Interview With Austin DSA
Feminist Action Committee
In recent years, the Texas legislature has become a testing ground for anti-abortion legislation. Increasingly onerous requirements have drastically limited abortion access, harming women in the process. For the past three years, Austin DSA has been running Bowl-a-thons to raise funds for low-income women who could otherwise not afford an abortion, as part of the National Network of Abortion Funds’ larger program. (website: https://bowlathon.nnaf.org/)
Megan Glenn from Build spoke with Alice Embree, one of the co-chairs of Austin DSA’s Feminist Action Committee, and one of the founding members of the chapter’s Bowl-a-thon program. Alice has been a socialist feminist for decades. She’s a veteran of many fights, working with women who pushed forward the Roe v. Wade case.
MG: How did you get started with the Bowl-a-thon?
AE: My friend, who was in DSA from 1982 on, said, “Let’s start a Feminist Action Committee and do a Bowl-a-thon.” I didn’t know anything about it. That was my intro to DSA’s socialist feminism work. In 2016, we raised about $3,000, in 2017 we raised twice that, and in 2018 we raised about $9,000 locally. And DSA all together raised $90,000 all over the country last year, which is awesome.
MG: What does Austin DSA’s Bowl-a-thon work look like for this year?
AE: This year we are working on about six simultaneous fundraisers for the Bowl-a-thon, and we have four teams. We’re trying to engage the chapter generally, that’s one of the things that’s strategically different this year. Some of our events had brought in the Socialist Feminist Committee and friends, but hadn’t gone deep into the chapter in previous years. So this year we’re doing bake sales, plant sales, poster sales, button sales, parties, a chili cook-off, and we are trying to work with a theater to screen a movie.
Right now we’re caught up completely in the Bowl-athon, but we also have names for a rapid response team that can oppose hideous bills being considered by the Texas legislature, which is always coming up with new ways to screw people out of any rights, including reproductive rights.
MG: What is an example of your legislative work?
AE: So there’s going to be a focus on stopping a fetal heartbeat law, it’s an abortion ban passing as fetal heartbeat legislation, we’ll get active on that. There’s a lot of talk in Texas about what happens in a post-Roe v. Wade world, and I’m one of the few people that can go, “I remember that, I remember it quite well.” I have a friend who received an abortion in a motel and nearly died from it. So I am seriously aware of where they want to take women back to.
I think one of the ways we need to talk about abortion is as healthcare, so that de-stigmatizes abortion. But we also have to emphasize the whole gamut of reproductive needs, whether you can have a child and actually raise the child, and have healthcare when you have the child, and have healthcare for yourself and the child, it’s all connected. Texas has a very low insured population, and terrible stats on maternal healthcare and infant mortality, so we’ll be working on the full gamut of reproductive justice, not just on the access to affordable abortions.
MG: What are some ways reproductive justice overlaps with other issues?
AE: We want to work with other DSA committees. We’ll try to work with the Austin city budget on childcare accessibility and on city funded efforts for childcare. We want to work with the city council to make childcare available during city council meetings.
There’s a big bond that passed for affordable housing, and we may be able to inject child care issues into that, so that there is accessible childcare near the new affordable housing.
MG: So what does that mean when it comes to the Feminist Action Committee and how it relates to the rest of the chapter?
AE: The FAC proposed a Reproductive Justice priority and it passed as one of five chapter priorities. It is very broad, addressing abortion, sex education, parental leave, prenatal care, child care, and free period products. For example, with prenatal health, there’s ways to work with the health justice committee. We can do some good outreach to our housing committee on childcare needs. We can work with our Labor committee on parental leave.
We’re doing a socialist night school on socialist feminism where we’re reading Audre Lorde, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Tithi Bhattacharya. I think the night school is a good door in for people that aren’t familiar with DSA. It will be a great opportunity to connect our work on the Bowl-a-thon to socialist theory. Theory is an area where we hear lots of men’s voices so this is a place of struggle for us as well.
At February’s general body meeting, we introduced our reproductive justice priority to the general membership. At the beginning of the year, Austin DSA passed five priorities for the chapter, and reproductive justice was one of them.
So we’ll get 20 people in our committee meetings, and then at the general body meetings you’ve got to figure out how the committee will relate to them, and how you’re going to share your priorities. Because some people just come to these general meetings and sit in a room with 150 people, and then they leave. We need to get people engaged, which is the whole point, not just paying dues.
MG: So how did you present your topics at the general meeting?
AE: We did this great thing at the beginning: “What is the cost of having a uterus?” like The Price is Right. They got four guys up there and asked them, “What is the cost of 18 tampons?” and they were like, “It’s $1.” And then, “What is the cost of a first trimester abortion?” “What is the cost of childcare?” And the answers were almost always incorrect. It was a great learning device for people to understand this as an economic issue. There were breakouts on sex education, the Bowl-a-thon, childcare, and other priorities, so it was very interactive and not just somebody talking at the beginning of the meeting.
Last year, we did some great events, and we spread the work on the Bowl-a-ton, and I would look around and go, ok, I know there’s a bunch of people in Austin DSA, and we could have filled up this movie theater and we haven’t. So this year while we didn’t really name it as a strategy, we’re working on engaging with the membership better. I think that’s a very important feature, don’t have your committee work off to the side if you’re doing this. Figure out how to present it and engage your entire membership.
MG: So what role do you think the Feminist Action Committee plays in the chapter?
AE: Well, now the former chairs of the Feminist Action Committee are chapter co-chairs. So that’s an interesting development. I think it changes the tenor and discussion of debates. As I watched women who were in the committee, I felt I could see their ability to lead a meeting and their skill sets grow, their leadership capability grow, their voices grow. They project more. I feel the committee is a place of learning where they can inject skills learned in the FAC into the general body.
From my experience in the 1970s, I would not have learned to use my voice or to use my leadership skills in the way I have without a women’s movement that allowed me to do it. I come out of this organization from the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society, and I joke sometimes, “Damn if we had had progressive stack or a rule that you should let others speak before you speak again, our meetings would have been 15 minutes.”
I joke about it, but it’s really true that the male voices dominated, and the women did not speak up, and the women typically typed, did research, did a lot of the organizing work of keeping the chapter together. But they didn’t have a prominent role, and their efforts were generally ignored. And that set the stage, really, for women’s liberation in the ‘70s.
MG: What are some other things you’ve noticed about earlier feminist movements compared to socialist feminism within DSA?
AE: For me with DSA, I get to see just a tremendous amounts of energy. The thing that blows my mind about DSA is how much work people will gladly, eagerly and with great enthusiasm take on. I go, “Good lord, where has this energy been for two decades?” It’s very encouraging for me to see that kind of ability to go out and do door-to-door campaigns.
I will say very few of these young women have kids, and as feminists, the other thing to inject in DSA is to really be kid-friendly and parent-friendly. Because when you have all those responsibilities, people better understand that you have them, and you need help, and that you often need to drop back. At least when I had young kids I didn’t operate at the same pace of insanity.
People also need to understand it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You hopefully develop a lifelong set of values and skills in activism, and a bunch of comrades that will be there for your life. And for people that are just coming in, they don’t know that. I’ve seen it, “We’ll just have a general strike and the revolution will happen tomorrow.” I thought that in 1968 and it wasn’t true. This is a long build-out and lifelong dedication.
You’ve got to take care of yourself, because we’ve got a lot to do. That’s something feminists need to bring in to this, I think we have a good attitudinal way of looking at it.