Like many of us, Abigail Mlinar woke up the morning after the election tangled in despair. She opened her phone to take stock of the situation on Facebook, and found that she wasn’t alone in her shock and disbelief that the country had elected a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women, whose first wife said he raped her, and who had vowed that women who get abortions would be “punished.”
Mlinar (pronounced "mah-LINE-er”) reached out to a few friends to see if they wanted to get together and process the election of Donald Trump. That meeting became the Feminist Action Collective.
“I felt connected to the world again,” Mlinar says. “So many different women showed up. There were people there who were invited by friends of friends, people I had never met before.”
The women who arrived at the Red Herring Lounge for that first November meeting were directed to a back stairwell, leading to a gloomy space beneath the bar. Seated in a circle, they took turns speaking about their fears.
Word spread about the meetings; friends invited friends. As Trump’s inauguration approached, the Collective, whose membership has floated at around 30, raised enough money to send eight women to the march on Washington, which took place the day after Trump’s inauguration with solidarity rallies across the country.
Photo by Joan Peterson
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson (L) speaks from City Hall on Pay Equality Day alongside Abigail Mlinar (R) of Feminist Action Collective.
As part of a nationwide effort to organize 10 actions within Trump’s first 100 days in office, the Feminist Action Collective supported events throughout the week of International Women’s Day on March 8, starting with a “symbolic strike,” ringing a bell at intervals corresponding to the pay gap—an African-American woman makes 64 cents for every dollar a man makes; a Latina woman, 54 cents; a white woman, 78 cents—followed by a march to the Building for Women.
The Collective participated in Pay Equality Day on April 10 with a rally at City Hall, where Mayor Emily Larson addressed the crowd in a Feminist Action Collective t-shirt. Most recently, they teamed up with Homegrown Music Festival and Men as Peacemakers to provide education about intoxication and sexual consent.
When former Superior City Councilor Graham Garfield was arrested on April 20 after allegedly pointing a gun at his fiancée, the Collective wrote an open letter to Garfield:
We’re writing this to you because you did something unthinkable...You lost control of your temper, you acted on your rage in inexcusable ways, terrorizing the person you love, shaking your own sense of yourself, and forever changing the course of both of your lives. It’s done. You are here now.
It might seem like this is the end of the story, but it’s not. You can’t undo what you’ve done. But what you do from here will be the measure of you...Domestic violence isn’t just a problem between you and your fiancée. It’s everywhere. In fact, your own situation is an example of exactly how common this issue is. Men are not innately violent, and neither are women. We are taught to behave this way, our behaviors normalized and endorsed, enabled and hidden, until finally, someone gets hurt. That someone is almost always a woman. [Emphasis original]
Six months in, the Feminist Action Collective now has three working committees—Perception of Women in Leadership, Diverse Not Divided, and the HOTDISH Militia (a previously existing group focused on reproductive rights). The group supports Larson by trying to outnumber bullies on her Facebook page, who often use sexist and abusive language to criticize her, rather than disagreeing with her positions or actions as mayor.
The Collective may be the newest kids on the block, but they’re building on a long history of feminist action in the Twin Ports—a history recently documented by UMD Women’s Studies Professor Elizabeth Bartlett in Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior (Minnesota Historical Society Press, September 2016).
There’s “something special about Duluth,” Bartlett writes, an alchemy of geography, culture, and “being 10 years behind the times” that prevented feminist organizations here from splintering like so many others did in the 1970s—by which point things in Duluth, on its one-decade time delay, were just getting started.
Bartlett traces Duluth’s feminist organizing back to various social and hobby groups that were basically “clandestine lesbian centers.” Among them, the Northland Women’s Group moved into Old Main in 1973 and opened a rape crisis hotline that would eventually become PAVSA, the Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault.
Gifted with an unusually progressive legislature (the “Minnesota Miracle” had just happened in 1971), Minnesota passed the Displaced Homemaker Act and the Domestic Violence Act. Instead of fracturing during the backlash of the ’80s and ’90s, local feminists built direct service agencies that are now features of the community.
And maybe, Bartlett muses, Lake Superior deserves some of the credit for “the flourishing and resilience of feminist organization in the Twin Ports”:
The power of the ancient rocks and the vast, brilliant sea to inspire and empower is undeniable. The experience of awe, so much a part of daily life here, leads people to cooperate, share resources, sacrifice for others, all of which are requirements for our collective life and lead to persistence in the creation of paradigm-shifting change...So many people have mentioned the incredible endurance of the women in these towns. I sincerely believe one of the main reasons is the capacity of the natural environment to replenish us.
“I didn't know what [the Feminist Action Collective] would become,” Mlinar says. “We just started talking about issues that mattered to us and narrowed it down from there...It’s important to foster a diversity of voices. We’re all working on the same team.”
Meetings are open to anyone who identifies as a woman and/or as non-binary. Childcare is provided by member volunteers. Those who identify as men are welcome at public events and at HOTDISH Militia. For more information, visit FeministActionCollective.org.