Bringing Socialist Femmes and Queers Together
I came to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) through feminist organizing. I’ve also been a member of Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) for several years. Through this network, I’ve had the opportunity to be in lots of rooms where the only people present are women. This usually means a group of five to thirty women gathering in a circle. Rather than the typical “stand and deliver” method of facilitating, everyone is equal. Each voice is critical to the conversation. Everyone is there to listen, and no one is trying to control the room.
These experiences have transformed me. They strengthened my self-confidence, and helped me build relationships that have pushed me to expand my awareness of social justice.
When I joined Central Iowa DSA, I was one of the few women and one of few queer people in the chapter. I recognized that the safe spaces WFAN created could potentially bring more women and queer people into DSA. We obviously needed it, as many women and queer people across chapters shared their frustrations with misogyny and patriarchy in DSA, but were unsure how to combat it.
We held several Socialist Feminist Working Group meetings at the end of 2017 and throughout 2018. Based on my experiences bringing together groups of women, we asked that cisgendered male comrades not attend. Our comrades respected this request, for which I am grateful. Since bringing this SFWG organizing approach to other chapters I have found more pushback from cisgendered male members. The first SFWG meeting was purely social and the second meeting was a discussion about emotional labor. I immediately noticed that women who I knew identified as leftists or socialists in Des Moines, but never come to DSA meetings, attended the SFWG. They explicitly told me they came because they wanted to be in a space without leftist cisgendered men.
This is how I began to understand that socialist feminist organizing is critical for base building in DSA.
Other chapters across Iowa were interested in our work. We decided to bring together women from all of the chapters for Iowa’s first Socialist Feminist Convergence in March 2018 in Iowa City, Iowa. The first planning call was myself and...one male comrade. I learned that if we wanted to hold the Convergence at the public library, we would not be able to exclude men. Despite my extensive experience bringing together groups of only women, this was the first time I had encountered this issue.
We allowed men to join the Convergence, but asked that women and gender non-conforming members of the group who wanted to form their own small groups to discuss readings do so. One group of only women and gender non-conforming members read Why I Became a Feminist Socialist by Hillary Wainwright, while other groups that included cisgendered men read What is Socialist Feminism by Barbara Ehrenreich and Buddhism, the Beats and Loving Blackness by bell hooks. We asked the reading groups to share what they learned with everyone. Before breaking into small groups we came to community agreements, which included running the meeting with progressive stack.
The space was meant to prioritize the voices of women and gender non-conforming members, however cisgendered male comrades did feel the need to contribute their thoughts and opinions throughout the day.
Over lunch we encouraged open-ended conversation and brought a craft project, embroidering a DSA logo onto a small patch. We also held a menstrual product drive and made donations to a women’s shelter. In the afternoon we had two facilitated conversations on socialist feminism and housing and socialist feminism and healthcare.
During the last hour and a half the cisgendered men agreed to leave so the women and gender nonconforming members of the group could have their own space. During that time the remaining attendees sat in a circle and shared about themselves and their experiences living as socialist feminists in Iowa. This mimicked the spaces I’d been part of in WFAN and in our Central Iowa SFWG. The vast majority of the women attending wrote that the space without cisgendered men was the most profound part of the day. Many attendees had never been in an organizing space without cisgendered men, and they said there was a fundamental shift in their comfort level and ability to speak up.
Many of the women and gender non-conforming members connected via social media after the Convergence and worked together to provide readings and advice for starting SFWGs in their own chapters. As a result of this Convergence, we held two learning circles on socialist feminism at the Iowa Socialist Summit, including one specifically for women and gender non-conforming members. This also opened the door for more cross-chapter collaboration. Later that same year, the Central Iowa DSA SFWG planned a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, which brought together women and gender non-conforming members from at least three chapters, and served as a service project for our men’s Anti-Patriarchy Working Group.
Centrist Democrats and Republicans are easy to find in most communities. Whether you live in a deep red, blue, or purple district, holding socialist views can be very isolating. The reality is that many DSA chapters are primarily comprised of straight white cisgendered males, and even if the men present identify as good feminist allies, being a woman or queer person in these spaces can be even more isolating. We must still overcome persistent social and cultural barriers.
In general meetings, women, even the most outspoken women, must overcome gendered teaching styles we’ve all been exposed to. This impacts everyone, not just women, negatively. In “You Just Don’t Understand,” which covers differences in communication styles between men and women, Deborah Tannen tells a story of a woman student doctor who was very bright but asked a lot of questions. Administrators passed her over for advancement, and asked why, they said it was because “she didn’t know much” because she was asking a lot of questions.
Tannen’s research shows that the goal of conversation for men is negotiating for status in the social hierarchy. They do this by “exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking or imparting information.” They see asking questions as an indication of low intelligence or lack of understanding.
Because women have learned how to navigate conversations and educational spaces dominated by these patriarchal influences, we tend to downplay our intelligence. For example, we might preface a question with a phrase like: “Well I might be stupid but I have to ask…” In reality, several people might have the question, but the woman student is the only one willing to risk asking. Even if we as organizers don’t see DSA as an educational environment, many people joining DSA are new to organizing and consciousness-raising. It is a learning space for them.
I would go even further than saying women-only and queer-only spaces still matter. Spaces explicitly focused on discussing feminism and the role of patriarchy in all of our lives matter. Spaces for people of all gender identities to discuss the role of dismantling patriarchy matter. Within months of Central Iowa DSA’s SFWG beginning, we noticed that some of our cisgendered male comrades also wanted a space to discuss feminism, so they started their own anti-patriarchy working group to facilitate safe spaces for vulnerable conversation.
By creating this space to focus on discussing feminism, we are clarifying that feminism is a critical component of our organizing, not simply an afterthought. We’re creating space where members of various gender identities have room to learn and grow from where they are at.
As members of all gender identities spend time and expand their understanding of feminism in these spaces, we will build a stronger organization where we can all grow as feminists and act on what we learn in every organizing space. Our success in becoming a truly socialist feminist organization will determine our success in bringing about socialism in this country period, and we are doing the work to make this transformation happen.