You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The Forgotten Feminists of the Backlash Decade

The activists of the 1990s worked so diligently that they were written out of history.

A woman holds a sign saying "women's rights are human rights"

We don’t tend to think of the 1990s as a high point for feminism. It was the decade of Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell, of Operation Rescue and Focus on the Family, of super-skinny supermodels and highly publicized sexual misconduct in the White House. This period also saw welfare reform, the rollback of reproductive rights, and the entrenchment of the New Right in American politics—all things feminists tried and failed to stop. Susan Faludi has suggested these developments were part of a “backlash” against women: After women liberated themselves in the 1970s, the media and politicians conspired to convince them that the gains of feminism weren’t so great after all. It was a moment, Lisa Levenstein writes in her new book, They Didn’t See Us Coming, when feminism “became almost wholly invisible to the public.”

They Didn’t See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties
By Lisa Levenstein
Basic Books, 304 pp., $30.00

Levenstein wants to uncover a different story about the ’90s, one in which an “unsung movement” developed the techniques and laid the groundwork for much of today’s organizing, from the Women’s March to #MeToo. If feminists of this generation have been misunderstood, it may be in part because they expanded the scope of feminist activism: Drawing on the ideas and strategies of American women of color and activists from the global south, they saw that “every social justice issue was a feminist issue,” from environmentalism to reproductive justice, labor issues to human rights. Because they focused on problems that didn’t immediately appear to be “women’s issues,” some observers assumed that feminist activism had diminished.

Nor did they use familiar tactics. Popular accounts of feminism tend to highlight moments of militancy, such as the 1920s and the 1970s, and miss the work that goes on in periods of supposed dormancy. Whereas ’60s and ’70s feminists had rallied around domestic violence and abortion access in speak-outs and town halls, and had protested beauty standards at the Miss America pageant, the activism of the 1990s was less public-facing. These feminists did their work at conferences around the world or in digital spaces. They did grassroots organizing in their communities, engaged in microfinancing projects, and founded organizations that existed outside the feminist mainstream. As Levenstein notes, many of the “innovations” of 1990s feminists—professionalizing activism, drawing on available foundation money, and mobilizing online—are now staples of progressive movements. Despite receiving little publicity, feminism was active and vibrant throughout the 1990s.

Levenstein presents this recent feminist history as a success story, and there’s something to be said, intellectually and politically, for her focus on the positive. Too often, stories of social movements are stories of defeat, as writers and historians call attention to how activists faltered against overwhelming odds. Under these circumstances, the left can become “more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness,” as the political theorist Wendy Brown has put it. To piece together the story of the ’90s feminists is to recognize just how influential they were. But it’s also to ask whether their influence was a wholly good thing. How much can advocacy and mobilization achieve for feminism? And what is lost when professionals lead a movement?

Levenstein first got the idea for her book from reading about the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which took place in 1995. This was the conference at which Hillary Clinton, then first lady, said publicly that “women’s rights are human rights”—a slogan she took from the group Gabriela, a coalition of Filipino women. Thirty thousand activists from around the world attended, including 8,000 from the United States. Marie Wilson, head of the Ms. Foundation and then seen as something like a successor to Gloria Steinem, had planned to use the conference events to position her organization as the feminist movement’s new institutional leader. Yet when the time came, she and other white American women found themselves stepping back, while American women of color and women from Asia and Latin America took center stage.

The result, Levenstein suggests, was a shift away from familiar centers of power—individuals like Steinem, organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW). In her words “a movement without a center,” feminism in the ’90s would be characterized by the diffusion of leadership, the decentering of American women, the emergence of online feminism, and the activism of marginalized groups within the feminist movement—namely lesbians, women of color, and women with disabilities. At the Beijing conference, disability activists staged a demonstration to call attention to the conference’s lack of access, crawling on the ground in front of cheering crowds. At an orientation session led by white women, women of color stopped the speakers and started “a heated debate about whether the Ms. Foundation was racist.” When two lesbian attendees were arrested by local authorities, former Representative Bella Abzug spun around her wheelchair, demanded her lipstick, and went to negotiate the women’s release. The previously marginalized were taking over the movement.

Also in Beijing, an all-female team of IT specialists, led by a woman named Edie Farwell, showed the conferencegoers how to use computers and get online. (Apple and Hewlett-Packard donated 200 computers for this purpose.) As a result, “women’s online activities soared throughout the world,” according to one expert on digital organizing—further diffusing the movement. “By the end of the 1990s, anyone looking for feminism no longer needed to attend a march or a conference,” Levenstein writes. “All they needed was a modem, a computer, and a phone line.” Discussion boards and listservs gave women a place to come together and discuss their personal lives as well as political issues. Younger women began blogging and developing personal websites, while feminist organizations old and new created educational web pages. This was “samizdat publishing,” in Levenstein’s words, comparable to the pamphlets of the 1960s and the “zines” of the early 1990s. The internet offered women alternatives to flagrantly sexist mainstream media.

For women of color, access to online spaces proved important. “The internet gave me brown people,” the feminist blogger named Elena Mary Costello Tzintzún told Levenstein in an interview. Levenstein argues that Black women were particularly quick to use the internet for activism, since it mirrored their use of phone and community networks to spread news. She compares a series of petition drives run by Black women: one in support of Anita Hill (organized by phone), another advocating for health care reform (organized by fax), and a third effort, to organize the 1997 Million Woman March, that was almost entirely done online. While the first two petition drives garnered 1,600 signatures and 700 signatures, respectively, more than a million users viewed the website for the Million Woman March. Although viewing a website does not require the same commitment as signing a petition, it was clear that these activists were attracting more attention. Meanwhile, established institutions such as NOW continued to send out mailers, convinced that this was the best way to do fundraising.

The new wave of activists would contribute to the professionalization—one might even call it the bureaucratization—of feminism. As more foundation money became available, activists gravitated toward the “exploding nonprofit sector.” For many, it was the only way to sustain a career in feminism. Loretta Ross, co-founder of the reproductive rights organization SisterSong, took a job at the DC Rape Crisis Center in 1979, after years working as a secretary during the day and waitressing at night. Linda Burnham, who had been a volunteer through the 1970s and 1980s, co-founded a nonprofit in 1989, the Women of Color Resource Center. Like many women who spent years “fitting activism into their limited spare time,” they jumped at the chance to work full-time for the causes in which they believed.

The professionalization of feminism reflected a shift in the philanthropic world. Burnham’s and Ross’s cohort was able to join the ranks of professional feminists because money was available. The Ford Foundation, a private foundation that had worked closely with the CIA in the 1950s, was now interested in doling out funds to SisterSong, INCITE!, and the Ms. Foundation. It’s hard not to wonder why this organization was suddenly eager to bankroll feminist activism. To be sure, the end of the Cold War freed up funds that had previously gone to combating the spread of communism. But the organization’s willingness to back feminist projects still raises questions. Perhaps feminism had successfully convinced philanthropic organizations of the importance of women’s issues—or perhaps those in power didn’t see feminist activism as a real threat to the status quo.

Foundation money could run out at any time, or it could come with specifications that activists found objectionable, such as when the Ford Foundation initially refused to allow these funds to be put toward purchasing electronic equipment. As SisterSong pointed out, these stipulations favored wealthier white activists, who often had computer training and better access to office resources. Some groups—such as Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBTQ organization based in the South—preferred to cultivate relationships with multiple individual donors rather than to court institutions, but they were the rare exceptions. “Few people, it seemed, could engage in political action without compromising in some way,” Levenstein writes. “It was a lesson that successful activists of all kinds would have to learn.”

But the definition of “successful” here is murky. Does success mean having a long career in feminist activism? Does it mean reaching particular goals? Something else? Based on Levenstein’s book, it seems that while feminist organizations certainly did important work in their local communities, they often lost bigger battles, including those over abortion access or with powerful institutions such as the World Bank. Referring to a battle between feminists and the head of the World Bank, Levenstein writes that although the World Bank “didn’t crumble,” as one activist put it, it did create a gender advisory board and Gender Action Plans that different regions could implement as they saw fit. To Levenstein, these are wins: “It was now a matter of fact, not debate, that gender inequality hampered economic development.” She argues that these activists “forced the man in charge … to listen”—even if they didn’t force his hand.

This is broadly what victories look like in the book. Levenstein praises feminists for changing the conversation and establishing networks, even if they didn’t achieve their ultimate objectives. She describes nonbinding documents produced at U.N. conferences in the ’90s as “tools for raising awareness” and writes of how they continue to “spark conversations.” “What mattered was not just the documents themselves but the process of crafting and advocating for them,” she explains. Similarly, feminist economics “primed the pump” for future anti-capitalism activism, such as Occupy Wall Street. In her epilogue on our contemporary moment, she notes that while activists weren’t able to stop Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, they were able to “stage demonstrations” and forge connections. “The next time a similar fight arises,” she writes, those networks “will already be in place.”

Establishing networks is certainly important; no social movement can survive without them. Semantics are important, too: It’s often by framing an issue effectively that activists can win people over to their cause. But to truly improve the lives of women, rhetorical victories aren’t enough. Instead of forcing a powerful man to listen, women will need to force him to give up power. Can this be done by the paid staff of NGOs, those who were on the front lines of 1990s feminism? Or is another strategy needed to win?

In her 2016 book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey distinguishes among three ways groups seek to make change: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing. The first of these “doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way,” she writes. Advocates for a cause are often professionals, such as lawyers or researchers, who can sometimes convince an institution or a corporation to change its ways: A car company might, for instance, install seat belts. But advocacy doesn’t really challenge those in power, because it “fails to use the only concrete advantage ordinary people have over elites: large numbers.” Feminist economists and Planned Parenthood lobbyists may be knowledgeable and persuasive individuals, but there simply aren’t enough of them to force their opponents to change.

Mobilizing, the second approach, does take advantage of these large numbers. A mobilizing effort might turn out hundreds or even thousands of people to a demonstration or a committee meeting. The 2017 Women’s March is an impressive example of mobilizing on an international scale. But this approach, too, has its weaknesses. The people who show up are usually “dedicated activists”—or at least people who already believe in the cause—and while these same people may show up again and again to different events, they don’t necessarily bring their co-workers or their communities along with them. Often, a professional staff directs the mobilizing effort, planning the strategy and turning out as many people as they can. (The Women’s March, like many other mobilization campaigns, now has a board of directors and a staff.) The people who turn out to the rally or the march don’t always understand how effective this tactic is—or even expect it to be effective. For some of them, the point might simply be to show their support for a cause, regardless of whether this show of support will change anything. One can only imagine how little Trump was influenced by the high turnout at the Women’s March.

Organizing, the last approach—and the one McAlevey champions—recognizes that ordinary people outnumber the elites, and it seeks to involve them in developing a power analysis and a campaign to win. There may be professional organizers who help start a campaign, but for it to be most successful, ordinary people (not staff) must become the leaders of the movement. Ideally, these are “organic leaders,” people who already have the respect of their co-workers or who have influence in their communities (for example, a pastor). Importantly, these organic leaders aren’t necessarily activists; part of the work of organizing is persuading them, over the course of many conversations, that they have something to gain by joining the movement and bringing their co-workers and friends along with them. “In the organizing approach, specific injustice and outrage are the immediate motivation,” McAlevey writes, “but the primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority.”

Most contemporary social justice movements rely on either advocacy or mobilization. This is as true for the labor movement as for any other: Large international labor unions like the Service Employees International Union favor a mobilizing approach and have paid staff who do most of the strategizing and negotiating. Because it is slow, hard work, organizing has fallen out of fashion—but McAlevey makes the persuasive case that an organizing approach is most likely to gain meaningful victories for the most people. One of her examples is the local union SEIU 1199 New England (1199NE), which represents nursing home workers in Connecticut. These workers, most of whom are women of color, have gone on strike frequently (they’ve totaled over 100 strikes since 2000) and have won the highest wages and best benefits of all nursing home workers in the country. The union engages in what McAlevey calls “deep organizing,” which involves not only developing organic leaders among the workers but also building the trust and support of the patients and their families.

It would be naïve to think that a union can achieve any and all feminist aims. Women face many challenges outside the workplace. They may be threatened with violence in the home or harassment on the street. They may spend most of their time doing uncompensated care work for their families. They may find it impossible to access the medical care they need, even if they are insured. There is nevertheless a lot that feminists could take away from deep organizing. What would it look like if feminist activists started identifying and cultivating organic leaders in the communities they hoped to help? How could women bring their communities with them to demand action on an issue—and to disrupt business as usual if action isn’t taken?

Some of these are the same questions that feminists in the 1990s were asking—at conferences around the world and in their own communities. They wanted feminism to be for the many, not the few, and they pressured powerful organizations to respond to the needs of all women. But they were often too dependent on top-down institutions—which rarely support broad social change—and they could be easily overpowered by corporations and lawmakers.

If we take one thing from the ’90s feminists, it might be the anti-institutional spirit of the Beijing conference. I’m thinking specifically of the queer women who demonstrated for lesbian rights, including the two who were arrested and required Abzug’s aid. They traveled to China at great personal risk: The government was hostile to homosexuality, and queer activists found themselves surveilled. Their meetings were monitored; their hotel rooms were searched; their writings were confiscated. Queer women did not have the backing of an establishment institution, and they were not granted access to lawmakers and diplomats. And yet, despite the risk of arrest, they staged a protest at a government meeting, where they linked arms and waved placards: LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, HOMOSEXUALITÉ. Rather than court the powerful, they confronted them. Late at night, they went out dancing.