So the old joke about setting aside months for the history of certain groups goes something like this: “What follows Women’s History Month? Ten months of white male history.”
Like most old jokes theres too much truth behind it to make it funny. Despite more than one half century of struggle by the modern feminist movement, women remain absent — or in the background — from too much of what passes for history in this country.
This also reflects their position in our society. Women still remain too often in roles subordinate to men in the workplace, in our government and in our homes. That pie chart still shows too little of the pie going to what represents more than 50 percent of our population.
But does setting aside 31 days out of 365 to recognize the role of women in our history really help things? Probably not, but like the chicken soup dispensed by Jewish grandmothers around the world, it couldn’t hurt, either — especially if in the spirit of Mother Jones we “mourn for the dead but fight like hell for the living.”
In other words, enough with the stain glass icons trotted out each year. Let’s honor and celebrate living examples of women struggle to make the world a better place. In Oregon, there is not shortage of them and far too many to include in this small space. So what follows is a highly personal and highly incomplete account of just two Oregon women whose work deserves our attention and our support.
Marcy Westerling. The founder of Rural Organizing Project and a presence wherever progressive forces need to be rallied against the forces of oppression, Marcy is a top flight strategist who understands that the way we engage in the struggle to achieve our goals is as important as the goals themselves.
In the early days of the struggle against the Oregon Citizens Alliance, Marcy recognized that the fight had to be taken to the rural communities where Lon Mabon’s hatred was festering. The Rural Organizing Project that resulted is a growing network of progressive activists around the state, nurturing progressive principles within their communities. Marcy has not rested with the destruction of the Oregon Citizens Alliance. She has worked to build progressive coaltions within Oregon, and was among the first to refocus her group’s energies in the aftermath of 9.11. That has evolved into an historic march for justice and freedom through the rural communities of the upper Willamette Valley and a linkage between progressive social justice values and peace values not readily found elsewhere.
Jeri Sundvall. I first met Jeri when she was a hotel worker at Red Lion, trying to draw attention to the toll hotel cleaning materials was taking on workers, including herself. By this time, this remarkable Native American woman had already faced down and overcome a series of challenges that would have crushed many others. She had survived a painful childhood cut off from her heritage. She had fallen into prostitution and even went to prison to protect her pimp before having that moment of clarity that made it possible for her to turn her life around — and she did so with a vengeance.
Her work at the Red Lion led her into union organizing and a leadership role with the Workers Organizing Committee. By the mid-90s, Jeri had joined Portland Jobs with Justice, where she helped turn the organization into a true community-labor coalition. As a co-chair, she was able to make members understand that the importance of how we do the work and who is at the table.
Jeri’s greatest achievements have come through her involvement with the Environmental Justice Action Group, or EJAG. Through them, she has, and continues to, take on transportation and urban planning that puts highways and heavy industry in close proximity to communities of color — resulting in asthma rates among those populations far above average.
Working on asthma issues gave Jeri an opportunity to forge a strong alliance between organized labor and EJAG. Working closely with the United Steelworkers of America, they sued Oregon Steel Mills over the company’s discharge practices.
Marcy and Jeri are just two shining examples of the role women are playing in Oregon. I invite you to send in your candidates to us and we’ll publish them in upcoming issues of the Alliance. We’ll not only be honoring those too often overlooked, we’ll be busting that 10 months of white maile history rule at the same time. Huzzah!
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: April 5, 2006