Was ERA lost because US feminists failed to use direct action as a campaigning strategy? Mary Lee Sargent, founder member of a US feminist direct action network Women Rising in Resistance, urges us to see direct action as a necessary and vital part of radical feminist politics.
T&S: What is Women Rising in Resistance?
MLS: It is a connecting web or network of affinity groups and individual activists who create direct action demonstrations for lesbian/feminist/womanist/pacifist/radicaI causes and issues. By direct action we mean a dramatic, face-to-face, non-violent confrontation with those who abuse power or obstruct change; any highly visible political act including sit-ins, sit-downs, strikes, occupations, street theatre, spray painting disruptions, fasts, traffic obstructions, ritual encirclements, boycotts, vigils, mass demonstrations. A secondary goal of our network is educating women about the need for such tactics in our movements and encouraging participating in direct actions. The commitment which links us is that we prioritise women, girls, women's children and their well-being in our political work. In both setting goals and planning strategy women 's issues, needs and concerns come first for us.
Because we do prioritise women, most of the sister resisters in Women Rising are lesbians (maybe as many as 80 or 90%). A significant minority do not identify as lesbian but have made feminist and lesbian issues the focus of their political activity. Although we are committed to fighting racism and every other form of dominance, we are mostly white, US lesbians/radical feminists. Many of us come from working class backgrounds, many from middle class. Most of us are self supporting women working to put bread on the table and a roof overhead; few if any of us are the comfortable yuppie females that the US mass media claim make up the ranks of the feminist movement.
T&S: How did you come together?
MLS: In December of 1981, a group of lesbian/feminists in Champaign County, Illinois formed an affinity group, a Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens, to plan a series of direct actions in support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. We were friends and coworkers involved in various feminist and lesbian organisations locally. For several years prior to coming together we had lamented the lack of a radical, direct action wing of the US feminist movement comparable to the militant branch of the US and UK suffrage movements of the early twentieth century or, more recently, of the US civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. All of us agreed that the absence of an organised campaign of direct action and civil disobedience were in part responsible for the failure to get the ERA ratified. Each of us had waited in vain for a wave of direct action protests to galvanise us into action. When the June 30, 1982 ratification deadline loomed only six months away, we decided that we must organise something immediately. Otherwise the ERA would go down "not with a bang but a whimper", giving a dangerous signal to the right-wing, anti-feminist forces then gaining power in the US.
Once we began to recruit participants for our action from outside of Illinois, we learned about an affinity group on the East Coast, the Congressional Union (later known' as A Group of Women). It had been carrying out direct actions for ERA since 1980. Unfortunately our local media had not covered their efforts. An awareness that we were doing too little too late, and that we had not heard about actions done by other radical feminists, convinced us that our ERA protests must be a springboard for future activity and organisation.
Our direct action campaign in June of 1982, included a four-day occupation of the State Capitol, door chainings, disruption of legislative sessions, sit-ins and writing the names of our political opponents in animal blood on the Capitol floors. Throughout the month our public statements and press releases emphasised that we had two major purposes in our actions: pressuring the legislature to ratify the ERA and initiating a new wave of militancy in US feminism. After the defeat of ERA our affinity group made the task of mobilising and connecting activists committed to direct action a major priority. It was at A Woman Gathering (a meeting of lesbians/feminists who combine a commitment to political activism with an interest in women's spirituality) in August 1983, that the idea was taken from Champaign to a national group. Several Gathering participants brainstormed together and chose the name Women Rising in Resistance (WRR) and produced a statement of goals and purposes.
T&S: Why did you feel there was a need for a direct action network?
MLS: Our study of the history of social movements, our combined experience in those movements and the dismal disappointment of losing the ERA made it crystal clear to us that direct action is a necessary strategy for achieving social and political change. Absolutely every political movement that we knew anything about had utilised direct action. Without it, feminism in the US had just sustained a serious defeat. We chose to form a network of activists instead of a centralised organisation in order to channel our energies and resources into doing actions. We began by producing a brochure inviting women activists to: use our name and logo in connection with their own when carrying out their own direct actions; do simultaneous actions on special days of focus; help plan coordinated regional and national events; educate others about the need for direct action in our movements; and communicate with the WRR clearing house about their work so that we could share the information/techniques with other resisters in the network.
In January 1984 we sent the brochure to approximately 500 women and affinity groups, placed ads in the lesbian/feminist press, we also wrote letters to the editors of feminist, lesbian and progressive publications announcing our existence and outlining our goals. Over the past three years WRR sisters have attended dozens of conferences, meetings and workshops to present sessions about our network and its activities and to distribute our literature. Like our foresisters in the US movement, Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "we accepted every invitation to speak on any and every subject" in order to have an opportunity to promote the concept of direct action and WRR.
As women hear about us through one of these means and contact us, they are answered with a personal letter, sent printed material about WRR actions, especially those in their area, and placed on the mailing list to receive our newsletter. In 1985 and 1986 the network organised our first national event--Women Take Liberty in 1986. On the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, WRR claimed the colossal female image for women and women's causes and protested the corporate and governmental abuse of the symbol. We publicised the action in much the same way we had previously promoted the network, except that we also purchased paid display ads in the largest circulation lesbian/feminist publications. Making contact with direct action activists was a major goal of the Liberty action, and this aspect of the project was a smashing success. As a result of all of these efforts, we are now a network of approximately 1500 individuals and affinity groups. Of these, about 200 have met and carried out one or more actions together.
T&S: What kinds of things do Women Rising do? Are there different types of actions?
MLS: During the past three-years women have carried out dozens of direct actions under the WRR banner. For example, in Champaign, Illinois, we disrupted the lavish open house of a local newspaper which refused to publish advertising for lesbian/ gay events. Sister Resisters in New York City barred the doors of the New York and American Stock Exchanges on Lesbian/ Women's Equality Day in August of 1985 to protest the corporate abuse of women and women's image. The National Rampage Against Penthouse used the WRR name and logo in its campaign of civil disobedience (destroying, vomiting on, ripping up Penthouse and Hustler magazines) in pornography outlets in more than 50 cities resulting in over 100 arrests.
Sisters of Justice in Columbus, Ohio, use the WRR logo in all of their actions aimed at ending violence against women. And the WRR logo was displayed by the courageous activists who wrecked a pornography store in Columbus, Ohio, in May of 1986. In South Hadley and Amherst, Massachusetts, an affinity group called Women of Faith are also Women Rising in Resistance when they block the doors and gates of nuclear weapons industries and nuclear submarine launching sites. February 5, 1987, the day scheduled for the first US nuclear test of the year, they blocked traffic in Springfield, Massachusetts for a mock Nuclear Test. On Halloween of 1984, 85 and 86, WRR in several US cities held witch trials to try men and corporations guilty of crimes against women, children and the poor. Sit-ins and door blockings by resisters plagued Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters during the 1984 US presidential elections. Spray painting at pornographic book stores, the headquarters of corporations involved in the nuclear weapons industry and military bases is done regularly by WRR women.
Most recently, the St Louis resisters have launched one of the most dramatic and sustained series of actions carried out by an affinity group in the network. On three successive Sunday nights, 50-120 chanting protestors encircled the home of a trial court judge who had recently sentenced to only two years probation a man found guilty of repeatedly raping an eight-year old girl. in the process of being organised is a nation-wide Women's Strike for Survival to call attention to women's continued economic exploitation in the US monopoly capitalist economy.
T&S: In your general Women Rising leaflet there are a lot of historical connections -- why are these important?
MLS: One of our goals in WRR is the political education of women about the necessity of direct action. Consequently, it is important to make clear that these tactics have been a vital part of both the past and present movements for radical social change. Especially in the ultra-conservative 80s, even supporters of feminist lesbian causes are often unaware that the rights and choices we now enjoy were won by a combination of tactics, including direct action. As a recruiter of activists, I have found that historical examples of women's resistance are powerful motivators. Knowing that our foresisters in the feminist/lesbian/ peace/ civil rights/labour movements have had to stand up and take risks again and again inspires women to act in the present. Almost every resister I know or have read about mentions the lessons of herstory, the example of courageous foremothers, as crucial determinants of her decision to act.From a practical point of view, historical examples give us ideas for current actions. In 1982 we borrowed the idea of chaining ourselves to the doors of the Illinois Senate from UK suffragists who chained themselves to railings in the House of Commons visitor's gallery. Women Take Liberty was inspired, in part, by a New York Suffrage Association protest at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. And a protest we are planning for the Bicentennial of the US Constitution is modelled on a feminist demonstration at the US Centennial in 1876. The tactic of sit-ins was borrowed from the US labour and civil rights movements. One of our favourite tactics is to re-enact earlier examples of women resisting. In St Louis in 1984 we acted out the Aba Market Riots (the uprising of Igbo women in Nigeria in 1929 against local government authorities) in front of Reagan headquarters. Like the Igbo women, we demanded the return of governmental authority to women. The US mass media seem to be especially interested in actions which make historical connections and parallels.
T&S: Are there issues about security that have to be dealt with -- how do you do this?MLS: Every affinity group has its own unique set of circumstances and concerns. Since our Champaign group is made up of trusted sisters and long-time friends we have almost no concern about it. Perhaps because US feminists are so reticent to do confrontational protests of any kind, much less high risk ones, security is not a crucial issue for us at the moment. It is more important for us to give realistic information about how little real risk is usually involved in standing up and defying authority--to convince women of how unlikely it is they will be hurt or arrested or sentenced to jail. We have found in the US that many women fear that doing anything will lead to arrest and jailing. Here, 99% of the time, demonstrators get repeated warnings to leave o
T&S: What issues do you/have you prioritised and why?
MLS: Each WRR affinity group has its own priorities. In Champaign, we are the only lesbian/feminist direct action group and so have maintained a broad focus, including labour and economic issues, lesbian rights, violence against women, abortion rights, anti-pornography, anti-racism and others.
You ask why we have prioritised them. Lesbian issues because 90% of us are lesbians; violence against women because 100% of us are survivors of violence; pornography because 100% of us are survivors of violence and pornography promotes violence against women. Economic issues because women and their children are 80-100% of the poor. Labour issues because we all labour at jobs which exploit and underpay us as women.
T&S: Do Women Rising have a theory about direct action, its role in feminism, how it works, what it does for those taking part?
MLS: Our theory about direct action has been described by one of our members, Berenice Carroll:
Crystal Eastman wrote of this process as it operated in the suffrage movement. She focused on the effects of direct action on the movement itself, effects of rallying followers and challenging critics within the movement. The process of direct action also has effects upon a wider public and upon those in positions of authority. To both these groups it makes highly visible and urgent a conflict or demand that has been obscured by silence, indifference, timidity, conformity, apathy, or despair, and impresses on them the depth of commitment to the cause on the part of its adherents. At the same time, it imposes certain costs upon those authorities whose actions or policies are directly confronted by the demonstrators. it exposes them to public scrutiny, and requires them to confront, on a face-to-face basis, those who are seeking to hold them accountable by a public, bodily witness. In addition, it imposes upon them tangible costs in money, time, energy, personnel, resources, reputation and psychological stress. These costs may have the initial effect of engendering anger and hostile responses, but in the long run, such costs must be weighed in the balance by lawmakers when they determine their priorities.
Let me add that direct action and civil disobedience get results. Using these tactics, Ghandi, the suffragists, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks won. The ERA movement, which failed to adopt direct action strategies, lost.
T&S: Do you think the fact that Women Rising has originated in the US makes the vision of a global network of women using the same name and logo problematic--for example the days you've selected for actions reflect US calendar/ culture? Aren't there potential dangers in becoming too connected--it may make it difficult for women wanting to leave their countries (immigration hassles and the like)?
MLS: Spreading the name and logo of WRR could be seen as a womanifestation of US imperialism or, at least, maternalism. Since WRR is a completely voluntary association and network founded on anarchofeminist principles, it is meant to be used and adapted to fit the purposes of those activists who feel they can benefit from it. It is for those who like the idea or the name or the logo or the sense of connection with direct actors in other societies and cultures. Many radical activists are understandably critical and suspicious of any idea which originates in the US and may not want to be connected with us.
Perhaps what is of most value in WRR for women outside the US is the idea of linking together with a common name and logo activists within their own country. Women who like the idea of belonging to an international sisterhood of activists may want to use the WRR name or logo. Others will want to choose a name and image of their own creating or which has special power and meaning in their country/culture. It depends entirely on the ideas and feelings of the network organisers. For some the idea of having international connections is more appealing than for others.
T&S: Some views of direct action suggest it works on the principle of punishment--provoking the state to show its true colours--others view it more as a form of theatre--how to either of these views fit with Women Rising?
MLS: I see it as theatre dramatising issues and raising awareness about them; as punishing oppressors by exacting costs of energy, time, anxiety, reputation; as exposing oppressors to public scrutiny; as free publicity for the causes involved; as a means of energising and emboldening supporters; as an organising tool; as a means to draw out opponents to show their true colours.
T&S: What are the obstacles in trying to organise women to engage in direct action and to participate in something like the WRR network?
MLS: The most obvious obstacle is the absence of an existing and active direct action movement for women to join or attach to. It is easier to join than to organise such a movement from scratch. When nothing is happening one is not inspired to act but rather depressed into inaction. We have no role models to imitate. Nor do we hear the topic of direct action debated, defended, discussed, denounced or analysed publically as it was during the suffrage, labour, civil rights or anti-war movements of the past. One could say that the spirit of the times is working against us. Perhaps in architecture or graphic design "less is more"; in direct action politics, less is less and more is more.
The absence of a militant wing in modern US feminism means that few women have had experience doing direct action. This inexperience leads women to make unrealistic assessments of the risks involved. Some women simply overestimate the costs of participation, the likelihood of real harm or danger.
Another problem is that women are overworked and over-committed. Commitments to waged work, children, domestic chores and ageing parents leave women little time for political activity, especially activity involving risk of detention or arrest which would interfere with these commitments.
Finally, we have been socialised to fear physical danger, discouraged from taking risks and engaging in deeds of daring-do. Our sense of adventure has been squelched and squeezed into oblivion. Also, some women see resistance as negative, as nay saying and want to do only what is positive. Women are supposed to smile and say yes. They do not understand that saying no to oppression, standing up to abuse, is a positive act.
back Notes 1. Berenice Carroll, "Direct action and constitutional rights: the case of the ERA" in Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA, ed. Joan Heff-Wilson 1986.