WE! Confronting Violence

Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994

Chani Beeman

“AS WOMEN WHO have long worked to end all forms of violence against women, we are enraged by the rape and murder of our sister activist Nancy Lynn Willem. Nancy was murdered while at her workplace on the 4th of February, 1992. Our pain and anger over yet another act of terrorism against women has brought us together as Women Enraged! (WE!).” So begins the WE! Mission statement. WE! Is an activist collective committed to confronting violence against women and transforming ourselves in the process.

Nancy had been deeply involved in the lesbian and gay community, domestic violence and rape crisis counseling, local Central America solidarity groups, as well as in the development of a Women’s Resource Center at the University California, Riverside. Her murder unleashed a rage that rocked the lesbian and women’s communities Nancy helped create.

Women activists of all stripes joined together to confront this heinous act that flew in the face of all Nancy represented.

Since Nancy’s death, and with remarkable commitment, members attend meetings and work to organize events. The core of ten to fifteen women draws as many as fifty activists to actions.

Over time women have joined WE! without having known Nancy. What attracts new members—and keeps the group together—is a combination of grassroots activism and a thoughtful perspective that has been developed through the weekly meetings.

WE!’s structure is a collective consensus-building based on the trust of working together over time and a willingness to challenge previous assumptions in working through a problem and coming up with solution. The group has spun a dynamic that is very accessible to women.

The group’s analysis and approach addresses violence in the broadest terms including economic, racist, heterosexist, as well as patriarchal violence. Members continuously challenge the group to expand traditional feminist thinking to a more “third-wave” feminist practice. The result is a group environment reminiscent of ’70s feminist consciousness-raising mixed with radical activism.

Most women involved in WE! are activists with very little background in the political left. The politics evolve with practice. The result: the creation of a politically active group that has gained recognition as a powerful force.

Activities organized by WE! include a local Clothesline project—modeled on the AIDS quilt, it is composed of T-shirts that tell the story of a woman’s experience with violence—”Take Back the Night” marches; protest demonstrations against sexist media coverage; drawing public attention to sexist, racist comments and rulings by a local judge; and helping to negotiate for improved medical services for poor or uninsured rape victims.

WE! has established a reputation in the Inland Empire as a no nonsense group that gets things accomplished. Women are referred to the group by the local newspaper, the Victim/Witness division of the District Attorney’s office or even service organizations. And, while some mainstream service organizations experience some discomfort in dealing with WE! and our unique style, most do not dispute the transformation to empowerment  women experience.

THE CLOTHESLINE PROJECT is a visual display of shirts with graphic messages and illustrations that have been designed by women survivors of violence, or by their friends and family. The Clothesline Project may also contain shirts made to honor women who have died as a result of violence. Its purpose is to increase awareness of the violence against women by breaking the silence, to celebrate women’s strength in surviving and healing and to mourn those who have died as a result.

The Clothesline Project is a grassroots network and a lifeline of support. It is rooted in the understanding that violence against women is a manifestation of sexism rooted in a hierarchical society.

For more information on how to organize a clothesline display, contact the The Clothesline Project National Network Box 727, East Dennis, MA 02641, phone 508-385-7004, fax 508-385-7011.

July-August 1994, ATC 51