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Accidental Activists

Photo Illustration by Bill Drake and Michael Mardosa


Accidental Activists
UMaine sociologist studies the politics of volunteering in the breast cancer movement

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Eighty-five years ago, ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution brought to a close more than half a century of activism on behalf of women's suffrage that featured various strategies of protest and public discourse challenging a male-dominated political system, and threatening the social mores and domestic ideology.

"If you look at women's suffrage at the beginning of the 20th century, women used volunteerism to be political actors," says sociologist Amy Blackstone, whose research focuses on gender, social movements and civic participation. "Later, with the second-wave feminist movement beginning in the 1960s, women were reconceived as activists and very political. Then came the antifeminist backlash in the 1980s and the rejection of the progress women made. In the kind of volunteer work that emerged, many women pulled themselves out of politics."

The tension between volunteerism and activism continues today in a movement that faces a male-dominated medical system. In her research on contemporary activism and the politics of volunteering, Blackstone found such depoliticizing in the breast cancer movement. She spent 18 months in an ethnographic study of an affiliate office of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, an organization formed in 1982 at a time when the antifeminist backlash and self-help movements were gaining momentum.

Blackstone found that the popular Komen Foundation successfully mobilizes thousands of volunteers in nonpolitical activities to fulfill its mission — raising funds for breast cancer research, promoting awareness of the disease and addressing inequalities within the healthcare system. Volunteers and supporters take to the streets not to protest, but to raise money in the foundation's largest fundraisers held nationwide, the 5K Race for the Cure. Pink ribbons symbolize the foundation's fight to eradicate the life-threatening disease. Women facing issues related to breast cancer are individually empowered to self-advocate in a male-dominated medical community.

The group dedicates itself to a single cause — the eradication of breast cancer — and promotes change by working within mainstream institutions and ideologies, argues Blackstone, a University of Maine assistant professor of sociology. But while much of what the women volunteers do resembles activism, they don't understand themselves to be activists. Indeed, they adamantly shun the label of activist. Or feminist. The result, says Blackstone, is a degree of invisibility, both on the political agenda and in the social valuation of women's volunteer efforts.

According to Blackstone, a focus on empowering the individual is important, but can take away from participants' efforts to construct breast cancer as a social problem.

"Their rejection of the term ‘activist' exemplifies their own statuses and life circumstances," says Blackstone, who published her findings in the journal Gender & Society. "At the same time, it imposes certain limits on their effectiveness. Without a conception of what they do as political, activists and volunteers think about their efforts as purely self-interested rather than contributing to the public good."


By focusing on breast cancer volunteerism, Blackstone studied a kind of "border activism" that has had little examination by scholars of social movements and politics. Blackstone analyzed the connections between activists' gender ideologies and the way they do their activism, as well as the way they and others think about their activism. The challenge is to clarify and reconsider existing definitions of activism — and feminism.
The bottom line, says Blackstone, is that traditional interpretations of women's volunteer work should be reconceived.

Women's roles in volunteerism and charity often are undervalued because they are in keeping with the idea of "women's work," Blackstone says. Their activism takes place within the confines of mainstream ideals, which indicate that it's OK for women to care, but inappropriate for women "to care in a way that might disrupt existing social institutions and social organizations." Trouble is, such ideals contribute to the marginalization and exclusion of women from public life.

"Avoiding politics is about gender because women in particular have historically been relegated to the realm of the private and the nonpolitical," Blackstone says.

The antifeminist backlash "convinced the public that women's ‘liberation' was the true contemporary American scourge — the source of an endless laundry list of personal, social, and economic problems," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. The goal was to "try to push women back into their ‘acceptable' roles."

Faludi cites one example after another: "Just when a ‘gender gap' at the voting booth surfaced in 1980, and women in politics began to talk of capitalizing on it, the Republican party elevated Ronald Reagan and both political parties began to shunt women's rights off their platforms. Just when support for feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment reached a record high in 1981, the amendment was defeated the following year."

Hostility to female independence can be seen throughout American history, says Faludi, but in this case, "the antifeminist backlash has been set off not by women's achievement of full equality, but by the increased possibility that they might win it."


Since the backlash that made it unpopular to not fit the mold, and with reinforcement by popular culture, many women have shied away from politics and feminism, seeing both as too combative and not in keeping with the norm. One Komen volunteer told Blackstone that she is neither an activist nor a feminist because "I don't burn the flag or my bra or anything."

Blackstone found women in this segment of the breast cancer movement downplaying the significance of their work, describing their volunteerism as "fun," a great way to meet "so many neat women" and "have a good time." They cite a desire to change the breast cancer climate for women in the U.S. as a central motivation for participation. The volunteers want change in a positive way, "transcending the dirty work of politics."

"The point is that they resist being understood as activists and as feminists for the same basic reason — they do not question normative notions of gender," Blackstone says. Such an interpretation of gender also "prevents them from establishing connections across a broader spectrum of breast cancer or women's issues groups."

By adopting a different view of their activity, Blackstone argues, "the Komen women might in fact strengthen feminism by making it more ideologically inclusive and strengthening the breast cancer movement by bringing together currently competing/opposing strands within the movement."

Nevertheless, efforts by Komen volunteers succeed in securing funding for clinics, education of medical professionals and increased awareness of potential breast cancer patients. While their efforts may be undervalued, the upside, says Blackstone, is that by shirking political and feminist labels, this arm of the breast cancer movement is attracting women who might not otherwise be involved.

"The fact remains," she says, "that Komen has managed to effect change by not rocking the boat. Being positive and proactive should not negate the possibility that these volunteers are activists or that they are engaged in feminist work."

In sociological literature, the distinction between volunteerism and activism largely hinges on the extent to which the people engaged in the activity are considered to be outside the mainstream. It also has to do with politics and the extent to which the person is pushing for political change, Blackstone says.

"These women are doing important work that deserves some critique," says Blackstone. "They're involved because they care passionately and want to see breast cancer end. If they were able to conceive of themselves as political and with connections to the feminist movement, they would have a stronger voice on the political agenda. Without an understanding of gender that allows them to reconcile their image of the good woman with that of the political actor, these women are left with no choice but to conceive of their work as nonpolitical."

The hope, says Blackstone, is that women and men ultimately gain an appreciation of the efforts of such volunteers. "Their work needs to be more visible and less taken for granted, and women need to reconsider what they're doing and be honest about the contributions they're making," she says.

By Margaret Nagle
May-June, 2005

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