The Third World Women’s Alliance: Lessons for today

US imperialism rages on, but it still has not killed the magic of solidarity.

Demonstrators are seen with a sign saying "United We Stand" during a Women's March on January 21, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands [Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images]

In November of last year, The Washington Post reported that, nearly nine months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the disease was “ravag[ing] African American and other minority communities with a particular vengeance” – as Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian patients continued to perish at a far higher rate than white patients.

Then in April 2021, a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that Black women in the US suffered three times the coronavirus mortality rate of white men.

According to the study’s authors, the disparities in mortality had much to do with “the gendered and racialised nature of work, housing and living conditions, comorbidities, and access to care”.

Yet COVID-19 was not the canary in the coal mine that exposed US society as, well, downright sick.

A half-century before the outbreak of the pandemic, the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) was already diagnosing the structural pathologies of a system of racist and patriarchal capitalism, as retired psychology professor Patricia Romney documents in a new book titled We Were There: The Third World Women’s Alliance and the Second Wave.

A member of the New York chapter of the Alliance from 1970 to 1974, Romney demonstrates how the TWWA connected the dots between racism, sexism, and classism, adopting the position that “the struggle against racism and imperialism must be waged simultaneously with the struggle for women’s liberation”.

The TWWA evolved out of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – a pillar of the civil rights movement – and the Black Women’s Liberation Committee, expanding to include other women of colour based on a recognition of shared suffering.

The name of the organisation, Romney explains, derived from the thinking that, in the US, the “third world” consisted of the descendants of people from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, who had been forced to endure similar forms of colonial-minded exploitation – albeit domestically – as those in the original homelands.

The TWWA espoused the belief that a profit-driven capitalist society placed third-world women – both in the US and abroad – in the position of “triple jeopardy” as workers, people of colour, and female.

To be sure, capitalism cannot thrive without mass misery, especially the misery of select demographic groups.

Imagine the disaster that would befall US corporate plutocracy were the government to devote more resources to, say, providing decent healthcare, education, and housing to its population rather than spending trillions on war.

The TWWA’s ideological platform rings as true today as it did 50 years ago: “The United States is ruled by a small ruling class clique who use the concepts of racism and chauvinism to divide, control and oppress the masses of people for economic gain and profit.”

The Alliance, on the other hand, called for “equal status and a society that does not exploit and murder other people and smaller nations”, and fought for a socialist system that guaranteed “full, creative, non-exploitative lives for all human beings, fully aware that we will never be free until all oppressed people are free”.

The TWWA found inspiration in various international examples – among them Cuba, where Romney spent two months in 1971 cutting sugarcane and observing first-hand a system in which the basic necessities of life were free (though she would later grow disillusioned with certain aspects of the Cuban experience).

She quotes an article from Triple Jeopardy, the TWWA’s newspaper, on how Cuban women enjoyed a “tremendous opportunity for growth that does not exist here in the United States”, what with free daycare – something that still does not exist in the US, the temptation to extract punishing profits apparently being too great – and the belief that “everyone should be allowed to develop themselves to their full capacity not only for self-development, but for the development of the whole society”.

Obviously, the “whole society” bit is anathema to capitalism, predicated as it is on the obscene enrichment of a tiny minority at the expense of the rest, who are taught that their relative misfortune is entirely a function of individual failure and not, you know, capitalism being capitalism.

In compiling the history of the Alliance and profiling its members, then, Romney offers an antidote to cut-throat neoliberalism and institutionalised inequality: the magic of solidarity and the alignment of kindred souls.

Another quote from Triple Jeopardy sums up the powerful beauty of uniting against divide-and-conquer policies and the perniciousness of business as usual: “When we are touched by outside forces that reflect our worth we can begin to struggle against the ruler’s fascism and exploitation. We even begin to fill up with ourselves.”

The focus of We Were There is on the collective, not on Romney, although she covers relevant personal details, such as her own experiences with multifaceted oppression.

She also shows how the Alliance broadened her perspective from an individual to a societal one. In her development as a psychologist, for instance, she came to understand that, rather than simply helping individuals cope with life’s problems, she wanted to change “the systems and structures that enabled those individual and family problems”.

And this book, you might say, is another step in that direction.

In her author’s note at the beginning of the text, Romney writes that, now, the idea of women in the US self-identifying as part of the third world “seems odd, perhaps even off-putting, but activists of colour in our era used this language”.

But perhaps it is not odd at all – especially since, in many respects, the US itself could be considered a third world country.

During a two-week visit to the US in December 2017, Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found ubiquitous “contrasts between private wealth and public squalor”, with a full one-quarter of American youth living in poverty.

Alston went on to detect a “demonisation of the poor” as well as a “gendered nature of poverty”, with women being more exposed to violence and discrimination as well as disproportionately the victims of austerity policies.

Neoliberal austerity may be useful in keeping poor people poor, but, as Alston noted, the burden falls upon the primary caregivers in families, who are more often than not women.

Racism, he emphasised, is a “constant dimension” of US existence, while Americans can “expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy” – a state of affairs that naturally has not compelled said “democracy” to reevaluate its priorities, or to stop devoting inordinate quantities of money to militarily terrorising other nations and peoples.

Now add coronavirus to the mix, and Romney’s We Were There becomes an ever more valuable tool for evaluating structural malaise in a country that does its best to inoculate its inhabitants against the truth.

And while the plague of imperialism rages on, it has not yet killed the magic of solidarity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.