MADRE was born out of a belief that together we can make a difference. In 1983, a group of women activists, poets, teachers, artists and health professionals traveled to Nicaragua to witness the impact of the US-sponsored Contra War. What they saw horrified and angered them. They met with women who showed them day care centers, schools and clinics that had been bombed by contras supported by the US government.
These women returned to the US with a mandate from the women of Nicaragua: to bring the stories of Nicaraguan women and children to the attention of the US public and mobilize people to demand a change in US government policy.
MADRE's Founding Director, Kathy Engel, and the women she brought together had a vision of a unique women-led, women-run international human rights organization, dedicated to informing people in the US about the effects of US policies on communities around the world. MADRE resolved to build real alternatives to war and violence by supporting the priorities of our sister organizations and linking them to the needs of women and families in the US through a people-to-people exchange of direct relief and understanding.
Vivian Stromberg was there from the very beginning - a seasoned teacher, activist, and political organizer. She propelled Kathy's crucial work forward, serving as MADRE's Executive Director for over 20 years beginning in 1990. Under Vivian's leadership, MADRE accomplished landmark human rights achievements while empowering and connecting grassroots women's organizations worldwide.
"I am struck so deeply by what makes us MADRE, by how we become sisters--country to country, friend to friend, woman to woman--connected as much by the need to survive as by an extraordinary generosity of both heart and hand." - Vivian Stromberg, MADRE co-founder and former Executive Director
Making MADRE: the Movements, the Moment
Among the women who built MADRE were artists, teachers, poets, actors, health workers and life-long political organizers. They came together across differences of culture, class and community, recognizing one another by their shared commitment to linking the struggles against sexism, racism, war, homophobia and economic exploitation in which they were active. These were the feminists who demanded that the women's movement confront racism in society and within its ranks; the Independentistas who had a feminist critique of nationalism; the socialists who insisted that liberation was more than a function of economics. Building on their common commitment to women's rights and leadership, MADRE's founders pooled the strengths of their diverse political work and life experiences to create a women-led, women-run organization that was both a culmination of and an innovation on the movements for social change in which they were active.
"With Kathy's leadership, we created MADRE to address the crisis of Nicaragua, said Anne Hess, who founded MADRE's Board of Directors. But also to enable people to see the connections between that crisis and problems right here in the US. Remember, 1983 was a watershed moment in this country." Three years earlier, the Republican Party had emerged from the shadows of the Watergate scandal to reclaim the White House and the courts. The Reagan Administration not only expanded Jimmy Carter's support for the contras into a full-scale covert war abroad; it also worked domestically to roll back the victories of social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as publicly funded day care and health care and to enact an economic program that would bring about a massive redistribution of resources from poor to rich. Around the country, racist and homophobic violence escalated as a right-wing religious ideology moved into the mainstream. Women's economic and reproductive rights came under attack. Poverty worsened and homelessness soared.
"We worked to identify the causes of these problems and the roots of the violence we had witnessed in Nicaragua, said Anne. We focused on the links, for example, between the dismantlement of day care programs in the US and the bombing of day care centers in Nicaragua." MADRE's founders understood the Contra War in Nicaragua as one of many instances in which US policymakers prioritized militarism and profit-making over people's basic needs, particularly the needs of women.
"Our focus on US foreign policy, said Anne, stemmed from our experiences in a range of political movements, for example, the movement against Apartheid in South Africa. We learned a lot from the African National Congress in the 1980s, which identified the system of Apartheid as its enemy and not white South Africans. The ANC of that era is remembered as a model of multi-racial organizing, but it also gave us a principle for understanding who your enemy is and where you apply pressure when you want to see change. We understood that our target was US policy; not men, or the rich, or the people who voted for Reagan, but the policies and institutions that perpetuated suffering. An understanding of the role of US policies became crucial to every issue that MADRE addressed."
Women and Families
From the start, MADRE approached its work from the perspective of women, reflecting the world through the eyes of those who are responsible for the housing, health care, day care, nutrition, education and emotional wellbeing of the vast majority of the population and who are targeted for discrimination and violence. MADRE's founders understood that women's social roles as caretakers give them a powerful stake in political issues ranging from food stamps to nuclear proliferation. They also believed that women could transform their individual experiences of violence and discrimination into a stance against all forms of oppression if they saw that different types of oppression are mutually reinforcing.
MADRE's founders knew that while women's traditional social roles and discrimination against women were global in scope, they are experienced differently, depending on race, nationality, class, sexuality and other aspects of identity. They saw that building on the strengths of those differences while focusing on the universality of women's roles and women's oppression could be a key to building lasting political partnerships between women from different communities within the US and between US-based women and those in other countries.
This approach defied a trend toward single-issue politics that marked a lot of progressive organizing in the 1980s. Kathy Engel recalls how MADRE's insistence that "the Nicaragua activists think about El Salvador as well as Palestine and East L.A. was sometimes unpopular." Some of the Central America solidarity groups wondered why a women's organization was sticking its nose into foreign policy. And some sectors of the women's movement didn't like how MADRE talked about "women and their families, refusing to dislodge women" from the daily context of their lives and communities. When we started to talk about human rights, mainstream human rights organizations barely acknowledged the economic issues we claimed were central for most women in the world–including in the US–like rights to food, housing and health care. MADRE's founders were determined to build an organization that was both clearly focused on concrete issues and able to sustain a political practice as complex as the reality of women's lives.
MADRE's Sister Organizations: Partnerships for Change
MADRE's work with the women of Nicaragua became the model for our partnerships with sister organizations around the world, community-based women's organizations that share our commitment to social justice and progressive politics. The women who come together through these organizations are those for whom the most horrifying newspaper headlines are a daily lived reality. They are survivors of war, political repression, genocide, economic and sexual exploitation and the twin burdens of natural disaster and disastrous policies. Yet they have refused to give in to despair. Instead, they have organized with MADRE to build health clinics, nutrition programs, domestic violence shelters, community radio stations, human rights training centers, literacy campaigns and programs to promote human rights advocacy and women's political participation. These programs help meet immediate needs in our partners' communities and work to change the balance of power in favor of women and their families.
Through our sister organizations, we have been able to offer life-saving support to hundreds of thousands of women and their families. What our sister organizations have given us in return cannot be quantified. They have taught us that despair is a luxury and that hope is a rational response to hardship if we can join together with others to create change. As Kathy Engel said, We are strengthened by ... the women who are our models, who have always stepped into the fire when there was no other way to save a child.