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A MOVEMENT WITHOUT A CENTER
Susan Sygall stared down the three flights of stone stairs leading to the customs booths at the Beijing airport. As a wheelchair rider since age eighteen and the founder of an organization that ran worldwide exchange programs for people with disabilities, she was familiar with the challenges of international travel. But she had never confronted a situation like this one.
It was August 1995, and Sygall was accompanied by fifty other women with disabilities, all headed to the Fourth World Conference on Women, a United Nations–sponsored event where governmental authorities and representatives of advocacy organizations would grapple with problems facing women around the world and propose solutions. About half of Sygall’s group were also in wheelchairs, and many of the rest were blind or deaf. After deplaning, they had made their way through the airport terminal and had arrived at the stairs. Of the two elevators right near the steps, only one was working, but the security guard would not let them use it. He pointed to a line on the ground between the two elevators that stretched all the way down the stairs. If you were inside the line, you were officially in China. If you were outside the line, you weren’t. Since the working elevator was inside the line, anyone who had not yet cleared customs could not step inside.
For close to an hour, the security guard responded to the group’s appeals by shaking his head and pointing to the stairs. Maintenance workers eventually arrived to carry the women down, but when they hoisted the chairs into the air by the wheels, several women almost tipped out.
Sygall had not spent over a year planning for the Beijing trip to have her group seriously injured in the airport. After dismissing the workers, she and her colleagues came up with a strategy. Those who could walk without assistance teamed up and carried others down the steps. The rest of them got out of their chairs and crawled down.1
Like many parties that had traveled to the Beijing conference from the United States, the women with disabilities were not a group typically associated with feminism. From welfare rights activists to environmental justice advocates, most of the US conference participants represented facets of a movement that the public knew very little about.
Even most feminists misunderstood the scope of nineties activism. A 1991 study concluded that, “instead of ‘sisterhood,’” the word that summed up the state of US feminism was “isolation.”2 The movement had grown so rapidly that it was impossible to keep track of all of the organizations and initiatives. From 1982 to 1995, the number of national feminist groups nearly doubled, from 75 to 140. Thousands of activists were now working in nonprofits or had carved out feminist niches in professions such as medicine and academia. Growing numbers were turning popular culture into a battleground, critiquing sexist and racist representations in mainstream news and culture while offering new visions of female empowerment through music and media. Specialization could be seen at all levels. Some groups focused on domestic violence, others on lesbian rights, others on labor organizing. The list seemed endless.3
Many of these activists had participated in galvanizing experiences, including supporting the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, which served as boot camp for nineties feminists in the same way that the civil rights movement had been formative for many activists in the sixties. In 1992, they had helped elect Bill Clinton to the presidency, along with record numbers of female candidates in what became known as the “Year of the Woman.” Large numbers had taken courses offered by the nation’s 621 women’s and gender studies programs, where they found inspiration in the writings of lesbians and women of color such as Gloria Anzaldúa and bell hooks. After the legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how Black women’s multiple and overlapping identities shaped their experiences of discrimination, many began to describe their organizing against multiple forms of oppression as “intersectional.”4
The frameworks taught in women’s studies classrooms resonated with what was happening outside the academy’s Ivory Tower, too. This was the generation that witnessed the police beating of Rodney King and watched the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings and the O. J. Simpson murder trial unfold on national television. Some learned not to pin their hopes on electoral politics after watching a Democratic president they had helped to elect eliminate the entitlement to welfare support for poor single mothers. Many believed the problem was not just that Bill Clinton was enacting conservative policies that he dubbed the “third way” but also that he seemed to have so few tools at his disposal to effect broad-scale political and social change, even if he wanted to.5 Clinton expressed support for women’s right to control their bodies. But as Operation Rescue turned abortion clinic parking lots into war zones, he could not stop the fallout from Supreme Court decisions such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which allowed states to impose waiting periods and parental consent policies on a legal medical procedure. Journalist Susan Faludi described the cascade of antifeminist initiatives and sentiments as a “backlash.”6
What Faludi missed—and what one ambitious organizer named Marie Wilson saw—was that this bleak political climate was fueling diverse forms of feminism. In anticipation of the Beijing conference, Wilson, who was the head of the Ms. Foundation for Women, received a grant for nearly half a million dollars from the Ford Foundation to create and lead a new national feminist network. The Ms. Foundation, a separate entity from the magazine that bears the same name, had been established in 1972 by Gloria Steinem, Patricia Carbine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Marlo Thomas to raise money to distribute to groups working on behalf of women and girls. When Wilson was recruited to lead the foundation in 1984, she was working as the Director of Women’s Programs at Drake University, leading initiatives that had drawn national attention for their success in helping women find jobs. She arrived to discover the foundation was “broke” and immediately got to work, increasing the budget from $400,000 to nearly $3 million in 1990.7
To some, Wilson seemed like the perfect choice to replace Steinem as the media darling of the movement. In 1992, she had cofounded “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” to encourage girls to strive for professional success. The idea of young women going to work with a family member or friend had drawn immediate acclaim, catapulting Wilson and the Ms. Foundation to fame. After that project took off, Wilson began to look beyond the foundation to the broader feminist project. Sending a delegation to Beijing was part of an ambitious plan to connect the thousands of feminists organizing in different parts of the country.8
Wilson’s perch at Ms. gave her unique insight into the richness of feminist activity at the local level. Yet she was concerned the movement had grown in too many different and disconnected directions. She feared that it had lost its collective power and believed the solution lay in national leadership.9 Some looked to the National Organization for Women (NOW), which, with seven hundred local chapters, was what one author called “the McDonald’s of the women’s movement; recognizable and accessible to millions.”10 NOW remained the media’s go-to feminist voice; it conducted high-profile litigation in the courts and lobbied for causes in Washington, DC—but Wilson and many others suspected the organization no longer had its finger on the feminist pulse. With women of color increasingly claiming feminist identities and pressing for change, NOW’s reputation as a white organization made it seem out of touch, even as it rushed to enact an agenda that addressed racism and poverty and grappled with the unique concerns of young people. Although NOW attracted growing numbers of dues-paying members by organizing major national marches for reproductive rights, Wilson was convinced that the organization represented the past, not the future.11
Some activists identified the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) as the NOW of the nineties. This “all-issue” women’s organization emerged from the grassroots in New York City and spread to places like Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. Known for its creative, direct actions, WAC used street theater, rallies, postering, and picket lines to draw public attention to issues such as abortion access and the injustices in rape trials. Like NOW’s, however, WAC’s membership remained largely white. Those committed to fostering a diverse movement believed that it was an ineffective mouthpiece for the country’s varied feminist initiatives.12
As Wilson’s star continued to rise, she saw a real opening for her foundation. Ms. had developed relationships with feminist organizations across the country by awarding them grants. Many of these groups were multiracial and led by women of color, and they worked on issues ranging from women’s economic security to reproductive freedom. In addition to providing activists with funding, Ms. frequently organized workshops that offered peer training and networking opportunities. With the foundation’s coffers growing, it was carving out new niches for itself and developing a reputation among activists as an important sponsor of grassroots organizing.
When major philanthropic foundations began to express interest in the Beijing conference, Wilson seized the moment. In a series of funding proposals to Ford, she laid out how the Ms. Foundation could become a “lightning rod” of the US women’s movement.13 According to Wilson, the movement was not living up to its potential because there was no structure to help connect and coordinate the different initiatives. Her plan addressed that: Ms. could fill this role by convening a network of women’s groups to prepare for the conference and developing a media strategy to help the organizations find a public voice. With Ford’s support, several well-connected organizers received grants from Ms. to participate in a “Beijing and Beyond Advisory Committee” intended to help coordinate the activism happening in different parts of the country. The foundation also raised money to recruit and fund a delegation of grassroots activists to travel to China. “Fragmentation… hampers all of our efforts,” Ms. asserted. Serving as the “organizer of organizers,” Ms. planned to use Beijing as a springboard for creating a “comprehensive and permanent” nationwide network that would lead the women’s movement into the twenty-first century.14 Enacting those plans would turn out to be far more challenging than Wilson and her staff envisioned.
Ms. introduced itself as the coordinator of the movement in a major press conference held prior to the conference. The foundation convinced other feminist groups to participate by presenting the press conference as an opportunity to showcase their goals for Beijing and gain greater exposure for their causes. Several of the organizations demanded “that the speakers at the press conference not be the standard line-up of women’s movement speakers, that the group be diverse, and that the speakers should be representative—that is, from both grassroots and national organizations.” Ms. heeded their call, selecting participants who represented different facets of feminist activism, over half of whom were women of color.15
Yet when the press conference aired live on C-SPAN, no one doubted who was in charge. Ms. brought out its biggest celebrity—founder Gloria Steinem—to introduce the event and serve as master of ceremonies. When Steinem stepped aside, Wilson took over to facilitate the Q&A. A handout prepared by Ms. and given to the participants in advance instructed everyone to present a “united front,” demonstrating their “strength and solidarity in numbers.”16 What the handout did not say was that Ms. planned to present itself as the leader of the cause.
With the TV cameras rolling, the participants followed the Ms. Foundation’s directives. The delegation of grassroots activists invited to Beijing, however, would not fall so easily in line.
Though committed to fostering a racially diverse feminist movement, Marie Wilson, like most other white activists of her day who had led national organizations, often worked in ways that placed women who were not white or middle class on the margins. In 1970 the radical feminist Jo Freeman had condemned the “tyranny of structurelessness” in women’s organizing. Feminists’ commitment to nonhierarchical leadership, she believed, often prevented them from accomplishing specific goals or remedying the social inequities among them.17 Many feminists of the 1990s worked in nonprofits or professional institutions with clear hierarchies, and they did not reject the idea that some people would take on formal leadership roles. But how to choose those leaders and distribute power remained key points of contention.
A number of white feminists tried to build more inclusive programs by “reaching out” to women of color. Yet they never contemplated handing over power. “Essentially we designed the meetings, we set the agenda, and then we invited… women of color groups to join us,” explained Helen Neuborne, who worked at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Many of us learned later on that that was really a very inappropriate way to go about building bases with colleagues.… Nonetheless, that’s pretty much the way it was done.”18
Such practices had deep roots. By the 1990s, however, success at organizing on their own behalf gave women of color new leverage in these negotiations. Most white organizers knew that any national initiative claiming to represent the feminist movement would draw immediate criticism if it were exclusively or predominately white. As white women scrambled to conduct “outreach,” women of color refused to be tokenized. After decades spent advocating for Latina health rights on a shoestring budget, Luz Alvarez Martinez was one of many who began refusing invitations to participate in white-dominated conferences or on boards of directors unless the organizers asked other women of color to join her. A similar revolt was happening among those working to end violence against women.19
Ms. Foundation leaders claimed to understand that their new national feminist network would need to give ample voice to grassroots activists, particularly women of color. The staff believed they had a strong track record to draw on. Wilson had come out in some circles as a lesbian, and her vice president was Puerto Rican. The foundation’s professional staff was over two-fifths nonwhite and Ms. had established a strong reputation for funding racially diverse groups—nearly 75 percent of its funded projects were run by women of color or a multiracial staff.20 Planning documents for the foundation’s Beijing initiatives emphasized the importance of ensuring that members felt “influence and ownership” over the process.21 Yet when it came time to choose the activist delegation that would travel to the Beijing conference, Ms. seemed to stray from this pledge. The process was kept under wraps and was controlled by the Ms. staff, who spent hours in meetings deciding who to invite. The foundation was so committed to ensuring the diversity of this group by race, ethnicity, region, age, sexual orientation, disability status, and issue area that staff members created spreadsheets to check off the categories each woman represented—but they didn’t ask for much input on decision making.22
By the time all the boxes were checked, Ms. had chosen thirty-four activists. These women worked on the full gamut of feminist issues, from child care and welfare to refugees and domestic violence, and they ranged in age from twenty-five to sixty. Women with disabilities and those who were able-bodied, lesbian, straight—they came from large and small organizations operating in every region of the country. Sixty percent of the delegates were women of color, with relatively equal numbers of Latinas, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans included. Most had participated in projects that had received funding from the Ms. Foundation.23
Ms. had put together a group of activists who remain among feminism’s most innovative foot soldiers. Their ranks included Pamela Chiang, who had come to the foundation’s attention through her organizing at the intersection of the environmental and economic justice movements. Raised in a Chinese immigrant household in San Francisco, with “three generations in an apartment building,” she found her calling while attending the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1980s. There, Chiang helped build the emerging environmental justice movement, which was led by people of color addressing the toxic conditions in the nation’s workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools. When Ms. contacted Chiang, she was building a résumé that read like a who’s who of immigrant-led environmental and labor organizing in the Southwest.24
Ellen Bravo had been involved in feminist activism for decades. Growing up in a Jewish family grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, she had learned “that in the face of injustice you can’t be silent.” When an accident put her father, an aluminum siding salesman, out of work for two years, she watched her parents struggle as her mother became the family’s sole source of support. In the late 1960s, Bravo gained a deeper understanding of her mother’s predicament when she joined a feminist consciousness-raising group. “This makes so much sense of all these things that have been troubling me in my life,” she said. Decades later, the strain of holding a full-time clerical job while caring for two young children compelled her to start advocating for better working conditions for women. In 1982, she founded a Milwaukee chapter of an organization of pink-collar workers called 9to5 and quickly rose through the ranks to become the national executive director. Bravo saw the Ms. delegation to Beijing as an opportunity to “learn from the organizing that women were doing in countries I barely could find on a map,” who were far ahead of the United States on work-family issues.25
Rinku Sen, an Indian American lesbian with a degree in women’s studies who had made racial justice her life’s work, was also chosen. She had gravitated to activism after a childhood spent in white towns where race was barely mentioned. Attending Brown University in the mid-1980s was a revelation. The theories she learned in the classroom were complemented by her participation in a “watershed” moment of campus activism. Sen experienced thrilling victories lobbying Brown’s administration to establish a Third World Center and joining an anti–sexual assault campaign that resulted in two fraternities leaving campus and the administration agreeing to institute a dusk-to-dawn shuttle service. After graduating, she took a job at the Center for Third World Organizing in Oakland, where she worked with low-income people campaigning for health care and economic justice. She also helped build a Campaign for Community Safety and Police Accountability, which she described as a “precursor to Black Lives Matter.” Ms. reached out to Sen at an ideal moment: she was strategizing about how to integrate gender equity into her initiatives. She accepted the invitation, eager to learn from other “race, class, and gender liberation fighters, like me.”26
Ms. had assembled the players for an all-star team. But before they even took the field in China, tensions began to build.
During the flight to China, many of the activists learned for the first time that Ms. had invited some of the foundation’s donors, whose presence aroused suspicion. At the same time, the behavior of some foundation staff members generated resentment. Young staffers were responsible for keeping track of the delegates as they traveled through airports, customs, and baggage claims. “People were tired and fatigued,” explained Chiang. Several bristled at being “shepherded along… [by] young white gals… barking at us, telling us what to do.” At a certain point, some of the “women of color became… vocal.” After being “herded along,” they said, “‘Come on! Don’t treat us like that.’” The dynamic was too familiar. “It didn’t feel good.”27
A night in an expensive hotel room in Beijing did not change the mood. The delegates woke up jetlagged in a foreign country to find that Ms. had planned for them to go straight into a jampacked two-day orientation. The goal was to introduce the activists to the major themes in global feminism and the history of women’s lobbying at the UN. At one of the opening sessions, a confrontational question asked by a Black woman burst the dam. Others immediately joined what Wilson described as “a conversation about America and race” that escalated into a heated debate about whether the Ms. Foundation was racist.28
Attempts by Ms. Foundation leaders to “get control” and return to their planned conversations on global issues went nowhere. “The orientation pretty much could not move forward,” one staff member explained.29 A group of women of color activists took the reins and canceled the scheduled activities. They drew up an agenda for a very different gathering, one that focused on what people at the time called “identity politics.” The schedule included separate caucuses for each racial group and a Quaker-style meeting designed to allow everyone to express their opinions in a respectful atmosphere.
During the activist-controlled sessions, there were tears and a great deal of tension.30 A few people grew frustrated and left, while some of the other participants lashed out or shut down. Bravo was one of several veteran organizers who had been part of conversations about race and identity in the women’s movement for decades and had learned to stay open to new ideas and experiences. She saw the frank discussion of racism as a “positive development,” but observed that some of the other white people in the room took it “personally rather than thinking about it in… the bigger context.”31
It is hard not to take things personally when you feel directly targeted. The Ms. communications director recalled how uncomfortable she was hearing things like, “Why were white women in charge of the trip, why were white women deciding everything?” She felt like her own identity was under a microscope. “Here I was: straight, Ivy League educated, Jewish, raised upper middle class,” she reflected. “I represent everything that everyone is criticizing.” A stickler for details, she had spent months organizing the communications for the trip. Once the delegates arrived at the hotel, she and others had gone into high gear, making sure everyone’s luggage was delivered to their rooms, meals were served on time, and the meeting rooms were ready to go. When it was finally time for the orientation to begin, she was totally spent. “I kept saying [to myself], ‘You want to be in charge?… Fine! Be in charge!’ Being in charge sucks.”32
But who was “in charge”—who had power—was the fundamental question. Many believed Ms. had erred in not involving activists in planning the orientation. Having a diverse group of people in the room (or on a spreadsheet) did not guarantee that they all felt included or heard.33
Sen positioned herself as bridge builder, seeking to foster greater understanding and communication among different groups. “When I was in college and dealing with white feminists, I could have been kinder,” she recalled. She remembered several conversations from her Brown years that resulted in white women breaking down in tears. A decade later in Beijing, Sen tried to listen and model compassion. “I had no interest in tearing down the foundation” or alienating potential white allies, she said. Generating defensiveness “shuts doors.” To convince people and institutions to change, “you have to leave the door open.”34
Several Ms. staff members responded positively. Sara Gould, who would later become president of the foundation, said that she “learned a ton” from the delegates about the mistakes Ms. had made in organizing the orientation.35
By the end of the orientation, the participants had aired a range of views and many had come to new understandings. But they had not developed any kind of blueprint for coordinating their future organizing. The only thought that had become crystal clear was that none of them believed the future of US feminism should consist of a national network organized by the Ms. Foundation. Without buy-in from a broad base, the foundation would continue to fund grassroots feminist groups but would never be recognized as the coordinator of the US movement.36
The delegates did not unite under the Ms. banner, but nonetheless many began to forge the kinds of ties that Ms. had hoped would develop among them—the friendships and relationships of trust that propel all social movements. During the arguments, caucuses, Quaker circles, and breakfasts, clusters of delegates connected in a variety of ways. They caught each other’s eye during emotional or cringe-worthy moments and debriefed in the hallways. People talked over meals and even shared a few doses of Valium to help everyone get some sleep. Over the next ten days, as they set out to join the thousands of others exploring the conference’s NGO Forum, these bonds deepened.
“WE HAD FAR LESS TO TEACH THAN TO LEARN”
Urvashi Vaid didn’t know what to expect when the taxi transporting her and a few friends pulled up to a three-story disco in the heart of Beijing. She had shown the driver a flyer that mapped the location of a dance party for the lesbians attending the women’s conference that had been circulated at the conference by Chunsheng Wu, a gay Chinese activist. After an extraordinarily difficult week, many of them welcomed the opportunity to blow off some steam. Yet, to their horror, they were met by a “gauntlet” of heavily armed military and police, standing on either side of the path leading to the bar.
With some trepidation, they entered the club. More green-clad police were stationed around the dance floor, some holding cameras. Within an hour, though, over a hundred lesbians had arrived, and the liquor and loud music emboldened them. They could not speak the same language, but they communicated with their bodies, swaying together to a world beat in defiance of the authorities. When a slow, bluesy song came on, a Black woman and a white woman climbed up on the small stage and began intimately dancing as the crowd cheered them on.
It was a profound experience. US participants saw firsthand what it meant for queer people to organize under repressive regimes. Upon leaving the bar, Vaid and several others from the States stayed up late into the night talking with the Chinese organizers and then processing the evening’s events with each other. Tapping into the “subversive power of music and dance” together in such a highly charged environment had strengthened their connections, providing one of the most “joyful memories” from the conference.1
- "A nuanced history of feminism since the 1990s. Grounding today's fourth-wave feminism in the context of earlier activism, Levenstein locates both mainstream and radical feminism within a broader historical framework, showing how young feminists... are building on foundations laid by the generations before them."—Financial Times
- A Bitch Most Anticipated Book 2020
- "Lisa Levenstein shows in this lively history how the third-wave feminist movement of the '90s was one that became more diverse, intersectional, and decentered... Through her extensive research, Levenstein paints a compelling picture of the great progress made by the activists of the '90s. She also provides inspiration for feminists today to continue their fight."—Bust
- "The smartest work I've read on how social movements have changed since the sixties. In They Didn't See Us Coming, Lisa Levenstein uses the personal stories of captivating activists to drive the narrative--women you've likely never heard of but will wish you could meet and thank. This is the vital backstory to the massive Women's March of 2017, the #MeToo movement, and the capacious yet unsung organizing that is changing our world for the better."—Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains
- "A sweeping and beautifully written account of a feminist movement that too many of us assumed had faded away. Lisa Levenstein reveals how a multiracial and global coalition of women kept feminism vibrant and alive in the 1990s. With moving and intimate detail, Levenstein shows that it was these women who made it possible for us to imagine a more just and equitable future today."—Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water
- "Lisa Levenstein's poignant history of the change-makers in 1990s feminism shows how movements are made and sustained. They Didn't See Us Coming is an important and compelling new account that brings this vital activism to life-and encourages us to learn from the work of these women."—Daisy Hernández, coeditor of COLONIZE THIS!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism
- "Lisa Levenstein adds a critically important chapter to the history of feminist activism by recovering the powerful intersectional voices of the 1990s. They Didn't See Us Coming unearths the theoretical interventions as well as the nitty-gritty of feminist organizing to showcase the varied and textured, multi-layered and multi-issue praxis of feminism, both globally and locally, that laid the foundation for the recent upsurge in feminism. This book will shift our thinking about the evolution of modern feminism and is essential reading for anyone who cares about feminism or social justice."—Premilla Nadasen, author of Household Workers Unite and President of the National Women's Studies Association
- "Lisa Levenstein offers a refreshing and groundbreaking account of the feminist movements of the 1990s. She foregrounds the global arena and women of color to underscore how intersectional analyses of inequality fundamentally shaped women's movements, ideas, and strategies. This book introduces us to compelling people searching for ways to make a more just society."—Judy Wu, author of Radicals on the Road
- "Lisa Levenstein has written a moving and exciting new history that captures the global roots of today's feminism. They Didn't See Us Coming reveals a thriving and transnational movement bursting forth from the 1990s grounded in the theories and activism of women of color. This remarkable book lifts up the stories of women who blazed their own trail, and together changed the world."—Loretta Ross, coauthor of Radical Reproductive Justice
- "Persuasive... [Levenstein's] revisionist history effectively counters stereotypes of the decade's feminism... Contemporary feminists will be enlightened, while those who entered the movement in the '90s will feel vindicated."—Publishers Weekly
- "An authoritative account of how the feminist movement evolved during the 1990s and beyond... sharp... Levenstein successfully combines well-documented research with personal observations and interviews to create an accessible and informative narrative. Required reading for classes in women's studies."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Levenstein adds nuances that will provide rich space for current feminist theorists, scholars, and activists to dig deeper into feminist history, and its social ramifications in a digital era. A valuable contribution to the history of feminism at its grassroots and global levels..."—Library Journal
- "In this compelling and inspiring book, Levenstein ensures that the feminist groups of the nineties will take their rightful place in women's history."—Booklist
- "We don't tend to think of the 1990s as a high point for feminism... Levenstein wants to uncover a different story..."—New Republic
- "By shining a light on history at the margins, Levenstein shows us that our cultural life is complex, multifaceted. The work done in the 1990s by the activists she interviewed-advocates for a wide spectrum of social causes-laid the foundation for today's feminist energy."—Harvard Review
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Basic Books