Judith Ezekiel’s Feminism in the Heartland

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Sonya Huber

Feminism in the Heartland
by Judith Ezekiel
Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002) 339 pages,
$24.95 paper.

JUDITH EZEKIEL’S SOCIAL history of “second wave” feminist activists in Dayton, Ohio sets itself the task of exploding the myths that most people, including radicals and activists, use to interpret and frame feminist politics and organizing.

Her interviews of fifty-eight key Dayton activists trace a multi-layered history of feminist organizing, not only interesting for history buffs but essential for activists who are hungering for context and wisdom to guide their own organizing efforts.

Ezekiel focuses on the interchange and alliances between “radical” and “socialist” feminists in the 1970s, charting the ways that differing political philosophies translated into conflicting organizing practices.

At the same time, Ezekiel resists the over-simplification of seeing the women’s movement in the `70s as an easy split between the cultural feminists and the politicos, or between the socialist feminists and the women’s-liberationists. Her careful documentation shows the ways in which the entire progressive community benefitted from foundations laid by Dayton Women’s Liberation.

Consciousness Raising as Method

Ezekiel’s exploration of Dayton Women’s Liberation’s use of consciousness-raising (CR) challenges the mainstream (and even current radical) notion that CR was mainly a feel-good and introverted practice. Indeed CR, a technique used by second-wave feminists to pursue a line of political inquiry through the collection of personal experience, is in some ways the guiding methodology also for this book.

Using the method of in-depth interviews and research, Ezekiel pieces together the history of key feminist projects in Dayton, asking what allowed an organization to survive and what caused it to fail.

Rather than looking for these answers through a purely political lens, she focuses also on the expression of political beliefs in activists’ personal lives, the impact of social and psychological factors such as activist burnout, personal as well as political motivation, and cliques and social pressures.

Her careful documentation challenges shorthand patterns of development used in the mainstream press as well as in left circles to understand the progression of a movement. Many activists of the era assumed that women’s liberation developed on the coasts and later spread in a watered-down version to the heartland.

Ezekiel, however, documents an alternate trajectory in Dayton: while a radical Women’s Liberation cluster of CR groups developed in the ‘70s, the liberal wing of the movement failed to materialize, while the radical group actually served as the greenhouse for most progressive projects of the era.

Secondly, although church-based activists are assumed to be hostile to radical or progressive issues, Ezekiel traced a number of key activists’ development as springing from a religious-based motivation for social issues. In addition, the church in Dayton served as the key funding base for the women’s center.

The author’s careful research demonstrates that in a medium-sized Midwestern community such as Dayton, a small radical group can both wield substantial influence and reach out to liberal, religious and community activists.

Roadblocks to Liberation

Pitfalls and dangers threatened to swallow up these women’s projects at every turn. Ezekiel points out that the organizing and meeting methodology developed by Dayton Women’s Liberation activists served to build communities and to embody the revolution-in-action that many new activists were searching for. At the same time, these practices also left the organization vulnerable to outside critiques and pressures.

The Women’s Center, established in Dayton in `74 by Women’s Liberation and socialist feminist activists, served as a vital focal point for a community, but it spawned other projects and thereby depleted its own base of activists.

To keep the Center alive as many former activists left the movement, the Center staff was forced to invest too much energy into becoming financially stable, chasing foundation grants and neglecting the utopian ideals that served as fuel for its founders.

Dayton Women Working, founded by socialist feminists in `75, took on economic and sexist discrimination in the workplace, yet toyed with becoming reformist in its attempt to reach out to women it believed would be frightened off by socialism and radicalism.

A hierarchical structure, established as a break from the decentralization of the Women’s Center and DWL, served to undermine Dayton Women Working by focusing all of the organization’s abilities on a few powerful leaders.

Although the rise and fall of these projects may seem a bit depressing, Ezekiel is careful to trace the ways in which each project left legacies for future activists and trained future leaders. The many connections she draws between 1970s and `80s activists, and the explanation for the shrinking of some projects and the change in focus of feminist activity, are also helpful for getting a longer-term perspective on feminist and activist work.

Identity and Issues

One of Ezekiel’s key assertions is that social identity played a major role in the developments and splits within the Dayton women’s scene.

Leaders of Dayton Women Working, while having a clear identification with a tight-knit social group and an attachment to a radical identity, focused on very pragmatic and short-term organizing strategies. The Women’s Liberation activists, while not concentrating on specific winnable campaigns, embodied a seed of radical energy that the socialist feminists were not able to sustain once the Dayton Women’s Liberation group had disintegrated.

The Women’s Liberation activists, while radical and conscious of racism, failed to reach out to many women of color because they saw their responsibility as organizing within the white community and slipped into complacency. The socialist feminist activists, on the other hand, pushed for inclusion of women of color in their organization but did not explicitly address racism in their outreach or analysis of workplace issues.

Ezekiel demonstrates the complex way in which identity is not merely conveyed in an activist organization’s slogans, but is communicated through its actions. Navigating the difficult terrain between being a “practical<170> and a “utopian or visionary” activist group is one of the main identity challenges for the activists Ezekiel interviewed.

Keeping It Visionary

These dilemmas echo questions that many socialist activists face today: How do we both meet potential activists and sustain them? How radical or socialist should one be in a given situation?

I have struggled with these very questions as I do labor organizing work in Ohio, and I found the deep inquiry of Ezekiel’s work very helpful. The dilemma of focusing on the next “winnable” project seems to be presented at every turn, creating a flurry of activity that doesn’t seem to allow activists to develop politically.

In the end, she states, “[W]atered]-down visions do not raise consciousness; they cannot bring women to take the risks involved in becoming a feminist. They cannot maintain the high level of commitment needed to keep the movement going. The argument for radical, utopian visions is thus not just one of principle, but of effectiveness.” (250-1).

Ezekiel’s analysis indicates that a healthy organization or movement needs both of these strains to survive and grow, and that flirting with a mainstream and overly “practical” orientation can starve activists’ basic hunger for change in the quest for short-term gains.

ATC 105, July-August 2003