Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, I remained vigilant to my surroundings and viewed feminist consciousness as something natural. I was painfully conscious of racial and socio-economic disparities, and I had a keen eye for the ways in which internal and external social class divisions affected my community, not to mention the daily hassles of gender inequality that surrounded me. I could not fathom as a teenager that people studied this in order to learn it. Upon seeing a course listed, The Sociology of Gender, I thought, “Who needs a textbook to figure this out?” I was living through it on the mean streets of South Central and the neighborhood that bordered this, Compton, California. I volunteered with the Women’s Infant Care (WIC) Program as early as 13 years old as part of a Summer Youth Enrichment Program for low-income inner city youth. And I remained the acutely aware survey-minded sociologist about local community social problems. The dilapidated geriatric neighborhood of Los Angeles – where some people raced through to head toward the 110 Harbor Freeway – was the everyday geographic space that formed my community. I never thought that people would invest time learning how to be a feminist with regards to these issues that women of color face each and every day. I was a natural one, or, in the words of Beyoncé, “I woke up like this.” However, things changed when I entered the Ivory Tower of Academia as an undergraduate.
I started out learning about feminism after reading Patricia Hill Collins’ work and then juxtaposing that to Sandra Harding’s work. I have always been fascinated with how discourses across feminisms worked. It was through this fascination that I developed an understanding that in addition to the production of knowledge, we also need to build relationships and coalitions around shared and different realities we experience as women. It is difficult capturing the particular realities that reproduce economic inequality for women as a unit, and how our binary classifications serve to label and legitimate the disempowerment of women as a group, unless we have discussions about these around the kitchen table. In fact, this is how we initially started building feminist coalitions around our feminist social locations with gender oppression and privilege. I have been reflecting upon sex and gender more and more these days. And I’ve been thinking about ways in which issues that relate to gender also relate to race and class and sexuality.
A well seasoned feminism makes no exceptions. The well seasoned feminist understands that full equality is like a full course well-balanced meal. It is also hearty and filling. It is like fresh baked ziti or gumbo or quiche. Upon reflection of the many different feminisms I have learned about, I always arrive back to the question that led me to these critiques in the first place—questions that interrogate the common core of our “womanism”, “being fully human,” the embracing of that shared part of us that we come to understand through our correspondences at conferences, research/teaching collaborations and informal table talk. To some extent we are like a well-seasoned dish. We have tasted some of the flavor or even have personal knowledge of what it feels like to experience the struggles across a socially unequal landscape and the work we do in our perpetuation and/or reduction of social inequalities.
I am reminded of a cold day in the fall at the University of California Davis while taking Judith Stacey‘s Sociology of Gender course. I was sitting in Olson Hall feeling as if I would never transition through my first semester of undergraduate studies. And in walks another student—a strong brave black woman- who seemed to instantly understand what I was experiencing. She looked at me and said, “You’ll be okay. This is the way first semesters go.” Her voice carried an aura of wisdom about my trepidation with beginning my academic studies at a predominately white college. She was speaking to me; she was speaking to the gendered experience of being a woman in college; she was speaking to the racial experience of being a black woman in college; and she was speaking to the classed experience of being a woman of color from a low income working-class family who was putting a lot of faith in what a college degree from a top-ranked university might provide for her future.
How could I feel comforted by this sense of feminist empowerment that she fostered within me? How was I able to pick up and carry on? I somehow knew that she understood the gendered part of my experience as a woman in an androcentric, masculine thought-based academic setting. Is this not why feminists pressed so hard in the 60s for Women Studies departments? After she said this to me, I regained my academic momentum, and immediately got up, walked to Shields Avenue towards the memorial student union and embraced my new experience. What I later came to realize, however, is that before I even knew about academic feminism or what it meant to take a feminist course from Dr. Judith Stacey, I was embraced by something that was very feminist outside of my neighborhood community in Los Angeles. This realization led me to another discovery: feminism is in many ways very abstract; it is knowing that you are not alone in a world that chooses whether or not to understand your gendered reality.
Taking these lessons and looking back on my life, I see that my life from 13 years old until the present has been rich with musings about all things feminist and the multiple reflections of what a feminist is and could be. This, I found, is what makes me tick. And this is what makes me a stronger feminist. I can appreciate the very struggles that we have across multiple identities. It is a social scientific fact that in some spaces, we as feminists are more privileged over our sisters, and in other spaces, we bear the burden of oppression in relation to our feminist sisters. None of us, however, would deny that there is an eclipsing of worldviews that bring women together under the canopy of shared understandings, narratives and collective biographies. Whether it’s fighting for women’s suffrage and/or trying to get equal pay, our challenges and struggles are collective and require us to fight together. Recognizing that our differences make us stronger is a goal toward which we can work more diligently. This act of working together is most effective when we collectively share in a social consciousness, collectively identifying as ‘feminists’ toward our common goal of challenging and reducing social inequalities.
My best understandings of this strong feminist force becomes most apparent when I look at feminisms through the lens of multiple reflections—many feminists, many experiences. These experiences frame a set of points that represent feminist coordinates reflecting diverse feminist standpoints. Together, our feminist standpoints challenge us to change present social and economic conditions among ourselves and within the larger society.
I close with a multi layered multifaceted quilt of feminist reflections which synthesizes my early teenage years up to the present day. My initial experiences with a natural feminist social consciousness and later learning it through an academic lens has enabled me to connect the importance of building strong feminist coalitions across our differences. We as feminists represent a collective joined by our diverse life experiences, akin to a resilient quilt that is sewn and stitched together from many different pieces of fabric (life experiences). It is through our collective strength that we make each other better in our work to challenge and reduce social inequalities. I am grateful that we are together as one multifaceted, multi layered quilt in this struggle.
Gail Wallace is a Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She specializes in Urban|Rural Health Policy, Health Disparities across Race, Class and Gender along with the Health of Minority Populations.