In 411 BC, a comedy by Aristophanes rocked Greece. Lysistrata was a play about one woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading other women to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until they had negotiated a peaceful settlement.
More than two millennia later, on October 24, 1975, 90 percent of women in Iceland went on strike for a day in the name of economic and social justice. They refused to go to work, to cook or to take care of children. It called to a halt every sector of the country.
On April 25, 2004 the national Mall in Washington, DC witnessed the March for Women's Lives which drew over 800,000 people. Organized by the Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, NOW and Planned Parenthood Federation of America among others multi-generational attendees focused on reproductive rights alongside entertainers, politicians and icons of the feminist movement. The press had a field day.
Each of those events represents a strategy for social change that helped shape history. I’m wondering where such strategies are now among women’s organizations.
Following the recent Black Lives Matter marches that were so effective in garnering media attention and which helped push President Obama to call for renewed efforts to enact new gun-related regulations, I began to wonder why there isn’t a more visible, strategic presence among women’s organizations given the growing attacks on women’s reproductive rights at both national and state levels.
While I recall the power of the many marches I participated in during the 1980s in which issues such as abortion, women’s privacy and their human rights were captured through sheer numbers, compelling personal testimonies, and a responsive media, I’m not necessarily making a case for such mass protests as the best strategy. I understand that from police protection to publicity to Porta-potties, such events involve extraordinary organizational skills and plenty of personnel. They are also hugely expensive. I also know that many of the marches of my day had less than the desired impact on legislation.
I get as well that social media and the Internet have changed the way organizations do things in major ways. But beyond asking people to sign petitions and donate money what is their impact in the absence of human-face, big numbers activism? What exactly is the social media strategy? And what is being done to augment it? (I ask these questions while acknowledging Planned Parenthood’s impressive use of social media under the leadership of Cecile Richards.)
So I decided to put these questions to more than half a dozen key women’s organizations – including the very ones that had organized the 2004 March for Women’s Lives. It breaks my heart to report that with one exception none of them even bothered to answer my repeated calls and emails, even though I’m a bona fide journalist with a certain amount of name recognition among these groups. (Perhaps, like the National Organization for Women they’re too busy promoting “pink Viagra”). The one organization that responded after much prodding was Naral Pro-Choice America; they sent me a bit of canned PR stating that they were “committed to amplifying the voices of Americans who believe that women should be in charge of their own healthcare choices.” The piece mentioned “in-person rallies” and “online petitions” and “getting Google and Yahoo to remove their false advertising.” It said they had challenged TED Talks “to change their policy from one that excludes abortion talks to one that embraces them.”
Excuse me? That’s it?
One woman I did talk to was Donna Dees-Thomases, who organized the highly successful Million Mom March in 2000 calling for an end to gun violence. The march, which boasted 750,000 people in Washington, DC and 250,000 others marching in satellite rallies in over 70 American cities on Mothers Day that year, led to a highly successful grassroots movement in which chapters were established around the country. Now united with Handgun Control, Inc. and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence and known as the Brady Center, their chapters continue to advocate for gun violence prevention legislation primarily at the local and state levels, resulting in many legislative successes. That’s strategy at work.
“Women are organizers,” Dees-Thomases told me, explaining the successes the Brady Center has had. “They’re out in front and they’re making an impact.” At the same time, she thinks too many women in leadership may have become “institutionalized thinkers.” They don’t realize, she explains, that, for example, simply organizing and assisting a few women to visit their state legislators, to testify, to write letters can have a big impact. In other words, it seems to me, they no longer think strategically, or put effort into that kind of activism.
They don’t even bother talking to feminist journalists anymore, it seems, and that gives me pause (especially when I pull out my checkbook.) It also leaves me wondering where the women’s movement goes from here. I guess I won’t be waiting for a callback on that.