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Chris RiddioughWomen as Political Players:
Activism in an Era of Globalization

by Chris Riddiough

(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.)

What 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 Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). CWLU was formed in 1969; it became a model for socialist feminist women’s unions around the country.

CWLU 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 don’t 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 Women’s 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 women’s union thought about social change.

While 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 women’s liberation.

From 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
The 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.

There 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 our work.

Lesson 2: Vision and the Connections between Issues
We 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.

This 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.

While 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.

In 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.

Note 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
The 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.

In CWLU when we talked about strategy we summed it up in a short slogan:

Use what you’ve got to get what you need.

That short sentence really encapsulates what strategy is: to make it work you have to know what you’ve got (which hopefully you’ve 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 you’ve got to get what you need.

The second key aspect of strategy is summed up in a second slogan:

Start from where people are at.

If we try to plan an action that people are not ready for or one that they are far past, it simply isn’t 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
In 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 didn’t 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 women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and the rights of other oppressed people.

But other changes are less positive or, at least, more difficult to assess:

  • The collapse of communism
  • The increasing importance of information technology
  • 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:
What 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 wasn’t until some 70 years later that the women’s suffrage amendment was passed. In that context our struggle of the last 30 years does not seem so long.

We 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.

The 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. Let’s look at the example of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In 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.

In 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 dust.

Another, 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.

These 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:
These 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, we’ve had to fight so-called ‘common sense’ before and we must now as well.

There 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.

A 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 is.

Women activists need a better way to envision the world, a real alternative that emphasizes human rights, women’s 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:
In 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.

Nonetheless, 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 that’s 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.

Furthermore, to really address the question of power, we have to look ‘Beyond the Numbers’ to understand what factors limit women’s 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:
Out 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 we’ve got to get what we need’ we first have to know what we’ve got and what we need.

Our 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. org.

photo by Elaine Wessel