Rebecca Walker



by Jennifer Thaney ©, November 8, 2000


Rebecca Walker, third-wave feminist author, challenged feminist boundaries at a talk during a Re-Imagining Community gathering Oct. 27 in Minneapolis.

As members of the Re-Imagining Community determined who should speak at this year's millennial gathering, they opted for women who might push the envelope a bitwomen who represented the Re-Imagining Community's own penchant for the outer edges. Third-wave feminist Rebecca Walker and radical feminist theologian Mary Daly did exactly that, and then some. They challenged the boundaries of feminism, and then went on to challenge each other.

More than 500 women and men from 41 states and seven countries flocked to the Minneapolis Convention Center Oct. 26-28 to participate in the sixth gathering of the Re-Imagining Community. Like the first one held in 1993, this ecumenical conference set out to inform and reform the church in hopes that it becomes more inclusive and less hierarchical. In addition to Walker and Daly, the gathering featured talks by the Rev. Kathy Black of the Claremont School of Theology, Thandeka of Meadville/Lombard Theological School, and Delores Williams of Union Theological Seminary. The gathering also included workshops and ritual.

Simply put, said Rev. Sally Hill, one of the organizers of the first conference, "We are feminist."

But exactly what that means was up for grabs, as demonstrated by the messages delivered by Walker and Daly. In her morning address, Walker called for a new kind of activism, one that is rooted in the work of our second-wave feminist mothers but is more open to contradiction and complexity.

"We need to bring together people of all different backgrounds so that we are multi-racial, multi-class, multi-issue and multi-sexual orientation," Walker said during an interview with MWP.

Young women and men are being feminist in ways that differ from the doing, thinking and being of the previous generation, she continued. "We are less likely to think about womanhood as essential, less likely to think in terms of clear-cut generalities about what it means to be a woman, or just about anything."

To make the transition from second-wave feminism to third wave requires a paradigm shift, Walker explained. "Our work needs to be less about trying to convince people they are feminist than it is to get the basic things people need in order to survive, and provide them with access to those resources. ... Third-wave feminism is not a codified, separate movement in our lives, but is something we do every day. We don't have to leave our lives to go be a part of some consciousness-raising seminar. We are living these things constantly, and we find sustenance and support in so many different places for our burgeoning empowerment. ... We don't need to try and get our [feminist] category included in others, but rather try to deconstruct the notions of categories."

In her afternoon address Daly disputed the concept of third-wave feminism, though she had not heard Walker's address earlier in the day. "I disagree with the term 'third-wave' feminism because it seems to cut off the third wave from the second," Daly said. "Communication with our foresisters is necessary."

At that point, 500 necks craned toward Walker, no doubt wondering what she thought of Daly's criticism. They found out when, at the end of Daly's message, Walker stood.

Mindful of Daly, Walker began by telling her she considered her "one of the most incredible thinkers on the planet." But, clarified Walker, "in choosing to use the term third wave, I was referring to young women and men who are turning away from the [feminist] movement altogether." Using language like third wave implies that we are connected, yet different, she said. "It's not about replacing, but joining, it's about maintaining connection and maintaining difference."

While Walker's comments elicited a grumbling acknowledgment from Daly at first, another member of the audience stood and implored Daly to say more. She did.

Referring to the "fabric of unseen connectedness" she had talked about in her speech, Daly said her views didn't seem so different from Walker's after all. The feminist movement of the '70s was not dead, Daly had said earlier, but rather its energy has dissipated. "We need to forge new strengths and skills ... that are inspired by inherited memories and glories but are better suited to the demands of the present environment." Call it third-wave feminism or call it the fabric of unseen connectedness, Daly said, there is still work to be done, and that work calls the feminist community together.

Daly's own personal struggle is proof of that. A professor of feminist ethics at Boston College, Daly was tenured in 1969. For 25 years she taught in an all-women classroom, with an independent study option for interested male students.

Then, in 1998, a male student challenged Daly's classroom policy and is being represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a law firm that threatened to sue Boston College for sex discrimination based on Title IX, a federal law intended to provide women with equal access to education. In response, Boston College administrators presented Daly with an ultimatum: admit men to her classes, retire, or resign.

Daly refused all of the above, and in the spring of 1999 Boston College announced that she had resigned. Despite the fact that Daly had not signed any such resignation notice, her name and courses were removed from all preregistration materials and catalogues and her office was closed. Daly filed a lawsuit against Boston College for violating the terms of her tenure, and will go to trial Feb. 7.

"I'm very desperate to win this lawsuit," Daly said, and appealed to the audience to make contributions to the Mary Daly Defense Fund. "They've disappeared me, savagely and illegally."

This is not an issue concerning just Daly and Boston College, she said, referring to the school as a "hick Jesuit institution."

"This is about what we are doing to all women and minorities," Daly said. "This is happening to lesbians, to women of color, to anyone who appears deviant. It is the silencing of intelligence.

They want me dead," Daly continued, referring to Boston College. "They want every radical feminist dead. The silencing of all strong women's voices is a stealth attack ... and it is not just a coincidence that it is happening at the same time they are destroying animals and the earth. ... Our society is characterized by the inability to leave anything alone."

It seems as if that fabric of unseen connectedness is woven even more tightly than we realize, Daly said, referring to how surprisingly little times have changed since 1870, when suffragist Susan B. Anthony addressed a crowd, saying, "The fact is, women are in chains, and their servitude is all the more debasing because they do not realize it. O, to compell them to see and feel, and to give them the courage and conscience to speak and act for their own freedom, though they face the scorn and contempt of all the world for doing it!"

"So that," Daly said, "is what I'm suggesting we do."

For more information about Mary Daly's lawsuit or to make a contribution, contact the Mary Daly Defense Fund, P.O. Box 381176, Cambridge, MA 02238-1176. Call (781) 433-7309 or e-mail

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