Grassroots A Field Guide for Feminist Activism

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2005-01-12
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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From the authors of Manifesta, an activism handbook that illustrates how to truly make the personal political. Grassrootsis an activism handbook for social justice. Aimed at everyone from students to professionals, stay-at-home moms to artists,Grassrootsanswers the perennial question: What can I do? Whether you are concerned about the environment, human rights violations in Tibet, campus sexual assault policies, sweatshop labor, gay marriage, or the ongoing repercussions from 9-11, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards believe that we all have something to offer in the fight against injustice. Based on the authors' own experiences, and the stories of both the large number of activists they work with as well as the countless everyday people they have encountered over the years,Grassrootsencourages people to move beyond the "generic three" (check writing, calling congresspeople, and volunteering) and make a difference with clear guidelines and models for activism. The authors draw heavily on individual stories as examples, inspiring readers to recognize the tools right in front of them--be it the office copier or the family living room--in order to make change. Activism is accessible to all, andGrassrootsshows how anyone, no matter how much or little time they have to offer, can create a world that more clearly reflects their values.

Author Biography

Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards are the co-authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (FSG, 2000) as well as co-founders of the progressive speakers' bureau Soapbox.

Table of Contents

Prologue : portrait of an activist
Why the world needs another advice bookp. 3
Of minor importancep. 25
Rebels with causesp. 53
The real worldp. 91
The activist at workp. 127
Creating activismp. 155
The revolutionary next doorp. 179
Epilogue : a day in the life of an activistp. 203
A glossary of the most common forms of activismp. 221
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.


chapter 1
Why the World Needs Another Advice Book
"How do we bring attention to [an] issue and make change, not just discuss it, not just march about it, but make change?"
--Ruby Dee, actor and activist
In 2002, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who believes in the bottom line, slashed recycling in America's most densely populated city. The mayor's office claimed it could save $40 million in crew and export costs. True or not, the city has 8 million citizens, many of whom buy several liters of coffee in paper cups and ask for it in a bag with seventeen napkins and four individual sugar packets--every day.Thus our city's contribution to the world's garbage problem is indisputably significant. Recycling was our one bit of moral credit, not to mention it keptus from drowning in Starbucks frappuccino cups and Glacéau Vitamin Water bottles. In a mere month, a ten-year process of training New Yorkers in garbage-sorting behavior was demolished. Standing in our tiny New York City kitchenettes tossing pounds of recyclables into the trash made us realize how much we waste--and how necessary the recycling program really was.
Soon many people were angry with Bloomberg and so eager to have the service back that some were willing to pay for it, and most assumed that somebody else (Giuliani? Nader? Oprah?) would soon be informing us of the new strategy. The two of us also waited for someone else to have a plan. And waited, and waited. Then we realized that we weren't practicing what we preached unless we took some action ourselves. We called a colleague whose family started the garbage removal company BFI (yes, it's helpful as an activist to have a wide variety of friends) and attempted to tackle the recycling problem ourselves.
One solution immediately jumped into our heads: Since many of our friends said they were willing to pay for the service of recycling, why not research how much it would cost to have private contractors pick up recycling? We knew this was how other places, such as Marin County, California, dealt with their recyclables. On another track, we noticed that homeless people have always acted as de facto recyclers in the city, returning cans and bottles to grocery stores for the five-cent deposits. The fact that the garbage was no longer sorted impeded their efforts to gather cans and bottles for deposits. As a stopgap solution, perhaps we could amplify the work of the homeless who recycle to make an income. We envisioned placing giant bins outside grocery stores and on street corners as drop-off centers forcans and bottles. Then homeless people or other can collectors could return them for the deposit.
We began gathering information. As so often happens, we started with strong assumptions about what was going on, which turned out to not be nourished by facts. We placed a call to the city's Department of Sanitation and were connected with Kathy Dawkins, their PR person. That one call yielded this important fact: recycling wasn'tabolished,as we had thought, but merely scaled back. Plastics and glass were no longer considered recyclables, but aluminum cans, newspapers, and cardboard boxes were. Furthermore, businesses in New York were still mandated by law to recycle, a service they paid for out of pocket. Knowing that recycling was technically still in place made us even more depressed since that fact wasn't being publicized. We became obnoxious, seething at our neighbors for throwing away their cat food cans, returnable bottles, and magazines.
Our approach was shaping up to be a full-time job, including private contractors, public education, and homeless outreach. This moonlighting couldn't pay the bills, so we decided that if we could mobilize our own neighborhood, that would be a start. We reached out to our local city council representative, Margarita Lopez, who, as a vocal "out" lesbian council member, is known for being radically progressive. Our interns, Liz and Anna, called her office--many times--but never received a response to our request for a meeting. One day we just walked over to the office, knocked on the door, and were able to get an appointment to meet with the councilwoman for the next week. From this we learned that when at first you don't succeed, make a house call.
At the meeting, we learned that we were right about herbeing an ally: she was the only city councilperson (of fifty-one members) to vote against the reduction in recycling. She pointed out how lucrative recycling could be and, if done correctly, the city should have a vested interest in maintaining it. Further, the program in New York wasn't actually in the red. "Even with losing money from glass and plastic," Lopez told us, "the city was making money from recycling," a point that had been kept from the council members until after they voted. We told Lopez of our desire to get our neighbors to subsidize curbside recycling, which she promptly shot down. "I represent a poor district," she said. "And having your garbage and recycling picked up is a basic service that citizens deserve." Lopez characterized the service as an equalizer--"whether you are rich or poor, your garbage is picked up." Although, at the time, it was thelackof recycling we were sharing equally, her point was well taken.
We left the chaotic but productive meeting, jettisoning the idea of paying for pickup, but with a plan to move ahead with public education and getting returnables out of the trash and into the hands of can and bottle collectors. Lopez also encouraged us to call the council member in charge of sanitation.
Ideally, we wanted a homeless organization to work with us. So we pursued a meeting with the outreach coordinator for the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), only to learn that they could not help us with our project for two reasons. First, people who go to shelters (mainly families) don't tend to be the same people who collect cans. Second, NCH prioritizes direct services for homeless families, from providing clothes and food to finding permanent housing. Recycling was not on the list.
The coordinator told us about WE CAN, a redemptioncenter in midtown that serves the poor and homeless who collect cans and bottles to support themselves. WE CAN has paid more than $30 million in rebates since it began in 1987. Some collectors even make a decent living. According to an article inThe New York Times,one man who collects cans full-time made more than $35,000 a year in income. When Liz and Anna called the founder of the organization, Guy Polhemus, he said that "it wasn't a good day to talk," because they were getting evicted.1 It turned out that Christine Quinn, that district's usually progressive councilwoman, didn't want WE CAN there since it primarily served homeless people who, being homeless, don't have access to bathrooms and often use the neighborhood as a rustic latrine.
With WE CAN too beleaguered to help, we moved on to phoning the councilman in charge of sanitation. We assumed his office would be hostile to our calls or he would put us off as our councilwoman's office did initially, but we were wrong. Counsel to the NYC council committee on sanitation, Carmen Cognetta, called us back immediately and set up a meeting for the following Friday.
Cognetta was pro-recycling and seemed pretty shocked that there hadn't been more outcry from New Yorkers when the service was reduced. We said there had been--even the volunteers in Margarita Lopez's office were complaining about how dispiriting it was to throw away soda bottles. People just didn't know they had to direct their dissatisfaction at the Department of Sanitation rather than at each other.
Amy asked how New York City could get away with not recycling given the state law requiring it. "The law statesthat you only have to recycle if there is an economic market associated with it," said Cognetta. From him, we learned that the scaling back of recycling had been a disaster, even economically. One of the justifications for cutting back recycling had been the assumption that it would reduce the number of truck shifts the city had to pay for. But with more waste being generated each day, they had to add just as many shifts to pick up the extra garbage.
We also discovered that paper is always profitable because you can mix all sorts of paper together, plastic is less profitable, and all of those glass beer, tea, and wine bottles are a nightmare. In New York, paper is particularly viable because it goes directly to a pulping company, Visy, which pays the city $20 or $30 a ton. The problem with plastic and glass was twofold. First, the city had to pay a middle man to have plastic and glass picked up, who then sold it to recyclers--so the city saw no profit, whereas the contractor profited twice. Second, both substances were hard to clean well enough to meet industry standards for reuse. "Glass especially is very difficult to recycle: it breaks, the colors mix, and that mixed-color glass is not reusable," Cognetta told us. The main use for recycled glass is fiberglass landfill covers. (Ironically, the less we recycle, the more need we will create for recycled glass's most popular product.)
Glass is also incredibly cheap to produce, he continued, given that it's manufactured from sand, which is plentiful. It costs less to make bottles than to recycle what we have already used. While we mentally tallied all of the glass waste we had created in our lives, Cognetta told us about two forward-thinking plans to deal with the glass issue. Recycle America Alliance, a division of the garbage behemoth Waste Management, worked with the Gallo wine company to develop a glass that uses all three colors (green, clear, and brown).Across the Atlantic, Germany has instituted a fifty-cent deposit on every bottle sold, so that it is not economically feasible to simply treat glass as disposable.
Since there was so much confusion about what could be recycled and whether there was economic incentive to do so, we determined that public education was the most pressing issue. Cognetta said that changing behavior required constant education (TV advertising, subway posters, and radio announcements, to name a few), but in New York, the media market is so outrageously expensive that only cheap PSA spots in the middle of the night are affordable. Meanwhile, you don't want to make tons of posters and booklets for a recycling campaign--all of that trash defeats the purpose. Cognetta showed us the material the Department of Sanitation created for schools--we were impressed that they had them--but they were encased in three-ring plastic binders and the city had no idea how or if the materials were being used. The one staffer in charge of bringing the recycling message to the city's public schools had been laid off.
Then, as we were formulating a public education campaign, plastic recycling was reinstated after the city received a financially viable offer from a recycler. A year and a half later, glass was phased back in. We didn't come close to resolving the city's recycling issues, but we did accomplish a few things.
1.We learned that many public servants were available to us as citizens, from our city council member to counsel for the committee on sanitation. (Don't Be Afraid to Pick Up the Phone.)
2.We learned how much we didn't understand about recycling, from the fact that recycling bottles doesn't domuch for the environment to the fact that New York City technically hadn't stopped recycling. (Challenge Assumptions. Don't Believe Everything You Hear.)
3.We learned that we shouldn't ask people to pay for recycling, because it's a basic public service. (Don't Provide to the Few What the Government Should Provide to the Many--You Only Siphon Off Those Who Are Most Likely to Pressure for Change.)
4.We learned about WE CAN and other social service agencies as well as homeless or low-income individuals who act as recyclers. (Align with Complementary Activists.)
5.Most important, we learned how to change our own personal stake in recycling. We both began returning beer bottles to the corner stores in order to get our five-cent deposits after we learned that millions of dollars in deposit nickels go uncollected by consumers and retail businesses get to keep this as pure profit. (Change Your Own Behavior Before Demanding Changes of Others.)
As we poked around our city's garbage issue, we were able to speak with more authority to our friends and community, and move beyond just complaining that our feckless mayor dismantled the panacea of recycling. The moral: trying projects, even if they don't work out, has more activist value than doing nothing.
I just finished reading Eve Ensler'sThe VaginaMonologuesand I have to say that I've been inspired. Ever since I can remember, I have always felt unique for being a woman and if I can feel that way so can ALL women. I want to help the women in my community in any way I can but since I'monly 17 and don't really have any money to donate, I was hoping you could give me advice on what I can do to help out.
--Sarah Rocha Bakersfield, California
The above e-mail is a typical request, in its urgency, sincerity--and in its vagueness. It happens to be from Ask Amy, Amy's online activist advice column. But we hear questions just like this all the time. We hear it when we speak at colleges and students raise their hands and ask, "Do you have advice for getting involved?" We hear it when we are on radio shows and stay-at-home moms call in to ask how to connect with other feminist-minded mothers. We hear it when we are at dinner parties and investment banker friends say that they want to do something besides push paper for Citibank. We hear it from professors, retired CEOs, privileged high-school students on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and crunchy college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Like Sarah, everyone wants to know "What can I do?"
Traveling around the country, we learned how hungry people were for ways to change the injustice they found in their midst. They wanted to be heard and visible. It was a universal need, not just an interest of the marginalized people and do-gooders presumed to attend feminist events. Sometimes questions were more urgent in specific regions--such as people in Portland, Oregon, talking about transgenderism and students in Indiana, Pennsylvania, talking about women in the military. Regardless of the issue at hand, we were always brought back to passionate conversations about activism. People didn't dwell on "What do you think?" for long; they were dying to know "What can I do?"
September 11 underscored that most people--not only self-identified "activists"--wanted to help when faced with injustice. Among the many poignant responses to that tragedy was the sheer number of people stepping forward to contribute. People lined up at blood banks and hospitals in droves. Hundreds of non-Arabs turned up at the Arab-American Center in Brooklyn to escort Muslim kids to school and women in hijabs to the grocery store. Schoolchildren painted murals. Thousands of people donated food and local chefs from Manhattan's best restaurants set up kitchens on boats to feed the rescue workers. New Yorkers were shocked by the support and sympathy they received in their time of need. Sadly, though, much of the millions of dollars the American Red Cross collected at groceries and schools across the country ended up in the hands of wealthy New Yorkers. Even when would-be activists were activated, the institutions they turned to often let them down.
The frustration we were witnessing at our lectures could be heard by anyone who was willing to listen. When Julianne Malveaux criss-crossed the country promotingUnfinished Business: A Democrat and a Republican Take on the 10 Most Important Issues Women Face(with co-author, Republican Deborah Perry), she heard the rumble. "Regardless of whether our listeners [were] mostly Democratic or mostly Republican, mostly black or mostly white, one of the first questions [would] always come from a young woman who want[ed] to know how she [could] get involved in social change," Malveaux stated. Barbara Ehrenreich had a similar experience as she promotedNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,her best-selling book detailing the plight of the country's working poor. As she told theDemocratic Left,the newsletter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the top question she got after the publication of the book was "Whatcan I do about it?" Social justice organizations, too, were haunted by this question. At Planned Parenthood New York City alone, they field one hundred calls every week from citizens outraged enough by that week's news to pick up the phone and become part of pro-choice forces.
Given the vast number of pleas to get involved, why don't we have a totally activist, voting, engaged citizenry? Why do so many issues remain unsolved? Why do shelters have to turn homeless people away and why don't more women hold political office? Where is the disconnect between these would-be revolutionaries and the pressing issues? We believe that the problem lies in how the question "What can I do?" is answered. Too often the response is what we've labeled The Generic Three: "call your politician," "donate money," and "volunteer."Grassrootsis our attempt to move beyond these knee-jerk, minimally effective answers. We believe that in order to maximize this passion, we must have better, more specific, andactiveanswers to the question "What can I do?"
Good answers might come from revisiting John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural quote: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Many older folks say that the last time they felt hope was during the Kennedy era. Perhaps it was Kennedy's message--citizens don't need to wait for their country to save them; they have the power to save themselves and their country--that gave them such hope.
Don't get us wrong: participation via contacting politicians, making donations, and doing volunteer work is all very crucial to the life of social justice organizations. These types of contributions give organizations the power to influence others. But it is also a one-sided relationship that encourages passivity in the would-be activists. The act is isolatedfrom the larger world of direct action and solutions, which makes the individual often doubt whether his or her check or letter was effective. You know you gave $20 to Stop Hunger Now, but there are still people who don't have enough to eat.
The questions are basic and general, but the answers--the activism--can'tbe. Two stellar organizations, Dress for Success and Women on Waves, each began with one person identifying a problem--women on welfare don't have clothes to wear to job interviews and women in many countries don't have access to abortion. The people asking those questions--Nancy Lublin and Rebecca Gomperts, respectively--were reasonably average citizens whose sphere of influence was no greater than yours or ours. Nancy created a way to get suits to women, and Rebecca, a doctor, bought a boat to perform abortions in international waters.
Although the two of us are both longtime organizers and supporters of progressive nonprofits, we didn't really notice this lack of good answers until around 2000. We had just published our first book,Manifesta,to acknowledge the feminism and the activism that we saw among our peers every day.Manifestawas a response to the assumption that our generation was slack and had a dangerous sense of entitlement when it came to feminism--that we were too self-involved to care. We presented numerous real-life examples of young people acting on behalf of themselves and their community. We were surprised and heartened that the most popular sections were "What Is Activism?" and the resource guide that made up the last eighty pages, includingcontact information for every organization mentioned in the book. Even the feminists and academics who criticized us for our lack of Marxist analysis or relative naivete about transgenderism had to keep our book around because their students wanted the resources. It was our goal that people useManifesta,to encourage the reader to make feminism his or her own, rather than simply complain that feminism didn't sufficiently address sweatshop laborers, for example. Usefulness is not the usual mode of political writing, but we took this extra step because we noticed that even a very accurate book with activist theories could drop the ball on providing solutions--to the detriment of social justice. For instance, Naomi Klein's insightful and well-reported bookNo Logotakes readers through a cornucopia of obscene corporate misdeeds. At the end of the book the reader is left outraged but still thinking "Nowwhat can I do?" with no direction in sight. (Kleindoeshave a resource-rich Web site at nologo.org.)
AlthoughManifestawas a call to action, we were nonetheless surprised at the number of people who turned to us for guidance in that endeavor. "What can I do?" became the big question of the years we spent touring withManifesta.Sometimes the question was born of privilege: "How can I use my college education or my trust fund, or the fact that I've never gone hungry to help others who are?" Just as often, it was an urgent personal need: "I work at Sammy's Clam Shack and I'm five months pregnant. My boss says he'll fire me if I try to take maternity leave. What can I do?" At first we tried to arm ourselves with possible suggestions. Before arriving in a new town, we made sure to contact the local Planned Parenthood or independent bookstore to learn what they had going on so we would have something to offer when the question inevitably arose. Soon, however, it became apparentthat the groups we referred people to didn'treallyhave an answer. They still relied on The Generic Three. What people needed were tangible and specific steps, not boilerplate platitudes to "do something." Clearly, the organizations needed better answers, too.
Initially, Amy started toying with the idea of forming an activist idea bank housed at the Third Wave Foundation: a "place" where people could deposit their good ideas for others to borrow. Then, as we began to offer more detailed solutions to people's problems, Jennifer realized that some of our presumed-brilliant activist ideas hadn't exactly been tested. We didn't know where the snags might lie or what to do about them when they arose. For instance, is it legal to do voter registration in an abortion clinic in Iowa (one of our suggestions for using clinics as organizing spaces)? What happens if you call Loews Theater and ask them to donate twenty tickets a month to a local battered women's shelter? (Whomdo you even call at Loews?) We decided to work one-on-one with the people we met in our travels. We found out what issues they cared about--for some it was getting studio art classes in their high school, for others it was getting dioxins out of the rivers, and for others it was protesting a sexist ad. We helped them figure out what resources they already had--a full Rolodex, or money, or an office with a new photocopying machine, or a big conference room. If they were seasoned organizers, we asked what worked for them in the past. We listened to their organizing problems and brainstormed different approaches.Grassrootswas born. Persistence paid off: these activists stuck with their idea, and now each has contributed to changing the lives of many others.
Looking at the people who have contacted us, it is clearthat individuals, just like Lublin and Gomperts, are spurred to action because they have confronted injustice in their own lives. It begins by taking seriously what otherwise could be passed off as a personal frustration: the teenager, for instance, who is outraged when she hears that one can enter a secret code on Play Station's Tomb Raider and watch Lara Croft get gang-raped and doesn't know how to find out if it's true and what to do if it is. Or the woman in Texas who gets married and changes her name for $31 (the cost of a marriage license) but must pay $450 to petition the court and hire legal counsel to undertake her case when she decides to change her name back. Or the historian from Southern Oregon University who, while doing research using census data, learns that the census doesn't allow women to be traced by their maiden names, thus preventing him from documenting women over the course of their lives.
There is probably no more impassioned an activist than a victim who has healed from a trauma such as rape or incest and now, several years after the incident, has the perspective and insight to act on the issue. The actress Anne Heche, for instance, was sexually abused as a child, but it wasn't until she was already a well-known actress that she dealt with her past, raised her consciousness about the prevalence of incest, and committed to join the movement to end childhood sexual abuse. (As a public figure, one of the most influential things she can do is to speak out about her own experience.)
Sometimes a step toward activism is, in fact, to reveal what makes us insecure. It could be your transgendered father, your alcoholism, the fact that you have acne, or that you are or were once poor. A woman we met at a Planned Parenthood conference in Philadelphia admitted that shedidn't have any sense of urgency for the rights of disabled people before she had her legs cut off in a car accident several years ago. Until recently, she had the privilege of being ignorant about accessibility. She is now a fierce activist for the rights of people with disabilities and a great bridge between the disabled and able-bodied communities. Acknowledging vulnerability not only gives you a reason to be an activist; it releases you to join a community of people who may have issues to resolve as well. You can fight together.
Taking action can be a brief moment in your day: Jennifer Locke wrote to us from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wanting to raise public awareness about the two rock radio stations in her city that were marketed entirely to a male demographic. "I love rock music," she wrote. "Radio should not be so degrading for a woman that she has to only listen to CDs." She e-mailed both station managers and asked if there was any way she could convince them that their female listeners are just as important as their male listeners.
Or it can be a years-long endeavor: Brenda Gillming, from Owasso, Oklahoma, used to be a poultry factory worker. She had the lowest position in her department--"floor person"--which consisted of picking up chickens that have fallen off the conveyor, washing them, and placing them back on the belt for packaging. Brenda brought a sexual harassment suit against Simmons Industries in the early 1990s after years of being called "floor dog" and pelted with meat by her male co-workers. She sought two things with her suit: for a sexual harassment policy to be formed and for it to be enforced. "It took so much from me and lasted about three years till all [was] said and done," Brenda wrote, "but I'm glad I stood up for my rights and also for all women in the future."
Often "What can I do?" means taking a good look at what resources you already have and committing to using them. After September 11, Julia Pershan noticed a sign on one of the businesses on her block in TriBeCa, a neighborhood just north of Ground Zero. Directed at local business owners, the sign simply stated: "Should we get together?" Though Julia was not a business owner, but a recent business school graduate, she attended the meeting. At Julia's suggestion, they decided to form a coalition--the Tribeca Organization--with the express purpose of preserving area business during this catastrophic time. They raised money to take out an ad inThe New York Timesthat made the connection between patronizing TriBeCa and rebuilding New York. They offered incentives, such as a weekend where everything was 10 percent off in the neighborhood, and agreed to defy typical capitalist rules of competition and cooperate. What made the difference between Julia and others in TriBeCa who felt helpless and worried is that she turned the question on herself and asked, "What can I do?" What she could do was use her business degree, use the fact that she had just graduated and didn't yet have a full-time job, and use her neighborhood connections to strengthen the economic foundation shaken by the terrorist attacks.
We didn't always think that we were qualified to help those who wanted to get more involved. WithManifesta, though, we came into our own--and got the confidence to answer questions about feminism. Our qualification was that wetook the initiative. We were as entitled as the next person to do our homework and present a perspective. And a necessary part of that perspective involves an understanding of women's struggle for equality. Now, we lecture frequently on the topics of feminism and activism. We begin our talks with a thumbnail sketch of the last 160 years of feminism in America. Knowing that this activist history exists and that others have turned their idea or thought into a piece of legislation, an organization, or a changed attitude had proved to be inspiring, thus we've included that history lesson here.
To begin with, a definition: feminism is the movement toward full political, economic, and social equality for men and women. We add to that simple definition that feminism implies having enough access to information to make informed choices about one's life. Therefore, it's not so much the choice you make that reflects feminism, but your power to make a choice. For example, you can be pro-life and a feminist, but you couldn't actively undermine another woman's ability to have an abortion and call yourself a feminist.
The first formal women's rights conference occurred in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Many of the 240 attendees were part of the flourishing antislavery movement of the time and also were inspired by the example of equality by local Iroquois. Within those native communities, each woman controlled her own personal property, violence against women rarely occurred and was treated seriously when it did, and women could vote. The abolitionists applied their raised consciousness to their own lives and realized that they didn't have the rights they were fighting for others to have. So they called for women to be able to own and inherit property, to divorce, to be educated, and, most controversially,to vote. In the seventy-two years it took to get the vote, those other rights were earned. In 1923, suffragist Alice Paul realized that the right to cast a vote was meaningless if society itself remained unequal. That year Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
We don't yet have the ERA, but many strides have been made. Beginning in the sixties and continuing into the seventies, laws were passed guaranteeing equal access to education (Title IX), outlawing gender discrimination (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act), and coining phrases for date rape, domestic violence, and sexism--serious problems that used to just be called life. In hindsight, these two movements for women's rights have been organized into waves--the First Wave dedicated to the rights of citizenship and the Second Wave dedicated to equality under the law and in opportunity. We are still working on those goals, but younger people have begun acknowledging a Third Wave of feminism, that continues to work with and toward the same goals as the Second Wave, but as a generation raised with the privileges of feminism.2 If the waves can be reduced to their central goals, the First Wave was about women's rights to citizenship, the Second Wave concerned women's equality, and the Third Wave stresses the power and the responsibility of the individual.
The concepts of "giving back," public service, and activism are not feminist preserves. However, we believe that feminists are positioned particularly well to become power-fulchange-makers. After all, the whole politics of feminism is based on going to the root of the problem, providing prevention rather than a cure. Meanwhile, like punk rock, feminism is also based on the idea that you, an averageschmo,have the right and the power to take matters into your own hands. You don't have to rely on someone like Ralph Nader, Oprah Winfrey, or Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to save you. Sometimes using Dr. King or Gloria Steinem as a role model has a paralyzing effect, like "Oh, someone legit is taking care of it" or "I could never do that." In fact, that is whyGrassrootswill mostly focus on what nonfamous activists did.
Making tangible change is often the way women and men come to feminism and it is always the way the movement transforms the world. Activism was behind abortion rights, girls' sports teams, the right to vote, and fighting sterilization abuse. Because both of us are feminists, we see our activism through that lens. When people express confusion about feminism or discomfort with the label, it is because feminism is presented as a concept or a theory (what books we have read or classes we have taken) and not action or experience (what we have done that affects the status of women or changed our own lives). Activism and feminism-in-action aren't different concepts.
While activism shouldn't just be about sacrifice, manifesting our values in the world can be hard work. It's like building a new house rather than just living in the old dilapidated one you inherited. It requires faith, because you are imagining something that doesn't exist and you have to believe not only that it should exist but that itcouldexist. We might all use different words to describe ourselves as activists--volunteer, environmentalist, good friend--butwhat unites people is that we have a commitment to translate our politics into action, getting from the point of asking "What can I do?" to establishing a group, a petition, a line of organic tampons, or anything. We hope thatGrassroots,our activist advice book, unveils the process of becoming active.
Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

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