as Political Players:
Activism in an Era of Globalization
(Editors Note: This reflection was originally a talk given
at a University of Chicago conference in 1999. Chris is a
former Co-Chair of the CWLU. The photo was taken in 1974 at
a Liberation School meeting.)
I know about gender and politics I learned not from my academic
career, but rather from my activism. I became involved in
politics, like many of my generation, during the anti-Vietnam
war movement. Some of the most important lessons I learned
were from my experience in the Chicago Womens Liberation
Union (CWLU). CWLU was formed in 1969; it became a model
for socialist feminist womens unions around the country.
was part of the second wave of feminism. During the early
years in the late 1960s and 70s many articles, pamphlets
and books were written describing the goals and desires
of the movement and those of us in it. One that I remember
especially well was called I dont want to change
my lifestyle, I want to change my life. That reflected,
in part, the views of women in CWLU, but we also went beyond
that: we wanted to change the world. Peg Strobel, of the
UIC Womens Studies Program, has described activists
in CWLU as seeing ourselves as social actors
people who wanted to act in and on the world. The
idea that we could change the world was crucial to understanding
how we in the womens union thought about social change.
there were certainly many different perspectives within
CWLU, the main trends within the organization had some basic
agreement on at least one key point: we needed to focus
on activism if we wanted to advance the struggle for womens
my years in CWLU I learned several key lessons about activism
- lessons that have guided my work since then. The first
lesson grows out of that basic understanding of CWLU - that
activism is central to making change.
Lesson 1: Activism and Understanding
activism of CWLU was not simply doing something for the
sake of being active, rather it was guided by an understanding
of the world we lived and worked in. We recognized, to paraphrase
Marx, that the point is not simply to understand the world,
but to change it. But we also recognized that to change
it we needed to understand it - how it worked, where and
how we could affect it.
were those in the women's movement and on the left, especially
the 'ultra-left', who felt that we needed to have a clear
analysis of the world and how it worked before we could
act. And there were others who felt that we didn't need
any analysis at all; rather we should just tackle each issue
as it came up. Within the Women's Union, we struggled to
maintain a balance. There was certainly a tension, but generally
it was a creative tension. We learned as we worked and what
we learned guided us in our analysis and helped us refine
Lesson 2: Vision and the Connections between Issues
also understood that neither theory nor practice would get
us very far unless we had a vision of where we were going.
In the vision we developed we also recognized that the struggle
for women's rights was not isolated from other struggles.
was reflected in the CWLU's political principles, which
read, in part:
The struggle for women's liberation is a revolutionary
struggle. Women's liberation is essential to the liberation
of all oppressed people. Women's liberation will
not be achieved until all people are free.
these words may sound clichéd today, they do reflect
a vision of the world in which women are central and rights
and representation are vital to its betterment.
Lesson 3: Power
The third critical lesson I learned from my years in the
Women's Union was about power.
order to make the changes we wanted to make in the world,
we knew that we would have to have political power. The
importance of power in our struggle was, perhaps, best summed
up by a paper written by a group within CWLU entitled Socialist
Feminism: A Strategy for the Women's Movement. The concepts
in that paper, which later formed the basis for the Midwest
Academy model of organizing, included these key goals:
Our work for women's liberation must be done in a way
that gives women a sense of our own power. It must also
alter the relations of power.
that there were two key principles in this view of power
one was giving us as women a sense of our own power
an understanding that we could, in fact, have an
impact in the world. The second was the recognition that
in order, ultimately, to make changes, we would need to
change who has power. That might mean something as simple
as electing more women to public office (simple, of course,
only in the sense that it is pretty straightforward, if
not always easy to do) or something as complex as redefining
who makes decisions about aspects of the global economy.
Lesson 4: Strategy
last lesson from my CWLU days that I want to mention has
to do with strategy. Understanding strategy is an often
difficult lesson to learn sometimes it seems that
developing a strategy prevents us from actually being an
activist. But without a strategy our activism can be mindless
and even counterproductive.
CWLU when we talked about strategy we summed it up in a
Use what youve got to get what you need.
short sentence really encapsulates what strategy is: to
make it work you have to know what youve got (which
hopefully youve learned from applying lesson 1) and
you have to know what you need (from lesson 2) and then
you have to determine how you can use what youve got
to get what you need.
second key aspect of strategy is summed up in a second slogan:
Start from where people are at.
we try to plan an action that people are not ready for or
one that they are far past, it simply isnt going to
work. For our activism to have an impact we have to understand
not only the world as a whole, but also the individuals
who we want to organize.
The Meaning of Those Lessons Today
the 30 years since CWLU was formed, there have been many
changes in the world. Some of them have been positive: it
is impossible to look back to 1970 and not acknowledge that
the situation of women, and that of lesbians and gay men,
is significantly better now. And those changes didnt
just happen. The activists in organizations like CWLU, NOW,
NGLTF and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of state and
local groups have had a tremendous impact on womens
rights, gay and lesbian rights and the rights of other oppressed
other changes are less positive or, at least, more difficult
- The collapse of communism
- The increasing importance of information
- The rise of the global economy
All of these have changed the world and the situation of
women in it.
Lesson 1: Activism and Understanding:
do these changes mean for activism and for women? To understand
that we can look at the first wave of feminism and how the
changes that occurred between then and the second wave affected
activism. One of the first things we must note is that the
struggle for suffrage can be dated back to the 1848 Seneca
Falls Convention and it wasnt until some 70 years
later that the womens suffrage amendment was passed.
In that context our struggle of the last 30 years does not
seem so long.
can also learn from the activism of that period. Many of
us have undoubtedly heard stories of how Susan B Anthony
mobilized support for suffrage through her travels and speaking
around the country. Effective as that might have been in
the 19th century, we would simply not wage a campaign the
same way today. We would no more think of traveling around
the US by stagecoach today than we would think of handwriting
address labels for our members. Yet too often we take little
account of the dramatic changes going on in the world around
us. We act as if the changes of the last 50 years in TV,
transportation and information technology have nothing to
do with our activism, when, in fact, we need to rethink
our analysis, our vision and our strategy in light of these
changes. We also need to understand the intersection between
the changes described above.
collapse of communism certainly opened the door to the current
ideological hegemony of neoliberalism (by which I mean an
ideology that promotes a corporate-driven economy, a focus
on economic efficiency, decisions made in private and no
priority placed on social and environmental costs) and helped
pave the way for the seeming invulnerability of global capital.
Lets look at the example of the World Trade Organization
November ministers from countries in the WTO will be meeting
in Seattle, WA, for the so-called millennium round of negotiations.
These are part of a series of negotiations that have occurred
over the last decade. Throughout the negotiations, several
common themes have been struck:
- Environmental, labor and human rights issues
have been sidelined so that transnational corporations
(TNCs) are assured of cheap labor and resources
- The role of the global South, women, people
of color, gay men and lesbians has been minimal
- The focus has been on ensuring that TNCs
have full access to foreign markets with no regard to
human rights or state regulation.
the words of a booklet drafted by environmental, labor and
human rights activists:
A global system of enforceable rules is being created
where corporations have all the power, governments have
all the obligations and democracy is left behind in the
not unrelated, example is the role of the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) in the 1998 Asian economic crisis. Following
the collapse of currency and markets in Korea, Thailand,
Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, the IMF compelled Asian
countries to export their way out of the crisis. The result
was that steelworkers in the United States lost jobs, while
Asian steelworkers continued to suffer and this was
just in one sector of the economy.
examples do not, of course, tell the full tale, but they
do hint at the changes in the global economy and their impact
on people. For women in particular, the strategies of the
IMF and the WTO result in continuing and increased unemployment
and women have high rates of unemployment everywhere.
Since women are also generally found in low paying jobs
and the informal sector, they are the hardest hit by economic
downturns and the austerity measures imposed by international
bodies. Activists need to be aware and understand the impact
of these changes on women in order to base their activism
on a clear analysis of the world today.
Lesson 2: Vision and the Connections between Issues:
changes must also lead to a reevaluation of our world view.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, Strategies
to deal with globalization will succeed only if applied
in a clear political framework. But the hegemony of
neoliberalism can be almost incapacitating. In the words
of one activist, this hegemony should be called TINA
There is no alternative. Common sense seems
to be telling us that globalization is pursuing the only
course possible the neoliberal, market-oriented capitalist
course. But as women, as gay men and lesbians, weve
had to fight so-called common sense before and
we must now as well.
are of course other alternatives put forward. The religious
right here in the US and around the world suggests a fundamentalist,
tribalist view of the world that seeks the isolation of
nations and peoples by building barriers. That world view
is represented by fundamentalist Muslims in Iran, by fundamentalist
Jews in Israel and by fundamentalist Christians in the United
States. Wars led by Slobodan Milosevic in former Yugoslavia
and campaigns by Pat Buchanan in the US have the common
purpose of building barriers between people. In addition,
this world view is, if anything, more hostile to women and
to gays and lesbians than is that of the dominant neoliberals.
third way has been proposed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair,
a world view that is, as yet, nebulous and undefined. Blair
describes it as, not simply a compromise between left
and right. It seeks to take the essential values of the
center and center-left and apply them to a world of fundamental
social and economic change
Yet discussions of
the third way so far suggest that its political vision is
empty defined more by what it is not than what it
activists need a better way to envision the world, a real
alternative that emphasizes human rights, womens rights,
labor and the environment. Without such a vision, our activism
will continue to fail in its efforts to change the world.
Lesson 3: Power:
some ways the lesson most taken to heart by women was that
on power. The continuing gender gap, the increasing number
of women in public office and their tendency to support
more progressive measures reflect an understanding of the
importance of power for changes our lives.
the statistics suggest just how far we still have to go.
Today there are a record number of women in the United States
Congress 65, or 12%. Certainly thats impressive,
but very far from the proportion of women in the population.
The percentage of women in parliaments globally also hovers
around 13%. While it is as high as 50% in some Scandinavian
countries, there are also countries like Afghanistan where
women are viewed as almost nonhuman.
to really address the question of power, we have to look
Beyond the Numbers to understand what factors
limit womens participation. These include lack of
party support for women running for office, the feminization
of poverty and the limited access most women have to money
needed to run for office and the model of politics we engage
in, a model based on masculine ways of interacting.
We need, in the words of a report from the International
Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA),
to work to ensure that women learn the rules of politics,
use those rules and also change the rules. We must not only
encourage women to participate in politics, we must also
change the rules by which politics is played.
Lesson 4: Strategy:
of all of this we need to develop a strategy, one that is
based on a clear understanding of the changing world in
which we live and strive for a shared vision of the future.
We have to remember that in order to use what weve
got to get what we need we first have to know what
weve got and what we need.
activism must be undertaken in the context of our changed
world. We must determine how we can use modern technology
effectively to lead us toward our goal. Like the railroad
and the airplane, the telephone and the typewriter, modern
tools the fax, cell phone, computers, the Internet,
radio and TV will shape our activism and our strategies.
Our activism must grow into our world, just as our understanding
and vision must if we want to work effectively for change.
Chris Riddiough is an Information Technology professional
working in the Washington D.C. area. She is active in the
women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement and progressive
politics. She invites you to visit her website at www.riddiough.