The interview below is part of the Ms. Blog’s “Telling Her Story” series for Women’s History Month. Check back throughout March for more profiles of women doing great things in their communities.
Teresa Younger has a message for us: “Speak up, speak often and speak loudly.”
Younger discovered her own voice at an early age and has made a career of using it to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. Her latest role: president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which was founded in 1973 by Patricia Carbine, Letty Cottin-Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas and Marie C. Wilson (many of whom also founded Ms. magazine) to support policy changes and grassroots efforts addressing women’s equality in the U.S. Now in her second year at the nonprofit, Younger wants to bring a more diverse group of supporters into the fold—even if they don’t realize they’re feminists.
I chatted with Younger recently about why “feminism” is such a tricky word, and about her one big wish for the Ms. Foundation’s 45th anniversary. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The full interview can be found on Inflection Point.
Lauren Schiller: So much of your life’s work has been dedicated to helping women and girls. Would you say that this is a personal mission?
Teresa Younger: It really is a personal mission. I feel very fortunate to be working at the Ms. Foundation, and it seems to be exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing the work I’m doing right now: elevating and amplifying the voices of women and girls across the country. I’ve grown up all of my life recognizing that not everybody has a voice and that in order to have the most progressive and democratic country we can, we have to have as many voices at the table as possible. This role supporting women in their communities is a natural fit for me.
When you started running the organization about two years ago, you traveled around the country to meet the groups that were already being supported by the Ms. Foundation. What were some of the biggest opportunities that you identified through that listening tour?
The people I met didn’t readily identify as feminists. But when I described the value of feminism as the social, political and economic equality of all genders, they said, “Yes, that defines that I believe in.” They would say to me, “This movement that you’re talking about is really many movements. It’s not just the women’s movement, but rather the movements that are affecting the lives of women. We want to be part of it, whatever it is. We want to be part of making the world a better place.”
We’ve succeeded in our society to divide people up. Each time I sat with different groups, I would hear: “You don’t want me.” “You” meaning the women’s movement. The trans community would say, “We’re not feeling welcome and safe.” Men were saying, “You don’t want us in this conversation.” Young women were saying, “You don’t understand, and you don’t want us in this conversation.” Women of color were saying, “You’re not hearing what we have to say.”
We’ve since put together a campaign that talks about feminism as a value, as a social, political and economic equality of all genders. We’re inviting people to be part of that conversation, and we’re in the process of expanding the tent so that everybody feels included in the conversation.
I’ve been wondering lately if the word “feminism” needs a new brand campaign because of what you just described, where you put the word out there and the response is, “Oh, no, no, no, no, that’s not me.” Then you explain it and they say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, that is me.”
People have asked me that very question: Do we need a new word? I don’t think we do. I think we just need to own the word “feminism,” and then we need to own the values and the definition behind it. Then we need to find safe places to allow people to feel comfortable with the terminology.
Will you take us inside one of the organizations that the Ms. Foundation supports that demonstrates these values?
The Ms. Foundation has three key priority areas: health, safety and economic justice. While I was on my listening tour, I visited Young Women United, a reproductive justice organization based in New Mexico that is geared towards women 35 and younger. Young Women United had been promoting legislation that allowed for young parents, particularly young mothers who were pregnant, to develop a family medical leave so that they could come back to school, do the work, and graduate on time—not get kicked out for having a child.
We were celebrating the first anniversary of this legislation that had passed. In rushes this young woman with a baby on her hip. She pulls out her piece of paper and says, “I’m so sorry that I’m late today, but I want to tell you this has been an amazing year for me. I graduated from high school with my friends, I married the father of my son, and I am late because today was my first day of college and I stayed after to speak with my professor. This little boy on my hip, this is my son, Manuel.”
She said to the young parents in the room, “I would’ve never thought of speaking in front of a crowd, and yet now I tell my story as often as possible. I made it to Santa Fe and I testified in front of a legislature about why this legislation was so important. Today, I’m standing in front of you telling you must get your education, you must advocate for yourself, and you must advocate for your children.”
What is most important about this story is this young woman, at 19, is now somebody who is actively engaged in the democratic process, and that’s what we really want to see happen.
The Ms. Foundation has been around since 1973. What would you like to be celebrating on its 45th anniversary?
I’d really like to see the percentage of funding for women and girls increase. We don’t see the best strategies possible because most nonprofits headed by women of color are scrambling to make sure that they can pay the bills and keep the lights on. We need them to spend their time on developing the strategies to have the greatest impact in their community.
Well, it feels like so many of the issues that the Ms. Foundation tackles have been topics of conversation since the time the organization was founded.
I think what we sometimes forget is that no battle is ever truly over. The reality is we will have to continue to have these conversations, discussions, debates and we need to find the time and the energy to make that happen. I’m very optimistic, because I think because of Title IX, because of Title VII, because of Roe v .Wade, we have a whole group of men who understand women’s rights in a very different way. We have a whole group of women in this country who understand what they can do in a very different way. Jobs are not posted in the newspaper separately for men and for women. Women can serve in the military. They can serve in the legislature.
This conversation won’t be over in two years, in 10 years or in 20 years. There are many complexities that we still need to face, where race and gender intersect, where race, age and gender intersect, where regionality comes into the conversation. All of those questions can’t be resolved overnight, nor will they be.
You were the first African American and the first woman to serve as the ACLU of Connecticut’s executive director. When you showed up to work on day one, did you feel like you needed to represent both your race and your sex? Or is it just like, “I’m here to do the job,” and that part is irrelevant?
I had grown up in an environment that wasn’t racially diverse. Being the one and the only in a room was always something that I anticipated. Being the first was something I never anticipated. What I recognize is that there are still opportunities for women, women of color, to be the first in everything we do. What I needed to do was recognize the shoulders by which I was standing on were those both of women and those of people of color and to make sure I did them proud in the work they had done to lay the pavement for me to come forward.
I oftentimes talk about the fact that I stand in the shade of trees that I did not plant, and I walk down roads that I did not pave, and I drink from wells that I did not drill. My responsibility, where I am now in my life as a 46-year-old black woman leading a national women’s foundation, is to make sure that I water the trees and that I re-lay the pavement and that I maintain the wells, so that the next generation that comes after me understands it didn’t just happen that way.
Was speaking up for yourself and others something that you’ve always known how to do and felt comfortable doing?
Yeah. I always say be careful what you ask for. Don’t tell your child to speak up for themselves and then not expect them to. When I was in second grade, I was misbehaving on the playground and my teacher walked over to me and she said, “I expect more from you than this.” I remember to this day that exchange. I just looked up at this woman, the first black teacher I had ever had, and I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh. I’m being watched, people are paying attention and they expect more from me.” I think I carried that through.
We used to go to school off base. Once, as the bus driver was driving us back to the base, he was telling us where to sit. It seemed to me that all of the children of color were being placed in the back of the bus. He had told me I couldn’t talk on the bus and that I needed to be quiet. Of course I was organizing all the students in the back to say something, and everybody was afraid. They didn’t want their parents to get in trouble. When we pulled up to the gate, I remember opening the window and yelling out the window, “This bus driver is a racist, and it’s not fair what he’s doing.” The poor military police officer at the gate didn’t know what to do. He pulled the bus over, and our parents had to come and get us at the gate. My mom asked what happened. I said, “The bus driver just can’t treat people meanly. He’s got to be fair. He can’t just tell us where we can sit and can’t sit.” I think for me it was about the fairness of the conversation. Why did certain people have to do what he was telling them to do? So I think early on I had my voice.
I felt like I needed to protect other people with that voice, or at least give voice for people who are afraid. Then I would often times challenge authority. That has always been something that I’ve done.
What is the best advice that you’ve ever received about speaking up for yourself?
You have a voice, and it needs to be heard. People don’t need to agree with what you say, but you need to be able to say it. Speak up, speak often and speak loudly. There are times and places where sometimes you just listen, and you determine how you want your voice to be heard and when. I found that not everybody has been told that. Not everybody has been valued and not everybody has been supported in speaking up. We need those voices. That is what informs the conversations that are going on.