Guest contributor C.D.W. recently left her local branch of the IWW, she wants to stress, for several different reasons; she agrees to speak about one of them here. -- JRB
JRB: What first attracted you to the IWW?
CDW: I had been politically active for years before joining the IWW. I began to feel a sense of disillusionment stemming from Leninist forms of organizing. The Leninist party [model], in my opinion, was not honoring Marxism. I felt a disconnect between the workers and the “party.” My libertarian tendencies had me searching for groups that were less bureaucratic and more “worker” oriented. The IWW takes a nonhierarchical approach to organizing. The IWW does not consider itself separate, or better than workers -- they are the workers! The practice of direct action was also appealing. The IWW did not concern itself with selling newspapers or recruiting party members; it enmeshes itself in workers' struggles. The IWW has a rich history in the labor movement, and its philosophy of inclusiveness was among the first of its kind —- how could one not be attracted to the IWW?
JRB: Did you initially feel that this inclusiveness was extended to women workers?
CDW: I would be lying if I said no. I would never join an organization that is so obviously exclusive. I think most radical organizations have enough awareness about structural issues that they are not overtly discriminatory; most of these groups attempt to mask the inequities within. Power dynamics take time to surface, and are not always easy to identify. Although the composition of the IWW is telling. Women make up only a small fraction of its members. The organization needs to question why it’s not recruiting and/or retaining female members. While I was a member of my local branch, there were only two females. There was a third woman who left prior to my arrival. Although I do not know much about why she left, I know there were allegations of sexism.
JRB: Regarding recruitment and retention, I've often thought along similar lines: What are we doing wrong? Can you think of anything in the culture of the IWW, as you experienced it, that might have been alienating or off-putting for women?
CDW: I'll preface this answer by saying that I do not make any attempt to be a spokesperson for all women in the IWW. Albeit, my experiences in the IWW are not isolated cases within the movement, and may be emblematic of more systemic issues. I will speak more generally and will not use identifiable information -- as to not distract from the more salient issues of patriarchy.
First and foremost, women are vastly underrepresented in the IWW. Women's issues are seldom addressed and tactics to recruit women are almost never employed. The last National Conference was a huge success, and I value my experience and the people I met. However, I do have some complaints. I want to say this carefully, as to not devalue the input and participation of the two or three female speakers. The women who participated on a panel spoke about their “experiences,” whereas male comrades educated participants on theory and the historical struggles of the working class. I make this comparison because higher levels of prestige are associated with more academic types of presentations. During the planning stages of the conference, I expressed interest in leading a workshop on the theoretical basis for organizing in a post-industrial society. My suggestion was shrugged off and no one bothered to get back to me.
Female comrades sometimes fail to receive recognition for their organizing skills and strategic planning. I witnessed a male comrade receiving congratulatory remarks on a project that I worked on diligently. Needless to say, my involvement was not acknowledged.
Sexist attitudes and behaviors of male comrades are often dismissed as non-problematic or are labeled a “miscommunication.” Unfortunately, instead of providing a safe space to express grievances, women have frequently experienced hostility and alienation as a result of speaking up. I want to add that I do not think these incidences are indicative of any particular negative culture within the IWW, but more the remnants of patriarchy found within broader society.