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Tracking the Women's Movement through the Women's Action Alliance

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 14, Number 2, Summer 2002
pp. 154-156 | 10.1353/jowh.2002.0051

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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 154-156

In January 1972, a newly formed organization called the Women's Action Alliance (WAA) announced to the press its mission, "to assist women working on practical, local action projects; projects that attack the special problems of social dependence, discrimination, and limited life alternatives they face because they are women." Founders noted that the group was the "natural result of the success of the Women's Movement to date," now that both women and men had begun to see "depth and destructiveness of sex-role conditioning." By marshaling their considerable access to expertise in a variety of fields, founding members of the WAA sought to serve the "large numbers of women who want to change their lot in life."

The records of the WAA—extending nearly 120 linear feet, in more than 300 boxes—is the Sophia Smith Collection's largest processed collection to date. The records cover the organization's entire history from its incorporation in 1971 until it was dissolved in 1997, material that would certainly support a book-length treatment of this important organization itself and how its history reflects the larger trajectory of the women's movement during those years. These records also offer an exceptional opportunity to explore the important issues Linda Gordon has raised concerning the nature of feminist leadership, movement dynamics, strategies of social change, and the on-the-ground work of organizing. In short, the records of the WAA amply document the history of this single, influential organization while capturing too the voices of the thousands of women—women seeking to "change their lot in life"—served by WAA programs over 25 years.

The letters that came to the WAA from women around the country, housed among the records of the WAA information and referral services, in many ways form the heart of the collection. The earliest letters, addressed directly to Gloria Steinem, Brenda Feigen, or others, suggest that the WAA's founders hoped to establish a clearinghouse to field the many specific inquiries apparently directed toward any known feminist for whom women could obtain an address. Women wrote to the WAA to find feminist psychologists, women lawyers, or doctors, or simply to learn how to bring the women's movement to their hometowns. As women shared their stories of need, and the WAA offered advice and referral, a truly moving picture emerges that is in some ways captured by the referral office's signature, "in common struggle." A group of letters from 1973, for example, responds to a Ms. Magazine story, "Childbirth Made Difficult." A closing note indicated that the WAA was gathering information on obstetrical services around the country and invited women to share their experiences. And share them they did: letters poured in as women offered their own childbirth stories—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Other letters came from women whose divorce left them with neither job skills nor access to credit, who could not find anyone who will take their rape seriously, or who needed to know what to do when they are being abused at home, when there were not shelters to turn to.

Critical to the WAA's original mission was to "stimulate and assist women at the local level to organize around specific action projects"—and that effort, too, is amply documented, especially the important work the WAA did to assist women's centers. Staff members conducted technical assistance workshops (most notably with the New Haven Women's Liberation Center and the Everywomen's Center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, activities that might inform fine case studies on the life of early women's centers), read and critiqued funding proposals, and offered a whole range of support for local organizations. In order to compile information on what women were up to, questionnaires were sent to women's organizations across the country, gathering information on their programs. Thumbnails sketches of these organizations were published in directories like Women Helping Women, but the raw material here could support any number of studies on the activities of local women's centers and other activist groups in any number of program areas in the 1970s...