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A New Body Politic : The Women's Action Coalition uses stinging hit-and-run tactics against the Establishment's attacks on political and reproductive rights. Group members call their protests 'wake-up calls.'

August 16, 1992|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the June day that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law restricting abortion, a new breed of feminist descended on the Federal Building in Los Angeles.

Although there were hundreds of protesters, about 50 women were there in what might be called a performance protest. Some pounded fiercely on drums while others, dressed in black judicial-like robes, marched and chanted, "No choice, no peace."

Meet the newly formed, seething mad Los Angeles Women's Action Coalition, a group of women artists who formed an open alliance in June, shortly before their debut protest.

Their calling card is a dramatic mockery of the justices and an in-your-face declaration of war on the Establishment's attack on women's political and reproductive rights.

The Westside, home to many political activists and artists, provides almost half of the Los Angeles group's 200 members.

L.A. WAC is the fledgling sister organization to the original New York-based WAC, whose mission statement promises to use "our full creative power to launch a visible and remarkable resistance to fight for economic parity, representation for all women, an end to homophobia, racism, religious prejudice and violence against women."

The group's symbol is a giant eye with the written credo: "WAC is watching. We will take action."

Borrowing civil disobedience techniques from other organizations, WAC's modus operandi is to slap around the male-dominated Establishment with stinging, irreverent, hit-and-run action. WAC members call their protests "wake-up calls." The Los Angeles group has waged six "direct actions" since its first in June.

Although the group relishes public notice and participation, men are not welcome as WAC members, visitors, protesters or reporters. Recently, Fox News had to cancel filming a meeting when it was unable to find an available woman camera operator.

"Women are responsible for setting the agenda of our own lives and that of our country. It is our responsibility," said WAC member Gwen Darian of West Los Angeles.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that we are not being represented when the majority of Americans are pro-choice and the White House is not," she said. "The only way that change can be effected and these views can be put on the agenda is through continued sustained direct action by a broad base of people, and if you look around a WAC meeting, you will see it's diverse. It is not just radicals and feminists." Darian said she is trying to recruit her grandmother to join the group.

Francy Holcomb, who works for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and other museums, said she joined WAC after seeing the group for first time at the "Day of Decision Rally."

"Women realized being polite, nice and passive has just gotten us nowhere with the male-centric, right-wing, religious fanatics in this country who I believe are out to do real damage to women with a purposeful and cynical agenda to limit women's lives," she said.

WAC members feel "a combination of rage and hope," she continued. "Women realized that there are no friends in Congress after what happened to Anita Hill and women have to do it for themselves. WAC is doing that by raising these issues."

Collective disgust and rage over Hill's treatment, the erosion of abortion rights, the treatment of women in high-profile rape cases (William Kennedy Smith) and the National Endowment for the Art's refusal to fund controversial performance artists Karen Finley and Holly Hughes have spawned additional WAC chapters in San Francisco, Santa Fe and Minneapolis.

Members of the Los Angeles group are largely well-educated white women who range in age from the late teens to the late 50s.

And although feminism has been accused of being solely a middle-class, white woman's crusade over the last three decades, WAC members are actively recruiting women of color and joining forces with them whenever possible.

When Yvonne Padilla made a motion for the group to join a demonstration planned by a number of Latino groups to protest the hiring of a non-Latina actress to play the role of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, it was immediately passed. The fact that the protest was one day away and in the middle of a work week didn't stop 15 women from showing with a drum and placards, wearing black robes or WAC T-shirts.

"I like the militancy of WAC," said Padilla, 43, a painter and mother of two from the Fairfax area. "I think we should be loud and get in people's faces to make them think about it. It's like the whole country was on (drugs) during the '80s and now we need to take back the country."

The weekly meetings at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition are run by two members with the duty rotated to nudge more passive women into leadership roles, part of the group's raison d'etre. Although the meetings sometimes drone on, decisions to take action are lightning-quick.

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