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The urge to get out and DO something

When Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards were touring the country to promote their first book, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, audiences repeatedly asked what they could do to “make things better,” This book, Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14), attempts to answer that question by offering strategies and tactics to aspiring agitators. The book’s premise is simple: everyone can do something to make the world more egalitarian, more humane.

“An activist is anyone who accesses the resources they have as an individual for the common good,” they write. “It’s not who you are but what you do.” This means that one need not be a vegan, tree-hugging socialist to effect change. Indeed, even corporate wonks can get involved. In fact, you need not even call yourself a feminist. Labels, they write, are less important than actions; if you believe men and women should have equal social, political and economic rights, it doesn’t matter if you eschew the ‘F’ word.

This view makes Grassroots a comforting book. Examples of actions big and small also make it a terrific resource. We read, for example, of Patricia Beninato, a Virginian who got so sick of hearing anti-choice rants about Post-Abortion Syndrome—a medically specious condition said to plague women after abortion surgery—that she founded imnotsorry.net. The website gives women who have had positive abortion experiences a place to sound off Another enraged and engaged woman is Lois Abraham. After reading about President Bush’s decision to withhold $34 million from the United Nations Family Planning Agency, she emailed her friends and asked each to send $1 to the beleaguered agency. She further asked them to email everyone in their address books. In short order, 34 Million Friends of UNFPA was born. To date, the group has raised more than $2.5 million.

Although Grassroots includes scads of inspiring stories, the book’s greatest contribution is a 60-page appendix, which provides contact information for organizations working on issues from stopping domestic violence to closing sweatshops. Although the book would have benefited from a deeper discussion of risks—tweaking the status quo can lead to questioning by police, or even arrest—it is nonetheless an essential resource for anyone who wants to do something but doesn’t know how to begin. Baumgardner and Richards encourage us to move from kvetching to action, so that “the frustrated goodwill of ordinary people” will inevitably improve the human condition.

Eleanor J. Badercoauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism and a frequent contributor to progressive, feminist publications, is a teacher, writer and activist.