News & Updates: NWSA History

NWSA, A History: 1981 – Third National Conference

Wednesday, April 22, 2020  
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Cover of the 1981 conference program book

Third National Conference | May 31–June, 4, 1981 | Storrs, Connecticut

Heading of the 1981 conference program book

Program Highlights

The third annual NWSA conference in 1981 was the first themed conference: "Women Respond to Racism." In these first two posts, I've tracked the number of sessions dedicated to conversations on race and racism. After starting with a count of only eight sessions at the first conference, the theme of this third conference indicates a major political shift in the field, led by women of color. In this same year, the first edition of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, was published as the first anthology of works by women of color feminists. Speaking through a lens of identity politics, the book challenged the idea of a "universal sisterhood" that had centered the experiences and voices of white women as its definition of "sisterhood" and dismissed the experiences and issues unique to Black, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous women.

Of course, the book greatly impacted the programming of the conference, which featured both a reading of pieces from This Bridge by Persephone Press and the Artist Collective Repertory Dance Company, as well as a poetry reading by Cherríe Moraga from her work published in Lesbian Poetry: An Anthology. The latter reading also included Elly Bulkin, Jan Clausen, Joan Larkin, Judith McDaniel, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Adrienne, Michelle Cliff, and Doris Davenport. In that same vein, the program also hosted Vinie Burrow's one-woman show, "SISTER! SISTER!" featuring testimonials of women and girls from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Australia; a reading by Paule Marshall from her novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, a coming-of-age story about a Barbadian immigrant in New York; an exhibition of Americana artifacts titled, "Media's Roots and Racial Stereotyping;" and an exhibition titled, "Women of Third World Cultures: A Portfolio of Twelve Drawings," that included color reproductions of etchings based on Papau New Guinea creation myths and folktales, as well as original woodcut prints of women in Kenya, East Africa by Blythe Follet-Colón.

The 1981 meeting also hosted an exhibition of feminist books for viewing and purchase, a disco dance party, a classical concert featuring works by women composers, and a concert by Sweet Honey in the Rock, a performance ensemble rooted in African American history and culture (who are celebrating their 45th anniversary in 2020!)

List of 1981 program committee members

Reverse Subthemes

Even though the 1981 conference had a theme, it did not yet have subthemes. So, to get a better idea of the conversations at the conference, here are some reverse-engineered subthemes with examples:

Anti-Racist Pedagogy and Practice

  • "Race and Class in a Feminist Classroom: Developing Criteria and Methodology"
  • "Experiential Learning: A Participatory Approach to Education about Racism"
  • "Journal Writing as Self-Exploration and Growth: A Reading from Personal Journals Concentrating on Self-Exploration of Racism"
  • "Training Educators to Recognize and Respond to Racial Bias in Teaching and Counseling "

The Role of Class

  • "Victims of the Housing Wars: Poor Women and People of Color"
  • "The Relations of Race and Class in Caribbean Literature"
  • "The Failure of the American Dream in Multi-Ethnic Women's Literature"

Transnational Perspectives

  • "Sex, Race, and Socialist Transformation: Revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua"
  • "Third World Women Respond to Racism"
  • "NWSA's Relationship with Women Activists and Scholars in other Countries: An Open Roundtable Discussion"
  • "Women's Answer to Racism: Third World Women's Control Over Their Own Bodies"

Politics of Art

  • "Confirmation and Challenge: Black Women's Poetic Voices on Personhood"
  • "Anger, Power, and Selfhood: Women of Color and Feminist Poetry"
  • "Black Lesbian/Feminist Poetry - White Lesbian/Feminist Teacher: Issues and Problems"
  • "Autobiographical Writings of Third World Women"

Body Politics

  • "Power, Inequality, and Body Politics: The Effects of Gender, Race, and Class on Nonverbal Behavior"
  • "Feminists Redefine the Clitoris: New Research from the Women's Health Movement"
  • "Feminism and the 'Handicapped'"
  • "WomenBlood: A Multi-Ethnic Look at Menstruation"

Historicizing Women

  • "Who are the World's Great 20th Century Women Composers? (And How Will Anyone Ever Know?)"
  • "Women Abolitionists: Black and White Women in the Struggle Against Slavery"
  • "Friendships Between White Women and Women of Color in the Past"

Intersections of Anti-Semitism

  • "Anti-Semitism and Racism – Its History and the Form It Takes Today"
  • "Jewish Identity, Racism, and Anti-Semitism"
  • "Jewish Women: Combatting Racism"

Politics of the State and Globalization

  • "The Copenhagen Experience: A Forum to Discuss Issues and Events Arising During the U.N. Mid-Decade Conference on Women"
  • "Perspectives on the Role of Women in National Development and Revolution in the Third World"
  • "International Organizing: Crossing Lines to Win"
  • "Impact of U.S. Foreign Aid on Women in the Third World"

Lesbian Perspectives

  • "Lesbians of Color - Finding Our Voices"
  • "Racism and the Lesbian Community"
  • "Teaching Lesbian Issues in High Schools and Elementary Schools"

See the full program here

Consciousness-Raising at the Conference

The 1981 conference had a significant emphasis on consciousness-raising (CR or C-R) groups, a feminist strategy of becoming politically aware of our own social positions in relation to others' social positions. With a theme of "Women Respond to Racism," these consciousness-raising groups at the NWSA conference demonstrated the need for feminists to take accountability for the social and political power they may have over, and in relation to, others, others. The conference program committee included consciousness-raising support group trainers Tia Cross, Joan Karp, and Sue Mitchum. Two years earlier, Tia Cross, along with Freada Klein, Barbara Smith, and Beverly Smith (the latter two were members of the Combahee River Collective), created a lasting set of guidelines for consciousness-raising. They wrote, "The CR format encourages personal sharing, risk-taking, and involvement, which are essential for getting at how each of us is racist in a daily way; and it encourages the 'personal' change that makes political transformation and action possible."1 Below are the goals of the 1981 NWSA conference consciousness-raising circles, written by the CR support group trainers.

Goals and Purposes of Consciousness-Raising Groups

We abhor the reality of racism perpetrated on people of color in this culture and believe that its insidious effects on us all must be confronted and stopped. We have developed a consciousness-raising group model, based on the one used at the New England Regional Women's Studies Conference, to deal with the effects of racism on us and in society. White women will meet separately to respond to racism within ourselves, the classroom, institutions and communities. Women of color will meet to react to the effects of racism on our lives and communities and our views of each other.

The consciousness-raising support groups for women of color will provide an opportunity to identify, discuss and attempt eliminate the barriers which separate us, such as racism, class privilege, educational privilege, color, language, culture and sexual preference. These groups will be facilitated by women of color and are designed to provide a safe space for dialogue between Native American, Latina, Chicana, Afro-American and Asian-American women. This format is being used to uncover the positive links and bridges between us and develop strategies to expose and combat the racism affecting our lives.

White women will be offered a supportive, non-judgmental environment to work on our racism and on the harmful effects living in a racist society. Whites need the opportunity to openly address fears, stereotypes, and issues of power and guilt, as well the influences of our own cultural traditions. White women will explore our ethnic and class backgrounds and how we learn to racist. Goals include attaining a useful perspective on personal racism, a greater awareness of how racism functions in a institutions and society, and improved ability to take action against racism, and better relationships with people of all races.

Groups will be led by trained facilitators and will be supervised during the conference. Because women attending will have wide variety of experience in working on racism, we will try to provide groups which reflect our different needs. These kinds groups are relatively new. A key factor in their success will be the willing participation of the group members. Since many of the feelings brought out in the groups may be painful and uncomfortable, and not easily confined to the the scheduled C-R time, there will be rooms available for both women of color and for white women to have a safe space to experience these feelings. Both the groups for women of color and white women will develop strategies for action and building networks and coalitions within our communities and across racial and cultural barriers.

We are very excited about this unique opportunity and are confident that the experience will be very valuable.

Tia Cross, Joan Karp, Sue Mitchum
Consciousness-Raising Support Group Trainers

1Cross, Tia, Freada Klein, Barbara Smith, and Beverly Smith. “Face-to-Face, Day-to-Day Racism–CR.” In All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, edited by Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith. New York: Feminist Press, 1982.

From the NWSA Coordinator

Sisterly Greetings:

On behalf of the National Women's Studies Association, it is my pleasure, once again, to offer conference greetings, and welcome to the Third Annual NWSA Conference at Storrs.

The moment of our Third Conference is a significant one, for the Association and for feminist education.

Women's Studies continues to develop and diversify. What our Constitution called "the remarkable proliferation of programs that necessitated this association" in the 1970's has not diminished in the 1980's. But, as we are all aware, the economic and social context in which our work goes on has become more challenging, more difficult, making all the more necessary our coming together to share, to plan for the year, and the years, ahead.

Part of that planning will be organizational. At this conference, we begin the review of our Constitution and the structures that seemed so far distant when it was mandated at the 1977 Founding Convention. The sheer existence of a National Women's Studies Association and the achievement of holding an annual meeting are no longer "news," but accomplished facts to be assessed and built upon.

In focusing on the theme of this conference, "Women Respond to Racism," we build upon past efforts and upon the mandate that our annual conference provide an educational and inspirational force in itself. We are all indebted to those who have been responsible for shaping the program here, and all responsible for continuing their work when we leave.

There is much left to do, but we have surely begun. This is the last conference at which it will be my role to offer greetings on behalf of the Association, but not, I hope, the last at which I will meet and share with all of you, in work and learning and in celebration.

Elaine Reuben, National Coordinator

From the Program Coordinators

Welcome to the Third Annual NWSA Convention "Women Respond to Racism." We envision this conference as an opportunity to confront racism through various approaches and perspectives. Our first goal is to examine our attitudes and actions, as well as those of the society and institutions which we are part of, and to find strategies and support for intervention.

In the interest of both appreciating differences and beginning dialogues, we have organized sessions where issues which surface in consciousness-raising sessions and other groups can be formulated into plans for action. We recognize C-R not only as a process for personal change, but as one which can equip us with tools for communicating about issues raised in program sessions in the most constructive and effective ways possible.

Program sessions were conceived of in three basic categories: 1) those that focus on giving information through paper and panel presentations, 2) those that describe and report on anti-racism programs throughout the country, and, through discussion and skills-sharing, give us tools to initiate school and community education projects, and 3) those that are experiential. The purpose of the program sessions is not only to share information, but to begin to observe ourselves in relation to others when confronted with the issues of racism.

Gaps and problems in this program may become evident during the conference. Your suggestions and comments written on the conference evaluation forms would be helpful to next year's program committee.

This conference can be a source of solidarity and empowerment for us as individuals and as an organization. We appreciate your energy and efforts toward making the convention a success.

The green color of this book represents our concern for the families and children of Atlanta, and the hope that our work can help put an end to murder because of color, sex, sexual orientation, or religious belief.

We give sincere thanks to Towson State University and Indiana University whose support was highly valuable to our effort, to the Lilly Foundation for funding scholarships for K-12 teachers, and to the Indian Arts Council for facilitating the appearance of some of our artists.

Yours in struggle,

Norma Cobbs & Stacy Pies

From the Local Arrangements Coordinators

Welcome to the University of Connecticut and to the Third National Women's Studies Convention.

This convention we feel is the synthesis of debate, dialogue, discussion and disagreement It is the result of commitment and hard work. Finally, it is the result of careful consideration at every stage of planning for the issues of sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, classism, and the concerns of the physically challenged.

As Local Arrangements Coordinators, we have accepted the mission of reviewing all possible space, facilities and other services available, and selecting those most suitable to our variety of needs.

In making our decisions we have taken into account those needs stated in resolutions passed by the Delegate Assembly, and the policies and special needs of the various constituencies in attendance at past NWSA conventions.

Our decisions were made based on the principal of democratic process, with substantial consideration given to the long term implications of all actions, as they may affect the future of NWSA.

We urge you to look seriously at NWSA financial reports and to the contributions from your regions. We encourage you also to consider that an organization that makes decisions collectively must also share responsibility collectively.

Once again, we wish everyone a productive and enjoyable convention and further request that you keep in mind the future of NWSA as you make decisions and participate in the activities planned for all in the days ahead.

In sisterhood,

Dania C. Stevens & Diana Woolis

NWSA Coordinating Council

Before there was a Governing Council, NWSA was led by the Coordinating Council. Below are the first council members, as well as the NWSA staff team. You can see the current Governing Council members, conference co-chairs, and staff members here.

1977-1979 Coordinating Council Members

Have any pictures, stories, or fun facts from past conferences? Let us know! Email us

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NWSA Program Archives

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About the Writer

Victoria Agunod is the office assistant at the National Women's Studies Association, as well as an adjunct faculty member in the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies Program at DePaul University. Victoria received their BA and MA in Women's and Gender Studies at DePaul. They first attended NWSA in 2018 and presented their research on university students organizing for racial justice against the new alt-right galvanized by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They joined the NWSA team the following year. Their teaching emphases are on women of color feminisms, racial justice movements and organizing, and neoliberal rhetorical and cultural influences.

Please note: The information compiled in this project comes from the archived conference programs at the University of Maryland, College Park.