Walker is a co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation,
a national activist, philanthropic organization for young
women aged 15 to 30. Her anthology To Be Real: Telling
the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism explores
the struggle of young women to redefine and reclaim feminism.
Daughter of writer Alice Walker and civil rights lawyer
Mel Leventhal, Rebecca has written about her childhood in
her memoirs Black White and Jewish, Autobiography of
a Shifting Self. Her newest book, What Makes a Man:
22 Writers Imagine the Future examines different aspects
of masculinity. In 1994, Time Magazine named her one of
the 50 influential American leaders under 40.
Days before giving birth to her first biological child,
Rebecca Walker took some time to share with Sangamithra
Iyer her thoughts on feminism today.
you describe the Third Wave of feminism and how it addresses
the shortcomings of the movements that came before, specifically
with respect to race?
Third Wave was founded in response to the idea that young
people were apathetic and too busy trying to get their MBAs
to be concerned with social change; that feminism, or what
I would call "the movement for the eradication of discrimination
based on gender difference," was dead; and the idea
that men had no place in such a movement.
Third Wave was also a response to critiques of the Second
Wave. It was important to us (the founders) that Third Wave
be, at its very core, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-issue,
pan-sexual orientation, with people and issues from all
socio-economic backgrounds represented. We built an organization
with certain infrastructural mandates, so that it will never
be run by people who are not of color, or who are over 30,
or who are not at least somewhat cognizant of the needs
of GLBT and underprivileged and underserved communities.
There are many different ways to address race and racism
within organizations and movements, but the key is to make
sure that true diversity is at the very core. This takes
some effort in terms of finding commonality and developing
strategies for negotiating profound differences in outlook
and belief, but those are two goals we envisioned for Third
We [also] decided that social change agents (us) needed
to be paid for our labor. After watching a generation burn
itself out with little or no remuneration, we thought there
must be a way to financially survive an attempt to change
the world. Hence our original name: Third Wave Direct Action
Corporation. We had the idea that we could capitalize social
change work, which is really what the entire nonprofit youth
movement (which didn't exist then in the way we know it
now) is about.
When the founders of Third Wave Foundation came together
(Catherine Gund, Dawn Lundy Martin, Amy Richards, and myself)
in 1996 we were also responding to the political climate
of the moment and worrisome projections about the future.
Our concern was that young women were not a) recipients
of a large slice of the philanthropic pie (at the time something
like two percent of all philanthropic dollars went toward
women 15 to 30), and b) were not being cultivated to be
philanthropists themselves, having no understanding of the
importance of contributing resources to help others as a
way of redistributing wealth.
describe yourself as a feminist but not a Feminist, can
you elaborate on that distinction?
This is a very important point, and one that has put me
in a fairly controversial position within what is popularly
called the women's movement. I felt strongly when we were
founding Third Wave that the word feminist had become too
divisive and culturally loaded, and that it had inherent
problems in that it was a label that encouraged people who
did not consider themselves feminists to make baseless assumptions
about those who did, and encouraged people who did consider
themselves feminists to cultivate and codify a kind of morally
superior, Us vs. Them, Superwoman vs. the patriarchy kind
of identity. Neither, in my opinion, seemed to serve the
ultimate goals of gender equality and world peace. Because
I was very invested in building a bridge between Second
and Third Wave, I had no problem dropping "feminist"
from our in-house lexicon and culture. It seemed clear to
me that the term had more of a repellent effect than a magnetizing
one within my generation, and I did not feel the need to
prove my allegiance and gratitude to the women that came
before me by holding on to something that had meant so very
much to them, but did not mean that much to me.
Of course, this position also had racial ramifications,
in that many women of color do not feel an affinity with
the term because, among other things, we know firsthand
that people who call themselves feminists are not always
our friends. They have not de facto done their work around
race, the way we may not have de facto done our work around
class, for example, though would become appalled if we suggested
that some "feminists" were also racist.
In any case, this was a struggle that I lost within the
organization. Many of my colleagues, in addition to droves
of Second Wavers, found this to be a capitulation to mass
media's negative stereotyping of feminists. I believed it
was a smart organizing tool. The goal after all was for
young women and men to get involved in social change work,
not to become so attached to a word that we would spend
a lot of valuable energy trying to reclaim.
I continue to feel strongly that the left is getting our
collective ass kicked because of just this kind of romantic,
naïve attachment to movement narratives and aesthetics
of 20 and 30 years ago. The right moves fast, changing rhetoric
at will, lying if they have to, having no allegiance to
the past, doing whatever is necessary to win the battle.
We, on the other hand, are still taking the "moral
high ground" which is a) culturally constructed like
any other moral high ground, and b) not facilitating many
victories. My belief was and still is that if we could attract
young people by being in confluence with rather than opposition
to their resistance to the term, we could have real intergenerational
continuity and thus greater impact. I mean really, do you
think Christian fundamentalists are upset that George Bush
is calling their Christian crusade the War on Terror instead
of Contract with America or some other such? I don't think
so. The key is addressing social ills with rhetoric that
is effective on an intuitive as well as political level.
I still do not believe that the use of the term Feminist
galvanizes, unifies, or inspires at the moment. I think
it did at one time and that was fantastic. But not now.
you tell us a bit about your book What Makes a Man: 22 Writers
Imagine the Future? How do you feel feminism has shaped/can
shape the other gender?
WMAM is a collection of essays about the changing face of
masculinity. Most of the writers are men, all challenging
traditional ideas of what it means to be a man and sharing
their own more humane and psychologically integrated hopes
and dreams for manhood.
I decided to do the book after a discussion one night with
my son. He had come home from school and told me that he
wanted to play sports so that girls would like him. I was
shocked and appalled. He is so bright and at the time had
so many other interests. It was as if I had a daughter and
she had said she was going to pretend to be dumb so that
boys would like her.
It occurred to me that while many of us who grew up conscious
of the ways in which women and girls are forced into limiting
social scripts, we were not yet, as a culture, giving boys
the same kind of consideration. And while we are busy looking
the other way, the culture is seducing them with a kind
of hyper-violent masculinity in the form of video games,
advertising, movies, sporting events and comic books.
Once I began to really think about the programming slated
for boys, the more I realized that our beautiful sons are
being primed to go to war, to fight in battles not of their
own making, on behalf of people and interests who care very
little about them. I did the book so that I could hand my
son something to support him on the perilous journey of
becoming his own man. I never want him to equate domination,
killing, and control of others with being a real man, and
if he does, I don't want it to be because I was asleep on
the job and didn't try to provide options.
I think the women's movement has been key in making space
for a book like this, and for the men who are stepping out
of the shadows with their strength and vulnerability. If
species survival calls for men to be whatever women need
in order to ensure procreation, I think the women's movement
has made it possible for us to articulate a different set
of needs. Because we have laws, we no longer need the same
kind of physical protection from men, and because we work,
we no longer need them to provide the means for our survival.
What we need now are life partners, people with whom we
can share the trials and tribulations of life on a deep
and profound level, with whom we can strategize and make
effectual decisions on behalf of ourselves and our children.
I think many men are rising to this challenge. More encouraging
perhaps is that some women are letting them!
outcome of this past election has been disappointing and
heartbreaking for many. What advice do you have for activists
for the next four years under this administration?
I think we all pretty much know what the stakes are at this
point. New York is, after all, a blue state. It is important
to remember that it has been bad before. Awful. Black people
were enslaved and women couldn't vote, for starters. The
current state of things is discouraging but temporary, as
all states are. It is very important that we use our energy
to create the kinds of families and communities that can
stand and act as real counterpoints to what is currently
Peace will prevail, extinction is the only other option.
It may take centuries, but peace is what we need to spend
our time cultivating, especially in the midst of war, when
the tendency is to become more and not less obsessed with
the things that divide us.
you a vegetarian?
I was a vegetarian for eight years. It was not, ultimately,
a healthy choice for me. Now I support organic farming plus
free range and humanely grown chicken and beef products.
I don't believe in extreme views that do not take the complexity
of human beings' lives into consideration. Many people do
not live in climates that are conducive to vegetation for
instance, and have survived by eating animals for hundreds
if not thousands of generations. Should they, or their ancestors
in this country who have a genetic predisposition to eating
meat, be judged? And what about the insects that are killed
and displaced in the growing of vegetables? Do we not care
as much about them as we do about the animals? Of course,
I do not support the inhumane treatment of animals in the
commercial chicken and beef industries. But I also do not
support a simplistic, vegetarian-good, meat-eater-bad philosophy.
I heard you took the name Satya for a while. Can you
tell us about this?
For several years I had a very strong Hindu yoga practice.
I spent a fair amount of time at ashrams, living a yogic
lifestyle and studying Hinduism. During that period I felt
very drawn to the name Satya, not only because of Gandhi's
movement of the same name, but because it means truth, which
is something I was searching for at the time. Not necessarily
outer truth, but my own truth, my own clarity, my own system
to live by. Taking the name was a kind of reminder, an inspiration
for me to keep going, to keep shedding what was not important
and honing in on what is.
more information on Rebecca Walker visit www.rebeccawalker.com.
Rebecca would love to hear from Satya readers-feel free
to sign the guestbook and blog on.