Radical Women Conference
“A New Era for Women Workers, Minority Women and Lesbians”
Joanne Ward
volume:  
volume 3
issue 1
Spring 1977

What began ten years ago as a small and diverse group of women radicals has flourished into an important and sophisticated organization of socialist feminist workers whose ideas and actions have a resounding impact on every social movement they touch.

The organization is Radical Women, and its Annual Conference held last October at the University of Washington demonstrated anew its capacity for solid accomplishments and dynamic political development.

Excitement ran high as 130 participants of all ages, sexes, colors, backgrounds, and union affiliations convened in Seattle for a serious examination of the growth of socialist feminism in the past period. RW members from California, Oregon and Washington were present.

The Conference theme, “A New Era for Women Workers, Minority Women and Lesbians,” was richly developed for two busy, thought-provoking days as the delegates enthusiastically described the increasing understanding among working women, minority women and lesbians that they must overcome their isolation one from the other and direct their common experiences as second-class citizens toward achieving cooperation in a vast movement for basic social change.

Chairperson Laurie Morton opened the Conference, informing the audience that RW was founded in 1967 as an outgrowth of a Free University class on “Women and Society,” making it the oldest socialist feminist group in the United States. She recounted the organization’s development from a loose coalition of socialist feminists, independents, anarchists and New Leftists into a transitional stage of militant, well-organized activists who were primarily students and socialist feminists, and finally to the present time which finds RW composed almost entirely of women workers deeply involved in the class struggle and the labor movement, and dedicated to building leadership skills among women revolutionaries.

The proletarian character of RW emerged in the middle 1970’s, Morton explained, after the dispersal of the anti-war movement and the disintegration of the New Left. RW students left the campuses and went to work, bringing socialist feminist ideas to their jobs.

“At first,” said Morton, “we weren’t even aware that we were playing leading roles where we worked. But we discovered that our socialist feminist sensitivity to on-the-job issues was making us energetic spokeswomen for workers’ rights, and we have not only become respected activists in our unions, we also understand why this was inevitable. “

Morton called on the Conference to focus on this fundamental class change among Radical Women and the organization’s mission of enhancing the class consciousness of the broader feminist movement.

In her President’s Report, Laura Teague, past RW President, keynoted the major Conference themes:

Working women are overcoming years of isolation from and rejection by the chauvinist labor bureaucracy and are entering the labor movement with a vengeance.
Minority women are countering the sexism of the male civil rights leadership and confronting the racism of the middle-class women’s movement, asserting that feminism is, an integral part of their liberation.
Lesbians are moving beyond the reactionary confines of separatism and cultural mysticism into the hardrock reality of class struggle politics.
All these doubly and triply subjugated women are taking significant steps to break down the barriers of hostility, mistrust and competition among the different oppressed groups. They are seeking out an ideology that relates the many forms of discrimination and exploitation they suffer into a coherent, unified program for change.

Applause and lively discussion followed the President’s Report, and the Conference voted unanimously to adopt it.

Look to the Woman Worker

Why are socialist feminists’ emerging as leaders of workers’ struggles?

What is the programmatic basis of working class unity?

How do we build unity around our needs?

Answers to these interconnected problems were dealt with next by the speakers on the “Women In The Labor Movement” panel. Guerry Hoddersen made the major presentation. She traced RW’s eventful and varied experiences in the labor movement over the past few years. Active in independent, craft and industrial unions, and in associations of public and professional employees, RW members have learned to conduct contract negotiations, strikes, and walk-outs, and have been elected as shop stewards, union officers and delegates to regional labor councils.

Hoddersen said that RW, as a socialist feminist organization, views the class struggle as inextricably connected to movements for ethnic/racial justice, and for economic, political and social equality for women of all races, lifestyles and sexual orientations. RW, she said, believes that the road to American socialism must be sought in the needs of the most oppressed workers and their allies among the poor and downtrodden, rather than in the narrow interests of most white male unionists.

Women are the most oppressed of every oppressed sector of society, she continued; women workers, therefore, are emerging as the most militant new force in the country. The increased number of women in the workforce and unions has brought that militancy to bear on the labor movement; which must now confront social and political issues previously ignored by the white male-dominated trade unions.

“Now that we’re part of the labor movement,” Hoddersen concluded, “we have a much wider arena to work in, an expanded opportunity for achieving social change. But we haven’t stopped being feminists! We’ve carried the demands of feminists, civil rights fighters and the gay movement into working class territory. And only our socialist feminist program of social revolution will insure a working class victory over capitalism.”

A panel of ten RW unionists then detailed their organizing efforts in various unions.

Radical Women members have fought hard to get in and stay in the non-traditional trades. Several are now apprentice lineworkers, and others are teamsters, welders, dockworkers, house-painters, printers, etc. RW members helped to found the historic Coalition for Protective (Labor) Legislation in Washington State (see The Fierce Battle for Protective Labor Legislation) and also aided in the birth of United Workers Union-Independent — the militant union of University of Washington staffworkers which grew out of the first campus strike in history and uncompromisingly represents the interests of women, minorities, and low-paid workers.

Following the panel presentations, a wide-ranging discussion was held. Several people commented on the increasing importance of independent unions as an essential vehicle for keeping workers in the labor movement, organizing the unorganized, and credibly advocating the needs of mounting numbers of women and minority workers.

Clara Fraser, an RW founder, predicted that all socialists would have to get used to the idea of a forthcoming mass, independent labor movement opposed to the AFL-CIO. She reminded the Conference that the existing trade union movement is hardly synonymous with labor as a whole or with class struggle in its many forms.

“Who is the labor force?” she asked. “Over 40% of it today is women, mostly unorganized and ignored by the labor aristocracy. “

Minority Women and Feminists Join Forces

Madlyne Scott, longtime radical activist, moderated the panel on “Feminism and the Minority Woman,” which featured four minority women analyzing their experiences in the Black, Chicano and Native American communities.

Scott recounted her history as a Black woman in the civil rights, Black nationalist, and anti-war movements of the 1960’s. Her struggle for leadership in the Black movement was rebuffed by male spokesmen who decided that the main job of Black women was to bear “revolutionary” babies for the movement. She attested to the common chord of sexism faced by all the panelists: their relegation to second-class status in the movement, accompanied by denunciations against them as their expectation of sex equality was slandered. They were labelled as divisive and destructive to the freedom fight.

Panelist Kathy Saadat, RW member from Portland and a Black movement activist, said the American abolition and suffragist movements of the 19th Century never fulfilled their potential because they remained unconnected, forcing women to fight for the black vote without fighting at the same time for women’s rights. She rejected radical organizations which refuse to meet her needs as a woman, as well as feminist groups which cannot relate to her as a minority woman.

“The civil rights and feminist movements demanded that I fragment my life,” she said. “I joined RW because it did not require that fragmentation, but expected me to carry on the total struggle as a whole person.”

Diane Didrickson and Sally Fixico, Native Americans, and Yolanda Alaniz, Chicana president of United Workers Union-Independent, detailed the brutal historical exploitation of their peoples, marked by the U.S. government’s theft of their land, language, culture, self-respect and their very lives.

The Conference then adjourned for a cocktail hour, buffet dinner, and party at nearby Freeway Hall, where delegates, children and guests relaxed. Animated conversations on Conference issues were combined with entertainment by the Bread and Roses Chorus, which sang favorite labor songs.

Gay Liberation and the Working Class

The Sunday morning session addressed the topic of “Gays and the Class Struggle.”

Laurie Morton presented a brief overview of the gay civil rights movement.

Morton criticized the single-issue sexism of many gay male leaders, and the anti-political, red-baiting stance of the lesbian separatists.

She hailed Radical Women’s active participation in the fight for gay rights and the organization’s development into a major force in the gay struggle. She cited the President’s Report:

Lesbians who have broken out of the ideological trap of separatism are now bringing class struggle politics into the gay movement.

Calling for gay men and lesbians to unite around a strong feminist program, these women are leading the gay movement, rebuilding it from the shattered remnants of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Radical Women has taken an active, leadership role in this process. Socialism and gay liberation, class struggle politics and feminist humanism are not contradictory but rather the mutually supportive strands of all of humanity’s struggles for freedom.

The next presentation, a mock debate between Laurie Morton and Tamara Turner, satirized the current polarization in the gay movement between radicals and conservatives.

Rightwing gays, led by spokesman-publisher David Goodstein, and represented locally by Charlie Brydon of the Dorian Group, charge radicals with “spoiling” the gay movement. These “respectable” conservatives urge and engage in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the powers that be, invariably leaving lesbians and poor and working gays, out of their deals. Morton and Turner portrayed the good guys and the bad guys in this protracted ideological debate.

Conference participants quickly characterized the conservatives as ungrateful hypocrites for attacking the very militants who made gay “respectability” happen, for it was the radicals who basically legitimized the gay movement. RW members showed how their organization’s uncompromising demand for full sexual freedom and civil rights for all humanity — a demand that echoes the proud tradition of the original Soviet Constitution — has sparked gay rights struggles in all other movements.

The delegates agreed that the conservative attempt to dilute the gay community’s demands must be opposed, and the Conference called upon the gay left to coalesce around a feminist program for gay liberation within the framework of the class struggle.

Career Development

At the conclusion of the three major discussions, a series of well-attended workshops was held: one dealt with feminist activities at the University of Washington; another analyzed prevailing tendencies within socialist feminism; and three workshops offered practice in basic organizational skills — Leaflet Design and Production, Public Speaking, and Political Writing. A sixth workshop dispensed good advice on “How to Enter the Skilled Trades. “

Where Do We Go from Here?

As the Conference drew to a close, Radical Women President Constance Scott summed up the years of achievement and asked, “Where do we go from here? We’ve started something really big in the labor movement and we must stay on course, building towards a strong alliance between feminist, labor, minority and gay activists. The class struggle is where it all comes together. “

Scott urged RW to continue to provide a socialist alternative to gays; to educate young high school and campus women to the source of their oppression; to provide strong support to the organizing efforts of members around the country; and, as a top priority, to nourish the development of minority women’s leadership.

“Only minority women workers can firmly unify the race and sex movements in the class struggle,” she said. “Let’s hope that the theme for our next conference will be the actuality of minority women’s leadership in the revolutionary movement on a vastly expanded scale. “

The Rout of the Spartacists

From beginning to end, the RW Conference was alive and inspiring, and all the participants departed with new invigoration and commitment. All participants, that is, with the raucous exception of the sour and vitriolic Spartacist contingent, which came to conquer but soon dribbled away (not with a bang but a whimper) when it became crystal clear that their sick, ultra-left infantilism was being roundly repudiated by the adult audience. But that is another story, so please see Spartacists: Visitors From Another Planet for a ringside report of the historic and hysteric encounter.

The Conference appreciated the verbal forays of the chronically uptight and grandiose SL folks, who provided the delegates with an unexpected bonus in the form of political comic relief. No finer contrast could have been drawn than the contrast between the high principles and revolutionary integrity of RW and the demented ravings of the SL chauvinist bigots whom history and class struggle have long since passed by.

The next RW Conference will celebrate ten years of revolutionary work for women’s emancipation. From 1967 to 1977, “RW has served as a milestone on the road to international socialism.