Fight Like A Girl: How Women’s Activism Shapes History
by Alice Embree
“Fight Like a Girl” appears as a feature article in the Summer 2018 magazine, Life & Letters, a publication of the Liberal Arts College at the University of Texas at Austin. The article, written by Rachel Griess, is accompanied by a video. Life & Letters and the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas at Austin collaborated on the video.
The article grew out of a Fall 2017 History class taught by UT History Professor Laurie Green. Rag staffer Glenn Scott and I identified a list of women to contact, some far flung, most still living in Austin. Dr. Green had her students gather oral histories from these women, all involved in 60s and 70s movements and uprisings. Three of us are highlighted in the Griess article: Barbara Hines, Martha Cotera, and me. Two of us, Barbara Hines and me, were Rag staffers and participants in Austin’s women’s liberation movement. Martha Cotera is well known for her Chicana and Latina activism.
Those of us who were interviewed were invited to class presentations made by the students at an end of semester event. While, it is still somewhat difficult to accept that we are “history,” it is clear that students see us that way. Their questions and insights were as illuminating to me as my history appeared to be to them. The video includes some footage made at the class presentation and interviews with Dr. Laurie Green, the three of us featured in the magazine article, and several of the students involved in the collection of the oral histories.
The taped interviews will be transcribed and housed at the UT Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. I have been donating papers to the Sara Clark collection there as well, and encourage others with 60s and 70s material to do the same.
The video incorporates photographs of documentary genius and former Rag staffer Alan Pogue. The class relied on the book, Celebrating The Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper, edited by Thorne Dreyer, Alice Embree, and Richard Croxdale as source material. Published in 2016, the book continues to be cited as a unique deep dive into the history bracketed by the life of The Rag, 1966-1977.
by Alice Embree
The Feminist Action Committee of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) showed the film, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” last night in Austin. We were raising funds for abortion access — for the Lilith Fund and for Frontera Fund. I wanted to share comments I made after the film, reflections on the women’s liberation movement of the 70s and on the challenges of today.
I remember the consciousness raising rooms with women talking in 1970, electricity in the air. We were beautiful. I remember the moments when someone would say, “That happened to me.” And someone else would say, “Me, too.” When we realized that we faced barriers as women that we hadn’t even seen before. When we realized that women’s voices were frequently silent in rooms that included men, even in rooms full of radicals intent on ending the war. Women typed the leaflets; we didn’t give the speeches. We rarely stepped up into leadership until women’s liberation came along.
Our self-discovery required us to learn from each other, tell our own stories, hear our sisters’ stories. That’s how we began to connect the dots and understand that a system of patriarchy had molded our ideas of what was possible. We intended to break down those barriers.
When I met Glenn Scott, now co-chair of Austin’s DSA chapter, I was in a group called Austin Women Workers. Here’s what our leaflet said in 1975:
We are all workers although some of us are in the role of unpaid mothers and housekeepers.
We know that the struggle for women’s liberation is a revolutionary struggle because the realization of our demands will bring about a basic transformation in our society. We cannot settle for less than the possibility of engaging in meaningful and creative activity: the opportunity to develop… skills…; adequate compensation…; free, loving care for children; control over the reproductive processes; sexual self-determination for all women and especially for lesbians; the development of personal relationships based on mutual responsibility; and the power to make decisions about all areas of our lives…
We also know that the liberation of women will not occur until all people are free. We do not intend to gain a greater degree of independence at the expense of other oppressed people. Therefore, we struggle against all forms of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. Our most important work is the creation of a society in which every person is provided with the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter; every person participates in the decision-making process; and every person is able to expand his or her consciousness to the fullest extent.
As part of the 70s Women’s Liberation Movement we began to knock down employment barriers in Austin, demand birth control choices, challenge abortion laws, organize rape crisis centers and speak out against domestic abuse. Soon, many of us had children while holding down full time jobs. We scrambled for child care and summer camps. Betty Friedan had framed a question in 1963 in The Feminine Mystique written from her suburban vantage point, “Is this all there is?” For most of us in the 80s, it was more like, “Isn’t this too much?”
The point of a socialist analysis is “yes, it is too much.” To expect women to work at lower wages, often taking on the major responsibilities of childcare and elder care in families. With skyrocketing childcare costs, hit or miss health care, even sales taxes on tampons. Yes, it is too much.
The imprint of our work in women’s liberation many decades ago can be seen now in DSA.
In our DSA Feminist Action Committee, we look at intersectionality of oppression – a big word way of saying that oppression can take many forms – class, race, gender identity, citizen status to name a few. We know we can’t understand class without understanding race. We can’t only look at patriarchy without understanding how it intersects with capitalism. In DSA, our organization reminds us to Step Up if you haven’t spoken, to Step Back if you have already spoken. We use something called Progressive Stack in discussions to amplify the voices of women, people of color, and queers.
When we organize for Medicare For All, we know that is a feminist issue. When we win a Paid Sick Days Ordinance, we know that is for women, and for their children. Reproductive justice is a socialist issue. Poverty is a feminist issue. Capitalism has rewarded the few and failed to deliver on basic needs for the many. Patriarchal privilege has warped our culture and our choices as women. As Socialist Feminists, we intend to break down barriers and transform our society in revolutionary ways by fighting for democratic socialism.
by Alice Embree
Red River Women’s Press in Austin, Texas, was run by a collective of women printers, designers and artists. Producing leaflets for the vibrant Austin resistance movement in the late 70s, the press was also known for stunning silk screened posters. A gallery of those posters are shown here.
Justicia en el Campo, supporting the Texas Farmworkers, was produced in 1977. The poster was designed by Kandy Littrell and Nancy Simons.
Four posters designed by Carlos Lowry were printed at the press for the Austin Committee for Human Rights in Chile, a solidarity organization that sponsored activities in Austin for more than a decade during the military dictatorship in Chile. These were: The Battle of Chile showing at the Paramount Theatre, September 10, 1977; Inti-Illimani in concert at the Armadillo World Headquarters, April 23, 1978; Quilapayun in concert at the Armadillo World Headquarters, February 22, 1979; and Inti-Illimani in concert at the University of Texas Hogg Auditorium, April 13, 1980, appearing with an opening act by Conjunto Aztlan.
The poster featuring Anita Bryant, was created by the Red River Women’s Press Collective for a Festival of Life, a counter protest to Bryant’s anti-gay message, held at Auditorium Shores, May 7, 1979.
The poster about the Austin Boat Races, Make This Boat Race the Last Boat Race, publicized the demonstrations to defend Austin’s barrio, August 12 and 13, 1978. The illustration shows Brown Beret leader Paul Hernandez being taking into police custody.
A poster about Lolita Lebron featured a poem by JoAnn Mulert. The Oakland Museum of Art has this poster in their collection.
[The 1976 Rag newspaper cover shown above celebrates International Women’s Day.]
by Alice Embree
August 25, 2017
Is sex better under socialism? Apparently, according to an August 12, 2017 New York Times opinion piece. Did women from the United States find fulfillment in revolutionary Russia? Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia makes that case. As socialism continues to gain traction with millennials, it may be time to consider what that can mean in the bedrooms as well as in the body politic.
“Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” was a theme of the 60s rebellion. After all, the Baby Boomers came of age when birth control pills did. Then women’s liberation added an entirely new spin to sexual liberation.
Women’s consciousness-raising groups began reading the revelatory pamphlet, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” Feminists in the Boston Women’s Health Collective and the Women’s Health Organization in Austin informed women about their bodies from a woman’s perspective. In 1973, the Roe v. Wade case legalized abortion. The Gay Liberation movement brought same sex relationships out into the open.
Sexual pleasure outside of marriage and procreation has always rankled the religious right. Anita Bryant brought her rant about homosexuality to Austin in 1977, drawing a large counter protest on Auditorium Shores. We still are fending off bathroom bills in 2017 and trying to keep Planned Parenthood from becoming extinct.
At the rate things are going, it may take revolution to gain reproductive justice – decent sex education, family planning, abortion rights, pre-natal care, post-natal care, and child-care. Addressing the structural inequities, particularly for women of color, to reproductive healthcare will demand far more from all of us than defending legalized abortion. Does it require socialism?
Women born slightly before the raucous Baby Boom found themselves in the 60s with less “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” and more diapers, baby rattles, and Dr. Spock (the pediatrician who wrote the Bible on childcare during that era). For those women in 1963, Betty Friedan posed a question in The Feminine Mystique, “Is this all?”
The question has a quaint, middle-class Leave it to Beaver feel in today’s world. Friedan was speaking as a woman of privilege about the isolation of motherhood in suburbia. Her comments resonated among many women who helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW).
But, for those of us who began to knock open employment doors for women in the 70s, we faced an entirely different question when we had children. The question was: “Isn’t this too much?”
The scramble to work full time and negotiate lives around childcare schedules, afterschool programs and summer camps was, in fact, daunting. And what we faced in the 80s seems quaint now. Childcare costs alone have tripled.
In what we called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 70s, we envisioned a world in which women’s work outside the home would benefit everyone. There would be shared responsibilities at home, shorter workweeks, time to relax and even time for sex.
We envisioned a quality childcare system that would be affordable and accessible. In a forgotten footnote to history, the U.S. Congress passed a Comprehensive Child Development Bill, aimed at universal childcare in 1971. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing against a communal approach to child-rearing that would weaken family life.
Our vision ran contrary to the capitalist vision. As women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 70s, employers found a way to use the expanded labor force to flatten wages and work families to the breaking point. Middle class aspirations began to require dual incomes. Single parents frequently worked more than one job to make ends meet.
This is where life under socialism provides an important contrast.
Kristen R. Ghodsee’s piece, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism” appeared in the August 12, 2017 New York Times. She writes:
“Some might remember that Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care. But there’s one advantage that has received little attention: Women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure.
A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.”
Ghodsee quotes a 65-year-old Bulgarian woman who worries about her daughter born in the late 70s:
“’All she does is work and work,’ Ms. Durheva told me in 2013, ‘and when she comes home at night she is too tired to be with her husband. But it doesn’t matter, because he is tired, too. They sit together in front of the television like zombies. When I was her age, we had much more fun.’”
The same New York Times article tells the story from the perspective of a German woman in her 30s, responding to her mother’s pressure to have a baby,
“She doesn’t’ understand how much harder it is now – it was so easy for women before the wall fall [referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989], They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
While Ghodsee draws a comparison between East Germany and West Germany, University of Texas professor Julia Mickenberg shines light on the motivations that propelled women from the United States to Russia after the 1917 revolution. Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia describes what Russia had to offer.
Russia had granted suffrage to women in 1917, three years before women in the United States got the right to vote. Furthermore, a new Family Code legalized divorce, allowed women to own property, eliminated the category of illegitimate children, and made family leave available. (Did you hear that last one, Ivanka Trump? One century earlier!) There were publicly funded child-care centers, public laundries, and cafeterias that made working outside the home easier to integrate with family life.
U.S. women seeking adventure found a range of possibilities in revolutionary Russia — working in factories and agricultural collectives, editing newspapers, and contributing to the cultural renaissance in dance and film.
Mickenberg’s writing reveals a story rarely told, a U.S. exile community similar to the one that thrived in Paris. It is not the more familiar story of Ernest Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, but the story of women attracted to the revolutionary frontier of Red Russia.
In 1934, African American actress, Frances E. Williams, visited Russia drawn to opportunities in film and theater. Her impression of childcare and college without debt has a current resonance. Mickenberg writes:
“Because her mother had worked since the age of five as a laundress, Frances E. Williams found Soviet attention to children profoundly moving: ‘Schools were available for your children, even nursery schools or pre-primary things were planned so that they were near, if you worked in a factory or wherever you worked… And you didn’t have to again hoard your money and know all the right people to get your children into college and be in debt all your life.’”
It is now 2017, 100 years after the Russian revolution. Many of us in the United States have been inspired, as some of us were in the 70s, by the vision of democratic socialism.
When 13 men huddled in the U.S. Senate to concoct a healthcare bill that, among other things, would eviscerate Planned Parenthood, opponents didn’t just say, “No!” They began to demand universal health care. To this demand, we must add many others.
For women, for families, for children, for everyone, we need universal health care that provides for all aspects of reproductive health. And, we should add demands for paid family leave and universal childcare. With the present in dire straits, it is definitely time to re-imagine the future.
The New York Times article skips from a study on orgasms to the societal support systems that made life easier for women in East Germany. Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia gives a more nuanced view of women’s experience in revolutionary Russia – exploring affairs of the heart as well as those of the collective.
Let no one doubt that revolutionary fervor is a powerful aphrodisiac. It can provide the spark, but that spark needs to be nurtured. Societal support systems don’t sound quite so sexy– family leave, universal child care – but they can be quite exciting when they translate into less stress and more time.
By Alice Embree | The Rag Blog | March 5, 2012
SAN ANTONIO — For the third year I traveled south from Austin to San Antonio to take part in their International Women’s Day march with others from CodePink Austin. It was the twenty-second annual Women’s Day celebration in that city, which has kept the faith better than any city I know of.
The march did not disappoint. A blustery wind whipped against our banner, “Women Say No to War,” when we left from the Grand Hyatt on Saturday, March 3. But the wind died down as we made the now familiar trek to Milam Park and the Plaza del Zacate. CodePink Austin invoked various “Supershero powers” as the contingent marched in costumes, adorned with capes and crowns, and accompanied by a prison-garbed and shackled “war criminal.”
The International Women’s Day celebration was organized by a coalition of “fierce mujeres” from community and social justice organizations — union organizers for nurses, hotel workers, and domestic workers, advocates for reproductive choice and LGBTQ rights.
Graciela Sanchez of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, her mother, Isabel Sanchez, two women from Fuerza Unida, and a former councilwoman carried the leadoff banner for the march. Other banners and signs displayed the diversity of causes and issues, calling for an end to NAFTA and to war, defending immigrant rights and decrying the border wall.
The generations ranged from Girl Scout participants and the youth of the Martinez Street Women’s Center to the elders like Graciela Sanchez who have kept this tradition alive for more than two decades. Indigenous dancers and a calavera (skeleton) -clad duo were reminders of the Native American and Mexican ancestry of South Texas.
San Antonio displayed once again its ease with crossing boundaries of race, age, class, national origin, and sexual orientation. The call for the march proclaimed:
We, like women and girls all over the world, are the voices of conscience, the roots of change, and the leaders of local and global movements. We seek healthcare, housing, education, environmental justice, and fair wages, not just as women, but also as people of color, as youth and elders, as immigrants and indigenous people, as lesbian, bisexual, intersex, two-spirit, transgender, and queer women, and as poor and working class people.
We oppose all forms of violence. We advocate for reproductive choice. We call for an end to war, genocide, and occupation. We claim our own voices and come together to share them in public space. We march in solidarity with women and social justice movements around the world.
I hope that we in Austin will again see such a diverse coalition of fierce women. As the Republican primary candidates attempt to dial us back to the 50s, as women’s basic healthcare comes under attack, as women are advised to “hold an aspirin between their knees” as cheap birth control, as Rush Limbaugh hurls accusations of “slut” and “prostitute” at a college student defending access to birth control, the need for outrage and ferocity grows.
Austin musician Marcia Ball is “seeing red” and calling for women (and men) to join her wearing red on the Capitol steps each of the next three Tuesdays — March 6, 13, and 20 — from noon until 2 p.m. On March 9 at 7 p.m., a presentation at Austin’s feminist bookstore, BookWoman, will remind us of the beginnings of the women’s movement, with clips from an upcoming movie, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.
Time to let the rage out of the bottle, sisters. I guess it’s the only thing Rush and the two Ricks can understand.
[Alice Embree is a long-time Austin activist, organizer, and member of the Texas State Employees Union. A former staff member of underground papers, The Rag in Austin and RAT in New York, and a veteran of SDS and the women’s liberation movement, she is now active with CodePink Austin and Under the Hood Café. Embree is a contributing editor to The Rag Blog and is treasurer of the New Journalism Project.]