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Until Every One of Us is Free: Reclaiming Feminism at the Grassroots

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Photograph of a group of black women smiling and looking up at something

Told and retold so many times over the years, our story has become very simple: mainstream white feminism never made space for the perspectives, agendas, and leadership of Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous, working class, and poor feminists. And so my generation, disorganized by the painful fragmentation we inherited, rarely leads with a feminist lens. Many times we distance ourselves from feminism altogether. This holds true even for a majority of projects focused on organizing working-class women of color — be it on the job, in the community, or in the realms of home and social relationships.

This version of feminism, in its US political context, is not the whole story though. In the international arena, feminism is alive and well, and feminist ideas are a leading edge in progressive social movements.

This summer I learned a lot about this, when I attended the World March of Women’s (WMW) 9th International Meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Initiated by the largest mainstream feminist organization in Quebec, the WMW started as a march “for bread and roses” and grew almost immediately to an international scale. Thanks to its founders’ ability to embrace leadership from the global south, it also grew politically.

Over the past 15 years, the WMW has deepened its understanding of national oppression, its commitment to economic justice, and its capacity to grow feminism from the grassroots.

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I went to Brazil as a representative of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), a longtime ally of the World March of Women based in the US. GGJ brings together groups, including my organization Causa Justa :: Just Cause, rooted in working-class communities and communities of color to turn our internationalist aspirations into concrete campaigns and relationships with partners in the rest of the world. Most GGJ organizations organize against racism and economic exploitation as part of their daily work. Yet few focus explicitly on gender. Even though many GGJ groups organize a base that is majority women and women and gender-queer organizers are often leading the campaigns, we rarely identify as feminists.

I knew participating in the WMW would be like stepping into a different world. What I didn’t know was how influential intersectional US feminisms have been for the women I met from across the globe. Among 1,700 women from 50 countries, Nalu Faria, one of the founders of Brazil’s WMW, reinforced the march’s vision of feminist internationalism by quoting none other than Englishwoman Virginia Woolf, ideological pillar of second-wave feminism: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

Later, in a difficult conversation about lesbianism and homophobia within the movement, a young Chilean read Audre Lorde from a Spanish translation transcribed in her decoupage-d notebook:

“Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist. Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.”

Who could bring Virginia Woolf and Audre Lorde together into a coherent, internationalist whole? Who could pick up where we’ve gotten stuck, and write a new ending for the old story, one where we overcome fragmentation, and change the world?

The world March of Women, in the Brazilian context

The international secretariat for the WMW has been housed in Brazil for the last seven years, after a successful transfer from the founding secretariat in Quebec. The leadership of Brazil’s WMW’s international secretariat was part of the once-left, now-governing center-left Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores). When the party made electoral inroads, including winning the presidency, these women leaders did not abdicate their power or responsibility to their now-governing colleagues. Neither did they disengage from the state, simplistically writing off that arena of struggle and leaving it in the hands of conservatives as we have seen in other movements. Instead, they re-committed to strengthening their autonomous social movement, making demands of the state and elected officials, and maintaining an inspiring level of mobilization.

Less than a year before the 2010 election of Brazil’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party, Brazil’s WMW chapter organized a march from every province in Brazil to Sao Paulo. They marched for 10 days, marking the WMW’s 10 years in the struggle, and bringing together women from rural northern provinces fighting mineral extraction on indigenous land, with those in rainforest provinces building food sovereignty, and those active in urban trade unions. The march’s theme song had a chorus in the Lingala language of the Congo, with verses sung and improvised in Portuguese. This was a song Brazilian women learned at the 8th International WMW Gathering in the Congo, a meeting held in a famously dangerous area where mineral extraction run by international corporations has robbed Congolese women of their land, their safety, and their lives. It was an expression of the incredibly strong ethic of solidarity that the WMW made possible within the context of Brazil’s social movements.

Another expression is their work to connect women involved in production and those involved in consumption in a single campaign. While some were fighting the community-destroying extraction of silica in rural areas, others agitated women in the cities to reject breast implants and the patriarchal ideas of beauty they depend on. This was captured in a slogan on stickers that read, “No to the globalization of silicone. Let’s globalize feminist revolution!”

Dedicated to an anti-capitalist challenge to patriarchy, and to the project of reclaiming internationalist feminism for the grassroots, the World March of Women is an incredibly inspiring global social movement, a leading force in the World Social Forum (WSF) process — also initiated by Brazilian social movements — and a key organizer of the WSF’s militant, cross-sector Social Movement Assembly.

De-patriarchalizing our social movements

In the Latin American context where social movements against neo-liberalism are vibrant and progressive governments reflect the gains of those movements, overcoming male domination and its structures and cultures in movement organizations is a key project often called “de-patriarchalization.”

In a panel on the trajectory of Latin American feminism, Francisca Rodriguez described her experience in the Chilean left in the 70s, and the experience of many women in the context of 20th century movements, when she said, “In our movement, we used to have to say ‘I am not a feminist’ all the time. It was a disclaimer you had to make before raising any issues in defense of women.” Now Francisca describes the process she and other women in La Vía Campesina are leading to transform the world’s largest grassroots organization from a male-dominated peasant social movement into a feminist-identified, women-led one.

She was joined by Sandra Morán, Guatemalan ex-guerilla and social movement leader, who rallied the crowd by putting La Vía Campesina’s process into the broader context of feminism’s trajectory in Latin America: “We can’t afford to believe the lie that feminism belongs to those who are distant from social movements. We are feminists shaped within social movements, within national liberation movements, in community organizing, in movements against austerity and for workers’ rights. Feminism is ours and we are taking this grassroots feminism with us on the road to changing the whole world.”

She shared stories about her work with fellow indigenous women from Mesoamerica, and the challenges and potential of drawing on ancestral traditions, while questioning the concept of dualism (which frames belief systems in a binary opposition of two conflicting and complementary parts) that is core to their cosmology and so often manipulated to defend exploitative gender roles.

Women from every continent were part of the conversation, sharing their stories and seeking common ground through intensive political training and education, discussion, debate, and direct action. The questions were not about whose ideas were most feminist. Instead, the conversation was about how best to universalize feminist values within a broader analysis, and how to build the solidarity that a feminist transformation of economic and social relations depends on.

Francisca challenged the group to think about movement building across gender. “When we women get together,” she said, “we can walk forward quickly. But we will later find ourselves having to stop and wait for the male comrades to catch up.”

She pointed out a bigger challenge that feminism faces: as we organize against women’s oppression and exploitation, how do we articulate a broader “we” that includes all genders? My mind drifted back to the US context, where so much vicious patriarchal and structural violence is directed at transgender people. How could transgender feminism advance the fight against patriarchy? What kind of feminism could we build that represents the interests of women without marginalizing other sectors of people who also battle patriarchy every day?

Incredibly loud chanting brought me right back to the present moment, as if on cue to answer my questions. One hundred Brazilian Trade Unionists were marching in, joining the large group after concluding an international women unionist exchange. They chanted the promise women make to each other at all World March of Women events and to the social movements of the world: “We will keep marching!! Until EVERY one of us is FREE!”

African leadership in de-colonizing feminism

The next chapter of the World March of Women will be written with a distinctly African perspective, as the international secretariat now moves to Mozambique. Mozambican leader Graca Sambo, the WMW’s new International Coordinator, drew on the legacy of her country’s fight for independence when she gave a moving campaign speech, calling for a “de-colonization” of feminism, and for the importance of reclaiming of the feminist tendency within national liberation movements in Africa.

She quoted Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel, making the most brilliant argument for feminism: “The liberation of women is not an act of charity. It is not the result of a humanitarian or compassionate position. It is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, a guarantee of its continuity, and a condition for its success.”

Participants in the gathering got to know more about the Mozambican delegation’s work and ideas in other ways as well. When organizers caught wind that the CEO of the Brazilian mining corporation Vale was going to appear at the venue of the WMW meeting for an after-hours event hosted by a local black college, the Mozambican and Brazilian organizers wasted no time. A direct action was quickly planned and hundreds of women chanted in their common language of Portuguese: “Vale (which translates as ‘worth’) is worthless to women!” After disrupting the auditorium where the speech was going to take place, we gathered outside to hear Mozambican and Brazilian women talk about the impact of mineral extraction on their home communities, and the need for a global movement to take up the struggle on a global scale.

After feeling the emotion of that international solidarity, the election of the new hosts for the international secretariat was an even more moving experience. It marked a new stage, where black internationalist leadership will set the pace for the WMW. For African feminists and organizers, it signals a huge new moment of possibility, a potential radicalization of NGO projects beholden to UN and charitable aid, new relationships of support for grassroots people’s movements, and rich possibilities to continue connecting work throughout Africa with campaigns against mineral extraction, against militarization and war profiteering, and with feminist forces in pro-democracy fights in North Africa and the Middle East. For the outgoing Brazilian secretariat, it confirms the vibrancy of the March, more than 15 years strong, and still growing its grassroots internationalism.

Representatives from 50 national coordinating bodies voted in favor of the new international secretariat, each woman holding up a yellow paper sheet showing consensus for the 12 representatives from Mozambique who were bravely stepping into leadership. The moment was rife with emotion, tears flowing as people clapped and the Mozambican delegates stepped up to the front of the room, singing a song from the independence movement. The song named dozens of countries present, calling to them “Hear Ye! Hear, Africa! If you are proud to be an African woman, say it! My ancestors were all born on this land!”

The World March of Women’s next global action, within its strategy of “permanent mobilization” is an international action in 2015. Starting with the commemoration of the anniversary of the Bangladesh factory fires in late 2012 and early 2013 that killed hundreds of young garment workers making clothes for transnational corporations, women from every member country will mobilize in a 24-hour action to build consciousness and take action in defense of the rights of women workers. This action will give chapters of the WMW in Asia a unique opportunity to organize mo

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