Dr. Premilla Nadasen—Recipient of the Ann Snitow Prize—Is Rethinking Awards and Prizes with a Feminist Lens

“We have to find ways to recognize the long history of collective feminist contributions and push back against structures of privilege, hierarchy and singularity, structures that reinforce classism, racism, sexism, transphobia and heterosexism.”

The Ann Snitow Prize is named after influential and much-loved feminist intellectual and activist Ann Barr Snitow (1943–2019). (Ann Snitow Prize)

The first-annual Ann Snitow Prize is awarded to a feminist intellectual and activist who holds the qualities that Ann Snitow—feminist writer, teacher and passionate activist—was known for. The awardee must be a feminist, intellectual or artist, and a radical social justice advocate.

On Thursday, activist, historian and pedagogue Dr. Premilla Nadasen becomes the first-ever recipient of the Ann Snitow Prize. (Tune in via a virtual awards ceremony!)

Katha Pollitt, who serves on the Ann Snitow Prize executive and nominating committees, said Nadasen, professor of history at Barnard College, “embodies this prize, because her intellectual work and her activist work are very closely aligned together.”

Premilla Nadasen and Barbara Ransby in conversation; register here.

The prize is refreshing in its appreciation of feminism and original feminist thought, as well as its ability to lift up and recognize the voices and work of those who might typically be ignored or undervalued in the awarding of academic and civil society awards more broadly.

“Grassroots organizing happens among people with every level of education. Original thinking comes from people who have traditional education and those who don’t. And so it’s really important to award original, effective, generative, generous thinking and doing that does not come from these kind of conventional places,” said Judith Levine, a member of the Ann Snitow Prize executive committee.

Ms. sat down with Nadasen to discuss her inaugural win, the role awards and prizes play in lifting up feminist and intersectional work, and how discrimination impacts the awarding of prizes.

“To be the inaugural recipient of this prize in honor of pioneering feminist Ann Snitow … is a recognition of the many poor and working-class woman of color who fought for economic justice, racial equality, and feminism who mobilized to make their political voice heard,” said Premilla Nadasen, winner of the 2020 Ann Snitow Prize.

Mariah Lindsay: You have been awarded the inaugural 2020 Ann Snitow Prize. What does winning this award mean to you and for your work?

Premilla Nadasen: It’s an honor, of course. Ann Snitow was a remarkable pioneering feminist. I appreciate this award because it provides the opportunity to acknowledge essential and front-line workers: the people who either willingly or have been forced to put their lives on the line.

By “acknowledging,” I don’t mean the familiar platitudes of gratitude or framing them as heroes, narratives that often subsume the more important issue of justice. Rather this is a moment to think critically about how we can in good conscience create a system where some people are expected to serve as a lifeline for our society—yet we cannot ensure that they have the necessary PPE, are adequately compensated, or have access to health care. This includes not just health care workers, but grocery store clerks, delivery workers, bus drivers, and many others.

The pandemic has exposed the glaring contradictions and inequities in our society. But I would go further and also say that questions of justice have to be disentangled from dependence. I have written recently about how people deserve basic rights whether or not they are considered essential. That is, basic human rights should not depend on whether or not they provide a service.

Lindsay: In accepting the award, you said, “I am deeply humbled to be the inaugural recipient of this prize in honor of pioneering feminist Ann Snitow. It is a recognition of the many poor and working-class woman of color who fought for economic justice, racial equality, and feminism who mobilized to make their political voice heard. Through their activism, they cultivated a feminist politics that is even more urgent today.”

What is the importance of recognizing feminism and intersectionality in the way we award prizes and celebrate those engaged in intellectual and activist work?

Nadasen: We are living at a critical juncture, a turning point. Intersectional feminism—the politics of the women I write about, as well as many other activists such as those in the Movement for Black Lives, the environmental justice, immigrant rights, labor, #metoo/#timesup movements—are building a new liberatory vision.

Contrary to what some people say, most feminists with an intersectional perspective are not preoccupied with identity politics. Rather we are concerned with building a new more egalitarian and socially just society. The significance of that work is not just about liberation for women, but a new politics for us all—around democratic engagement, racial justice, environmental justice, economic security, and respect and compassion for other human beings.

Premilla Nadasen The Ann Snitow Prize- Rethinking Awards and Prizes with a Feminist Lens
Dr. Premilla Nadasen. (Barnard College)

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Lindsay: Your work lifts up the voices and experiences of people of color, women, domestic workers and organizers, among others. Is the awarding of prizes an important way to raise awareness about issues like economic justice, racial equality, and feminist thought and lift up the voices of those who are marginalized and oppressed?

Nadasen: Awarding prizes is one way but it is not enough. Each of every one of us has to ask what we can do to contribute to positive social change.

We have white supremacists terrorizing people (not only in Washington but across the country), cops waging their own systematic deadly violence against Black and Brown people, blatant attempts by federal officials to disenfranchise people, unprecedented rates of unemployment and food and housing insecurity.

Raising awareness is the first step. We want people to be aware. But to know and do nothing is unconscionable. That’s what my history of social movement organizing has taught me. Change doesn’t come about by knowing you are on the right side, or simply believing the right things. It means being an active participant in a social movement.

So, prizes can help establish a different benchmark for what we want to value as a society but it can also serve as an incentive to actively engage, build community, put our ideas into practice.

Lindsay: As an academic, scholar and activist, how has bias, inequality and discrimination shown up in your work experiences and interactions, as well as how your work is received?

Nadasen: Inequity and discrimination have been ever present in my personal and professional life.

When I was a graduate research assistant for a white male professor, he gave me the job of erasing pencil marks from library books for the entire semester. Clearly that was the kind of labor he thought I was fit for—it’s something I might ask a 7-year-old to do.

I was once short-listed for a two-year post-doc and promised an on-campus interview only to be ghosted once I told them I was pregnant.

In another case, I was one of two candidates for an associate professor position—and was the most qualified candidate—but a decision was made to give the position to the white candidate because a diversity hire case could be made for me. That position was never approved.

I have seen over and over how the goal posts for tenure, promotion and other appointments were different for women and men, and white male professors with much less scholarship got positions for which the rest of us would never be considered. And then there’s the way that the scholarship of white women and people of color is defined as work about gender or race, when in fact the issues we speak to are much broader—about class, labor, citizenship or democracy.

Lindsay: It has been well documented that there is a gender bias in prizes and awards in both academia and civil society. For example, while women are obtaining more awards in the biomedicine field, they are often less prestigious and offer less money.

Given the inequalities and biases that exist in societies around the world, can an award that is not intentionally intersectional or inclusive ever truly be based on achievement alonemeaning biases, like gender bias, play no part in the nomination and selection process?

Nadasen: Presumably there are standards that mark success or accomplishment. Standards seem objective, but they are often a code word for exclusion. So-called objective criteria are often designed to disadvantage certain groups of people or is applied inconsistently. We cannot understand how prizes are awarded or how people are recognized without considering power. Decisions about prizes and awards are made by people with power who have their own biases and have been socialized into the inequalities and hierarchies that structure our society.

So, we have to ask: Who is making the decisions? Why are some forms of achievement considered more prestigious than other ones? Why are some kinds of knowledge considered more valuable than other kinds of knowledge?

One intention in my writing has been to uplift not just the organizing and the labor of poor and working-class women of color but to recognize them as intellectuals, as people who offered a critical analysis of state and labor policy. Yet, they are rarely recognized as intellectuals or theoreticians in our broader society.

Lindsay: It is clear that the failure to recognize women and others who are not cisgender, heterosexual, white men is not a reflection of the quality, value or rigor of the work. And yet, the disparities still exist—take the Nobel Peace Prize and the Pulitzer Prize as an example.

At what point does a prize become a reflection of a society’s inequalities rather than a real reflection of achievement in a particular field?

Nadasen: Prizes and recognition have always been a reflection of inequity. The Peter Principle applies in awarding prizes—a circular process that rewards people based on past recognition rather an honest assessment of their contributions. That is, those who have been honored are deemed accomplished and are positioned to be recognized in other ways. It becomes less about their work and more about the fact that others have previously identified them as worthy.

Privilege begets privilege. We have seen this play out again and again.  The same goes for speaking engagements. Those who are in demand are demanded because they are in demand. It’s a maddening process that is hard for people to break into if they don’t have recognition/a reputation/connections.

Lindsay: How do you think this disparity impacts staying power for women, trans, and non-binary folks in these disciplines, especially where funding is concerned? In other words, does this blatant lack of recognition and funding contribute to the departure of women, trans, and nonbinary folks from certain fields?

Nadasen: I don’t know if it has led to the departure of people. These are communities that have always encountered challenges and that over generations have developed resilience. We have made as much progress as we have because people have staying power. We don’t give up easily. We know how difficult it is to make any kind of progress with limited time and resources. We have to work twice has hard to get half as much recognition. That’s because the odds are stacked against us and rules are not made for us and because of personal care responsibilities.

Although this is not new it is more visible in this moment with remote learning and limited support services and networks for families. Women are saddled with a disproportionate amount of childcare and household responsibilities and finding it difficult to hold down jobs or make any kind of progress. The pandemic has exacerbated the inequitable output/survival rates between women/women-identifying/trans and their cis-gender male counterparts.

Lindsay: How can and should we seek change moving forward? Is new, inclusive, and intersectional prizes like the Ann Snitow Prize one way to address these failings and develop an identity and prestige outside of white, male-dominated, and exclusionary prizes?

Nadasen: Prizes such as this are designed to rectify one layer of discrimination and we absolutely need to do that. But prize giving also doesn’t sit easily with feminist principles of collaboration and questioning hierarchal structures. One of the guiding principles of my work has been uplifting collective rather than individual achievement and thinking about social movements—rather than exceptional individuals—as agents of change. When we do recognize individual contributions, I believe we have to see them as part of a broader movement. 

As a historian, I write about how historical actors and campaigns are built upon what came before. I am also cognizant of that in terms of my own work. I stand on the shoulders of others, both women of color who created space in the academy and the political movements of the women I write about. Although I have to say, I dislike that phrase “standing on shoulders” because it brings to mind an image of verticalism; that we are trying to move up and only some of us will make it.

We have to find ways to recognize the long history of collective feminist contributions and push back against structures of privilege, hierarchy and singularity, structures that reinforce classism, racism, sexism, transphobia and heterosexism.

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Mariah A. Lindsay is an attorney and the senior executive policy fellow and coordinator of programs with the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at UCI Law. She is also a producer on the podcast "On the Issues with Michele Goodwin."