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Monday, November 1, 2010

Racism and the Women's Movement

By Carol Downer

Originally Published in Women's Health Movement Papers on July 1980

Please visit Self Help is Global in Women's Health in Women's Hands!

In the Spring of this year, the Feminist Women's Health Center in Los Angeles, along with many women's organizations in Los Angeles, were approached by the Los Angeles Women's Building to respond to a questionnaire on racism. Each questionnaire was to be the basis for an article in Spinning Off, the Women's Building newsletter. Their group had been having discussions about racism, and they wanted to raise the issue of racism and how women's organizations in the women's movement are dealing with it. The Feminist Women's Health Center was one of the many groups that had an interview, article, or statement in the April/May issue. The article, written by Carol Downer, Delores Nola, and Becky Chalker, follows:

One of the most glaring racist characteristics of the women's movement is that most women, like all Americans, are abysmally ignorant of world politics. Many of us, for example, do not comprehend the impact of a trend, exposed by the Peace movement during the Viet Nam War, for the U.S. government to support policies which promote the domination of Third World countries and their resources by U.S. based, global corporations.

In response to this oppressive trend, Third World nations have united in the U.S. and have demanded that they be allowed to become industrialized, instead of simply supplying raw materials to industrialized nations. The Iranian people, whose self-supporting economy and agriculture was destroyed by a flood of U.S. corporations and a massive military build-up, have used the only means available to them to end U.S. interference within their borders -- take over of the Embassy.

In the post-Viet Nam era, the rise of oil prices, the devaluation of the dollar, run-away inflation, high interest rates and unemployment are all the results of the decline of American imperialism.

The rise of the Third World in the last decade represents the best hope that we have seen in our lifetimes for world revolution and for the eradication of capitalism and imperialism and their attendant evils, racism, classism, sexism, homosexism and ageism. While Western white male rulers shake in their boots and scurry around trying to prop up their positions of domination, all women have the opportunity to unite to destroy those institutions which have kept them second class citizens. American women have to get rid of the idea that they have something to lose by the demise of capitalism.

This is why we at the Feminist Women's Health Centers have a commitment to fight racism by working directly on Third World struggles and by making efforts to attract feminists of color to our ranks. We work to achieve our stated goal of struggling against racism, our own and that of others, on a day to day basis. All people who work in our organization must subscribe to these goals. We have open hiring and specific policies concerning job assignment, work space and firing. In our group, women of color have responsible positions and participate in decision and policy making.

To give an example of what we think fighting racism is, in the last year and a half, the Feminist Women's Health Centers in California and on the East Coast, made a major commitment to support the Iranian people's struggle to rid themselves of U.S. imperialism. Because of our work, we were invited after the Embassy takeover, to be on a delegation to travel to Iran in December to support the Iranian revolution, to oppose U.S. military intervention, and to demand the return of the ex-Shah. What we found there made us determined to return home and expose the 25 years of torture and political repression that the United States government wholeheartedly supported.

Our commitment included, in addition to sending 2 staff members on the arduous trip to Tehran, major outlays of money for long distance phone calls press conferences, air travel, duplication of materials, and a national speaking tour. These expenses have resulted in full-time staff taking partial salaries for an extended period. Carol Downer's participations on the tour also resulted in her being jailed for several days, after her stay of sentence for the W.A.T.C.H. Inspection of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, was cancelled by Judge Charles McClure.

Various individuals and groups in the women's movement have bitterly attacked our trip as supporting anti-women governments, as wasting feminist resources and even as imperialistic, for us to impose our standards on Third World people. We regard these criticisms as absurd and as rationalizations to avoid taking an unpopular stand to support the determination to Iranian people to govern their own lives, by substituting, instead, either merely giving money, medicine, and clothing to Third World revolutionary struggles, or even worse, regarding women's individual career advancement as an exemplary feminist goal.

There is a women's movement and there is a feminist women's movement and the distinction is critical. Movement superstars like Betty Friedan, who rubbed elbows with the Shah of Iran in 1975 and bought the line that he had liberated women in Iran, and that the Empress Farah was somehow a "feminist," is an upper-class woman who is making her fame off the conservative, middle-class women's movement without offering anything of substance in return. Germaine Greer, a priviledged academic, who also traveled to Iran with Friedan, is another star who has gained fame, or at least notoriety, without returning anything useful. We need to banish these figureheads so that all women can struggle to know what true feminism is.

There is a feminist women's movement which has a global perspective with the specific goal, not of trying just to create a comfortable women's community, but of trying to change the conditions in the lives of all people.

We as feminists feel that white women have the right to fight for their liberation against their own oppression, but you can't fight your own oppression without fighting against other peoples as well. Our struggles against oppression are inseparable.

There are many reasons that women of color are not in the women's movement in large numbers: racism from within, pressure from without from their male peers, and because of divisive forces from the government and media. Many factors which are keeping women of color from uniting are not white women's fault, they are the fault primarily of the white patriarchy. Regardless, if the feminist movement does not come to grips with these barriers, and if we do not get women of color involved in some way, then we will become a quaint artifact of the 1970's and irrelevant.

However, the feminist movement shouldn't be judged too harshly, because we do not have all the power to control our lives. We are living a right-wing era, therefore, the women's movement is not broad-based. We've lost the benefits of large numbers of women doing consciousness raising. The movement has been side-tracked into single issues. We must be multi-issues. We can't just be pro-ERA or pro-women's art, or just anti-rape. Single-issue approaches ignore the broad political context of our oppression and racism flourishes in them.

Women of color and white women can fight together for common goals, but we can't ask women of color to abandon their brothers and their cause. For example, you can't forget the issue of police brutality against black men in this city. Separatism, or women of color working within their own organizations, but ultimately, we do have the same interests, we do have the same goals, and we must fight side by side.

Vicious racism, such as that found in most schools, factories and businesses in the U.S. does not flourish in the women's movement, but more subtle racism certainly is a problem, and will continue to be so, as long as the society is not fundamentally changed. We must fight against it in our every day relationships among each other, but even more importantly, we must recognize the roots of racism and work as an organization to attack its social and economic causes.

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