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What’s The Point Of Revolution If We Can’t Dance? : A Review

AWID reviews this book about sustaining women’s rights activists.

By Kathambi Kinoti

What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? is a book about one thing women’s rights activists don’t usually talk about: themselves. Activism is intense, often traumatising and usually poorly paid work. Yet those who do it rarely talk about their own working conditions even as they fight for the rights of others. The book, which is written by Jane Barry with Jelena Dordevic, and published by the Urgent Action Fund, highlights issues that women’s rights organizations need to address about the way they work. It is based on interviews with activists around the world.

Many activists start their organizing around a particular issue, often from their own homes. They start with passion, energy and commitment and no pay. As Barry says, ‘For many, it is … the beginning of a cycle that will eventually threaten their ability to work safely and sustainably.’ (p.12) When their work grows and they get an office, engage staff and become an organization, they continue to work in almost the same way with virtually no rest time.

The difficulty of raising money is discussed in the book. Many donors do not appear to see the need for activists to have reasonable salaries, health benefits or activities that would give them time to relax. Some do, notably women’s funds and Barry cites examples of some policies that encourage staff wellness.

The book makes it clear that it is not simply that there is too much work to be done, but that sacrifice is highly valued by activists. They feel guilty about stopping to rest. They think it is selfish. Barry gives an example of a couple who started an all-expenses paid retreat for activists and sent out 3000 invitational brochures. They were nervous that they would be inundated with applications and ‘prepared for a gruelling selection process.’ (p.27). However, only 30 activists applied.

Safety is another issue that is discussed in the book. Many women’s rights activists face all sorts of danger including violence and even death. Again the attitude of self-sacrifice often prevails. Activists may question what right they have to be so concerned about their own safety. Some take deliberate risks because they ‘make the calculation that [their] work is more important than [their] lives. Or to prove that [they] are ‘real’ activists.’ (p. 43)

Barry discusses generational issues: how different generations of women’s rights activists relate sometimes as sisters and other times as ‘mothers and daughters.’ It is the latter form of relating that can be problematic because it is a power dynamic and women can be reluctant to talk about power relationships. She also discusses other power struggles within women’s movements and talks about betrayal or the ‘pull her down syndrome.’ (p.58)

The exclusion that some activists experience is another topic tackled in What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? Most women’s rights activists work on the assumption that there are two genders: women and men. This excludes people who do not identify with either. Indeed, Barry examines the question of whether the work should be called women’s rights activism and concludes that ultimately it is about human rights activism. She gives a personal example of an instance while she was researching the book, when she chose not to interview a lesbian activist so as not to alienate mainstream activists in Sierra Leone. She acknowledges that she made the wrong choice because it was a way of silencing the activist.

Barry discusses the consequences of not addressing sustainability: From cynicism, inefficiency and excessive tiredness to nervous breakdowns, depression and burnout. Activists’ work also takes a toll on their children. Not only do they not spend enough time together, the work can also threaten the safety of their children. There is also the ‘primal terror that only a child can really feel about losing a parent.’ (p. 92)

Barry examines different strategies that activists use to relieve stress: crying, exercise, dancing, writing, sex. She also explores spirituality both as a basis for activist work and a refuge. Finally she proposes some next steps. The first would be beginning to discuss sustaining activists, not ‘on the edges of conferences or in rushed emails or during tearful, exhausted calls from the office at three in the morning reaching out to friends in another time zone’ (115) but by dedicating time and resources to discuss this important issue. She also suggests making healthcare a priority and changing the way activists are funded by ‘investing in donor education’ (p. 131) Most donors are not practitioners and may not appreciate the value of sustainability. It will therefore be necessary to get them to understand why more attention needs to be paid to the activists who do the work that they support.

What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? is an important contribution to women’s rights awareness. It highlights the often forgotten rights of rights activists and underscores the fact that activists need to stand up for their own rights.


Barry, J with Dordevic J, (2007) What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? Urgent Action Fund, Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Article License: Creative Commons - Article License Holder: AWID


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