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Feminist activists celebrate Women’s Rights Movement

Feminists of all ages held hands and swayed to the melody of Kristin Lem’s youthful voice as she strummed her acoustic guitar and sang “We Will Never Give Up.” The lyrics to her song, “We will never give up. We’ll never give in. Don’t you know we’ll never give up? We will never give up. We will never give up,” accompanied by her long, wavy blond hair and colorful outfit, made her hippie feminist days obvious to the crowd, who smiled and sang along with her. The feeling of accomplishment expressed in Lem’s song set the tone for “A Revolutionary Moment,” a women’s conference hosted by Boston University’s Department for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies over the past weekend.

The conference, which began Thursday and concluded on Saturday, drew activists from the late 1960s and ‘70s and hosted panels and scholars of the second-wave Women’s Movement of the mid-20th Century.

Activist, author and conference panelist Sue Katz said she remembers her beginnings as a student at BU and how she started the university’s first women’s liberation collective in 1969.

“As a woman at BU in 1965, I could be expelled for wearing pants anywhere on campus, or for staying out later than 10 p.m. on week days and midnight on weekends,” Katz said. “Of course men had no such restrictions. Birth control was illegal, being queer was officially considered a psychosis and it was against the law to dress in the clothes of the opposite sex.”

Katz said the collective grew because of the many women who wanted to join. From there, women were matched with others in order to form more collectives. Katz said at least eight collectives with about a dozen women in each were formed in that academic year alone.

“The very concept of equality implies the acceptance of and desire for the status quo,” Katz said. “If people want to marry so that they can get health insurance, wouldn’t they be better off fighting for Medicare for all? If people want to marry because of all the federal material benefits accruing to those who wed, why not fight to stop giving privileges to people who are coupled over those who are single.”

Katz, along with other feminists, agrees that the main difference between feminism today and the feminism of the ‘60s and ‘70s is the organizational structure.

“People are not working and living in intense collectives and communes where daily the group uncovers yet another way in which women — and others — are being screwed,” Katz said. “Except for the too-brief excitement of the Occupy movement, there hasn’t been the intensity of shared revelation or a wide culture of political agitation as there was then. So many committed rebels were fighting racism and unjust wars and sexism and homophobia. It is harder now, without the ether filled with resistance.”

Katz was a panelist on the “Women’s Liberation’s Revolutionary Potential,” one of the many panels at the conference.

Another panel at the conference was “Women’s Activism in Chicago: How the ideas of the women’s movement framed struggles in hospitals, the workplace and schools.” Activist Christine George spoke about labor unions and her experiences in Chicago. George recognized the fact that in some ways feminism has not changed, but instead it is the organization of feminism.

“The issues are all the same but there isn’t a movement right now in the same kind of way: they aren’t the level of organizations and there isn’t sort of the combining of anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and that whole intensity,” George said. “There’s a lot of things going on that have to deal with equality and women, but its just being done in different ways.”

Other panels at “A Revolutionary Moment” focused on a specific culture of women, such as the panel of Martha Cotera. Her panel, “Las Mujeres de la Caucus Chicana,” which translates to “Women of the Chicana Caucus,” focused on the role second generation Latinas played in the National Women’s Caucus. Cotera was also a part of a second panel titled “Chicana Activism” which focused on the digital archive project called “Chicana Por Mi Raza.”

“These projects deal with the issues of second wave feminism in the archives and collected materials from second wave oral interviews,” Cotera said. “I was a participant in second wave feminism and my daughter used to come with me to all the conferences, so when she started teaching at the university she realized there were very few archive material she could access. That’s why we started doing a digital archive-collecting project, so they could be on the web, accessible to students nationwide.”

Cotera is the author of Diosa y Hembra and The Chicana Feminist; both books deal with Hispanic feminists showing activism in the United States. Cotera said her heritage has always played a major role in the activism she was involved with and it still influences her today.

“Because I am Hispanic, I have been involved in Mexican American activism since I was in high school, maybe even junior high, and same thing through the University of Texas in El Paso and after the university,” Cotera said. “I’ve always been an activist because I know that we need to do a lot of work in order to get the community ahead. We need not to repeat the past mistakes, build on our strengths, and do it right this time. We need to be inclusive and respectful to each other.”

Chelsea Del Rio, a history doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan who focuses on lesbian history, spoke on a panel, “Challenges and Alliances Across Boundaries of Race, Sexuality, and Class,” assessing the challenges and goals for lesbian feminism. As a scholar and a feminist activist, Del Rio said she is always trying to find the connection between her research and the real world.

“My hope is that my research is in someway beneficial to the community,” Del Rio said. “Lesbian history is woefully underrepresented in history generally, so part of the project that I’m doing is creating history that allows lesbians in the queer community to see the work that has been done in the past.”

Robin Payne, a historian who studies the Women’s Liberation Movement and teaches history at Fairmont University in West Virginia, traveled to Boston to hear the stories of the feminists that came before her.

“The conference has been fantastic; it’s been really exciting and interesting to hear the women that were involved in the grassroots movements in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and hear some of their first hand experiences,” Payne said. “One of the things that keep being brought up is the ongoing war on women and the various elements of lingering sexism and the fight of reproductive freedom.”

Despite the difference between the eras of Payne’s feminism and the feminism on which “A Revolutionary Moment” focused, the goal of feminism has not wavered from its original message, she said.

“There should be true equality, weather that means eliminated the wage gap or improvements in laws so that women have more control of their lives,” Payne said. “Anything that goes toward true equality.”

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  1. Thank you for mentioning my film, Las Mujeres, our heroine of Chicana Feminism, and our life’s mission, the oral history project, Chicana Por Mi Raza. Boston, the conference and hearing women call each other ‘sister’ reminded Maria Cotera and I how important preserving the history and recognizing all the 2nd and 3rd wavers in attendance. Linda Garcia Merchant, Technical Director Chicana Por Mi Raza.