Another way to view direct action in the 21st century is by looking at well-known 20th century versions. One that I spent a great deal of time emulating, reading about and adding my voice to was the Second Wave womens movement, although I technically came between the Second and the Third! Typical of a child of the 1960s. No movement of our own.
The emergence of that movement did more for the world than just to create Mary Tyler Moore. It took its lessons from the civil rights movement and built its power from organizing in the streets and by bringing uncomfortable issues like discriminatory workplaces, abortion, rape, domestic abuse into this "personal as political" movement. Women told their stories to each other, to legislators and to newspeople until those in power understood that the stories they were hearing were not unique, but the same across generations of women--and that the underlying issues that fashioned these stories needed to be changed.
From "Forty Years of Feminism" (Direct Action, 2008)
Guerrilla theater was used to illustrate some of our points. A live sheep was crowned ‘Miss America’ and paraded on the liberated area of the boardwalk to parody the way the contestants (all women) are appraised and judged like animals at a county fair.
Women are enslaved by beauty standards’ was the theme of another dramatic action — in which some of us chained ourselves to a life-size Miss America puppet. This was paraded and auctioned off by a woman dressed up as a male Wall Street financier. ‘Step right up, gentlemen, get your late model woman right here — a lovely paper dolly to call your very own property ... She can push your product, push your ego, or push your lawnmower ...’”
These early direct action tactics were successful as theater, but also failed because they were viewed as just theater. The failure to be taken seriously came because they were only one-off events, rather than integral issue definitions. The focus on Miss America was odd, since who cared anyway?
And when so many of the egghead (read professional writers, professors) leaders stepped waaay back from these actions as not serious, they did them in.
Add to that the great number of feminists who wiped their hands on their quarterback towel with satisfaction and trotted to the sidelines after seeing Title 9 enacted and Roe v Wade gaveled on the "right" side at the Supreme Court.Even though losing on ERA was a body blow to many who had devoted entire years--maybe even decades to hoping it pass, it never was seriously raised again.
What seemed to deflate all of the good work were the invitations for women to sit at (rather than just to set) the table. As a result, they believed and aligned themselves to hype only: The Year of the Woman and its dependent children: Women on the Supreme Court, Women as Vice-Presidential candidate, Women in Boardrooms. Women on Top.
Following hype, the other barriers to widespread success in no particular order:
First: The movement remained viable only in highly educated countries.
Also: Lessons were not easily or ever shared with younger activists. Or vice versa.
Importantly: Economic divisions were not understood. Blue collar women just stayed at work and were left there to struggle on their own (except for Hollywood's romantic portrayal of them) except for a brief heyday of 9 to 5 the Working Womens organization, until it was swallowed whole by traditional unions, to the delight of its founders.
Additionally: One or two organizations tried too hard to hold power and by mimicking their brethren, lost all of it. Of course, they got a glossy magazine out of it. And a new signature choice.
The good news is that within local cells and groups, success continued because of the adherence in them to democratic values and networking. The local groups believed in active support to each other's ideals and plans rather than making layers of power and decision-makers. So, change happened (piecemeal here and there) but did happen.
However, now among the most unbalanced, angriest people that I see in America are middle-class white women. I watch (mostly) silently as young women brush past me with barely controlled fury, cell phones to their ears talking loudly about "what a bitch she is" and that bitch is probably one of their close "friends" who earned the anger by stealing a man or taking center stage away. Yes, as most likely seen on the nearest reality show to you or the nearest front page. Think of the worst of those on the "boob" tube or in your political section-women, right?
The leader of the Tea Party sect is one of the angriest woman I have ever seen. Palin seems to resent everything, everyone. She mocks those who are unlike her by contrasting the reality in front of her with anecdotes on how wholesome and right she and her ilk are in her mind. In many respects, she reminds me of Disney's Cruella De Vil; the obsession with one's own needs and the surprise to be defined as villainous, since the reasoning for bashing immigrants or social programs or skinning puppies is logical to them. Part Cruela, part Aimee Semple McPherson, the early 20th century California religious leader whose use of media led to the rabid devotion of millions to her and others' simplistic preaching. Like McPherson, the troubling personal details that arise cannot rid the idea from any sensible head that Palin is a world-class grifter.
I think their anger comes from lack of balance, lack of humanist ideals and lazy minds. The laziness shows in their inability to articulate the ways that they themselves were able to have any success in this man's world. That's because the answer is from those before them and around them who bother to share knowledge and stories.
I also see the stripper fashion sensibility as visible confusion among women. Absolutely nothing wrong with it on its own, but for those under 30 to see it as a perception of beauty without knowing its defiant early definition was to attract a wide cross section of (mostly fantasy) sexual partners in a transactional setting is troubling. In its pure (?) form, it did represent the fascinating choice to portray sexual dominance in a capitalistic system if you will. So, embrace the full frontal anger of it, but don't identify with it as a passive ideal out of ignorance.
Because if you embrace its style, or a tomboyish exterior, or a androgynous Euro, or a Jackie Kennedy style without knowing its context, I believe all will lose their place in personal politics.
Having said all of that, I am still inspired by the radical and everyday feminists (flaws and all!) who turned their own issues into shared work and change. Some with political actions, some with literary, all with personal. I appreciate them. I don't always agree with them.
I think of:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Susan B. Anthony
Mary Tyler Moore (yes her. She gave my generation a woman we saw weekly who refused to marry or even to explain herself on the subject while she rose in confidence in her life with friends, men and work. Sort of like Early Feminism for Pre-teens. Hard to discount her. Or Patty Hearst for that matter.)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Diana Di Prima
Mary J. Blige
The web of those women and thousands or millions more who do not turn away from relating their story or their struggle to the next person who needs to know it is what I see as their success.
What all that means to me is the importance in direct action work of keeping the personal story in your political one, while knowing it can be transforming but also elitist. That elitism was recently pointed out in a talk on movements given at The Hague:
"The fashion for networks and networking as an organizational mode does not in itself create equality, or shared values. It may increase the space for emancipation and dialogue, but it may also obscure inequalities and value clashes."
So, even as it is necessary to relate one's own struggle with the barriers you are working to rid the world, the downside is too many organizations allow bullying, or one small sub-group's issues to be the only ones on the table.
Or, they err on the other side and fear individuals or dynamic personalities thereby keeping uniqueness and points of view from assisting their work.
As with all things, balance is necessary and difficult but women should be able to manage it.
Anger is also necessary, balanced with empathy as it was in the early days of the Second Wave. Again, women should be able to handle it.
In any case, the overall failure of the Second Wave does not mean that it didn't win anything-but what it did win has been steadily reduced by powerful men now joined by powerful women. And some of those women started out on the line out there.
The failure of the big stuff does not dull the fine point of individual power as it was employed and made visible through cheeky direct action by middle-class wives, mothers and sisters way back in the disco days. Does not dull the point--
or maybe I'm being a Pollyanna and the lack of new examples does do exactly that--dull the history. Or maybe it's not the lack of new examples, but the failure to tie any of it to actual change, in perceptions or in laws that govern us that was its failure.
Clearly, in all cases, we activists need to study the history to see who or what might be coming next. Let's hope for Mary Tyler Moore (although we may already have her in the updated, plucky person of Michelle Obama) or please maybe a new Diane Di Prima crossed with Chrissie Hynde and Julia Butterfly Hill.
But let's keep telling our stories.