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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 143-147

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Frances Fox Piven and the National Congress of Neighborhood Women
Grassroots Organizing

Martha Ackelsberg

My purpose here is to offer a brief summary of what I take to be some of the major questions before us in the study of women and social movement activism, and to offer some suggestions about how the papers of Frances Fox Piven and of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW) might help us to address them. I want to suggest, specifically, that there is a class of social movements—including those in which Fran and Jan Peterson, founder of the NCNW, have been involved have been engaged—that calls the society and/or polity into account on behalf of its citizens. To one degree or another, most social movements —from voting rights or welfare rights in the United States, to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, to women's rights movements in countries around the world—either demand that relevant authorities provide needed services to, or recognize the rights of, disenfranchised or marginalized members of the community, or these movements attempt to remedy those conditions themselves, through collective direct action. The latter efforts often aim at creating, in practice, precisely the sort of society they advocate. Either way, following Temma Kaplan 1 and others, I argue that such movements are about building democracy in the broadest sense. In the United States, in particular, movements have often focused on narrowing the gap between what we claim to be (and to offer to our citizens) and what we are. In that respect, virtually all movements, whether as goal or as side effect, offer to their participants an increased sense of belonging, empowerment, and, to some degree, even somewhat greater control over their lives. 2

We find ourselves, now in a rather difficult time for social movements 3 : with all the talk of economic "boom," real income inequality is increasing dramatically in the United States, and poverty rates remain too high. These conditions highlight, I think, some of the dilemmas confronting both contemporary social movements and those who study them. Here I attempt to set out what I take to be a few of these dilemmas.

First, how do we defend those state-supported provisions (including guarantees not only of civil rights, but of what Thurgood Marshall referred to as "social rights," 4 such as income supports, health care, education, housing, and unemployment) that came into existence during the [End Page 143] past century, and that are now under increasing attack from neo-capitalist globalists, while not pretending that the provisions we have are anywhere near adequate to meet real needs? And how, if at all, do we extend these provisions, and add new rights, such as protections from environmental toxins or from the effects of corporate relocation decisions, or against the commercialization of reproduction? At the same time, what meaning does "democracy" have for anyone, when those excluded from meaningful decision-making power at both local and national levels now include not just the traditionally marginal—e.g. the poor, immigrants, women, the aged, and members of minority communities and cultures—but even many of the white middle-class, whose concerns are routinely dismissed with the claim that economic factors set the parameters of political possibility? 5

Secondly, to what extent does "community activism" contribute to an expansion of civil society and the opening of new possibilities for democracy? Those who participate in such movements are typically those who have been marginalized, or who have understood themselves to be relatively disempowered, in their political and social contexts. Yet at least some recent work on the supposed decline of civil society in the United States has focused on traditionally middle-class groups. 6 Can attention to activism change our understanding of who (or what) constitutes "civil society"? Beyond that, does expanding the base of participation in local movements necessarily broaden people's understandings of what constitutes "politics" or "the public agenda" more generally? Is it also possible that such...


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