Two Feminists and a Conversation

This conversation begins with a few confessions. First, I confess that I am a “bad feminist.” As Roxane Gay beautifully noted, “I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain…interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist (p. x-xi).” This is one of my favorite passages of Roxane Gay’s book Bad Feminist, and the minute I read it I felt as if I wasn’t alone – and that I had been given permission to accept the fact that the questions I have about feminism and the women’s movement are just part of my process of figuring this stuff out.

Second, I confess that I have made many mistakes when it comes to assuming that gender unites women without fully understanding the intersectionality of race, class, abilities and identity among other things. This means that I have often spoken of my own experience as a woman and thought it was representative of most women, when in reality it is most representative of white women – women who are privileged by being white.

This is related to my third confession, which is that I have often been frustrated by women, and by feminism, and by what seemed to be an inability to “get on the same page” and “work together in unity” and “stand up for the same feminist causes.” I confess that these frustrations have led me to be more open, more thoughtful, and more educated about these issues. They have led me to learn how and why to “check my privilege” and adjust my position. But I also confess that I am still frustrated.

I am fortunate to have patient, kind and brilliant friends and colleagues that have helped shed light on these issues – and I am grateful that they have joined this conversation so we can all learn and grow. If you too are concerned about issues with which women, all women, are challenged on a daily basis, we hope that this magazine project will provide an opportunity to engage in an important conversation with each other.

But for now, to get us started, here is my conversation with my friend Lupe. Lupe is a black feminist that leads the Women’s and Gender Studies program at our state university. I posed a few questions to Lupe about feminism and the women’s movement. For me, I found her answers to be very enlightening and helpful. Hopefully this is the case for many of us who are contemplating these issues. But of course, if you have anything to add to our conversation, we want to hear from you!

S: How do you define feminism?

L: I’m one of those people who shies away from defining feminism in an all-encompassing way. I’m reluctant to give it definite borders because the feminist project should be about making feminism inclusive and intersectional. At least, I believe, this is what it should be about. I guess if I were hard pressed to give what I’ll call an open definition, I would pull Barbara Smith’s definition. Smith states, “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women—as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” To this I would add that any feminism that does not include transwomen is a feminism that I will never support. Although Smith’s definition speaks to me, it doesn’t get me all the way there. I do want to say that I describe myself as a black feminist. That is to say that my feminism is rooted in an intersectional politics. Like traditional black feminists, I believe that black women’s social position is unique and that our liberation should not be adjunct to other causes. I get accused of doing identity politics and I say “guilty as charged!” I don’t believe that anyone theorizes from nowhere—that it is possible to stand outside of our bodies.

S: Is there any such thing as a women’s movement any more? How would you characterize it? Can we characterize collective action among women as a social justice movement?

L: I don’t think the women’s movement ever ended. It broadened and it is in the process of becoming more intersectional (thankfully). But, unlike the famous women’s movement of the 1960 we don’t see the current women’s movement being spearheaded by a few dominant groups like NOW or spokespersons like Gloria Steinem (though today both are still important). There are several groups working alone and in collaboration on one issue or several interconnected issues to better women’s (big tent) overall existence. So, for example, the recent women’s march was a collaborative effort that highlighted a multitude of voices, though I wish more trans women spoke and that their issues were framed as integral to the struggle for liberation. Overall, I think that the conception that the women’s movement ended is short-sighted. It has merely taken on another shape. In the end, maybe we need to use the plural “movements” to adequately describe what is happening in smaller, localized movements that come together (unite) every so often in great acts of resistance and voice raising.

S: What are the women’s movement’s greatest strengths? And what are its weaknesses?

L: The movement’s greatest strength is its ability to put people in the streets for a cause (the great act of resistance that I alluded to in the previous question). People will come to the streets, especially if they feel that their rights are being violated or sometimes when they are frightened or when they have nowhere else to go. These acts of mobilization are just incredible and inspiring. I love the fact that in the wake of the current political situation people are not losing heart and are taking to their streets. The question is how do you activate change that is sustainable? The movement’s (in which multiple movements are embedded) greatest weakness is the inability, at times, for white women to make intersectional connections. It is very difficult for some white women to see beyond gender, and this remains a stumbling block to white women’s liberation. How do white women have fruitful, discomforting conversations about race and not lapse into “not hearing” “denying” or simply “running away” when the conversation gets tough or when their privilege is spotlighted? White women who believe in women’s issues, white women who profess to believe in justice, have to march not only for the women they identify with, but with black women and Latina women whose children are the victims of violence; with poor women whose kids are warehoused in bad schools; with black and brown communities that have been decimated by the prison industrial complex; with immigrant families trying to make a new life; and with the full inclusion of the voices of trans women. So, I ask white women who believe in justice, how far does your justice extend? If we can’t stand together, nothing will change.

S: Can women, individually and collectively, sometimes be their own worst enemies?

L: Though I think this question is posed in the spirit of solidarity, I do want to say that like most women of color, I see the category of woman as “fraught.” So, speaking from my own embodied position as a Black Latina, my biggest enemy has been and will always be racist-sexist-capitalist-hetero-patriarchy (thank you bell hooks!). I’m really not sure how white women answer this question. I’m fortunate to be a part of a collective of women of color scholars at my university that care for me. They are never the enemy.

S: What are some positive signs of collective action that we can emphasize as we seek to amplify and magnify the role of women in higher education?

L: One of the positive signs of collective action that everyone should get behind is making sure that the tenure and promotion process is clear and fair. It is well documented that some men of color, women of color, and white women faculty (especially in certain fields) have a tougher time with the tenure and promotion process. We have to ask why this is the case. How are current systems designed to privilege certain types of research over others, support some at the expense of others, etc.? Another thing we can do is to have serious conversations about climate in our academic units and on our campuses. For faculty from marginalized groups climate can be a matter of academic life or academic death. One of my favorite questions to pose about climate is “are faculty of color and women faculty on your campus thriving or surviving and how do you know?” The answer or inability to answer this question is very telling.

S: What should we do to enhance our collective in higher education and how? What are the signs of hope that we can point to - what are the steps we can take individually and collectively?

L: Collectives don’t just happen. They are formed through conscious effort. It means something for a group of people to come together and call themselves a “collective.” There is something political in this; something—at least to me—that says we are ready not only to support one another, but to agitate and resist on the behalf of the collective or individual members. What I see at the moment is that more faculty members are showing up and asking how they can get involved on the ground-level of social movements. That to me is encouraging.

I am so grateful that Lupe and others are willing to speak out about these issues, but ultimately it us up to each of us to learn, study and seek answers to the questions that puzzle us – and to perhaps begin with a few confessions about our own perspectives. In referring to Lupe’s excellent point about plural “movements,” we should find strength and unity in our diverse and yet diffuse collective. Just like bees work together to create a living honeycomb that is strong and durable in shape and size, yet connecting together a variation of individual cells, we women can work to achieve smaller goals while still working together toward a general goal of overall women’s liberation and empowerment. The honeycomb collective is undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. Let us know what you think – we are here to listen, share, explore and learn!