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.)

Resilience For Activists

We are living through an age of authoritarianism and fascism. It is global and heartbreakingly local, including our own failed leaders who are openly embracing white nationalism and using biological sex as a weapon against women and LGBTQ people. It is easy to get overwhelmed — overwhelming you is core to the strategy bad leaders and bullies use to amplify their power.

So, we must practice resilience.

Resilience is a practice, a verb. Rather than judging yourself for being resilient or not, my encouragement is that you focus on building daily awareness of resilience and moving yourself more deeply toward a state of sustainable resistance. What is one thing you did yesterday that represents a victory in your daily practice of self-care? What is one thing that could have gone better in this regard? Write them down. I do this every morning.

For activists, practicing resilience looks like:

  • Saying no. Not every request made to you needs to be fulfilled by you.
  • Stepping away from your phone. You don’t have to be on top of everything, all the time. Activism is intense work. Take extended breaks, with family or friends who have nothing to do with your activism, and leave the damn device off the table.
  • Rest, hydration, and good food. This stuff is basic but real. Give yourself adequate sleep. Keep drinking water. Eat good, real food. Breathe. Go for walks. Stretch your muscles. Your body is not your container; it is yourself. Treat it well.

There are times that call for working ludicrously hard, when the work is a strobe light in your face for prolonged moments on end. We are living through such an age. Pacing is going slower than you know you can most of the time so that you are able to speed up when the moment absolutely calls for it. Doing so creates space to surge, finish, and stay in the work for the long haul. Where we need you.

Take care of yourselves, friends.

You See A Trump Administration Official In Public — Now What?

“Hi, I just want to urge you to resign because of what you’re doing to the environment in our country,” Kristin Mink said to former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt in a restaurant while hoisting her baby on her hip. “This is my son. He loves animals. He loves clean air. He loves water … We deserve to have someone at the EPA who actually does protect the environment. Someone who believes in climate change.”

Days later, Scott Pruitt resigned.

Taking direct action is effective. What makes this video so mesmerizing is how casually Kristin Mink strides up and speaks. Perhaps you think you can’t do this. But you can.

Here’s what to do if you see Trump administration officials in public:

1. To paraphrase my friend Susie, remember that they are YOUR government and accountable to YOU.

You have every right to speak to government officials — and expect a response — no matter what they are doing. In line at Target? Fair game. Eating at a restaurant? Go for it. Out at a swanky show on the town? You got it, friend.

2. Don’t worry about civility.

You can be firm and you can be polite, but if to be civil means to let an autocratic government attack a free press, rip families apart, decimate reproductive rights, destroy environmental protections, and embrace bald racism and nativism under our country’s flag — that kind of civility is actually just enabling, and nope, you don’t have to do that.

3. Assess where you are, who you have, and then start filming. 

Is a friend or family member with you? Decide who will record and who will speak. Are you by yourself? Grab your own phone and hold it up to record while you start talking. If you don’t record the interaction, it didn’t happen. You can put the video on Facebook Live if you are familiar with the tool, otherwise don’t worry about the program and record now to share later. Turn on the camera and keep it focused on them.

4. Walk up. Don’t wait. Do it now.

Your opportunity to speak truth to power may not last long. Do not let it slip you by. Your goal is not to be perfect. Your goal is to be a real human, which brings me to the next point:

5. Don’t worry about the finer points of policy or the right talking points or language. Speak from your heart.

Plain language is your friend. If I saw a Trump administration official right now, I’m not sure I’d have all the policy right, but I would feel confident speaking from my heart. “I have a little girl and I’m tired of having to turn down the radio because the president is using racial slurs.” “I’m scared about the direction the country is going in and I’m terrified about what is going to happen at the Supreme Court. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Speaking from your heart is perfect — you don’t need to be a commentator on TV. Be yourself, in the moment now. That is your moral authority.

6. Demand answers from them and go quiet strategically, keeping the camera on their face.

Keep asking your follow-up questions, but remember that the point of interacting is to make them answer TO YOU. If they start running away, move quickly after them, continuing to ask the question.

7. Once it’s over, post it online. 

Post the recording on social media, share it with people you know, and let people know how the interaction made you feel. By doing this work, you are making it more likely that others will feel comfortable confronting this corrupt, deathly administration.

Remember: You got this. Don’t let these opportunities fly by. You don’t need to be perfect. You have incredible power, just as you are, the moment you run into these folks.

 

Ready For Change? Try Direct Action

As an activist, advocate, and leader for social change, one of my favorite places in the world to be is on the sidewalk, holding a sign. It is calming. I am focused. I feel closer to the equality and justice I seek.

Direct action is when we put our bodies directly on the line. It is physical demonstration. It is one of my happiest places. I came into the women’s movement twenty years ago as an activist, and while I’ve accumulated a number of experiences and skills that go far beyond activism, I will never stop being an activist in my core.

If you’ve never tried direct action before, I encourage you to give it a whirl.

Unlike online activism, which often devolves into talking with (or worse, at) each other rather than reaching out to new people, the debates are not about who has the right lingo or runs with the right activist crowd. While internal debates are important within the progressive movement, there is no time for them when we are directly confronting power.

Direct action in a group means standing together and reaching new people — people who usually have no idea that the particular injustices we are attempting to reverse are happening. We put unmistakeable pressure on others to make the world a better place, now. Direct action is not a polite whisper, although it needn’t be accompanied by loud chants. Direct action is a moment of clarity – it is an accelerant for change that can’t be ignored.

 

Vote In Your Primary Election

I want YOU to vote in every election you are eligible to vote. That includes your primary election.

If you care about winning, primary elections are where the magic starts. Where we decide if more women are going to advance. Whether candidates who support our issues will advance. And who is best poised to beat the opponent in the general election.

No election is too small for your vote. This morning we took our daughter along to vote in a primary election for a county board race. We discussed with her, who we were voting for and why. We can not take our right to vote for granted, even when primary candidates seem more or less equal or there is no one who seems “just perfect.”

When our president flirts openly with anti-democratic moves, to vote in 2018 is an act of resistance.

People went to jail so you could vote. In a primary, you often don’t need to even stand in line. Just. Go. Vote.

Write An Advance Directive That Considers Religious Discrimination And Refusals

An advance directive is a written document that specifies your wishes for medical treatment if you become hurt or sick and are unable to speak for yourself. While it’s not always pleasant to think about these things, it’s important — it can save you and your loved ones additional heartache and second-guessing.

As I previously wrote for Rewire, I refuse to be taken to a Catholic hospital. As I outlined in that piece, I think it’s wise for women and LGBTQ people to consider the same, for the simple reason that it’s not possible to fully trust that one’s health care needs and wishes will drive the care that they are offered.

My advance directive contains language that I do not consent to be taken to a Catholic hospital, and that I wish to be transferred to another provider if I am taken to one. Further it specifies that under no circumstances should an actual or presumed pregnancy be used as an excuse to supersede my instructions for my medical care. In one advance directive draft, I actually wrote, “If someone tries to tell you otherwise, sue until you get a different result.”

My suggestion is for you to write an advance directive if you don’t have one (AARP offers acceptable advance directive forms for the state you live in here), or review yours if you already do. In addition to the replying to prompts in your state’s form, consider the denials of care that are taking place in religiously affiliated hospitals. Is there language like mine, or specific to your own situation that you would like to insert?

While we can’t all collectively self-help our way out of denials of health care — there needs to be policy change that requires a timely way for people to access the care they need if they are interacting with a service provider who refuses their wishes — this is one little step we all can and should take in the meantime.

Hey, Feminists: If You Went To A Catholic College, Make Yourself A Visible Alum

Recently I learned that a colleague working in reproductive rights had graduated from the University of Notre Dame. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. “Stay active in your campus community,” I said. “You’ve got to do it.”

I am a proud alum of Georgetown University, which provided me an excellent education and foundation for the social justice work I do. I’ve made a point to stay active in the campus community over the years — interviewing prospective undergraduate students, serving on panels and at speed mentoring events facilitated by the career center, mentoring students through the Women’s Center, speaking to the H*yas for Choice unofficial student group, and providing direct financial support. I was very honored one year to serve as a judge for the Merrick Debate for the Philodemic Society. I have weighed in on a debate through the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affiars as to whether you can oppose abortion and be a feminist (spoiler alert: not possible!). Basically, anything they ask me to do, I will do it.

I have also undertaken activism with regard to my campus community. Every time I interact with H*yas for Choice, the group on campus which advocates for abortion rights, I give them a financial donation. Most times when I donate directly to the university, I will add notes about how I would donate more if student activities funds could be allocated to H*yas for Choice as well. Simply put, there are brilliant women at Georgetown who deserve to have their basic humanity respected.

I enjoy following the lead of the brave students of H*yas for Choice who are not officially recognized by the campus community and have had their rights trampled on by the university, as happened a few years ago when campus police removed them from tabling on a public sidewalk that was not university property. When that happened, I organized more than 200 alums to sign an open letter to the university president requesting that the situation be rectified to support free speech on (and in this case off) campus, which was met by an apology to the students and a formal explication of free speech rights on campus (and after which I gave the university the largest donation of my life).

I’m sharing this because if you attended a Catholic university and are a feminist, I’m asking you to remain engaged as an alum within your campus community. Students do not need us to lead their battles on campus — young people are inspiring and so fully capable — but it is helpful when we back them up. Further, it’s critical. There is a well-organized right wing that organizes a small but vocal minority of alums to place pressure on their Catholic universities when, for example, speakers who support birth control are brought to campus. This has led to protests of speaking engagements by presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other major players such as the president of Planned Parenthood as if consideration of all sides of an issue is against the principle of higher learning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I love my world-class university and all it has taught me over the years, including a non-profit management executive certificate I recently completed. What I have also seen is that the right-wing is well-organized in trying to pull Catholic colleges further to the right, at times making threats that they will petition the Vatican to revoke their Catholic status. Such efforts are widely out of step with the base of alums who need you, dear feminist alum, to take leadership. Please stay engaged in your alma mater. Even if you partake in other forms of activism, staying engaged with your former Catholic college could be some of the most important work you do in your lifetime for young women.

When Democratic Party Institutions Try To Fundraise Off Of You, You Tell Them To Stand Up For Abortion

Every fundraising letter, every telephone request for money is an action opportunity. For years I have been taking action with the fundraising letters sent by the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, state Democratic parties, and Democratic-aligned PACs that don’t take abortion rights seriously. The call to action is simple:

Don’t give them money. Tell them to stand up for abortion rights consistently and without hesitation, and then you’ll give them your money.

Many times the letters include a prepaid envelope for your convenience. And with a telemarketer, hey, you can chat. In other words, these actions are free and take just moments of your time.

Now, do it. Do it every time they ask you for money. And give the money that you might have donated to them to Democratic candidates who do unflinchingly stand up for the right to abortion, even as some out-of-touch national leaders suggest a “big tent” for candidates.

I mean, come on! Under the wrongful big tent theory of change I’ve written about extensively for Rewire, Democrats lose more seats because the base does not unite behind candidates (in fact, check out this recent poll that proves recruiting anti-abortion candidates is more of a liability for Democrats than a gain in terms of voters), Republicans have more supporters for anti-abortion policy in legislative bodies, and the poor, sadistic, complicit Vice President Mike Pence gets the additional anti-abortion Democrats he needs so that he doesn’t have to make the trek from the White House to the Capitol to cast tie-breaking votes to kick human rights for women and transgender people who become pregnant in the teeth.

Your instructions to Democratic Party organs to stand firmly for reproductive health, rights, and justice when they come to you looking for money are not symbolic. They matter. They are tallied.

Fundraising Letter with I will support you when you stand up for choice written over it!

Over the years, I have been pleased to hear that I have inspired many  friends and fellow activists who know me to send their letters back with instructions to national party leaders to stop crapping on abortion, which is what is inspiring me to write this down here. Please, start taking this action, pass this message on, and urge your friends to do the same.

Also, please do give generously of your time and money to those Democratic candidates who hold strong for abortion rights. In the past year I’ve been as loud as I’ve ever been about holding Democrats accountable, and I’ve also given as much as I ever have directly to candidates and PACs that share my values — 10 percent of my  income in the last year, to be exact. It’s not just money and volunteer time that talks. It’s the absence of giving money and support, too.

Together we do have power.

One of these days national Democrats may get it, and stop repeating the right wing talking points implanted within our midst to undermine our effectiveness. But with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) having the gall to suggest a big tent on abortion inside an event hosted by Planned Parenthood — for cripes sake, the insult! — just a few days ago, I’m not holding my breath. I’m just taking action with every opportunity that presents itself, including in my mailbox and on my telephone. You can do the same, quickly and easily.

Let This Be The Year Your Internal Bully Dies

Your internal bully is an asshole. It is not an internal voice that is helping you. It is designed to destroy you. Let this be the year your internal bully dies.

Here are some things your internal bully might tell you:

– You are not good enough.
– You’re going to be alone.
– You didn’t get invited to a thing because there is something wrong with you.
– That thing you said that sounded dumb? People are still talking about it.
– Your body shape isn’t good for that outfit.
– You need to go on a diet.
– You’re no good at fitness anymore because you are lazy.
– If you admitted you needed help, they’d laugh.
– The terrible thing you have done means you should go away.
– No matter what you do or how hard you try, you can’t do that.
– It’s not your turn yet and you need more credentials.

There is no point to continue; chances are, your internal bully has told you things that are worse and more cruelly personal. Often, internal bullies masquerade as a ‘voice of reason’ that are helping you to ‘improve.’ That’s poppycock. An internal bully exists solely to shut you down. The internal bully is not here to help, unless if by help you mean feel crappy and miss out on opportunities you deserve.

Internal bullies manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are quiet bursts of self doubt in an otherwise clear head. Sometimes they are addictions or mental illnesses that ebb at times and take over at others. Other internal bullies are encouraged and planted by mainstream “self-improvement” programs or advertising, or abusive bosses, family members, frenemies, or romantic partners.

Internal bullies are absolutely a gendered phenomenon that impact some people more frequently and severely on the basis of many intersecting identity-based oppressions including racism, heterosexism, and ableism, although they can strike anyone.

If you are a woman who identifies as feminist it’s basically your patriotic duty to tell your internal bully to fuck off. Not to say that discarding internal bullies is easier for feminists; in my experience it can be harder to admit you have negative feelings about yourself. But, I suspect the reward for shucking internal bullies is explosively rewarding for feminists. The personal is political indeed.

Seeing your internal bully as an internal bully strips it of its power. Naming it out loud and continuing to live your life anyway does the same. We are not weak because we have thoughts of self-doubt. We are strong when we recognize the thoughts for the unhelpful bullies they are, and choose to ignore them.

You don’t need self-improvement. You deserve to live and enjoy your life. That doesn’t mean you need to stay the same. You can make changes you want and do the hard work to become the person you want to be without beating yourself up for being the person you are now. Self-love is revolutionary. Self-honesty is not self-badgering. If you wouldn’t say it to someone you love you definitely shouldn’t say it to yourself. Let this be the year your internal bully dies.

Vacation Is A Feminist Issue

Vacation is a feminist issue. A report from Project Time Off showed that women are less likely to use vacation time provided to them by an employer. The numbers are notable for millennials: Just over half of millennial men (51 percent) are using their vacation time, versus less than half of millennial women (44 percent).

In the study, women were more likely to say cite guilt about taking vacation and the mountain of work they return to as factors that influenced their decision whether or not to take vacation. Further, women were slightly more likely to say they were nervous taking vacation would make them appear less committed to their jobs.

Okay, let’s stop talking about the study and start talking in plain English:

Vacation is a feminist issue. If your employer is providing you with paid time off, you should be taking it. You are literally not getting paid in full when you are not taking your vacation days. Add this to systemic pay inequity experienced by women, most profoundly experienced by women of color, and it’s grosser still.

Whether you “vacation” in the travel sense of the word or simply take the time to rest (or take care of your home-life obligations, which has been, real talk, much of the vacation time I’ve been using at the end of this year), you are more free to be happy, healthy, and productive in your life, including in your workplace.

Within feminist and/or non-profit professions specifically, can we just cut it out with the martyrdom complex? You are not more committed when you are working yourself to the bone. You are, however, more likely to be unhealthy and stressed out.

I sincerely doubt that at the end of your life you will wish you had spent more hours on the clock. TAKE YOUR VACATION TIME, LADIES!

Rosie the Riveter image over a desert island