Where is the women’s movement?

In 1980, my first book, The women’s uprising: feminist solidarity and class conflict 1880-1917, has been published. I used the term “women’s united front” there to refer to a broad movement of women of different classes in which progressives must fight for leadership without destroying the unity necessary to move forward. The suffrage movement at the start of the 20th century was like this, attracting everyone from millionaire JP Morgan’s daughter, Anne, to radical labor organizer Clara Lemlich. While anarchists and syndicalists saw voting as a bourgeois distraction, most socialists recognized it as a basic democratic right; of the socialist party founding program in 1901 included equal rights for men and women. When the party did nothing to put this position into practice, socialist feminists across the country organized local women’s groups and, in 1908, submitted two resolutions to the party congress: one to create a committee national women’s campaign, the other for a campaign for women’s suffrage. . In one year, the party had multiplied by 10 the number of its female members.

But how were these socialist feminists to approach the suffrage movement, much of which was anti-working class, anti-immigrant, and racist toward black women? They had three options: work within existing voting organizations; build socialist suffrage organizations that could participate in the movement alongside traditional organizations but remain autonomous; or form pure left organizations that might criticize the movement as bourgeois.

Similar strategic questions confront progressives in any united front situation: do you give up your independence to be part of the action, do you build your own organization, and do you try to get your ideas accepted by the broad movement, or do you stay pure and yell at others from the sidelines? A mature left is able to work with liberals without forgetting its goals or losing its soul. A infant left is not. But without autonomous organizations, left-wing feminists cannot really participate in the feminist movement, let alone try to lead it. To overcome the current fragmentation and confusion of the women’s movement in the United States, we need a new wave of empowered women’s organizations, formed by leftist feminists.

As The women’s uprising argues, women’s movements are often born in times of general political turmoil. Why doesn’t it happen? Why do young feminists seem more interested in social media than in creating feminist organizations?

Part of the problem is that many were exposed to feminism in post-structuralist feminist studies programs that deliberately separated theory from practice. They were also taught a history of the feminist movement that omits the work of leftist feminists. And recently, as white feminists began to grasp the enormity of the obstacles faced by black women, they were so afraid of making mistakes and being called out that they tended to keep quiet, while young activists, though eager to tell you their pronouns, are largely unaware of the patriarchy. Yet it is a moment that calls for fearless ideological debate in both the feminist movement and the left, rather than the call-out culture rightly condemned by Loretta Ross.

Another aspect of the problem is that social justice activists, many of whom are women, live in a movement culture that teaches them structural racism, but not patriarchy. In 2008, Linda Burnham, now research director of the Domestic Workers Alliance, made a deep study how 11 American grassroots organizations, mostly people of color, have addressed racism and sexism. She found that while all had a program to combat racism, none had anything comparable on sexism. Is it any wonder that the majority of the American left today is far from grasping the importance of feminism, let alone integrating it into a general political program?

And yet, the need for a strong, anti-racist feminist left has never been more urgent. Over the past 30 years, global economic integration based on free market ideology has led to obscene wealth for a very few and desperate poverty for most, leading to increasingly large migrations of people fleeing war or famine. Today, climate change, Covid, economic uncertainty and frequent wars, most recently the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are placing overwhelming pressure on a system that has already reached breaking point. The need for new responses and new ways of doing politics is clear. But the resurgent American left is young and continues to understand.

The renaissance of the left began in 2011, with Occupy Wall Street. Bernie Sanders’ campaigns of 2015 and 2019 led to the resurrection of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as a largely white mass organization and the election of many new progressive politicians. Meanwhile, in 2013, Black Lives Matter (BLM) began with protests against the acquittal of the man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. This led in 2016 to the creation of the movement for black lives, a coalition of over a hundred abolitionist and anti-capitalist groups that explicitly elevate the leadership of women and trans people, including grassroots groups that focus on community building, self-help, and self-care. BLM then built a national network that culminated in the widespread mobilization after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, with strong participation from the white left, even in rural areas where that left emerged out of nowhere.

But where are the comparable feminist organizations? They don’t exist – and that’s a problem for everyone, because the complexities of the current crisis require the intelligence and energy of all our people and the organized strength of women is essential in any fight against fascism . But the only parts of the women’s movement that seem to have any sense of direction are black women’s organizations and groups working for abortion rights and reproductive justice, both of which have been fighting right-wing assaults for a long time. the late 1970s. The rest of the American women’s movement, including its progressive wing, has no clear leadership or organization. The public face of liberal feminism is made up of former top-down bureaucratic groups whose political allegiance lies with the Democratic Party rather than a mass base of women. There is also a fragmented army of small feminist, often local, mostly single-issue focused and donor-dependent feminist NGOs; feminist professional organizations; and a left-wing feminist network of academics that calls for women’s strikes once a year in solidarity with the Latin American movement but is barely visible the rest of the time.

Meanwhile, young feminists focus on social media, blogging, and campaigning, a focus that involves paying a lot of attention to personalities, branding, and celebrity. While #Me too is unquestionably a powerful movement against harassment and sexual assault in the workplace, it is not a membership organization, so there is no way for the people who support it to ensure its consistency or change its public face . Then there is the women’s march, which started strong after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016, staging the largest protest in US history: up to a million people in Washington, DC, and between 3 and 5 million people in the whole of the United States. But because it was born on Facebook, its governance has fluctuated and it has had many ups and downs since 2016.

When Georgia passed a law giving control of women’s pregnancies to right-wing vigilantes and Texas cut abortion rights to six weeks, the American women’s movement responded as best it could. Planned parenthood did education and lobbying, the Women’s March called for a protest, and groups mobilized to fund abortion-related travel. But there was no concerted and massive response on the necessary scale, because no feminist organization was able to create one; neither have national progressive organizations done anything major to help, despite their frequent calls for a united front against fascism. As in the late 1960s when I first became active, the situation calls for a new wave of leftist feminist work capable of developing a national organization, a task we have failed to grasp in the years 70.

This may seem like an impossible task given the current situation. But as I say in The women’s uprising, things are possible in a ramp-up period that are not possible in other periods. In 1969 a handful of us started Bread and Roses in Boston, and within months we had over a hundred members. When the Hyde Amendment cut Medicaid funding for abortion in 1977, CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, was started by about 30 activists in New York; within a year we were calling thousands of protesters and opening chapters in other cities, and a few years later were part of a national network for reproductive rights.

A large and aggressive right-wing movement is on the attack, led by angry white men, racists and religious fundamentalists. In this crisis, every progressive activist must understand the specific ways in which gender, patriarchy, race, ethnicity, and class intersect and overlap. Additionally, some progressive feminists need to create organizations capable of working within a broad united women’s front, while others continue to work within the left to achieve our common goals of social justice. Unless we can do all of this – and fight climate change at the same time – we won’t succeed. And our failure could affect the future of human life on earth.