Radical Women Conference: Stoking global feminist rebellion

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Women around the world are rebelling. Whether it’s against sweatshops in Thailand, checkpoints in Palestine or femicide in Mexico, they’re organizing to win a better world for themselves and their communities. It was just one of the thrilling themes at Radical Women’s 41st anniversary conference.

For four exhilarating days, 250 women and men met in San Francisco’s historic Women’s Building, a thriving hub of feminist activity.

They discussed the ways that socialist feminism translates into life. And they saw concretely the power of those ideas — from the impressive list of international groups sending solidarity messages to the enthusiasm of participants like Francisca Montero, who expressed joy in finding a theory that spoke to her reality.

An Afro-Latina activist from New York, Montero raved about the gathering: “There are so many layers of things that I saw in this conference, it was incredible. People here from Arab countries, Costa Rica, Mexico, and different parts of the United States — it was wonderful. And old and young too!”

Passion and politics ignite. Convened from Oct. 3-6, the event drew students thirsty for knowledge, seasoned organizers, and budding activists of every color and sexual persuasion. At least four countries and 11 different U.S. states were represented. One woman traveled all the way from Kentucky to attend the conference and returned home with armloads of literature, fired up to spread Radical Women’s ideas.

It was hard not to be inspired by an agenda packed with panels, workshops, and standout speeches. And wow, the discussion! After each panel, participants lined up at mics eager to express their views and strategize on tactics. In between sessions there were workshops on every topic, from “Confident public speaking” to the “ABCs of Marxist feminism,” from “Radical youth and rebel elders” to “Young, queer and radical: What are we fighting for?” The packed workshops and energetic exchange showed attendees’ deep interest in learning and applying political theory in their social activism.

Keynotes by revolutionary poet Nellie Wong and embattled lawyer Lynne Stewart brought standing ovations. Evenings featured salsa dancing, socializing, and a raucous banquet.

And what timing! While conferees talked socialism, capitalism unraveled; Wall Street plunged and Congress rubber-stamped bailouts for banks. Such economic shock waves added a sense of urgency to everyone’s sentiment — the profit system must go and women workers have a starring role in seeing to its demise!

Resistance is global. Sessions were filled with stories of female warriors doing just that. One firsthand tale came from Raquel Rodriguez, who spoke on a labor panel about a recent janitors’ strike against high-tech companies in the Bay Area.

Rodriguez described freezing nights on picket lines. She criticized union misleaders who undermined the strike by cutting early deals with management. And she credited women for keeping the strike alive long enough to win improvements. What sustained her? “I would do anything for my children,” she said.

Rounding out the labor panel were Linda Averill, with Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity; Mary Ann Curtis, involved in a unionizing campaign at the University of Washington; and Blanca Misse, representing the International Workers League-Fourth International (LIT-CI).

In discussion, conference participants recognized that leadership and grueling work, so exemplified by women like Rodriguez, is not some mystical quality. It is rooted in the dual job of women as unpaid caregivers in the home and the most exploited workers.

A panel of international speakers showed how this dynamic carries out globally. Their presentations painted a horrific picture of working conditions endured everywhere and how neoliberal “free-trade” policies intensify misery, especially for women. But the suffering and repression compel resistance — and women are in the thick of it.

Leda Silva, of the Socialist Workers Party (POS) in Mexico, described titanic battles to defend pensions and labor law. Mexican women are especially under the gun to retain crucial rights such as paid maternity leave. Silva also cited the proliferation of sweatshop factories under the North American Free Trade Agreement, where women are 54 percent of workers.

Costa Rica is battling a similar pact, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Speaker Patricia Ramos Con of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) thanked Radical Women for supporting Costa Rican union activists, and offered mutual solidarity. “Your fight is our fight,” she said.

Debbie Brennan, Melbourne Radical Women Organizer, told how the 1997 meltdown of economies in Malaysia, Thailand, and other countries of Southeast Asia had forced several hundred thousand women into the “informal economy” where they have no labor protections. But, as in Mexico, women are unionizing. In India, for example, temps organized around the demands of the lowest-paid workers.

In Palestine, women are creatively defying occupation. Dr. Raya Fidel, an Israeli-American feminist, told of a mother who thrust her baby on a stranger, pretending he was the father, to distract police and keep them from arresting the man at a checkpoint.

Time and again, panelists asserted that revolution in the U.S. matters greatly to the fight for socialism elsewhere, and they saluted Radical Women for building women’s leadership in “the belly of the beast.”

Said panel member Wang Zheng, a Chinese feminist and scholar, it’s exciting “to see such a revolutionary force here in the United States.”

Feminism — the socialist version. Another major theme dealt with explaining and deepening the ideas of revolutionary feminism. Radical Women (RW) is founded on the principle that women cannot be truly equal in any society dominated by the economy of capital, because it depends on inequality. Sexism, like racism, is profitable — for the ruling class.

Laura Mannen, a teacher in Portland, Oregon, sparked rich discussion with her paper on the need to build a feminist movement that is independent of the pro-capitalist, war-addicted Democrat and Republican parties. Leaders of groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), guided by bourgeois feminism, cheerlead for the Democrats and hold feminism back. So do NGO groups, because their job is to alleviate ill effects, rather than eradicate the cause of the pain.

RW’s job is to train women leaders, because the battle to uproot capitalism needs female warriors. The number of revolutionary parties who sent greetings and attended the conference verified this. As the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), Radical Women’s sister organization, noted in its greeting, “RW plays an irreplaceable role in developing women’s theoretical and practical leadership and in bringing a revolutionary feminist voice to all the movements.” FSP National Secretary Henry Noble and other party men attended the proceedings.

Immigrant fight-back. In the U.S., like the rest of the world, immigrant women are among the most disenfranchised. A session was devoted to stepping up defense of immigrant women and support for their bold leadership. A paper by Christina López, Seattle RW Organizer, urged this course, and cited examples where anti-immigrant attacks are propelling women to take the lead.

During discussion, young Latinas from a student group, Las Mujeres, asked what they could do when they return to their campus, Portland State University. López told them about a protest at Seattle University after the Department of Homeland Security tried to recruit students. She also underscored the need to press organized labor to stand up for undocumented workers, especially those in workplace raids. Her paper was unanimously adopted.

Building a multiracial movement. The conference delved into the challenges of multiracial organizing. How can activists counteract the racism that capitalism depends on? A panel of seasoned leaders — Asian American, Black, Chicana and white — spoke to that.

Speakers pinpointed two ideologies that hold movements back: cultural nationalism, which views race as the problem above all others; and liberal racism, which nurtures white guilt and evasion. Both disguise class, and neither resolves tensions between people of different races and ethnicities.

Panelists acknowledged that multiracial organizing doesn’t necessarily come easily. Norma Abdulah, an 87-year-old pioneering Black feminist, recounted her experience in the Communist Party, being told in years past to stick to the “Negro Question.”

New York RW Organizer Emily Woo Yamasaki posed the alternative: revolutionary integration.

This theory, developed by Freedom Socialist Party founders and embraced by RW, recognizes the leadership of women of color, especially African Americans, due to their multiple oppressions and unique history. Revolutionary integration also sees socialist revolution as the only lasting path to eradicating racism.

Radical Women, ¡adelante! The last day of the conference was spent in distilling the previous days of discussion into an action plan. The new National Executive Committee elected at the conference will prioritize and implement the numerous proposals and decisions made. This includes working with others in united fronts and coalitions, and energetically recruiting more rabble-rousers to RW.

Stay tuned for the ripple effect of this powerful gathering. Better yet, get involved! To quote Clara Fraser, one of RW’s founders, “Goddamit sisters, let’s get revolutionary. Let’s catapult ourselves onto the main stage of history. The world is waiting for the sun to rise.”

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