Let's Get Organized

AUGUST 22, 1978


This speech was given at the opening session of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, Aug. 22, 1978.

          Let me begin with a fable. There is a war on. A large, enthusiastic, but rather disorganized army of women gathers together and marches on a nearby city. Unexpectedly, they meet with only a token resistance from the Emperor's army. They take the city. They are overjoyed. They have a party and get drunk. The next day, since they are not fond of being in an army, they disperse and go home. Only a few sentinels are left in the city.  So, when the Emperor's army marches in again, there are few to give the alarm and no one to hear it, because the lines of communication are all down. There is no resistance. The city falls again to the Emperor.

          This is what happened to us on abortion.

          A year ago people were saying, "What happened? It happened so fast!" But it didn't really happen fast at all. From the moment of the Supreme Court decision in 1973, the enemies of free choice for women have been organizing in the churches, on the street corners, in the railroad stations and the airports. It is we who did nothing. We let ourselves believe that we could win one battle and go home—that the battle would stay won all by itself, without an army to back it up.

          That was a great mistake.  We must never make that mistake again.

          Now, instead of the messy and uncoordinated opposition we faced when the campaign for abortion rights began, we face an enemy that is extremely well-organized and well-financed, with all already existing infrastructure in the parish organizations of the Catholic and other churches--and therefore a built-in way of getting money and troops. If we do not become equally well-organized and united, though not in the same way, we will continue to be sitting ducks for every reactionary onslaught.  Because if they get their way on abortion and make it criminal again, you can kiss birth control, divorce, sex education, and certainly gay rights goodbye. You can kiss the ERA goodbye because a lot of them don't even think women should work. And if they manage to call a constitutional convention, you can kiss all your democratic rights goodbye because a lot of them think the Bill of Rights was written by Karl Marx.

          So the women's liberation movement is at a crossroads, where we must analyze our past work and decide which way to go in the future. We must look at our owm history of the last 10 years and see what mistakes we made and what we must do differently now. I am going to try to do that about abortion.

          First let me define a couple of terms. I make a distinction between the feminist movement and the broad women's movement. When I say feminist movement, I mean the conscious women's liberation movement, that developed in the late 60s from the student and civil rights movements, and that now includes a spread from the National Women' s Political Caucus to various socialist-feminist groups to networks such as this one. When I speak of the women's movement, I mean a much broader, spontaneous movement that arose in the same period around issues like welfare rights, childcare, community control, and the public schools. It was made up almost entirely of working class and minority women, though it occasionally had male leadership, and on a few issues, like food prices, it reached up into the middle class. For the most part it did not build stable organizations or have a unifying ideology.

          So all through this last period, there have been two movements of women—not even counting the women organized to oppose abortion, the ERA and bussing. And there has been an almost total gulf between these two progressive movements of women—and this gulf is a disaster. Of all things, it is the thing that hurts us most. Until we have unity, until we can bridge that gap, we can't win anything of any consequence. In order to bridge this gap and overcome our isolation from these millions of women, we are going to have to make some changes. For starters, we have to really support their struggles and see them as our own.  Where has the feminist movement when the women in this larger movement occupied the daycare centers in New York and took over the public schools in protests against the shorter day, and protested food prices?  This inactivity is in general one of the mistakes we must rectify. In relation to the issue of abortion, there were other mistakes to learn from. These were: 1) the failure to draw a clear line between ourselves and the population controllers; 2) unclear and sometimes wrong positions on the family; 3) going all for broke on one reform and falling apart when we got it; 4) legalism, thinking that when we changed a law we changed reality; and 5) failure to do grassroots organizing.

           1) The movement that won abortion rights contained various ideological strands. It contained feminists, socialists, and population controllers. Population controllers believe that the cause of all the evils in the world—hunger, poverty, unemployment, war, even male supremacy—is too many people; people pollute. They think forced sterilization may be a necessary evil. The last round of the abortion-rights movement was, by and large, confused about the dangers of these ideas and the agencies that advance them. Arguments that abortion would help us cut down the welfare rolls were common—they still are, in fact, to the great detriment of the movement, for can you imagine how a woman on welfare feels when she hears pro-choice people say that? There was a general tendency to respond defensively to accusations of genocide, and a failure to note sterilization abuse. By allowing itself to come under the wing of the population controllers, the feminist movement lost credibility in the eyes of third world people.

          2) The feminist attack on the family--particularly as interpreted by the media--contributed to the breach between the feminist movement and the broad women' s movement, many of whose members saw their families as the only decent thing in their lives, the only thing they had to live and fight for. When they heard the word family, they didn't think of patriarchal oppression or suburban isolation. They thought of their kids, sisters, mothers, husbands, cousins, and felt attacked. Our mistakes in this area were seized on by the right wing, who have ridden in to defend the family on their white horses. Of course, their version of the family is merely kinder, kuche, kirke—but until we are more precise about what we are attacking, the right wing will be able to portray us as the enemies of women and children.

          3) We also failed to link abortion rights with related issues of reproduction, health care, and welfare rights, and allowed it to be isolated as a single issue. Any single demand can be granted, coopted, and taken away. It was. By having no goals beyond one reform, the movement ensured that it would fall apart when that reform was won.

          4) Another mistake we made was putting all our emphasis on changing the law, apart from getting services and organizing. In fact, regardless of the law, abortion services have never been available to rich or poor in many parts of the country, especially rural areas. Furthermore, it would be an obscenity to provide abortion clinics—or sterilization clinics—in areas where no other health care facilities of any kind existed! The last abortion rights movement, however, concentrated almost entirely on media and propaganda work, and on legislative and courtroom work.

          5) There were no substantial campaigns to organize masses of women to win abortion rights. In New York, the right was won in court before much broad organizing had been done. The issue was never taken to the poor and working class women who are now suffering from the Hyde Amendment; much less was the work rooted there, where it needs ultimately to be rooted. A movement that isolated itself from the masses of people could not hope to retain its strength and vitality for long.

          These mistakes must be corrected and the breach between the feminist movement and the broad women's movement must be healed. I believe that one way to do this is to actively link the issues of abortion rights and sterilization abuse, as two sides of the same coin, and to connect both with more long range goals of reproductive freedom—our ability to freely choose whether to have or not to have children. And we must lay equal stress on the ability to have, instead of leaving it out as was done in the last round.

          This definition of reproductive freedom presupposes a number of things we now lack, beginning with a living wage for women, so that we can support our kids with or without a man's help. It presupposes adequate welfare benefits. It presupposes maternity leaves and benefits, with no loss of jobs or seniority. It presupposes adequate cheap health care, and better methods of birth control, combined with sex education so everyone can hear about them.  It presupposes a wide range of childcare options at prices people earning women’s wages can afford.  It presupposes a decent public school system. All these we must fight for.

          Most fundamentally, reproductive freedom would entail a change in the way women are viewed and view ourselves. The question of whom one sleeps with or whether one sleeps with anyone, male or female; the question of whether or not one has children, have been throughout history the main determinant of each woman's identity as a person. This is where the question of gay rights comes in.

          For centuries we have been defined mainly as mothers or as male sexual objects. Those who did not match this definition for whatever reason were regarded as freaks, old maids, unproductive, useless people, no matter how much work they did at home or in the outside world. We must make it clear that we reject this definition. We may be mothers; we may be married or have male lovers; we may be lesbians; we may be celibate; but mainly we are people, who have every right to be able to determine our sexual habits and childbearing patterns for ourselves. We are people who work, who think, who act politically, who do many others things besides make love, give birth, or nurture anyone; and we will not be defined by that one segment of our lives.  We want every material thing that will give us the freedom to decide when and if we will have kids—and whatever we decide is our own business!

          So we have a particular problem right now—we have lost the right to abortion on demand. What are we going to do about it? If we are to fight off the attacks on our basic rights we must rebuild and reorganize the women’s liberation movement from the ground up; we must unite the feminist movement with the broad movement of women. The campuses are one important place to do that.

          What are we teaching in the women's studies programs? Can we teach about the oppression of women without also teaching that we must fight it together? Can we teach that we must fight it together without doing so actively? We must have our laboratories and conduct our experiments in winning liberation and compare them across the country. We must test our ideas scientifically in many places and learn to understand variables.

          Our women's studies programs should to some extent become such laboratories—but not ivory tower ones with mad scientists in them. We have to train our students to link their iceas with practical work and to learn outside of class as well as in it, to carry their ideas into the community and learn from its response. They can learn about both themselves and the   world by trying to change it, even in just the one particular of reproduction.

          As historians, we have another obligation to our students—to sum up our own history, the history of the movement of the last ten years, to learn its lessons and carry on. Because most of us have failed to do this, the next generation does not understand our struggle and cannot learn from our experience. They think there was always a women's liberation movement. They don't know what it was like when abortion was illegal. We know, and we must pass on all the things we know, not just the ones we know from books.

          If even half the women here could help to start an abortion rights/sterilization abuse group on their campus, the movement would be a hundred times stronger than it is now. The situation across the country is not good. Very few organizations are doing work on this issue locally; and the only national organizations doing work on it are NARAL and Planned Parenthood, which restrict their work to education and lobbying, and which also tend to make the argument about cutting down the welfare rolls. The groups we set up must not make this argument; and they must be more activist in their orientation, trying to include and ally with the community.

          A year ago in New York we formed an organization along these lines, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. By organizing in a broad way on this basis, we have built a substantial and strong organization that is having more and more influence. We have several hundred members, about half of whom are very active, and reach a thousand people with our newsletter. It is clear to us that if people have similar approaches, flexible tactics, and avoid being sectarian, they can build up similar groups. We will help any way we can.

          We face an enemy that is strong and powerful. No one can afford to stand back from this fight and assume somebody else will do it. That's how we got into this fix to begin with.  Many people in this room are veterans of the first waves of the feminist movement and other political movements. You have a great deal to contribute and teach.

          In 1969 the movement was new. Then the main need was to think, to criticize, to feel, to imagine alternatives, to respond] to oppression in a great variety of ways. A hundred flowers bloomed and that was good. Thinking, feeling, criticizing are still necessary—but now, in the face of an enemy that is so well-organized, other needs have come forward. We have to learn to organize, to unite, to learn strategy and tactics. Our enemies look stronger than they are because they have no real opposition. Any balloon full of hot air can float up high. If nobody hits it, it won't fall, though it may dwindle and die of its own accord.  We can't wait for that. We must overcome our inertia, learn from our mistakes, and get organized. No one will defend us if we don't defend ourselves.