Organizing in Pence Country
We are pleased to share a new, syndicated series of interviews by Sarah Jaffe. INTERVIEWS FOR RESISTANCE will introduce you to some of the key figures in the growing movement(s) against our reactionary new federal government. We hope you will find comfort in knowing the crucial work of fighting back has already begun in many (sometimes unexpected) places, and find tools in these conversations for your own part in the struggle.
Sarah Jaffe with Megha Anwer and Melissa Gruver:
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.
I spent March 8, International Women’s Day and the day of the Women’s Strike, in Lafayette, Indiana, the heart of Mike Pence country. Feminist organizing in a state until recently governed by a far-right opponent of abortion and gay rights presents special challenges, and I spoke with two of the organizers of the Women’s Strike about the work that they did to create the conditions for a Women’s Strike and the work they’ll be doing in its wake to strengthen their organizations. I spoke with Megha Anwer at the walk-out on Purdue University’s campus.
Megha Anwer: My name Is Megha Anwer and I am faculty at Purdue’s Honors College.
Sarah Jaffe: You are one of the organizers of the walk-out here.
MA: Yes, I am one of the members of the planning committee and the planning committee is constituted by a whole diverse group of women. We have been very concerted in highlighting the work and the labor and the organization of women of color, of trans women. It is a pretty incredible planning committee. It is hard for us to have done this in a small town like this and on a conservative campus, which is primarily an engineering campus. But we are happy with what we had today.
SJ: We are here in Indiana in Mike Pence country—I guess it is not Mike Pence country anymore because he is in D.C. now.
MA: That is right. Mike Pence’s country is spreading.
SJ: Tell us about doing feminist organizing in Pence country.
MA: It has been hard, but I think more and more women are aware of the fact that their rights can very easily be pulled from under their feet. Even here, this is contested territory. It is hard to win women over and convince them why their absolute right over their bodies is imperative. It is a struggle that is ongoing. I think what is happening is these are things that women of color and trans women have known all along, but finally, in a certain sense, white liberal feminists are waking up to truth at their own doorsteps. What is happening is that this is becoming an occasion for women, all women, cis and trans women and women of color and white women to finally join forces. It is the awakening in a certain sense, but I think there is a lot of work to be done still.
SJ: Talk about the importance of a strike, in particular.
MA: This is something that I mentioned right at the start of our event today, which is that strike has become such a tainted word. It is because the people in power are so invested in making us afraid of our own weapons of emancipation, which is why “strike” is a filthy word. We have been taught that the only way in which we have meaning is if we are compulsively laboring for the very people who oppress us. It is important, particularly today, because International Women’s Day has a long history of radical striking. What we are trying to do is recover the word and emancipate our language and stop it from being the unspoken word so that we can liberate our souls.
International Women’s Day has a long history of radical striking.
SJ: How was the response on campus from students and faculty while you were organizing?
MA: It is hard. You keep organizing and then you find that there are still so many people who know nothing about what is going on. Again, ignorance is not something that we have chosen, it is also something that we have been taught. We have been taught to be ignorant of our rights, but also of the people who are taking away our rights from us. It has been hard, but we have received so much support. I know that a lot of women who wanted to strike, for example, but are vulnerable in their jobs came out and there were other women stepping in for them and substituting them while they wanted to be here. There are other women who have not been able to come out at all, not been able to walk out, but they are all wearing red. I think we are striking both inside and outside of offices.
SJ: You mentioned there is a space downtown that is strike headquarters.
MA: There is a space downtown where the walk out which is a walk-out venue, but there is a spot in the town, Hanna Community Center, which is our headquarters. That is a space that has been open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. today. All the planning committee members are there and we have had people from the community, union members come out there. We have bagels. We have coloring sheets. We have got this artwork going where we are creating one artifact for all the women in our lives and weaving threads and ribbons together. We just have a space where we can experience what community building can feel like.
SJ: To all the politicians who say that this is all just paid protestors and coastal liberals, what would you say?
MA: There are separate things that I would say to the politicians who think I have been paid to do this. This is one of the many things that I am not being paid to do, but this is one of the few things, one of the few forms of unpaid labor that I am willing to do and put my body on the line for and demand, like I said, what is our right.
To those who say that strike is only the luxury of the privileged, that is bullshit. Strike is the most basic form of resistance for the most vulnerable women. It is precisely the most vulnerable women that have come out and demanded their rights over the history of modernity really. People should stop shaming women who strike. The other thing is, of course, it doesn’t matter whether you are liberated or not, whether you are privileged or not. What matters to us is how you are using your privilege. If you have been privileged and you are coming out to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable women, then you are using your privilege right.
I later spoke with co-organizer Melissa Gruver at the Hanna Community Center/Strike Headquarters. [Editor’s Note: This interview segment has been edited for length.]
Melissa Gruver: I am Melissa Gruver and I am the Chapter Director for the Younger Women’s Task Force of Greater Lafayette.
Sarah Jaffe: Tell me about organizing for the Women’s Strike.
MG: I would say that it has been a really powerful experience. Even the process of organizing has been really powerful. Basically, when we noticed that the call to strike had come out from Tithi Bhattacharya and Angela Davis et al, I actually messaged Tithi and asked, “Should we do something locally or do you think our energy would be used best somewhere else? What do you think? What do you need?” She said, “No, I encourage you to do a local thing. Get a planning committee together.” We just put an open call out for that. A lot of folks from YWTF, but we also really connected with people that we saw in some online organizing communities that were wanting to put different things together. We just gathered in my living room and started talking about “What would it look like for us to coordinate something here?” and in particular “What specifically to our community and our region is it important for us to focus on?”
We all really agreed that we want to center the experiences of working class women, particularly women of color, and have multiple ways that people can participate. But, we also wanted to be really clear that we were using strike language and that we were really encouraging folks to think about doing what they can when they can to support this.
SJ: Talk about the people who are involved in the committee and who went on strike today. What was the downtown event like?
MG: It was really cool. The folks on our committee are women of color, working class women, women with salaried jobs, academics, non-academics, queer folks, we had trans women on our committee, as well. I think that what was really, really powerful about the downtown action was that there were a lot of folks that were able to walk off of their jobs for that time right from downtown and folks were able to gather there.
It was really powerful to see people walking from each street as we were playing “Bread and Roses.” We had probably fifty folks there. I think that people are really anxious to be clear about how we can make the labor of women, both paid and unpaid, visible. We are trying to make the invisible visible. What does it look like to be really honest?
For example, we would pass the megaphone and had folks say, “I am striking for” or “I am striking against” and one woman who is a local bartender said, “I am striking against being called a ‘girl’ at my workplace.” Some folks were like, “I am striking for those that can’t even be here today. I am striking in solidarity.” “I am striking against unpaid emotional labor for men in my life.” For me, it was really powerful to get that kind of thing confirmed, because just in this past year, I have been thinking a lot about “What is the unpaid labor that I do?” Not only in my community, the really clear unpaid labor that I do, but “What is the unpaid emotional labor that I do for a lot of the men in my life?” So much that I have an art project that I am working through that is going to make that a little bit more visible.
I believe in the power of storytelling and counter-storytelling.
This was, for me, a real first step in saying to my roommates, for example, that are men and my friends that are men, “Here is some of the stuff that I do for you that maybe I don’t even notice.” What would it look like if I stopped? What would it look like if we all stopped? We hold this world together as women. People would really notice, I think.
SJ: It is interesting you mentioned it as a first step. Some of the negative responses to the strike, asked, “What if nothing happens?” Talk about it as a first step. Where do you go from here? What were the new connections made in organizing for this that build for the next thing?
MG: Our letter mentions that we are striking to reflect on the work that women have done throughout history to labor for us all. Then, to reflect on: What is our next move going forward? I think a lot of those conversations will happen here, even as we are kind of tugging away. Hearing people talk about the Affordable Care Act and sharing their own stories with that. I believe in the power of storytelling and counter-storytelling where people can connect with one another over that and raise their consciousness.
But also, for Younger Women’s Task Force, this is a really good opportunity to continue to build our base and to continue to have conversations about our own campaigns moving forward; which, right now, we have been focusing a lot on reproductive justice and sexual violence against women with an anti-racist framework. Younger Women’s Task Force is really thinking right now about strategic ways to continue to build our organization as it relates to working class women. For us, this was a really great way to connect with some people that maybe we have seen a couple of different times before—you are always thinking, “Hey, we will see you at the next meeting.”
We know that every time we do a public action like this, we gain more folks. Then, with more folks, we can strategize our organizing in the future. We are really focused on our work with Indiana Reproductive Justice Coalition right now, but we really want to make sure we are thinking about and looking to see where working class women are affected in our own local communities and our state.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission.