- Organizing across DistanceReconceiving US Postwar Women's Activism
When in January 2017 hundreds of thousands of women and their allies gathered in Washington, DC, to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump, they came with considerable concerns about protecting the rights of women. Aerial photographs suggest the Women's March on Washington far outdrew the Trump inauguration held the day before, and marchers believed they had demonstrated their determination to organize against the threat of conservative political attack on decades of women's hard-earned legal rights. Also on display that Sunday afternoon in Washington, and at hundreds of "sister marches" held across the United States, was a complicated and contested history of post-World War II US women's activism that these three books explore.
What was at first called the "Million Women's March" quickly ignited debate about the history of identity politics in women's organizing. By claiming the same designation as a protest held twenty years earlier by activists marching in support of African American women's empowerment, white organizers of the hurriedly renamed Women's March on Washington had added to the historical erasure of African American women's movements. Some responded by reminding us that exit polls revealed 52 percent of white women voted for Trump and not Hillary Clinton, the first viable female presidential candidate put forth by a US political party. The New York Times cultural critic Margo Jeffries asserted that election results revealed why white women are "associated with a history that has to do with being [End Page 163] bossy and self-absorbed and bigoted in some ways."1 Organizers heeded calls for more inclusive representation by forming a committee of four co-chairs, three of whom were women of color.
Yet comments by those who shared Jeffries's view of feminist activism prompted white women to post on social media about their plans to cancel trips to Washington. Reporters chronicled the anger and confusion of those like a South Carolina mother who decided she and her daughter would not attend the march. "We're supposed to be allies," she explained, "Why is it now about, 'White women don't understand black women?'"2 Although some have dismissed such questions as rhetorical and uninformed, the election of Donald Trump suggests that scholars have an important role to play in historicizing long-standing differences laid bare by the 2016 presidential election and, in doing so, to reconceive how we think about and teach women's history. The recent work of Premilla Nadasen, Anne Stefani, and Tamar Carroll offers an opportunity to consider whether there is a "usable past" in postwar US women's activism.
Nadasen's Household Workers Unite explores a largely ignored history of the 1960s and 1970s. Nadasen starts with the premise that relationships among African American and white women in the early twenty-first century reflect institutional and cultural systems of the postwar era. Examining the work of domestics, who represented nearly one-third of all African American women workers in 1960, she convincingly argues that for centuries their work had been essential to creating and policing gender, class, and racial order.
Looking at mid-twentieth-century organizing efforts by the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE) and a group founded under its auspices, the Household Technicians of America (HTA), Nadasen presents a compelling history of women operating at the margins of the margins. With little institutional support from labor unions, whose male leaders believed women working beyond factory walls were too difficult to organize, and only passing recognition from civil rights movement...