Radical Women’s candidly revolutionary conference

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From the tenth floor of a Santa Monica hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Radical Women looked into the 1990s and smiled.

This is the decade. It’s all in place. Let’s go.

“The Third Wave of Feminism: A Candidly Revolutionary Approach,” was the theme of Radical Women’s 23rd anniversary conference February 17-20 in Santa Monica, California.

Attended by more than 200 people from 18 U.S. cities and nine countries, the conferees joyously concluded that the third wave of feminism, with women of color and women workers in the lead, is headed full-steam toward socialist revolution.

The feminist third wave follows the first wave, the suffragist movement, and the second wave, the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s. While both movements changed the face of world politics, both were eventually co-opted by pro-capitalist feminist leaders.

Not this time. The third wave is borne along by workingclass and specially oppressed women who have no more room for reformist half-measures.

“We face a deep global economic crisis,” said Radical Women National Organizer Constance Scott. “The issues today are survival issues — the armies of homeless people on the street, the incredible loss of life from AIDS, the widening gap between super-rich and dirt poor.”

Conference keynote speaker Phyllis Hutchinson, Seattle labor leader, summed it up: “Capitalism doesn’t work, never has, never will,” not for women, not for the working majority. Now, the profit system is crumbling, and the third wave of feminism is here to help wash it away for keeps.

Highlights. The four-day conference was packed. Discussion. Debate. Theory. Workshops. Resolutions. Skits. Poetry. Song.

Participants came from the U.S., El Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, France, England, and the Netherlands.

Conferees applauded the downfall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the release of South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. They endorsed lesbian socialist Merle Woo for governor of California on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. They elected a national organizer and 13 members to their National Executive Committee. They launched a $50,000 fund drive.

They also welcomed two new members: Martha Cotera, nationally known Chicana author, activist and historian from Austin, Texas; and Denise Harvey, Black feminist journalist and editor from the Bay Area.

Fourteen workshops were held, covering such topics as abortion, lesbians of color, union organizing, immigrant workers, anti-Semitism, ageism, fascism, disability rights and poverty.

An ad hoc discussion between Blacks and Jews concluded that they must fight together, as they did during the ’60s civil rights movement, to counter the rise of U.S. fascism.

Two new Radical Women documents were presented, discussed and adopted: “Women of Color: Frontrunners for Freedom,” and “Women Workers — Sparkplugs of Labor.” (For details, please see companion articles.)

Four keynote speakers, Merle Woo, Martha Cotera, Phyllis Hutchinson and Clara Fraser, brought analysis and inspiration to the conference, turning a no-nonsense eye toward the 1990s.

RW co-founder Fraser pointed to women’s leadership in struggles from Moscow to Manila, from the U.S. to South Africa, and asserted, “Women are the central issue of world politics.”

And, said Cotera, “To achieve our liberation will take nothing less than a revolution. Why put it off one more day?”

International realities. Internationalism permeated the conference.

Proceedings were barely hours old when a Salvadoran guest read a poem in Spanish about a mother’s search for her disappeared son. Greetings were read from Australia and Chile. The next day, an international panel of Mexican, Palestinian, Salvadoran and Native American revolutionaries and movement leaders, and a Seattle tradeswoman recently returned from South Africa, discussed the relationship of women’s struggles to the revolutionary movements in those countries.

Yan-Maria Castro, of Mexico’s Lesbianas y Homosexuales Comunistas Feministas, stated that “the struggle has to be international. Lesbians, feminists and workers together with the Third World will take power.”

Meanwhile, as capitalists mislabel the fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe as ‘the death of Communism,’ Radical Women cheers it as a step toward true socialism.

Eastern bloc workers want democracy and prosperity under socialism, RW says, not the unemployment, price hikes, debt bondage and social inequality — especially for women — that the “free market” has in store.

National Organizer Scott proposed, and RW agreed, to send two delegates to five Eastern European countries to seek out, make contact and build alliances with feminist movement leaders. Feminism is on the agenda in both the Eastern and Western revolts, a must for the success of each. Linkage of feminists East and West will unify their struggles and bring the triumph a giant stride closer.

Basics. The conference also discussed and adopted RW’s updated, expanded “Manifesto,” the organization’s basic programmatic document.

The “Manifesto” states:

1. That socialism is the goal, and feminism the means of getting there. They are inseparable because the entire profit structure of capitalism depends on the cheap and unpaid labor of women and people of color. Also because sex inequality, like racism, is a fundamental social prop of the system.

2. That revolution is the answer to capitalism and that the most oppressed by the system — working women of color — will lead it. Their freedom means an end to the internecine bigotries that paralyze the entire working class.

3. That international socialism is a must. Capitalism plunders the resources, subjugates the labor, and captures the markets of the world in order to survive. “Peaceful coexistence” with the profit system is impossible.

The “Manifesto” lays out what RW wants. Its 27-page platform carries a comprehensive list of demands, including free abortion on demand, an end to forced sterilization of women of color, nationalized health care, free quality childcare, affirmative action and comparable worth.

The document was expanded to include the needs and demands of older women, women in prison, disabled women, and women in the military. It added calls for the legalization of prostitution and drugs, and for united fronts against fascism.

Cross-color dialogue. Tossing aside traditional speech-making, Yolanda Alaniz, co-author of The Chicano Struggle: A Racial or a National Movement?, and Guerry Hoddersen, civil rights activist and Freedom Socialist Party National Secretary, sat down for a talk on racism. The talk was titled “Across the Color Line: A Dialogue on Race Relations Among Women.”

Alaniz, a former migrant farm worker from the Yakima Valley in Washington state, the “Little Mississippi” of the Pacific Northwest, told how she learned to hate the white growers of the valley who exploited the primarily Chicano and Mexicano farm workers. Hoddersen spoke of the alienation she felt growing up in a racist white enclave in southern California.

Both women came to Radical Women because of its position that no one will be free until the needs of society’s most oppressed are met.

“That kind of politics doesn’t have a color line,” Alaniz stated.

Alaniz and Hoddersen pointed out that racism has been integral to capitalism for 500 years and is constantly nurtured by it. Yet, contrary to what movement liberals and cultural nationalists assert, racism can be overcome. In RW, they said, racism is exposed whenever it crops up, sometimes by white women, sometimes by women of color. Confronting racism as learned political behavior, they said, rather than as some kind of moral or psychological original sin, enables the offender to learn from the lesson and change behavior, rather than sink into the guilty mea culpas that liberals indulge in.

Such confrontation also cuts the ground out from under cultural nationalists, who insist that skin color is the never-to-be-bridged dividing line among people.

Proof of the pudding, they said, is RW’s success in building multi-racial alliances in the women’s and people of color movements.

RW’s approach, they concluded, is a model for what needs to happen if the revolutionary potential of the women’s movement is to flower.

“It’s up to us, as women, to find the road to solidarity,” Hoddersen said. If we don’t do it, who will?”

The top of the wave. In her organizer’s report, “At the Crest of the Third Wave: Radical Women in Action,” Constance Scott characterized the 1980s as a decade of anti-feminist reaction that split the women’s movement. Middle-class feminist leaders like Betty Friedan couldn’t stand the heat and joined rightwing misogynists in promoting a return to “family values.”

Workingclass women, pushed to the wall, meanwhile fought on.

Not until the attack on Roe v. Wade at the end of the decade did mainstream feminist leaders get active again, but once more in the wrong direction — channeling women into the pro-capitalist Democratic Party, banking on the Dems’ “pro-choice” campaign promises while forsaking all other issues.

Radical Women kept up the call for multi-issue organizing, for racially integrated women’s leadership, and for alternative, anti-capitalist political organizations and parties.

Even mainstream feminist leaders are beginning to pay lip service to multi-issue demands, but are, all the while, steering the feminist movement toward a reformist dead-end.

But the third wave isn’t following those leaders into another abyss.

Women workers, women and men of color, lesbians and gays, the disabled, the poor — all the disaffected — know that the capitalist system has no place for them but on the bottom rungs of misery, or the graveyard.

That knowledge, embodied in the explosive leadership of working women and women of color, is what gives the third wave its power to achieve unlimited victories in the 1990s, in the U.S., East bloc, Third World, and Europe.

Said Merle Woo: “We face a transitional epoch. A transitional epoch full of life and beauty, and with Radical Women I know we’re going to make it to the other side. To socialism.”

Also see: Gender, keyboards, and the future of U.S. labor

Also see: The color of revolution

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