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Califia Feminists Took Education Out of Classrooms

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Launched in 1975, this group of Southern California feminists provided an alternative to mainstream academia's attempts to tie feminism to university courses, focusing on community education, says Clark A. Pomerleau in this excerpt from "Califia Women."

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Mealtime at Califia Community.
Mealtime at Califia Community.

Credit: Courtesy of Betty Jetter, from Jetter's collection

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(WOMENSENEWS)-- In response to entrenched inequalities in the post–World War II United States, Americans who supported gender equality built on political opportunities to find each other and create the country's largest social movement.

Califia Women: Feminist Education Against Sexism, Classism, and Racism

By the 1970s, the proliferation of feminist organizations in Los Angeles was representative of the nation's largest cities. Southern California feminists built on previous leftist education experiments to plan Califia Community in 1975. They drew on their social networks to bring women (and their children) together for a week or long weekend to learn from each other's experiences, imagine and live an alternative to mainstream society, frame issues and organize to change the social order. For a decade of summers, Califia Community collective members facilitated conferences at campsites that alleviated mainstream pressures. The experience strengthened many women's sense of shared culture and collective identity as "Califia women."

Califia Community, which dissolved in 1987, is significant both in its own right and as a lens on its times. There has been little study of sustained grassroots feminist educational activism outside of the formation of college courses, even though the feminists who considered themselves "second wave" were dedicated to community-based consciousness raising, leadership training, organizing and revision of knowledge about women and gender. Grassroots groups that did community education tended to be significantly smaller than Califia Community and usually lasted fewer than five years, while women-only trade programs outside established vocational training venues have received scant scholarly attention.

Local-Level Dynamics

This book extends beyond most previous scholarship's focus on the late 1960s and early 1970s, widely acknowledged leaders and the East Coast or Midwest. Scholarship on feminism of the 1960s to 1980s continues to need case studies that correct generalizations based on national overviews. Local-level dynamics confirm the multiplicity of competing views that feminists generated. Analyzing Califia Community helps to explain how New Left political and countercultural concerns influenced multi-issue feminists to blend tactics and goals in practices that they and later scholars have classified separately as "radical feminism," "cultural feminism" and "separatism."

Early participants at Califia had a range of gender expressions, sexual orientations, class backgrounds and races/ethnicities. Leaders built on that diversity and were especially concerned to advance antiracism and coalition work among races and ethnicities. Over their decade of conferences, Califia women developed their training on identity variation in ways that help clarify issues of feminists' differing sexual orientations, classes and races.

The Califia experiment illustrates that 1970s feminists often mobilized women from overlapping social networks, built institutions with volunteer-based resources and sustained interest through strong social relationships, a shared sense of culture and the powerful emotions feminists felt when working together against injustices. Califia women adapted their priorities over time in response to their participation in feminist debates and to external pressures from right-wing organizing.

Going Beyond the Local

Looking at Califia in relation to nationwide developments reveals how feminists expanded their content and tactics, the strengths and weaknesses of lenses like identity politics and methods like consciousness-raising and consensus and ways in which members of the Right repeatedly attacked feminism. Many of these issues remain salient.

Across the United States, the number of participants in feminist groups and the movement's visibility to mainstream Americans expanded enormously over the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Betty Brooks, who helped establish and run Califia Community, spoke to the ways in which many women felt swept up in a collective movement that altered the course of their lives. She said:

"There was a giant wave that was happening. And I guess I could say that that wave picked me up, although I was already in the ocean of women's liberation. You know there's two aspects of all this -- women's rights work and women's liberation. And so I would say . . . that the most important thing that Califia did was really to raise women's consciousness about their own individual liberation and the connection to the big 'isms' . . . which surround us like smog, which are sexism, racism and class. And it was that younger generation of women, the second wave of feminists, the people who had been in the political liberation movements of the '60s, that focused in. . . . They walked out of mainstream politics and said that the 'personal is political.' So that Califia was picking that up. We were really the only radical group of people [in Southern California] trying to do that kind of work--to try to raise people's consciousness in a different way than just keeping it in a small group. I mean, we really want to pick up the big stuff."

-- Betty Brooks (Califia Community founder and collective member, 1975–1983)

Excerpt from "Califia Women: Feminist Education Against Sexism, Classism, and Racism" by (Copyright © 2013 by the University of Texas Press). Used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit .

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