In Arkansas in 1981, inspired by The Combahee River Collective Statement released in the 1970s, activist Suzanne Pharr founded The Women’s Project, an organization that worked across rural and urban communities to bring about social change. While at The Women’s Project, Pharr wrote for the quarterly newsletter Transformation.
In September 2021, Pharr published Transformation: Toward a People’s Democracy. The book consists of essays largely compiled from the newsletter, which trace the history of the movement and Pharr’s on-the-ground efforts to fight the Right. Pharr’s clear analysis of the Right’s tactics and the Left’s strategy allows the reader to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what we can learn from the past.
Pharr talked to PRA about her book and her hopes for the future.
PRA: You call this a movement book. What do you mean by that?
Pharr: The book is a compilation of pieces that I wrote over the years, and I wrote those with a particular purpose. The theocratic Right and the racist Right had put [Ronald Reagan] in office. I felt like people needed to know about this. This [information] needed to be something not just those who read The New York Times knew, but people on the ground needed to know. That was what my writing was: it was a way to observe the work I was doing. It wasn’t just like a reporter who was observing, I was actually doing the work of running this [organization], and I felt like my job and what was revealed to me and my coworkers should go to our base and ordinary people who considered themselves movement actors.
I thought of it as a movement book in the hopes that what people read and understood would move them to want to make change, to become a part of something that could make that shift.
It’s not a scholarly book. It’s not a researcher’s book. It’s more of a political commentary and analysis as it is happening.
You’ve written about intersectionality and the intersecting factions of the Right. How did you learn about intersectionality, and what did this framework contribute to your understanding of the Right? How did you confront the right-wing coalition when you realized the way they were working?
I attribute all of my thinking around intersectionality to the people who were a part of the Combahee River Collective. Those of us who were White leftist feminists, and certainly all the Black feminists, felt in our bones that [the statement] was true, because it met our experience and it met what we were seeing in the world. Then everybody took it and developed from that.
The Women’s Project developed from that. We added to it, though—not only should we be intersectional in our analysis, but also in our work on multiple issues with multiple kinds of people. We had to practice politics from within. And I think that’s a critical piece that a lot of people don’t follow. We paid everyone the same. We said that an hour of one woman working as hard as she can compared to another woman working as hard as she can, they’re equal in worth—as opposed to it being weighted in some other way. And then we agreed to have majority Black women in leadership.
The second way I learned about intersectionality was [by] watching the targets of the Right and its culture war. You had the tremendous attack in terms of race, in terms of women, in terms of queers, in terms of economics, in terms of abortion. The more you dig into them, the more you see that not only are things interconnected but there’s a perception that if you can disconnect them, you can control them.
I think we didn’t take the Right seriously enough because a lot of what they were doing, we made fun of. It didn’t sink in at first. I think it took the combination of the growth of neoliberalism and watching Reagan take that path forward for individualism. It was like, “Wait, you got this over here going, we’ve got the Right over here, we got this attack against these certain people. Are they on the same path?” And I think it took a minute for people to realize, “Oh, you’re traveling the same road.”
And I have to say that we thought we could take them. We were just this little group in Arkansas, but we thought that there were enough people there who had come out of the Civil Rights Movement, or the fringes of the Civil Rights Movement—that there were enough people within those formations [and] well-meaning people that could be condensed and combined, and that could take us off. But we didn’t do enough ground game. We didn’t work to combine our people.
We should have been overwhelmed by the task. It took us almost until this last decade to be overwhelmed.
There are parts of the book where you talk about education. Schools have been part of the attack from the Right recently. How would you sum up the Right’s agenda around public education? What implications does it have for broader right-wing agendas?
Two things that are absolutely vital to democracy are public education and public libraries. Most of those have been under the attack of the Right. What is the plan? I think the full elimination of it. [The overturning of Roe v. Wade] was almost a 50-year strategy. They’re working the long game and from many sides. And I think that’s the thing with public education [too].
The reason public education is right at the center of democracy is that a democracy has to have critical thinking. So if you can determine who can and who can’t teach in schools according to their political line of thinking, democracy is gone.
This move [to undermine education] has been going since the schools that were created right after the Civil Rights Movement: the Christian schools and private schools. And the scariest thing to me in this elimination of democracy is the merger of church and state, and the violence and authoritarianism that comes from that.
Look at what the Right just did. After all of those years of organizing it got its ground game. Its ground game in the late 70s and early 80s was kitchen table organizing: asking people to take over the school board. That was really smart. You could go for the curriculum, you could go for the rules and regulations. You go for the hiring of teachers. And then it kind of drifted off, but now it’s got us full in the face. Where were we in public education? Where were we in that organizing?
Your work focuses on the fight for LGBTQ rights. Can you talk about how these landmark struggles for marriage equality and trans rights, et cetera, relate to the ongoing struggle for broad civil rights?
I would say that this would be my dream right now: we move to a human rights framework that’s broader than what we have. Civil rights tend to be narrow, whereas human rights are broad. And I think we have to go for the broad [framing].
Just rights for queers or just rights for people with disabilities, or people of color, that doesn’t get us there. I don’t think that was a mistake for us to do that, but I don’t think it took us where we wanted to go.
As we try to move forward from a position where we don’t feel like we’re in charge, I think we need to learn to talk in that [human rights] language so that you’re not having a conversation about, “Do you think trans people should be able to go into restrooms?” You should be talking about, “Do they have a right to own their bodies?” And that’s where I put abortion, [and] queerness.
What kind of unified Left do you envision? How do you think we could go about creating a stronger coalition?
I would go back to what I said about human rights. I think we could unify around that. I think we’re in such competition right now that sometimes I suffer a loss of hope. I think the Reagan years affected the movement years as well.
What I think of as the two greatest movements: the labor movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. All of those were organized with individuals. They created an infrastructure where you could bring in hundreds of individuals. And from the 80s onward, we moved away from that. We moved more into analysis and commentary than we did into the ground work.
I think about my early years with PRA. I was wonderful friends with Jean Hardisty. I grew the friendship through the work. And so here we were, this little organization, The Women’s Project, being five people, and we were just out there doing the best we could. And we developed two relationships. One was with the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta; we became an affiliate of theirs.
And then with [PRA’s] Jean [Hardisty] and Chip [Berlet]: these things were rising up, and all we had to do was call. We called PRA and there was always somebody on the phone. And we’d say, “What is this group?” And Chip would say, “Give me a few minutes.” And he’d come back to us and say, “They’re this, this and this. And we’re going to expect this and this.”
The other problem that we’re facing right now is we’re trying to be on defense and see this as a fight, whereas we really need to figure out what we’re building. That hasn’t happened simultaneously. I think it’s going to take connecting under a broader vision.