The Iron Women who resist eviction

At the beginning of the 20th century, the slum dwellers of Glasgow, Scotland, were faced with predatory landlords, rising rents and a government that was hand-in-glove with the slum owners, the `urban developers’ of the day. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the working poor of Alexandria, Virginia, face predatory landlords and, again, a local government that is hand-in-glove with the latter-day developers. In both instances, the weapon du jour is mass eviction. From Glasgow to Alexandria, from then to now, women have organized to stop the evictions and to secure justice.

On Saturday, April 13, 2013, the Alexandria City Council voted, 6 – 1, in favor of redevelopment with a vengeance, in this instance of the Beauregard neighborhood, the last redoubt of affordable housing in the city. After 30 years of actively and energetically reducing the number of available affordable housing units, and after 30 years of engaging in mass displacement of working communities and families, primarily people of color, the City Council decided to continue on the same path.

But there was opposition, in the streets and on the Council, and, while the immediate results are discouraging and the tone and content of discussion at the Council level was depressing, there is reason for hope.

The City Council heard technical, passionate, eloquent testimony after testimony from residents and from their supporters. Beauregard tenant organizer and leader Veronica Calzada spoke through tears of the stress of three years of facing evictions, and a future that promised only bleaker and grimmer vistas. Longtime Beauregard resident Neota Hall described the fear her neighbors lived with, the palpable sense of persecution and harassment, and of her own difficulties, at 70 years of age, of planning for the future. Longtime activists, such as Sammie Moshenberg, described the meaning of demolition, and the alternatives that still remain. Victoria Menjivar, President of the Tenants and Workers United, described in detail the dire mathematics of mass displacement and, again, the alternatives still available. Woman after woman described the conditions, protested the injustices and lack of vision, offered alternatives, and told the human story of possible, attainable justice.

Seven people sit on the Alexandria City Council. Only one, Allison Silberberg, Vice-Mayor of Alexandria, listened. She insisted on the centrality and value of people’s lives. She insisted on listening, critically and compassionately, to what the actual residents of the actual units were saying. Silberberg insisted on placing these people at the center of the discussion and, more importantly, at the center of public policy, municipal and regional development, and justice.

Silberberg withstood the visible and verbal scorn and derision of some of her `fellow’ Council members for her refusal to accept a plan that included mass eviction. Hers was the single and singular opposing vote.

Later that night, when the residents of Beauregard gathered to eat and share their sense of the day’s events, they talked of Silberberg’s courage and vision, and they talked, with dismay and pain, at the inhumanity of the rest of the Council. They said this a government that does not want us. This is a government whose vision is measured in the dollars and wealth of some at the expense, and exclusion, of the labor and worth of others.

So, the vote went down, 6 – 1. The Council and the developers worked hard to make it unanimous, and in this they failed. Silberberg stood with the Iron Women of Alexandria, not alone.

This is an old, even redundant story, one of `municipal development’, mass removals, and resistant women.

For example, in 1914, in Glasgow, Scotland, slum owners saw that many men were off to the wars and many others were coming in, suddenly, to work in the munitions industry. In other words, they saw women heads of households, on one hand, and new migrants, on the other. They saw both as vulnerable, and so raised the rents astronomically.

Mary Barbour, housewife and mother, began organizing to stop the rent increases and to repel the sheriff’s officers who came to evict tenants. She helped organize the South Govan Women’s Housing Association, which grew into the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. She organized and led “Mrs. Barbour’s Army”, which physically stopped the sheriffs. Barbour’s organizing led to the passage of the Rent Restriction Act. It was an army of women who changed the laws, who secured housing, who insisted on the dignity of all people, equally.

From Glasgow then to Alexandria now, women have insisted that the working poor are people. The working poor have a right to their homes, to their neighborhoods, to their communities. That’s the history of Mary Barbour, the Iron Lady of Glasgow, and it could be the future in Alexandria. In Alexandria, women are organizing in households and on the streets, as well as in the City Hall.  When it comes to housing and the concrete, lived right to the city, women are leading the struggle for human decency and for justice. From Glasgow then to Alexandria today … and beyond.


(Photo Credit:

Hamba Kahle Sister Bernard Ncube


Sister Bernard Ncube

Sister Bernard Ncube
died on August 31 – the last day of Women’s Month in South Africa. I am overcome with sadness although I know that she lived a full and rich life. I got to know Sister Bernie in 1995 when I volunteered as her aide in Parliament. A mutual friend introduced us, thinking I might be helpful to her in her new position in Parliament and the Constitutional Assembly. It was the heady first year of the new ANC-led Parliament under the historic leadership of President Nelson Mandela. The ANC bench was filled with heroes of the struggle like Sister Bernie whose years in prison or exile were not far behind them. They served side by side with poets, journalists, academics – intellectuals who had been the voice of the liberation movement.

Sister Bernie and her comrades had vision and conviction but not necessarily much experience legislating. As a lobbyist for a social justice organization in the US, I suppose the thought was I could instruct her in the legislative process, but for the nearly six months I worked in Sister Bernie’s high ceilinged office in the Victoria Building, I was the learner. She was the one who taught.

She explained how the church tried several times to excommunicate her for being, variously: anti-white, anti-male, anti-church. This came after I asked how she was able to continue in her Catholic order given her views on abortion, and other issues. Sister Bernie laughed and told me she countered every accusation leveled at her with words from scripture, completely confounding her detractors. She also explained that she had seen too many women in hospitals bleed to death from botched, illegal abortions. She could not continue to support a policy that quite simply endangered women’s lives. And that’s what this tiny nun, with her white habit on her head, told the Parliamentary committee considering liberalization of the harsh, Apartheid-era anti-abortion laws.

Just as she cared about women, so too did she love children. Her dream was to build a child care center near where she grew up that would offer comprehensive services for young children, their mothers, and grandmothers in a totally secure environment. I don’t know if the center was ever built, but I know that she had plans over which she pored and studied with great enthusiasm.

She loved her family – her parents whom I met in Soweto once when the two of us were in Johannesburg for a large conference with religious leaders on the Constitution – her siblings and their children and was very proud of their successes.

In the end, it may have been true that Sister Bernard wasn’t initially sure about the legislative jargon and technicalities as a brand new Parliamentarian who’d had no orientation or preparation whatsoever. But it was also true that she needed no tutoring or introduction to the issues. She was passionate about doing the right thing — about making sure that she effectively spoke up for women, children, non-violence, and equality. She wasn’t a firebrand who made long impassioned speeches or sought the limelight — she was far too humble for that — but she spoke up for her causes and worked behind the scenes. Although she was a loyal ANC member when I met her, she was candid about her frustration with the politics and posturing that slowed down the process of building a new South Africa and implementing the ideals of the RDP. She preferred serving her assigned constituency, interacting directly with real people and problems. It was no surprise to me that she became mayor of the West Rand municipality in Johannesburg in 2002.

The South African news media and President Zuma took note of Sister Bernard Ncube’s passing and, many miles away, I sat at my computer and cried, remembering a remarkable woman who taught so much.


(Photo Credit: Mail and Guardian / Gisele Wulfsohn)