The Fractious, Temporary, Difficult, Unpleasant—and Successful—Process of Coalition Building in American Feminism

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 3:30 PM
Gallier Room A (Sheraton New Orleans)
Katarina Keane, University of Maryland at College Park
Recent scholarship has done important work identifying and analyzing varieties of feminism – liberal feminism, radical feminism, lesbian feminism, black feminism, Chicana feminism, cultural feminism, and so on.  As a result, the meaning of feminism has become fragmented and disjointed.  Rather than positing an understanding of second-wave feminism as divided along lines of tactics and philosophies, origins, or region, this paper accepts divisions as inherent to its nature.  Second-wave feminism was successful not despite divisions, but because of them.  The rubric of “the women’s movement” was large enough to accommodate different constituencies and different goals.  It provided a framework that made coalitions across lines of race and class possible, though never easy and only sometimes successfully.

This paper embraces the concept of “coalition” as central to second-wave feminism, particularly in places such as the South.  Although many activists in the late 1960s and 1970s used the language of “sisterhood,” they generally failed to create the truly empathic and reciprocal relationship that sisterhood implied.  Coalition-building, on the other hand, explains how diverse groups of women were able to construct a larger movement.  While generally retaining their individual identities and goals, coalition members joined together for varying lengths of time with varying degrees of solidarity.  Coalition work was never easy.  As Bernice Reagon stated, “You don’t go into coalition because you just like it.”  Many feminist coalitions were fractious and/or temporary.  But coalitions could make individual groups stronger and help protect minority interests.

Across the South, feminist activists of different races and classes rarely mobilized within the same organizations, but they often built coalitions that sought to bridge – if only temporarily – social, political, or economic divisions.  Even if women only occasionally organized in the same groups across lines of race and class, they often articulated similar grievances and sometimes advocated similar solutions.

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