The Power of Women United

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Kipp Dawson

Against the Current: Which events of 1968 were you involved in? How did that event/those events affect you personally and politically at the time?

Kipp Dawson: I was living in New York City, working on staff as a national coordinator of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. I had moved to NYC the previous year from my home, the San Francisco Bay Area, where I had helped to coordinate the 1967 West Coast antiwar activities. In the middle of 1968 I celebrated my 23rd birthday, a truly fortunate young woman with a rich history in the high school, college, and general Civil Rights, Free Speech, and Vietnam antiwar movements of Berkeley and San Francisco.

To this day I consider myself a product primarily of the Civil Rights Movement. Through my experiences as a cofounder of the first civil rights group at Berkeley High School (1960, inspired by the SNCC sit-ins in the South), then an organizer of the San Francisco civil rights movement in 1963-64, I learned first-hand that “common people” can and do make history. I absorbed to my bones the confidence and determination that come from a combination of commitment to justice, and knowledge that people can rise above the things that divide us and combine into a power that can change the world.

All of my experiences since then have reinforced that confidence for me — from fighting the war in Vietnam, to and through the women’s and gay liberation movements, to and through 13 years as a UMWA coal miner, to and through my current work as a middle school teacher.

ATC: How did you see yourself as a woman who was a political activist before, during and afterwards? How did you relate (or not) to the rise of the women’s liberation movement?

KD: Until 1969, with the First Congress to Unite Women in New York, I was a political activist with little conscious feminist perspective. This despite the fact that I am at least a third-generation feminist. As a young girl in Lodz, Poland, my grandmother rebelled against Orthodox Judaism for its misogyny. My mother was a before-her-time working-class feminist, who bucked the labor and Communist Party leaders to advocate for equal pay for women in her plant and beyond.

Still, in 1968 my feminist consciousness was yet to be raised. My first reaction to the formation of Redstockings (an early feminist consciousness-raising group in New York) was that these women were selfishly diverting attention from the “real struggles” of fighting the Vietnam war, racism, and for workers’ rights and socialism.

This changed when I attended the First Congress to Unite Women (held, I believe, at Barnard College) in 1969. Along with other socialists and activists who attended the conference as their first women’s liberation activity, I found myself surrounded by wonders that almost literally swept me off my feet. Here were women giving voice to things I had felt but had not wished to pay attention to, as I thought they reflected weaknesses or deficiencies unique to me.

For example, women described sitting in a meeting with men, saying something in a discussion, being ignored, and later having a man say almost exactly the same thing and being responded to with accolades. I will never forget how I, and many others in that particular workshop, felt immediate, strong bonds of recognition and mutual support as we shared such experiences, and began to see ourselves as women with much in common because of our gender.

This conference opened the door for me to the women’s liberation movement. It began my journey through political and personal activism buoyed now by a new, and growing understanding of gender discrimination and, most especially, of the power of women united. I have grown with this consciousness in all of my activities.

Through direct involvement in organizations like NOW, through my organizing work for abortion rights, through my 15 years of activity in and writing about women miners’ organizations, through being a parent of two adolescent girls, I am consistently indebted to the women’s liberation movement.

ATC: Were you involved in a movement or socialist organization at the time, or chose to join one subsequently?

KD: I joined the Young Socialist Alliance in September 1963, as a student at San Francisco State College. A month later I joined the Socialist Workers Party. I had left a background in the Communist Party youth, and then a year as a supporter of the Progressive Labor Party, to join the YSA/SWP because I was convinced they had a program that could attract and lead workers and their allies to and through a socialist revolution. I remained a member of the SWP until approximately 1990. So I was an SWPer through all of my experiences in the women’s movement of the 1970s and ‘80s.

ATC: What are the lessons you’d like to pass along to today’s activists?

KD: Talk with and listen to those around you who have similar goals, especially those of other generations and/or experiences. It is profoundly important for us to recognize that the parallel searches for political clarity/direction, and for allies, must be mutually reinforcing. Resist the urge to feel or act as if your answers are the only ones, and resist the temptation to feel that it is enough to know that you want things to be different.

I believe we are in a time where many young people will want to come together to challenge the evils of our society. Old folks like me should respectfully offer our experiences to young activists, even as we listen to and learn from them — as we work together on specific projects through which we can build the kinds of movements that our world so desperately needs.

ATC 134, May-June 2008