In its early years, NAWL was both directed and supported in its work by caucuses at many law schools across the country. The caucuses were made up of feminist law students and professors who were interested in working on national women’s equality issues. They were critical to NAWL’s work and helped ensure that we stayed in touch with the interests and concerns of feminist law students.
They also provided an important opportunity for feminist law students to work with a national women’s equality organization, to make connections with feminist lawyers and academics across the country and to learn how to become law reform activists.
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, including an increasing backlash against feminism in many law schools, both the number and role of caucuses diminished over the 1990s.
In 2007, NAWL embarked on a campaign to reactivate our caucuses. We held events called “Campus Cocktails” at university campuses from British Columbia to Quebec. These events let interested students learn about the issues NAWL was actively involved with and, more importantly, let NAWL hear about the priorities and issues of women students.
These sessions were a huge success and left us knowing that there were a lot of young feminists on university campuses who were interested in activism and in working with NAWL.
We were unable to take any further steps to reactivate our caucuses at that time because we lost our funding and were forced to close our office and lay off staff.
What We Are Doing Now and How You Can Help
In 2009, with limited funding, NAWL decided to bring together about 20 young women activists for a 2-day Think Tank to talk about NAWL’s future.We looked for, and found, young women engaged in thinking about and acting on issues related to law and public policy as it affects women in this country.
The women who participated were law students, public policy students, thinking about becoming law students and community activists. The Think Tank was planned and led by young women already involved with NAWL as members of our National Steering Committee (Board of Directors). Over the two days, the women had the opportunity to talk and work in groups both large and small as well as to spend some social time together.
We asked them some key questions:
1. Why did you come?
Overwhelmingly, the women who participated in the Think Tank told us they were looking for mentorship, to connect/network with other women interested in feminist legal activism, to talk about increasing the visibility of feminism, including 3rd wave feminism, in law schools, to talk about problems within the legal system and to find support in doing feminist activism on campus.
A number of women talked specifically about problems with law school, the challenges of being a feminist law student and concerns about becoming a law student and said they hoped the meeting would offer them some ideas, strategies and support.
Another theme was the need for younger feminists to learn from older feminists and then to do the work themselves.
Some women also talked about the need to build stronger connections between feminist activism in the academic setting and in the community.
2. What are your skills and experience?
The women at the gathering came with an amazing array of skills and an enormous amount of experience doing many different kinds of very interesting political activism at every level (campus, regional, provincial/territorial, national and international).
They were involved with media work and lobby campaigns, knew how to raise money, were engaged with policy analysis and legal research, were radio show hosts and filmmakers, did frontline work in women’s shelters and rape crisis centres, were actively engaged with pro-choice work and on and on and on.
We had a powerful group of women in the room!
3. What are the challenges you face in doing feminist organizing/activism?
Despite these strengths, the women talked about a wide range of challenges in doing feminist organizing and activism. The anti-feminist backlash was perhaps the most commonly stated challenge, but women also talked about the lack of diversity/inclusivity in many feminist organizations and intergenerational issues as also getting in the way of effective organizing. Women also talked about feelings of isolation and the lack of a mass, grassroots movement. Finding the right role for men was another issue for many women.
Growing from these discussions, the women identified two key themes:
- The backlash against feminism
4. What could NAWL caucuses look like in 2009/2010 and into the future?
There was no shortage of ideas for what NAWL caucuses could like like in the future.
- Women talked about needing to understand and know more about NAWL’s mandate and the nature of the relationship that would exist between NAWL and the caucuses. In particular, women wanted to know what level of autonomy the caucuses would have to decide what issues they wanted to work on and what strategies they could employ in their work.
- Some women were very keen to update and expand an existing NAWL manual that could serve as a resource for new law students. Others talked about wanting to set up mentorship relationships for women law students. Still others wanted NAWL caucuses to be visible and active in the community, supporting activism there and providing legal information to communities that need it.
- NAWL caucuses could lead lobbying on campuses about issues such as sexual assault, child care and pay equity.
- There was a lot of discussion about how to use technology to support caucus work and communication. Women were interested in exploring the possibilities of a blog, Facebook page and, eventually, possibly a stand-alone website.
The women then broke into small groups to discuss possible activities for NAWL caucuses:
- Development of an updated and expanded gender and the law handbook
- Starting a caucus
- Law-reform work
NAWL’s One Active Caucus: Carleton University
Women from the Carleton Caucus – the only active NAWL caucus at this time – shared some of their experiences and thoughts to assist those who are thinking about starting a caucus at their campus. They talked about how helpful it is to get official club status from the student government/university administration because this provides access to meeting space, resources and sometimes money.
The caucus ended with women making personal commitments for actions they plan to take upon returning to their community.
NAWL is very committed to supporting the development of NAWL caucuses on university campuses across the country. If you would like more information about the Think Tank or about starting a caucus where you are, please contact, Pamela Cross, NAWL’s Director of Strategic Planning, at firstname.lastname@example.org