Talking Feminism with Rebecca Walker
January 25, 2013
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When I sat down to interview Rebecca Walker, I told her I’d like to hear some of her thoughts on American feminism, and how it might do a better job being more inclusive. She asked me what the big feminist issues on campus were, and we talked for a few minutes about sexual assault rates, as well as the issue of retention of female faculty and faculty of color. She considered all this and then offered her thoughts on the state of the American feminist movement.
Rebecca Walker: I find the language that’s heavily identified as “feminist language” in the popular discourse to be fairly tedious and myopic in some ways. Some of the discussions that are happening amongst and between women that are not necessarily “declaratively feminist” are a lot more interesting. And I think that’s a good sign.
On some level we’ve reached a level of consciousness about the importance of gender parity, respect for women, protection for women under the law, equal pay. Americans are overwhelmingly against overturning Roe vs. Wade. The traditional bread and butter issues of second-wave feminism, even if many of them are facing intense challenges by the right, the general consciousness of American people has evolved of the point where the frame of the debate is much further along. We’ve kind of reached a tipping point in the psyche of the nation.
I’d be much more interested in having a discussion about feminism if we were talking about issues in campus and the culture that are more intersectional. I’d be interested to know about the women who work in the dining hall, the women who are working at the prison and how are all those different groups of women being identified under this larger umbrella and whether or not the specifics of their situation are considered a part of this discussion. And I think in the last 20 years that hasn’t been the case. That’s a common criticism of feminism, that’s nothing new.
I really put my heart and soul into trying to build a bridge between younger and older women and younger and older feminists. My first book was about that, my foundation is about that. I’ve tried to speak on the intersections of race, class and gender, sexual orientation, all the different ways we’re marginalized and to kind of encourage a coalition approach to these issues. A singular lens based on gender is not enough.
Rachel Alexander: Something I’ve noticed on our campus, and in general in my generation, is that there are a lot of pretty privileged, white girls who are aware of intersectional issues and race and class justice in a theoretical way but struggle to put that into practice. Our feminist club on campus is predominantly white women, and there’s a lot of women of color involved in a lot of other groups, even though when you sit all of us together, we have a lot of issues in common. Do you have any thoughts on how folks like me can better bridge that gap in practice, not just in theory?
Rebecca Walker: I think interrogating or probing those questions in the group itself is very important, really evaluating why there is this chasm and how you can actively address it. Every women’s group on all of these campuses have the same issue. They’re [mostly] white, privileged women running the groups and they feel like all the other women are not participating and they’re not quite sure why.
I spoke at Evergreen [State College] 10 years ago and they were having the exact same issue. And I said, “What’s your face? How you they representing yourselves?” And they said, “We have a newsletter that we’re sending out,” and I said “Well, what’s it called?” and they said it was called “Cunt.” And I said, well, I don’t have a problem with the word “cunt” and I understand you’re trying to reclaim “cunt,” and okay, but that’s not going to translate to the different communities that you want to attract.
I think you have to really interrogate why you want to have this mixed coalition. Is it just about tokenistic diversity or do you really want to have meaningful dialogue? Are you ready to hear criticism and are you ready to engage in deep conversations that may be painful but will ultimately be enlightening? And if you do, serious measures have to be taken.
Finding meaningful ways to come together is, I think, the way to go. That can be a panel that discusses a larger issue that brings together the voices of different women on campus from different backgrounds so that you can begin to hear each other’s perspectives. I’ve always been an advocate of finding a project many people can sign on to and learning and building bridges in the process of doing that project.
RA: What do you see that feminist movement needing to do in the world, if so many of the second-wave goals are in a secure position?
RW: All of the traditional things need to happen. We need to deal with equal pay. We need to deal with equal representation in leadership positions. We need to make sure that reproductive freedoms are intact. We need to make sure that we are protected in terms of domestic violence and violence against women, which is more pervasive than ever globally.
I’m very concerned about the incarceration rates of African-American men, and the effect that that has on black women and the black family. And I would like to see a lot of feminist leadership focused on that issue, because if affects women of color. There’s obviously the kind of eco-feminist point of view, and I think that we can have an ever stronger presence in talking about climate and how it’s impacting women trying to support their families all over the globe.
My book “What Makes a Man” was about how to include men in a feminist project, how men in some ways are thought of only as the perpetrators of patriarchy, the winners in this game, when in fact many of them are victims of it themselves. When I did that book, I interviewed many men and most of them talked about how their masculinity was policed from a very young age. Most of them had, either physically or verbally, been abused when they stepped outside of the “boy box.”
We’ve been so focused on what happens to girls when they deviate from a traditional feminine norm, and I think boys are desperate for their own movement. There’s demand for them to be emotionally shut down and the expectation that they’re going to be the providers, and they’re not allowed to explore their creativity. I would like to see more attention given to the construction of the masculine role in the culture. I think that men have a hard time doing that work themselves. It’s perceived as weak to even explore your masculinity and try to revision it. Unfortunately, that means that more of us have to work a little bit harder to help support those voices.
I’d like to see privileged white women on campus more involved in not just faculty retention, but the labor force, the invisible people who serve and clean and what kinds of compensation and roles and levels of respect they have in the community, and how can we work to achieve a greater parity there between students and workers. All stuff I’m sure you’ve considered.
RA: Yeah, I used to work in a grocery store in town, and I’d see people who work in our dining halls coming in and paying with food stamps, but our dining hall is an outside contractor and they won’t talk about wages.
RW: Exactly, that. It’s very tough.
RA: And then I can’t just march up to the coffee stand and say, “Hey, how much do you make, can we write about this?”
RW: (Laughs.) That would not be a good approach. But you could find a better approach. It’d be interesting to have a panel with a few people who work in the dining hall and talking about their experience. Just talking about the experience. It doesn’t have to be political. Or just a profile in the paper.
RA: We did that last [fall], about one of our omelet chefs.
RW: Good! Maybe somebody who’s washing the dishes, who’s not out front. Or cleaning. Just to start identifying people. The more students support them, the more power they’ll have within the university system. Because you guys are the consumer. You are paying $50,000. Just like J. Crew or Macy’s wants to please their consumer, so does Whitman. I think students don’t realize how much power they actually have as consumers. Imagine you’re paying $50,000 every year––you have a lot of buying power. You have the power to have concerns and make demands and expect that the university will be responsive.