Report From the Women’s Convention

By Catherine Hoffman

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Women's March, January 21, 2017

As a socialist feminist, I often feel like we are at a point of both great danger and great opportunity. Each and every day we face new threats from the Trump administration. At the same time, more and more people are getting politically active and are finding their political voices. We’ve seen that happen with DSA as our numbers have ballooned since election day. People are looking to get politically active, and we have a great opportunity to mobilize large numbers of people in favor of real, transformative changes. There is also a renewed interest in gender justice and in discussing the role of women in our political movements. In light of the accusations around Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile men, conversations about sexual harassment are taking place like never before. It was in this context that the first Women’s Convention took place in Detroit over the last weekend in October

The Women’s Convention was organized by the leaders of the Women’s March that followed the inauguration of President Trump. Women from all over the country marched the day after the inauguration as a show of resistance against the Trump agenda. The Woman’s Convention brought together a wide range of feminist activists and groups. Large national groups such as Planned Parenthood were represented alongside smaller, local community groups. A sizable number of the people who attended were from Michigan, with the statewide meeting overflowing the large room we were allocated.

This was my first feminist convention of any sort, and being in a space where the overwhelming majority of people were women was very exciting. The overall mood of the convention was very uplifting and optimistic. Throughout the weekend, a variety of panels and trainings were available for convention goers. DSA national director Maria Svart spoke on a panel called “There is No Gender Justice Without Medicare for All.” She correctly pointed out that providing healthcare for everyone would have huge benefits for women, both in terms of our own health but also because care-giving tasks so often fall onto women. This was exactly the sort of discussion that I wish had been more prevalent at the convention. The fight for Medicare for All is a very important socialist feminist project. It is also a winnable fight.

There was a clear sense of energy at the convention, but no clear sense as to where that energy should be directed. While there were many centrist democrats in attendance, and clearly the convention was tilted in favor of women who supported Clinton in the primary, there were also speakers who criticized the DNC. The unspoken question that hung over the entire convention was “Where do we go from here?” How do we take this newfound enthusiasm and energy and turn it into a movement that results in transformative change? I saw no clear answer to those questions presented at the convention.

There were some very positive aspects to the convention. The organizers made a strong effort to include women of color, and a very racially diverse group of women led every session I sat in on. In many other ways though, the convention felt quite lacking. There was very little in terms of a clear analysis. Many of the solutions presented were very neoliberal in nature, and it was clear that the convention was geared towards middle-class, professional women. For instance, on several occasions, speakers praised the book Lean In, which has been heavily criticized for promoting a brand of feminism that is only for wealthy, highly privileged women.

The intersectionality that was touted at the convention did not include many discussions of class. Absent was any discussion of the need for a living wage or for stronger labor unions. In fact, most surprising to me was the lack of labor participation at the convention. While I met some union staffers who were attending the convention on their own, there was little union representation on the panels, and very little discussion about the role that the labor movement has played in women’s liberation. Given that strong labor unions provide one of the best avenues to allow women to improve their working conditions, the lack of any sort of labor analysis was highly disappointing. Also noticeable was the lack of much programming for queer women.

Prior to the convention, there was a lot of controversy around the fact that Bernie Sanders had been invited to speak on opening night. While some of this stemmed from a misunderstanding that Sanders would be the keynote speaker, some of the anger over his invitation also reflected ongoing tensions between Clinton and Sanders supporters. Ultimately, Sanders decided not to speak at the convention, opting to go to Puerto Rico instead. I spoke with several women who were quite disappointed by way the whole controversy had played out, and who were really curious about what Sanders would have said to this body.

Overall, the convention fell into the trap that liberal feminism too often falls into -- an analysis of feminism that primarily benefits the wealthiest women. For many women struggling to survive, “leaning in” will never be an option. There is no guarantee that encouraging more women to run for office will benefit women as a group. The workshops I attended felt very top-down. Panels of experts disseminated information to a mostly passive audience. None of the trainings I attended had any interactive components.

This is not to say that this convention was of no value. While the feminism of the Women’s Convention is far from perfect, there were many rays of hope throughout the weekend. It was inspiring to meet women from around the country who are working to resist the Trump agenda. While I would certainly like to see the inclusion of a stronger class analysis and a move to the left, I do hope that these conventions continue.

Catherine Hoffman is a member of Detroit DSA and the DSA’s National Political Committee.

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