What is Feminism?

What Is Feminism?
by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

What is Feminism?
[Feminists are] just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” Su, an Australian woman interviewed for the 1996 anthology DIY Feminism.

Who are the feminists and what is feminism? By feminists, we mean each and every politically and socially conscious woman or man who works for equality within or outside the movement, writes about feminism, or calls her- or himself a feminist. In reality, there is no formal alliance of women we can call “the feminists.” Although there are institutions and other forums under which women and men organize and rally, feminism isn’t a bureaucratic monolith like Communism or. . . Scientology. It’s a loose collection of individuals.

No, the organized feminists whom people seem to feel betrayed by are the leaders of feminist institutions and those anointed as “the feminists” by the media: most often Patricia Ireland and her company at NOW; Eleanor Smeal and the Feminist Majority Foundation; and Gloria Steinem of Ms. magazine and Voters for Choice, among other allegiances-women whose every statement is taken as representative of us all. For example, when the stories about Clinton groping Kathleen Willey and having an affair with [Monica] Lewinsky broke in January 1998, the media devoted two months to asking “where are the feminists?” Then, on March 22, Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed for The New York Times arguing that Clinton’s behavior was gross and probably pathological, but not sexual harassment and therefore not actionable. The next week, columns abounded: Feminists Are Divided on the Clinton Scandal. It’s a sure-fire sign of oppressed status when an entire group gets reduced to one, or even three, individuals.

Now for the second question: “What does feminism mean anymore anyway?”

In the most basic sense, feminism is exactly what the dictionary says it is: the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women. Public opinion polls confirm that when people are given this definition, 67% say they agree with feminism. We prefer to add to that seemingly uncontroversial statement the following: feminism means that women have the right to enough information to make informed choices about their lives. And because “women” is an all encompassing term that includes middle-class white women, rich black lesbians, and working-class straight Asian women, an organic intertwining with movements for racial and economic equality, as well as gay rights, is inherent to the feminist mandate. Some sort of allegiance between women and men is also an important component of equality. After all, equality is a balance between the male and female with the intention of liberating the individual.

Breaking down that one very basic definition, feminism has three components. It is a movement, meaning a group working to accomplish specific goals. Those goals are social and political change -implying that one must be engaged with the government and law, as well as social practices and beliefs. And implicit to these goals is access to sufficient information to enable women to make responsible choices.

Of course the goals of feminism are carried out by every day women themselves. Maybe you aren’t sure you need feminism, or you’re not sure it needs you. You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are – but with a political consciousness. And, vice versa: You want to be a feminist because you want to be exactly who you are. That may be a person patriarchal society doesn’t value or allow-from a female cadet at the Citadel to a lesbian mother. Maybe you feel aligned with the self-determination and human rights implicit in feminism, but you also organize your life around race, religion, or class, rather than solely around gender. For instance, in the Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, the editors list 17 prominent kinds of feminism based on identity, including American Indian, Arab American, Asian American, Jewish, Latina, Lesbian, Marxist, Puerto Rican, and Working Class. There are also womanists, which, as coined and defined by novelist and poet Alice Walker, designates a black feminist (womanists are rarely men) without having to “add a color to become visible.” Womanism, distinct from feminism’s often white-centered history, is an alternative casting of the same basic beliefs about equality and freedom, and few womanists would deny the link to feminism. Womanism was created as a way having space at the table for all women to speak, respecting their ethnicity, religion, social and economic status, and nationality. Because of the creation of womanism, the mainstream (and more privileged) feminist movement has worked hard to become more inclusive of those with less privilege. While each of these groups is magnetized by political equality, some additional aspect of their personhood needs to be emphasized because it affects their struggle for equality.

Using a qualifier in order to further define identity is very different from foregoing the feminist label altogether. For instance, women within other social justice movements – environmental, peace, human rights, and hip-hop, for example-often opt for the term “humanist.” Although humanism includes men (and especially those who aren’t white or otherwise privileged), in reality, it is a retreat from feminism. Using humanism as a replacement for feminism is also a misuse of the term – theologically, humanism is a rejection of supernaturalism, not an embrace of equality between men and women. Internationally, twice as many women as men are illiterate, and it was only in 1998 that an international court denounced rape as a form of torture in prison, and as a war crime when conducted systematically by the military. Along those lines, gender-based persecution isn’t recognized as grounds for asylum in the United States, which means that women who are likely to be killed by their husbands or sure to be genitally mutilated if they return to their countries are usually put on the next plane back, regardless of this potential danger. (Or, like Adelaide Abankwa and Fauzyia Kasinja, they are imprisoned for years, and only granted permanent residency, and later asylum after long campaigns conducted on their behalf by U.S. feminists.) Feminism seeks to include women in human rights.

Most women come to feminism through personal experience, which is one of the reasons the core identity of feminism has to be so elastic. The term represents an incredible diversity of individual lives. Often a woman who otherwise won’t align herself with feminism will seek it out when she is confronted with an abusive relationship, or if her boss is paying her less than her male counterparts, or, on a positive note, if she needs credit to start her own beauty salon. Historically, who else besides feminists have been there to help women, whether they be Calvin Klein-devotees or Vegan Earth Mothers? Many women tap into or create feminist resources not knowing they are on a feminist path. On the work front, secretaries founded 9-to-5 — a union for (mainly) pink-collar women workers-and women supported the National Committee on Pay Equity as well as microlending and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, because no one else was interested in the problems of working women. Kris, a stylist who wrote in to Ask Amy, turned to feminist resources when she wanted to open her own salon. She didn’t appeal to the Small Business Administration (SBA) because its process is complicated and full of red tape, when all she needed was a little money to tide her over as she built up her client base. Amy sent her to New York City’s Women’s Venture Fund, which makes micro-loans. Women even turn to feminism when they want to learn how to masturbate-vulvas were mapped out in Betty Dodson’s video Sex for One, and orgasms expanded on in Susie Bright’s 1991 Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex Guide. Most safe-sex shops were founded by feminists, from Eve’s Garden in New York City, opened by Dell Williams in 1974, and Good Vibrations, founded by sex therapist Joani Blank in San Francisco in 1977, to newer sex shops like Toys in Babeland in New York City and Seattle.

Clearly, the only people actively paving the paths to women’s equality are feminists. Eventually, most women seeking to expand or change their lives find feminism. This makes it sound as if the movement is a huge force of conscious feminists constantly fortified by new recruits. Actually, a problem diminishing “enrollment” in the movement is political co-optation. The moment a concern pioneered and promoted by feminists-such as domestic violence, micro-enterprise, the fight for affordable health-care, and day care-becomes mainstream or at all successful, it is no longer seen as a women’s issue, but simply a newsworthy issue. It becomes depoliticized, taken out of the hands of the grassroots, and divorced from the very process that was necessary to its success.

The most obvious example of co-opting feminist issues is the movement against domestic violence. Until feminism, there was no word for battered women or domestic violence, no legal argument of self-defense for women who killed their abusers, and no shelter system. In the seventies and eighties, shelters, funded by grassroots feminist groups and fledgling foundations (like the early Ms. Foundation for Women), proliferated, but the government, police, and media outlets still paid very little attention to violence within the home. For example, the first shelter for women in the United States was started in California in 1964. (This was out of pure need, not because feminists were franchising.) Now, there is an organized battered women’s movement of shelters, awareness campaigns, reformed laws and police practices, and legislative strategies. For example, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and 1994 saw the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which set the precedent for prosecuting abusers who cross state lines, and a mandate for nationwide enforcement of protection orders. Nonetheless, in 1994 when Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered and her hulking football-hero ex-husband was accused of the crime, domestic violence was launched into the mainstream, “professionalized” according to one young activist, and divorced by the media from the grassroots organizations who had named its reality and pioneered its treatment. What this means is that today a woman like G.E. executive Sam Allison can be on the board of The Women’s Center in Milwaukee, and claim that she’s not a feminist, she’s simply an “advocate to end violence against women.”

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Melissa Bradley broke ground in the field of women’s economic development without being aware of feminists like Connie Evans, who started the Women’s Self-Employment Project a dozen years earlier. By 1998, Evans had dispensed more than $1.3 million in 600 short-term micro loans, and became the largest small-business fund for low-income women; all undertaken by her as feminist work. Bradley, who is the founder of The Entrepreneurial Development Institute and then worked for the federal government implementing its welfare to work programs, doesn’t consider her work feminist. Of course, this is assimilation, and in some ways, it is our goal. After all, as long as Women’s History and African American History are independent curricula, history itself will still be a white man’s story. In that same way, the women’s rights movement will have been successful when we no longer have to advocate separately for half the population’s human rights. On the other hand, ideally women’s egos would be more invested in their work. You can’t continue change if you don’t know the process necessary to make it. If feminists first exposed domestic violence as a reality in many women’s lives, funded the first women’s shelters, and drafted and fought for legislation that is now working to end violence against women, then an “advocate to end violence against women” (Sam Allison’s term for herself) is just another word for “feminist.” Issues divorced from their feminist roots eventually become depoliticized, and the resulting social programs are reduced to treating the symptoms rather than curing-or preventing-the disease. In order to have a robust movement, domestic violence and economic development need to be re-identified as feminist issues and victories. And, Allison and Bradley need to be outed as feminists.

Fearing Feminism

Now, let’s discuss what a feminist isn’t. T-shirt and button slogans such as a feminist is “opposite of a doormat” and “not a masochist” have outworn their usefulness in bringing clarity to the subject. Feminism is more often described by what it isn’t than what it is, which creates some confusion (and is the reason why we defined it before going into all this). The inadvertently humorous descriptions by Right-wing ideologues such as Pat Robertson don’t help, either: “Feminists encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, become lesbians, and destroy capitalism.” Of course, that definition is not so much wrong as hyperbolic. To a fundamentalist, that’s just a description of no-fault divorce laws, abortion rights, rejection of God as a Father, acceptance of female sexuality, and a commitment to workers.

Nonetheless, women far to the left of Robertson still fear feminism. The fact that the feminist movement has developed networks to help women who are victimized is one reason that women fear the word. Identifying ourselves as feminists means addressing uncomfortable topics: the humiliation of being discriminated against, the fact that we are vulnerable when we walk home late at night or even in our homes, or the sadness of discovering that the sons in our families are treated altogether differently from the daughters. Injustice and oppression are hard to face, a fact that is evident in the number of rape and sexual harassment charges that emerge years, even decades, after the event actually happened. To use one example, Juanita Broaddrick waited twenty years to accuse Bill Clinton of forcing her into sex in a hotel room. This was during a time when forced sex among acquaintances-what is now called date rape-was excused as relatively inevitable, certainly not criminal, male behavior. Feminists fought for a realistic legal definition of rape that acknowledged degrees of sexual assault (and protected male rape victims, too), a minimum one-year statute of limitations, rape shield laws that prohibit using a victim’s sexual history against her (or him), and the training of emergency room and police personnel to gather evidence, including a so-called “rape kit,” when a victim comes into their hospitals or precincts. Feminism would have meant being there for Broaddrick-utilizing the legal system and social service institutions-the second she could get out of the hotel room to press charges. To take it one step further, the goal of feminism is to create a climate in which Clinton couldn’t possibly have raped Broaddrick, or anyone, without knowing that “no means no” and a prison sentence was imminent. Even at the beginning of the Second Wave, women were resistant to acknowledging discrimination. The results of the 1972 Virginia Slims poll (the first one that acknowledged women’s issues) found that men observed discrimination against women more often than women did. As we said, consciousness is everything. Even now, acknowledging inequality begs one to do something about it-and that is a daunting, albeit righteous, responsibility.

Feminism’s philosophy certainly isn’t narrow-minded enough to be solely about our sexuality or our pay-checks, and certainly not about man-hating or chivalry. (In our opinion, whoever gets to the door first should be responsible for opening it). Still, some people choose to stay away from feminism because they don’t want to be associated with spooky stereotypes about feminists and their freaky excesses. You know this rap: some feminists think all sex is rape, all men are evil, that you have to be a lesbian to be a feminist, you can’t wear Girlie clothes or makeup, or that married women are lame. This conversation is usually baiting and can ride the force of homophobia or internalized Phallofilia (socialized glorification of the male principle and men). Women who love lipstick and also standing up for themselves, but are not politicized, are especially vulnerable to being conned into distancing themselves from the movement, while fully hoping for and expecting to be treated equally.

A good example of this is the Lilith Fair. Canadian chanteuse Sarah McLachlan put together a historic Mothership of ladies (another term that deserves to be reclaimed; this time from uptight, upper-class olden days and proffered as just another, kind of jaunty, word for women). These were stars who had topped the music charts and McLachlan trotted them across America to make the point that, not only are female rock stars achieving a critical mass, but women rake in the audiences. The tour earned over $16.4 million in the first year alone and drew over 75 percent female audiences all three years of its life. To make it even more stunning, the Lilith management gave checks averaging $30,000 to a battered women’s shelter or grassroots social service agency in every locale in which the lavender Lilith backdrop undulated. But what happened when McLachlan was asked about women and politics? “The tour isn’t a soapbox for extremist feminism,” she said in a New York Newsday interview during the first tour. “This is not at all about dissing men.” There are certain assurances we just shouldn’t have to make, especially when a majority of the back-up band members are male, as is the vast majority of the stage crew, sound people, bus drivers, talent management, and the male-owned companies that underwrote the tour. Besides, as a friend of ours pointed out, even if there weren’t a male presence behind the front-women at Lilith, there is no need for the disclaimer. After all, an all-black tour of hip-hop musician wouldn’t feel obligated to assure people that they are not dissing whites.

Furthermore, if Sarah McLachlan had brushed up on her feminist history, she would have been aware of Olivia Records, Redwood Recordings, Ladyslipper distribution, and Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Then, she could have built upon that separatist womyn’s music movement (which flourished in the seventies) as her foundation, a movement that created a network of producers, labels, and festivals entirely outside of the mainstream. Shining a light on the long line of women who continue to transform the male-run music industry would have gotten Lilith closer to its implied goal of equal treatment for women. McLachlan didn’t remain fearful of the feminist implications of her tour. According to Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, an artist who performed at Lilith all three years, after a few years of being immersed in this feminist experience, McLachlan changed her tune and proudly called the tour feminist. “I think Sarah always had the same vision for Lilith,” says Ray. “But she became much more confident about standing up for the idea that women need an all-female tour, they want it, and they’re going to take it without apology.”

Most of those Ladyslipper/Michigan/Olivia feminists are womyn-loving-womyn, an association which Lilith and many other women in rock tend to fear. “The idea that all feminists are lesbians is scary enough for some women to stay away from the feminist label and movement, even when their beliefs are basically feminist,” wrote Barbara Findlen in her pioneering anthology Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. Homophobia is as essential to root out of the movement as racism was and is. To eschew calling yourself a feminist because you don’t want to be called a “dyke” is like not joining the civil rights movement because you don’t want to be called a “nigger” or a “nigger lover.” Besides, regardless of one’s sexuality, all people have a vested interest in reclaiming the inherent dignity of the terms lesbian, gay, and queer, since straight women who refuse a subservient role (and straight men who refuse to dominate) are likely to be called gay. Findlen also points out the odd way that some straight women reconcile themselves with this threat: by arguing that feminists aren’t all dykes. (Which implies, among other ignorant assumptions, that all gay women are inherently feminist.) Rather than challenging the homophobia-and misogyny-head on, this tactic sidesteps the issue, allowing women to embrace a limited feminism without disavowing dyke-baiting.

In truth, the movement is comprised of women from all points on the sexual spectrum. And, because they may be more able to risk male disapproval, lesbian and bisexual women have had a particularly creative and strong history in the women’s movement, from founding the aforementioned womyn’s music scene to writing world-changing books such as Sexual Politics (Kate Millett), Sister Outsider (Audre Lorde), and Sisterhood is Powerful (Robin Morgan) to being the most iconic activists (Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, and Rita Mae Brown). It’s interesting to note that homophobes never attack feminist critic Camille Paglia for being of the Sapphic persuasion – proof that dyke-baiting and bashing feminists is only employed in the service of woman-hating. As Kaia Wilson, formerly the guitarist for lesbian super-group Team Dresch and currently for the Butchies, puts it: “There can be really good reasons for not wanting to call yourself a feminist, but most of the time, it’s due to misogyny.”

Even when the winds of misogyny and homophobia aren’t blowing feminism’s house down, women can be their own big bad wolves. Injudicious niceness, which is a socialized disease, often explains why women tend not to demand equality. It also may be why feminist women feel it necessary to answer questions that are hostile to feminism, no matter how silly or offensive. Conversely, when a woman is politically oriented and knowledgeable about history, she knows the burden of proof should be on the questioner and is less likely to have a misguided sense of politeness. When someone asks, “Why is it that all feminists think they are better than men?” (or insert any weird generalization involving lesbians, matriarchies, and hatred of sex), one should respond with something along the lines of “Who are you referring to?” Imagine the organizing and theorizing which has been stopped because we have allowed ourselves to be delayed by these distractions. In the case of the mythical statement, “Andrea Dworkin says that all sex is rape,” recommend actually reading her book Intercourse (the salient chapter is called “Occupation/Collaboration”), and starting the conversation from there. To give you a taste, Dworkin writes pungently: “Women lie about life by not demanding to understand the meaning of entry, penetration, occupation, having boundaries crossed over, having lesser privacy: by avoiding the difficult, perhaps impossible (but how will we ever know?) questions of female freedom.” Clearly she is making a much more subtle, disturbing, and ultimately liberating point than an easy generalization could convey. If you want more clarity, you could do what the Hungry Mind Review did, and ask Dworkin directly what she thinks sex is. “I think of sexual contact and sexual intimacy as pleasure,” she told them. “And as a way of experiencing freedom.”

Feminism is often mistaken as being an enabler, a “sop” discouraging women from taking action in their lives, the genesis of the victim culture that critics like Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers so despise. Even women who rely on and are seeking feminist resources can mistake feminism for the equivalent of a Knight in Shining Armor to save them from their woes. In fact, the urge to protect women is part of the problem feminists fight. As Susan Faludi (famed author of Backlash and, more recently, Stiffed) and others have noted, protection starts out polite-women and children first off the sinking ship and so forth-and ends up justifying why women can’t be naval captains or firefighters or subjects for medical research. Women can’t ride this antiquated stereotype and at the same time fight for independence. In reality, feminism requires action and responsibility for oneself.

Take job discrimination as a case in point. A clerk at Wal-Mart, sensed something fishy because for the last five of her ten years at the store, her salary had stayed the same, while male cashiers were given annual raises. Other feminists had done their part by creating laws against sex discrimination, trainings for implementation of these laws, and organizations to help women through the process. The Wal-Mart clerk must do her part – document the discrimination and file a complaint.

To sum up, feminism is helped by a working knowledge of history, and requires a willingness to act on behalf of yourself, and to stand up for all women in the face of everything from misogyny to a social mandate that says “be nice.”


References to “Ask Amy” are to www.feminist.com/ask/amy.htm This is an excerpt and slight adaptation from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). Learn more at www.manifesta.net.


Listening, a Poem by Ralph Roghton, MD

When I ask you to listen to me
And you start giving advice,
You have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me and
you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you feel you have To do something to solve my problems
you have Failed me, strange as that may seem.
Listen, All I asked was that you listen – Not talk or do, Just hear me.

When you do something for me
That I can and need to do for myself,
you contribute to my fear and inadequacy.

But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you
and can get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.

And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice. Irrational feelings make sense, when we understand what’s behind them. Perhaps that’s why prayer works, sometimes, for some people– because God is mute and He/She doesn’t give advice or try to fix things.

So please listen and just hear me. And if you want to talk,

Wait a minute for your turn, and I’ll listen to you. –
-Ralph Roughton, M.D.

why we are needed

Once upon a time in America, the Woman Suffrage Amendment passed. The Civil Rights Act passed. And the Voting Rights Act passed. The end?


It’s true that women are no longer constitutionally inferior. And people of color are no longer property. But we’re far from living happily ever after.

In spite of widespread reform legislation over the last century, justice is yet to be served. Equality laws may be on the books. But the laws of the land are still distorted when it comes to women and minorities.

Want proof? Then look at education. While women are more likely to earn a high school diploma than men, their education often goes no farther. Only 25% of women 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, as opposed to 28.5% of men.

This disparity continues into the workplace. Women and men in the same position make incredibly different salaries. A woman earns 76¢ for every dollar her male counterpart makes. Only 5.5% of women make salaries above $75,000, as compared to 15.8% of men. The difference is even more appalling when it comes to women with only a high school diploma. On average, they earn $18,042. In contrast, even those males who never finished high school make $20,944.

In all, the average woman is shortchanged $420,000 in salary over her working life when compared to the average male. And that doesn’t include benefits like pensions.

So what are we supposed to tell our daughters?

Should we tell them that the workplace is unfair, but that they have advantages elsewhere? We can’t. Consider that one in four women will be involved in domestic violence. Or that one in five emergency room visits by women are caused by battering.

And when should we tell them that they face a one-in-three chance of living in poverty as a female? Or that they’re ten times more likely to have an eating disorder? Or that the odds of them becoming a CEO of a Fortune 1000 company are practically incalculable?

Now consider people of color – regardless of gender.

How are parents supposed to explain to their children why they’re being followed by security in a shopping center simply because of their skin color? Or why some people cross the street to avoid them? Or that only one in every three will meet basic requirements on national scholastic tests?

These are the realities of children of color. And it doesn’t get any better as they get older.

African Americans, for instance, make 66¢ for every dollar made by a white person. And 19% of them live without health care.

Hispanics are half as likely to make salaries over $35,000 than their white equivalents. They’re also three times more likely to live in poverty.

Then there’s profiling. African Americans are much more likely to be pulled over by police than whites. Once stopped, African American and Hispanic drivers are more than twice as likely to have their vehicles searched.

And let’s not forget about prison. People of color make up 64% of the penal population. They make up less than 25% of the general American population. Do the math.

In fact, do the math on any of these statistics. In some cases, it’s frustrating. In others, it’s downright frightening. Either way, it’s wrong. From birth, women and people of color still face obstacles in 2005 that were intended to die with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Obviously, we can’t legislate our way to equality. So what is the answer? Who can promote an agenda of not only tolerance and acceptance, but of advancement and equality? It all comes down to one person.


eliminating racism

1800’s The first Negro YWCA Branch was organized in Dayton, Ohio, in 1889; although Negro branches were separate from white branches, by 1898 the YWCA had seven Negro Student Associations affiliated with it. The YWCA also extended its mission to American Indian young women, founding an Association at Chilocco, Oklahoma, in 1890, work which continued for many years as part of the Student Department of the National Board.

1900-1920’s In 1913 Eva Bowles became the first African American staff member to work as a professionally trained leader to work with Local Associations. In 1915, the YWCA held its first interracial conference in Louisville, KY. In the 1920s the Student YWCA organized its first councils on an interracial basis, adopting the principle of iinclusion for all of the membership in regional councils. In 1924, the National Student Assembly took a program stand on race relationships, “pledging ourselves to seek anew the mind of Jesus in regard to our race relationships and to know students of other races, that we may rid ourselves of prejudices and may promote justice and understanding.”

1930’s In the thirties, the YWCA set its face against lynching and mob violence and supported the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the United States. The first interracial seminar in the South took place at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina in 1938. Students called for an investigation into segregation in YWCA associations and community life.

1940’s During World War II, discrimination against Japanese Americans led to thousands being forced from their homes into relocation camps in desolate areas by order of the United States government. Japanese Americans were deprived of their rights as citizens; the YWCA extended its services to the Relocation Centers, and many Associations, including many in the Midwest, opened their facilities to Japanese Americans as they prepared for resettlement.

In 1946 the YWCA reached a watershed in adopting the Interracial Charter at the 17th National Convention. It accepted recommendations that “the implications of the YWCA Purpose be recognized as involving the inclusion of Negro women and girls in the mainstream of Association life, and that such inclusion be adopted as a conscious goal.” In an unequivocal statement of its position on civil rights, the Charter states: “Wherever there is injustice on the basis of race, whether in the community, the nation, or the world, our protest must be clear and our labor for its removal vigorous and steady. And what we urge on others we are constrained to practice ourselves.” Three years later, YWCAs in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Princeton, New Jersey, elected a Black president.

1950’s Between 1950 and 1970, the YWCA remained on the cutting edge in support of the Civil Rights Movement, which culminated in the adoption of the One Imperative. Through the ups and downs of the era, the student YWCAs remained in the vanguard with regard to issues of race and gender. The emphasis immediately post-war was on the spiritual welfare of women and girls, and the provision of social services to them. In May, 1954, the US Supreme Court rules segregationist doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ unconstitutional. This fueled the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. The YWCA acted to disseminate material on the Supreme Court decision with a booklet, ‘Our Schools, and Our Democracy.’

1960’s In the United States the 1960’s was the decade of the Civil Rights Movement in which African American people made unprecedented strides in affecting social, economic and racial change, and self-empowerment. However, in the YWCA of the U.S.A., the struggle to combat racism had begun early in its history, in the days of “service laced with social action” in the American South. This decade, however, ended with the epoch-making decision in 1970 to adopt the One Imperative, a statement which was rooted in the Christian purpose of the National Association, seeking “to respond to the barrier-breaking love of God in this day’, drawing together women and girls of diverse experiences and faiths, that their lives may be open to new understanding, and deeper relationships and that together they may join in the struggle for peace and justice, freedom and dignity for all people.”

During Dorothy Heights’ tenure, the YWCA, combined with other organizations such as the United Council of Negro Women, Church Women United, the International Council of Jewish Women, and the Catholic Women, to break the law in the South to challenge racial segregation. The YWCA invited activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Whitney Young, and Roy Wilkins to talk to members, and the Office of Racial Justice initiated Dialogue and Action Groups in 1968 in Community and Student YWCAs throughout the country.

1970’s At the YWCA’s April 1970 Convention, it adopted the One Imperative: “To thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary.”

Journey of Faith, The History of the World YWCA 1945-1994, by Carolyn Seymour-Jones, Allison & Busby, 1994

YWCA Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services Volunteer Job Descriptions

The responsibilities within the job descriptions may be done once sufficient experience and confidence is gained, in the course of shadowing an advocate.



SafeHouse and Crisis Line Volunteer


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 4 hours per week. Flexible days and times, including mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: The SafeHouse and Crisis Line are operated together. SafeHouse volunteers work in our 31-bed shelter where they interact with residents and their children. They assist with communal living and provide professional, supportive, appropriate responses to the needs and requests of residents. As Crisis Line advocates, volunteers are trained to answer our 24-hour telephone Crisis Line where callers are provided information and support specific to their situation.


Program Responsibilities:

  • Provide crisis intervention, support, and legal information to callers or shelter residents.
  • Provide helpful and appropriate referrals to callers and shelter residents.
  • Log crisis calls, complete statistical worksheets, and assist with clerical tasks as necessary.
  • Assist residents with cooperative living environment and daily operations of communal living.
  • Provide survivor advocacy when needed.


Family & Youth Advocate Volunteer


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 2 hours per week. Flexible days and times, including mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: Family and Youth advocate volunteers provide emotional support to children and mothers in SafeHouse impacted by domestic violence or sexual assault. Volunteers are asked to demonstrate healthy, non-violent relationships and engage in after-school or evening activities with children. Family-centered activities may take place at the shelter or in the community. Volunteers may also assist with age-specific children’s groups and participate in structured activities and recreation with the children.


Program Responsibilities:

  • Provide emotional support to children of survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault
  • Help children express feelings in an appropriate manner
  • Keep the Children’s Playroom clean, neat, and orderly
  • Teach children responsibility for cleaning up their play areas
  • Provide supervision in the Children’s Playroom


Donations Volunteer


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 2 hours per week. Flexible days and times, including mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: Sort and organize donations, assemble welcome bags for incoming shelter residents and exit bags for those leaving the shelter, and maintain the donation room.


Program Responsibilities:

  • Sort, organize, and stock incoming donations
  • Coordinate with other volunteers to maintain the donation room
  • Transport unusable donations to Cross Over Ministries
  • Monitor inventory and report to Shelter Manager for needed supplies


Kitchen Magician


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 4 hours per week. Flexible days and times, including mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: To assist with menu planning, shopping and food pantry maintenance. To utilize cooking talents in meal preparations for the women and children living in SafeHouse.


Program Responsibilities

  • Assist with weekly menu planning
  • Assist with food preparation
  • Assist with SafeHouse shopping and maintaining food pantry storage


Administrative Assistant Volunteer


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 4 hours per week. Flexible days and times, including mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: Performs general clerical tasks (i.e. filing, data entry, collating) for the YWCA DVSAS staff. Answers telephone and staffs reception area. Supports the work of the legal advocates, counselors, shelter, and DVSAS director.


Program Responsibilities

  • Types, files, duplicates, assembles, and disseminates materials as requested by DVSAS staff
  • Handles incoming telephone calls efficiently, making referrals to appropriate staff member and/or taking clear and concise messages
  • As receptionist, greets clients in a calm, warm, and empathetic manner
  • Performs other duties as assigned


Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) Volunteer

(this assignment involves working with batterers)


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 2 hours per week. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings are available, Monday through Saturday. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: Assist with the facilitation of DVIP groups under the guidance and supervision of a staff co-facilitator and to assist with intakes into the DVIP or ACE groups.


Program Responsibilities

  • Assist with initial intakes into programs, including scheduling intake appointments, responding to walk-ins, and conducting intakes.
  • Observe and co-facilitate DVIP group sessions as appropriate and needed after sufficient training and mentoring.
  • Provide information and appropriate referrals to callers to DVIP, including referrals of survivors of domestic violence.
  • Respond to callers in a professional and sensitive manner.
  • Knowledgeable of appropriate referral sources.
  • In cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, inform the DVIP Coordinator or the DVSAS director immediately.
  • Protect the confidentiality of group participants.
  • Use active listening methods when appropriate.


Emergency Response Team Advocate Volunteer


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 4 24-hour on-call shifts per month. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: To provide survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault with support, advocacy, and information immediately after an assault has occurred. Volunteers with this program will carry a cell phone and when dispatched will respond with staff to the hospital, law enforcement facility, or YWCA to meet with the survivor. While volunteer advocates are required to carry the phone for a 24-hour shift, actual call times will vary from shift to shift.


Program Responsibilities:

  • Respond to all calls with your on-call partner within a 1-hour response time
  • Provide on-site crisis intervention to survivors, provide empathetic support and information, advocate on their behalf when asked to do so and when appropriate
  • Provide compassionate support to survivors during rape examinations, explain the process and the reasons for them
  • Assist with accessing YWCA Services and when needed, refer to other community resources
  • Explain the criminal investigation and judicial process and the survivor’s rights and opportunity for input.




Legal Advocate Volunteer


Suggested Minimum Time Commitment: 4 hours per week. Monday through Friday during traditional business hours. Minimum six-month commitment.


Summary: To provide survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault with information and resources related to the criminal justices system.


Program Responsibilities:

  • Provide assistance with completing, filing, and service of Personal Protection Orders
  • Provide on-site coverage for crisis intervention to survivors who come in on a walk-in basis
  • Provide advocacy and act as a liaison with the courts, law enforcement, legal, and social agencies
  • Accompany survivors to court for criminal or civil matters related to their batterer
  • Complete and submit statistical information as required by our funding sources