Twelve steps to equality Illustration by Ching Ching Cheng

Twelve steps to equality

Much like addicts talk their way to recovery, so should women gather and speak about empowerment

By Ellen Snortland 05/27/2010

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For six years now, I’ve had the privilege of attending the annual Eleanor Roosevelt Awards, held by the Feminist Majority Foundation ( I need this yearly awards banquet to refuel and stoke my activist fires, but more on that later.
On May 4, the awards were bestowed to three women and one man, who have outstanding — and astounding — records in the furtherance of global women’s rights. That night I was drinking in courage and greatness, listening to a panel discussion with the awardees, namely feminist and labor organizer Dolores Huerta, formerly imprisoned Iranian graduate student activist Esha Momeni, novelist (“The Kite Runner”) and activist Khaled Hosseini and Ms. magazine co-founder and feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
The discussion, moderated by Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority and executive editor of Ms., was riveting and far too short. Spillar asked Steinem if she has hope for the future of feminist activism. Steinem answered yes with her signature witty activist view, “Hope is a form of planning.”
Steinem also did a small riff on an idea I’ve heard her mention before: modeling a women’s movement after the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) structure.
If you’re not familiar with 12-step programs, I guarantee that if you inquire in your circle of family, friends and acquaintances, you’ll find people who are active in one. Of course, they are not obligated to disclose that association; thus the “anonymous” in AA. The program is based on what participants call 12 steps and 12 traditions. It has a remarkable track record, not only for recovery from alcoholism, but for a grass-roots structure that has endured since 1935. It is now used for recovery from all sorts of things — co-dependency, over-eating, drugs, sex, shopping, gambling, etc. Al-Anon was formed to help family members living with a person suffering from any of these compulsions. Meetings for women’s empowerment? Yes, yes! Hear! Hear!
I asked Steinem to expand for me her notion of why AA would be a good model for creating a post-patriarchy. She said, via email, “We are all communal animals. Alone, we can easily be made to feel crazy or at fault. Women, who are often second-class citizens or servants in their families and work groups, need to create their own communities. That’s why I wish we had a worldwide network of small groups — call them feminist, female empowerment, whatever — somewhat like the free, leaderless network of Alcoholics Anonymous groups. Wherever a woman lived or traveled in the world, she would be able to find a small support group of women to join or to visit, from YWCAs to the banks of rivers where women do laundry, from school basements to the shade of a banyan tree, from corporate cafeterias to local libraries.”
If I hear one more time about this being a post-feminist era, I might scream. Really? Look at the stats. We’re not “post” anything. Things are better, yes, but as the bumper sticker reads, “I’ll be a post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.”
The analogy to a recovery/addictive model is apt. One could argue that many of us, to varying degrees, are “addicted” to a patriarchal culture. A few small examples include needing the “man” in the couple to be taller, older, richer; not wanting to reveal one’s age; not trusting a female president; hatred of one’s body; being harder on yourself or other women than you are on men; saying “yes” when you mean, “no,” etc. I don’t have enough room in a column to go into the pros and cons of the disease model of addictions. With that said, there are attachments to traditional male approaches that border on addiction. 
A compulsion is doing something that is not good for you, over and over, knowing full well it’s damaging you and your loved ones … but you can’t stop. The first step in the 12 steps is acknowledging that you are powerless. In many cases, even if you know your view of life or behavior is damaging, you may not be able to desist, because we are entangled and enmeshed in a culture that kills us with a thousand little cuts; thus, the powerlessness for one person to change a whole culture by herself. There are “micro” indignities many of us suffer daily that, taken alone, can be called trivial. But the accumulation? Wow. All the “isms” work that way too, whether it’s racism, classism, fattism, ageism, or plain ol’ sexism. I happen to believe that sexism is the umbrella under which all the “isms” grow, but that’s also another column.
Anyway, my name is Ellen. (Hi, Ellen.) I need to meet with other women on a consistent basis, because I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the work there is to do to bring justice to women and girls, here at home and all over the world. Hear, hear! That’s why I need the Feminist Majority Eleanor Roosevelt awards meeting. Join us next year.

Ellen is a writing coach for first- time authors and teaches a writing workshop in Altadena. Contact her at


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