Rebecca Walker
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Friday, February 29, 2008

Feminist In-fighting 101

 

There is a lot of discussion about "feminist in-fighting" of late, spurred by the election. Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com is doing a piece on the subject for The Nation. Here is my response to her query:

1. The fact is there have always been many "feminisms,"but one dominant, more visible Feminism, which is essentially comprised of the needs, views, and philosophies of straight white women with a certain degree of privilege. Now we can add "and of a certain age" to that list. Women of different backgrounds have been speaking to this issue of exclusivity for decades, and their critiques have been voluminous. The lack of resolution of these critiques is currently manifesting in an exacerbated form, and labeled "infighting." There are no new issues on the table. For example, my mother, Alice Walker, did not create the term "womanist" in the late seventies because she was feeling creative. I did not offer the concept of Third Wave in the nineties because I wanted to inject a catchy phrase into the Feminist discourse. And, many "mainstream" women did not reject the Feminist label in the sixties to present because they don't know what Feminism really is.

The complaints brought against Feminism include racism, classism, ageism, out of touchism, and a certain tendency toward First World arrogance. There has been an enduring wariness in communities of color specifically, about Feminism's mantra of independence rather than interdependence with male family members and the world at large. This would include Feminism's ambivalence about motherhood, marriage, and domestic life in general. This would include Feminism's divisive and ultimately unhelpful commentary that women need men like fish need bicycles (women need their grandfathers, fathers, sons, brothers, etc for a host of reasons too lengthy and obvious to list here). This would include Feminism's dismissal of religion itself based on its patriarchal leadership. This would include Feminism's characterization of young women who don't fall in line with the Feminist status quo as naive and ungrateful. This would include Feminism's short-sidedness that will ultimately undo the work of their anointed protegees.

Simply put, if Feminism was Wal-Mart, and had as many decades-old unresolved grievances against it, it would have long ago been bankrupt.

2. What we see in this election is the zenith of the decades-old struggle between women of different sensibilities seeking empowerment, enfranchisement, and their rightful share of the resources available. The issue at hand has to do with Feminism's (not feminism's) inability to respond adequately to the claims brought against it. If, for instance, the leadership had taken the aforementioned critiques, including those in my 1995 book To Be Real, seriously, many younger women might not feel so alienated from a movement that achieved so much for them. Women of color at large might not still be skeptical of what they perceive to be Feminism's true agenda--to empower the few and not the many. Men, many of whom would be allies to feminism's cause, would not feel attacked, rejected and alienated from a movement that held great potential benefit for them as well.

The rise of Women for Obama then, to some extent has to do with Feminism's creation of a vacuum. This is why, for instance, a Wal-Mart would "go green" at the insistence of its customers. If Wal-Mart did not respond to the messages of its base, its base would go elsewhere. To a consumer environment that better suits their sensibilities an aspirations, perhaps. The same could be said about Feminism.

3. Overall, the response of Second Wave Feminist leadership has been a stubborn insistence that it has already accommodated the aforementioned views and critiques, and that if people would just understand the "real" history, this would all be cleared up. There does not seem to be an understanding that this very response is problematic, insulting and trivializing to those who have brought forward these concerns. It is not that this diverse community of challengers is ignorant, it is that they have surmised the landscape to find many of their concerns and reservations confirmed. It is no secret that, just as middle class blacks have benefited the most from the civil rights movement and the rest are either impoverished or in jail, so have a certain group of women been the primary beneficiaries of Feminism.

To continue the analogy, if Wal-Mart claimed it had made the switch to green, but the products on its shelves were, in fact, not reflective of that claim, Wal-Mart would lose the faith of its customers and again, over time, be forced into bankruptcy.

4. Based on the above, I am not entirely certain that the calls decrying Feminism's death are incorrect or even undesirable. Perhaps a Feminism that has not responded to the needs of its constituents needs to die. Perhaps Obama is unintentionally killing Feminism and facilitating the rise of "feminisms." We shall see. He has clearly addressed the issue of ageism. Young people are not marginalized in his campaign or team of advisors. In fact, young people of all backgrounds have come out in support of his message by the hundreds of thousands. This generation has yet to do the same for Feminism.

 
 
 

AlterNet: Reproductive Justice and Gender: The Medical Right Falls Hard for Ultrasounds -- At the Expense of Women's Health

 
AlterNet: Reproductive Justice and Gender: The Medical Right Falls Hard for Ultrasounds -- At the Expense of Women's Health

Okay, this really is the last one today. I had to include for all you pregnant moms out there. I wrote about my skepticism of the medicalization of my pregnancy in Baby Love. This is a good contribution to the discussion.
 
 
 

Committed: Why a black Ohio congresswoman is sticking with Hillary Clinton. | Views | TheRoot.com

 
Committed: Why a black Ohio congresswoman is sticking with Hillary Clinton. | Views | TheRoot.com

One more and then I'm done for the day. I like these pieces about women sticking with Hillary. This one is especially powerful.
 
 
 

Why the Farrakhan litmus test must go. | Views | TheRoot.com

 
Why the Farrakhan litmus test must go. | Views | TheRoot.com


Great piece and conversation on a controversial point that shouldn't be so controversial. When was the last time George Bush was taken to the mat over David Duke or any other hugely problematic white leader?
 
 
 
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nextbook: Up Against the Man

 
Nextbook: Up Against the Man


Hey all--sitting at LAX waiting to go home when this article came up on the transom. I like the points Lynn Harris makes: the divisive aspect of characterizing Obama-ites as young and future thinking and Clintonians as the old, the stodgy, the uncool. In a campaign about uniting, there seems to be a lot of dividing afoot.

For mixed families, cultural, racial and political, this could be the most challenging election ever. At the moment, it's hard to know what the fall-out from this will be. Someone is going to lose. How do you think that will play out in the country, and at home?


 
 
 
Saturday, February 23, 2008

Leveraging the Power of Race and Gender

 
Leveraging the Power of Race and Gender

Hey from beautiful San Miguel de Allende. Did a talk at the literary festival here and had a wonderful time with some super smart expats, all eager to engage on issues of writing memoir and surviving it. Any of you out in SMA, the memoir writing workshop is Monday from 3-6. Come on down!

Check out this piece by Kavita Nandini Ramdas, Leveraging the Power of Race and Gender. We met years ago when we were both honored with the Women Who Could Be President Award from the League of Women Voters. Hers is a smart, interesting, and more international view of the election.

I've been watching with interest the turn HRC's campaign is taking, and how the media reacts. Seems no matter which way she turns, she's motherized. She's either team leader soccer mom, cold and stoic mom,vulnerable and loving mom, or now, this new incarnation, scolding mom.

Much has been written on the paternalism of the President, the way the citizenry identifies the president as the ultimate father/protector. I'd like to see HRC embrace being the mother of the nation rather than evade or tip-toe around the gender issue. She should take a few lessons from Queen Elizabeth, or even just Cate Blanchett.

Being a mother is nothing to be ashamed of.



 
 
 
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Root | TheRoot.com

 
The Root | TheRoot.com

Hey peeps, here's a short spot of local flavor by yours truly. I wish the HBO ad wasn't right in the middle, but what are you gonna do? Happy Hawaiian primary!

xo
 
 
 
Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Is Michelle Obama? | Newsweek Politics: Campaign 2008 | Newsweek.com

 
 

Quote of the day: Obama on Clinton

 
Quote of the day: Obama on Clinton

Do you think the word "feel" is inappropriate here? It uses Clinton's gender against her by associating her responses with irrational emotion (always seen as weaker) than certainty, logical thinking, and a determination to win. My biggest concern about Obama? He married Michelle, but forgot to take Women's Studies 101 at Harvard.
 
 
 

Samantha Power, Barack Obama's campaign, foreign policy | Salon News

 
Samantha Power, Barack Obama's campaign, foreign policy | Salon News

To be clear: I'm still on the fence, but as I gather information about the candidates, I continue to be impressed by the team Obama has brought together. Passionate, incredibly smart, with a good grasp of both the analytical and the heart and soul of the matter. They are multi-racial, women and men, community and ivy-league trained.

I understand the concerns about their youth, but how much longer will young leaders have to wait to put their future first ideas into action? My father was 26 when he won lawsuits against white segregationists in Mississippi. My mother was twenty-five when she published her first collection of poetry.

If not now, when?
 
 
 
Saturday, February 16, 2008

For EcoMoms, Saving Earth Begins at Home - New York Times

 
For EcoMoms, Saving Earth Begins at Home - New York Times

So glad to see this. I just wrote a piece about being an eco-mom for the upcoming collection The Maternal Is Political, edited Shari MacDonald Strong. It's an uphill battle and I wish I could sell my SUV and buy a Prius like, this afternoon, but amazingly, Maui doesn't even have public recycling!

Here are a few of my favorite eco-friendly things:








What are yours? I'm always on the hunt. At the moment looking for non-plastic kids cups...

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mad, Mad, Men

 

I continue to be amazed by the dexterity of the writers and creators of Mad Men. Each episode, including the one I just watched on Itunes about Draper's wife being used as a pawn in her husband's business dealings, is so smart in the way it handles the misogyny and backwardness of pre-feminist white America.

The show deals with the conflict between the beats and the straights, the counter cultural left and the Nixon right, the woman who wants to be judged on the merits of her mind and the women who think going to work is synonymous with looking for a husband. It deconstructs the supposedly assured hyper-butch provider masculinity and shows that beneath it lies a complex, insecure little boy dying to make his mother/wife happy.

It shows that while the "little lady" is going insane with boredom in a Valium induced haze at home, the "big man" is jockeying for position at work, and fielding literal and psychological punches from men more and less powerful than himself.

It's gripping, really. Like a horrible accident. Down to the black men working as elevator "boys," and the Jewesses in the garment business who can get the ad men to take their company accounts but never, ever, anything more. There's the closeted gay man, too, suave and gorgeous, and eternally alone. There's the incessant drinking and smoking standing in for real, human interaction; and those damning issues of class, status, and who can afford what apartment in New York.

I'm writing about Mad Men because all of the coverage I read doesn't seem to get how smart it is. Perhaps because it is too awful to imagine that it represents 1950's white America the way it really was. And maybe because if it can be recreated so deftly, a lot of that so-called lost world must remain.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Nextbook: Chosen People

 
Nextbook: Chosen People

I don't know if it was being with all those Jews at the SF Jewish Community Center last night, or thinking more about what spiritual tradition my partner and I should pass on to our son, but I found myself wondering about the black jewish thing today.

I came across this very interesting podcast on the largest African-American synagogue in America. It raises important questions about what it means to be Jewish. Most people consider Jewishness to be synonymous with European culture, as most American Jews descended primarily from Eastern Europe, some via what was then called Palestine. But what does it mean to be Jewish for someone from Uganda, or the South side of Chicago?

This is a must listen for anyone interested in the subject.

PS It's cold cold cold in Philadelphia! But I am looking forward to speaking at St. Joe's tomorrow. Hope to see you there!

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Monday, February 11, 2008

It's Monday so I must be in San Francisco

 
Hey you guys,

A couple of things I noticed today while in SF doing a very fun event with Peggy Orenstein, author of Waiting for Daisy. For all you bi-racial or bi-curious people, here is an interesting article by her on the subject of being a white mother of a mixed race daughter.

1. Hillary replaced her top aide with Maggie Williams, a woman of color. I'm not hearing it on mainstream news, but the woman of color vote is clearly growing in importance. It's the real swing vote. Obviously, Ms. Williams has been brought on for more than her race, but still, from where I sit, women of color have never had so much electoral power. We need to claim it, flex it, and not let anyone delude themselves into thinking we don't have a major impact on the national psyche. On the other front, if HRC wants to win, and I'm not saying she should, I hope Ms. Williams gets good council on HRC's pitch. Talk about needing a good writer...

2. I walked around a bit today, wandering through the stores at Union Square, peeking into the new Museum of the African Diaspora, resisting the urge to go into the Apple Store to gape at the new Air laptop, eating at my favorite Japanese restaurant, and so on. I grew up in this city and in twenty years, I have never seen so many empty stores. Never seen so many of the stores I've had to elbow my way through in the past completely without traffic. I asked one salesperson if business was slow. He told me, at four pm, that I was the first potential customer he'd spoken to all day. Tonight on Lou Dobbs, a few analysts opined that we may be sliding into a possible recession but indicators still look good. Uh-huh.

3. My dear friend Bruce and cousin Howard are in town shooting a film about assassinated gay City Supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk was, according to Time Magazine, "The first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet." I can't wait to see their film about one of the most important figures in the gay rights, and thus, human rights struggles of the 20th century. What I gleaned? Be heroic. Your actions will inspire others forever. No really, I'm serious. Oh, and always give your nearest and dearest big bear hugs on cold SF corners (which is what Bruce, Howard and I did), no matter what time it is. You never know how long it will be until you see them again.

More from Philadelphia.





 
 
 
Saturday, February 09, 2008

Toni Morrison's Letter to Barack Obama | The New York Observer

 
Toni Morrison's Letter to Barack Obama | The New York Observer


I'm sure you've seen this, but I found it quite moving and eloquent.

He's going to win. Then it will be on to McCain.
 
 
 
Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Jesse Jackson Needs To Blame Media, Not Barack Obama For Neglecting Issues Facing Blacks

 
Jackson Needs To Blame Media, Not Barack Obama For Neglecting Issues Facing Blacks

Found this list interesting in light of the constant questions about whether Obama is black enough.
 
 
 
Tuesday, February 05, 2008

ABC News

 
ABC News

Hey check out my webcast on ABC News today on Hillary and Obama.

Short, but sweet.
 
 
 
Sunday, February 03, 2008

Modern Beauty

 
So today I got an email from a young high-school student in Australia, Patricia, doing a report on Third Wave and Women's Magazines. Because she heard somewhere that I founded Third Wave (true), she sent some questions and I did my best to answer. How'd I do?

1. What is your personal definition of "modern feminism"?

Any act or thought that leads to a safer, healthier, more equitable and enjoyable experience for women and the people who love them.

2. How do you think mainstream girls/women's magazines have impacted upon "modern" feminism?

Girl's/Women's magazines impact women positively and negatively. They provide a sense of community, a location for fantasies of glamour, a shared generational visual language, a heightened appreciation for fashion, and content that is relevant and helpful for girls and women, i.e. articles on breast cancer prevention, body-image issues, and the plight of women in other countries.

However, the magazines are at odds with their own goals of befriending the reader. By defining beauty in a limited way-white, thin, rich, overly-sexualized, and objectified-the magazines manufacture in girls and women a desire to alter ourselves, or, even worse, to question the worth and fabulousness of our own (i.e. not white, not thin, not rich) lives in comparison to those portrayed in the magazine. And because models don't speak, their fabulousness is all about how they look, not how they feel. The reader begins to see herself that way, to focus more on the external, "Do I look okay?' than on the internal, "Am I okay?"

Lately, my biggest concern with women's magazines is the rabid obsession with consumerism they espouse. It's not just about looking like the model, sharing the same silhouette or hair style, it's about being able to buy the two thousand dollar pair of shoes, the sublimely supple three thousand dollar handbag. The paper is slick, the photography flawless, the styling outrageously seductive. The end result: Where is my credit card? How can I make more money? What do I have to do to get that? All of which can undermine financial stability, career options, and self-esteem.

That said, as a sporadic reader of women's magazines, I believe readers can, with a healthy dose of restraint and mindfulness, have an interactive relationship with a fashion glossy. That is, the reader does not have to be a passive absorber of the messages of the magazine, but can pick and choose, based on their level of insight into these matters, which ideas and images to integrate into their consciousness. Readers can also read/look with a sense of irony and critique, changing the offensive material into a piece of cultural matter to be engaged and partially rejected, and not mindlessly shaped by. This line of thought is consistent with the Third Wave idea that women are not only victims, but agents in our own lives; our work as Third Wavers is not just to diminish victimization but to amplify agency.

3. What do you think of the direction that these mainstream magazines are headed in? Negative or positive and why?

Mainstream magazines depend on advertising dollars to survive, which is why the magazines reflect so directly the interests of those advertisers. Make-up, pharmaceutical cosmetics, fashion, etc., will continue to claim more pages, and meaningful, unsubsidized content will continue to fall away unless there is significant intervention.

As media empires are driven toward healthier trends by consumers-like green products and conflict-free diamonds-I believe we will see some positive change. Supporting the Dove campaigns for Real Beauty is one way to apply the needed pressure for change. Dove is having an incredible impact on women, girls and the industry at large by expanding the standard of beauty in their models, and initiating dynamic public discussion about the right for women to feel good about themselves as they are.

4. Is there a counter balance to whatever effects these particular mainstream magazines have? Any examples?

Women have to take responsibility for loving and accepting ourselves, period. There is an old Langston Hughes poem about a woman looking for her reflection in a sink full of dirty dishwater. We will never see ourselves if we keep looking to the wrong places for glimpses of our beauty. We live in an amazing moment. Never before have there been so many incredible women at our fingertips. From Frida Kahlo to Anais Nin, Yoko Ono to Angela Davis. With a simple Google search we can see some of the most brilliant and fashionable women in the world. These women of history should become our magazines, our friends, our mentors across time.

Other measures for counterbalance include education: readers should know who profits from the magazines and how the mags function as pieces of pop culture. Feedback about beauty and everything else should come from reliable sources that know and love us. Women and girls need to be involved in cultivating dynamic lives. I am learning French, swim as much as I can, study Tibetan Buddhism, travel as much as possible, read, cuddle with my partner and son. There is so much with which to build a life filled with happiness. The magazines can be an alternate world, almost like a drug, that delude one into thinking that happiness is in there, in that make believe world, rather than out here, in the life you have. Not true!

Exposure to international standards of beauty is also helpful. In Mali a woman is not considered beautiful unless she has a large forehead. To realize that different cultures have different ways of defining beauty helps us to understand that ours is also just cultural, just local, and not universal. This can be quite liberating.

I could go on and on, but we should also remember that women and girls choose to read women's magazines. Why not research what they like about them, and then create a magazine that includes those aspects while transforming the others. SASSY magazine was very successful at this, partly because young women made it themselves. What about non-profits or patrons coming forward to support pro-woman, content-positive pages in women's magazines without losing some of the other elements that make the mags pop?

What about enlightened beauty product companies, again, like Dove, nudging editorial in a more healthy direction? Or maybe Dove can found a magazine in the same way Oprah did, based on their already successful campaign concept? I'd read that.

5. Do you believe that magazines aimed at teenage girls/young women encourage them to foster unrealistic expectations? If so, what?

I am troubled that glossy mainstream women's magazines suggest that by dressing, looking, and spending a certain way, the girl/woman will be assured respect, love, success, adoration, and attention; in short, a fabulous life. In real life fabulousness is more about balance, choice, access, safety, opportunity, intelligence. It's way more complicated than the way it looks in a magazine spread, and it takes a lifetime of hard work-internal and external.

6. Any extra comments/ remarks?

It's important to remember that the adornment and objectification of female beauty is an ancient ritual; women's magazines are only contemporary versions on a theme dating back to before Nefertiti donned her exquisite crown and applied her dramatic eyeliner. Critiques of the magazines are absolutely justified, but should be carefully considered. Female beauty will always be powerful, we just want every woman to feel and own that power.

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