Archive for the ‘Women’ Category

Panel Discussion on The Point for The Young Turks Network

November 23, 2013

On Wednesday, I joined Ana Kasparian, Priscilla Ocen, and Jody David Armour to talk about incarceration, the sterilization of women in CA prisons, George Zimmerman, and Walmart. I only regret that though I got to mention the school-to-prison pipeline, there wasn’t time enough in the segment to talk about what’s happening now in LA to try to disrupt it. (You can find previous posts here if you’re interested. Here’s a couple of recent posts: Better Outcomes for Juveniles–Maybe. and Restorative Justice in LA Schools.).

Here’s the link for the show.

ForeWord Magazine reviews The Fiery Alphabet

September 5, 2013

Home > Book Reviews > Fiction > Historical > The Fiery Alphabet

The Fiery Alphabet

ForeWord Review — Fall 2013

This complex and thoroughly satisfying book tells of a time when womanhood was repressed, yet the repository of wisdom and secret knowledge gave them dignity.

Diane Lefer has dipped her pen in fire to create the story of a brilliant, impetuous, yet strangely naïve 18th century Roman girl whose mysterious antecedents are hidden from her until life, with its adventures, torments, and inevitable losses, reveals itself to her in all its pain, folly, and blazing beauty.

Daniela Messo, a mathematical and intellectual prodigy raised to be a freethinker and named for a mother she never knew, grows up on her father’s secluded estate, unaware of the suffering and degradation that exists just outside the walls of her enclosure. The young girl’s uncanny gifts, though a joy to her father, put her at risk of being scrutinized by the Church’s inquisitors, who hold life and death power over any that might pose a threat—especially gifted women, who are all too easily branded “witch” in 18th century Rome.

The unannounced arrival of Giuseppe Balsamo, a slight, disheveled young man of unknown origin, turns Daniela’s world inside out and becomes the catalyst for the young girl’s awakening, as the two escape the confines of the Messo estate and cross Europe, using their wits to swindle the unwary. But who is this strange, salvation-addicted Balsamo? Obviously an alchemist, Balsamo is bent on discovering the secrets of Daniela’s past, which he believes hold the key to the hidden knowledge of a long-dead Jewish mystic—knowledge that could lead to true salvation. But Daniela, having lived too long in the world of the mind, seeks not more philosophy but the lover’s touch that will allow her womanhood to fully blossom.

Daniela’s arduous journey to find her true home in the world brings her into contact with the most elevated and the most debased in human society, leading to some stunning realizations on the roots of men’s lack of esteem for women. In ancient times, a people only had the right to be considered human through their relationship with a god; if conquered in war, it meant that a people’s god had deserted them or died, and it was then considered proper and right to treat them as chattel. And women had been robbed of their goddess. “‘The Queen of Heaven,’ I whispered. Anne understood it in that moment just as I did: that we needed our Goddess, whether we believed in Her or no.”

Lefer has written a complex and thoroughly satisfying book, a work that, above all, is about the power of words to bring life or death, to create walls that imprison body and mind, or to break those walls down and open the gates to freedom. It is also the story of how, in a time when womanhood was suspect and repressed, it was, nevertheless, as Balsamo guessed and Daniela came to know, the repository of wisdom and secret knowledge.

Kristine Morris

August 31, 2013

Jessica Knauss (my editor) chimes in

September 4, 2013

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Debut and Interview: The Fiery Alphabet by Diane Lefer

More than a year ago, toward the end of my time in Tucson, Diane Lefer sent her novel The Fiery Alphabet to me at Fireship Press. I loved it for all the reasons the COO didn’t: It’s smart, it’s not formulaic, and it tells a story most women today can sympathize with. When my colleagues and I all left Fireship for various personal reasons and got together to found Loose Leaves Publishing, I wondered if that crazy wonderful novel was still looking for a home and, with my new partners’ blessing, I asked Diane about it. (Insert incredible amounts of work and joy here.)

I’m inestimably proud of this book and the wonderful response it’s already received from reviewers. The Fiery Alphabet makes its official debut tomorrow, September 5.

Diane Lefer: Thank you for the introduction, Jessica. When I sent you The Fiery Alphabet, I didn’t dare admit the manuscript had been making the rounds of publishers for 26 years. I thought, who on earth would want to publish a book that had already racked up so many rejections? Well, you did. You know, years before, I had drinks with a prominent editor in New York. She said, “If I used my own taste, I’d be betraying the trust the company has in me.” That’s why I have such love and appreciation for small independent presses like Loose Leaves. You get to use your own taste and judgment. And I hope my experience can encourage other writers to never lose faith or give up.


JK: That’s exactly what Loose Leaves aims to do: give good books a chance in this bizarre new publishing milieu. What happened during the intervening 26 years?

DL: I had agents, I lost agents, I fired agents, and I tried to place the manuscript myself, but the policy in mainstream publishing changed and all of a sudden even editors who knew me weren’t allowed to read work I sent directly.

Even before that, The Fiery Alphabet had a long gestation period. It’s a book I’d wanted to write since I was a kid and saw a TV show about the occultist Cagliostro. I wasn’t that enthralled with his magical powers but very impressed with the idea that a person could be an actual historical figure – even a famous one – and yet shrouded in mystery. Like Shakespeare. As a kid, I loved Shakespeare because he wrote about witches and ghosts, and this unlikely pair became the creative polestars of my youth: Shakespeare and Cagliostro.

Then, in the early 1970’s, I was in Brazil during the brutal dictatorship. People were being detained, tortured, disappeared. Any gathering of students was dangerous and forbidden but what happened was, if you sat down in a cafe with a book, a student would join you, hoping for a good conversation. That’s how I met a young writer, Mauro Costa, who had just read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy and was eager to discuss it. Unfortunately, I had never read it. I hadn’t even heard of it, but I sought out a copy as soon as I returned to the US and the book awakened an interest in the Divine Feminine – the archetype with such beautiful names: Queen of Heaven, Rosa Mystica, Star of the Sea – and reawakened my desire to write about mysticism and Cagliostro. I learned his real name was Giuseppe Balsamo: one mystery about him solved. But another ten years passed before Daniela presented herself to my consciousness and I began to write.

I worked on the manuscript for several years. Once I started sending it out – and by the way, I avoid using the word “submit.” I think it was Muriel Rukeyser who said offer your work, but don’t give up your power. Never submit! – there was a lot of discouragement. The very first rejection began with the words, “Daniela is a passionate creature, but her passion is for learning. Intellectual women aren’t interesting.” As though there’s something wrong with being curious about the world and wanting to know and understand and experience as much as you can – which for Daniela definitely includes love and sexual desire. I took the criticism very personally because I came of age during an era when girls weren’t supposed to be smart. Some adults actually expressed their sympathy as they assured me I would never fit in and my life would be very hard. A few took a more optimistic view of my future: they said I might get to marry a doctor. Of course, in the novel, Daniela’s intelligence lands her in more trouble than mine ever did. But the manuscript (and I) finally lucked out to find a smart woman editor who had the authority to make an offer without having to sneak it past the gatekeepers.

Though I did a lot of research, I didn’t really think of my novel as all that high-brow. Several years before I began writing it, I was broke and had to borrow rent money. A nonfiction book project I was working on for which a contract was supposedly being drawn fell through. I ended up getting out of debt by writing two Regency romances, that is, romances set in nineteenth-century England during the time King George III was too mad to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his stead. (The books were published under a pseudonym because the editor said, “Diane Lefer isn’t a romantic name.”)

Writing those books was a great experience. Getting paid for my work? What a concept! But also, I admit, my orientation as a writer had always been to concentrate on my characters’ inner lives. I was not very observant of physical reality. The Regencies, however, had to be written to a formula which went so far as to specify not only when the romantic encounters were to occur (and how far they could go), but also how often descriptions of food and clothing and furniture had to appear on the page. This was excellent training for me. Of course, in The Fiery Alphabet, I wasn’t writing to formula and didn’t include quite that much sensory detail. Most of the novel is in the form of Daniela’s journals and a person writing a journal takes much of her world for granted and doesn’t describe everything the way an outside observer might. But the Regencies taught me to pay attention to the world of the senses.

JK: What first drew me in to The Fiery Alphabet was the fictionalized Translator’s Preface, in which you have a subtle adventure in Turkey. Tell me about the research.

DL: I went to Turkey to visit the harem and the archaeological sites associated with Goddess worship: Çatal Hüyük, the world’s most ancient city; Ephesus with its temple to Artemis. I brought home a small statue of the goddess and one day, trying to get all the dust off her, I made the mistake of washing her. The statue started to melt. I saved most of her!

Artemis of Ephesus

In order to immerse myself in Daniela’s world, I tried to read everything she would have read, though often in translation as, unlike Daniela, I don’t know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I read Casanova’s memoirs – useful but boring. I needed special permission to access eighteenth-century obstetrical manuals. I stared at Piranesi’s etchings of Rome until I could dream myself into them. So, OK, I knew there was a lot of … erudition in The Fiery Alphabet, but I believe I’d also learned a lot about just telling a good story.

JK: Did you revise much during the 26 years?

DL: At some point I changed the title. The manuscript first made the rounds as “Ardent Fire,” which is actually a phrase Balsamo quotes from St. John of the Cross, but people thought it sounded like the title of a romance novel. Daniela does fall in love with Balsamo, but editors who expected a more familiar romance novel were disappointed. Marketing isn’t just about ads and blogs and reviews. I understand now it’s about a cover and a title that don’t mislead potential readers, that help a book find the readership that will most enjoy it. I’ve been happily stunned by all the positive reactions to the cover Loose Leaves designed and I appreciate the way you all wanted my input.

Over the years, I did some revising and cutting. I found myself simplifying the manuscript – without, I hope, dumbing it down. For example, in the original draft, Daniela writes two journals. One she leaves lying around hoping Balsamo will find it and read it and love her for it. The other is private and in it she writes what she really thinks and feels. Then A.S. Byatt published the novel Possession which also features a public and a private diary. I was afraid people would think I’d stolen the idea from her so I very reluctantly rewrote the novel. Daniela has only one journal now. And though I still think there’s psychological truth in the original concept, I ended up happy I made the change. The revision does make a somewhat complicated novel more readable, easier to follow. After all, we got that review from ForeWord calling the book “complex and thoroughly satisfying” – which sure beats someone saying it was too damn complex to read.

JK: That issue of ForeWord is out now in Barnes and Noble and many other venues. Johnny Depp is on the cover! Thanks for coming by, Diane.

Dorothy Bendel interviews me for She Writes

September 2, 2013

Diane Lefer is the author of The Fiery Alphabet, her tenth small press book to be published. It was released on September 5th by Loose Leaves Publishing after making the rounds of publishers since 1986. She Writer Dorothy Bendel, author of Expatriate (poems) and a novel-in-progress, wanted to know more about Diane’s novel, as well as her thoughts on agents, the self-publishing option and, most of all, persistence. Here’s what Diane had to say.

Dorothy Bendel: Set in the 18th century, the story that unfolds in The Fiery Alphabet deals with faith, feminism, history… What inspired you to write this novel?

Diane Lefer: I hope you’re not expecting an erudite answer! Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, and one scary episode was about the 18th-century occultist Cagliostro. I became fascinated by the idea that Cagliostro was an actual historical figure and yet his life was shrouded in mystery. At the age of 10, I decided I would someday write a book about him.

Someday was a long way off! Decades later when I read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, it recalled Cagliostro to mind, but at that stage of my life, I was no longer so intrigued by charlatans. I was more concerned with the way people–especially women–get taken in by deceit. And so Daniela was born in my imagination. The more I tried to learn about the world she lived in, the more excited I got.

The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, of science and rational thought, but religious institutions and dogma still had great power while orthodoxy was being challenged by radical mystical movements in Judaism and Islam. Occultism–with the secret rites of Masonic lodges–played a role in the secular movement for democracy. As I tried to understand how these currents affected Daniela, I had to go back a lot further than the 18th century, to women’s pre-history, to books by Riane Eisler and Mary Daly, including Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, her radical feminist attack, not on men, but on patriarchy. Painful reading, but it helped fuel my writing.

FAL cover

Dorothy Bendel: Can you describe the long and winding road to publication?

Diane Lefer: I finished the novel in 1986 and it’s only being published now in September 2013. So that road truly did have twists and turns.

In 1986, I actually had an agent. A famous one. I lived in New York City at the time, so I brought her the manuscript in person. The Famous Agent said “It weighs too much. Cut 100 pages.” I said, “I wish you’d read it first.” She said, “If I enjoyed reading, I would have become an editor, not an agent.” Soon after, she called and asked me to come in. Of course my fantasy was that she’d actually read my work and loved it, maybe even sold it. Instead, I entered her office and found her standing on the window ledge throwing things and screaming she was too stressed out to get her hair done. When a sheaf of pages landed at my feet, I bent to retrieve them. She hollered, “Freeze!”, then jumped down, grabbed me with her fingers around my throat and started to squeeze. We struggled. When I broke free, the Famous Agent said, “Don’t you ever tell anyone what happened in this office.” It was Christmastime and I thought I should wait till after the holidays to fire her. In January, I sent what I thought was a polite letter. She phoned me right away. “No one fires me ever,” she said. “You are not getting your manuscript back.”

She had the only original. I had a messy carbon copy because I hadn’t been able to afford a photocopy. (Does anyone reading this remember carbon paper?) So I had to retype the manuscript–which back then was 500 pages long. That turned out to be a good opportunity to revise and edit what I’d written.

Then I made another change. In the original version, Daniela wrote two journals: one which she left lying around for Balsamo to find in which she presented a self designed to attract him, and the other in which she was honest. I thought this was psychologically important, but then A.S. Byatt published Possession which also features the split between a public and a private journal and I was afraid people would say I’d stolen the idea from her, so I reluctantly got rid of the concept. I now think simplifying the manuscript’s structure was not a bad idea.

I found another agent–a lovely person who was well respected in the business. Soon after she took me on as a client, everything started getting screwed up. Unfortunately, the problem turned out to be early Alzheimers.

I figured I could do a better job representing myself but overnight the policy in mainstream publishing changed. Only agent submissions were read and I had no luck finding a new representation. Since then, with the advent of POD and e-books, we have more small independent presses than ever and once again there are actually some editors out there who will consider your work. I started sending out queries and sample chapters. I also reread the manuscript and found myself cutting about 100 pages. The Famous Agent might have said “I told you so,” but if I’d tried to cut back in 1986, without guidance I don’t think I would have recognized which pieces needed to go.

Finally, in 2012, I heard from Jessica Knauss at Loose Leaves Publishing. She had loved the manuscript when she worked for a different publisher but her boss turned it down. Now she had the authority to make an offer and she wanted to know if the book was still available. YES! Besides being an astute editor, Jessica is a specialist in medieval history, especially medieval Spain–a place that’s figures briefly in the background of my novel because Balsamo believes Daniela has inherited the secrets of Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Jewish mystic who claimed to be the Messiah. Jessica and I both love Spanish language and literature. It really does make a difference when you find an editor with whom you share common interests.

It also occurs to me that the cultural tensions in the 18th century–science vs. religion; the subjugation of women–may have seemed irrelevant to contemporary life when I started sending the manuscript around. Sad to say, not anymore.

Dorothy Bendel: How has your writing process changed from the time you wrote The Fiery Alphabet to the way you write now?

Diane Lefer: The computer! In the old days, the chore of retyping made me reluctant to make changes even when I recognized awkward language or unnecessary paragraphs, or sections that would work better if moved. The computer made me–or let me–set the bar higher. But it came at a price. In 2003, I developed a severe case of computer vision syndrome from so much staring at the screen. My focusing muscles went slack and it was eight months till I was able to read, write, or drive again. These days I have to limit my hours at the computer. That may account for why I used to write from point A to point B but now find myself working in fragments that then have to be pieced together. Completed manuscripts still read as though they are more or less continuous–at least I hope so–but they aren’t created that way.

Dorothy Bendel: Daniela, the protagonist of the novel, is a strong and determined woman. While reading The Fiery Alphabet, the root of her character reminded me of the tenacity required to push the novel forward to publication. Do you see any parallels between your own journey and Daniela’s?

Diane Lefer: Not so much the tenacity as her weaknesses! The idea of the two journals got dropped but it came from my own memories of being 10, when I had a diary with a lock but even so I never told the truth in it. I wrote the sentiments that I thought a girl my age was supposed to have. And Illusion vs. Reality, Truth vs. Lie — it’s a personal obsession. Three times in my life, I’ve been duped by a pathological liar. Three of them! Once can be understood. But three times? And I don’t mean lies like “No, I did not have sex with that woman.” I mean Big Lies.

Dorothy Bendel: What advice can you give to those who are struggling to get their work published?

Diane Lefer: Never give up! Publishing is important. We write because we want to communicate with others, not just mumble (or scream) to ourselves. But don’t let that desire spoil your joy in the process of creation.

To tell the truth though, I did give up. Writing fiction had begun to seem thankless and pointless. And then there were the Famous Agent’s parting words: “You will grow old, embittered, and unpublished, and you will blame the publishing industry but it will not be the publishing industry’s fault.” I didn’t want to become bitter so I self-published my novel Radiant Hunger, decided That’s all, folks! and devoted myself to social justice work. But I have to write, so I started writing for the stage. It was reinvigorating to explore a new outlet for creativity and to see my plays brought to life, but I did miss the texture and heft of fiction. I decided So what if no one publishes me? I started writing new stories and began a new novel and also revisited old manuscripts. Some I cringed at and abandoned. Others, including The Fiery Alphabet, I still believed in.

Next year, Aqueous Books will bring out The Still Point, and that novel had been making the rounds of publishers since 1978. (It seems even when I write contemporary fiction, by the time it’s published, it’s historical.)

So I repeat: Never give up! There will always be people like the Famous Agent who will try to paralyze you with the curse of self-doubt. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been vulnerable at least for a while. I had to remember that writing well is a joy in itself–as well as the best revenge. Today I have three short story collections, three novels, and a co-authored nonfiction book in print. While I wonder if the Famous Agent found a safe way down from her window ledge.

The political is personal–and literary

April 14, 2013

If you are interested in the politics and feminist movement of post-Franco Spain, chances are you already know the work of author and activist Lidia Falcón. If you don’t, you should. Throughout her novel No Turning Back (Camino sin retorno), the protagonist, Elisa Vilaró, a former political prisoner, is confronted with questions about the relationship between the political and the personal. As a reader, I find myself considering the political and the literary.

From a literary standpoint, this is not a perfect novel, maybe because Falcón had content she wished to include but didn’t find a way to incorporate gracefully into the narrative. But any writer can learn from and be inspired by her masterful treatment of memory and time. I wish US authors felt free to be as fearless as Falcón. In the first section of the novel, Elisa’s memories of prison invade her dreams and occur as intrusive and disturbing flashbacks when she’s awake. Then, during a five-hour conversation with her ex-husband Arnau, Elisa seeks to understand her past as a good little Catholic schoolgirl, an unconditionally loving wife, a committed Communist, a confused feminist, and a woman seeking her share of happiness and peace.

Though Elisa looks back intentionally, her memories are not wholly volitional. A word from Arnau triggers a thought which leads to another memory without any transitions in the text to guide the reader. Whole events and conversations spill out in the midst of their meeting. And so we read about the particular tribulations of women in prison–their pregnancies; a secret abortion; their desperate wait for news of their lovers, some of whom face execution–and how after release through a political amnesty, they can be adrift without the solidarity and political faith that once gave them strength. As Elisa remembers how she was confronted with doubts about the Party and about Arnau, the reader is simply carried along, often uncertain for a moment who is speaking or when or to whom. So what? You just keep reading and it all makes sense. It works.

As for the political aspect of the novel, many readers may be less than engaged in parsing out the ideological differences among various leftwing factions and splinter groups and tendencies. But many will smile, as I did, at Elisa who daydreams through some of the interminable, pointless meetings.

While the very specific context of post-Franco Spain can’t be glibly equated to the experiences of other countries undergoing the so-called “transition to democracy,” Falcón’s novel still holds up a mirror to upheavals occurring today. During decades of repressive dictatorship when an opposition has to operate clandestinely and armed resistance seems the only option, what happens after the dictator dies or falls? Is it possible to compromise in the name of national unity and peace? What if bourgeois democracy was never the opposition’s goal? Is the armed struggle revolution or is it terrorism? What reinforces an insurgent’s faith and what shakes it? Is the leadership in touch with life at the grassroots? Do slogans reflect reality? Who can you trust? Who is betrayed?

Here in the US., once Franco died, I’d blithely assumed that Spain was “free.” I had no idea of the struggles and uncertainty that followed. This novel opened my eyes.

A disclosure: I know Jessica Knauss as a very astute and intelligent editor. What I didn’t know–because she never told me–is that she is also a literary translator. When I came across No Turning Back, she confessed, yes, the translation was her work. I am grateful to her for making this novel available in English.

Women Veterans: Celebrating Service and Fighting for Change

March 23, 2013

From writing about nonviolence, here’s a segue to the military. In Today’s LA Progressive

The Women Veterans Symposium, held March 21 at the Carson Community Center, celebrated military women and vets while military chaplain Brenda J. Threatt, the LA mayor’s veterans outreach coordinator, spoke out about the continued challenges they face.

“This is the active combat uniform,” she said. “Everything on this uniform means something.”

Chaplain Brenda J. ThreattChaplain Brenda J. Threatt

So what does it mean, she then asked, that military uniforms are not designed for the female body? Though “I’d give my life, I’d give my all for America,” she declared, “we become a part of machinery that has no gender. But we have suffered because of our gender inside our uniform.”

Women’s bodies have indeed been a mystery–or maybe annoying inconvenience–to the US military. VA health centers are now required to have a department focused on women’s health, including treatment for Military Sexual Trauma (MST), a sad necessity given the well documented and horrific rate of sexual assault in the uniformed services. Callie Wight, MA, RN, manager of GLAHS (Greater Los Angeles Health Care Systems) Women Veterans Program offers counseling and psychotherapy to address MST. She also noted that the VA only recently began to offer pre-natal care to pregnant servicewomen in addition to other gynecological services. “We wanted to do that for years,” she said, but the VA had to wait (and wait) for Congressional approval.

Callie Wight MA, RNCallie Wight MA, RN

It’s about time. According to the California Department of Veterans Affairs, women account for 20% of military recruits in the US and the percentage is rising. As of October 2010, California had the highest number of women vets in the country and of the estimated 1.8 million women veterans nationwide, only a fraction–255,000–use VA healthcare services. CalVet further notes that minority vets are less likely than whites to access the benefits due them. This certainly indicates a failure of outreach to women of color or a failure of trust, and so networking was an important part of the Carson event.

Theresa Brunella came from Oxford Health Care to let people know that help exists for low-income vets in need of home nursing and home health care. She connects vets with organizations that help them file VA paperwork and negotiate red tape while Oxford provides the needed services during the many months it takes for a claim to be processed–particularly important given the scandalous delays recently reported that are causing so much hardship to male as well as female vets.

Theresa BrunellaTheresa Brunelle

Helen Brewer, retired from the Air Force, attended with an eye toward moving beyond her current job in security. Her long range entrepreneurial dream is to own and manage her own construction company and she wants to learn about training opportunities in the trades and support for small business initiatives.
Helen BrewerHelen Brewer

Yvette Tucker, veterans representative in the admissions office at Los Angeles Southwest College, is interested in outreach. She helps women vets access tuition benefits and housing and is concerned that more women don’t take advantage of benefits to which they have earned the right. What she sees too often is that women don’t look to veterans programs or get involved because the male culture makes them feel excluded. In addition, some of the vets she assists suffer from MST or PTSD while the nearest VA center with specialized PTSD treatment is in Palo Alto. Locally, if women need specialized help, “it has to be referred out.”

Yvette TuckerYvette Tucker

But other help is available, as Wight explained before leading a guided meditation. In addition to locally based counseling and psychotherapy, the VA is now embracing some surprising treatment modalities. At the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, Wight offers programs to women vets who–like anyone–can benefit from stress and tension reduction. You don’t need a diagnosis to participate in and benefit from meditation, Tai Chi, and yoga-based breathing, stretching, and relaxation. Call her for information at 818-895-9555.

Of course there’s another issue that preoccupies everyone today: Jobs, jobs, jobs.

Thursday’s symposium was organized by Julie De La Mora of the California Employment Development Department (EDD) which has many services specifically for veterans.

Her boss, Carolyn Anderson, Deputy Division Chief of LA’s EDD proclaimed, “At EDD, every day is Veterans Day,” and recalled the too often forgotten service and sacrifice of women dating back to the Revolutionary War. She paid special tribute to Army nurse Carol Ann Drazba who died in Vietnam only days after saving the life of Anderson’s father-in-law. Drazba, the war’s first female military casualty, was denied the Purple Heart and only recently honored with a monument funded by private donations.

Carolyn Anderson of EDDCarolyn Anderson

How can the contributions of women become more visible? Eric Brubaker of the Red Cross attended to let people know about the Veterans History Project which since 2000 has been collecting audio and video oral histories from veterans as well as civilian workers who were actively involved in war efforts. Interviews are archived by the Library of Congress and some have been made available to the public at the website []. A visit there shows that California women are not well (if at all!) represented. To be written into the history they helped make, women can schedule an interview or ask about the project by contacting Mike Farrar at 562-490-4003 or

Keynote speaker, Brigadier General (Ret) Ruth Wong, and the many highly motivated women in attendance were living examples of the positive strengths and attributes employers can find in women vets.

Brigadier General (Ret.) Ruth WongRuth Wong

Wong, now Acting Director, LA County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, served in the theater of operations during the first Gulf War, leading troops and carrying weapons to protect herself and her patients as she cared for them during aeromedical evacuations. In other words, she served in a combat zone long before the recent decision to make women’s combat role official–and appropriately compensated.

In the military, she learned she could adapt to most situations. By commanding troops from all over the country, she tested her leadership skills and ability to understand people. “There’s always more ways than one way to get the job done,” and so she learned how and when to delegate responsibility. “Did combat experience change me?” In sharp contrast to negative stereotypes of combat vets she said, “It gave me added strength and compassion and gave me a road map for the future.”

For all the positive outcomes and outlooks at the symposium, no one forgot the sister vets struggling with poverty, hunger, and the results of trauma.

“Don’t ever let another sister down,” said Threatt.

As for the future of women in the military, she reminded all in attendance, “We can fight this fight against discrimination because we are in America. There are places around the world where women struggle to show their faces. We have the opportunity to fight.”


We all-–active military, veteran, or civilian-–have the opportunity to spread the word to help women vets connect with the programs cited in this article as well as services listed below:

Need a copy of your DD214 (separation from service form) to access benefits but you’re getting stuck in red tape? It can be requested from Military Service Records but a Statement of Service on Veterans Benefits Administration letterhead is also acceptable proof and can be obtained from the VBA on the fifth floor of the Federal Building in Westwood (11000 Wilshire Blvd.)

For active service members and vets returning from Iraq and/or Afghanistan and their loved ones, The Coming Home Project provides free and confidential services addressing emotional, psychological, spiritual and relationship challenges of deployment and reintegration: 415-353-5363.

Licensed mental health professionals throughout California offer free psychological treatment to military service members who have served in or expect deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq and would prefer not to be seen by the VA: 818-761-7498 for a referral.

Are there women out there who would like contact with other vets but don’t want to join the local American Legion post? Irene Cruz, a Marines vet and co-chair of the SEIU Veteran Caucus, is building up an all-woman virtual post and invites interested vets to contact her at

Irene Cruz (left) and Julie De La MoraIrene Cruz (left) and Julie De La Mora

Rock for Vets, a music therapy program based at the Long Beach VA, gets veterans together for sing-alongs and for instrumental music lessons. For information or to join the group, vets are encouraged to contact Frank McIlquham at

Rock for Vets

New Directions Women’s Program, the first residential program in the US specifically for female veterans confronting homelessness, substance abuse, PTSD and other mental health issues, offers both emergency and transitional housing and a wide range of support services, including assistance in family reunification and regaining custody of children. For more information, please contact Renee Banton, program supervisor, at 310-709-5871. For immediate 24-hour assistance: 310-914-5966.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour hotline for anyone in distress. Call 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a civilian California crisis center or press 1 to be routed to a VA counselor at the Veteran Suicide Prevention Hotline.

The Lifeline also offers online chat, in English or Spanish, through which veterans, their families and friends can connect anonymously to either a civilian or trained VA counselor.

Diane Lefer
Friday, 22 March 2013

Teen Dating Violence – a V-Day Panel

February 16, 2013

my article today in LA Progressive

One billion women violated is an atrocity.

One billion women dancing is a revolution.

That was the statement sent out by the One Billion Rising campaign urging women around the world to dance in the streets on February 14 and demand an end to violence against women and girls.

While the campaign’s music video, screened in the background, three dozen women and a few men in the meeting room of the Los Angeles chapter, National Council of Jewish Women got up and danced before settling down to the serious business of a panel on teen dating violence.

Teen relationships “mimic adult relationships,” said Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence (formerly the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women). “If we are really going to stop domestic violence, we have to work with the young.”

Perez and Horvath
“It’s more complicated than hitting and physical abuse,” said Barrie Levy. We have to look at emotional abuse as a girl’s self-confidence and healthy functioning are undermined by “a pattern of coercive control.”


Levy, a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and UCLA faculty member, has decades of experience working with families affected by domestic violence and teens affected by abuse in intimate relationships. She offered a typical scenario:

A boyfriend uses verbal attacks and humiliation to stay in control of his girlfriend. He constantly criticizes her, making her feel bad about herself. He’s possessive and jealous, calling or texting her all the time to make sure where she is and to accuse her of being with other guys. He knows exactly how to hurt her and so she is watchful, afraid to upset him. She apologizes all the time. She is aware that she can’t do anything separate from him and so she stops spending time with her best friend. The emotional abuse begins to escalate to physical. In the beginning, sex was special but he’s been rough lately. He uses or threatens to use physical force. He’s pushed her against the lockers at school. Now he’s hit her a couple of times. And she can’t stand the thought of losing him.

What’s wrong with these kids anyway? Just more examples of teens and bad decision making? Lindsey Horvath, Regional Coordinator for the One Billion Rising campaign, asked therapist Ava Rose if science has some answers.

Rose, the director of Women Helping Women, the community counseling and support services at the NCJW, said, “We’re hardwired to stay in connection.” As humans–unlike most other animals–we remain vulnerable and in need of care for many years of life. “Relationships are essential to survival,” she said, which is why “when somebody becomes attached, that can feel like a life-and-death story.” So breaking up isn’t just hard to do: it may feel life-threatening. This is particularly true for teenagers. Contrary to stereotype, “teens are perfectly capable of making good decisions when their minds are calm,” Rose said. But the part of the brain that helps us manage emotions is still developing at that age. Teens therefore “have a harder time calming their emotions down” and that’s when bad judgment comes into play.

Ava Rose

But the great part about working with adolescents–the reason Levy loves it–is they are still developing. Which means, she says, “they can change.”
Levy reminded the audience what teens may envision as the ideal romance. “It’s what you see in the movies. He loves me so much, he wants me all to himself,” she said, “but what starts out romantic becomes a prison. You’re locked in and can’t move.”

If we look back honestly at our own lives, “How many of you thought, I want to be in a healthy relationship?” asked Patti Giggans.

Patti Giggans Peace Over Violence

And what does one look like?

Terra Slavin, attorney with the Domestic Violence Legal Advocacy Project at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, challenged the audience to name a high profile gay couple. Society has changed enough that the media gives us many positive examples of gay and lesbian individuals, she said, but what we don’t see are the healthy relationships.


She also pointed out that lesbian-identified women report abuse by intimate partners at a higher rate than straight-identified women, and for lesbian teens, it may be particularly hard to leave the relationship. “The fear of being outed to family and school is a threat a same-sex partner can use on the other. LGBT youth are still a disproportionate number of the homeless youth — 40%,” she said. “So when an abusive partner threatens to out them to their family, it can mean they don’t have any place to go.”

Giggan’s Peace Over Violence organization has now introduced a pilot program in a few LAUSD schools to train teachers to be aware of the signs of teen dating violence and to take appropriate action. If teachers see a boy push a girl up against the lockers and ignore it or just walk by, it’s “the worst thing that can happen,” she said. It sends the message that people accept this behavior as normal.

Miguel Angel Perez, coordinator of the Male Violence Prevention Project in Santa Monica, acknowledged this as he talked about transforming “bystanders” to “upstanders,” adult men who model a different sort of masculinity for the next generation. “Masculinity is at the root of violence,” he said, “so men need to step up and change the culture about masculinity.”
The project works, for example, with athletic coaches who may use sexist language to motivate their players. If coaches continue to use misogynistic insults, the assistant coaches and players themselves are encouraged to speak up and challenge this. With fifth-graders, discussions focus on the kids’ idea of what makes an ideal man. What does it mean to be strong? Tough?
Yes, boys need a different concept of manhood and identity. Whether we look at gang violence or the recent examples of Adam Lanza and Christopher Dorner, we see men turning to guns and killing to erase stigma and shame and to reclaim a sense of respect and honor.

Slavin added, “We code masculinity in terms of men. We assume that masculine-identified people are the ones perpetrating violence.” This leads to automatic–sometimes incorrect–assumption that the more feminine person in an LGBT relationship is the victim.

Altogether, too many teen relationships–Giggans cited an estimate of 25-30%– involve coercive control. And if you think it doesn’t apply in your home because your kid doesn’t date, think again. Many kids today don’t even use that language, Giggans and Slavin agreed. They aren’t “dating.” They are just “hanging out.”

How can you know if your own daughter (or son) is affected?

Levy said a tip-off can be behavioral changes. A girl has become more self-conscious, self-critical. She’s begun dropping activities, afraid to do anything that will get her boyfriend upset. She’s become isolated, not seeing her friends anymore as the unhealthy relationship demands all her emotional and cognitive attention.

So what do you do? Telling her not to see the boy leaves her caught between a controlling boyfriend and a controlling parent. And if you ask her to choose, the boyfriend will win.

According to Levy, a parent should accept that it’s not easy to end a relationship. Focus on keeping your daughter safe. Ask her, Are you emotionally safe? Physically safe? What are you doing to get yourself safe? For example, does she have a way of not being in the car when he’s been drinking? Does she know how to get away when he’s in a jealous rage? At the same time, focus on building her strength and support. Encourage her participation in other activities and a life outside the relationship.

Parents of a boy should be aware if he’s temperamental, volatile, quick to blow up. A mother might hear her son being cruel and critical to the girl. She might realize he’s obsessed with his girlfriend because she notices how he pays constant attention to everything the girl is doing.

Levy acknowledged some of the behavior would be hidden, but “You have to assume it’s worse than what you see.” A boy may try to blame the girlfriend for his behavior with excuses like, You don’t know how she pushes me.” Of course a mother wants to believe her son is not at fault. But he needs everyone in his life to point out to him that the way he is treating his girlfriend isn’t healthy.

“The best thing parents have to offer their kids,” Levy said, “is a strong relationship. Your kids should know you’re there to support them and help them make good decisions no matter how you feel about the choices they’re making.”

For parents and other caregivers who want more information and support, Levy and Giggans have co-authored What Parents Need to Know about Dating Violence as well as another book forthcoming in Fall 2013. (When they asked around for advice on a title, parents of daughters wanted to call the book I Want to Kill the Bastard while teenagers suggested Parents–You Don’t Have a Clue.)

Dating Violence

This spring, Levy will also facilitate a two-hour workshop, Dating Without Danger, sponsored by Women Helping Women at the NCJW, 543 N. Fairfax, Los Angeles. The date is not yet confirmed but interested parents should contact Abha Verma at 323-852-8522 by March 4 for further information or to enroll.

Finally, a confession: As I left the meeting to meet a friend and go join the dance, there were memories I couldn’t shake. I remembered when instead of being an upstander, I was a bystander. Junior high. There was a girl in my class, a lovely girl, an honors student, friendly, liked and respected. Then the gossip started going round that she was seeing the local “bad boy” and she was “letting him” hit her. And while we gossiped, we felt ashamed of being girls. Our classmate’s situation made us feel uncomfortable, icky. Even disgusted with her. I used to have nightmares in which she’d be running from that boy, trying to escape. She’d come to me for help, crying and showing me her bruises. In real life, I never tried to talk to her. I certainly hope someone did, that she had a friend or parent who did more than just gossip about her. And then wake at night from bad dreams.

ACTION ALERT: On February 12, the Senate reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, S. 47. But now the VAWA measure needs a vote in the House where conservatives wish to remove about 14 words (out of 200 pages) intended to ensure that tribal women, immigrants, LGBT populations, and communities of color are not discriminated against in funding or services. Please contact your representative to urge support for the Senate version of VAWA and protect all women.

How Progressives Can (and Must) Lobby for Social Change

July 28, 2012

My article in today’s LA Progressive:

Abbe Land, West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem, doesn’t want activists to think of “lobbying” as a dirty word. “In the purest form, it’s about educating and helping elected officials understand the issue,” she told more than 100 community members attending the July 25th workshop, “Your Voice: Learning to Lobby for Social Change,” organized by the Advocacy Committee of the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. “Paid lobbyists can keep knocking on your door till you let them in, keep telling you their side, their side, their side–till it’s possible forget about the other side.” Progressive organizations lobby, too, “to move our agenda forward,” she said in her keynote address, but don’t have the resources to keep up that kind of constant pressure without the help of the individual activist. The role of citizen lobbyist is crucial.

Abbe Land

In the breakout sessions that followed, community members got tips about individual activism while much of the discussion focused on the role of organized nonprofits as well as informal ad hoc advocacy groups.

(While 501(c)(3) nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status if lobbying takes more than 5% of their time and resources, they are not banned entirely from approaching officials on behalf of specific legislation. Good information on how to navigate rules and restrictions and maximize lobbying to the full extent of the law is available at the website of the organization Alliance for Justice.)

Legislate? Or Educate?

There’s no limit on 501(c)(3) organizations (or anyone else) when it comes to campaigns to educate officials about issues.

Emily Austin, who facilitated the workshop on “Policy Process 101: Transforming Ideas into Policy,” explained that education must sometimes precede any attempt to make policy given the many obstacles to getting a bill into law. Even if you can get legislation introduced, it’s likely to die in committee unless the ground has been fully prepared.
To illustrate how this might work in real life, Austin shared her experience addressing teen dating violence in her role as Director of Policy & Evaluation for Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit dedicated to intervention and prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault. Through its work with survivors, POV was aware that many teens were victimized but when staff went to the broader community, they found parents insisting their kids didn’t even date so couldn’t possibly be affected. POV collected statistics and reports to show the prevalence of the violence and began to collect powerful personal stories as well.

“Think about who your allies might be,” she said. “Unlikely allies, too.” Progressives sometimes overlook the support a cause might get from groups–in this case, law enforcement and prosecutors–that aren’t always in agreement with our values.

Emily Austin

You also need to identify the opposition and what their arguments might be. An Orange County politician, for example, was opposed to any discussion of dating violence because dating implied sexual activity. In today’s economy, you can expect arguments about funding, so think about possible resources and be ready to make the argument–with specific figures–that spending money now will prevent higher costs later.

Determine your venue, Austin said. Do you think the issue is best addressed on a federal, state, local, or organizational level? Once you know your venue, find a champion there. Whether a bill needs to be shepherded into law or a regulation or policy needs to change in a bureaucracy, someone has to work toward this goal with almost single-minded focus and push hard for it in a knowledgeable and articulate way.

POV connected early on with Steve Zimmer, a Los Angeles teacher and counselor for 17 years, who knew firsthand that students were suffering abuse. When he was later elected to the school board, he became an ideal champion–committed, able to speak at a press conference in an entirely credible way. He didn’t need to have talking point provided to him and was able to answer any questions with ease. (As Abbe Land pointed out, a paid lobbyist has to be prepared because they get fired if they don’t know the issue very well. We have to be sure we are every bit as knowledgeable when we speak to people in power.) In October 2011, Zimmer got the school board to pass a unanimous resolution in favor of a prevention program for the city’s public schools. Though no funds have been identified yet to implement such a program or the curriculum prepared by POV, the problem–after years of educating the community–is at last officially recognized. As Austin said, “It’s on the map.” Even this limited progress to the goal took years while POV did the research, developed and nurtured relationships, and prepared the ground with public awareness.

For now, the organization continues to educate peer leaders who can talk to other teens. And while you’re figuring out how to influence others, Austin said, look at your own organization. Is it living up to its stated goals? For example, when people think of teen dating violence, the common assumption is this refers to girls who are victims of boys. Austin said POV looked to be sure its own board and policies were friendly to LGBT teens and youth who were questioning their sexuality and/or gender.

Whatever your cause, remember you need to raise community awareness and support before trying to promote a bill. Sometimes, Austin warned, the community may get passionately behind a cause after a particularly terrible event. These laws sometimes go through quickly–too quickly. “Legislation created after one specific set of facts–such as laws that tend to be named after a survivor or victim” are often poorly drafted “without thinking of unintended consequences.” Think through any proposed bills or recommendations with care.

Everyone Has a Role

Serena Josel, Director of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, spoke on “Mobilizing Your Base: Grassroots and Grasstops Lobbying.”

Serena Josel

For legislative advocacy, she said, you need three ongoing components that work together: a policy analysis team to study a bill and consider what real-life impact it would have; a media team to communicate these impacts to the public; a lobbying team of paid lobbyists if possible, plus the grassroots and the grasstops, the latter being members or allies of your group who are prominent in the community or have special relationships or access to decision makers because they are big donors or as colleagues or former staffers or through, for example, family, friendship, business.

“Last spring when Congress tried to defund Planned Parenthood,” she said, “what did we do?” First, the policy team warned the organization to take the threat seriously. Though the same amendment had been offered in Congress every year for six years, it never before had a chance of passing. This time, the policy team put out the alert that “it had legs.” The media team got to work with radio and television interviews and social media to make the buzz louder and get people engaged.

As for the grassroots lobbyists, how much could they accomplish here in LA where Planned Parenthood enjoys strong longterm support from our elected representatives? First, whatever your cause, if you’ve got a compelling personal story, an official who’s already on your side can use it in working to convince others. Then, Los Angeles grassroots activists turned to technology. They phoned sympathetic voters in targeted states, told them what was happening in DC and said “Your senator will be one of the deciding votes. Will you let me patch you into their office right now?” In this way, people power in Los Angeles generated calls to senators all around the country. “We won on the federal level,” Josel said, though Planned Parenthood is still under attack in eight states.

Grassroots volunteers have also fanned out with cell phones on college campuses and at farmers markets, talking to people and inviting supporters to make calls on-the-spot to elected officials.

As for the grasstops, Josel passed around copies of a sample chart set up to list all the decision makers relevant to an issue. After you poll the organization’s board and active members, you fill in the blanks on the chart: who has a personal connection to each decision maker; who is a professional contact; who knows someone who is an indirect contact and in those cases, fill in that person’s name and the nature of the relationship. You can then identify who is best suited to make the approach.

Don’t ask your grasstops to call everyone they know, Josel advised. Choose targets with care. Track what happens. Some grasstops turn out to be have more clout than they expected; some less.
Before any contact is made, the grasstops spokeperson should be carefully prepared. Their relationship means they are likely to have a real back-and-forth conversation with the decision maker so they’ll need to know their stuff. The organization can follow up later with additional information if needed and, of course, with thank you notes.

Decision makers who support you need to be thanked whenever they do the right thing with their vote, Josel said. Just because a person’s belief system matches up with yours, doesn’t mean they’ll always want to go out on a limb for you, especially in an election year. Let them know that constituents have their back by sending a note or a even a photo of a large group of people holding up a big thank you sign.

Keep your grassroots people engaged with updates and reports of progress.

Tips for Individuals

Citizen lobbying is most effective when the decision maker can see you face-to-face (in their district or Capitol office or at a town hall meeting) or at least hear your voice on the phone. Meeting with an official’s staff members is just as valuable.

Personal letters get more attention than petitions or mass emails. Snail mail shows a higher level of commitment than email. But keep in mind: Physical letters sent to local district offices will rarely be subject to delay but in DC, mail goes through security screening and can take several weeks to reach the recipient. For an urgent matter or when a vote is imminent, phone calls and personally composed emails are necessary.

Use personal language, Josel said, not political jargon or bumper sticker language, e.g., talk about pregnancy and families, not the opposing camps of pro-choice and pro-life.

On-line petitions may have some effect if the numbers are huge and come from appropriate zip codes.

Think about visual impact. If you’re part of a pre-printed postcard campaign, save the cards and deliver them all at once. A thousand cards dumped in a legislator’s office can’t be ignored. The same number trickling in over the course of a year or two can be overlooked.

If your letter to the editor is published, send copies to relevant decision makers, or, a participant suggested, bcc (send blind copies) to the people you want to influence. That way, they’ll know your opinion and that you cared enough to write even if the letter isn’t published.

Facebook and Twitter campaigns tend to work best with corporations concerned about their image and their brand and are less effective when targeting elected officials. It’s worth tweeting a representative who’s known to use Twitter a lot. If you catch him or her during a particularly boring committee meeting, you may have the chance for an extended exchange.

A Last Word

Matt Leighty, who has worked as a lobbyist and teaches a graduate-level course on “Lobbying and Policy Change” at Pepperdine University offered a workshop on “The Art of Persuasion: Winning Them Over,” focused on preparing and delivering oral arguments. As participants could only attend two of the three breakout sessions, I missed his presentation. Which leads to my own tip to fellow activists: Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do everything.

But here’s something you can do. The meeting ended with:

Action Alerts

Contact Congress to support:

1. The reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) as approved by the Senate (S. 1925) rather than the House version (H.R. 4970) which was designed to undermine or deny protection to immigrant women (including mail-order brides), Native women, students on college campuses, and LGBTQ victims.

2. The Fair Minimum Wage Act which would raise the minimum wage in three gradual steps from $7.25 to $9.80/hour by 2014. Get your representative on board as a co-sponsor.

If you need help finding your members of Congress and their contact info, call the Capitol switchboard at (202)224-3121 or go online: and

For California actions, contact your state senator to support these Assembly bills being considered by the Senate:

1. AB 2348 which would allow RNs to dispense birth control to women who have no risk factors. Today thousands of women who want contraception are turned away at health centers as there aren’t enough doctors to see them. (If you make this call, please let Planned Parenthood know how it went by emailing

2. AB 593 and AB 1593 which would aid incarcerated battered women who were unable to present a domestic violence defense at the time of a petition for habeas corpus and would give them a chance to present this evidence effectively during the parole process.

To find a California state senator:

Seeking Unity Across Sex, Race & Class

March 27, 2012

my article, published today in LA Progressive

In an era when we see the faces of women, people of color, gay and lesbian people and people with disabilities among the 1%,”All the movements we have founded for our liberation are now represented in the establishment,” said women’s rights and anti-racist activist Selma James, “but we are not.”
And we remain unlikely to prevail without unity.

James, born in New York, one-time resident of South LA, veteran of anti-colonial struggles in the Caribbean, and now UK-based, was back in the US to launch her new book, Sex, Race and Class–The Perspective of Winning, As the keynote speaker at the Teach-In, “Sex, Race & Class: What Are the Terms of Unity?” on Saturday, March 24 at the Southern California Library in South LA, she drew on decades of organizing experience to talk about how to bridge the divide among the different sectors that make up the 99%.
The answer may well be “Money.” Not as the root of all evil, but the source of both autonomy and commonality.
Forty years ago, interpreting Marxist economic theory through a feminist and humanist lens, James coined the phrase “unwaged work” to highlight the reality that most of the work–and the most important work of society–is done by people who aren’t paid and are therefore not considered “workers.” And most of those people are women.

She decried the idea that women gain equality by going out to work. This limited view of women’s rights–opening the door to some–“has caused a class split in women as we have never had it before. Women have become part of the elite–some women, a few women–and the rest of us have less than we did before.” Every job she ever had “has always been an exploitation. It has not only taken my time but also my possibilities.” Low wage and exhausting work leaves little time for your relationships, especially the relationship with your children. “Why is the birth and rearing of children a crisis for our society? What kind of society do we live in that children are not a priority?”
Women bear and raise children, care for elderly parents, volunteer in the schools and raise money to make up for inadequate school funding–even in exclusive private schools. Women run soup kitchens and food pantries and are tireless advocates for incarcerated loved ones. Every time governments “cut any social service they do it on the basis that we women will pick up the pieces,” she said. In this era of austerity, “demanding wages for the work we do is crucial to the liberation of women.”
But what does a demand for paid housework have to do with unity? Well, consider: What would happen to the controversy over welfare which has too often divided poor and middle class and black and white? What if we said women–all women–have the right to be compensated for being mothers and homemakers? “Homemakers receiving payment should have the dignity of having that payment called a wage instead of welfare,” James said.
All women, she said, should be able to give their children what no one else can give, to have the right to stay home, if they want to, with their children up to the age of two or three without suffering loss of needed income.
Everything comes back to “Invest in Caring Not Killing,” the strategy for change espoused by Global Women’s Strike, the group which Selma James coordinates.
Long before “framing” became a catchword, she was doing it–an anti-racist activist who in organizing avoids words like race.
As an example, she cited work she’d done in Guyana where people of Indian descent and people of African descent were at sometimes violent loggerheads while politicians used race to manipulate their Indo or Afro constituencies. Her Red Thread organization wanted to bring together Afro and Indo women and the poorest women, the indigenous in the hinterlands. So grassroots women did a time-use study. What did they do all day? They showed the communities that what they mostly did was work. 12, 14, 16-hour days for both the Afro and Indo women while the indigenous women worked even more. With the recognition of this shared burden, the organization was able to build a “national network of women across race.”
“Organize on the basis of what you have in common,” James advised. In her work on the pay-for-housework campaign she “organized women not in regard to whether they were racist or anti-racist but whether they wanted the money.”
Another example: at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, a gathering authorized by public law and supported with federal funds, pro-life and pro-abortion delegates fought it out. At the same time, people of color, welfare recipients, and members of the Ku Klux Klan (openly present in the Mississippi delegation) came together around the statement: Every mother is a working mother. Who can argue with that?
“Every issue in front of us is of concern to every other sector,” she said. “The waged and the unwaged are together in that slogan: We are the 99%.”
And yes, today, there are men dedicating themselves to raising their children and to eldercare, a cultural development that James applauds. “Being a carer is a very civilizing influence,” she said. “And I would like to see men civilized.”
Her son, trade unionist Sam Weinstein, spoke during the day’s first panel discussion to note that workers at all pay levels need to recognize that the fight over the minimum wage is also their own fight. “When the minimum wage goes up, it shifts all wages up.”

Anti-poverty activist Nancy Berlin addressed current welfare policy. Even after families lost assistance due to the Clinton era “reform” to “end welfare as we know it,” today’s budgets threaten worse. She cited California Governor Jerry Brown’s attempt to cut the cost of the CalWORKS program by giving people less time to find work (at a time of high unemployment) before cutting benefits. He has also proposed creating two classes of recipients, with more money going to those who are gainfully employed. She pointed out that CalWORKS represents only 3% of the state budget. Even if you eliminated welfare entirely in the State of California, this extreme measure would not solve the budget problem. “Three out of four people on welfare are children,” she said, and “$638 is the maximum grant. How do you live on that?” It gets worse: When you can’t make ends meet, your children can be removed from your home.
Berlin urged all sectors to support HR 3573, the RISE out of Poverty Act introduced by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-WI. Among other provisions, RISE would allow a single parent with an infant under six months of age to stay home and care for that baby without being penalized; when child care is not available, single parents with children younger than 13 would not be sanctioned for not working outside the home; talented and qualified recipients would be able to seek higher education instead of being limited to associates degrees and vocational training. The bill has been sitting in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee since early December.
“The bill isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” said Berlin. Progressive groups say “it’s not a winnable bill so why work for it?” She dismissed that excuse: “Imagine not working for civil rights in the Sixties!”
Molly Trad of the Household Workers Committee of CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles) organizes “the few household workers who are paid–because we work in someone else’s home.”

But, she says, they too often have trouble collecting that pay. And just like homemakers, they are on-call all the time without overtime pay: “Like women at home we are called in the middle of the night by people who have real needs.” She urged support of AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, now being considered in the California legislature.
The teach-in that began with old-school organizers ended with an afternoon panel drawn from the newest movement: individuals from Occupy LA, among those we can thank for the fact that, in the words of Margaret Prescod, host of the teach-in and of Sojourner Truth on radio station KPFK, “The whole discussion in this country changed from austerity to inequality.”

Sheila Nichols helped set up Kid Village–a safe space for women and children at the encampment–and helped organize self-policing.

“We’ve been very divided and conquered,” she said. “I’m here to tell you Occupy shifted that completely.” People with many different causes and agendas had to learn to cooperate in very basic ways: “Just getting up in the morning and figuring out where you’re going to go to the bathroom,” she said.
Though police evicted Occupy LA from the park around City Hall at the end of November, the movement continues with General Assembly meetings at Pershing Square (see for times and dates).
“Our struggle is about the issues on Main Street,” said Kwazi Nkrumah of Occupy the Hood and so, after the movement was evicted activists have gone literally to Main Street–Main Street and 5th, to be exact–to build an alliance with the homeless and homeless activists on Skid Row.

“Some Occupy members didn’t want this alliance,” at least not at first, he said, but he sees a common interest in the human right to decent housing. It brings together the homeless, tenants whose campaign for a rent freeze was squashed by the apartment owners, and homeowners threatened with foreclosure by the banks (to which you might add another group mentioned later by Homies Unidos co-founder Alex Sanchez: people displaced by gentrification).
Occupy folks now camp out Friday nights on Skid Row, in front of LACAN–(the Los Angeles Community Action Network) “to build relationships with people,” said Vanessa Carlisle, “and find out what they need and see how we can help.”
John Waiblinger of Occupy’s gay affinity group said the encampment brought “individual oppressions into a common arena.” He was used to working in his own gay community as an activist, a place where he felt safe. After some bad experiences, he said, he was afraid to venture out but through Occupy LA he found people willing to stand in solidarity with him. And when the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, chose to name Goldman Sachs as their corporate equality honoree, he took part in a protest action. The mainstream gay rights organizations have, he said, “forgotten our brothers and sisters in poverty and incarcerated and lacking health care.” Trying to “sanitize the movement in order to make us acceptable,” Waiblinger said, “we’ve suppressed transgender voices and people of color because we want to assimilate and look middle class.” His conclusion after participating in the Occupy movement: “All of our rights are community rights. I have to stand up with all the oppressed communities.”
That community transcends national boundaries. Actor and activist Danny Glover, a prominent supporter of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, joined the Teach-In via Skype after having to leave LA suddenly due to a death in the family. We must “always resist the attempt to compartmentalize our struggle,” he said.
“What does Haiti have to do with us?” asked Margaret Prescod. The history of Haiti is the story of “people who had nothing but rose up and defeated the most powerful military of the day.” Although, as she said “the colonial powers have never forgiven Haiti,” and as Danny Glover pointed out, US policy is aimed at keeping Haiti “a bastion of cheap labor, not a place where people flourish,” it’s still a place where “movement building happens every single moment,” he said.
Jeb Sprague, author of Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti talked of how the rightwing has taken advantage of the devastating January 2010 earthquake, grabbing aid contracts, privatizing services. Of the $3.6 billion raised for relief, only 1% went to the Haitian people. (Please note that in “Haiti after the Quake,” an article in CounterPunch on January 3 of this year, Bill Quigley and Amber Ramanauskas reported that thirty-three cents of every US dollar for Haiti was actually given directly back to the US to reimburse ourselves for sending in our military.)
With that disparity, it’s no wonder that Haitians remain in squalid tent cities without clean water or latrines while employees of international NGOs get high salaries and new high-end hotels. And faced with the corporatization, professionalization and privatization of caring here and abroad, it’s no wonder activists at the teach-in repeated the slogan We are building a movement, not a nonprofit.
Early in the day, 81-year-old Selma James (who promptly corrected Margaret Prescod when she introduced James as being 82), praised and assured the people of the Occupy Movement “you can do no better thing with your life than to organize against capitalism.”
She concluded the teach-in with a call for a shorter work week without any cut in pay.
Women are tired. Women of all classes are working too hard.
“We have to work less,” she said. “We need more time for each other.”
And more time to organize.
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Note: The entire teach-in will soon be posted in its entirety at, including the panel on prison activism which, without intending to break the interrelationship and unity of the sectors, I’ll treat in a separate essay to come.