Opening the “Women” File

Danielle Dumaine, University of North Texas, Frisco

My first encounter with feminist credit unions was when I was not looking for them. While still a graduate student, a colleague and I were in the archives trying to find records relating to an offshoot of the women’s liberation group WITCH (the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) that was briefly active in Connecticut in the 1970s. Without a good place to start, one of the archivists pulled a kind of catch-all, general file from one of the collections that was just labeled “women.” I have no memory of what else was in the file, but what caught my eye was a brochure advertising the Connecticut Feminist Federal Credit Union. I was instantly intrigued. From my studies, I was aware of the proliferation of feminist businesses during the 1970s but had never heard of a feminist credit union. Once home, I flipped to the index of my copy of Daring to Be Bad, and sure enough, there it was, “Credit unions, feminist, 16, 272, 273.” 

In her wide-ranging text on the women’s liberation movement, Echols situates feminist credit unions (FCUs) within her closing chapter, “The Ascendence of Cultural Feminism.” Here, she argues (with more nuance than I can capture here) that feminist businesses, credit unions included, were representative of the “quixotic” optimism of cultural feminism that damaged the movement through its focus on creating separatist institutions. What started as an attempt to give women work opportunities that were collective and not-for-profit, she argues, led to a withdrawal from political struggle in favor of the pursuit of capitalist goals.[1] 

While I accepted Echols’ argument, I was not totally satisfied with it. The only FCU she mentions by name is the Detroit Feminist Federal Credit Union, and her focus is almost entirely on their bungled attempt to establish the Feminist Economic Network, or FEN. This did not tell me anything about the New Haven-based Connecticut credit union. How many more were there? Who had accounts? How did they describe and understand their politics? The list of questions in my notebook grew. 

Finding the answers would take years – and I am still learning more. I had a dissertation to write about the poet Diane di Prima and limited time and funding to pursue a side project. The nature of the subject also presented some difficulties. Because every FCU closed, many of them involuntarily, their records were rarely neatly organized and placed in an archive. How many meeting notes and business records, I wonder, were shredded, tossed, or regulated to a dark corner of someone’s attic during the painful process of shutting down these fragile institutions that many women put thousands of hours into running?

There were avenues in, however, once I knew where to look. FCUs affiliated with women’s centers were a help, as the centers tended to last longer and included credit union-related papers in their files. Some feminist businesses also kept newsletters, loan application forms, event flyers, and even deposit slips from FCUs where they held accounts. I was also fortunate to interview some organizers. Notably, the feminist networks of the period shed light on the interconnectedness of many credit union projects. In the records of several organizations, notably the San Francisco Women’s Building, I was able to locate brochures and newsletters from a dozen other FCUs. For many locations, however, the only remaining trace I could find was local newspaper coverage of their openings, and the brief mentions of their liquidations.

What emerged from this research was a story much larger and more complex than I initially imagined, and one that both confirmed and challenged Echols’s conclusions back in 1989.[2] Focusing on identifying as many FCUs as I could, and determining their size, membership composition, sponsoring groups, years active, and leadership structures, allowed me to create a much richer portrait of these institutions, which I hope my article conveys.

While Echols brought her experiences in the feminist movement and her expertise as a historian to her interpretation of the FCUs, I brought my own sensibilities and motivations. It is not surprising to me that I dove into a side-project on what was, at most, 30-odd, loosely connected, failed credit unions when I did. My graduate-school-induced financial anxiety, as well as my dissertation on di Prima, which was primarily focused on the poet’s many creative efforts to feed and house herself and her children in NYC and California, meant that I found myself frequently wondering how various activists and creatives – feminist and otherwise – paid their bills, and FCUs seemed to point to one possible answer. Of equal importance, this research overlapped with my first exposure to Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, which quickly became a much-read favorite. At the end of the book, reflecting on failure, Halberstam tells us:

“To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die; rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involved the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Rather than resisting ending and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures.”[3]  

While the FCUs were anything but goofy, these lines stuck with me and were critical to defining and communicating why I thought the FCUs mattered and helped to sustain me through years of slowly picking through my research. They were messy, imperfect, and short-lived, yes, but they were also resourceful, idealistic, and ambitious.

[1] Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 272-284.

[2] A finding that she graciously acknowledged at a conference we both attended (where she was in the audience at the first presentation I ever gave on this work – a nerve-wracking experience for a graduate student!)

[3] Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 187.