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Making Waves, by Elizabeth Barlett.

August 23, 2016

Making  Waves : Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior, by Elizabeth Ann Bartlett.   St. Paul, MN : Minnesota Historical Society Press, [2016]


An excellent history of long-term feminist organizations in a middle-sized, Midwestern city, reminding us of the real achievements of the movement.  This is an account of feminism at its best, not simply an account of local organizing.   It is a fine historical analysis, significant for those who study movement history and women’s history, and an inspiring narrative for all.

Beth Bartlett has been part of the Women’s Studies, now the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, at the University of Minnesota in Duluth since her arrival there in 1980.   Her academic background is in political science, and she has published books on feminist theory, ethics and spirituality.  She brings academic rigor and documentation to her analysis while writing for a broad range of readers.  Although her own work has been in the academic arena, she has lived in Duluth and belonged to the larger circle of feminist activists whom she describes in her book.  Bartlett views her new book as part of a cooperative effort, bringing together the ideas of many.  Other members of that community also conducted some of the interviews on which the book is based.  Bartlett carefully recounts her subjects’ problems and failures as well as their victories, yet she shares the pride of her subjects.

Over the years, feminism has been often been belittled and its achievements ignored and denigrated.  If anything is remembered, it is flamboyant actions on one coast or the other.  Even those of us who were involved in the 1970s and 1980s forget the problems women faced before feminists brought issues to the surface and forced society to change.  Reading Bartlett’s account of the development of feminist organizations in Duluth, Minnesota, and its surrounding region reminds us of the suffering of women and how they have been addressed in one city, a place small enough and progressive enough for people to know each other and work in supportive, overlapping projects.

Focusing on organizations that were active in Duluth for at least ten years, Bartlett considers a range of feminist causes.  Several of the groups on which she focuses organized around issues of sexual abuse and domestic violence.  Such organizations began as tiny groups of women concerned with the immediate issue of the establishment of shelters to provide safety and welfare for women needing a safe place to stay.  But the work did not stop there, however.  Seeing the context of violence and abuse and the callous ways in which women were treated by police and institutions, the feminists set out to address larger issues.  At one level, they continued to explore and provide practical solutions, providing education in the skills necessary for women living on their own.  Always prioritizing what women who been harmed said they needed, they established shelters and two-year transitional living arrangements for women  to create alternatives to abusive marriages for themselves and their children.  Some of the abused women became involved in the actual work of building and renovating much needed affordable permanent housing.  Women were trained in construction skills to do the actual work and thus become self-sufficient.  In all these projects they offered a variety of classes and a general atmosphere to help the women learn the basics of taking care of themselves rather them remaining dependent victims.

In addition, the feminists worked to change the institutions and society.  They worked extensively with police and social service workers, training them to treat the women in need with respect and kindness.  They helped pass local and state laws that established the women’s right to fair and humane living.  Sometimes with male allies, they worked with the men who had been batterers to change their behavior.  Certainly these women were angry, but changing society meant working with men, not simply dismissing them.  Also, women and men joined forces to raise money, especially when money for social service projects for women was dramatically cut by the federal government.

As I write, I find it difficult to distinguish between those women needing help and those who were helped.  In fact, blurring this line was an explicit goal of the feminists.  Women who had lived in abusive situations needed to learn how to develop and sustain relationships based on equality and respect. Consensual decision making was valued for this reason, although it was later pushed aside as organizations grew and specialized. Often women who had been helped were eager to help other women and became leaders themselves.  Projects were not top-down, but also grew out of what women said they needed.  Duluth was among the first to develop effective methods of dealing with these problems.  Their programs became models for others all over the country, and the women of Duluth became active as trainers and supervisors.

Duluth is an active port city on Lake Superior and several Native American Reservations are nearby.  As the feminists in Duluth sought to address the problems of urban and rural Indian women, they realized that these women could best be helped when attention was paid to their own particular experiences and traditions.  “Mending the Scared Circle” was created to do just that.  In addition to engaging Native Americans to work with the group, efforts were made to practice traditional rituals.  Before Indians had been taken from families and put in reservation schools, they had had a history of particular respect for women which both genders were encouraged to remember.

Access to health care including abortions was another concern.  Duluth was one of the cities where opponents of abortion became violent, but several women’s groups were supportive of each other, willing to share the risk of working in the same building as abortion providers.

While individuals working to help each other were always important, the Duluth women also put their energy into building communities of women and their allies.  A women’s coffeehouse provided space for women, lesbian and straight, to come together for events or just good company and conversation.  In addition a center for lesbians was created as a place where they could meet and get help from each other.

Bartlett praises the way the women worked together and notes that part of their success was their willingness to put time and energy into talking and getting to know each other.  They focused on each other rather than sheer efficiency.  In addition, they camped and kayaked together, refreshing themselves on the islands and shores of Lake Superior.  In this way they shared the advantages of Duluth’s location to strengthen their personal bonds.  Bartlett suggests that women working together in other places find ways to relax together and nurture themselves like the Duluth women did.

I really appreciated this book for the way in which it captured how feminists came together for the good of themselves and other women, for their accomplishments, and for the spirit which pervaded that work.  I strongly recommend it to many readers, for those of us remembering and for those who never knew nor understood the second wave of feminism.






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