THE WOMEN'S COALITION OF MILWAUKEE, 1972-1987: FEMINIST ACTIVISM AT THE LOCAL LEVEL

By Jamakaya (formerly J. M. Dombeck)
©1987 by J. M. Dombeck aka Jamakaya. All rights reserved.
Masters Thesis, Department of History
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, 1987

Introduction
Chapter One: Origins and Early Projects –
The Women's Crisis Line and the Task Force on Battered Women

Chapter Two: Crisis and Reorganization
Chapter Three: Service and Direct Action –
Prostitutes, Displaced Homemakers and "Take Back the Night"

Conclusion

Introduction

Twenty years after the revival of an organized feminist movement in the United States, numerous retrospectives and critiques appeared to assess the movement's impact. Disappointed expectations and feminist excesses emerged as central themes in book length studies and throughout the popular media. The titles themselves echoed the prevailing sentiment: A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America, "Beyond the Feminist Mystique," "Feminism's Identity Crisis," and "The Feminist Mistake."1

Many of these critiques are based on fallacious assumptions about the nature of American feminism. They depict the women's movement in static terms as one undifferentiated mass of ideologues committed to the policy agenda of one or two national organizations. In fact, the feminist movement encompasses a multiplicity of individuals, organizations, businesses, and institutions from the grass roots to the national level. Goals vary, tactics differ, ideologies shift and often conflict. The women's movement is not monolithic. It is diverse and dynamic. Some studies focus on the alienation women feel in their newly chosen corporate careers as indicative of a general malaise besetting all women in the workforce. This new dissatisfaction, as well as the deteriorating economic conditions facing American women, are then blamed on feminists. Such contentions are illogical and fail to take into account the many complex factors shaping the American workplace and economy. They also ignore the groundbreaking role feminists have played in identifying the very problem they are accused of creating: the feminization of poverty. By concentrating on career advancement as the sole barometer of feminist achievement, these studies ignore the notable contributions feminists have made to a wide range of legislative, institutional, and attitudinal reforms at familial, local, state, and national levels. Their greatest flaw is their failure to recognize the breadth and diversity of the feminist movement.2

I found scholarly validation for my misgivings about the current literature in a historical/sociological study by Myra Marx Ferree and Beth B. Hess, Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement.3 Marx Ferree and Hess maintain:

Oversimplification characterizes much of what has been written about the contemporary women's movement, both in the professional and popular press ... It is, in fact, impossible to write of the organized feminist movement without placing it in the context of many diverse strands of feeling and action.4

Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement is a comprehensive analysis of those "diverse strands" of feminism. Marx Ferree and Hess view modern feminism within its three historical traditions: moral reform, liberalism, and socialism. They explore the race/sex analogy which, at two significant periods in American history, propelled women into organized activity on their own behalf. The authors analyze the works of influential writers Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, and others to illustrate the theoretical diversity of the movement. They discuss the conflict between feminists seeking change through individual transformation and those committed to socio-political reform.5

Marx Ferree and Hess identify two modes of feminist organizational activity which emerged in the l960s, the bureaucratic and the collectivist strands. The bureaucratic strand grew out of women's networks created after the establishment of the President's Commission on the Status of Women (and subsequent state commissions) in the l960s. The National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus, with hierarchical structures and national policy agendas, are examples of the bureaucratic strand. The collectivist strand is characterized by a somewhat younger cohort who came to women's liberation in the late 1960s strongly influenced by the civil rights, anti-war, and counterculture movements. Collectivist organizations existed primarily at the grass roots level and eschewed hierarchy and purely materialist goals. While supportive of the national organizations' aims, they focused on services and reforms within their own communities.6

The authors describe the proliferation of feminist groups and activities in the l970s and the internal conflicts which arose to challenge the broad coalition. The feminist movement clearly incorporated a diversity of interests. Political organizations lobbied for legislation and worked for candidates. Cultural feminists organized dance, theater, film, and writing groups. Academics initiated women's studies programs. Feminist entrepreneurs launched bookstores, boutiques, and record companies. Others developed women's health clinics, crisis hotlines, child care centers, and special transit services for women. Marx Ferree and Hess comment on the predominance of white, educated women in the movement and examine accusations of racism and classism. Lesbianism, abortion, and pornography have caused further controversy among feminists.7 Although "the movement has proved remarkably resilient to internal dissent ... the movement's diversity ... could degenerate into factionalism."8

Controversy and Coalition assesses the impact of feminist activism nationally and, not surprisingly, finds mixed results. Although the central goal of the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated, the thousands of women who entered political office or policy-making bodies in the past twenty years constitute a powerful force for future campaigns. Although new careers have been opened, many American women continue to toil at low wage jobs with little hope for advancement. Feminist support for comparable worth and maternity leave legislation, and increasing involvement with unions, are methods of addressing this economic dilemma. Marx Ferree and Hess close by noting two major challenges to the progress of the feminist movement in the 1980s. First, feminists must respond to increasing attacks by conservative elements who accuse the movement of anti-family, even anti-American values. Second, to assure its continuation, the movement must find ways of attracting the new generation of young women coming of age in the 1980s.9

Swimming against the tide of uninformed anti-feminist tracts which dominate the popular media, Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement is a valuable scholarly contribution to the current debate on the feminist movement. Its integrity lies in its methodological approach. In contrast to the ahistorical bent and gross generalizations which characterize most critiques, Marx Ferree and Hess explore the historical roots of American feminism and stress its diversity. They draw heavily from participants' accounts of the movement and the rich store of feminist literature which accompanied the movement's progress. The feminist movement is revealed, therefore, on its own terms and evaluated from "both an insider's and outsider's perspective."10 The feminist movement emerges as a complex and fluid social movement, whose diversity requires careful analysis. The authors encourage further research to illuminate the many varieties of feminist expression and to contribute to the ongoing debate of feminism's impact on American society.

The following thesis presents a particularistic study of one feminist organization, the Women's Coalition of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Women's Coalition was established in 1972 as the new wave of feminist activism took hold in Milwaukee. The Coalition continues to operate in 1987. This thesis traces the evolution of the organization over its fifteen year history and scrutinizes its origins, membership, structure, programs, failures, and achievements. The purpose of this account is to inquire into the workings of the feminist movement at the local level and, more specifically, to survey the effects of feminist activism, as represented by the Women's Coalition, on the city of Milwaukee. As such, it records a significant aspect of Milwaukee history which has so far gone undocumented. This organizational history of the Women's Coalition is offered as a case study of a local institution of the modern wave of American feminism.

Several important aspects of the Women's Coalition and this study require clarification at the outset. First of all, the Women's Coalition is an umbrella organization encompassing many of Milwaukee's feminist groups over a fifteen year period. (The Appendix lists all of the Coalition's member groups and projects from 1972 through 1987, the time of this writing.) I chose the Coalition for this study because it has been the central and most enduring coalition of feminists in the city. In deference to the diversity of the movement, I must emphasize that even within the city of Milwaukee there were other organizations and individuals, unaffiliated with the Coalition, working toward feminist goals. Some did not join the Coalition because of ideological differences; others preferred to remain independent. Despite their differences and/or need for independence, many of these groups worked alongside the Coalition on individual issues or campaigns. The League of Women Voters, the YWCA, and Women Against Rape are examples of these unaffiliated organizations.

Second, even member groups affiliated with the Coalition, like the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, maintained primary allegiance to their own group identity. In crediting the Women's Coalition with successful programs or campaigns, I have endeavored to recognize individual member groups which made outstanding contributions to the effort. Because the Coalition was composed of so many activist organizations, and because most staff members and volunteers belonged to member groups, crediting the Women's Coalition for various activities implicitly honors all of its member groups as well.

Finally, I have not imposed my own or any dictionary or textbook definition of feminism on this study. This introduction provides some relevant context, but I have allowed the ideas and goals and tactics of the Coalition to reveal themselves through the words and actions of its participants. This is precisely what is lacking in the current spate of anti-feminist literature and what is necessary for a true understanding of the feminist movement – the voices and visions of its participants. It is in this spirit that I present the history of the Women's Coalition.

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NOTES:

1 Sylvia Ann Hewlett, A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986); Benjamin R. Barber, "Beyond the Feminist Mystique," The New Republic, July 11, 1983, pp. 26-32; Eloise Salholz, et al., "Feminism's Identity Crisis," Newsweek, March 31, 1986, pp. 58-59; Mona Charen, "The Feminist Mistake," National Review, March 23, 1984, pp. 24-27. See also John Leo, "Motherhood vs. Sisterhood," Time, March 31, 1986, pp. 62-63; Michael Levin, "Feminism, Stage Three," Commentary, August, 1986, pp. 27-31.

2 Ibid.

3 Myra Marx Ferree and Beth B. Hess, Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985).

4 Ibid., p. ix.

5 Ibid., pp. 1-43.

6 Ibid., pp. 45-68.

7 Ibid., pp. 71-139.

8 Ibid., p. 111.

9 Ibid., pp. 141-183.

10 Ibid., p. ix.

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