In a conversation spanning topics like sexual harassment, abortion, immigrant rights and women’s leadership in progressive movements, United Farm Workers co-founder and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dolores Huerta supplied plenty of optimism and inspiration—and uncovered some new history—in an interview with Rachel Rosenbloom, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, for the feminist journal SIGNS.
As a life-long activist who has shaped movements for labor rights, immigration rights and women’s rights, Huerta comes to this current moment in feminist history with a unique vantage point. You can read a transcript of her interview on the SIGNS website and in their Autumn 2018 issue and listen to it by subscribing to the SIGNS podcast “Ask a Feminist“—but before you dig in, here are some of our favorite takeaways.
On the #MeToo Movement:
I think we as women have to stand up and make sure that this wave of energy doesn’t end, that it goes deeper, and that we make sure that in our workplaces where we work, and the areas where we can have influence, we make sure that the discussion continues… You know, we’ve got the momentum right now, we’ve got the energy, but we can’t let it die down. I think that’s what really worries me sometimes when you have some real public display of energy from people that want to change things, but then they think that the message is the end. And the message is not the end, the message is the beginning.
On the Women Who Make History:
I know we say that, and we say, “in history, you don’t see a lot of women.” But actually, you look at every single movement, whether it be the labor movement—you think of the Garment Workers’ Union, the strikes they had in New York City, for instance—it was all women-led. So, in all of these different movements that we had, we had a lot of women that are in leadership and they’re on the frontline. The problem is when the history gets written, they only recognize the men. The same thing with the civil rights movement, we had a lot of women besides Rosa Parks—you know, Dorothy Cotton—we had a lot of other women that were out there on the frontline. And yet when the books get written, they only focus on the men. So I think we have to challenge the way that history is written to make sure that the women are included. And in the labor movement also, we had women on the frontlines, and sometimes they get overlooked. I like to say that when the dust settles, and you institutionalize a movement, when you start putting the positions of power and they get either voted in or delegated or whatever, that’s when the women kind of drop off the radar, and then they’re not included in the power structure of that organization.
On Her Own Abortion Evolution:
I understood all of the issues of feminism except one, and that was the right to abortion. Because of my Catholic upbringing, you know, when you start going to church when you’re a little kid, and you hear everything the priests have to say, then you kind of get tainted, I think, with those, I would call them, false values. So to be able to change my mind on that issue, I have to say it was a struggle. I have eleven kids, you know, so you can see where my head was at. So that was difficult for me. But in a way, I’m glad I went through that because it helps me to be able to transfer that transition to other women, especially to Latina women, to make them understand that this is a basic right that women need to have. And access to abortion is a human right that women need to have because if you cannot have control over your body, it’s very hard to control anything else. It was difficult, but I think other respects I did consider myself a feminist except for that one issue, which I know is a basic issue to be called a feminist. And I have to say Eleanor Smeal and Gloria Steinem, two women who I really respect and treasure, got me to come to that idea that abortion and women’s access to abortion is a human right.
On What She Learned from Her Mother:
I was very fortunate because I was raised by mother; she divorced my father, thank goodness, because I don’t know what my life would have been like had my father had been in my life because my mother—my parents divorced when I was very, very young; I was like two years old or something like that. And I did live with my father from time to time. But, no comparison, my mother was just such a dominant figure. My dad, I wouldn’t say he was a chauvinist, but he was a very handsome man, a lot of women were attracted to him, and he was married six times or something like that. My mother divorced him because he was abusive to her, so she had the courage way back then in the thirties to divorce my dad. And she divorced my step-father also. So, we had this kind of tradition in our family that we divorced more than one. Then again, for women to be able to leave their husbands—and she was a businesswoman, you know? I think she was my example of being strong. She would always say to me, “Don’t forget to speak. Always have the courage to speak out, even when you think you might say the wrong thing because you can always correct it. But you’ve got to be able to let people know what you think, especially let them know what your ideas are.” I think a lot of women, we just remain silent because we’re afraid we’re going to be criticized. We have to figure out how we implant that courage, and I think those seeds of courage need to be put into young women when they’re in school, and we [should] forget about this nonsense that Prince Charming’s going to come by and give you a kiss and wake you up and you’re going to live happily ever after, which we know is such a falsehood and such a myth.
On the Resistance:
As an organizer, I see this as a great organizing opportunity. Because when people are challenged, and we’re being challenged right now, I think it really gives people the motivation to get involved. If they haven’t been involved before, then this is the time to do it. Because number 45’s attacking so many people, so that gives us a chance to say, “Okay, we’ve got to stand up not only for ourselves but for these other brothers and sisters and these other movements that are also under attack.”