Organizing Women from the Bottom Up
Organizing Women From the Bottom Up

Miriam Ching Louie surveys today's wave of grassroots
organizing efforts among women of color.

     When I asked Luz Alvarez Martinez of the National
Latina Health Organization to share her views about the U.S.
women's movement, she immediately responded with questions
of her own. "Which women's movement do you mean? The white
middle class women's movement? Or the women of color
movement? The white groups may have the money, the
government and media recognition, but we are here struggling
     Indeed, one of the most encouraging developments during
the last decade is the spread of organizing among grassroots
women, especially women of color. Class divisions in this
country are highly racialized, with people of color
disproportionately concentrated in the poorest sectors of
the working class. Thus, many of the grassroots groups
organizing around class issues are organizations of African
American, Latina, Asian Pacific, Native American and Arab
     Especially since the mid-1980s, many new grassroots
women's organizations have sprouted up, baptized under the
fire of blistering attacks by New Right conservatives,
Reagan Republicans and corporate predators. The basis for
their appearance is three-fold.
     First, these organizations arose to address the
specific needs of women whose struggle for liberation
requires simultaneously addressing sex, class and race
oppression. While women of every class face discrimination,
we are also divided along the major class and race fault
lines in roughly the same proportion as men. Women's class
and race status can either shield them from the full impact
of women's oppression or intensify their hardships. For
example, while some women fight to break through the "glass
ceiling" in the professional and corporate world, others
struggle to support their families on minimum wage,
temporary and/or part-time jobs. While some women can easily
pay for abortions, others must sacrifice their food and rent
money to cover the cost or end up having a child they cannot
afford. And while some career women have problems
stabilizing housekeeping and child care arrangements, others
work for them as underpaid domestics. Grassroots groups
organize the women on the bottom.
     Second, the new wave of independent organizing fills a
vacuum left by the narrow agenda of liberal feminism. Women
of the U.S.'s large middle class form the social base of
liberal feminism, the dominant trend in the U.S. women's
movement since feminism's rebirth in the 1960s.
Organizations like the National Organization for Women
(NOW), National Women's Political Caucus, and National
Abortion Rights Action League focus their efforts on
securing women's legal rights, preventing conservatives from
overturning abortion rights, and getting women elected to
political office. Liberal feminist campaigns have succeeded
in electing a growing number of women all the way up to the
congressional level.
     These legal, civil rights and electoral battles provide
important toeholds from which women can fight to gain more
ground. But liberal feminism has been unable, if not
unwilling, to push beyond the fight for formal equality and
embrace the issues of working class women. Such issues
confront deeply embedded structural inequities inherent in
U.S. capitalism. Locked out of liberal feminism's top-down
approach to legislative and electoral action, grassroots
women fight for their rights from the bottom up.
     Third, ongoing institutions and structures had to be
created in order to survive the ebb in mass activism
afflicting almost every social movement. Building on the
experiences of earlier movements, grassroots women
organizers recognize that without organization, long-term
struggles cannot be maintained through hard times.
     Over the years, women activists have learned how to
tackle opponents, mobilize constituents, run campaigns,
build organizations, gather financial support, cultivate
allies and forge coalitions. These skills are now employed
in a diverse combination of organizing strategies that
support poor women in dealing with immediate survival
issues. Today grassroots women's organization are
confronting corporations and banks, law enforcement agencies
and government bureaucracies. They are building networks and
sharing strategies with one another, working on common
agendas and trying to increase their collective political
clout. Some take the form of distinct women's organizations
while others work as women's committees within larger
groups. Still others may not call themselves women's
organizations per se, but have memberships whose majorities
are women and whose agendas are built around their issues.
     Some of the most exciting organizing is going on in
three areas: for reproductive and health rights, among women
workers, and against anti-woman violence.
     Because the conditions under which women decide how and
whether to bear children are so central to their lives, the
fight for reproductive freedom, including abortion rights,
is high on the agenda. Women of color organizations have
deepened the struggle by exposing how poor women and
children lack access to safe birth control, maternal and
infant health care. They have also critiqued racist
population control policies and fought against the use of
women of color as human guinea pigs to test dangerous drugs
and procedures. They have had to confront government
agencies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, world population
control bodies, and mainstream women's organizations that
exclude minority women.
     In 1992 several organizations joined forces to co-found
the Women of Color Reproductive Health Rights Coalition.
Members include the National Black Women's Health Project,
National Latina Health Organization, Native American Women's
Health Education Resource Center, National Asian Women's
Health Organization, National Coalition of 100 Black Women
and International Coalition of Women Physicians. Mary Chung,
a Korean American who heads the National Asian Women's
Health Organization, explains, "We wanted to create our own
movement. We got tired of white women defining our issues
and telling us what to do. After protesting NOW's exclusion
of women of color from the abortion rights march in 1992, we
got together, developed our own agenda and figured out how
to share and coordinate our work."
     Chung says that the coalition is in the process of
putting together a delegation of 20 women of color to give
input at the U.N. Population and Development Conference to
be held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994. "This will be the first
time that women of color can voice their opinions about the
world population policies that are having such diverse
impacts on our communities. "
     Similarly, Felicia Ward of the Bay Area Black Women's
Health Project in Oakland, California, pointed out "Black
women just kept slipping off of other people's agendas,
until we fought to establish the legitimacy of our issues."
Ward says that Byllye Avery, the founder of the national
organization, sat on the board of the National Women's
Health Network, but grew increasingly frustrated with the
its failure to address the health issues of Black women.
Avery called women together and organized a conference in
Atlanta, Georgia in 1983 that drew some 2,000 women. The
conference inspired the women to return to their local
communities to investigate and organize a movement around
Black women's health needs. Disproportionately high rates of
infant and maternal mortality and of death from breast
cancer, diabetes, AIDS, and hypertension led project
organizers to declare, "We must now challenge the United
Nations to recognize the unique status of African Americans
as `developing' in a developed nation." The national project
spun off 150 self-help groups in 31 states, Africa and the
Caribbean; launched the Center for Black Women's Wellness in
Atlanta; initiated SisteReach to promote health and
reproduction awareness among Black women in the southern
diaspora; runs a public education and policy office in
Washington, D.C., publishes a national magazine, and
launched a Walking for Wellness exercise and nutrition
     The Native American Women's Health Education Resource
Center in Lake Andes, South Dakota is currently focusing on
Norplant and Depo Provera abuses on Indian reservations.
Depo Provera is injected into the body every three months
and Norplant sticks are inserted into the arm for five years
to prevent pregnancy; both have many dangerous side effects.
They are administered by the government-run Indian Health
Service, which admits that 225,000 Native American women are
being injected with Norplant.
     Another major reproductive health hazard stems from the
government selecting Indian reservations as prime targets
for landfills, garbage incinerators, nuclear and toxic waste
dumping. Charon Asetoyer of the Resource Center says, "Toxic
dumping is going on simultaneously in Indian lands across
the U.S. High nuclear contamination levels are driving up
miscarriages, birth defects and cancers. Now we've got
nuclear contaminated breast milk. These are women's issues
that affect the lives of our whole community."
     Such reproductive and environmental abuses are but the
latest in a long history of genocidal policy, including high
rates of sterilization of native women and widespread
removal of Indian children from their families. Asetoyer's
group has played a leading role in raising awareness about
the problem of fetal alcohol syndrome, where children born
to alcoholic mothers suffer from birth defects. Asetoyer
argues that the solution to the problem is government
support for drug and alcohol treatment programs, not
incarceration, forced birth control and sterilization. In
addition to pressuring governmental agencies to change their
policies, the group runs health awareness and disease
prevention programs, classes on nutrition and well child
development as well as a shelter for abused women and
children. Asetoyer explains the grassroots method of
organizing, "We work and live right here in the community.
We include elders, children and everyone in between, so our
policies and programs grow directly out of the community."
     Both by design and by default, racist reproductive
policies also hurt Latinas. The first woman to die from a
botched abortion after federal funding for abortions for
poor women was slashed in 1977 was Rosie Jiminez, a poor
Chicana in McAllen, Texas. A scholarship student with a
four-year-old daughter at the time, Rosie died with a
scholarship check still in her purse.
     Luz Alvarez Martinez, co-founder of the National Latina
Health Organization, says that sterilization abuse is also a
major problem for Latinas. She points out that government
funding is scarce for abortions but plentiful for
sterilization and that, "We are not given adequate
information so that we can give truly `informed consent' for
medical procedures that affect our reproductive choices."
She cites the case of Chicanas sterilized without their
knowledge in Los Angeles county, and the fact that in New
York Latinas have a sterilization rate seven times higher
than white women and almost twice that of Black women.
     In addition to running bilingual classes and workshops
on health issues for community women, the group is working
to end Norplant and Depo Provera abuses against poor women
of color. She notes that the U.S. now exports Depo Provera
to 90 countries for use by millions of women.
     Two decades of economic restructuring have reduced the
number of higher-paying unionized jobs in manufacturing and
expanded the number of low-paying non-unionized jobs in the
service, finance, and retail sectors. Simultaneously the
U.S. has experienced two demographic revolutions: the
massive entry of women into the paid labor force, and the
surge in immigration from the Third World since the removal
of racially discriminatory immigration quotas in 1965. By
the Year 2000, if current trends persist, four out of five
women between the ages of 25 and 54, and seven out of ten
pre-school children's moms, will be working for a paycheck.
     Women's entrance into the paid labor force has allowed
transnational corporations (TNC's) to create a "global
assemblyline." TNC's headquartered in the U.S., Japan and
Europe have set up off-shore operations in Asia, Latin
America and the Caribbean to exploit women's labor. Rising
immigrant populations in the U.S. mean many companies can
pay immigrant women Third World wages at home, save
transportation costs, and cut turn-around time on
production. For example, the resurgence of garment and
electronics industries here is based on Latina and Asian
immigrant women's sweatshop labor. Recent passage of the
NAFTA and GATT agreements has only whetted corporate
     While families and local economies now depend on the
wages of women "bread/rice/tortilla earners," lingering
sexism and racism make unions and women's organizations slow
to address women workers' issues. Union membership is at an
all-time low of 16 percent of the workforce. Only those
unions that aggressively organize women, minorities and
immigrants have grown -- like the clerical and service,
hotel and restaurant, and health workers' unions. In this
void, ethnic-based labor organizations like Fuerza Unida and
Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) are pioneering
approaches geared to the needs of women on the U.S. leg of
the global assemblyline. (See "Asian and Latina Women Take
on the Garment Giants," in CrossRoads No. 29.)
     "We were early victims of the NAFTA," laments Irene
Reyna, one of three co-coordinators of Fuerza Unida (United
Force), a workers fightback organization launched by Mexican
American garment workers when the Levi-Strauss corporation
shut down their plant in San Antonio, Texas, and ran away to
Costa Rica. San Antonio workers say that before the company
dumped them, Levi's had already closed 26 other plants,
moving production to the Third World and putting 7,000
workers out on the street. Among the workers laid off at the
San Antonio plant, 92 percent were Latina, 86 percent female
and 70 percent married. White male managers were transferred
to other plants.
     With a leadership and majority membership made up of
Mexican and Chicana women, Fuerza Unida works hard to keep
workers' involvement high through the creative combination
of a national boycott, mass meetings, hunger strikes,
pickets, and negotiations with the company. Now four years
old, Fuerza Unida is moving to new and larger offices in San
Antonio (see margin note at the end of this article for the
address) and opening a Workers' Assistance Center which,
among other things, will train workers to recognize early
warning signs of a possible shop closure. The group also
plans to open an office in San Francisco in March and,
according to Irene Reyna, plans to "be in Levi's face
everywhere." Fuerza Unida sees its struggle for corporate
accountability as an important test case for other
communities endangered by corporate greed and NAFTA. Reyna
explains, "When I first started in this fight, I was just
against Levi's. As the fight went on, I grew and my views
expanded. I see what the corporations are doing to women
here, in Mexico and elsewhere. I see the need to alert
workers everywhere."
     Centered in San Francisco, AIWA is immersed in a
workers' case against garment manufacturer Jessica
McClintock, Inc., in which immigrant seamstresses working
for a contractor of McClintock were laid off and owed
$15,000 in back wages when the contractor declared
bankruptcy. The workers decided to challenge the very
structure of the industry when they learned that party
dresses for which they would have been collectively paid $5
were sold for $175 with the manufacturer pocketing the
lion's share of the profit. Immigrant seamstresses routinely
work six to seven days a week, 10 to 14 hours a day, at
below the legal minimum wage, without any of the benefits to
which U.S. workers are normally entitled.
     AIWA launched a high visibility campaign for corporate
responsibility which included a national boycott and support
committees, demonstrations and pickets against McClintock's
boutiques and the stores selling her goods, community
hearings with local elected officials and a running battle
for media coverage. AIWA activities revolve around workers'
schedules and include popular literacy classes for
seamstresses, electronics assemblers, hotel maids, and
janitors. Workers organize events for the women and their
families, write and distribute newsletters in their native
languages, give testimonies about working conditions and
attend gatherings with sister worker organizations.
     AIWA and Fuerza Unida are not alone. They belongs to a
sisterhood of organizations that includes groups like La
Mujer Obrera, a Mexican seamstress group in El Paso, Texas;
Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a garment, restaurant
and construction workers' group in New York Chinatown;
Southerners for Economic Justice, a Black garment, poultry
and catfish processing workers' group; Korean Immigrant
Worker Advocates, a Korean workers' group in Los Angeles;
and the many community groups across borders that struggle
for workers' dignity and a healthy environment up and down
the global assemblyline.
     Women's and lesbian movement activists, especially
radical feminists, have organized against male violence,
setting up rape crisis centers and shelters, teaching self-
defense courses, staging "take back the night marches",
working to prevent the courts and law enforcement agencies
from "re-victimizing" women, and launching educational
campaigns to bring the problem into the open. An estimated
two to four million women are battered in their homes every
year. Injuries women suffer from battering add up to more
than the combined total caused by rapes, mugging and traffic
accidents. Between 25 to 50 percent of all women in the U.S.
will be physically assaulted during their lifetime. In over
half of the homes where women are battered, the children are
also being abused. In a study of immigrant women in San
Francisco, researchers discovered that 25 percent of the
Filipinas and 35 percent of the Latinas said that they had
suffered domestic violence. A study of Korean women in
Chicago revealed that 60 percent of the women had suffered
some form of physical abuse.
     Yet according to Beckie Masaki, a Japanese American,
and director of the Asian Women Shelter in San Francisco,
California, "Racism persists in the domestic
violence/shelter movement. Although women of color
increasingly find themselves on the front lines of the work,
we are not in the leadership positions that have access to
information and the decision-making process." Groups like
Asian Women's Shelter, Every Woman's Shelter in Los Angeles,
the New York Women's Center were formed because of the
inability of existing shelters to address the needs of
immigrant women. Korean women started a shelter in Chicago,
and among South Asian women alone there are now some ten
groups organizing around violence issues in different parts
of the country.
     Masaki reflects, "You see the same cycle of violence,
the powerlessness, isolation, lack of resources, and guilt
where women blame themselves for their partner's anger. But
all of these problems are compounded for Asian immigrant
women who often speak little English, have a harder time
finding a job that pays enough to support them and their
children, lack legal documentation, and don't know their
rights in this country." (See Deeana L. Jang's article on
page 20.)
     Asian Women's Shelter looks to the Bay Area Black
Women's Health Project, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, and A Safe
Place, a shelter run by African American women, as models
for poor women's self-help and empowerment, and belongs to
the Immigrant and Refugee Women's Task Force of the Center
for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Services. Organizers
are now working on community and youth education campaigns,
including the problem of battering within the lesbian
community. Under the slogan of "Breaking the Silence"
organizers are working hard to bring these taboo subjects
out into the open and stop the violence.
     Mujeres Unidas y Activas in San Francisco includes over
200 women immigrants from different Latin American
countries. Co-coordinator Maria Olea, an immigrant who fled
her home in Chile to escape domestic violence, says, "Living
in this country is very hard for us. We have difficulties
with English. We have no time because we are always working.
We have to take care of children and almost all of us are
single mothers. Many of us are battered women and many do
not have legal immigration papers. It's so difficult to get
a job if you don't have immigration papers. You have to work
under the table for so little pay."
     Olea says that the group holds mutual support meetings
every week where women reclaim their self-esteem and help
each other out. In the Clinica del Alma (Clinic of the Soul)
women who have survived violent situations comfort and
encourage other survivors. Mujeres Unidas also runs two
income generating projects, a food and catering service
called Manos Sabrosos (Delicious Hands) and a gardening
service called Pacha Mama, (Quechua for Mother Earth).
Mujeres Unidas is also part of the international campaign
"Women's Rights are Human Rights" now preparing for the U.N.
Fourth World Conference on Women scheduled for Beijing in
1995. (See "The Global Fight for Women's Rights" on page
     The women's movement not only survived the ravages of
Reaganism and the Republican Right; it emerged with a
seasoned array of grassroots women's groups and networks.
During the 1960s and '70s prior to the emergence of such
organizations, women activists were often challenged to
declare their loyalty to one movement -- either the
predominantly white women's movement or movements in the
minority communities. The harsh realities of the 1980s
forced organizers to overcome such simplistic oppositions.
Now grassroots women's organizations and networks embody the
combined thrust for class, gender, and racial justice
necessary for grassroots women's empowerment.
     Of prime importance, a younger generation of women with
ideas of their own is beginning to enter existing
organizations and form new ones. This generation comes of
age during a period of shrinking school budgets and job
opportunities, as AIDS, crack cocaine, homelessness and
violence reach epidemic proportions. These young women take
the feminism of their elders as a given and harvest from the
ground planted by grassroots women's organizations. They
will take our struggles further, plant deeper roots in our
communities and sprout many richer shades of grassroots


for margin notes: