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Just do it

A Field Guide for Feminist Activism

By Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Over the course of the long history of the women's rights movement, there's often been tendency to blur the lines between women's activism and activism for women. For example, does the outspoken anti-war activism of Cindy Sheehan qualify as "maternal feminism" because her identity as a grieving mother is inseparable from her politics? Should we consider mothers who join together to protect the environment, spruce up public playgrounds, organize the neighborhood crime watch or get junk food out of school cafeterias "maternal feminists" because their activities enhance -- either directly or indirectly -- the well-being of other women who mother? Is every public or private action that contributes to a woman's sense of personal or political empowerment a feminist act?

Maybe so. On the other hand, it's safe to assume there are mothers who will jump at the chance to improve the health and safety of their communities but would rather not be described as feminists. And there are obviously examples of activist mothers who are neither feminist nor progressive (think Phyllis Schlafly, or of mothers who support the work of James Dobson's Focus on the Family).

Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I usually make a distinction between women's coordinated efforts to wage peace or promote the general welfare and feminist activism. I like to reserve the term "feminist" for causes and campaigns seeking to contest or correct beliefs and systems that restrict equal access to social power, opportunities and resources based on a person's sex. My definition of feminist activism may sound a bit narrow and nerdy, but it actually covers a broad swath of hot-button issues beyond reproductive rights and equal opportunity -- such as paid family leave, reducing domestic violence, raising the minimum wage, and defending your right to breastfeed at Starbuck's.

But -- and it's impossible to overemphasize this point -- there are many different kinds of women, and there are many legitimate forms of social activism. Women's activism need not be explicitly "feminist" to matter, or to have a positive impact on the lives of other women and families. "In this awful world, where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power" (this eloquent quote comes from Howard Zinn), an almost infinite variety of individual and collective actions are necessary to hold the progressive ground and prevent our increasingly uncaring society from careening into the moral void. There's plenty of good work to go around. But when the mission at hand is to secure social and economic justice for women -- including women who are mothers -- there's something to be gained from examining the objectives of our activism through the lens of feminist principles.

In their new handbook, Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, co-authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000), wrangle with the gray area between women's voluntary and charitable work and working to disrupt the status quo. What you do is important, the authors argue, but it's more important to just do something -- whether it's attending a benefit concert headlined by a feminist rock band or organizing a women's studies group at your high school.

Writing in a low-key, conversational style, Baumgardner and Richards (Richards is also co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation and the Amy of "Ask Amy," a how to column for would-be feminist activists) do an admirable job of kindling the "we can do it" spirit -- and since we've heard so much lately about how the feminist movement is stuck in a rut, these authors deserve a great deal of credit for making women's activism look fresh and fashionable. They also hope to spread the word that one need not have an exemplary feminist lifestyle (yes, you can wear lipstick; yes, you can have boyfriend trouble; yes, you can be a stay-at-home mom) to take part in bona fide feminist activism. Separate chapters in Grassroots address the activist potential of teen women, college-age women, and women who've entered the "real world" of work and family life. Grassroots often focuses on taking action in institutional settings -- typically high schools and college campuses -- but the authors also cite numerous examples of individual women who noticed problems or shortages closer to home and decided to do something about it.

Baumgardner and Richards complain that the central question of social activism -- "What can I do" to help the needy, end injustice, protect women's rights, increase access to equal opportunity or otherwise make the world a better place -- usually receives a pat response: call your politician, send money, volunteer. While the authors acknowledge that these staples of civic engagement -- which they describe as "The Generic Three" -- are the life-blood of social justice organizations, their goal is to offer an alternative approach for young women looking for more personally meaningful and immediately visible ways to make a difference. "There are days," the authors write, "when getting seven MoveOn emails is not only uninspiring but irritating, and going to a Meetup is no longer urgent but a chore. The strategy -- and its tactics -- become stale."

Yet the examples of alternative activism found in Grassroots look an awful lot like tried-and-true methods of social engagement: consciousness raising, creating formal and informal networks to provide services and resources to underserved populations, artistic activism, efforts to protect, preserve or enhance the environment/community, and giving of oneself to better the lives of those in need. These are all excellent and rewarding expressions of altruism -- but let's face it, they are not exactly boldly new. And nearly all of these models of activism depend on donating something of value -- time, skills, space, goods, or money, and occasionally, all of the aforementioned -- or asking someone else to. It seems that when it comes to effective activism, the basic combination of targeted political pressure and commitment of material and human resources is tough to transcend, no matter how creative the packaging is. And even though the authors are extremely sensitive to class issues, I found it frustrating that they often presume that women who are itching to channel their outrage into activism have access to a certain complement of resources or the ability to tap into a social network that can provide them on request.

While Baumgardner and Richards' overarching message is that social activism is easy and anyone can do it, they offer several cautionary tales to illustrate that making a difference usually involves more than sensing a need and taking a stand. In particular, the authors underscore that planning action based on received wisdom is rarely a good idea. Before you go all-out on the offensive, they advise, do the background research and find out if your target issue is as urgent as you think it is -- or if it's really an issue at all.

Grassroots reassures change agent wannabes that it's not necessary to start up a non-profit organization -- or volunteer for one -- to do good for women and the world. But Baumgardner and Richards also have a habit of blurring the spectrum of women's social activism -- not just by the eliding the distinction between activism for women and activism by women, but also by playing down the discrepancies between making a difference and making change. For example, in one chapter the authors highlight the efforts of two young women to find free movie tickets for residents of a homeless shelter. The tickets are welcomed by the shelter staff as a way to include their clients in the social mainstream. Baumgartner and Richards also praise the project -- which they describe as "grace activism" rather than charitable work -- as a resounding success. Yet in an endnote, they admit that even though inspired acts of generosity can improve the quality of life for marginalized individuals, outreach and charitable activism can't repair the systemic breakdowns that create social problems such as poverty, domestic violence and homelessness in the first place.

Grassroots is recommended reading for its real life examples of women working for change and practical advice on how to get started and stay on track with your own personal brand of activism. Baumgardner and Richards stress that "small, organic forms of activism" focused on "what you can do, right now, right here" can and do make a difference. While the media draws attention for activist super-stars and high-profile organizations, the authors insist "it's the constant influx of new average people with new ideas attempting to make the world better who are the pillars of activism."

But is all the activism applauded in Grassroots feminist activism? I suspect that's still up for debate. But maybe it doesn't matter. The truth is, we're all in this far-from-perfect world together. When it comes to women taking action for social change -- or even just to make a difference -- maybe it's more important to heed these authors' advice, and just do it.

Judith Stadtman Tucker

mmo books : september 2005

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