September 2, 2014
Washington, D.C., April 25, 2004
What went wrong? Why were the major feminist movement organizations either unprepared, or simply unwilling, to organize a public show of force in the wake of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby? A generation ago such a terrible, far-reaching SCOTUS decision would have triggered outraged protests. Just ten years ago, with the March for Women’s Lives, movement groups showed they still had some organizing spark left in them, but the inaction at the mass level since then has made that event seem like a one-off, or more likely the last gasp of a declining segment of the movement. What has happened in the decades since the second wave’s heyday that so altered the way big national groups respond to political events? The simplest way to describe it is to say that their focus changed, which eventually changed their structures.
Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s as the women’s movement started to meet some of its goals (this being America, these were mostly public policy goals) its organizations had to adapt to serve different functions and meet the needs of a changing social climate. Grassroots organizers found that there were pressing tasks for them to do, beyond chairing chapter meetings and planning actions. Suddenly, they were needed to walk the halls of state legislatures or testify at city council meetings, to ensure that the laws they’d helped to pass were understood and properly implemented. So women who had once led teach-ins began to teach classes on feminism at universities, or put their new policy knowledge to work as lobbyists.
All of that would have been fine, except that the void those grassroots organizers left behind was never quite filled again, and it turned out that they were really key to the second wave’s power. The kind of organizing prowess the early movement groups possessed didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the result of hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes work keeping members informed, committed and ready for action. In other words, those groups held meetings, lots and lots of meetings: chapter meetings and state meetings and national conventions. As the volunteer activists who’d once organized the grassroots began to specialize and become professionals, the organizations they’d founded also changed, becoming by increments less catholic and more exclusive; more preoccupied with specialized issue areas and less concerned with large-scale recruitment and member engagement. And while much was gained as feminism transitioned from upstart social movement to bona fide cultural institution, some crucial things were lost along the way.
One of the first things to go was the intimacy of the connection of the big national groups to their grassroots members. This loss isn’t just sentimental, as Hobby Lobby clearly demonstrated; people who are less actively engaged with feminism also are less readily mobilized when action is needed. Five hundred protesters aren’t going to show up on the Washington Mall one morning just because you emailed and asked them to the week before. People’s willingness to come out, to sacrifice their time and inconvenience themselves, is the result of months and sometimes years of preparation, time spent recruiting them, giving them information and meaningful things to do; time spent making sure they have an ongoing, personal investment in the success of your organization.
The hard truth of political activism is that you can have the best intentions in the world, plan a great event, write beautiful speeches, even attract some media, and you still may not succeed in promoting your cause. If only twenty supporters show up to your rally/protest/press event, not only will the story go nowhere, you’ll fail to show lawmakers that enough of their constituents care about your cause that they should pay attention to it. Because that’s what’s really at stake, in a democracy at least, that’s the currency: the attention of people with the power to change laws. To me, that’s the worst thing about the collapse of the feminist response to Hobby Lobby: when we declined to respond, we implicitly told lawmakers that this was an issue they could afford to overlook; we signaled that we were willing to give them a pass. That’s a terrible message to send and a dangerous precedent to set, and women are already paying the price.
Next up: If not protesting, what were activists up to after Hobby Lobby? And if not organizing, just what are feminists good for these days? I’ll answer those questions when I wrap up in Part 3!