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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 148-150

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Persistence and Transformation
Gloria Steinem, the Women's Action Alliance, and the Feminist Movement, 1971-1997

Nancy Whittier

Historians, sociologists, and activists—including Brenda Feigen and Gloria Steinem—have written a great deal about the women's movement between the late 1960s and the present. These reflections have raised many crucial questions for a next wave of scholars and authors to consider. The material in these collections promises to help us address some of these questions. Particularly interesting are the collections' contents relating to feminist organizing at the grassroots levels, models of leadership and decision-making, class and race in the women's movement, and changes in feminism over time.

Grassroots organizing

One of the significant contributions of these papers is less about Women's Action Alliance (WAA) and Gloria Steinem themselves, but the information on other organizations and activities contained in their papers. Because Steinem corresponded and worked with diverse activists around the country, and because the WAA sought to serve as the center of a network of grassroots women's groups, the collections are rich in evidence about local organizing that is otherwise hard to track down.

We have relatively little systematic knowledge about grassroots feminist organizing outside of major metropolitan centers (especially the East coast). In practice, feminism in local areas often looked quite different from scholarly depictions: for example, activists did not fit neatly into "wings" separated by ideology or tactics. Feminist activism at the grassroots has long been a process of shifting alliances and coalitions or umbrella organizations that pull together activists working on different issues. This was the premise behind much of Steinem and the WAA's work. The WAA sought to act as both resource and catalyst for grassroots feminist work on many issues—to mobilize parents for non-sexist curricula and child-raising, to help women's centers share their experiences, and to encourage alliance and information-sharing across lines of race and class.

As a result, the WAA papers contain valuable information on the activities of women's movement organizations at the local level around the country. Those of us who write about grassroots feminism in the 1970s, [End Page 148] for example, know that many cities saw strikingly similar forms of organizing during this period: umbrella organizations, which contained some groups that were service-oriented and others that focused on social change around particular issues. Many of these groups distributed similar fliers, used the same wording in their position papers. In a radically decentralized movement, such coordination is striking. The WAA papers will help us understand the connections among local feminist organizations, the ways that the so-called "women's liberation," "radical" or—later—"cultural" or "service-oriented" women's movements linked into a shifting, sometimes informal, national network. Similarly, Steinem's papers contain correspondence with women and men from around the country. This, too, is a rare resource for information on activism outside the major organizations, and on the impact of feminism on women and men who may never have become involved in activism, per se.

The material in the WAA papers on service-oriented women's centers is particularly rich and should help us understand the institutionalization of organizations that grew from decentralized local efforts. A central issue raised in this process is the connections between service provision and social activism. As both activists and scholars know, the relationship between meeting women's immediate needs through services—shelters for battered women—and creating broad social change—ending domestic violence—is fraught. Participants in grassroots women's centers have been negotiating this tension for decades now, with mixed results; analysis of their programs can show how they have dealt with both functions at once, and may help us rethink the relationship between service and social change in a way that transcends the dichotomy between changing individuals' lives and transforming social structures.

Leadership and Organizational Structure

One of the major issues for feminists has been how to construct organizations and leadership...


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pp. 148-150
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