Where Do We Go From bell?

Is it true that feminisms are everywhere? Are they really, as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards suggest, “in the water”?

Yes and yes. From music, film and literature to the online world of social networking and blogging, women are (and have been) creating kick-ass political analyses and social commentary on the intersection of oppressive social forces (racism, classism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism). Young feminists are being inspired by the classics– bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, Betty Friedan, Chandra Talpade Mohanty.

Yet when I teach college-level women’s studies courses, I’m always asked by students, “Where is the movement today?” At the heart of this is not so much a question of where the movement is, but what the movement looks like and how they can be part of it.

bell hooks has an answer. In an Essence.com article celebrating Women’s History Month, she had this to say about the impact of the women’s movement, past and present:

I think the Women’s movement has had a major impact on everybody’s lives in our nation and in the world as a whole. When people ask where is the movement today, it is in everybody’s life, happening in ways that people may not see as the movement. Whenever women struggle with breast cancer and face better care than ever, that’s feminism. I see the movement every day in all of our lives and in so many things that people take for granted.

So why do some feminist leaders fear that we’re living in the feminist “end of days”–an argument that ultimately falls on the backs of young women? For example, earlier this year, there was much debate about comments made by NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan in a Newsweek article on the lack of young people supporting abortion rights, an issue close to the hearts of many American feminists. This comes at a time when the conservative movement’s declaration of “feminism” à la Sarah Palin, Jan Brewer and the Mama Grizzlies presents a real threat to the feminist movement (or at the very least to its public perception). The conservative appropriation of feminist imagery calls into question the place of ideological difference and the necessary feminist leadership to challenge these erroneous claims to the movement. Are feminists drinking the Kool-Aid of the Christian right by espousing a pseudo-apocalyptic warning of an end to feminist activism?

Of course this is a clichéd argument. Bloggers such as Stephanie Herold of Campus Progress and Courtney Martin of Feministing have lambasted the so-called feminist leadership malaise and put a face to some of the most amazing online, campus and community organizing projects by young women. These women have energized the feminist zeitgeist with the emergence of countless blogs, books, documentaries and grassroots activism that intersect social networking and new media with good ol’ direct action. Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere have encouraged millions of young people to voice their outrage and break the silence about issues relevant to their everyday lives. Activism on college campuses is strong and steady, with campus chapters of organizations such as Feminist Majority Foundation, NOW, and Radical Women. I’m constantly inspired by the writings of young women on feminism today, including anthologies like Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape and The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities.

The critique of feminist leadership launched at young women is often referred to as a generational divide among feminists. This is not necessarily the case. Jessica Stites, associate editor of Ms., called out Jezebel blogger Tracie Egan Morrissey for perpetuating the generational beef among feminists, and revealed it for what it really is: an ideological debate. Self-proclaimed feminist writers must engage in debate and critique that is constructive rather than damaging. This form of feminist hateration is antithetical to collective social movement organizing.

bell hooks argues that compassion and love are central to feminist leadership. In her book Outlaw Culture, she denounced politically progressive radicals for their lack of a sustained focus on love because of the “collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns.” Movement work is psychologically, emotionally and often physically taxing. We’re constantly working from a place of expediency and reacting to the eminent threats of our communities. Many turn their back on activism because interpersonal strife within the movement disenchants them.

Social transformation of any kind requires the support of a political community that is both local and interconnected through a critical media presence. Solidarity among individuals within feminist communities must come from a system of support through the recognition of difference, the fellowship of collective struggle, and personal and collective accountability. bell hooks’ ideas provide strategies and effective language to get us going.

So where do we go from bell? Back to the real work of grassroots community organizing, using old and new tactics inspired by women across the ideological and technological divide. Oh, and remembering to call out feminist posers like Palin and Brewer who claim to be about women’s freedom without actually supporting policies that better our lives.

Photo from Flickr user Rich Anderson through Creative Commons License 2.0.


Dr. Mako Fitts Ward is Clinical Assistant Professor and Faculty Lead of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She is the co-founder of "Women Who Rock," a digital archive project at the University of Washington and collective of musicians, media-makers, performers, artists, scholars and activists committed to documenting the role of women in popular music and the formation of cultural scenes and social justice movements. Ward has published essays on body ethics and aesthetics among women of color, media and gender images, women in hip-hop, gentrification and cultural displacement, and Black women’s social movement organizing in the early 20th century.