UMaine sociologist studies the politics of volunteering in the
breast cancer movement
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
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
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
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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.