WOMEN RISING IN RESISTANCE
A Direct Action Network
Mary Lee Sargent
Parkland College, Champaign, Illinois, U.S.A.
(C) Mary Lee Sargent. All Rights Reserved.
Synopsis --This article describes the actions of the Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens in the ERA campaign in Illinois in 1982 and the formation and activities of Women Rising in Resistance, a network of feminists engaged in direct action. It discusses some obstacles to women's direct action and the importance of education concerning its history and effectiveness.
This article includes some excerpts from an interview
which appeared in Trouble and Strife (Summer 1987), published in England.
In December of 1981, a group of women in Champaign County, Illinois formed the Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens to plan a series of direct actions in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution.1 We were friends and coworkers involved locally in various feminist and lesbian organizations. For several years prior to coming together, we had lamented the lack of a radical, direct action wing of the U.S. feminist movement comparable to the militant branch of the US. and UK. suffrage movements of the early 20th century or, more recently, of the US. civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. All of us agreed that the absence of an organized campaign of direct action and civil disobedience was 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 galvanize us into action. When the June 30, 1982 ratification deadline loomed only six months away, we decided that we must organize 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 U.S.
Once we began to recruit participants for our action from outside of Illinois, we learned about a group on the East Coast, the Congressional Union (later known as A Group of Women), which 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 organization. Our study of the history of social movements, in addition to our own experiences in those movements, made it crystal clear to us that direct action is a necessary strategy for achieving social and political change.
Our direct action campaign in June of 1982 began with a chain-in at the doors of the Illinois Senate which was extended into a four-day occupation of the State Capitol, to our knowledge the first such occupation of a state capitol in US. history. Subsequently, our group carried out actions almost every day until the June 30 ratification deadline, fifteen acts of civil disobedience in all. Borrowing tactics from the suffrage, labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements, we twice disrupted sessions of the legislature. On one of these occasions, we took over the floor of the House of Representatives, positioned ourselves at the Speaker's podium, and began to chant and sing the words of the ERA, causing immediate adjournment of the session. In addition, we held sit-ins at the offices of the Governor and Speaker of the House and another chain-in at the Governor's office door. For that action, we were found in contempt of court for violating an injunction barring the group from wearing chains in the Capitol. Our most dramatic act took place on June 25, the day the ERA was voted down in the Illinois Senate. As soon as the votes were counted, we wrote the names of the Governor and anti-ERA legislators in blood on the marble floors in front of the legislative chambers. Blood was used to symbolize the death of ERA and the blood of women who suffer without legal equality. For this action, we faced felony charges.
Throughout the month, our public statements and press releases emphasized that we had two major purposes in our actions: pressuring the legislature to ratify the ERA and promoting a new wave of militancy in US. feminism. Although our direct action campaign did not obtain ratification of the ERA in Illinois or nationally, our work was powerful and achieved results we did not anticipate when we began. Because these events were reported in the national media on a daily basis and later made history by being reproduced in encyclopedias and other pictorial sources, we focused attention on the issues involved in the ERA and demonstrated the courage and dedication of women in the struggle for equality.
After the defeat of the ERA, our group made the task of mobilizing and connecting activists committed to direct action a major priority. At A Woman Gathering (a meeting of feminists who combined a commitment to political activism with an interest in women's spirituality) in August of 1983, the idea was taken from Champaign to a national group. Several Gathering participants brainstormed and chose the name "Women Rising in Resistance" and produced a statement of goals and purposes.
Women Rising in Resistance has evolved into a connecting web or network of affinity groups and individual activists who create direct action demonstrations for lesbian/feminist/womanist/pacifist/radical causes and issues. We chose to form a network of activists instead of a centralized organization in order to channel our energies and resources into doing actions. Creating a structure that needed constant maintenance and attention would consume energy we needed for action. By direct action we mean a dramatic, faceto-face, nonviolent confrontation with those who abuse power or obstruct change; any highly visible political act including sit-ins, sit-downs, strikes, occupations, street theater, spray painting, disruptions, fasts, traffic obstructions, ritual encirclements, boycotts, vigils, and mass demonstrations. Direct action can be seen as theater dramatizing issues and raising awareness about them; as punishing oppressors by exacting costs in terms of energy, time, anxiety, reputation, and money; as exposing oppressors to public scrutiny; as publicity for the causes involved; as a means of energizing and emboldening supporters; and as an organizing tool.A secondary goal of our network is educating women about the need for such tactics in our movements and encouraging participation in direct actions. The commitment which links us is that we prioritize women, girls, women's children, and their well-being in our political work. In setting goals and planning strategy, women's issues, needs, and concerns come first for us.
WOMEN RISING IN RESISTANCE ACTIONS
We began in 1984 by producing and distributing a brochure inviting women activists to join our network and communicate with the Women Rising in Resistance clearing house about their work so that we could share information and techniques with other resisters in the network. We also wrote letters to the editors of feminist, lesbian, and progressive publications announcing the existence of Women Rising in Resistance and outlining our goals. Over the years, Women Rising in Resistance 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 Women Rising in Resistance.
To create a more coordinated movement and promote a sense of radical feminist cohesiveness, Women Rising in Resistance urges women to: (a) use the Women Rising in Resistance name and logo in connection with their own when carrying out direct actions; (b) do simultaneous actions on special days of focus; (c) help plan coordinated regional, national, and international events; and (d) educate others about the need for direct action in our movements.
Women have carried out dozens of direct actions under the Women Rising in Resistance banner. On Halloween of 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986, Women Rising in Resistance in several US. cities held witch trials to try men and corporations guilty of crimes against women, children, and the poor. During the 1984 U.S. presidential campaign, resisters plagued Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters with sit-ins and door blockings. In South Hadley and Amherst, Massachusetts, an affinity group called Women of Faith has used the Women Rising in Resistance name and logo when they block the doors and gates of nuclear weapons industries and nuclear submarine launching sites. In Cham paign, 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 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 Women Rising in Resistance name and logo in its campaign of civil disobedience (destroying, vomiting on, and 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 uses the Women Rising in Resistance logo in all of its actions aimed at ending violence against women (for instance, when they wrecked a pornography store in Columbus, Ohio in May of 1986). Resisters regularly spray- paint pornographic book stores as well as military bases and the headquarters of corporations involved in the nuclear weapons industry. Sisters in California, Ohio, and Massachusetts have used a stencil of the logo in spray-painting actions. A group in California uses the name when it confronts perpetrators of rape and sexual abuse. St. Louis resisters 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 in the fall of 1985, 50 to 120 chanting protestors encircled the home of a trial court judge who had sentenced to only two years probation a man found guilty of repeatedly raping an eight-year-old girl.In 1985 and 1986, the Women Rising in Resistance network organized our first national event - Women Take Liberty in '86. On the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, Women Rising in Resistance claimed the colossal female image for women and women's causes and protested the corporate and governmental abuse of the symbol. Approximately 300 women occupied the circular stairway inside the Statue for an hour singing an anthem of the women's peace movement, Naomi Littlebear's "You Can't Kill the Spirit." In defiance of the National Park Service's regulations, several affinity groups also draped banners, including a 40-foot-long Women Take Liberty banner, on the pedestal of the Statue. Other activities included hourly encirclements of the Statue, passing a petition demanding that the U.S. government give the monument to women to compensate for failing to pass the ERA, and a rally at Liberty State Park.
vWe publicized this event in much the same way we had previously promoted the network, except that we also purchased paid display ads in lesbian/feminist publications with the largest circulations in the US. Making contact with direct action activists was a major goal of the Liberty action, and this was a success.
As a result of all these efforts, we are now a network of approximately 1,500 individuals and affinity groups. Of these, about 200 women have met and carried out one or more actions together. The name has been adapted to fit the needs and desires of specific groups, as in Lesbians Rising in Resistance and Grandmothers Rising in Resistance. Other affinity groups use the logo but not the name.
One of our goals in Women Rising in Resistance is the political education of women about the necessity of direct action. It is important to make clear that these tactics have been a vital part of both past and present movements for radical social change. In the conservative 1980s, even supporters of lesbian/feminist causes are often unaware that the rights and choices we now enjoy were won by a combination of tactics, including direct action. Knowing that our foresisters in the feminist, lesbian, peace, civil rights, and labor movements have had to stand up and take risks again and again inspires women to act in the present.
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 U.K. and US. suffragists who chained themselves to columns in front of the Houses of Parliament, railings in the House of Commons visitors' gallery, and the White House fence. Women Take Liberty was inspired, in part, by a New York Suffrage Association protest at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. The tactic of sit-ins was borrowed from the US. labor and civil rights movements. One of our favorite tactics is to re-enact earlier examples of women resisting. In St. Louis in 1984, we acted out the Aba "Women's War" (the uprising of Igbo women in Aba, Nigeria in 1929 against local government authorities) in front of Reagan headquarters. Like the Igbo women, we demanded that governmental authority be turned over to women.
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 organize such a movement from scratch. When nothing is happening, one is not inspired to act; rather, one is depressed into inaction. Without an ongoing, visible direct action movement in the public eye, women are not moved, educated, or taught how to take action. Perhaps in architecture or graphic design "less is more"; in direct action politics, less is less and more is more.
vRelatively few women, however, have had experience doing direct action. This inexperience leads women to make unrealistic assessments of the risks involved. Some women simply overestimate the cost of participation, the likelihood of real harm or danger. We have been socialized to fear physical danger, discouraged from taking risks and engaging in deeds of daring- do. Our sense of adventure has been squelched and squeezed. 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 may not understand that saying no to oppression, standing up to abuse, is a positive act.
Another problem is that women are overworked and overcommitted. According to recent UN statistics, women do two-thirds of the world's work. Commitments to wage labor, children, domestic chores, and aging parents leave women little time for political activity, especially activity involving risk of detention or arrest that would interfere with these commitments.
Even feminist and lesbian women have been socialized as women to serve and nurture everyone, every cause, and to put themselves last. To put oneself and one's cause first is to be selfish, and we are conditioned to be unselfish. Our tendency to love humanity leads us to fight for every cause but that of women. Related to this is the fact that women have been reared in societies that hate and devalue women. We are taught to bond with men and not women; bonds between women are not generally imaged in art or literature; our original bonds with our selves and other women are interrupted and severed again and again. Yet intense female bonding and trust are necessary to carry out feminist direct action, and this is extremely difficult for many women.
Our commitment to public, visible action sometimes limits what we can do. Another limitation is scarcity of resources and time. We are selective about when to get arrested because of the costs involved. For instance, the defeat of the ERA was a time when we had to take the risk, but that series of actions cost 12 of us from the Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens from 4 to 27 days in jail and about $10,000 in fines, court costs, and legal fees.
Locally, most of our actions under the Women Rising in Resistance name are public and visible actions. Some are legal, some are more confrontational and illegal. However, when we do spray painting or other assaults on property, it is sometimes under a different name. Because of limited time and money and because many of us cannot or do not want to go to jail, we often defy law enforcement officers until the point of warning and then stop or leave. It is often just as effective to do an action until the point of arrest and then to simply turn and leave the scene as it is to be arrested.
Finally, spreading the name and logo of Women Rising in Resistance could be seen as a womanifestation of U.S. imperialism or, at least, maternalism. Many radical activists are understandably critical and suspicious of any idea that originates in the US. and may not want to be connected with us. But since Women Rising in Resistance is a completely voluntary association and network founded on anarcho-feminist principles, it is meant to be used and adapted to fit the purposes of those activists who feel they can benefit from it. Perhaps what is of most value in Women Rising in Resistance for wThis is unsolicted commercialPlease cancel all associated accounts. Thanks.men 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 Women Rising in Resistance 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 or culture. For each network, the common days of resistance could be adapted to fit the culture where the actions occur; the examples of direct action could be from each group's own rich, herstorical past. It is the linking, connecting, bonding, and supporting part of Women Rising in Resistance that we want to promote rather than our particular name and form of connecting.
DIRECT ACTION AS WOMEN'S WORK
Despite these obstacles, what leaps out at anyone who reads the newspapers is that women are resisting injustice. For those who look, it is also evident that women have always resisted injustice and will continue to resist it in the future. In old grainy photographs and scratchy film images of strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, and marches, women's faces, multitudes of them, look out at us. In diaries, letters, and histories which record direct actions, we read their names and deeds. We learn that women were often the inspirers, initiators, planners, and leaders of resistance movements.
Those of us in the U.S. who are currently involved in the struggles to end nuclear weapons, intervention in Central America, violence against women, pornography, the oppression of lesbians and homosexual men, racism, apartheid, and classism need only look around to see that a majority of our comrades and co-workers are women and that we are of every race, class, age, size, and ability. In October of 1987, at the planning session for "Out and Outraged," an act of civil disobedience at the Supreme Court to protest the Court's decision in the Hardwick case which upheld a Georgia sodomy statute, the moderator acknowledged this fact of contemporary political life. He pointed out that the Supreme Court action had been envisioned, planned, and coordinated by lesbians and that "without the women there would be no civil disobedience."
Women Rising in Resistance exists to support and link the women activists who are already resisting and to encourage those not yet involved to get involved -to join their sisters in resisting injustice and transforming society.
back1. Ratification of the ERA required passage by three-fourths (38) of the state legislatures. By June of 1982, after a 10-year ratification campaign, only 35 had ratified. Illinois was one of the four states which were still in session and could possibly ratify the amendment by the June 30th deadline mandated by Congress. Thus Illinois became the focus of national as well as local attention.