Communiques from the Front: Young Activists Chart Feminism’s Third Wave

Communiques from the Front: Young Activists Chart Feminism’s Third Wave

by Bonnie Pfister

From the loose coalition of punk rock teens calling themselves Riot Grrls to the recently reinvigorated Students Organizing Students, the past year has seen a parade of vibrant new young women’s groups. Young women, it seems, are no longer afraid of the word “feminist”: With the same spirit of gay activist groups like Queer Nation and ACT-UP or rap groups Niggaz With Attitude (or for that matter, Bytches With Problems), young women are appropriating both the name and the women’s movement.

And no wonder: Twelve years of the repressive, women-hating Reagan-Bush era, the erosion of Roe v. Wade, and the treatment of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas have all sown the seed for the new interest in feminism. Add to this the widespread perception among young women that the so-called embodiment of American feminism, the National Organization for Women (NOW), is either dormant or in bed with the Democratic party (or both), and the result has been an eruption of direct action and creative activism that appears to be feminism’s Third Wave. In contrast to common stereotypes, droves of new young feminists pride themselves on being young and trendy, beautiful and radical, smart and very, very media-savvy. They are trying, if not exactly succeeding, to assert their issues more broadly than their feminist foremothers by including women of color and poor women and by broadening single issues – like abortion rights – which many women under 30 feel were the greatest failures of such Second Wavers as NOW.

New young feminists pride themselves on being young and trendy, beautiful and radical, smart and very, very media-savvy

So far, the three best-known new groups carrying the torch of feminism’s latest incarnation are WAC (Women’s Action Coalition), the Third Wave, and WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization). All three are based in New York City, where the supply of activist women has always been higher than the rest of the nation. Each has redefined the meaning and tactics of the women’s movement, and each has developed unique strategies for action that appeal to young women in particular. At the same time, all three are grappling to chart the territory of a truly diverse and inclusive feminist movement.

The Third Wave, taking its all-encompassing title from a theme one of its founders, Rebecca Walker, uses frequently in her writings, has successfully gathered women of varied racial backgrounds under its banner. However, its inaugural project alienated many participants so deeply they said they would never work with the group again. While WAC continues to thrive with thousands of women eager to be identified with it, it is also the personification of the progressive American dilemma: When the media says “feminist,” what it usually means is white women’s feminism, WHAM is closing in on its four-year anniversary with a rich tradition of direct (read: Illegal) action and regular defense of women’s health clinics, but with a scraggly membership and low morale.

“I am not a post-feminist feminist; I am the Third Wave.”

With the goal of building a national network of young women, Harvard alumna Shannon Liss, and Yale graduate Rebecca Walker, both 23 years old, founded the Third Wave in March of 1992. Liss, who worked after college with legendary feminist/politician Bella Abzug, had just finished coordinating a standing-room-only sexual harassment conference in New York featuring Anita Hill. Walker is the daughter of Alice Walker, godchild of Gloria Steinem, and one of the youngest contributing editors to Ms. magazine. The organization was just beginning to coalesce around the idea of publishing an anthology of young feminists’ writings when the Rodney King trial and its violent aftermath seemed to demand a more active, immediate response. With the confidence born of their personal tutelage under some of the most famous feminists in America, Liss and Walker raised $100,000, recruited 120 participants from diverse economic and racial backgrounds, and within two months set off in three buses for “Freedom Summer 1992,” a 23-day, 20-city nationwide tour aimed to register 500,000 new voters.

Every rider interviewed called the Freedom Ride an amazing experience – registering people they otherwise never would have even met was thrilling and rewarding. At the same time, many riders felt alienated with a hierarchical decision-making process and uncomfortable with the “parent-to-child relationship” established by Liss, Walker, and the four paid members in charge of the project.

“People would ask me what was going to happen that day, and I routinely did not have an answer. They didn’t provide for the kind of atmosphere where riders had a say and felt part of the project,” said Maria Torre, who was a bus captain. “To me, working communally is what feminist organizing is all about. I know that time constraints were a big factor, but I didn’t see very much effort to try to reach out to the riders.”

Many riders were stunned and upset to learn at the end of the trip that they were not actually part of the Third Wave: The riders were told they were merely participants in the group’s first project, and even members of the advance committee were fired at the end.

“At the last meeting we had, it came across that Rebecca and Shannon were paying us four, and they needed nothing more to do with us,” said Amy Richards, a member of that committee. “At the last stop in DC, it was just like, ‘This is it; we don’t have to talk again if we don’t want to.’ It wasn’t clear what would come next.”

Walker admits that while the mandate of the organization may have been blurred because of the haste to get the group on the road, making participants feel a part of the Third Wave as an organized young feminist movement was never her goal.

“The Third Wave is not a membership organization. That is something we said at the beginning. We do projects….This way the base is broader. You don’t have to construct a party line that members have to maintain,” said Walker.

While many riders may have believed a ’70s’-style consensus model would be used during the trip, Walker says it was too impractical for the kinds of decisions she and Liss were making, such as what time to stop traveling to eat or rest.

“I had the same kind of vision: That we would all sit around in a circle and decide things. But it doesn’t work, which is sad,” Walker said. Walker now believes a corporate model is more effective for social and feminist movements.

Many riders said they were uncomfortable because the trip seemed more a media spectacle than a mass registration, and were especially troubled by the media frenzy that surrounded Walker alone.

The erosion of Roe v. Wade has generated new interest in feminism.

Walker, however, was untroubled by the level of publicity to the trip: “I think the media we used, and that used us, helped us to perpetuate our message,” she said. “I’m not afraid of the media, and I don’t think it cheapens me.” She does feel that it can be problematic when the media singles out one individual to speak for everyone.

While only a fraction (25,000 voters) of the proposed goal were registered, not everyone felt that publicity rather than mass registration was such a bad goal, even if it differed from the Third Wave’s original plan. “We inspired a lot of communities,” says Sandra Mills, a rider with a long history of civil rights actions. She recalled a man in Cleveland whom her group approached to register, after watching him buy drugs. He scoffed at them, and some of the young women in her group in frustration said they wanted to go back home to Philadelphia. “He heard us and said, ‘You came all the way from Philadelphia? And you’re not getting paid? Give me that paper; where do I sign?'”

One of the oldest riders at 34, Mills chalked up the tensions to the inexperience and ego of the leadership. “I had the tolerance a lot of these younger women didn’t. I’ve learned not to miss the mission for dealing with the Man, or in this case, the Woman.”

Despite its rocky start, the Third Wave has triumphed in one area where the other new feminist groups WAC and WHAM, flounder: Racial diversity. Forty percent of “Freedom Summer” riders were people of color, according to Kristen Golden, a former member of the Third Wave’s steering committee, and some were recruited from low-income, inner city communities rarely represented in feminist activities.

This founding commitment to diversity is the promise of the Third Wave. Marjorie Fine, a veteran feminist and executive director of the progressive North Star Fund, has seen numerous white women’s groups struggle to become diverse – and she has never seen a group that begins with a mostly white leadership successfully integrate itself. Picking and choosing who will be involved in a group may be the only way to insure diversity, says Fine. Ironically, it is this exclusive method that has yielded the Third Wave criticism from the Freedom Riders.

WAC: The “NOW of the 1990s”? The Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) was formed in January 1992 when some 100 artists in Downtown Manhattan gathered for a panel discussion on women in the art world. What resulted was a spleen-venting session over the then recent Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas scandal and the backlash against American women in general, and a call to action. Meetings continued on a weekly basis, drawing more and more women to exchange information, ideas and support.

WAC began to attract media attention around New York with creative actions that mix anger and wit with stunning visual images. The group made a visible presence at rape trials, picketed art galleries that under represent women and held a spectacular Mother’s Day action that featured a loud and visible WAC drum corps at Grand Central Terminal, where the group protested the billions of dollars owed to women by men in back child support.

By summertime of the so-called “Year of the Woman,” amid the Democratic National Convention, WAC had become a national media darling boasting several thousand members. A year after its founding, The Nation compared WAC to NOW in the 1970s: An all-issue women’s organization. Today, WAC has emerged as the most prolific of all new women’s groups.

With members ranging in age from early-20s on, WAC women have the media acumen of having grown up in the communications era coupled with on-the-job experience, often in the communications field, and the connections and personal income to use their expertise. WAC not only accesses the media, it exploits all the devices of the information age. The group’s telephone voice mail offers timely information on nearly a dozen upcoming actions. Members produced a slick slide show to distract women at the Republican National Convention, and have taken over editorship of a section of the feminist newspaper New Directions for Women called “WAC Talk.”

Despite this success, however, diversity remains a problem. “A group like WAC already has this cardinal problem, in that it didn’t start out [with a diverse racial makeup],” says Marjorie Fine. While notable in New York for the mass numbers of women it mobilizes, WAC claims only a handful of women of color in its ranks. The group felt internal pressure about its relatively homogenous makeup since soon after its formation, many members said. Two months after its founding, a WAC committee to address this problem was formed, now called the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CODI).

While all WAC women interviewed said dealing with the diversity question was a priority for the group, only seven to 10 people out of the 250-plus who attend WAC meetings come to the CODI’s weekly meetings. Several white women, when asked to talk about diversity, referred those questions to CODI. This, many African-American feminists say, is part of the problem: White women believing only women of color can talk about racism.

“A number of women of color who had been in the feminist movement previously were used as ornaments and window dressing, brought in after the decisions were made, and it created an unequal relationship,” said Janet Henry, a WAC and CODI member. “Some [white women] didn’t see what the problem was. It’s really debilitating to have to spend your time explaining things to people who are that kind of comfortable with that level of ignorance. It puts your own growth on hold.”

Being the “NOW of the ’90s” comes with as much stigma as it does honor, for it also recalls a tradition which many women of color read to mean white women’s feminism.

“It’s always sort of been two movements: The one that is called “the feminist movement” and then there are the other women, who are just struggling along,” said Wilma Montanez, 42, coordinator of the Latina Roundtable on Health and Reproductive Rights.

If white women’s groups are really serious about diversity they have to claim racism in the same way they claim sexism, and spend as much time and money on racism as sexism, said Gwen Braxton, a member of the New York Black Women’s Health Project.

“Find out what Black women and women of color are doing in their respective communities and support it. Give us money, find us space, give us publicity, become clear about what our issues are, and make them priorities in your own organization. Instead of just saying, ‘yes, we should provide childcare so these women can come to our meetings,’ identify all the isms, and make them your own,” Braxton said.

These kinds of struggles can decimate a group without the massive drawing power the New York WAC chapter enjoys. In the WAC chapter in Washington, DC, for example, the disaffection of several women over what to do about the lack of diversity in the group, coupled with the defection of other women over the circular motion of the debate on this topic, has taken its toll. After several exciting actions last fall, the once 100-strong group barely existed by February, WAC-DC members say.

“While everyone felt racial diversity was worth working towards, there were a lot of different ideas about how to go about it,” said Katherine Isaac, a founder of WAC-DC. “Some women felt we should look within ourselves and first solve our own racism, while the opposite view was to go out into the community and demonstrate that this was an organization committed to work against racism. It became a Catch-22.”

WHAM: Radical identity crisis WHAM, three years older than WAC, has already begun the road to diversity, and has found that even the baby steps are painful. Last fall 15 WHAM members participated in an eight-session “Resisting Racism” workshop to come to terms with their individual prejudices. Many of the women who participated in these angst-inducing sessions say the results were life-changing.

One of the participants, Sandy Morris Snyder, said she’s seen the results on the WHAM floor. During a meeting when some members were wondering why WHAM should take up the issue of Haitian refugees rather than topics pertaining to “American women,” several participants from the workshop spoke up to explain and defend the links between the struggles, something they may not have done in the past.

Some of the decisions have led other women, particularly women of color, away from the organization, to work instead with women’s groups in their own ethnic community, said Patty Murillo, a former WHAM member who helped to organize the workshops. Murillo herself became frustrated with the group last fall when her early efforts to make a demo more racially inclusive were reduced to last-minute bickering over whether to print flyers in Spanish translation.

WHAM first grew out of the direct action committee of the now-defunct Reproductive Rights Coalition, which was founded to build a response to the Supreme Court’s Webster decision in 1989. WHAM has a profile similar to WAC’s, although the women tend to be younger and less career-oriented and organize actions that more often tend to be illegal. There’s also a difference in the feeling one gets on the floor of the group’s general meetings: At WAC, the large attendance sometimes gives a sense of a few stars playing to a very receptive audience; speakers stand in front of a stage and make dramatic presentations about upcoming actions, expectant of applause. Speakers at WHAM meetings, which recently draw between 30 to 60 people, remain in a circle and frequently couch their ideas in self-deprecating humor. Praise seems to embarrass or even annoy some members.

In its heyday, WHAM draped a “No Choice, No Liberty,” banner over the face of the Statue of Liberty, organized numerous office takeovers of pharmaceutical companies recalcitrant in the study of breast cancer and HIV-related illnesses, and mobilized around herbal healing and self-help healing. Saturday morning clinic defense is still a staple of the WHAM diet, but weekly meetings now draw far fewer members than they did a year ago, and energy for big, elaborate demonstrations is low. “I think the lower turnout is an historical accident, the result of a number of key people going to school, moving away, or just becoming politicked out,” explained Marion Cole, a long-time WHAM member. Bill Clinton’s election has also calmed the nerves of some would-be activists.

Today, WHAM is redefining direct action to include more research-based activities – such as keeping up on healthcare proposals and forming a working group of WHAM and ACT-UP, which is publishing a voting guide to identify religious right “stealth” school board candidates for local office, said Stephanie Creaturo, a WHAM member since 1991.

“The Statue of Liberty was a fabulous action. Doing research is not as glamorous or as sexy as that, but we’re working on this very seriously,” she said. But illegal actions are still inherent to WHAM’s fabric, Creaturo said, pointing to the number of WHAMers arrested at a recent action at a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey.

Some say WAC stole some of WHAM’s thunder with its ascendance on similar issues last year. But the twinge of envy some WHAM members feel toward WAC is coupled with disdain for mainstream attention the group has harvested (due in part to the years of thankless work WHAM did before). “If someone called us the ‘NOW of the ’90s,’ we would freak,” said one WHAM member who asked not to be named. “We’re much further left than that.”

Perhaps that statement best points out the contradictions facing these media oriented groups – particularly if they want to retain their edge. While the media spotlight WAC and the Third Wave have basked in is a milestone, these groups also have to worry about the degree to which actions cease to exist if they don’t generate press. WAC demos, for all their zippy spontaneity, can still be simplified enough for a sound bite: They wouldn’t get press otherwise. WHAM can easily be accused of having an “abortion fetish.” After all, women organizing around complex welfare reform arguments and access to healthcare – major concerns of many poor women and women of color – don’t get the attention of MTV or the major networks.

Steering the future of feminism As they grapple with these issues, WHAM, WAC and the Third Wave are each reflecting on what it has accomplished so far, and planning for the future. The Third Wave has returned to its plan for an anthology of women’s writings, to be published by fall 1994, and Walker and Liss will determine future actions beyond that.

WHAM is continuing its Resisting Racism trainings and working towards exposing the links between racism and sexism. WAC is continuing its attention to the rapes in former Yugoslavia, and grappling with the mantle of being the new NOW, WACNew York’s Karen Bernstein said.

“I see this organization as a huge van careening very quickly down a highway,” says Bemstein. “We want to maintain that energy, but we also have to start to steer it. If we don’t do that in a way that people feel comfortable about it, we’ll end up fishtailing and skating out of control.”

Bonnie Pfister is a journalist living in New York City.