Building Solidarity at the Iowa Socialist Feminist Convergence

Iowa has seen an explosion of socialist organizing in the last year, including the formation of several chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, an Iowa-wide socialism conference, and thirty socialists marching in the Iowa State Fair parade in August. In many ways, today’s Iowa socialists are simply reclaiming their roots—Iowa’s long history of populism and labor organizing. And while this history has often been dominated by cisgendered men, that is no longer true. Out of the strong female presence and leadership in many Iowa chapters has grown a conscious move toward an even more intersectional socialism that makes the connections between various types of oppressions more explicit and thus easier to resist.

As a result, socialist feminist working groups are creating a space for women and non-binary folks to share experiences and reflect on the toll that capitalism can take on their hearts, minds, and bodies. Ash Bruxvoort, from Des Moines, understands the need for this space keenly. As part of her work as a feminist organizer with the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network, she routinely brings together women farmers who are often isolated in a male dominated field to connect with themselves and each other. “Being in a room full of like-minded women was, hands down, the most transformational experience in my life,” Bruxvoort says.

After joining DSA in May 2017, she realized the same organizing could be a powerful tool for her DSA community. She joined the first socialist feminist working group meeting for the Central Iowa DSA in October and stepped into the leadership role shortly thereafter. When other Iowa chapters began contacting her, asking for advice on how to start their own groups, Ash decided she could do something on a larger scale.

Collaborating with members from DSA chapters across the state, the vision for the Iowa Socialist Feminist Convergence was, as Ash says, to “create something that would draw women and non-binary people from a cross-section of the state.” In particular, they “wanted to create an environment for those folks who weren’t involved in DSA and maybe were even afraid to go to a meeting because they felt like it wasn’t for them.”

Convergence-goers contributed menstrual products which were donated to the North Liberty Food Pantry.

After several months of planning, almost sixty Iowans gathered on March 10 at the Iowa City Library for a day of socialist feminist education and action. The morning began by setting community agreements for respectful discussion, followed by introductions around the room. Next we broke into small groups where we read and discussed articles by Barbara Ehrenreich, bell hooks, and other socialist feminist writers. After spending time talking in our small groups, each group had an opportunity to share with everyone what they discussed.

After lunch there were two large group sessions—the first on Medicare for All and the second on housing justice through a socialist feminist lens. During the Medicare for All discussion, attendees were asked to share in small groups what difficulties they or their loved ones have experienced navigating our broken healthcare system. Next they reflected on what problems arose specifically because of their identities as women or non-binary people. Strikingly similar stories emerged about lack of access to proper care, not being taken seriously by their physicians, being treated disrespectfully when the doctor realized the patient was on Medicaid, and so on. Finally, everyone was asked to visualize a society in which each person’s medical needs are immediately cared for and where we are no longer dependent on our employers for insurance, then encouraged to take that vision back to their communities.

The second session explored the ways that housing is a socialist feminist issue since shortages in safe, affordable, and secure housing disproportionately affect low-income women and their families. However, the typical capitalist narratives that we use when we talk about housing frame these women as bad mothers and irresponsible renters while ignoring the unethical landlords, low-wage jobs, and insufficient public resources that make it so difficult for families to thrive in these conditions. Looking at housing issues through an intersectional socialist feminist lens helps us to call out the ways that gender, race, sexual identity, and social class are used to justify exploitative housing conditions.

The session also described a variety of cooperative housing arrangements that have been imagined or realized over the past century and into the present day. One typical feature of this kind of housing is a central kitchen and laundry that moves these essential functions out of the family home. In the early 20th century, this feature was seen as key for liberating women from much of the unpaid labor of housework.

Participants were urged to think about housing solutions on both the macro and the micro levels. That is, even as we dream of more affordable, equitable, and sustainable cooperative housing as long-term goals, we can also join solidarity networks and renters’ unions to hold landlords accountable and demand safe and secure housing now.

For the final hour of the Convergence, cismen left the room and the remaining attendees gathered for a closing circle of experience. Each individual shared about their unique experiences. Many reported feeling more welcome in this space than they had felt in purely socialist or purely feminist spaces before this. Some described their anger, their hope, and the encouragement they now carried with them to go do the work of revolution.

Helena Khazdozian reflected that “the convergence was such an empowering and motivating moment in my life. It gave me hope to keep fighting against capitalism with the fuel of others’ successes at a time in my life when I was feeling very disconnected from humanity and questioning whether change would ever be possible.” When Khazdozian went home, she started a feminist socialist working group in her local chapter, Heart of Iowa DSA.

Don’t be surprised if a feminist socialist working group starts up near you. If you want to start one yourself, visit the Socialist Feminists of Iowa Facebook group for support and solidarity.