The newest crop of female leaders needs to make more room for a more diverse feminism, work at the grassroots, and keep a long view of history in mind while trying to make headway.
Those old-new arguments came Wednesday evening from organizer and activist Linda Sarsour and author and journalist Rebecca Traister at the annual meeting of the Community Fund for Women & Girls, held at the New Haven Lawn Club on Whitney Avenue.
Titled “Feminism: The Common Denominator?” the meeting honed in on what feminism is right now, and how citizens can use it as a tool for political and social engagement. The speakers’ remarks, 10 to 12 minutes each, were followed by a discussion moderated by Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and social justice at the Center for Community Change.
In the past year, the Community Fund for Women & Girls has awarded grants to Believe in Me Empowerment Corporation, Christian Community Action, Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Connecticut Women’s Education & Legal Fund, LEAP, New Haven Farms, the Spanish Community of Wallingford, St. Martin de Porres, and the Women & Family Life Center. This is the fund’s 23rd year in existence.
Community Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Will Ginsberg asked rhetorically whether feminism can be the common denominator for a new push toward social change.
“The answer is, and must be, yes,” he said. “So I would pose the following: What is it that we need to do to make feminism one of the core common denominators that will lead our country in a very different direction?”
An Eye On History
For Traister, understanding feminism now — and where it can go next — requires acknowledging that the history of progress is “a process that includes switchbacks, and backlashes, and reversals, and sometimes forward leaps, and pushbacks once again.”
Traister said she learned to keep a close eye on what was happening around her, and the path history was taking, as a kid growing up in “the midst of what was a paralyzing, frozen, antifeminist backlash” in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1991, she listened to Anita Hill’s testimony before the U.S. Senate judiciary committee, and watched as Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court in spite of it. In 1996, she voted for Bill Clinton‘s second term in office, only to see him enact welfare reforms and criminal punishment that flew in the face of what she deemed compassionate, democratic, and progressive.
More recently, male colleagues told her that Donald Trump voters who had opted for Barack Obama four years before couldn’t possibly be racist. She watched as the number of women self-administering abortions rose, as did the number of hate crimes against Muslims, women, and people of color. She also watched a protest movement led by women of color grow. But she didn’t believe that the movement was explicitly tied to the presidency, she said. Not entirely.
“It feels like a total miracle to be living in this age,” she said. “One of the reasons that the learning curve is so steep, and that this is happening so quickly, is that the conversations are coming at it so fast, and the circumstances we’re living in are so grim, are so perilous, so many are vulnerable.”
“But to be clear, these circumstances all preceded this administration,” Traister added. This is not a women’s movement that was created in opposition to Donald Trump. This is one of the side effects ... of telling ourselves the fairy tale that we didn’t have to do this work anymore. That’s part of how we get here again.”
The call, then — the way to make feminism the common denominator — is to stay constantly, vigilantly aware, and to react when other women (activist and otherwise) are silenced or hushed, interrupted, or pushed to the sidelines, she said. To become more inclusive, and understand “how systemic inequality works.”
“Never believe anyone who tells you that we’ve solved anything,” she said. Which is where Sarsour picked up.
A Feminist Vision
For Sarsour, a first-generation, hijab-wearing Palestinian-American and longtime activist perhaps best known for her work as a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington, the answer to that common denominator lies in “just the rebranding of what feminism is.” A rebranding that calls for ceding the floor to women of color.
For Sarsour (by then serving as one of 40 national co-chairs for the march), it was an opportunity to foster the kind of feminism that has been part of her organizing work for years. It wasn’t easy. Critics and organizers warned her that talking about race would be too divisive (“that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in,” she would reply). Women who considered themselves feminists but were against reproductive choice dropped out of the march. So did some white women who were being asked to take a step back.
Sarsour has advanced the idea that the movement must embrace “intersectionality,” a term coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how different kinds of oppression — based on race, gender, sexuality, religion — are connected.
“You can’t talk about equal pay without talking about racial justice. And you can’t talk about reproductive rights without talking about income inequality,” she said at the event.
Since then, she has realized that “we as women have no choice but to lead right now,” she said. “Every injustice that you could ever think of has somehow been at the hands of a man somewhere in this world.”
But it needs to be a careful, specific kind of leadership, that brings together activists for environmental and racial justice, LGBTQ rights, healthcare access, reproductive rights, and religious freedom. A leadership that foregrounds and supports women who have been systematically written out of history, even while they have helped sculpt it.
How To Make It Happen
They key to reaching that common denominator, said Sarsour, is grassroots organizing, and the “adopt a village” mentality. It also involved organizing with full understanding of where the feminist movement has been, and where it will go, added Traister. Employed in tandem, the two suggested, that philosophy may catapult progressives — and particularly women of color — to power in 2018, and beyond the midterm elections.
Part of that, argued both women, is remembering that women of color have long been leaders of the feminist movement. In the 1930s, academic Sadie Alexander wrote into being what Betty Freidan wouldn’t publish in The Feminine Mystique for another 30 years. Flo Kennedy brought fire and verve to feminist rallies across the country, but earned only a footnote as Gloria Steinem’s speaking partner. Even the women’s march, initially, was set to be organized and run by white women.
But the other part is having conversations that can feel difficult, uncomfortable, and uncharted, both agreed. Not specifically with that 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump in November, but with people who didn’t register to vote, or didn’t vote because they couldn’t stomach either candidate. Use the past to find what politically motivates you in the present, urged Traister, and stick to it.
“The trickiness around talking about gender inequity involves a lot of very complicated working around: what does it mean to invest in my own equality?” Traister asked. “It’s a really hard project ... but I think that the focus on the intersections of race and gender is going to be really useful going forward, because in this country, we don’t have complex conversations.”
Sarsour had a simpler answer: go home and meet your neighbor. Knock on their door. Get to know the people around the neighborhood, and talk to them about what matters politically to you. When you build communities, you are building political alliances — and learning how to not let the past repeat itself.
“Back in the days of Japanese internment there weren’t iPhones ... we were reading newspapers, we were reading books, or we were probably having a conversation with the people on the train with us. So let’s get back to that, because I think that’s what’s going to protect us all,” Sarsour said. “Maybe I’m preaching to the choir. But the choir’s gotta sing.”