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
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
books : september 2005