Women in Grassroots Movements: Temma Kaplan

Temma Kaplan Crazy for DemocracyI loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.

We need more of that, especially now.

At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.

Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)

I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.

Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.

Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)

See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.

Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.

certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)

There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…

Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)

But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.

On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:

Love Canal

Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)

I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:

In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later.  (23)

Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)

There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.

The way women themselves do this:

Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)

Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping

Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:

Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)

Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:

Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)

One of my favourite stories.

On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:

“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)

Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:

At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)

Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.

Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:

People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)

Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:

Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)

The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:

As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)

The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.

Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)

Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:

“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)

I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…

A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally

seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)

Crossroads

From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).

The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:

twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)

Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses.  In this case, Crossroads found  help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that  point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.

They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.

The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.

They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.

The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.

I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:

the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)

There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.

But this made me laugh out loud:

When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)

Conclusions

All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:

what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)

her critique:

collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)

She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:

What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)

I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others.  Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?

Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.

[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]

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