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A Brief history of Women-led Movements in Grand Rapids: Part III – The Women’s Action Network

March 29, 2022

This is the third post in this series, taking a look at the history of women-led social movements in Grand Rapids. In Part I, we looked at the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and in Part II, we discuss the Reproductive Justice Movement. In today’s post, we want to look at the 1990s grassroots group the Womyn’s Action Network.

In recent years there has been a variety of activities and actions around the rallying cry of fighting “The War on Women.”

The cause for this effort has primarily been the recent national and state efforts to diminish legal protects for women around reproductive rights and rape. The organizing has mostly been inside the electoral framework of fighting legislation and supporting or opposing political candidates. While electoral politics is one strategic approach to fighting for women’s rights, it is certainly not the only one. 

In the early 1990s, four Grand Rapids women, Karen Henry, Sister Jackie Hudson, Marge Kuipers and Sue Ablao, created the Womyn’s Action Network (WAN). WAN’s stated purpose from the organizational brochure was, “The Womyn’s Action Network works to eliminate violence against women and oppression of women through self-empowerment and the resurrection of womyn’s voices.”

WAN came together in 1992 and began their feminist work with a satirical event that took on media representation of women. The First Annual Media Bash was an awards ceremony, where those in attendance would look at misogynistic and empowering images of women and then give out what they called Dick and Jane awards. The Dick awards were given out to the ads that “are the most degrading, demeaning and disgusting,” while the Jane awards were given to “those ads that portray us in the most positive and affirming ways.” Marge Kuipers had this to say about the Media Bash:

Especially memorable was WAN’s “Dick & Jane Awards” which took place at the temporary UICA building on Monroe Avenue. The room was packed with an enthusiastic assembly of women (along with a few men) who hooted, hollered, and hissed at the images that were projected on the screen of the advertising industry’s exploitation of women. The “Dick Award” was presented to the ad the audience considered to be the “worst of the worst.”

Karen Henry, one of the group’s founders and an Arab-American woman, understood the importance of critically looking at representation in the media. Organizing the Media Bash was an excellent way to look at gender representation in media, specifically because of how the representation of women and girls often normalized their objectification. 

In addition to the Media Bash, WAN organized or participated in Take Back the Night marches, challenged sexist local radio billboards (WKLQ), spoke on campuses, facilitated forums and created a Women Now Forever Scholarship. The scholarship was for women attending or wanting to attend college and gave preference to women of color and Lesbian or Bisexual women. 

WAN was deeply committed to confronting sexual assault. In the early 1990s, they co-sponsored a talk by the feminist author Kay Leigh Hagan, who had just come out with a book entitled, Fugitive Information: Essays from a Feminist Hothead. During Hagan’s talk, she addressed how the Take Back the Night Movement was created by women who had experienced sexual assault and rape. In the early years of the Take Back the Night marches, they were designed to be public, to raise a ruckus, and often times the marches would go through parts of the community where sexual assault was committed or in the neighborhoods of known perpetrators. Hagan made the point that these marches had become less radical, turning in to candlelight vigils, instead of a public denunciation of violence against women.

In addition to the Take Back the Night actions that WAN was involved in, they also sponsored the Clothesline Project. The Clothesline Project was designed to be a mechanism for sexual assault survivors to tell their story, by painting on a t-shirt, with images or words. These shirts would be displayed on a clothesline to provide an opportunity to inform the public and to allow friends, family and community members the chance to honored the lived-experience of those who have been sexually assaulted. One year, the Clothesline Project was displayed at 10 Weston, an art space that was run by Nancy Lautenbach. 

The Womyn’s Action Network also understood how social justice issues intersected and participated in the annual Pride event in Grand Rapids, World AIDS Day, anti-war activities and community wide anti-violence campaigns.

The organization’s literature states that it was committed to looking at issues through a race/class/gender lens; challenging corporate defined beauty; fighting femicide, rape, battering and harassment; and looking at women’s health issues, like breast cancer, menopause and menstruation.

WAN only survived for three years (1992 – 1995), but accomplished an amazing amount of work in that brief time and inspired many women in Grand Rapids to find their voices and fight back against patriarchal systems of oppression.

(Editor’s note: These articles will be part of a chapter in the forthcoming book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids.)

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