Lessons From Alice

Alice Cohan is on the short list of most effective living feminist organizers in the United States. The principal organizer of the Equal Rights Amendment marches on Washington, she is in a category of her own: There is no other Alice. For those of you, who like me, were not alive then, perhaps the best way to acquaint you with Alice’s work is to tell you about the 2004 March for Women’s Lives that brought 1.15 million people to the National Mall in support of abortion rights. At the time, it was the largest such march in history.

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2004 March for Women’s Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C.

Today Alice is political director for Feminist Majority, a role she previously held for the National Organization for Women. Many know Alice as the indispensable right-hand woman of Eleanor Smeal. I have been fortunate to know Alice for nearly 20 years, meeting her when I was in college. She has been a mentor ever since, and while I have been blessed with several, no other feminist mentor has had the longevity and, frankly, the patience with me that Alice has. I would not be doing the work I am today if Alice had not invested in me.

In honor of Alice, I’d like to share some of the organizing lessons I’ve learned from her over the years:

1. Invest in young people. Freely share information, and invite them to ask questions. Invite them to the meeting, whether or not they ‘belong.’ Do the work of today’s movement and fostering the next generation of the movement at the same time. Alice and I first developed a relationship when I spent a semester cleaning out her office, which remains a fire hazard in spite of my best efforts. I will never forget her telling me not just to put the files away, but to “read them, and ask me questions.” The following summer while she was visiting my (then) home state of Minnesota, she invited me to accompany her to a private, important meeting between top feminist leaders and a big-time lawyer representing victims of abuse by Catholic priests. Who does this with a 21-year-old kid? Alice. This is not about me, it’s about Alice, and I know there are trails of young people she has encouraged and fostered over the years.

2. If you disagree on strategy or tactics, say it plainly and without hesitation, and explain why. Alice is not one to stay silent when she disagrees. There’s a no-bullshit frankness about Alice that eschews some of the gendered teachings that women should be passive and/or passive aggressive when we disagree. Because of this, we’re all smarter, more honest, and often more well-rounded in our approach when we air differences openly and respectfully.

3. Organizing a national march is a tremendous amount of work. It is not the solution for every problem. When it is to be deployed, carefully thinking through strategy and timing helps us use our resources most wisely. This is an important point that still has its place in this era of social media-declared marches. For example, a demonstration on the National Mall shortly before elections is not a great idea because it pulls people away from door-knocking in communities where turnout is critical.

4. Actions look bigger when we all wear one color. White, in particular, really looks big.

5. Support for abortion rights will always be one of the most critical parts of feminist work. If they say they’re feminist but are not explicitly pro-choice, we must object vehemently and with all that we have. I’ve written about this extensively, including here for Rewire, “Melinda Gates, and Why We Must Talk About Abortion in Progressive and Feminist Circles.”

6. Get on the phone. Have a meeting. Sending messages back and forth pales in comparison. Nothing beats a call, or a real meeting with several people around the table, in order to get things done.

7. Never stop trying. It is 2019, and Alice and Ellie are still giving their all to bring the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution. If Virginia’s elections this fall go well, we could get our last state to ratify and … this has not been an accident. They have never, never stopped working and organizing for this moment.

8. All issues are women’s issues. There is no such thing as single-issue feminism. Make it intersectional. Work for it all, ask for it all.

9. Make time to laugh and invest in personal relationships with other feminists. Do not let ‘factions’ or issue disagreements get in the way. Maintain those relationships. This point is critical, and I don’t think it can be understated. At times, Alice and I have disagreed deeply on issues. At others, we have run in different circles that included people who were vehemently, in some cases, even toxically opposed to one another. In these situations Alice never gave up on me — even when she would be angry with me — and she continued initiating regular contact and encouraging me to ask her questions about organizing.

10. You can get a tremendous amount done if you don’t worry about taking credit for it. To be honest, I don’t know if Alice would agree with me that this is one of her biggest lessons. But it’s one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from watching her work, working with her, and listening to her, and I come back to it often.

11. Ask for what you want, loudly. Don’t waste a room full of people without asking them for money, or to sign a petition, or to come to an event. If you’re reading this now and feel so moved, please make a donation to Feminist Majority in honor of Alice, who is on the verge of receiving a lifetime achievement award from NOW. Proceeds will be used to fund critical organizing work for the 2019 Virginia elections.

I fear I’ve butchered this all horribly, as there is so much more to learn from Alice. However after nearly 20 years I wanted to share with you directly a small portion of what I’ve learned from this organizer extraordinaire.  And if you have been mentored by me, or in any way have felt some learning from my work, know that because of the profound influence this woman has had on me, I consider you as linked to Alice’s generosity of teaching, as well.

(Please, learn more about Alice here at the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project, including a long video interview with Alice conducted by yours truly.)

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