Friday, July 02, 2010

The Women’s Movement Inside and Outside the State

by Lee Ann Banaszak
New York: Cambridge, 2010, xv, 247 pp.

Guest review by Jo Freeman - original at


The Feminist Moles in the Federal Government

by Jo Freeman

The Women’s Movement Inside and Outside the State
by Lee Ann Banaszak
New York: Cambridge, 2010, xv, 247 pp.

When I was in college long ago there was an ongoing debate on working inside the system vs outside of the system. To those who wanted to change society, working outside the system was pure; working inside was a form of corruption.

As I watched the women’s liberation movement emerge and unfold in the late 1960s and 1970s, and read more deeply in US history, I realized that this was a false dichotomy. The “system” was bigger than the government and other institutions. Indeed the best way to bring about change was a two-pronged approach, with people “inside” and “outside” the government working for the same goal, if not necessarily with the same methods.

I wrote a bit about that in my first book, The Politics of Women’s Liberation. In her new book Lee Ann Banaszak has proven it.

A major reason so much new law benefitting women was passed in the early 1970s was because insider feminists came out of the woodwork after the women’s liberation movement became public in 1970. Once outsider feminists created a visible demand, the insider feminists used their positions and their knowledge to write the laws and regulations implementing those laws which outsider feminists and Members of Congress (another type of insider) promoted.

Using snowball sampling, Banaszak tracked down women who worked for the federal government and were also involved in the early women’s liberation movement. She relied on oral histories of those who were dead and interviewed those who were living. She put together the story of those who pushed the feminist agenda inside the agencies they worked for and fed crucial information to women outside who could mobilize press attention and constituency pressure on government decision makers.

Banaszak tells us that her 40 informants were highly educated (63% had a post-graduate degree), mostly from middle to upper-middle-class parents, and ten percent non-white. While some of the insiders were men, Banaszak doesn’t say if any of her informants were male. Nor is there a list of interviewees anyplace, though the oral histories are listed.

Some of these people were already working inside the government when the feminist movement erupted in the late 1960s and some joined it later. Some were true moles – keeping quiet about their own policy preferences while arranging for key decision makers to hear feminist views on crucial issues or even sneaking in a few changes in rules and regulations to benefit women. Others were advocates within the government, especially after agencies set up women’s programs in response to the women’s movement. Banaszak found that two-thirds of the feminist insiders worked in “women’s policy offices” at some point in their governmental career.

The range of insider views on what needed to be done was similar to that of feminist outsiders. Some insiders believed that extensive social, political and economic changes were necessary for women’s liberation, and others that women could take care of themselves if they only had an equal chance with men.

The range of their actions was different, largely because the opportunity structure was different. Crucial insiders, especially in the early years, initiated litigation. They could not be the attorneys of record, but they could identify areas for action, refer plaintiffs and write the briefs. A lot of the early court decisions interpreting employment discrimination law were shaped by feminists inside the government who had to stay in the shadows because of their jobs.

Many also participated in feminist marches, though not in “zap actions” or guerilla theater. Occasionally government appointees were speakers at the rallies. At other times insider feminists arranged to have protests directed at their own agencies when they thought it necessary. Working for the federal government was not a serious detriment to protest, at least as private persons.

The insider feminists worked on many issues besides employment discrimination though that got the bulk of their attention. Banaszak identifies educational equity, development, childcare, abortion and violence against women as the major arenas. She provides a of couple quick case studies to show how they did it.

Most of these goals were achieved before Reagan became President in 1981 – under administrations that were supportive or at least benign. While the conservatives did toss a lot of insider feminists out of the government and limit what others could do, Banaszak shows that opportunities for action still existed even in a hostile environment.

A lot depended on where feminists were located in the bureaucracy and who were their supervisors. Basically, they slipped back under the radar, becoming moles more like the early 1960s feminist insiders. In that capacity they could still feed information where it could do the most good, award grants and improve policies around the edges. Banaszak concludes that the sympathy of the Administration matters, but not as much as scholars have said it does. Insider feminists were quite creative in slipping through the cracks.

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