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Voices / Column

It’s time for some new movements

We need something on the scale of the civil rights and women’s movements to take us further toward healthy social change

Elayne Clift writes about politics, women, and social issues.

Saxtons River

Every great social movement “begins with a set of ideas validated, internalized, and then shared and amplified through media, grassroots organizations, and thousands, even millions, of conversations,” David Korten wrote in Yes! Magazine in 2011. “A truth strikes a resonant chord, we hear it acknowledged by others, and we begin to discuss it with friends and associates. The new story spreads out in multiple ever-widening circles that begin to connect and intermingle.”

That was the spirit — post-Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown, it seemed to me — that resonated with so many of us when the call came from many quarters for a new civil rights movement.

We had seen again the incipient racism in America that remained unresolved by activism or legislation in the 1960s, racism that was fueled rather than dissipated by the election of our nation’s first Black president.

We saw another March on Washington, and it reminded us of the days when Rosa Parks (and, earlier, a pregnant teenager named Claudette Colvin) refused to sit in the back of the bus and Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. We began to think that a new civil rights movement was being born, and that it would carry us forward to a new and better time. Maybe it still will.

* * *

Another civil rights movement started in the 1960s, aided by a book called The Feminine Mystique and other feminist truth-telling tales.

That movement, too, needs to be resurrected as a new Congress tries to deny the elementary reality that women are people, too.

In the first three days of the current session, three measures were proposed in the House of Representatives striving to deny women their reproductive (and constitutional) rights.

Such repressive legislation is offered by uninformed, uncaring, and — dare I say — stupid people akin to the anti-woman gadabout Phyllis Schlafly, who remains stuck in the 1950s notion that happiness for women resides in marrying the right man who will give her children, a frost-free refrigerator, and dinner out on a Saturday night.

* * *

Marches representing women’s fight for justice and equality also took place in the time of 20th-century civil rights activism and they were just as powerful as those led by Dr. King and other Black leaders.

The marches for women led by Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and others were attended by huge numbers of diverse people who thought it was time to end discrimination, second-class status, and state-sanctioned abrogation of human rights.

As the growing chorus for women grew globally during the United Nations Decade for Women (1976–1985), women began to see themselves and the world through the lens of gender and were changed forever. They are still forcing legislation to catch up.

Many social critics, activists, and others — I among them — believe these movements for civil rights and women’s rights were the two greatest social movements of the 20th century.

But we also must remember, and resurrect, another movement during that time: the environmental movement launched by Rachel Carson and her 1962 book, Silent Spring.

The book prodded us to examine our relationship to nature and asked that we value the Earth we inhabit, because its resources are not infinite. Carson singlehandedly awakened the world to the fact that it was imperative to take responsibility for protecting and conserving nature if we were to enjoy a safe, healthy, collective future.

* * *

Each of these movements served to transform the way we live. So did the intercultural exchange that became inevitable with the jet age and now the Internet.

As David Korten put it, “Together the great social movements of the 20th century and the expansion of international communication has unleashed global scale liberation of the human mind that transcends the barriers of race, class, and religion and has enabled hundreds of millions of people to see themselves and the larger world in a new light.”

We need — rather urgently, it seems to me — newly-resurrected movements that will take us further in the direction of healthy social change and lead us from our growing collective despair.

Efforts like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, along with organizations like Environmental Action and others, represent good and necessary grassroots action.

But something even bigger has to happen: something on the scale of the civil rights and women’s movements that draws huge numbers of people together in solidarity and makes them visible and powerful enough to exert real influence on those who make policy and control purse strings.

What I’m talking about goes beyond post Gilded Age populism. And it is not anarchy; it’s not even a call for — God forbid — socialism.

I’m simply wondering if we have what it takes to meet the urgent need for unified action that can move us toward the right to dignity, the right to safety in our own communities, the right to privacy in our personal decisions, the right to economic security, and the right to a Congress — let alone a justice system — that is colorblind, fair and, above all, just.

Just the thought of it goes a long way to altering a collective unconscious in despair.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #301 (Wednesday, April 15, 2015). This story appeared on page E2.

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