Warning: sexual assault is mentioned in various places throughout the article.
In a small room on the second floor of an unnamed building in downtown Gainesville, Florida, I sat and listened to a feminist revolution.
Feminist stickers and banners paper the walls. Stacks of the book “Feminist Revolution” by the radical feminist group Redstockings sit piled on shelves. A red banner with “National Women’s Liberation” hangs on the wall, facing the audience. A giant cut-out of Rick Scott’s head hangs next to the red banner, with a “This Oppresses Women” sign on his forehead. I have never been here before, but immediately it feels like a feminist haven.
On Wednesday, Nov. 9, I had the privilege of sitting in on a class conducted by the Gainesville Chapter of National Women’s Liberation. The eighth week of their 10-week “Women’s Liberation: Where Do I Fit In?” course centered on the theme “Allies of Feminism.”
NWL Steering Committee member Brooke Eliazar-Macke said past courses have focused on capitalism, the struggle for abortion rights and the power in analyzing feminist history. Gainesville has a rich history of feminist involvement. The Gainesville chapter of NWL was created in 1968, and was the first women’s liberation group formed in the Southern United States, Eliazar-Macke said.
“The overall point of the class is to serve as an introduction to where the women’s movement started from,” Eliazar-Macke said. “It wasn’t just spontaneous: who organized it, and why? As a community-based class, the goal is to organize women. It’s another way to reach out to women and right some of misconceptions out there. It consists of things you wouldn’t get from a mainstream class.”
While only around a dozen or so community-members made it to the panel, all were engaged and interested in the conversation. A few men were in attendance, a woman sat with her baby and attendees were of a variety of ages.
“I wanted to represent women in a more constructive way that required me to understand the history of the women’s movement and listen to women’s stories so that I better understood my own,” said Emma Brady, one of the women in attendance. “I’ve really gotten a lot. I learned about the history of the movement and developed my own thoughts on that. The classes have helped me solidify and focus in on issues for me and women in general.”
Eliazar-Macke opened the panel with a brief mention of the election.
“We have a pretty crushing need to ally and make coalitions, now more than ever,” she said, her voice quavering slightly. “We need people who are fighting and fighting more than ever.”
During the panel, three community members discussed their involvement within their respective careers and how they relate their work to feminism. Each speaker of the panel was given 15 minutes to answer prepared questions from Brooke and discuss their feminist involvement in general. Questions from the audience were held until the end. Much of the conversation throughout the night centered on the relationship between women in political organizing, labor unions and their leadership within those two spheres.
“The women’s liberation movement was borne out of the civil rights movement,” Eliazar-Macke said. “We can learn lessons from other organization’s work and struggles.”
The panel opened with Erica Merrell, co-owner of Wild Iris Books in Gainesville. Wild Iris is the only feminist and LGBTQ+ bookstore throughout the entirety of Florida.
Wearing a pink “Of course I’m a feminist” t-shirt, Merrell discussed how her work as co-owner of a feminist bookstore enriches her.
Merrell found a community at Wild Iris when she moved to Gainesville many years ago. She became co-owner in 2009. She said she was a bookseller before she was an activist, but she found a feminist legacy at Wild Iris.
“Nobody taught me how women had risen up for themselves,” Merrell said. “I didn’t know how rich Gainesville’s feminist history is.”
She expressed the importance of community when being feminist, and mentioned the important work Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network does for the Gainesville community.
As to how her own work relates to feminism, Merrell said she has a physical space to offer, as the storefront of Wild Iris often holds workshops and panels centering on feminism and LGBTQ+ interests. She has had people come out to her and privately discuss assaults with her.
“I am cultivating a place free of shame and judgement,” Merrell said.
Her biggest issue within the feminist fight is bodily autonomy. She has worked often with Planned Parenthood, and was a fierce advocate for birth control in her youth.
“Bodily autonomy is the core of why I fight for all of this; it is the center of my feminism,” Merrell said.
She gave an example of the “Viva La Vulva” event she held last year, which showcased photographs of local women’s vulvas, along with interviews from the photographed women on their relationship with their body. There was some controversy surrounding it from the local transgender community. However she and other feminists in charge of the event and transgender activists eventually came to a peaceful agreement.
“We are still fighting for bodily autonomy,” Merrell said. She worries about her current pregnancy and securing family leave for both her and her husband.
She ended her session with commentary on the result of the 2016 election, something that was on everyone’s mind that night.
“Today, I think I’m numb,” Merrell said. “I already knew America hated women, and brown people, and gay people, and poor people, but I just need a few days to recover from this.”
Erica Merrell, right, discusses her experiences as co-owner of Wild Iris Books. Wild Iris books is the only feminist and LGBTQ+ bookstore in Florida. Photo by Livia Ledbetter.
The second panelist was Paul Ortiz, history professor and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History program at UF. He discussed his experience organizing groups, such as his involvement with the Alachua County Labor Coalition’s living wage ordinance. Much of Ortiz’s discussion centered on how labor movements and organizing unions deal with and intersect with women’s movements.
At the beginning of his panel, Ortiz said he wanted to go off script for a moment to mention how he felt similarities between his childhood in the 1970s and Trump’s current vision for America.
“We knew this guy growing up,” Ortiz said of Trump. “We know his people. There was no safety for us growing up.”
“I grew up in the post-civil war era in a working-class town, as a Mexican-American in a multiracial family,” Ortiz said, somberly. “It was a good example of a white ghetto, where white people internalize their own psychological hang-ups and displace those onto other people. Minority kids often banded together. I remember adults stopping in cars to yell at and throw cans at us, saying ‘go back home’. We couldn’t do that, we were on our way to school, we’d get in trouble!”
Students will also tell him stories about their own racist experiences.
“Colleagues tell me all the time how things are constantly improving and getting better,” Ortiz said. “Now some sent me Facebook messages today saying they see that it isn’t.”
Ortiz’s discussion then centered on women’s involvement in labor movements. He talked about how women often experience abuse in the workplace. He used hotel maids as an example: often, they are harassed in hotels by coworkers and customers alike.
“We have to lean on each other in solidarity,” Ortiz said.
Women can be and are leaders in labor movements, Ortiz said. His discussion turned to how often labor movements have sexism or other conflicts within them, but that people must work within structures.
Paul Ortiz, center, discusses his many years organizing with labor unions and community activists. He is currently a history professor at UF and the director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History program. Photo by Livia Ledbetter.
Candi Churchill, a long-time feminist organizer with National Women’s Liberation and union staffer for United Faculty of Florida, was the third and final panelist. Toward the end of the panel, Churchill mentioned other panelists had planned on being there that night as well, but were too exhausted from the election to attend.
Churchill also remarked on Trump’s win from the night before.
“I’ve been crying and going through fits of rage,” Churchill said.
Her discussion then moved into talk about her history of involvement with feminism and community organizing.
“I’ll be honest, the feminist movement changed my life,” Churchill said
She grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, with a mother who worked as a scientist for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Churchill distinctly remembers her mother coming home crying every night from her job. Her mother’s boss was radically sexist, who did everything from harassing cleaning ladies to denying a request for free menstrual pads in the women’s restroom.
Her mother eventually made a petition to have their boss fired.
“I learned from my mom how to fight back and organize,” Churchill said. “She organized coworkers, even the men, with the petition. Everyone signed it. That really opened my eyes to how you can change things.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, she was inspired when walking through Plaza of the Americas and seeing women talk about their experiences with and anger over sexual assault.
Shortly after, she remembered reading an article about Lisa Gier King in the newspaper. King was a woman who was arrested in 1999 by UFPD for what they claimed were false rape reports. Churchill was so angry over this that she and a friend spent 40 hours a week picketing the state attorney’s office with the National Organization for Women
During her protest, the state attorney began calling her, and did so many times. He left messages with her that felt highly intimidating: “You don’t know what you are getting into,”; “You’re embarrassing yourself,”; “You don’t know this girl’s story.”
He requested to meet with her, and she brought a group with her to feel less afraid. They came, dropping pamphlets in front of him, yelling “drop the charges!”
The state attorney at the time was Rod Smith, recently defeated candidate for Florida Senate District 8.
Churchill said Smith went after King so viciously in his attack that he pushed her to the point of a suicide attempt.
“People in power will do anything they can to the little people,” Churchill said.
Currently as a staffer for United Faculty of Florida, she focuses on building power within the organization and helping people make change. She has worked with Graduate Assistants United, helping female graduate students make their voices heard within the organization.
“We want to have some savior from the top, but we make change through unity and movements,” Churchill said, alluding to Hillary Clinton’s recent defeat and her own work as a community organizer.
Churchill also discussed sexism she has faced within her field.
“The men won’t listen to my ideas, and then two minutes later another guy says what I’ve just said and it’s a great idea,” Churchill said. “There is a double standard for women in unions: our labor is invisible.”
Churchill expanded on the point Ortiz made about labor unions.
“It is important to struggle and make organizations better instead of discarding them,” Churchill said. “If you have a power base, you can make demands.”
“The feminist movement changed my life,” Candi Churchill, left, said. She is an organizer with National Women’s Liberation and union staffer with United Faculty of Florida. Photo by Livia Ledbetter.
Ortiz agreed, saying that it is tempting to walk away instead of working issues out.
They then moved into a question and answer section, which focused heavily on how to be intersectional in labor movements and the work people can do with community and labor organizing.
“I have never seen a perfect feminist or activist group,” Merrell said. “Speak up and show up where you can.”
“I have run into people all day who are scared of this man,” Churchill said, regarding Trump. “Just get involved with something you are passionate about.”
Ortiz elaborated on women’s roles in unions. Through organizing, working conditions have improved for female farmworkers, who have routinely been groped, assaulted and raped in their job. He said women leaders are essential to getting change made.
Merrell spoke about how exhausting this type of work can be, especially for women.
“You can’t do it by yourself, that is not effective, real or healthy,” Merrell said. “You deserve to have an army behind you.”
Churchill elaborated on her point that it is the average person who gets change done.
“With activism, we think the courts did it; no, we did it!” Churchill said. “We need organizations to persist.”
Ortiz said that the more active people are, the more active government can eventually be in response to community organization.
“No state is going to teach its citizenry how to revolt successfully,” Ortiz said.
Merrell ended the question and answer section with a plea for everyone to direct their anger at the right place.
“Don’t get ‘Twitter fingers,’” Merrell said. “Remember who to be angry at. Don’t turn on each other. Manifest grief in something positive and aim it at the right target.”
After two hours of a discussion that centered on feminist and community activism, female leadership and finding hope within the bleakness that many found thinking of a Trump presidency, Eliazar-Macke called an end to the session.
As the discussion wrapped up and Eliazar-Macke finished giving final announcements, she proposed leading the group in a unity chant.
So, in that small building, where burgeoning feminist radicalism pulsated, Eliazar-Macke led the small group in a loud, powerful chant that reverberated off the light blue walls.
“We will overcome. We will overcome. We will overcome.”