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Elementary politics

December 21, 2011

Occupying over the last few months has gotten me thinking about how I learned what I know about political struggle. Some things I feel like I always knew or I learned as a kid. For university-level training however, I had to get out of the USA. A friend “interviewed” me by email recently for an article he is writing for a Venezuelan journal and his questions prompted this memory.

My 3rd grade class was the site of my first political action. It was 1971 and there were many semi-mocking news stories about the women’s liberation movement on TV.  The news stories didn’t fool me though. I knew that women and black people and anti-war protestors were right. I had heard people in my own family say racist things. The war was incomprehensible to me, but the Vietnamese were really poor and so the US fighting them didn’t seem fair. In my own school the teachers treated the boys differently from the girls – tolerating boisterous and aggressive behavior from boys but not girls, and talking about boys becoming doctors and girls becoming nurses. The boys themselves often treated us derisively, using femininity as an insult, and limiting our play because we were girls. I started pointing this out to my girlfriends and they seemed to share my anger.

One day we hit upon the idea that we should form our own women’s lib group, as we called it. We decided that whenever we saw anything discriminatory, we would say something. After that, if a teacher suggested that one thing was for boys and something else for girls, several hands would shoot up and we would point out that we were the women’s lib group and girls could do anything boys could do.  The idea spread throughout the 3rd grade classrooms. Girls were standing up to boys and teachers, and the teachers, all young women, started to get annoyed. After a week or so, the teachers called a big meeting of all the classrooms with a women’s lib group. Our teacher said, “This women’s lib thing has got to stop. You are disrupting the classrooms.”

I felt excited. If they were telling us to stop, we had to be having an effect! I met with my comrades at recess, looking forward to defying the teachers’ order and the escalation of the struggle, but the other girls were already resigned to the end of our organization. When I explained that we didn’t have to stop, we weren’t doing anything wrong, the other girls looked at me like I was crazy. For them it had only been a game. Of the whole situation, what I remember most intensely is this moment when my joy turned to shame under the screwed up faces of my friends.  After that, my life changed. I had a hard time making and keeping friends and was socially excluded until high school. Around my peers I kept my political opinions mostly to myself.

Fortunately, I was able to get out of my hometown, experience different places, and gradually find people whose political ideas engaged and challenged me. I began to think about health as a political issue when I worked at a feminist women’s health center. I learned about international struggles and the role of the US government in the repression of people around the world and joined groups working to change US foreign policy in Central America. After the signing of the peace accords in El Salvador in 1992, I went there as a lay health worker to support the social base of the FMLN and the demobilizing compas. That is where I learned most of what I know now about war, power, and political struggle.

Shameless plug: That story will be told in a chapter in Comrades in Health: US Health Internationalists Abroad and at Home, coming out sometime early next year from Rutgers University Press.

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