Friday, September 28, 2007

Review: Feminist Organizing for Change

[Nancy Adamson, Linda Briskin, and Margaret McPhail. Feminist Organizing for Change: The Contemporary Women's Movement in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.]

In responding to this book I think the place I need to begin is an exploration of why I expected reading it to be something of a chore, and why it ended up being a pleasure.

The first reason for my low expectations was the fact that I misunderstood the nature of the book. I was expecting a fairly traditional sort of history, with lots of detail and an aim to be comprehensive -- something like Robin Winks' classic (if sometimes politically problematic) study of the history of African Canadians or Tom Warner's history of the queer movement in Canada (which I didn't get around to reviewing on this site when I read it, I'm afraid). Though these sorts of books can be a fair bit of work to read, they are tremendously useful in my own work.

It turns out, however, that this is not that sort of book. There is one quite substantial chapter devoted directly to history, but the rest is much more analytical, though it is usually analysis with a historical grounding. This book was published almost 20 years ago, and a lot of the basic groundwork for the history of the second wave of the women's movement in Canada had not yet been done. The authors tried to make their history chapter as complete as they could but they had to work with the sources that existed. They did draw out some quite interesting points, like the complex and not always direct links in terms of organizational and ideological continuity between the first wave and the second wave of Canadian feminism -- a continuity that was quite important despite the fact that at the time the second wave burst onto the scene, the history of the first wave had been largely buried and not yet exhumed.

Also introduced in the history chapter was the standard typology of liberal feminism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. I quite appreciated the book's efforts at showing some of the limitations of this scheme, which I have always felt to be a bit simplistic, and prone to obscure more than it reveals in some situations. They layered on top of it a distinction that was less based in political philosophy and more reflective of material circumstances and tactical choices -- that is, grassroots feminism versus institutional feminism. Still, it would've been nice to see an even greater effort to move away from, or at least complexify, the standard typology.

The second reason I was expecting this to be a relatively uninspiring read was because of a couple of other books that I have read that I understood as coming from a similar place and a similar era, which were quite useful and had some really powerful contributions but which, for the most part, did not excite me. This was also unfair of me. Those other volumes that I am thinking of were about women and feminism in the context of the Canadian labour movement, and they were academic books, albeit with a strong movement relationship. This book, on the other hand, is grounded in the standpoint of the long-time socialist-feminist activists who wrote it, and it is very much a movement book.

Those may seem like subtle distinctions, but they are not; they are crucial. This book is about the second wave of the women's movement in Canada, but its aim is not turning the movement into an object for the dissection of outsiders, as so many studies of social movements do. Instead, this was very clearly an exercise in reflection and self-criticism grounded in a standpoint from within the movement and designed to inform and support the woman who might want to make its further activities a reality. The book examines what had been accomplished to that point, and assesses choices and efforts and successes and failures around things like organizational structure, group process, unifying political principles, key issues, and key divisions. This sort of written reflection on issues of practical concern to movements still in motion is something we see far too little of in North America today (which, admittedly, is probably more a reflection of the state of our movements than anything else. My belief in the importance of this sort of detailed, written reflection is part of the reason for my involvement in this project, though.) Though it comes from a specific movement and a specific historical moment -- that is, two decades ago -- many of the issues this book discusses are still very relevant to activists in a wide range of settings today. What are the pros and cons of consensus decision making and how has it actually worked in practice? What ideologies about the process of change in general hold sway over ordinary Canadians and play a role in preventing the specific changes that movement X or movement Y might seek? What organizational forms have different strands of the movement tried? What have the strengths and weaknesses of these forms been? And so on.

The third reason why I was expecting the reading of this book to be something of an effort has to do with the particular distance between my current view of the world and what I was expecting to find in this book. This is a bit of a simplification, but generally speaking political writing that is very close to my own view of things tends to be an easy read, and political writing that is quite distant is also easy, but there is a middle point where the intellectual and emotional effort required for reading reaches a maximum. I assumed that this book would be somewhere close to that point. In particular, there have been a lot of pretty intense debates in the women's movement in the two decades since this was published. I'm obviously not a part of that movement, but learning from those debates has been pretty important in my own political development. I think what was going on was that I misunderstood the timing of some of these debates, and made mistaken assumptions about what a book written at this time might say. In particular, I was pleasantly surprised by the foregrounding of difference, of the political importance of multiple oppressions, and of the need to proceed from complex understandings of categories like "woman" and "sisterhood" -- and I say this not out of some sort of patronizing, moralistic approval, but a practical recognition that these are analogues of issues I struggle with all the time, and it was great to find more in this book than expected that spoke to things I want and need to learn about.

As a bit of an aside, it is intriguing to speculate about the various hints this gives about how the actual historical processes of the debates and shifts in feminist practice around difference, around power and privilege beyond gender, around theorizing and acting from an awareness of one's status as oppressor as well as oppressed, around intersectionality, have occurred in a material sense within the women's movement. And are occurring, since no endpoint has been reached. On the one hand, the authors' awareness at that time of the political challenge from women of colour seems to be fairly recent, and certainly their discussions of multiple oppressions make much less (explicit?) use of writing by women of colour than I would expect a similar book written ten years later would have done (even if some of the most important of those writings did already exist). The imperative to politically analyze one's own experiences of privilege and as an oppressor was not yet clearly articulated. There is also probably much that could be criticized around how they specifically take up issues of race and racism, even at the level of discourse. But even so, as I said above, the basic framework for understanding multiple oppressions in a feminist way is already very developed, perhaps because of earlier internal struggles around sexual orientation and class. Yet it is very hard to know how widespread such an analysis was within various kinds of feminist spaces, and it is also hard to get a sense of the inevitably uneven processes by which it has been turned into practice. I say this because even though this analysis is written in a way that makes it clear that it does not expect to be shocking its readers by saying such things, which means these sentiments must have been relatively widespread, some of the stormiest struggles to date around privilege and oppression along axes other than gender in the context of the Canadian women's movement had not yet happened at the time this was written. What does that mean for how movements struggle with these issues? What does it mean for those of us struggling with them in the present? I know there are women who are trying to put together some of that history/herstory, and I look forward to reading more of the nitty-gritty details as they become available.

The more compatible political distance than expected between me-of-2007 and this book-of-1988 is not so much a matter of the latter agreeing with the former -- there are still all sorts of differences related to our different standpoints, eras, and so on -- as a sense that dialogue between those two could easily proceed from basic mapping of each others' politics and on to more productive and interesting things.

There are things the me of today would challenge. For instance, though native women are mentioned on occasion, there is no analysis at all of colonization and what it might mean to create an anti-colonial feminism. As well, the authors and myself all have critical analyses of the state, but there would definitely be differences, with me being quite a bit more skeptical of the capacity of even a transformed state form to meet the requirements of truly just and liberatory social relations. I also had the sense that as thoroughly as the authors were self-critical of their own socialist-feminist strand of the women's movement -- which, I should add for U.S. readers, has been a much, much more important stream of feminism in Canada than in the U.S., in terms of numbers and political influence -- they were somewhat unfair at times to the radical feminist stream, I think.

Anyway, those were my three reasons. Perhaps the conventional and comprehensive history I expected would have been more directly useful for my immediate work needs, but in the future as I reflect and write about what I think movements I am a part of should be doing, I will come back to this book. I am glad to have my assumptions proven so wrong.

All that aside, perhaps one of the coolest things I took from this book was that it really captured the feel of being in the middle of a social movement -- in particular, the sense of never being sure, of doing things on the fly and by the skin of your teeth and making it all up as you go along no matter how much experience you have or study you've done, of second guessing and changing course, and the way the actual practice of doing social change work doesn't feel at all like the directed historic whole that you often read about in history books. It was actually pretty encouraging to see that reflected here. I mean, if that's what it felt like in the heady days of the height of the second wave of the Canadian women's movement, then the fact that it feels like that in various heres and nows isn't something to be discouraged by. After all, look what they accomplished.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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