to the “women’s movement” gradually disappeared. What continued were references to more focused, issue-specific movements—e.g., the abortion rights movement, the equa pay movement, and the anti-violence movement.

It wasn’t until the 2017 Women’s March that references to a unitary women’s movement reappeared. In response to the election of Donald Trump, the 2017 Women’s March, which began as a Facebook post, coalesced almost overnight, both demonstrating the power of social media-driven campaigns to rapidly mobilize millions of people, and also demonstrating their limitations. When conflicts arise, there are no agreed-upon mechanisms for resolving tensions and for holding leadership accountable. Although a non-profit Women’s March Inc.emerged from the initial march, it was not a membership organization with members empowered to set the agenda, elect board members and officers, and develop procedures for holding leaders accountable.

Although many young women were drawn to the 2017 Women’s March, established feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women have struggled to attract young women and meet the challenges of supporting grassroots activism in a climate very different from that of the feminist heyday of the 1970s. However, some 21st century feminists are choosing to build and become leaders in not explicitly feminist organizations, such as local chapters of Black Lives Matter (BLM) or Sunrise. They are playing leadership roles (even when they deny they are leaders)in a range of locally based social justice organizations and are bringing a feminist perspective to these groups.

Prior to the election of Donald Trump, many of the newer progressive organizations such as Occupy were not involved in, and did not encourage their members to engage in, electoral politics. Resistance to Trump’s election has resulted in more young women becoming engaged in electoral politics and running for office and winning. Also, younger women interested in political activism are increasingly drawn to socialist politics rather than to the liberal reform politics generally associated with NOW. Socialist feminists were involved in the second-wave feminist movement of 1970s; however, their numbers were relatively few and the larger society was antagonistic to socialism. Socialist feminists in 2021 are finding a far more receptive audience. Unlike the socialist organizations of the 20th century who were often hostile to feminism, 21st century socialist organizations are led by young feminists and place a high priority on gender justice, viewing all issues through a gender, racial and economic justice lens.

It may be too soon to gauge the strength and potential of socialist feminism, but we do know that feminist organizing in the 21st century will be multi-issue, intersectional, and international, with 21st century feminists bringing a feminist perspective to an ever-widening range of social justice issues.