Feminist Mirroring and Multi-tasking: Women Activists as Producers, Publicists, Historians and Copy Cats

Presented at Purdue University, Women's Studies Program, Pen and Protest: Intellect and Action, A Symposium in Honor of Berenice A. Carroll, Nov. 16-17, 2007

I will be talking today about the skills that women activists, especially those involved in organizing direct action or civil disobedience, possess and practice regularly.  In my title, I have used the term “multi-tasking,” to capture the range and variety of skills that must be engaged in all at once and even “backwards and wearing high heels.”  For those of us who use political theater and performance I should actually add singing, dancing and acting as useful skills.

I was aware that Berenice was the quintessential multi-tasker, and I thought after 36 years of friendship that I knew her well.  Yet, what I have learned about her during this symposium convinces me that she is more than one person.  She multi-tasks in multiple disciplines—history, political science, women’s studies and peace studies.  She plays many roles—educator, scholar, administrator, organizer, mother, grandmother.  She is a founding mother of multiple national and international committees, caucuses, organizations, and conferences.  I know her best as an in-the-street and in-their-face activist for multiple causes—feminism, pacifism and worker’s rights.  I have been privileged to picket, sit-in, chain, chant, march, vigil, camp and occupy buildings with Berenice.  Berenice does it all and all at once.

I have also used in the title the psychological concept, “mirroring,” by which I mean the behavior of imitating or repeating what others have done previously.  Those of us attracted to political movements for progressive causes are deeply influenced and inspired by our foremothers and fathers, as well as by the actions of our cohort in other movements.

Each of the terms I have listed after the colon, “producers”, “publicists”, “historians” and “copy cats” represents a subset of skills and abilities.  For example, when I claim that activists are producers, I mean it in the sense of a film or theatrical producer who is organizing, overseeing funding every aspect of an event, performance or protest.

The concept “publicist,” which is most often associated with the theater world or movie business, describes the writing and speaking that activists must do to promote, recruit, advertise, and report on their actions.  We draft calls to action, posters, flyers, ads, press releases, letters to the editor, op ed pieces, lectures, theater and performance pieces, and even academic papers explaining and interpreting what we are about.

The word “historian” may be imprecise, but by it I am referring to the knowledge most activists have of the history of their movement.  But that is not all.  Most women activists are conscious that they are part of a larger and longer historical process and wish to communicate this to others.  We want to place our acts in a context and to educate others about the history of our movement or cause.  Further, we preserve historical materials by archiving our papers and artifacts, donating them to libraries and even writing lengthy histories of our movements.

Perhaps the best example of the latter is the 6 volume History of Woman Suffrage by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Ida Husted Harper which was published sequentially in 1886, 1902 and 1922.  The History is 5703 pages of narrative and documents covering the movement from 1848 to 1920.  These women simply would not allow their history to be lost or buried.  And they used it as a political and polemical tool to further the cause by sending it to every member of Congress.

Finally, I use the slang “copy cat” as a synonym for “mirroring” to refer to our penchant for borrowing or imitating tactics, symbols, slogans, images, and objects from others.

Producers—I wont spend much time on activists as producers, because all women know what it takes to make things happen—to create family life and community, to begin and maintain institutions of learning, hospitals, settlement houses, civil rights movements as well as conferences like this one or the demonstrations that activist produce.  You know as well as I the planning it takes, the attention to detail, the anticipation of problems, the logistics, the gathering of props and materials, the unexciting drudgery.  But I want to give a couple of examples anyway.

Students of women’s history know that on January 10, 1917 the National Women’s Party, led by Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and others, began picketing the White House on behalf of woman suffrage.  They were there every single day in all weather for over 15 months.  It was a silent vigil, and it was wartime.  And the women’s signs and banners became increasingly bold and provocative.  To make this happen, Paul and her co-workers recruited women from every state, designed special days for religious groups, college students, state delegations, and women with sons or husbands in the armed forces.  When off picket duty they wrote press releases, recruited for the next day or week, raised funds.  After the women began to be arrested in June of 1917 they added to their labors—meeting with attorneys, initiating court cases and appeals of their arrests, organizing prison visits by members of Congress and other dignitaries, making press contacts, organizing press conferences.  Eventually 97 of the 218 women arrested served in jail and later some of them toured the country by train as the Jail House Special, stopping to speak about suffrage, the violations of their basic rights and to arouse women to renewed effort for the cause.  Although a logistical nightmare, they pulled it all off.

One of the things the women had to organize once they began to be attacked by angry mobs of men was security.  Mostly for its oddness, I want to read a letter from an NWP member to Lucy Burns.

“Kaiser Wilson appears to be the real thing, and I am wondering if we might not use barbed wire entanglements in connection with it in order to make it difficult and even painful for the crowd to tear the banners.  The notion would be to put a border of barbed wire around the edge of the banner and then to string small barbed fish hooks on picture wire or strong string, and to conceal these strings of hooks behind the face of the banner, so that anyone grasping the banner would find his hand full of the sharp hooks.  The banner poles could be studded with tacks, driven in first and then the heads cut off, in a way as to make them cut any hands that touched them.”

This letter makes the term “militant suffragist” seem more than justified.  The suggestion was not taken, by the way.

The prodigious work of the NWP, the myriad skills they possessed, produced one of the most important and famous events in the history of American women.  There are endless examples.  It was the Women’s Political Council that was the original organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  After Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, it was they who worked all night mimeographing thousands of calls for the boycott, who organized the car pools that took boycotters to work, who were the vast majority of those attending the nightly mass meetings and who actually did the boycotting.

My own groups, Women Rising in Resistance and Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens, multi-tasked our hearts out creating an amazing production that we called “Women Take Liberty in 86.”  It was both a celebration of peace and feminist values and a counter-protest to the “official” and very nationalistic, militaristic and corporate orgy staged for the Statue’s 100th anniversary in 1986.  Our project was undertaken with equal parts passionate energy and undeniable naiveté.  Six women from Champaign, IL and St. Louis spent 18 months trying to get thousands of women from NJ and NY to descend on the statue and reclaim it for peace and women’s rights.  Little did we know that the Statue did not hold the allure or excite the interest of New York and New Jersey women that it did in six midwestern Statue of Liberty lovers (I, for instance, had collected small statuettes of Liberty since I first climbed to her crown as a girl in 1948).

About six weeks before the August date set for the event, 2 of us moved to NYC and began visiting every feminist organization and leader who would let us in the door.  We schlepped back and forth to printers (only union printers would do) and cased the island and Liberty State Park, New Jersey numerous times to work out logistics and to plan how we would drop banners from the pedestal and occupy the crown.  Once we stayed past closing to observe how National Park security operated, only to be sniffed out and ushered off the island by Park Rangers and their rotwilers.  Then there was working out transportation to move the anticipated throngs on to Liberty island, off the island and to the beautiful but hidden and inaccessible Liberty State Park, New Jersey where the evening festivities would take place.  And that was another whole production involving singers, radical feminist mimes (those were the days, we had feminist bookstores, restaurants and mimes), performance artists, musicians and speakers like Andrea Dworkin, Billie Avery, Sonia Johnson and Nikki Craft.

Which brings me seamlessly to the next set of skills, that of publicist, writer and speaker.  In the months before Women Take Liberty, we had collected the names of every feminist organization, publication, women’s studies department, progressive organization, women’s center or peace camp, priory or convent we could find, and all without Google.  And we sent out 5,000 of these flyers to get them to come.  And we distributed them at women’s meetings, conferences, and music festivals.  Here is what we wrote to entice them:

“The Statue of Liberty will be 100 years old in 1986.  It should shock no feminist that 100 years ago women were excluded ‘for their own good’ from the ceremonies dedicating the statue.  A century later we gather to demonstrate that women will not be excluded from full participation in society.  Women loving women of every race class and kind…from across the United States and around the world will gather on Sunday, August 3, 1986 to…reclaim the colossal female figure which has come to symbolize our society to people all over the world.  To dedicate Liberty to women’s creativity, growth, struggles, values and visions.”

But there was more.  We also wrote letters to the editor of the Nation and the Progressive, Off Our Backs and Lesbian Ethics and to every feminist and lesbian newsletter or publication describing the event.  We placed ads, we wrote articles.  Since our dreams were grandiose and we ended up with several hundred protestors rather than several thousand and got little media coverage (despite our 75 press packets), we also wrote reports and articles after the fact.  And we spoke and spoke and still do at women’s studies conferences and Women’s History month events to share this history and to promote the importance of direct action and dramatic protest in all movements for basic rights.

We had done the same work as publicists and writers four years earlier when a group of Champaign-Urbana Illinois women, including Berenice Carroll, my friends and co-workers who are here, Jane Mohraz and Joyce Meyer, myself and others organized an act of civil disobedience at the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois on behalf of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.  We wrote our call to action:

“When time was running out in 1908 our foremothers in the suffrage movement took direct action to bring change.  Time is running out in June, 1982 for ERA.  The spirit of our foremothers moves us to act to converge on Springfield, to confront the legislature, to commit acts of militant protest.”

We sent out hundreds of posters; spoke everywhere we could ( following the advice of Susan B who said they accepted every invitation on every topic in order to have a platform to promote their cause.

After a year of multi-tasking, on June 3, 1982, 17 of us chained ourselves together and to the doors of the Illinois Senate.  We expected to be arrested immediately but were not, so we occupied the Capitol for four days before being removed.  To our knowledge this was the first and the last time an occupation of the state capitol has happened in Illinois.  Interestingly, we believe that our action was mirrored or copied a few months later when a Welfare Rights group occupied the state house in Harrisburg, PA.  They added drama to their action by bringing electric skillets and frying chicken for the protesters, something beyond our organizational talents.

Since we were not arrested for the chain-in and unanticipated occupation, the Grassroots of Second Class Citizens went on to carry out 17 acts of civil disobedience until the June 30 ratification deadline.  In our roles as publicists and writers, we provided the national media that had flooded into Springfield to cover this national story, daily press advisories, held press conferences, went to jail and then wrote about jail, countered editorial attacks in our own editorials and letters to the editor, and prepared two court cases that resulted from our actions.

All of which segues directly into another set of skills activists practice—studying, teaching and making history.  When the Grassroots Group decided in the summer of 1981 to do civil disobedience for the ERA, it was in great part, so that history would record that women had done militant acts of protest—we were each and all very conscious that we did not want the amendment to die “not with a bang but a whimper.”  And all of us had been dismayed that no militant wing of the ERA movement had evolved as it had in the suffrage struggle.  We wanted to be a part of that wing.  Some of us were history professors and scholars, all of us were students of history.  Since we had been inspired in our political work by a cavalcade of direct actors from the past, from the American Revolution through the civil rights and anti-war movements, we wanted history to mark that the tradition continued in the contemporary feminist movement.  We hoped to inspire future generations to act as we had been inspired by our militant ancestors.

In our publicity we invoked the actions of suffragists in words and images.  In our actions we used chains as both US and British suffragists had done.  When the ERA was defeated we wrote the names of opponents, including Governor Jim Thompson, in blood, aware as we were of the powerful use of blood in the anti-Vietnam war movement.  After the events we spoke and published the story of our actions in the feminist press, academic journals and books.  For example, see Berenice Carrol’s essay, “Direct Action and Constitutional Rights: The Case of the ERA,” in Joan Hoff-Wilson’s Rights of Passage, The Past and Future of the ERA.  And to make sure that future historians would find us, we spent weeks together organizing our archives and depositing them at the Schlesinger Women’s History Library at Radcliffe/Harvard.  One of my personal missions currently is to help and support my activist sisters to get their papers deposited while still able to do it.

Women activists’ consciousness of history and their debt to it abound in the literature—both the NAWSA and the NWP staged historical pageants regularly at local, state and national meetings.  They hosted performances by women appearing as Lucretia Mott, Stanton, Anthony and others, just as contemporary feminist organizations and women’s studies departments invite Sojourner Truth, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Stanton, Anthony, Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Alice Paul today.

Knowledge of women’s history and a desire to teach it informed the 1984 action by Women Rising in Resistance at the Reagan campaign headquarters in St Louis Missouri.  We came to “celebrate women’s rights and to resist Reagan’s wrongs.”  Our press release read, “We are here today to take back power from Reagan in much the same way that the Igbo women of Nigeria confronted colonial administrators in 1929.  In that year, tens of thousands of Igbo women converged on government centers and chanted, danced, sang songs of ridicule and demanded that local administrators turn over their symbols of authority.  By re-enacting this historic event, we demonstrate our solidarity with sisters around the world who struggle for peace, justice, equality and survival.”

A final example that I want to share about activists as historians is the October, 1986 re-enactment done by Northern New Jersey NOW of a protest by the New York Women’s Suffrage Association at the original dedication of the statue in October 1886.  Because women were, with a few exceptions, excluded from the festivities, the suffrage association rented a boat, the John Lennox, to sail to the island as part of a procession of ships.  Once at the island the 200 women aboard dropped huge suffrage banners and shouted at the men through bull horns.  Later, Lillie Devereux Blake, President of the Association explained the action: “Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty.  What a monstrous absurdity…”  The recreation 100 years later made the same points—a boat sailed to the island where a small official celebration was in progress and feminists on board shouted, this time through amplified microphones, our demand for equality and the ERA.

Of course, there is a fine line between activists attempting to educate about our history by repeating actions of the past and being copy cats, especially when a re-enactment of prior events is undertaken.  And it is also difficult to ascertain whether contemporary women activists are consciously imitating an action of the past or did it unconsciously, since there is a limited repertoire of possible behaviors.  I suspect both occur regularly—both conscious imitation and serendipitous similarity.  To cite just a few examples of conscious mirroring or copying:

  1. 1) Elizabeth Cady Stanton unapologetically paraphrased the Declaration of Independence in the Declaration of Sentiments she presented to the first Women’s Right’s Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848.

  2. 2) Gandhi witnessed the actions of the Women’s Political and Social Union, the Pankhursts, in England in 1909, was in correspondence with suffrage leaders and adapted some of their strategies to his satyagraha campaign in South Africa. Later, Martin Luther King, Jr. studied Gandhi’s methods, and coming full circle, Second Wave Feminists borrowed heavily from the techniques adopted by the 50’s and 60’s civil rights movements.

  3. 3) When Susan B. Anthony voted illegally in 1872, she was following the lead of Marilyn Ricker who voted in Dover, NH in 1870 and Catherine Waite who voted the same year in Hyde Park, IL.

  4. 4) Alice Paul returned to the US from working with the Pankhursts in England and brought with her the idea of mass rallies, holding the party in power accountable, hunger strikes.

  5. 5) The women’s peace camps of the 1980’s in the US and elsewhere were copied after the Greenham Common camp in Berkshire, England.  And the Encampments Against Sexual Violence held regularly at the University of Illinois in the early 1990’s were inspired by the Bonus March of 1932 and the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, both of which involved large encampments in Washington DC.

  6. 6) And finally, perhaps the best example of women activists as both historians and copy cats, were the Women’s Studies students and professors at Sarah Lawrence, who in 1980-81 recreated a contemporary Congressional Union modeled after Alice Paul’s organization to carry out militant protest for ERA ratification.  They borrowed the CU’s colors of purple white and gold, their slogan “Deeds not Words,” their speeches and writings, and their focus on the White House.  They committed several acts of civil disobedience including an August 26, 1981, “All women are in chains” event where 21 CU women chained themselves to the White House gates blocking the driveway and chanted “Alice Paul, we are here for justice and equality.”  In the realm of history as celebrity gossip, the Fox news personality, Greta von Sustern, was their legal consultant.  On January 11, 1982 Alice Paul’s birthday, 17 were arrested in front of the White House for blocking the streets.  And on Feb. 15, Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, the Congressional Union rewrote the Constitution and climbed over the White House fence with the intention of nailing it to the door (I don’t know if they were copying Martin Luther’s real or alleged nailing of the 95 theses to the church doors at Wittenburg or not).  They made it to the porch before 25 were arrested.

I rest my case. It takes lots of skills done simultaneously to be a feminist activist.