Radical Women Conference
The Women’s Building, San Francisco
October 6-9, 2008
Notes and photos by Masha Rumer
Better than: Calling yourself a maverick.
Feminists of all walks of life came together over the weekend for the Radical Women Conference to talk Marxist feminism, unionizing, reproductive rights and queer leadership, drawing participants nationally and from as far as Australia and Costa Rica.
The venue – the Women’s Building in the Mission District – made a symbiotic hub with its democratic mural art on the outside and a plethora of activism within, from women’s and children’s services, to advertisements for Bush-going-away parties and a same-sex dance show, to free condoms and lube. And while socialism to some may seem as far-fetched as freezing borscht in the snow, the conference entailed personal and political advice for all, with one distinct message: you have rights.
Over the course of four days, 250 plus women (and a sprinkling of men) participated in workshops on public speaking, organizing on the job, gender and affirmative action, poetry and rebellion. Highlights included an address by Lynne Stewart, a human rights attorney from New York who was convicted and sentenced for providing "terrorist support" for delivering a note to Reuters. Other panelists included Debbie Brennan from the Australian Services Union and Patricia Ramos, a Costa Rican labor lawyer and organizer against CAFTA.
Should you fight against wage cuts? How do you prove that you were fired as a result of discrimination? These were among many topics tackled, especially relevant in times of the economic mood swing, when employees can be let go at anytime in no uncertain terms, and immigrant workers may find their services ambiguously used.
One of the workshops, titled “Know Your Rights as Workers/Unionists,” spelled out techniques for shop floor organizing and ways to muster the guts to confront management about pay, non-existent lunch breaks or uncompensated promotions. Some were seasoned organizers, like Mary Ann Curtis from the University of Washington; others shared experiences about being a female carpenter and a union member; still others sought real-life advice for their social work or personal predicament. One young Latina woman wanted to know how to support her immigrant parents who recently lost their jobs and help someone boycott the Hyatt.
In another workshop, Anita O’Shea, Queer Youth organizer, tackled gay rights and defense from homophobic violence – a reality even here in San Francisco. “Our youth are being attacked on the streets, targeted by the cops,” she said.
Browsing the books by Marx and Trotsky, I recalled a co-worker’s recent question about female political candidates: “Are you voting for genitalia?” he probed indignantly (mind you, that was before Clinton dropped out of the race). Naturally, the hot question is what do Radical Women think about Palin and the elections at large?
Radical Women explain in a statement, also found on their website: “In an interview with People Magazine, Governor Palin reported that she signed government bills within two hours of giving birth to her latest child, and was back in the governor's office after two days of maternity leave. Big business and the state love her “super mom” credentials—because women's free labor in the home means corporations and the government can sidestep paying their share of raising the next generation of workers.
“There is no such thing as a monolithic movement for social and political change, and this is true of the feminist movement as well… it is time to reject candidates like Palin, McCain, Clinton and Obama, who try to keep a lid on women's issues. We vote for candidates based on political program, not their gender or race.”
The participants ended the conference by drawing up an action plan, which called for strengthened feminist grassroots activism and creation of new feminist chapters in the States and Latin America. Take that, Joe Sixpack.
Personal Bias: I’m a female writer who lives in San Francisco… a prima facie bias.
Random detail: During the break, I stumbled into a room and saw a woman breastfeeding her baby. I quickly apologized, but she just smiled at me.
By the way: Radical Women plan to protest the “Walk for Life” pro-life march in January 2009. It’s a surprise the march still happens here in San Francisco, a sanctuary city in many ways.