Whatever else Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election may do, it has certainly stirred many out of the stupor that has gripped the country for decades. When National Women’s Liberation (NWL) posted an invitation on their Facebook page to a meeting in New York on November 15 to do consciousness-raising about the presidential campaign, they were overwhelmed with the response.
“We normally get 20-30 at our chapter meetings, this drew at least 550 – that’s how many we got to sign up, although only about 240 fit in the hall,” said Jenny Brown of NWL.
“Some others may have gotten away before we were able to reach them with clipboards. A large group of women who couldn’t fit in went to a nearby park and held a speakout there, led by Kathie Sarachild [of Redstockings].”
We are reprinting here the introduction to the consciousness-raising part of the meeting presented by NWL and Redstockings activist Jenny Brown in which she addresses the need to organize ALL women – including the 53% of the white women who voted for Trump.
A link to the video of the entire meeting appears at the end of this piece. – The Editors
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Introduction to the Consciousness-Raising Section of New York National Women’s Liberation meeting, November 15, 2016
By Jenny Brown
A few words about what this meeting is and what it isn’t. I’ve been to several forums, like many of you I’m sure, analyzing the election results – who voted, who didn’t, the fact that among white women who voted, 53% voted for Trump.
That election analysis is an important discussion which will continue, but it’s not what we intend to do here. Still, I want to address the 53% because of how it relates to the history of our movement and our group—and it also contains a self-criticism, and relates to what we DO want to do here tonight.
We can trace our group’s origins to fifty years ago when Black leaders in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the radical vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement, told the whites in the organization to leave, go out into the white community, and “fight your own oppressors.”
Among those whites sent out of SNCC on this mission were women radicals—committed workers who had been jailed and risked their lives in the southern Civil Rights Movement. They carried out their Black coworkers’ instructions by tackling male supremacy, and in 1967 started the Women’s Liberation Movement. Some of those women are founding members of our group. A powerful Black Women’s Liberation effort also originated in SNCC. (You can read about that in Carol’s Giardina’s 2010 book Freedom for Women.)
At the time women didn’t think they were oppressed as women. No woman thought this, or if they suspected it, they thought they had to deal with it individually. But using lessons they learned from the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power, Women’s Liberation transformed a whole bunch of ordinary, non-political, non-avant guard, largely white women, who didn’t think they were oppressed, into a powerful radical force that in many ways revolutionized life in the U.S. by the early 1970s. This should give us hope – so-called apolitical women can be quite radical if we dare to organize them. The combination of Black Liberation, feminist, student, anti-war, Latino/a, Native American, veteran, gay liberation and labor organizing put the power structure back on its heels for some time – all those movements pushing simultaneously meant progress for all of them. (If you want more on all this history please go to the Redstockings Women’s Liberation archives.)
Here’s the self-criticism, though, speaking for myself and other feminists, we clearly have not done our assignment from SNCC sufficiently. While we made some giant advances early on, most women haven’t seen a strong, visible women’s liberation movement that bases its demands on their lives and experiences, and takes aim at both male supremacy and the 1 percent. Therefore, the vast majority of women, like the majority of people in the U.S., didn’t vote at all. They didn’t see their interests reflected in this election – they were demobilized and alienated, and women’s liberation didn’t provide another vision.
So we need to do that. Defending ourselves and others against immediate attacks is necessary – and we make it a priority – but one lesson is that it is NOT ENOUGH. Feminists need to be better at our assigned movement job, in some ways harder, which is to organize unorganized women – and that includes white women. This is one response to the criticism that if you are organizing white women, you are not doing the real work. We think this election indicates that that is incorrect.
To be clear, as SNCC certainly understood, this is how we effectively organize against racism too – it’s a two-step process. For white women to see how racism and all our other biases and blind spots are against our interests as women, we first have to see that we have interests as women – otherwise fake identities such as whiteness can become primary.
But as a Women’s Liberation Movement, we cannot exclusively focus on white women – we will not win. We think the strongest way is to organize AS WOMEN, meaning women of color and white women together, with a caucus of women of color, because the movement requires some focused study by women of color – with women of color leading and white women following their leadership on issues of race and racism in the movement. Our aim is to BOTH organize whites (as directed by Black SNCC leaders) by organizing white women, AND to organize women of color.
How did the Women’s Liberation Movement organize? They adapting testifying and “tell it like it is” from the Civil Rights Movement, and invented consciousness-raising – among women who didn’t think they were oppressed as women – and it spread understanding like wildfire. In consciousness-raising, women compared experiences and learned that what we thought were personal issues actually share a political root. They analyzed how they were oppressed and who was benefitting and who was to blame. They said it was scarier, at least at first, to confront the realities of their own lives than it had been to face down southern sheriffs. This is why they said, in the pioneering feminist classic Toward a Female Liberation Movement, “People don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles.”
When we do consciousness-raising, we talk from our own experience, we talk about our own stake, we take off the rose-colored glasses, we speak for ourselves, not others. When we understand our own stake in change, we can combine on a solid basis of understanding across the many things that divide us, and identify common interests, common enemies, and common goals.
So in the first section we’re asking:
What has been the effect of the election campaign on your life?
What effect has the outcome of the election had on you? (Can include hopes and fears.)
We want you to speak from your own experience. Feelings are included in that, and we regard them as important data.
After we answer that we’ll say a few words about our group and then go into the second round, which is about what you’re doing and what you think the feminist movement should be doing. …
We’re doing it as a progressive stack – no two white people in a row unless there’s no person of color that wants to speak – and if you’re a guy, we ask that you please listen, and hold your thoughts for other meetings.
A video of the full meeting, with testimonies about the election, is available here:
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Jenny Brown is a member of National Women’s Liberation and Redstockings.
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