How did women Young Lord organizers deal with sexism within the group?

Written by Chelsea Clark Edmiston

This teaching narrative first explains who the Young Lords were, then talks about how sexism showed up in their organization, and finally, discusses how the women within the group worked against this sexism.

The Young Lords was a grassroots organization “consciously fashioned” after the Black Panther Party that formed in 19681 with the goal of “self-determination,” or freedom, of Puerto Ricans “in amerikkka” as well as “liberation of [the Puerto Rican] island at any cost.”2

Whoa. That’s a lot. Let’s break these ideas down…

In 1898 (dang that’s 119 years ago, and over two decades before TV and frozen food were invented) the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War and claimed the island as its own property. Although this colonization happened a long time ago, its legacy is still present today. What do I mean by that? As the Young Lords put it, the U.S. still controls the “lives and deaths” of Puerto Rican people – both those who live on the island and everywhere else.3

To show how colonialism impacts people today, the Young Lords tell us that “in the U.S. Puerto Ricans are still in the factories where they landed in the first place.” This means that “teachers ain’t teaching, jobs ain’t jobbing.” In other words, people of Puerto Rican descent are given few options when it comes to ways to make a salary in the U.S., and this isn’t new – it has been the case since colonization 119 years ago. But, on the other hand, Puerto Rican people are being imprisoned at unfair and disproportionate rates: “the cop is copping so much so that in the city jails 44 out of every 100 prisoners are Puerto Ricans, at the Bronx County Jail, 85% of the prisoners are Borinqueños [people with ancestors from Puerto Rico.]”4 For this reason (and many others) the Young Lords oftentimes call the U.S. “amerikkka” as a reference to the KKK, invoking that the notions of racism and attempts to dominate and control through violent force – ideas strongly associated with the KKK – actually characterize the U.S. government and mainstream culture as a whole.

The community organizers within the Young Lords knew that the States were never going to magically let go of their domination over Puerto Rican land and people. They never expected the “punk” (a.k.a. the U.S.) to do so because that would be “like expecting a man to commit suicide to keep you from drowning when he was the dude who pushed you in.”5 So that’s why the Young Lords formed: it’s a group founded predominantly by Puerto Ricans in the States but with the goal of liberating Puerto Rican people all over as well as freeing the Puerto Rican island from U.S. control. To achieve this, the Young Lords called for armed struggle, or the use of guns and weaponry in the literal fight toward liberation.

Although the Young Lords held a revolutionary vision, the collective itself was not without issue (I mean, the group was made up of humans and we all know how many issues us humans can have). The main struggle that this narrative focuses on is that of sexism within the Young Lord organization.

Denise Oliver (pictured) is a Black woman that committed a lot of her energy to the Young Lord organizing efforts of the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s.
Despite how often her activism is overlooked, Oliver was the first woman elected to the Central Committee, the Young Lord Party’s official leadership body. As a teenager, she organized through the NAACP, as a student at Howard University she was involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as well as being an activist in not only the Young Lords but also the Black Panther Party. Therefore, Oliver was “at once one of the most socially influential and least acknowledged African American radicals of the sixties.”6 Within her piece, titled by one of the quotes it contains, “When you look to any group to find out who’s the most oppressed, it’s always gonna be the women,” Oliver talks about how sexism, or as she calls it, machismo manifested within the Young Lords and what was done about this.

First off, Oliver states that initially when the Young Lords started, the women were not allowed in leadership positions. Instead, the women were “relegated” to office work like “typing, taking care of whatever kids were around, being sex objects.” Whenever new women organizers tried to join the organization, the men would first crowd them and say things like “’Hey, baby … you really are fine, wow!’”7 Within the 1969 13-point Program and Platform of the Young Lords Party, the tenth point states, “We want equality for women. Machismo must be revolutionary … not oppressive.”8 However, as Oliver puts it, “Machismo was never gonna be revolutionary. Saying ‘revolutionary machismo’ is like saying ‘revolutionary fascism’ or ‘revolutionary racism’ – it’s a contradiction.”9 So, did the women within the Young Lords Party just sit around and continue to take this crap? No way. They began what’s referred to as a revolution within the revolution to fight for feminist ideology to be incorporated into the other revolutionary work of the Young Lords Party.

This feminist component included the formation of a Women’s Caucus as well as the formation of a Men’s Caucus, where men discussed questions like “What is a man?”10 Further, it encompassed the composition of a new 12-Point Platform that centered around the liberation of women. The Women’s Union Twelve-Point Program called for entirely bringing down “machismo and sexism.” It included points such as “We want an end to the particular oppression of prostitutes and drug-addict sisters;” “We want an end to the experimentation and genocide committed on sisters through sterilization, forced abortions, contraceptives, and unnecessary gynecological exams;” and “We believe in the right to defend ourselves against rapes, beatings, muggings, and general abuse” while still maintaining the points core to the Young Lords Party, such as “We believe in the liberation of all Puerto Ricans – liberation on the island and inside the U.S.” and “We want a socialist society.”11 The struggle of Young Lords women organizers certainly did not go without impact: by eventually incorporating feminist ideology into their revolutionary nationalist movement, the Young Lords set up a framework for other people to use later in the decade [of the 1970’s] which incorporated both feminist and socialist thought.12

1Johanna Fernandez, “The Young Lords and the Social and Structural Roots of Late Sixties Urban Radicalism” (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 141.
2As cited in Darrel Enck-Wanzer, The Young Lords: A Reader, (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2010), 136.
3 As cited in Darrel Enck-Wanzer, The Young Lords: A Reader, (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2010), 133.
4 As cited in Darrel Enck-Wanzer, The Young Lords: A Reader, (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2010), 134.
5 As cited in Darrel Enck-Wanzer, The Young Lords: A Reader, (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2010), 133.
6Johanna Fernandez, “Denise Oliver and the Young Lords Party: Stretching the Political Boundaries of Black Radical Struggle,” (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 271.
7Denise Oliver, “When you look to any group to find out who’s the most oppressed, it’s always gonna be the women,” (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011), 51.
8As cited in Miguel Melendez, We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights with the Young Lords. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003), 236.
9Denise Oliver, “When you look to any group to find out who’s the most oppressed, it’s always gonna be the women,” (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011), 52.
10Denise Oliver, “When you look to any group to find out who’s the most oppressed, it’s always gonna be the women,” (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011), 52.
11La Luchadora “Why a Women’s Union?” (1971). As Cited in Through the Eyes of Rebel Women, The Young Lords: 1969-1976, by Iris Morales, (New York, NY: Red Sugarcane Press, 2016), 193.
12Jennifer Nelson, “‘Abortions Under Community Control’: Feminism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Reproduction among New York City’s Young Lords.” (2001), 157.

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