'Crazy for Democracy': Re

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  Msg#: 625                                          Date: 05-26-98  04:08
  From: Grant Karpik                                 Read: Yes    Replied: No 
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  Subj: 'Crazy for Democracy': Re
@MSGID: 1:153/831.2 56a77a25
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Published by H-Pol@h-net.msu.edu (May, 1998)

Temma Kaplan.  _Crazy for Democracy:  Women in Grassroots 
Movements_.  New York and London:  Routledge, 1997.  x + 243 pp.  
Notes, bibliography, and index.  $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 
0-415-91662-3; $17.99 (paper), ISBN 0-415-91663-1.

Reviewed for H-Pol by Nancy A. Naples , University 
of California, Irvine

I discovered Temma Kaplan's _Crazy for Democracy:  Women in 
Grassroots Movements_ while in the process of completing two books 
on women community activists (Naples 1998a, 1998b). Therefore, 
although I have never met them, the women in Kaplan's book seem so 
familiar to me.  Of course, most U.S. readers will have heard about 
Lois Gibbs--one of the six women Kaplan highlights--who came to 
national prominence through her efforts to fight toxic waste in her 
community of Love Canal.  Those who have more familiarity with the 
environmental movement may also have read or heard about Dollie 
Burwell who has been in the forefront of the fight against 
environmental racism.  But, for the most part, as Kaplan points 
out, women's community activism typically remains invisible to 
those outside their immediate communities.  Kaplan's goal is to 
correct this blind spot in conceptions of women as political 
actors.  In a highly accessible style, she explores women's 
motivations for radical political action as well as the creative 
ways they negotiate the resistance they encounter in their 
struggles for social justice.

As Kaplan and others who write about women's community-based 
activism point out, traditional conceptualizations of politics 
typically do not incorporate this form of political participation.  
Given the dominant definitions of politics as related primarily to 
electoral politics or participation in formal social movement 
organizations, some women community activists also resist viewing 
their involvement as politics. Many construct their activism as 
emanating from their social location as mothers and community 
caretakers, defining it as "civic work" or a "social mission" 
(Naples 1998b).  Patricia Hill Collins (1990) uses the term 
"community othermothering" to capture this phenomenon.  I use the 
term "activist mothering" to describe the ways that the community 
activists I studied related to their political and social work on 
behalf of their families and communities.  This conceptualization 
"draws attention to the myriad ways these women challenged the 
false separation of productive work, socially reproductive work, 
and politics" (Naples 1998, p. 4).

Historians of women's social activism emphasize how social 
reformers of the late 1800s and early 1900s also drew on their 
identities as women and mothers to justify their entre into the 
so-called public sphere.  Authors who explore the political 
contributions made by these social reformers often frame their 
approach as "maternalist politics."  Seth Koven and Sonya Michel 
(1993, p. 4) define maternalism as "ideologies and discourses that 
exalted women's capacity to mother and applied to society as a 
whole the values they attached to the role:  care, nurturance, and 
morality." Contributors to the debate over the political efficacy 
of maternalist politics often question to what extent such 
approaches reproduce gendered inequality in the political arena.  
By constructing women's entre into the public arena as based on 
their position as "citizen mothers," women reinforce the normative 
definition of citizen as male.

However, while many social reformers drew on their gender 
identities to describe their activism, they did not adhere to a 
traditional gender division of labor ideology nor did they believe 
that all women could unite on the basis of their mothering status.  
In fact, Wendy Sarvasy (1997) explores the political practice of 
social-democratic feminists in the first decades of the nineteenth 
century to offer "a conceptualization of citizenship that 
highlights community-based social service and participatory 
democracy" (Naples 1998c, in press) rather than "maternal 
politics."  Their notion of citizenship included, in Sarvasy's 
assessment (1997, p. 56), "new modes of citizenship activities, a 
socialized formulation of rights, new spaces for citizen 
participation, and an emancipatory use of gender difference to 
expand and to redefine gender equality."  Like the women Kaplan 
interviewed, their political praxis effectively merged expansion of 
social rights with civil and political rights.

Most of the literature on women social reformers concentrates on 
the activism of middle- and upper-class women.  In contrast, Kaplan 
is interested in centering the community activism of working class 
and poor women who operate from the grassroots rather than in 
centralized political or social organizations. She notes that the 
term grassroots "suggests being outside the control of any state, 
church, union, or political party" (p.  2).  Kaplan's work further 
demonstrates how "women of different racial-ethnic and class 
backgrounds claim social and political citizenship in arenas 
'outside the realm of governmental politics'" (Nelson 1984, p. 
209).  Rather than view these spheres of citizenship as separable 
arenas of struggle, the community activists Kaplan studied 
"understood that full participation for working-class and poor 
people of different racial-ethnic backgrounds requires access to 
certain basic social and economic protections" (Naples 1998c, in 
press).  In describing their view of social citizenship, Kaplan 
draws on the political wisdom of South African activists Regina 
Ntongana and Josette Cole.  For Ntongana and Cole, "social 
citizenship ...  include[s] the rights of everyone to schools, 
jobs, health care, and housing"  (p.  14).  However, Kaplan points 
out, this form of "justice has never been codified in national or 
international law" (p. 14). She points that, "By creating a third 
space that is neither public nor private, grassroots activists have 
opened up an arena in which human dignity, not national law or 
custom, prevails" (p. 11).

Clearly Kaplan has great admiration for the women she writes about.  
She tells their stories with much enthusiasm.  She also views the 
organizations they developed as more than simple sites through 
which specific issues can be addressed.  They are described as 
providing models for participatory democratic practice.  For 
example, as a result of her struggle in Love Canal, Lois Gibbs 
helped establish the Citizens Clearinghouse For Hazardous Waste.  
According to Kaplan, Gibbs and Luella Kenny, another Love Canal 
activist who is a board member of the Clearinghouse and director of 
the Love Canal Medical Trust fund which disburses funds from the 
financial settlement made with Love Canal homeowners, are committed 
to supporting the work of community-based activists like Dollie 
Burwell.  Rather than establishing another centralized organization 
with experts who are sent out to advise different communities, the 
Clearinghouse revised their strategies in 1995 to fund the efforts 
of local residents "who are clearly rooted in their own 
communities" (p. 99).  In a similar vein, Ntongana and her 
co-workers at the Surplus Peoples Project in South Africa "provide 
training to women who have seized the initiative in their own 
struggles to achieve self-determination and decent housing" (p. 

Kaplan is also interested in understanding to what extent women 
community activists view their politics through a feminist lens.  
Kaplan (1982) employs the term "female consciousness" to describe 
women who make political claims on the basis of their gender roles 
and subsequently participate in radical political action.  Not all 
women who make claims through their gender ideology do so on behalf 
of women's-specific issues like equal rights or reproductive 
choice.  In the concluding chapter of _Crazy for Democracy_, Kaplan 
points out how she and Maxine Molyneux mistakenly have been 
criticized "for implying that women were preoccupied with private 
rather than public matters"  (p. 219).  In trying to understand the 
different ways women define political issues, Molyneux (1986) 
differentiates between "practical gender issues" and "strategic 
gender issues" to capture the way women activists organize around 
their practical everyday needs for food, housing, day care, versus 
organizing around their gender-specific identities.  Obviously, 
this distinction often breaks down in practice as Kaplan herself 
notes.  However, she also points out that she and Molyneux "were in 
fact arguing that the working-class women we were studying would 
not accept any distinction between needs and the political 
authority to fulfill them" (p. 219).  She stresses that "Molyneux 
and I were concerned with consciousness and democratic priorities 
in movements for social change; we never accepted the idea of 
separate spheres" (p. 219).  In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, 
"another key contribution of the scholarship on women's community 
activism involves challenging limited constructions of feminism 
that derive solely from white middle class women's experiences" 
(Naples 1998a, p. 4).

Yet, Kaplan argues, since these women do not construct their 
activism primarily as feminists, they can play with gender 
stereotypes in a way that those who center their identities as 
feminists may not.  For example, in their efforts to confront 
corporate and government officials, Lois Gibbs and the other women 
involved in protesting the environmental dangers of Love Canal 
permitted themselves to be depicted as comedic figures and as 
victims, two modes of display that self-defined feminists would 
resist.  Kaplan explains, "Had the women been feminists, they could 
have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such 
actions.  But the homeowners were desperate to save their community 
from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to 
survive" (p. 30).  Kaplan further notes that the fact that these 
women did not define themselves as feminists, however, does not 
mean that they did not recognize sexism in the organizations and 
movements in which they participated.  For example, the Surplus 
People Project employs a "gender facilitator" to help staff 
"recognize the importance of gender equality to all the work the 
organization does:  helping create democracy in South Africa" (p.  

Kaplan also demonstrates the influence of other social movements in 
shaping the activists' political analyses and political networks.  
Dollie Burwell and her daughter Kim drew on lessons from the U.S.  
civil rights movement.  Regina Ntongana and Josette Cole tied their 
activism to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  In fact, 
Kaplan writes, "Women like Regina Ntongana, by their struggle to 
establish homes in the cities, helped undermine apartheid and 
contributed to the view that housing has some relationship to 
social justice" (p. 128).  For the Burwells, the civil rights 
movement provided a ready-made political community in which to 
mobilize against environmental racism.  Dollie Burwell believes 
that the link made between "environmental issues and civil rights" 
became news and therefore brought their fight to the attention of 
the national media (p. 61).

Women who participate in community-based struggles especially in 
racist and authoritarian contexts expose themselves to physical 
threat, arrest, and other risks to their safety and well-being.  
Burwell was arrested for protesting against toxic waste in her 
community of Warren County, North Carolina.  Ntongana's life was 
threatened on a number of occasions.  Working class women's entre 
into the public sphere also challenged the gender division of labor 
and gendered ideologies within their families. Marriages did not 
always survive such redefinition of roles as Gibbs' experience 
attests.  Activist mothers often felt torn between the demands of 
parenting and the hours required to mount an effective campaign 
against injustice (also see Naples 1998b). As Kaplan explains, 
"Guilt about not being home, stress over taking on extensive 
community work in addition to their many tasks as homemakers, and 
worry over the harm pollution has already done to their families 
cause personal pain" (p. 41).  Yet these women also became 
empowered by their efforts to fight against toxic waste, 
environmental racism, and other oppressions.  As in the case of the 
community workers I studied, the women activists in Kaplan's book 
often gained strength from their religious beliefs as well as from 
other women activists.

Another theme in _Crazy for Democracy_ is how these women modeled a 
political commitment for their children.  This is demonstrated most 
directly in Kaplan's interviews with Kim Burwell.  While I disagree 
with Kaplan's comment that "No woman is a hero to her daughter" (p.  
110), I have also noted significant generational variation in 
political practice (Naples 1998b).  For example, the church did not 
offer as significant a site for Kim Burwell's activism as it 
provided her mother.  However, both women recognized the key 
contributions that women make to the survival of communities of 
color.  These "community othermothers" may not view themselves as 
political leaders, but they know "everything that goes on and, 
without [them], nothing will happen in town" (p. 119).  In South 
Africa, "Collective self-reliance under a crisis situation forged 
the women into a group that trusted its own judgment" (p. 135) and 
provided the basis from which to organize against attempts to 
destroy their housing settlement outside Cape Town.  Kaplan gains 
hope for a more equitable democratic future from their political 
practice. She writes, "The fact that ordinary women were able to 
create a sense of community identity and wring a sense of justice 
out of a social system that sought to bury them alive reveals 
certain new possibilities for democracy.  In their struggles for 
urban housing, they helped establish new criteria for justice, 
standards that combined democracy with social need" (p. 156). 
Regina Ntongana, Josette Cole, Dollie and Kim Burwell, Lois Gibbs, 
and Luella Kenny are but six of the hundreds of thousands of women 
engaged in community-based struggles for social justice around the 
world today.  We all can draw inspiration from their ongoing 
commitment to democratic practice, gender equality, and social 


Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990.  _Black Feminist Thought:  Knowledge,
Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment_. Boston:  Unwin

Kaplan, Temma. 1982.  "Female Consciousness and Collective Action:
The Case of Barcelona, 1910-1918."  _Signs: Journal of Women in
Culture and Society_ 7(3): 545-566.

Koven, Seth, and Sonya Michel, eds. 1993. _Mothers of a New World:
Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States_. New York:

Molyneux, Maxine. 1986.  "Mobilization Without Emancipation?
Women's Interests, State and Revolution in Nicaragua."  Pp.  280-302
in _Transition and Development:  Problems of Third World Socialism_,
ed.  Richard R. Fagen, Carmen Diana Deere, and Jose Luis Goraggio.
New York:  Monthly Review Press and Center for the Study of the

Naples, Nancy A. 1998a.  _Community Activism and Feminist Politics:
Organizing Across Race, Class and Gender_.  New York:  Routledge.

Naples, Nancy A. 1998b.  _Grassroots Warriors:  Activism Mothering,
Community Work and the War on Poverty_.  New York:  Routledge.

Naples, Nancy A. 1998c.  "Towards a Multiracial Feminist
Social-Democratic Praxis:  Lessons From Grassroots Warriors in the
U.S. War on Poverty."  _Social Politics_ in press.

Nelson, Barbara.  1984.  "Women's Poverty and Women's Citizenship:
Some Political Consequences of Economic Marginality."  _Signs:
Journal of Women in Culture and Society_ 10(2): 209-31.

Sarvasy, Wendy. 1997.  "Social Citizenship From a Feminist
Perspective."  _Hypathia:  Special Issue on Citizenship_ 12(4):

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                   Grant {Internet: karpik@sprint.ca}

 ! Origin: Rage at the Machine... (1:153/831.2)