Great Expectations: The Women's Action Coalition

Historical Essay

by Shea Dean, originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian


Interested women help bring in a beached ship, 1909.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library


The Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), at its prime in the early '90s, comprised over 500 women that altered the landscape of the city with many of their famous direct actions. While the group was very successful and gained prominent media coverage, the success was shortlived. Founders and members of WAC discuss trends that are common in activist groups, where internal racial inequalities are overlooked in the frenzy to enact fast change and move onto the next issue; and how the structural nature of gender issues require a constant battle that loses momentum once the novelty of direct action fades.

What follows is a Bay Guardian article chronicling the rise and fall of the Women's Action Coalition (WAC), which formed in August 1992. WAC was a political group that captured the imagination of hundreds of smart, angry young women in the early 1990s, not only in San Francisco, but all across the country from New York to Chicago to Seattle. Catalyzing women's anger into political action was WAC's specialty, and they did it like nobody else since radical feminists of the early 1970s. Then, quite suddenly, WAC faded from view.

Why is this article included in FoundSF's women's history chapter? In the sweep of history, WAC will not be significant for what it did as a group in the same way that it will be for the lessons that emerge from the story of WAC, highlighted here with skill by writer Shea Dean. These lessons are vital to a renewed feminist organizing presence in San Francisco and elsewhere. When we know our history, we recognize the same old battles, and we can develop innovative strategies. Recalling that Suffrage lost momentum when it allied itself with the Temperance movement is meaningful to feminists considering alliances with right wing anti-porn groups. Feminist history is vital to decisions we make every time we organize.

Racism continues to tear at the delicate fabric of feminist organizing. We would all benefit from the support of a larger network of activists that fosters feminist organizing, discussion, and protest.

The WAC story is the return of the repressed--when we don't face our problems, they do not go away, but rather emerge again and again until we face and remedy them. WAC's story below, is a precise exploration of much of what we face now, as feminists who want to organize for gender liberation.

--Elizabeth Sullivan

Was the Women's Action Coalition a victim of its own success?


Larger than anyone had any right to expect, seemingly indomitable, and uproariously funny, the San Francisco Women's Action Coalition sprung from the foam fully formed in August 1992. Inspired by the success of ACT UP's bold and creative form of direct action and echoing the countercultural groups of the '60s and early '70s, WAC promised to launch a visible and remarkable resistance to the erosion of women's rights and to an ambivalence about feminism that had reached epidemic proportions. It was to be one of the first all-embracing direct-action feminist groups to come along in decades.

Nearly 500 women were drawn to that promise, cramming into Southern Exposure Gallery for WAC's inaugural meeting after a glowing SF Weekly cover story described the nascent local group — six women sharing tea and cookies and radical notions of equality at an apartment in the Haight — and the New York WAC group that inspired San Francisco WAC and chapters throughout the country. That very week the group began its marathon run of cranking out action after media-drenched action — street theater, picket lines, fax zaps, letter-writing campaigns, marches, rallies, guerrilla postering, spray-painting, abortion clinic defense. The breakneck pace seemed impossible to maintain for the long haul.

Indeed, it was. WAC cruised on the endorphin rush of its visible and remarkable successes for more than a year — helping to defeat Gov. Pete Wilson's crusade to cut Aid to Families with Dependent Children, almost singlehandedly saving San Francisco's Rape Treatment Center from the budget axe, and bringing dozens of women's issues into the public eye. Then the group started feeling the burn. Numbers started to drop off. What had been a steady group of 200 and a phone tree of perhaps 100 more fell to 50, total. Meetings moved from the spacious Women's Building auditorium to the tiny Build gallery. In July 1994 the group acquired a small office in a space shared by other activist groups — and lost it just a few months ago when it was unable to make rent.

Can we talk?

I'm the first to arrive at a Tuesday night meeting held this winter at Julie Willing's Castro District apartment. Tall and thin, with jet-black hair and porcelain-pale skin, Willing was one of the de facto leaders in the early days of WAC. At many meetings she would serve as facilitator, a role that was equal parts referee, coach, and party host when the group numbered more than 200. Often accompanied by her young daughter, she somehow managed to maintain control of meetings that often veered toward chaos.

Tonight she exudes that same sense of control — tinged by a suspicion deeply rooted in WAC's love-hate relationship with the media. As a facilitator she would ask at the beginning of each meeting if there were any members of the working press or the FBI in the room, and if so, would they please identify themselves? A loaded pause would follow as 200 heads turned expectantly, searching for infiltrators. And if one slowly rose from the masses, as would occasionally happen, especially in the group's infancy, that person would usually be told to leave.

As we wait for the other members of the group to arrive, Willing works on the letter; I flip through the WAC archives: two meaty volumes of gushingly positive press clippings.

They're a shocking reminder of what WAC accomplished in a few short months. For its first action, on Aug. 8, 1992, WAC crashed the American Bar Association's convention downtown, demanding that the group support abortion rights and include a national lesbian and gay lawyers' group in their official roster of organizations. The ABA did both. On Sept. 12 WAC staged a demonstration on the one-year anniversary of the navy's Tailhook sexual-harassment scandal to force the navy to officially punish all the perpetrators involved. After nearly two years of hedging it did. And Oct. 8, 30 days before the 1992 presidential election, pink-slip-clad WAC women stood outside a Republican fund-raiser at Bimbo's 365 Club in North Beach, handing out paper pink slips to give the GOP its notice for failing to meet the needs of women. Garnering more press than perhaps any other WAC demonstration, that action established the group as a raucous new voice on the feminist scene.

But that, as they say, was then. This is now: one by one the three other regular WAC-meeting attendees arrive, letting themselves in and going into the kitchen to pour themselves drinks -stiff drinks. Lisa Reagul, 27, a recent UC Santa Cruz grad, and Rebecca Shuman, a 25-year-old ACT UP-San Francisco veteran, are two of the newer members of the group. Karyn Gerred, the third, has been in WAC from day one, a gutsy presence at almost all the meetings and actions. In many of the archival photos, Gerred, now 29, is shown being dragged off by the police in handcuffs, most notably after infiltrating the Bimbo's reception, where she stripped down to her pink slip, stood on a table, and clutched Men Grant, another WAC diehard, in a steamy embrace. She laughs as she says she bears the title of most arrests on behalf of the group.

Neither she nor the others seem to want to revisit the past, however, even — perhaps especially — to consider what might have gone wrong. When I ask the group how they got to this juncture, if there were any turning points they could recall, any decisive moments, the women's eyes wander from the text-filled computer screen to the window to their watches.

It's really hard when you're left with a small amount of people to try to figure out why people don't come anymore, Gerred says simply, "leaning on the door frame cupping a glass of scotch in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other." She shrugs. "You just keep on because you know you want to do it."

As for why others don't seem to want to do it anymore, no one seems certain. There would be a few people who would do it, then other people would come in and take their places, Reagul says. Then people stopped taking their places. It was just high burnout.

Shuman contends that the group's decline has less to do with the group itself than with the fickle media and the passing political moment. There was a period when people were angry and thought they could make a difference through activism, she says. And there was some minimal coverage of it. But really, the kinds of changes we've all been working for are serious structural changes. The media has never covered those structural changes.

Willing is not even interested in venturing a theory. She seems impatient to get on with the meeting. I don't think about it at all, actually," she says. "I just think about what we're trying to do next.

Everyone tonight seems to agree: this is the Women's Action Coalition. Action — not analysis — was how WAC built its well-deserved reputation of being, at least temporarily, a nearly ubiquitous feminist presence. Armed with a messianic mission statement (We are witnesses to the current economic, cultural, and political pressures that limit women's lives...), a menacing motto (WAC Is Watching. We Will Take Action), and a striking logo (a wide-open eye), WAC thought big from the start. It wanted to be a kind of Big Sister looming over the bedrooms and the legislatures of America, fighting sexism on every front. Of course, doing so would demand Herculean effort — and the sidestepping of more theoretical, longer-term concerns.

WAC's ongoing commitment to this strategy ensures that the group, despite its depleted numbers, continues to get work done: One afternoon a year ago, along with the Coalition on Homelessness, it hijacked the seats of the Board of Supervisors, dressing up as each of the supes and symbolically passing 12 progressive taxes to pay for city services (I was Annemarie Conroy, Gerred says proudly. You know, angry woman in business suit drag). In the spring of 1995 the group unfurled a banner from the top of the building that houses the San Francisco AIDS Foundation demanding that the organization maintain its drug-treatment services for women. WAC has continued to do lots of late-night guerrilla postering, letter writing, and fax zapping.

But none of these demonstrations have earned the group the sort of media attention earlier WAC actions did — and media coverage was, at least initially, WAC's raison d'etre. Good coverage, that is. Bad coverage, such as a July 1993 Village Voice article titled WAC Attacks Itself, need not apply. In that piece the New York group came across as disorganized and defensive bordering on paranoid. It was the final nail in the coffin for that group: WAC New York, which Just three years ago boasted more than 2,000 members, has totally disbanded.

To its credit, San Francisco WAC shows no sign of dissolving, but the women tonight aren't brimming with ideas on how to rebuild, either. The prevailing sentiment is fatalism — We're old hat, Gerred sums up dryly — but as always, the work needs to get done.

Race matters

It was an ugly incident, Mary Newson, 25, remembers over coffee at a Mission District cafe where we met on a recent evening. Newson was active not only in WAC from the start but in the Women of Color Caucus, a separate committee, closed to white women, that met regularly to talk about race issues that came up in general meetings and to formulate its own action proposals. While the caucus didn't formulate the proposal that sparked the November 1992 blowout, it was well acquainted with the contentious issues that were raised.

What happened was this: still giddy with the successes of the WAC actions of the summer, a group of women met to draw up plans for a huge march to celebrate International Women's Day in March 1993. The groups made up of both white women and women of color, imagined an action that would include an outpouring of women in large numbers and that would emphasize coalition and unity among women, according to a flyer the committee printed out for the general WAC membership. The march would be called One Hundred Million Missing Women and would generate content from the foundational theme of resistance to the war against women globally.

Twenty-five years ago the idea to hold a simple, old-fashioned march for women's rights would have been considered par for the feminist course, but for WAC it was a highly ambitious proposal, for it was the first time the group would take the offensive. Indeed, it turned out to be not so simple at all. When the committee presented its ideas at the general meeting — which included addressing issues like the killing of female infants in China and genital mutilation in other countries — it came under attack for cultural insensitivity and racism. The evening degenerated into a screaming match between women who believed feminism transcended cultural and racial differences and women who believed that as first-world women they could only speak for themselves. Many women sat in stunned silence as the very premise of WAC, an open alliance of all women, was undermined. Dozens never came back.

To Newson, the incident was part of a long-delayed process of cultural and racial education. A lot of stuff was being brought to the table, she says, and I think that's one of the only ways that it's going to be brought to the table. Indeed, one could argue that the confrontation would not have been so dramatic had some of the issues been dealt with earlier. At the very first meeting at Southern Exposure, several women of color drew the predominantly white group's attention to its overwhelming whiteness.

It's a bind, Newson continues. You're in the bind that you're in this women's group that's predominantly white... You don't want to have to educate white women — but you're going to have to anyway. In subsequent meetings there was talk of building coalitions with groups made up of women of color to increase WAC's diversity, but that concern fell down WAC's priority list as the group got caught up in its own cyclone of spinning out action after action.

While the Women of Color Caucus had continued to discuss diversity issues and build coalitions — most notably with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, a group of women garment workers fighting for equitable pay in the sweatshop-ridden garment industry — bigger issues rarely got discussed in the general meetings. Moreover, the issues that did get talked about were not hammered out by consensus, the torturously egalitarian method of choice for many feminist groups of the '70s and antinuclear groups of the '80s. Instead, plowing full speed ahead, WAC operated by majority rules, so that with each vote there was a minority that got crushed and a disagreement that did not get resolved.

That strategy, according to Newson, had a hidden cost. If you're relying solely on direct action and not on learning from other strategies from the past or talking in depth about different issues, I guess you kind of lose your context in a way, she says. You're in it, you're there, you're reacting, but you're kind of popping from action to action to action, and that wears on you.

Newson's observation seems to hang significantly in the air. How long will it last? The four women of today's WAC seem to believe that as long as they continue to struggle along, someday the rising political waters will lift their boat. No doubt those waters will rise again, perhaps buoying WAC to future fame. But when those waters recede, as they surely will, chances are the outcome for WAC won't be any different — unless the group resolves, or at least discusses, some of its long-simmering conflicts over race, class, process, and the growing influence of the mass media on activism. Otherwise, like countless groups that came before it, WAC will find itself celebrating its brilliantly brief career, pondering its unrealized potential, and wondering what went wrong — again.

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