In early October, Melbourne members of Radical Women, Alison Thorne and myself,
set out for San Francisco to attend RW’s 41st anniversary conference, The Persistent
Power of Socialist Feminism. Fifty hours (via Tokyo!) and several airport checkpoints
later, we arrived. Jetlag wasn’t our only concern: the Australian dollar had plunged from
near-parity with the U.S. dollar to 61¢. Such is the irrational, paranoid and chaotic nature
of capitalism — adding to our excitement to be part of an international discussion about
bringing it to an end.
We saw the panic on Wall Street and how it was playing out in the United States. Across
the country working people, watching their life savings evaporate, protested against the
massive bailout of banks — a deal stitched with bipartisan support from presidential
candidates Obama and McCain. The outrage — of people losing their homes and
jobs, with no healthcare and fed up with endless war — did not stop the United States
Congress from rubber-stamping it. With a month to go until the presidential election,
media coverage was devoid of political analysis but full of racism, xenophobia and
sexism. The timing of the conference was perfect.
Early on Friday morning, October 3, participants began to arrive at San Francisco’s
historic Women’s Building. In all, there were more than 250, from across the United
States and from many other parts of the globe. Women and men, aged from 14 to 87,
were students from high schools and universities, workers in diverse occupations,
multiracial and all sexualities. Seasoned activists mixed with those coming into activism
for the first time. Banners, which stretched across the walls and balconies, highlighted
the buzz with messages from past and current campaigns, beautiful images and lots of
colour. Nancy Reiko Kato, organiser for Bay Area Radical Women, which hosted the
conference, welcomed a full house at 9:00 am sharp.
Power and passion. Keynote speakers were revolutionary poet, Nellie Wong, and Lynne
Stewart, a radical defence lawyer convicted in 2005 of “aiding and abetting terrorism”
for supporting the free speech of a client. Their words, defiant and inspiring, struck a
chord with everyone. “The righteous response to oppression in any form is to fight back,”
Lynne said. Nellie agreed: “This weekend, we continue the fight for women’s liberation
because it’s as necessary as breathing. The revolution is ours to make. It is our greatest
duty. It is our greatest joy.” These messages resonated throughout the four days of panels,
workshops, debates and conversations.
Crossing borders and generations. In the session, Standing our ground on labour’s
frontlines, a panel of union organisers told of hard-won victories. Linda Averill, a Seattle
bus driver, has organised a rank-and-file caucus in her union. Mary Ann Curtis, a campus
worker, was instrumental in the successful linking of student and staff demands. Raquel
Rodriguez, a Justice for Janitors strike leader from the Bay Area, gave a moving account
of the freezing nights picketing for pay and conditions, fending off deals being hatched
between union officials and management. She said that women were the mainstay of the
strike that lasted long enough to win improvements.
I shared a panel, Magnificent warriors: female leadership in the global freedom struggle,
with other international speakers. Wang Zheng, a women’s studies professor from China,
brought the perspective of someone not indoctrinated since birth that capitalism is all
there is. She expressed her excitement to see “such a revolutionary force” in the United
States. Leda Silva, from the Socialist Workers Party in Mexico, told of the sweatshop
factories that have mushroomed under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Mexican women are at the forefront of battles for pensions, labour rights and paid
maternity leave. Patricia Ramos Con, a labour lawyer and member of the Revolutionary
Workers Party of Costa Rica, told of the similar struggle against the Central American
Free Trade Agreement. Ramos said to the U.S. participants, “As Latin American
revolutionaries, we know that world revolution depends on you. We’re in the trenches
and you’re in the belly of the beast. Your fight is our fight.”
Israeli-American feminist and anti-Zionist, Raya Fidel, showed the occupation of
Palestine as a feminist struggle and the ingenious, determined defiance of Palestinian
women (see “Palestinian Women Warriors,” page 22, based on Fidel’s presentation).
I told of women’s unbreakable spirit, throughout Southeast Asia, Australia and New
Zealand, in fights for union rights, better pay, decent conditions and respect. I was also
proud to announce that on that day, October 4, RW was reading a solidarity statement
from the conference to an abortion rights rally in Melbourne. This brought wild cheers in
a land where abortion, legal since 1973, is under siege.
Each day, messages were read out to the conference from well-wishers around the U.S.
and the world. The Victorian Young Unionists’ Network and the Indigenous Social
Justice Association sent solidarity greetings from Australia.
Solidarity went both ways. The conference sent messages of support for political
prisoners, including Palm Island Aboriginal leader, Lex Wotton, then on trial for his part
in his community’s resistance to the police killing of Mulrunji Doomadgee. RW sent a
letter to the Queensland government, demanding that the charges be dropped. (See page
10 for full coverage of the case.)
Workshops covered everything a socialist feminist rabble-rouser wants to know, from the
ABCs of Marxist Feminism to leaflet design. One that I attended was the highly popular
Radical youth and rebel elder: connecting the generations, where high school and
college students, young workers and retirees shared perspectives about the challenges and
power of working together and teaching each other so that we can build the force needed
for revolutionary change.
Removing roadblocks. In the months before the conference, RW branches held public
meetings to study and discuss three draft resolutions. To then be at the San Francisco
gathering, engaging in a full exchange of viewpoints and the ultimate decision for action
was a highpoint. Laura Mannen, a teacher unionist from Portland Oregon, presented
the call to build a militant, grassroots feminist movement independent of the profit-
serving Republican and Democrat parties. Mannen drew out the connections of sex,
race and sexuality liberation, the futility of counting on the Democrats, non-government
organisations and movement misleaders, or believing in reform instead of revolution.
She demonstrated the change-making power of women, queers and people of colour who
together make up the majority of the working class and bring both attitude and unbending
courage into our struggles. From the rich discussion, I imagined an international, socialist
feminist movement that would be unstoppable! The entire conference brought this idea to
In her paper, Estamos en la lucha: Immigrant women light the fires of resistance, Seattle
immigrant rights leader, Christina López, proposed steps that RW could take to help
revitalise the awesome immigrant rights movement that had rattled the corporate elite two
years before. The power of immigrant workers, brutally exploited but bringing with them
the experience of militant labour struggles and revolutionary political movements from
their homelands, showed itself in the massive mobilisations of millions of workers in
May Day marches across the country in 2006. Immigrant women have been leading the
defence of undocumented workers as attacks by Homeland Security and the Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authority have become fiercer. ICE raids on workplaces
have escalated, and López stressed the need to pressure the union movement to join the
A multiracial panel of RW members, in a session titled The galvanising impact of
multiracial organising in a society divided by racism, backed up the resolutions with
theoretical how-to from these experienced leaders. Black, Asian American, Chicana
and white, they addressed the ways that capitalism has relied on racism, like sexism, to
weaken solidarity within its colossal workforce. Cultural nationalism, an ideology that
puts race above all other forms of oppression, and liberal racism, which fosters white
guilt, both cover over class as the real social division and therefore keep allies apart.
Panellist Emily Yamasaki Woo posed the theory of revolutionary integration, which
recognises women and people of colour — those most oppressed by the system — as
the leaders capable of uniting the working class in the ultimate struggle for socialist
Can we do it? Yes, we can! The four days were energising up to the final moments. On
the last day, the conference pulled together all the discussion and theory into a plan of
action. It also elected a new National Executive Committee to implement the plan and
other decisions. Anne Slater, national organiser for RW’s U.S. section, presented her
report and proposals. The title alone captures the spirit of the conference: Rising to the
challenge of socialist feminism in a neoliberal world — or no one said it was going to be
RW voted unanimously to work with others in united fronts and coalitions and recruit
more rebellious women to our international ranks. On the front burner are:
- defence of immigrants. In the United States, RW chapters will work with
immigrant women to build feminist contingents for May Day.
- campus organising, linking issues of students, staff and faculty. RW will form
campus chapters wherever possible.
- organise in our unions
- keep the battles going for reproductive justice
- canvass our neighbourhoods for issues that folks want to organise around
On our return, Melbourne RW held an informal get-together at Solidarity Salon. People
talked about the collapse of the mega childcare business, ABC Learning, and the urgent
need to campaign for free, top-quality, 24-hour childcare and full union rights for
workers in the industry. If you want to be part of this campaign, defend Victoria’s newly
won abortion rights against misogynist reaction, start an RW chapter on your campus
or raise other ideas, why not contact Radical Women. Call us on 03-9388-0062 or email
firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to meet you!