In 1970, the New York Times published a feature story on the revolutionary Puerto Rican organization the Young Lords. The article noted the unusual gender dynamics at play and claimed that the women among the group’s membership may be “the most liberated women in town.” One of the leaders, Iris Morales, was quoted as saying, “We do everything that the brothers do…. The only thing that we do that they don’t is have babies.” More than 40 years later, in a collective memoir recounting her and other women members’ experience of the movement, Morales tempered this portrait, writing that the women of the Young Lords “believed that the women’s struggle for equality was the ‘revolution within the revolution,’” borrowing the phrase from a speech by Fidel Castro. This Hispanic Heritage Month, the Center for Women’s History takes a closer look at the feminist activism within this radical movement for community empowerment and Puerto Rican independence.
The New York chapter of the Young Lords Organization (later the Young Lords Party and then the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Party) first gained prominence after a confrontation with the clergy at the First Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem. Activists had approached the pastor in late 1969 about using the church to host a free breakfast program for children; after they were turned down, the activists occupied the church, claiming is the “People’s Church” and using its facilities not only for the breakfast program, but to provide health services to community members as well as activist workshops.
Instantly recognizable for their purple berets, the Young Lords saw capitalism and imperialism as intimately entwined, and advocated for community control of public institutions, access to quality health care, criminal justice reform, and provided services to the community like clothing drives, free breakfast for children, and educational programs. Initially, the leadership was all male, and reflected the patriarchal gender dynamics of both mainstream society and other nationalist groups, such as their frequent partner the Black Panthers. The organization featured a hierarchical structure with a Central Committee responsible for all decision-making.
Women composed about one-third of Young Lords’ membership at the height of its popularity, Most of the women were young, under 26, and many were mothers, workers, and students. As the women became comrades and friends, they realized, as Morales describes, that “an undeniable story of second-class status [had] emerged” within the party, and that “we had been naïve to assume that men who called themselves revolutionary would automatically support the equality of women.” They formed a Women’s Caucus within the organization to push for change, first within their homes and relationships, and then within the organization itself.
In particular, the Women’s Caucus sought to unpack the meaning of the 10th point of the Young Lords’ 13 Point Program and Platform, which called for a reevaluation of “machismo” to align with the ideals of gender equality:
Under capitalism, our women have been oppressed by both the society and our own men. The doctrine of machismo has been used by our men to take out their frustrations against their wives, sisters, mothers, and children. Our men must support their women in their fight for economic and social equality, and must recognize that our women are equals in every way within the revolutionary ranks.
FORWARD, SISTERS, IN THE STRUGGLE!
Although gratified that the party had thought to include gender at all, the Women’s Caucus began to question this point, arguing that “revolutionary machismo” was a non-sequitor, or even an oxymoron, designed to keep gendered hierarchy intact. As Morales writes, one woman pointed out that “It’s like revolutionary racism. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Despite pushback from leadership, the group met regularly to read publications from the burgeoning feminist movement, especially works by other women of color, and to attend meetings with other feminists of color in New York, such as the Third World Women’s Alliance. They proposed structural changes to the leadership to curtail the objectification of women and to promote women to leadership roles, in one of the first efforts to democratize the Young Lords’ hierarchal structure. Morales writes, “essentially, it was an appeal for respect, equal treatment, and accountability.” The caucus wanted to be treated as “comrades in struggle not sexual pawns or mindless bodies.” In addition to the removal of the term “revolutionary machismo” from the 13-Point Program, they pushed to provide child care for members who were mothers, and to increase the number of stories written by and for women in the newspaper, Palante.
The leadership initially responded with anger to the Women’s Caucus’ demands. As Morales points out, a challenge of many revolutionary groups during this period was pressure from male leadership to subordinate “women’s issues” in favor of prioritizing class politics, and viewing these issues as distracting or divisive. Gradually, and because of the women members’ persistence, male members began to take their critiques seriously and transform their views and practices. Leadership roles were opened to women—Denise Oliver was appointed to the Central Committee—and a consensus formed that chauvinist behavior should lead to consequences such as suspension or demotion within the Party.
A position paper was published in 1970 to reflect the Young Lords’ acceptance of the Women’s Caucus’ analysis of marriage, traditional gender norms, and machismo, and an acknowledgement that gender oppression intersected with other forms of inequalities such as racism and capitalism. The 13 Point Program was also revised to include the phrase, “Down with Machismo and Male Chauvinism!” The Women’s Caucus also opened the door for LGBT members to join the organization, although none were appointed to leadership positions. For example, Sylvia Rivera, cofounder of Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries and the Gay Liberation Front, often coordinated activist efforts with the Young Lords.
However, the acceptance of feminist ideals was shortlived. In July 1971, the Central Committee distributed a report on the Party’s political philosophy and strategic direction that declared “too much time has been given” to issues related to sexism, as well as racism, over other priorities of national and class oppressions. Morales attributes this “aboutface” to the Party’s recruitment efforts within Puerto Rico itself, which the Central Committee members saw as more traditional than the U.S. in terms of gender norms. Morales describes the report as a “turning point” with the feminist initiatives once at the forefront of the party’s political agenda “relegated to the bottom rung of a hierarchy.” The Committee also halted the development of the Women’s Union within the Party, stalling the recruitment of additional women into the organization. The report also had a detrimental impact on the recruitment and retention of African American members, who similarly felt sidelined by the Party’s adjustment of its priorities. Denise Oliver, who was Black as well as a leader of the Women’s Caucus, resigned from the Central Committee in response, joining the Black Panthers instead.
Despite these setbacks, women of the Young Lords spearheaded campaigns for reproductive rights. They critiqued pharmaceutical companies that had tested experimental contraceptive medications on the women of Puerto Rico during the 1950s before the pill was approved by the Federal Drug Administration, as well as mass sterilization policies on the island which had led to over one-third of Puerto Rican women under the age of 50 being sterilized. Forced sterilization was common in New York as well, with Puerto Rican women sterilized at much higher rates than either white or Black women in the city. The Young Lords labeled this genocide, and joined activists across the city to form the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA), which pursued successful legal campaigns to end the practice in New York. They also protested for abortion access and community control of health care in the wake of Carmen Rodriguez’s death during the summer of 1970. The Puerto Rican mother had died during an abortion procedure at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx due to medical malpractice and negligence. Working with other activists, including doctors and hospital workers who went on strike, they successfully pushed for reforms within the hospital to address the conditions which had led to her death.
Women also led efforts to counter environmental racism before there was a name for the term through neighborhood organization campaigns on lead paint poisoning. Morales explains that women were “especially effective in this outreach since mothers more readily opened their doors to other women.” Armed with the results of tests that showed high levels of lead in children’s urine that galvanized the community and drew media attention, the Young Lords were able to convince the state to ban the use of lead-based paint in apartments and the city to establish a lead poison prevention program. The Young Lords also engaged in other health-related efforts, for example commandeering a mobile X-ray unit to diagnose cases of tuberculosis in the community, and pushing back against cuts to medical services and for community control at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx through multiple takeovers.
By the mid-1970s, internal divisions within the Young Lords boiled over. Violence within the organization splintered its support, and its hierarchical structure left little room for debate or dissent. Many former members joined other activist organizations and grassroots movements, with their ideals living on in new forms. While the “revolution within the revolution” may have stalled on both fronts, the feminism of the women of the Young Lords provides a fascinating lens on women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History