Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bridging the Gap

I just returned from a hilarious and strange meeting.  An old guard feminist, one of the founders of one of the earliest local chapters, called all the county NOW members and commanded us to appear at her house to discuss the fate of the chapter.  She was a blast of energy on the phone -- saying "my goal is to choose a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer" (in social change organizing 101, one never tells people that if they show up they are going to be elected to formal position!) -- and she was basically an airhorn-in-a-library when I met her in person at the meetign.  It was fascinating to watch the other attendees (only a handful) maneuver around her as she pressed her own agenda and dismissed ideas/topics she didn't like.  In general, I found her amusing, but then her real agenda came through: sign people up for leadership roles but figure out how the inner circle can vett the new people first.  The message was, "young people need to step up and lead this organization -- but only if they do it precisely the way we want them to."  As a scholar who studies movements for social change, particularly women's leadership in such movements, I feel pretty confident in saying this is a sure-fire recipe for disaster!

This example will serve as a good representation of being in a meeting with this woman:  she read a quotation and asked people who it was from.  I happened to know, but she told people not to answer if they knew and instead made the others guess (ugh!).  When no one came up with it, I was then called upon.  I said, "Obama" (it was from his speech on the 50th anniversary of the MOW).  Her response? "Excuse me? That is President Barack Obama, the first half-black president of this country!"  Um, yep, that is the Obama to whom I was referring.  Yikes!

Anyway, of the 9 people at the meeting, we had an amazingly good representation of NOW's history -- all white, most in their 60s, small minority of working class women feeling somewhat out of place, all formally educated.  Even in this homogeneous group, though, we had many of the movement types -- the shy workhorse, the I-knew-Gloria-Steinem, the structure and policy person, the I'm-just-here-to-watch one, the action focused one, etc. etc.

My students and I have been doing a bunch of interviews with NOW members since April.  I went to this evening's 'entertainment' in part to gather more ideas for the research project and in part because I worry about a world where NOW can't manage to hold it together in a place like Ann Arbor.  I heard some important things:

1)The older generation (women in their 60s who have been doing active feminism for decades) are tired but they don't think there are any younger feminists who want to take on the work. (They are wrong, but we'll get to that another time.)

2)This group is pretty evenly split between those who trust young women to keep on fighting the good fight, but expect that they might want to do it through different tactics and organizations and those who think young women spend too much time on the computer to do any real organizing and dress like hookers.  (Yikes!)

3)The younger generations (and even my own sandwich generation) need to get it together and figure out a way to have real conversations with their elders -- despite the stuff I mentioned above -- or they/we will lose the opportunity to take over an organization that carries pretty substantial brand recognition.

4)There are many, many issues that reach easily across generations (reproductive justice -- don't doubt it for a minute, those post-menopausal women are FIERCE on this!, equal pay, sex trafficking, rape culture, political representation, etc.).  Once the formal meeting was ended by our host ("meetings must be exactly one hour!") and we could have real conversations about the issues and ideas that motivated us as individual activists, these connecting threads were so obvious.  It was heartening to see.

5)We need to listen to each other more and we need to assume that each group is going to say something stupid about the other.  We need to find a way to get past it and focus on the shared issues.

And that is the report from the "front lines" of feminism in Washtenaw county in the late summer of 2013!