A Victory for Socialist Feminism: An Interview with Susan Dorazio

Susan Dorazio joined Socialist Party USA in 1995 and, alongside comrades like Sister Nan and Maggie Phair, was instrumental in making women’s issues a central plank of the party’s platforms and establishing the Women’s Commission. Dorazio left the SP in 2007 and moved to Scotland, where she is currently a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and continues to fight for the rights of women. From her home in Glasgow, Dorazio is helping to organize marches for International Women’s Day, which was inspired by the 1909 Women’s Day marches organized by the Socialist Party of America.

 

Stephany Cholensky: What years were you active in the SP-USA, what kinds of challenges did you face regarding feminism in the party at that time?

Susan Dorazio:  I joined the Socialist Party USA in the Fall of 1995 and was an active member until 2007. I remember the Milwaukee women as self-confident and articulate. Women from other locals were, too, such as Ruth Edelstein from New York State. They weren’t cliquish, and I learned a lot from them.  No doubt, if I had joined closer to the start of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970’s and early ’80’s, I would be remembering more rancor.

That said, and in spite of the good intentions of some of the male members, women’s participation was not yet on the party’s agenda, let alone a priority.  At the same time, newer, younger members were joining and taking on leadership roles. Structures within the party were being evaluated. I think that’s when committees became commissions.

 

SC: What can you tell us about how the SP-USA became a socialist feminist party? How did members overcome opposition to the so-called ‘feminist take-over’ of the party?

SD:  I was very surprised to find out that 20 years after the Second Wave of feminism the Socialist Party USA did not have a Women’s Committee. Was this the result of the debates of the previous decade, or a sign of an incipient “feminist take over”? Or both? Anyway, I was determined to create interest in forming a Women’s Commission. My initial efforts were a bit tentative, but after that it was full-steam-ahead for debate on, then implementation of, such principles as gender parity. I found that there was much to learn.

For example,  and often usual on the Left, women members numbered only about 20 to 25% of the total membership. Some of the women members made socialist feminist activism a priority; others focused on the basic tenets of the Women’s Liberation movement, or those of Christian Socialism. (Values and tactics were similar, but also, distinct — diversity being to the advantage of an organization as long as comradeship goes along with it.)

I had missed the intense debates of the previous decade over abortion rights both as party principle and platform — and the degree to which members, especially candidates for public office, were required to uphold a particular principle or platform plank. I was, however, involved in the debates, also heated and complex, on the implications of this for the role of the Milwaukee local (which had elements of autonomous status within the party); and the candidacy of Walt Brown for U.S. President in the 2004.

In the course of these discussions and debates, I came to admire seasoned comrades such as Sister Nan Pfefferle (Milwaukee) and Maggie Phair (Los Angeles). They not only brought a lot of personal and political experience to the issues of gender. They steadfastly put forward the socialist feminist goal of —  and strategies for — developing new forms of comradely behavior and communication. To this day, I think of Sister Nan when I suggest a go-around at the start of a meeting to promote cohesion and good feeling as a basis for the often-contentious business we would be facing in the hours ahead.

I remain indebted to Maggie Phair for the document on feminist process she put into circulation in the mid-1990’s — a guide to group process that I referred to as often as possible when I was Convener of the Women’s Commission, and used here in Glasgow this past year when I helped my branch of the Industrial Workers of the World develop a Safer Spaces Policy.

When I left the SP-USA in 2007 — concluding my life as a child care worker in Western Massachusetts and preparing for a new one in Scotland — I believed it was, and would remain, a socialist feminist party. These days, I certainly would encourage a strong, non-defensive, response to efforts to water-down that set of values, principles, and program. We need to continue to speak for socialist feminism, with no apologies.

Over here, where socialism is taken for granted, linking it with feminism is barely holding on. A tactic I am using to counter this is a street action called A Walk of Pride. I used it first to commemorate the centenary of the Glasgow rent strike. I am using it for International Women’s Day this year to connect radical women of the past to those of the present. We socialist feminists need to be proud of ourselves for speaking truth to the power of the capitalist and patriarchal system that has brought misery to our planet and all who inhabit it.

 

SC: How important was the Women’s Commission to your activism within the party? Do you feel women’s spaces are a useful tool towards building a socialist feminist party? What kind of opposition have you faced building women’s spaces within the party?

SD: The Women’s Commission in general, and our newsletter Socialist Women in particular, were central to my activism within the party. I especially admired, and got much support from, such comrades as Tina Phillips (California), Stephanie Cholensky (Minneapolis), Mal Herbert and Doris Lake (Vermont), and all the women who contributed to Socialist Women.

As for women’s spaces, I remain a staunch advocate for them. I have friends both in the U.S. and Scotland who are not. I am new to the debate, introduced to me by a friend from Massachusetts who is Lesbian. I think that rejection of women’s spaces as identity politics is a regressive position — harking back to the antagonism throughout the 20th Century between proponents of women’s rights and workers’ rights. This need not, can not, and should not be an either-or-proposition.

Right now, I am hard at work helping organize one of several International Women’s Day events for March 8th. Part of the lead up to it is distributing the history of IWD, and how it was the Women’s Day marches of 1909, initiated by the Socialist Party of America, that inspired Clara Zetkin and others in the Conference of Women of the Second International to propose and pass a motion for an annual International Women’s Day. From the beginning, IWD inextricably linked women’s rights with workers’ rights. This is our legacy. This needs to be the basis for a global movement for the eradication of both capitalism and patriarchy.

 

SC: What are your thoughts on gender parity? What else can political organizations do to amplify the voices of women and encourage women in leadership?  Who are your personal sher-os?

SD: The Industrial Workers of the World, my only organizational affiliation at the moment, has been slow to deal with gender issues, but seems to be catching up. For the past two years, I have been one of the Equality Co-Officers of the Clydeside Branch. The first year we sent surveys to all members to find out how well the Branch was enabling, through structures and attitude, member participation. The second year, the Branch worked on a Safer Spaces Policy that specified rights and responsibilities expected both of individuals and the group as a whole. We hope that this year, the new Equality Officer or Officers will make implementation and regular review of the policy a priority. The number of women in the Branch remains low, but we think having the Safer Spaces policy formalized and maintained will increase these numbers. I would recommend this process for all organizations.

As for my sher-os, I have singled out some of them already. But mostly, they would be all those, like myself, who at first endured, and later took action against, male dominance.  During the time I was a member of the SP, I felt that changes in consciousness by both women and men were happening. Today I feel even more strongly that collectively creating a kinder, more just, and more equitable environment — one where personal and political differences are acknowledged, and difficulties dealt with in a direct, but non-aggressive, way — is the path to making a political party a better place to be. I would also call this a victory for socialist feminism.

From the International Women’s Day Issue of The Socialist:

Out Now! Click to download a copy.
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Stephanie Cholensky

is currently a national committee member of the SPUSA, and works as a biochemist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She started off as a YPSL member in 2001 and has been an active member in good standing of the Socialist Party USA, serving on the National Executive Committee of YPSL, the National Committee and National Action Committee of the SPUSA, the Editorial Board of Socialist Women, on the Women’s Commission, and helped charter locals in two states.

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