Finding Power in Solidarity
A significant problem to me a few years ago was the idea of young women rejecting the term feminist. As the feminist daughter of a former NOW chapter president, this upset and confused me; I was afraid of the “post-feminist” direction our society seemed to be headed. I was not aware, however, that we had apparently entered a new wave of feminism sometime in 2013—whether this was a fourth or fifth wave is subject to much disagreement. I’m not going to attempt to clarify which “wave” we are currently in, but I have always considered “waves” to be synonymous with movements, and I do believe we are most definitely in a new movement.
The new voices of feminism, championing intersectionality and LGBTQI rights, have been loud and clear in recent years, especially elsewhere around the world. The 2016 U.S. election galvanized action on behalf of those put in danger by the current Administration. That is not to say that there were no active feminist movements in the U.S. prior to the election—strong movements such as NOW and Planned Parenthood have remained active in the face of attacks on women’s health and well-being from the extreme right. It was a struggle, however, to enlist new (younger) members.
If the Women’s March was any indication, the stance of not wanting to be feminist has largely dissipated. The march caused masses of people to come together in activism, including those who had never been active before. Women are speaking out. But as usual, those with the most power and visibility have the loudest voices. This has always been a problem, but it may also be a solution to the inequality our country faces.
I just finished Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road, and I am currently reading Jessica Neuwirth’s Equal Means Equal, about the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Although both books are inspiring and informative, it's hard to read them and find encouragement or advice, since they were both written in 2015. This often happens to me: I’ll be reading a book or something online about politics or feminism or racism and then realize it was written prior to the 2016 election. I’ll throw up my hands and think, “Well this is pointless! It was written before everything changed and went to hell! There’s no way we’ll pass the ERA now!” Sometimes it feels useless to look to the past when current events feel unprecedented. But it’s telling that those who lived through such presidents as Nixon and Reagan are not downtrodden or hopeless; I was far more upset than my parents in the wake of the election—not that they didn’t care, but they had seen widespread corruption and oppression before. Millennials and Gen Xers haven’t had to cope with political and social turmoil of this magnitude in their adult lives. Or, to be more precise: straight, white, middle-class people of these generations (such as myself) may not have been aware of such turmoil.
Just as we can learn from past generations, we can learn from each other’s different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. People of color have been at the forefront of resistance, not just in the past year, but throughout history, and women of color have endlessly been fighting for change, even if they are often left by the wayside. In a recent interview, Steinem insisted that women of color have always been more likely to call themselves feminists, and warned that the notion that feminism is a white woman’s movement “renders invisible the people who have always been there.”
The term intersectionality has only recently been brought into national consciousness by Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (a law professor and leading scholar of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality), but the idea existed long before. There have always been varying degrees of privilege. The good thing about this, I find, is that far from dividing different groups, it brings us closer, because we recognize something of ourselves in each other, or something of a friend, relative, or famous figure. We overlap in terms of experience, identity (since we all have multiple identities), region, or proximity—there are various ways of overlapping, and even if we don’t, once we each recognize our own struggle for equality, we will help others with theirs.
In My Life on the Road, Steinem tells about her experiences with different women, whether on a train in India when she was in her early 20s, or acting as scribe for women-of-color caucuses during the 1977 Women’s Conference, or on a Cherokee reservation with Wilma Mankiller in the 1980s. During the 1963 March on Washington, she met a black woman named Mrs. Greene, who remarked on the absence of women speakers. In response to Steinem’s remark that she hadn’t thought about that, Mrs. Greene said: “You white women…if you don’t stand up for yourselves, how can you stand up for anybody else?” Akin to putting on one’s own oxygen mask before helping someone else, it’s necessary for privileged women to stand up for ourselves before we can stand with others. But when do we do we get to a comfortable enough point that we can stop fighting for ourselves and focus on others’ potentially larger problems? The answer seems to be never, since women of all identities still struggle with oppression. But those struggles overlap, and it’s possible to help ourselves while helping others, simultaneously. Different groups of people working in tandem has always been a boon to progression; the key is to not leave anyone behind.
In her book, Steinem mentions the link between village women in India, the British suffrage movement, and India’s Independence movement. Steinem and her friend and fellow activist, Devaki Jain, were in India during the 1970s researching peaceful resistance. They interviewed Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who had been a leader of the Independence struggle with Gandhi. Chattopadhyay explained how women in India had caught Gandhi’s attention with their peaceful protest against suttee, the immolation of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres. Gandhi also learned tactics from the Pankhursts during the suffragette movement in London, who in turn had learned from Indian immigrant women. Gandhi himself measured success by changes to the lives of the least powerful: the women in villages, who, to quote Chattopadhyay, “taught him everything he knew.” This is just one example of change coming from the bottom up, a phrase Steinem uses continuously. The same thing happened in the U.S. as in England: the democracy evident in the Iroquois Confederacy inspired the founding fathers, and Native American women inspired suffragettes such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Steinem acknowledges indigenous societies as being examples of true equality that feminists should look to.
It’s important to remember history such as this, because narratives are often created that may not show the whole truth. I was reminded of this during Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes: she brought up the story of Recy Taylor, which I knew from the recent documentary (yet to be widely released), “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” The film, directed by Nancy Buirski, brings to light historical and current violence towards black women. It also reveals a narrative of a very famous figure, Rosa Parks, which had been obscured. Far from being a meek bystander who randomly decided one day not to give up her seat on a bus, Rosa Parks was an activist with the NAACP long before the Civil Rights movement began. As a secretary with the Montgomery NAACP in 1944, she took it upon herself to investigate Recy Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s case never went to trial, and the men who raped her walked free; her story was buried like so many other horrific rapes, lynchings, and murders of black people during Jim Crow, but not without a fight from southern activists like Parks.
These stories (of men and women) need to be revealed, and they are beginning to be told, by white women filmmakers such as Buirski, and by powerful black women such as Oprah. Other stories need refining, such as those of Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Civil Rights leaders: these were not figures working on their own, who one day got the great idea for a movement. They worked with others, of different races, classes, and genders than them, were inspired by others, helped others, and had help. Steinem reiterates this again and again in her book: if it weren’t for many women of all backgrounds and races and classes who she met along the road, from Florence Kennedy to Wilma Mankiller, she would never have found her own voice. There may be natural-born leaders who have a certain charisma that sparks inspiration in others, but movements succeed because of people coming together—regular people looking outside of their comfort zone, finding others of different identities but similar struggles, learning from others’ strategies for success. Being an activist is not a special calling or a solitary, courageous occupation. We all have the potential to be activists if we show up, pay attention, and listen to each other.
Power in Intersectionality
There is still the danger that, in taking the reins of a movement begun by the most marginalized people, groups with more power and visibility will give the movement momentum while also ignoring those voices who began it. But it is also possible that, if various intersecting groups work in solidarity, these many movements can come together in strength. The Women’s March is a great example of this. More recently, the #MeToo movement garnered attention from women in Hollywood, while also being criticized for not giving credit to the founder of the campaign, Tarana Burke. But the result of this was a raised consciousness of sexual harassment across race and industries. The Time’s Up movement, first publicized by the farmworker organization Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, has become an anti-harassment action plan that includes women of all industries. It rose to national consciousness because of the Hollywood names attached to it, but it has the potential to help those with the least visibility and power. This was again exemplified by movie stars at the Golden Globes bringing activist women (such as Tarana Burke) from various organizations to let new voices be heard on the red carpet.
If we continually share our platforms with one another, we will create a unified voice that is louder than ever. Just as white people sat at counters with black activists during the Civil Rights movement, we can show up to Black Lives Matter rallies today. We can all acknowledge the fight for clean water and air that Indigenous Americans are leading, and the new fight for equality that the LGBTQI community is leading. Men can stand with women to call out sexism, harassment, and attacks on our reproductive rights. Steinem, Neuwirth, and others have revised the ERA to be more inclusive of different identities and abilities—it’s an amendment that any progressive person should fight for. Just as destroying misogyny and gender roles benefits our entire society, including men, the same goes for destroying racism and homophobia and transphobia. We know this, but we may not always practice it. We forget that our differences give us strength, rather than dividing us. We forget that with one person’s privilege comes an opportunity to expose another’s need, that one person’s pain transcends to many, and could affect any of us in another circumstance. Even if it gets harder before it gets easier, we’re in a time in which we can be more united than ever.
Each of these essays has touched on ways in which women have been able to amplify their voices, especially over the past year. What do you see as the barriers women still face, the systems or people still silencing their voices?
Well we still have a predator in chief, so that’s a big one! But just as significant is the conservative party that has continually tried to chip away at our reproductive rights and is bent on moving the country backwards, fighting against progression such as marriage equality, trans rights, and justice for black and brown communities. These movements of social change are often looked at as stirring trouble or disrupting the status quo, and those who oppose change try to belittle or twist our voices, so it’s a matter of staying loud and not backing down. And there is still the challenge of reaching the (mostly white) women who have yet to join the movement, who feel there is no work to be done or feel ignored, which I’m trying not to look at as a lost cause.
What lessons do you think Americans—or the world at large—can take away from the women’s movement over the past year?
That we aren’t sitting idly by while our government is descending into chaos. We’re taking to the streets, speaking out online and in print and in the media, we’re electing more diverse politicians than ever before, and we’re running for office like never before. We’re creating a backlash to the conservative backlash that elected Trump. We still have a long three years, and Democrats have a lot to do and answer for, but the momentum is building.
It is quite apparent that each of us has been doing a lot of reading on these topics. What are some books, essays, or articles you think are “must reads” for folks interested in learning more about women in the resistance?
Obviously, I recommend Gloria Steinem's book for a fascinating look at her career and the history of the feminist movement: My Life on the Road
And Jessica Neuwirth's book is a comprehensive look at what the ERA would do for women's rights: Equal Means Equal
For a look back at roads paved by women of color:
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women by Wilma Mankiller
And here are some pieces I've read over the past year:
Harvy Weinstein is My Monster Too, by Salma Hayek
Black Voters to Democrats: You're Welcome, by Kashana Cauley
Lastly, I know each of us marched last year in the Women’s March, and then also attended this year. What reflections, if any, do you have on where we were last January, and where we are now?
The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have been important for the women’s movement overall, so that’s a positive progression, in spite of our political climate. Overall, I think the various social movements and progressive politicians have done a lot of work this past year, not backing down in the face of corruption and incompetence that is happening in the White House. We haven’t been able to move forward much, but we’ve stayed alert and active. If we can gain even more momentum for this year’s election (which I think this year’s Women’s March events definitely helped with), I think we can elect more women, minorities, and progressives. One challenge we have now is trying to navigate each other’s various strands of voices, to continue to find ways for us to each be heard, and to create a cohesive collective voice.