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Women Re-energize the Movement: Panel Discussion

As part of RP&E’s 20th anniversary commemoration, we decided to review the origins of key social movements over the past few decades and their trajectories into the future. The ensuing panel discussion with three generations of women activists looks at the intersection of race and class with gender, and how women’s participation in social justice movements has (or has not) empowered women workers, especially working class women of color and immigrant women.

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Aileen Clarke Hernandez is a union organizer and civil rights activist. In 1964, she became the first (and at that time, only) woman member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She is a past president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the State Chair Emeritus of the California Women’s Agenda (CAWA). She is a founder of Black Women Stirring the Waters and Chair of the Coalition for Economic Equity, which advocates for increased government contracting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses.
Catherine Tactaquin is the executive director and a co-founder of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Her commitment to immigrant rights is motivated by her experience as the U.S.-born daughter of immigrant farm workers from the Philippines. She was involved for many years in grassroots organizing and advocacy in the Filipino community on issues of discrimination and foreign policy.
Juliet Ellis is executive director of Urban Habitat, an organization that builds power in low-income communities and communities of color by combining education, advocacy, research, and coalition-building to advance environmental, economic, and social justice in the Bay Area. She is also a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

B. Jesse Clarke: How do you see feminism and what does it actually mean to you?
Aileen Clarke Hernandez: I would say “feminism” now has a much better reputation than it did some time back. It was very difficult to get women of color involved in the women’s movement in those early days when it was led by women who were middle class and white, for the most part. The women who started NOW—it happened at a conference about equal pay—were all appointed by the governors of their states. These women were not working class and it was very difficult to even find women of color there. So, if you were black or Latina or Filipina, you just didn’t join the women’s movement as identified by NOW. But there were also other women’s movements going on at the time.

Clarke: Catherine, how did you intersect with the ideas of feminism and that social stream of thought as you entered your work life?
   Catherine Tactaquin: I was glad to hear Aileen’s description. As a young woman of color coming into political awareness at a certain period, I certainly did not identify with any significant feminist movement. In the political organizing that I was interested in at the time—among the Filipino community—it didn’t really have an impact. I was much more drawn to identifying with strong women leaders in the Philippines who were fighting the dictatorship. Many of them were exiled here and played a leading role in building a movement among Filipinos—raising awareness around foreign policy and the role of the United States in what was going on in the Philippines. I think I rejected a lot of the leadership from the mainstream feminist movement as I saw it as not being interested in what I was doing.

Clarke: Can you talk about how you are incorporating a gender lens into your work?
Ellis: We need to apply a gender lens that is organization-wide and not take a piecemeal approach. At Urban Habitat, initially we would convene low-income women of color around transportation issues and get support from foundations focused on funding gender-specific programs. But we have also worked closely with the women over the years to infuse a gender analysis into all of the work that we do. So, it’s not just the so-called “women’s issues” that we focus on but issues of investment that really address social and gender equity.

Urban Habitat has a mission to build power in low-income communities and communities of color. To that end, we’ve created a Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute that is looking to recruit, train, and place progressive and low-income people of color on local and regional boards and commissions. We are trying to move to a place where it’s not just about getting a seat at the table but where we really are the decision makers.
 Women of color oftentimes will focus on the lower-level commissions—the ones that are more advisory and have less money, like the Commission on the Status of Women or the Human Rights Commission—as opposed to a planning commission…

Hernandez: Where the real power is.
Ellis: Yes, and where the real money is. We are trying to push women to think beyond the Status of Women and think about the redevelopment commission, for example. This challenge says a lot about our own internal doubts as women.

Clarke: Aileen, could talk a little about your experience of being the only woman on the EEOC and how that power (or lack of it) actually plays out?
Hernandez: There was a real pressure to make women visible in society and all we had were pieces of law that made the difference. We had the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Division of Fair Employment Practices established by the California Legislature in 1959, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [which said that women could get jobs anywhere that they had the ability to do the work.] Nobody thought that sex would be included in that law. It was put in at the very last minute and many people laughed about it because women simply were invisible. They were not in the places you expect to see them now.

When I came to California, there was one woman from here in Congress and one woman on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That was it. Women weren’t sure where they needed to go with this or what the law was about or what feminism really meant. They thought they had to choose one thing or the other. The good thing about NOW and the feminist movement growing at that point was that we pushed legislation that tried to get equal pay for women on a national level.

When I first started at the EEOC, women were found in about five occupations. They were elementary school teachers—not high school or college, just elementary school teachers. They could work in retail shops (like department stores). Or in the garment industry. Or they could take up nursing or secretarial work. That was it. The change is significant now. Women are in almost every kind of occupation you can think of—though not anywhere near 50 percent. And the changes on the political level have been dramatic. In the current state election you’re looking at women fighting women.

Clarke: Catherine, among the key issues affecting poor and working class women—especially as we look at the immigrant struggle, which is in a particularly frightening place right now—what do you consider the most important political struggles of this century to bring justice for women?
Tactaquin: Among social justice and anti-racist organizing institutions, we can clearly see the leadership of a lot of strong women. But there is some unevenness. Within some organizations, I am aware of gender dynamics that play out in terms of paid staff positions and boards of directors. Within the immigrant rights movement, we have a proud history of women throughout—as founders and leaders. And increasingly, we see the presence of women leaders who have emerged out of organizing and come into their own—building new institutions and leading them.

We have just launched a project called Raising Women’s Voices for Immigrant Justice to help support immigrant women on the ground. Our partners at the Ms. Foundation have been really good over the years about supporting the development of this type of work. There’s a big divide between the broader women’s movement and the immigrant women’s movement, which identifies with and is aware of the human rights crisis in the United States—such as, what is happening along the border and the impact on immigrant women and families. For a women’s movement to not recognize that, I think, is really a crime.

In our project we want to help cultivate the distinct leadership of immigrant women, but we also want to build from the ground up. Create more of a synergy between immigrant women, other women of color, and the broader women’s movement. That’s going to have a profound effect on how we address issues of immigration and race and all the controversies present now or around the corner. A more integrated movement can play a big role in beating back the hate that we see on the ground. For us, part of a growing core mission is to help shift the debate on immigration to a consensus that enforcement is in fact necessary.

Clarke: One obvious but rarely acknowledged fact is that a majority of the population of the United States and of the world is women and people of color. If they were acting in concert, it would be very difficult for them to lose an election anywhere. How do you see capitalism structuring us into the kind of fragmentation that disables the popular movements from taking the power of their true majority status?
Hernandez: I think we have made a major change in identifying the problems and are no longer just speaking about African Americans. We now recognize that we are all going through the same thing. We’ve lived in such a segregated environment—whether it’s race or ethnicity or class—for such a long time. But now we’re coming together. People are working not just for their “group,” but are involved in wider issues in the society. I think men are coming into it now, too. They are beginning to understand that it’s not about any one group but about injustice in society against a wide range of people. Because we come from a capitalist approach where the rich are supposed to get everything and the poor are supposed to work to help the rich get richer, we have to keep saying, “This is not the way it’s going to be any more. We have other issues going.”

Tactaquin: I think it is important to recognize that we do function within a system that has developed structures designed to preserve power based on a certain premise. Those of us in the social justice movement have to create new democratic vehicles that are going to impact those structures and seriously challenge them. We see it now in trying to change policies within Congress. It’s insane that we continue to support policies that we know are wrong, but not challenging them is part of a preservation of certain political power.

I’m concerned about the fact that a lot of organizations are locked into 501(c)(3) formats that can preserve the ongoing systems of power. We have to be very thoughtful and at the same time aggressive about building more independent structures that can bring together the diverse and cross-sectional entities that we need, to make serious challenges. I don’t see that happening with our 501(c)(3)s.

Clarke: Are there any specific examples of prototypes of successful alternative institutions that are developing this kind of modern approach?
Tactaquin: I think a lot of what we are trying to build on the ground is a part of that. The concern is whether we are just replicating what exists and not attempting to break new ground. I’m a big believer in building institutions. It’s not enough to have mass movements like the U.S. Social Forum, as wonderful as it was. To really make a difference, the proposals, the organizing have to reside in entities that can garner participation and lead democratically. So, to the extent that we can support organizations of farmworker women or the new Domestic Workers’ Union in New York and the National Domestic Workers’ Union Alliance, we should do it.

We also work at the international level with domestic workers and unions in Colombia and Europe. It’s great to see that beginning to happen. But even those organizations are going to face limitations unless we find some way to bring them together on a more independent basis that’s not locked into chasing foundation support.

Hernandez: It’s complicated. And if you look just at the political end of it? We know that the process of  politics is terrible. Even the people that we are supporting are just raising money, pouring millions and millions of dollars into a campaign, without any concept of what they are going to do once they get in there. Politics should not have to cost you money to get into it.

Clarke: As new immigrant worker organizations emerge—that are not necessarily tied to previous movements—as domestic workers and women organize at different levels of political capacity, do you see any kind of sign that people are taking their own economic power seriously?
Tactaquin: I think the labor movement, despite its floundering on the immigration issue, is so essential. It is one of the few vehicles of power that we have. As big as those immigration demonstrations were in 2006, they did not immediately produce political power. The way this country is going now, it’s not going to result in political power for us for some time. So, we need to mobilize our allies: the labor movement, the broader civil rights movement, the African American community, the women’s movement, and the peace and justice movement. We also need to mobilize our allies among international unions, which share the drive to build sustainable economic power and job creation in their own countries because it affects migration. All of this is very much related and we need to have a movement that understands and can function on all those levels.

But we don’t always want to be “an immigrant rights movement” with allies. We need to be fighting with a strategy that reflects all of our interests. The National Network has always viewed itself as part of a broader social and economic justice movement and we try to raise awareness about that with our membership. We are not quite there yet but that’s the kind of entity we’re looking to build.

Hernandez: We also recognize now that we have to bring some of this back to a local level because you can’t have meetings all the time in Washington, D.C., or across the world. Where you live is a place where you should also exercise power. I’m hoping that what we get out of this is people reaching out within their own communities and making the cities in which they live. We are all suffering from the effects of climate change right now and we recognize that we have no control over the problem internationally. But we can deal with it where we are.
Also, we have a lot more people who are poor than very rich. It’s time to recognize that these numbers are very important. It’s not just money. It’s the numbers of people who reach the conclusion that we have to make certain changes.

Clarke: Juliet, do you have some final comments?
Ellis: I love the recommendation to look locally because that’s where you can do the prototyping and figure out strategies that work. What we found from doing work in San Francisco is that it’s about getting to know and understand how the unions actually work and figure out how to talk about race and class and gender. I think local is the way to scale up this work one community at a time to get to the type of aggregate change that we’re talking about. 

B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. Preeti Shekar and Lisa Dettmer provided recording and editorial assistance for this interview.


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits