Rebecca Walker
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BREATHING ROOM, The Changing Face of Feminism,
by Bronwen Blass, © Vanderbilt.edu March 2000


     
 

Rebecca Walker, co-founder of Third Wave Direct Action Corporation, a national multicultural organization dedicated to facilitating and initiating young women’s activism and empowerment, is giving feminism a new look. A Third Wave Feminist (as opposed to the First Wave Feminists who won women the right to vote in 1920 and the Second Wave Feminists of the 1960s and 70s), Walker recognizes that the feminism of today’s generation of young women need not be a mirror image of the feminism of our mothers.

To say this is not to criticize or disrespect Second Wavers, but simply to affirm and celebrate a new generation of feminist activism. She recognizes that, "the ever-shifting but ever-present ideals of feminism can’t help but leave young women and men struggling with the reality of who we are. Constantly measuring up to some cohesive fully down-for-the-cause identity without contradictions and messiness and lusts for power and luxury items is not a fun or easy task." As a result, today’s young feminists are caught between the reality of our own generation and the pressure to be "good feminists" in paying homage to the legacies of our mothers’ generation.

The fact that a term which, at its core is about choice, has become so constraining for some, is both ironic and tragic. Thus, Walker is striving to open up the definition of what a feminist is, dispelling myths and combating the "media’s generally horrific characterization of feminists." To do this, Walker has taken on multiple roles: from activist to writer to entrepreneur to visionary. She is the editor of To be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, an anthology of articles which explore the contradiction and ambiguity that can be associated with female empowerment. Walker wants young women to know that they can want to be treated "like a lady," get married, have a BMW, be Christian, be a supermodel, even like music with misogynistic lyrics, and still claim the word feminist. As she says, "If feminism is to be radical and alive [it needs] to respond to new situations, needs, desires and incorporate all those who swear by it."
Walker has written articles for magazines such as Essence, Sassy, Harper’s, The Black Scholar, and Spin and has been a contributing editor to Ms. magazine since 1989. In 1996, she opened a Cyberlounge/Espresso Bar/Bookstore in Brooklyn, designed to provide Internet access and education to urban multicultural communities. She was named Feminist of the Year by the Feminist Majority Fund, and as one of 50 Future Leaders of America by Time magazine. She also tours the country lecturing on young women and feminism.

Walker has certainly not been content to sit idly by while, as the Third Wave Web Page reads, "An entire generation of women is coming of age to find a future less optimistic than our mothers' vision; a future where women are NOT equal and their lives are increasingly filled with obstacles and restrictions." Instead, she helped to create Third Wave to "harness the energy of young women and men by sharing information and resources between young women, together creating a community in which members can coalesce, network, strategize, and ultimately take action around issues that affect us all." The organization strives to be "the thread that connects young women to the resources necessary to counter attacks on their personal freedoms," and, "to combat inequalities that we ourselves face as a result of our age, gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, or level of education."

As a young feminist activist, I am excited by Walker’s message. I often feel like I must be on call for the movement 24/7. Frankly, it can be exhausting to feel I must always tow the p.c. (politically correct) line and take the appropriate feminist stance. I think Walker is right: we do not want fitting into the mold of an ideal feminist to become as constraining for women today as fitting into the mold of ideal womanhood was for previous generations. Walker is giving us some breathing room inside the definition of what it is to be a good feminist and activist. I can claim and support my feminist convictions with every ounce of passion within me, but still just be myself rather than worrying about who I should be as a ‘good feminist.’

Sure, I live feminism every day of my life; it’s a crucial part of who I am. If someone makes a sexist, racist, elitist, heterosexist, etc. comment around me, I’m going to call them on it, but by the same token, there’s a point where I’m going to look out for my own sanity. I refuse to allow every choice that I make to be held up to a litmus test that rates my feminism. Feminism is about choice, after all. That fact should be an attraction to young women today, not a deterrent because one has to worry about making the “right” choices. In preparing for her upcoming lecture at Vanderbilt on March 21, I was thrilled to be able to ask Ms. Walker several questions about her feminist activism. Her answers only added to my anticipation of her visit and my interest in her message.

What was your college experience like? Where did you go to school and what was the activist environment like?

I went to Yale at a time when there was a lot of campus activism. My freshperson year I was involved in the divestment from South Africa movement and continued to be involved in speak outs and rallies on several issues, from retaining faculty of color to date rape. Ultimately, though, I ended up trying to address issues through art, founding with other students a journal for students of color, and making a documentary about the experience of being a student of color in a mostly white Ivy League school. I enjoyed college, but looking back wish that I hadn't felt so obligated and drawn to rail against the administration quite as much. College is a time of reflection and learning and is really critical developmentally. It is sad that so many students have to spend much of that time fighting for something as simple as their right to feel comfortable.

I encounter many women here at Vanderbilt who, to a great extent, come from a background of both socioeconomic and white privilege, and who not only do not consider themselves feminists, but do not see a need for a modern feminist movement. What would you say to these women?

I don't think it is necessary for them to "consider themselves feminists" for them to be human beings with conscience, human beings who act on that conscience when they come to understand certain realities of the world in which we live. I think it is less important for young women and men to personally identify with feminism than it is for them to actually do something about injustices and inequalities and, to put it even more simply, problems they see in their world. Hunger, homelessness, sexual abuse, limiting and psychically wounding definitions of race, class, gender or sexuality, environmental destruction; I could go on, each of these has found advocates within the feminist movement. Whether you want to work against all of these things using the tools or under the umbrella of feminism or not, the most important thing is to recognize they exist and to feel that it is part of your responsibility as a being on the planet to respond and address these things that hurt us all. Byllye Y. Avery, founder of the National Black Women's Health Project says, "Just because you are not sick doesn't mean you should close the hospital," and I think this is certainly applicable to people who feel their lives to be untouched by these issues. However, generally I find that there is no one who is untouched, no one who doesn't have an eating disorder, or a cousin who had an abortion or a relative or friend who can't afford decent housing. What we are talking about isn't feminism so much as it is taking responsibility for some of what goes on in the world. It is being committed enough to challenge the status quo and make a difference, no matter how seemingly small.

As rewarding as activism can be, I know it can also be exhausting. What gives you your drive and energy?

The truth is that my activism right now is located in my writing work, and in raising a child. I just finished a book about growing up black and Jewish and what it means to have many different organic reference points to define you. I think the book reflects the kind of time we are living in now, in which few of us grew up in one place in one way. Our identities are more collage, more postmodern than ever before, and yet we long for the meaningful connection of family and long-term relationships. My book explores these feelings.

Raising a child is also where I find that I work the hardest. Parenting a boy, especially, is a challenge in a culture that feeds and distracts kids with video games which teach to capture and destroy, and with social mores which tell a boy that crying or feeling vulnerable at all is a weakness, a defect. My job protecting my son's emotional and psychic space, insisting that he be allowed the whole range of his feelings is enormous. And then negotiating the process of raising a child with brown skin in a culture which imprisons most of its brown-skinned males, is terrifying. How do I teach him to feel good about himself and not be paranoid while at the same time teaching him to be extra careful around police because they might harm him, kill him even, as he reaches for his registration?

There is still the specter of burnout though, of course. I handle it by trying hard to eat healthy organic food (lots of soy chocolate milk!) and getting a lot of rest and exercise. I also take good long breaks, where I go somewhere beautiful and recharge. I try to live a full, healthy, happy life. I don't believe in self sacrifice for the movement, I believe that the movement, if there is going to be one, has to be for me as much as it is for anyone else.

 

 

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