Report on the first National Conference on Socialist Feminism (1975)
(Editors Note: This is a 1975 report on the Socialist Feminist Conference held in Yellow Springs OH. The Conference raised hopes that socialist feminism would grow and prosper.)
It's been just one month since over 1500 women from all over the country met in Yellow,Springs, Ohio, to discuss theory, strategy, and practice for the women's movement. A lot happened!
There were over 100 special interest workshops which dealt with topics ranging from Women in Prisons to Women in Guinea Bissau to Nonsexist Teaching in Elementary School to Women Filmmakers. Over one-half of the women attended strategy sessions in workplace and community organizing sharing practice from hospital work, rape lines, schools, union organizing, welfare rights organizations child care centers, and housing campaigns. Other women talked about working with the mixed left, about how to build women's organizations, and ways of developing a women's culture.
A central issue raised at the conference was the question of how to build a multi-racial movement.. A Third World. caucus formed and presented a statement to the conference as a whole and to a panel representing the Black, Chicana, Puerto Rican, and Asian communities. Madonna Gilbert of the American Indian Movement (AIM) also spoke to the conference about the crisis at the Pine Ridge reservation. Other panels dealt with socialist feminist theory, the economy, and lesbian women, including a presentation from the CWLU Lesbian workgroup.
What did it all mean? What did the conference tell us about where the women's movement is at nationally? What did we see as its strengths and its weaknesses as reflected in the conference? What are the major political questions confronting the women's movement?
Those of us who helped plan the conference feel that we're not yet able to answer those questions in a clear way. But we think that a political assessment is crucial. Many of the women who went from Chicago are doing evaluations. All of the socialist feminist study groups set up for the conference have met, as well as the CWLU Steering Committee. Chapters and workgroups have had their own summaries. Both the New American Movement (NAM) and Rising Up Angry are talking about it with their own members.
We are planning a Conference Followup for Sunday, August 17, to continue this political assessment. The meeting is open any woman who attended the conference and to women who, were not able to go because of enrollment-limitations.. It will be held at the Puerto Rican High School, at 1520 N. Claremont (I block east of Western and I block south of North Avenue), from 9:30 A.M. to 5:00-P.M.
The meeting will focus both on the key political issues that were raised at the conference and the meaning of the conference to future women's organizing in Chicago. Evaluation and discussion questions (to be used in preparation for the meeting) ,are being sent to conference participants, or you can pick up a copy at the office.
Childcare will be provided. Bring a lunch for yourself.
Fundraising for the Conference
Expenses for the CWLU and the conference planners from Chicago totaled over $700! Please volunteer to be on a fundraising committee which will be set up on the 17th. We're also-going to take donations that day, so bring along a little bit extra.
Some Special Thanks
We appreciate all of the hard work which many women put in during the weeks before the conference, but special thanks go to Judy M., Pam Z., and Della L.,who handled all of the registration and transportation. And also to the CWLU staff, who had to put up with a million extra phone calls and interruptions.
IMPRESSIONS OF THE CONFERENCE
CWLU NEWS asked members who attended different of the workshops at the conference to write up their personal impressions. More analytical and In-depth reporting will come out of the August 17 meeting. Be sure to attend!
Organizing the Unorganized
Over 75 women attended strategic workshops on organizing unorganized women.The women that came were mostly hospital,clerical, and childcare workers. Although most of the women were involved in regular unionization drives at their workplaces, there was a good deal of discussion about additional forms of organization which support the union organizing. Both childcare workers and hospital workers are developing ways to make links to the communities that they serve. One model discussed was BADWU (Boston Area Daycare Workers Union) which has members drawn from parents, the community, and childcare workers at a variety of different centers. In both Chicago and. New York, feminist office worker organizations (Women Employed and 9 to 5) support and often pave the way for unionization among clerical workers. (Reported by Diane H) .
The direction of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was the main issue of this workshop. A thorough report from a member of People Against Racism in Education, from New York City, gave a graphic picture of the conservative and reactionary direction the union is heading under the leadership of Albert Shanker. Increasing undemocratic procedures, the rise of racism (particularly in hiring practices and in the teachers union's relationship to Third World communities), a lack of emphasis on women's rights, and strict, top-down bureaucratic control were seen in all of the locals represent ed by conference participants. The workshop was just beginning to get into how to combat this trend--sharing practice on developing rank-and-file caucuses, women's committees, and teacher-community alliances--when time was up.
There were a number of women from Chicago present, representing substitute teacher organizing, GED (high school equivalency teacher organizing, and both teachers unions--Local 1 and Local 1600. The workshop made clear the need for national communication among socialists working in the union! (Reported by Diane H)
Women in Prison
Prison Project convened a two-part workshop on Women in Prison, around the relationship of prisons to the struggles and concerns of the women's movement and around concrete problems of doing political work in prisons and in the community. Workshop discussions were great; a strong sense of shared direction and that we face similar contradictions around our work. A national newsletter is planned to help continue discussion, We came back re-energized There's a lot of work to be done and we need more women to help do it. Please call us if You are interested. (Reported by The Prison Project.)
Lesbian Organizing Strategy
Women from about fifteen cities participated this workshop., All regions of the country were represented, and the cities ranged from large metropolitan areas to medium sized rural cities, to university towns. We discussed in-depth how our organizing efforts were influenced by our environment. The women from New York City, Chicago, and Berkeley-Oakland had several different lesbian and/or socialist-feminist organizations to work with. However, we all have difficulties, in moving from organizing the smaller base of political lesbians to doing outreach in the broad, nonpolitical lesbian community. We discussed the different programs that we had developed--newsletters, sports teams, consciousness raising groups-and their strengths and weaknesses.
Lesbians from Atlanta, Georgia, talked about their experiences in organizing gay women through sports leagues. A lot of lesbians played on mixed (gay and straight) softball teams, but most of them were "in the closet." In 1973 and 1974, gay women started to.form their own teams, sponsored by the, gay bars. The Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance(ALFA) grew out of there sports teams. ALFA is not a political organization, although some of its members are socialist feminists. ALFA has organized gay women around support work for the ERA and has monthly membership programs,. as well as social activities.
Women from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Rochester, New York, talked about their experiences organizing lesbians in a university atmosphere. People in college towns are looser about politics and there is generally less "queer fear" than in other environments. This makes it a lot easier to have open gay meetings, centers, dances, or coffeehouses. However, there is the traditional split between "town and gown" that carries over into the lesbian community. Older gay women, or younger lesbians who are not affiliated with the university, are suspicious of the radical student lesbians. There is very little intermingling or communication between the two groups. So far, there has been no program or issue that has united the two distinct communities that exist in both towns.
There were lesbians from many other cities who attended the workshops to find out what was going on in other areas of the country. They did not have any lesbian organizing experience, but were interested in trying to begin to build outreach programs in their cities. In order to give each, other support in expanding existing organizing efforts, or in building new ones, we decided to correspond regularly. We will exchange newsletters, but we will also write personal letters describing our experiences and talk about issues in our cities. We will give each other feedback and support in our work through a national communications network.
There was a real sense of sadness when our time ran out on Sunday. We met for three hours and felt that there was so-much more to be said and shared. We all felt a remarkable sense of closeness and sisterhood that gave us real up feeling. Most of us felt that this workshop was the highlight of our conference. We spent an hour at the end talking, about our personal lives and experiences. This mutual sharing cemented the bond of support-that had been built during-the two sessions. We all decided that "Sisterhood does feel good!" (Reported by Eileen W.)
Discussion of health issues at the conference suffered from the initial division of the strategy work shops into community and workplace organizing. There are enough problems in trying to bridge that gap strategically without compounding them by separating the two groups of organizers. However, one of the most exciting discussions of health issues came in the community organizing health workshops on Saturday afternoon. After a series of presentations from Healthright (NY), the Santa Cruz Women's Health Collective, and HERS, women from different parts of the country began to focus on exactly those strategic questions of building bridges between healthworkers and community people actively organizing around health issues . This is an area into which the women's health movement has never moved successfully, and which seems important for the application of socialist feminism to health issues.
The other community organizing health workshop was less successful despite a useful presentation from a representative of the Fritzi Engelstein People's Health Center. Women active around health issues meet so infrequently (even on a citywide,let alone a regional or national basis), that it was hard--and maybe not correct to try to steer discussion away from nitty-gritty problems of financing and women' clinics etc., to broader questions.
Possibly the most important part of the conference, for health people, turned out to be the workshop given by the New York Committee to End Sterilization Abuse. The room was packed, and as the New York women gave specific details about their work, women from Seattle, Boston, Vancouver, and other cities added,". pieces to the national and international pattern of abuse which emerged. This should be an important focus for the socialist feminist women's health movement nationally. Work in Chicago on the issue is already becoming an important part of the followup of the conference. (Reported by Jenny K. and Lauren C. )