DONNA ALLEN'S WORK WILL LIVE ON by Michael Honey
One of Dr. Donna Allen's strongest beliefs was in the principle that everyone should have an equal voice. From 1972 to 1987 she published the Media Report to Women, a newsletter reporting on the ways that women were creating their own media or making inroads into a media world in which money and white men typically rule the airwaves and dominate production and dissemination of the printed word. Dr. Allen also founded The Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, which continues to publish booklets and to organize programs.
Donna Allen insisted that equal access to one's fellow citizens was the first principle for a democracy. Through her own experiences as an activist and educator during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, she discovered how the mass media trivialized, ignored, distorted and otherwise misinformed the public about crucial issues such as national health insurance, labor rights, and racism, sexism, and war.
From the 1970s to her death at the age of 78 this summer, she dedicated her life to restructuring mass communications so that the media is no longer controlled by a wealthy few.
As a labor economist and as an activist, Dr. Allen found herself and her colleagues frustrated at every turn by a mass media which typically failed to cover or distorted events and rarely allowed people like herself to speak directly to the public they were trying to reach.
Allen told professor of journalism Maureen Beasely that "in the year '68, I decided that this was hopeless, that everything we did was undone by the media, as fast or faster than we could do it." The mostly male-owned and -dominated mass media frequently ridiculed women activists. The demonstration against the 1968 Miss America pageant which Dr. Allen attended, was distorted in the media as the misguided action of misfit "bra burners."
She found that even liberal and movement publications did not take women seriously, leading her to create and edit The Media Report to Women and to direct actions and publications of another creation, the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press.
The Women's Institute, directed by her daughter Martha Allen since 1988, organized international conferences and teleconferences of women, and published directories of media women and pamphlets and books. Documenting how the dominant media stereotypes, distorts, or ignores women, minorities, and others outside its wealthy circle of owners, Dr. Allen searched for ways for women to creat a new system. She did not try to prescribe how it should be created, but reported on the many ways women sought to speak for themselves instead of being spoken for by others.
Operating on almost no budget, by the time of her death she and her associates had helped to create a significant network of women dedicated to creating a new kind of communications system. The Women's Institute's founding statement, now adhered to by some 500 associates in communications and academia, holds that "for the right of 'freedom of the press' to be meaningful, there must be a realistic means of exercising it -- for all of us, not just for the multi-millionaires among us."
Such a democratic proposition seems like common sense, yet it runs counter to the increasing monopolization of the media by corporate elites. Simply changing the way the mass media cover news would not solve the problem that restricted ownership poses for democracy.
According to Dr. Allen, "It is not enough that those who own the national media attempt to report the information from the diverse elements of society, to speak for them. By definition, democracy assumes that all citizens vote, speak and participate politically as equals."
Dr. Allen reported on the many efforts people who have been left out of ownership and access to the media have organized to gain access. But more importantly, she encouraged and supported women who tried to create their own journals, broadcast, internet, and other means of communications, and tried to put the idea of a communications system accessible to everyone on the agenda for activists. Dr. Allen sought a contrast to profit-oriented journalism based on control by reporters and editors, and on sensationalism, personal attacks, and repetition of a few stories while ignoring a vast range of important things people are doing and saying. She formulated feminist principles for more respectful and democratic communications which did not attack others and let people express their own point of view and information directly to the public.
She believed a media operating on such principles could nurture a more peaceful and just world order. Dr. Allen's passion for creating a media that allowed people to speak for themselves grew out of her own lifetime of activism and experiences as a woman who broke many of the boundaries of her generation.
She did not claim to have a prescription for how to create a more democratic media. Her main effort was to help people to see the necessity to do so.
(Michael Honey is the former husband and continuing colleague of Martha Allen, and still an active member of the "extended Allen family." He teaches American History and labor and ethnic studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma. )