Radical Women Celebrate A Half Century of Hell-Raising

I think we should ignore all the laws – except the ones that are good for the people – and there aren’t too many of those.
— Gloria Martin, one of the founders of Radical Women

According to some longtime members of the Radical Women, feminism used to be a dirty word on the left. In the late ’60s when Radical Women was formed in Seattle, the Students for Democratic Society wanted to change the system and hippies preached peace and love, peace and love – but when those groups gathered, women were still expected to cook and make the coffee.

Today women’s rights are in the forefront of virtually all leftist organizations. The vibrant, feisty, outspoken members of the Radical Women, celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, think they had something to do with that. RW came out of “Free University” class on Women and Society taught by Gloria Martin, a socialist and civil rights activist in 1967. Susan Stern of the SDS (and best remembered as a member of the Seattle Seven) approached Martin, Clara Fraser and Melba Windoffer, who had left the Socialist Workers Party and had begun the Freedom Socialist Party the previous year.

“Susan Stern felt there was a lot of macho in the New Left,” says longtime RW and FSP member Guerry Hoddersen. “So Clara started a study group. Clara believed women had to know history, and understand class and the patriarchal system.”

In her book, Socialist Feminism: The First Decade, 1966-76, Martin wrote that RW was formed to “demonstrate that women could act politically, learn and teach theory, administer an organization, and focus movement and community attention on the sorely neglected matter of women’s rights – and that women could do this on their own.”

Fraser, Martin, and others broke away from the Socialist Workers Party because of that group’s treatment of women. Windoffer, one of the first women to work at Boeing, told socialist writer Sukey Durham in 1978, “The worst was an article in The Militant, (the SWP newspaper) attacking working women for using cosmetics.”

The FSP and RW are groups marked by a Trotskyite philosophy and a strong feminist perspective. The groups were both formed in Seattle and share office space and members. However, both have branches in Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Melbourne, Australia.

Radical Women was formed when television newscasts were bringing the Vietnam War into American’s living rooms. Since that time, RW has consistently been critical of occupation and interventions by the United States on foreign lands. The late ’60s also saw the organization on the front lines of the abortion rights movement advocating for the reproductive rights of low-income and women of color. Through the years, RW members have taken an active role in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

While outspoken against sexism in people of color movements, Radical Women has worked closely with the Seattle Black Panther party and local organizers such as Aaron and Elmer Dixon. The group has spoken against police brutality, particularly regarding people of color, and RW’s New Freeway Hall in Columbia City has often been a “safe haven” for minorities in the neighborhood.

RW also supported Native American women leaders Ramona Bennett and Janet McCloud and participated in the Puyallup Tribe’s takeover of the Cascadia Youth Center, a former Indian hospital. The group has joined innumerable unions on the picket lines throughout the years. And some have even run for political office.

In 1973, Seattle City Light hired Fraser as a Trainer and Education Co-coordinator. Her mission was to implement a program training women to be utility electricians for the public power company. On June 24, 1974, ten women – six white and four non-whites – were officially hired as linemen (or linepersons), sub-station constructors and cable splicers. For the first time, women were climbing up telephone polls. The program was the first of its kind in the country.

“They knew Clara was a radical,” said Megan Cornish, one of the ten women hired and today a writer for the Freedom Socialist Newspaper. “She came out of the poverty program. Even today people ask, how can you get women to apply for jobs in the trades? Clara figured it’s probably going to be women who were not afraid to swim against the tide: professional women who were underemployed and weren’t afraid to call themselves feminists. She went to clubs and meetings. She did outreach to get people to apply and they got 300 applicants.”

For her role in an employee walkout at City Light, Fraser was fired later that year. Fraser filed a sexual discrimination and political bias complaint. After a seven-year legal battle, the courts affirmed the rights of workers to speak out against management and to organize. The case was covered extensively in local media and Fraser became the public face of Seattle socialists, if a communal collective can have a public face.

As an organizer for RW and the FSP, Fraser wrote a column for the Freedom Socialist newspaper. Fraser’s writings were turned into a book, Revolution She Wrote. Hardly a stereotypical “bookstore socialist” Fraser’s fascinating writings were sprinkled with pop culture references and movie reviews. Her RW comrades said she could wax eloquently on the beauty of Michael Jordan on a basketball court or the magnificence of a ballet.

Today, RW has been swept up in the maelstrom of the left resurgence sparked by the Trump administration. They’ve been a presence at the Women’s March the day after the presidential inauguration and the protest against white supremacists in downtown Seattle the weekend of Charlottesville.

“We’re definitely fighting the right-wing Trump agenda,” says current RW organizer Gina Petry. “A huge part of that is working with other organizations, women, LGBTQ, labor, immigrants, women immigrants and the poor.”

Last year, Petry represented RW at Standing Rock protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. This Thursday, Sept. 21, RW will be showing the documentary Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock at the New Freeway Hall, 5018 Rainier Avenue South, beginning at 7:30. Admission is $2.00, with a meal available for $8.00.