The Intersectional Feminist

The Intersectional Feminist proudly presents June’s guest writer, Jillian Schweitzer. Jillian is a writer and photographer, currently pursuing graduate work. She is working on a book of poetry and lives in Maryland.

Everyone has seen the media reports alerting us to the fact that feminists and the feminist movement is out to destroy families, cast children out in the street and encourage government handouts.

Safe to say that I was worried.
Then I picked up the latest from Seal Press Studies, Motherhood and Feminism by Amber E. Kinser. Kinser, a mother herself, sets out to debunk myths about feminism and motherhood and get the conversation started about mothers today. The book starts with the Industrial Revolution and continues up to present day, all the while describing how feminists have a long history of fighting for mothers and mothers’ rights, as well also helping mothers fight for themselves. Of course, feminism hasn’t always been accommodating to every mother, which is why Kinser also highlights many groups or individuals that sought to help everyone regardless of race, class, ability or sexual preference.

Motherhood changed dramatically with the start of the Industrial Revolution, with the “shift…from an agrarian and domestic economy to an industry based one.” Men went to work and women were at home; dualism between private and public spheres had begun. Kinser neatly divvies up the next two hundred years into easy-to-digest chapters, which includes Seneca Falls, Black Women clubs, both world wars, the oft nostalgic 1950’s (which, interestingly enough, was the decade with the highest rate of teen pregnancy to date), the Civil Rights movements, the bloated and consumer driven 1980’s with Reagan at the forefront, then moving into the late 20th century and finally, the blogging world. Her research is extensive, including many areas of intersectionality, such as race, class, ability, gender and sexual orientation. Admittedly, able-bodied privilege and LGBT issues are not mentioned as much as I would have preferred, but she does touch on them periodically throughout the book. While the book does mention activists and movements that range internationally, the book does have a Western slant to it, although admittedly it would be difficult to do a starter book globally about motherhood and its history.
The reader does get a good grasp on both motherhood’s recent history and how feminism has helped with the progression of the movement. One of the big themes in the book is how motherhood and the mothers involved challenged the aforementioned dualism between the public and private sphere to push for social and economic justice. In the later chapters, several organizations are mentioned, including United Mothers Opposing Violence Everywhere (UMOVE), The Motherhood Project, Mothers on the Move or Madres en Movimiento (MOM), INCITE! Women of Colors Against Violence, Ariel Gore’s Hip Mama community, Family Equality Council, and Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights (MOTHERS). These are just some of the many groups advocating and providing resources for mothers and children.  

The book wraps up with a long quote from theorist and feminist writer Patricia DiQuinzio, stating six concerns that the motherhood movement must contend with — readers will note that her critique, in a more broad sense, applies to contemporary feminist movements:

“Resisting the mass media’s tendency to use stereotypes of mothers that divide and pit them against each other… stretch the movement so that every kind of mother can fit comfortably… the movement must refuse to adopt a good mother/bad mother dualism… movement activists must work to bring young women into the movement… to be vibrant and promising movement, a mothers’ movement must forge alliances with mothers and others who do different kinds of caregiving work… finally, the mothers’ movement must support reproductive and abortion rights as part of the movement agenda.”

Kinser has delivered another great addition to the Seal Studies library, examining a history which many of us do not stop to consider as being important.  While feminist movements have certainly not been perfect or completely inclusionary, many activists throughout history have continued to make great strides for mothers.  Perhaps more importantly, these movements have helped mothers to make their own strides.  Motherhood and Feminism is an enjoyable and informative read and one that I would recommend.

Most readers know Eve Ensler best as the anti-violence activist and star of the feminist world-traveling production, The Vagina Monologues. She has followed this seminal play with other popular works, highlighting the difficulties of women surviving war (Necessary Targets), women’s endless scrutiny of physical imperfections (The Good Body), and even her own experiences of finding self-protection as a survivor of abuse (Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security Obsessed World).  In her latest book I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, Ensler sets out to portray the thoughts, issues, and desires of adolescent girls today. 

With varying degrees of success, Ensler offers a broad spectrum of experiences that keep the reader engaged with the work, even as much of the language suggests an adult perspective of a teenager’s world.  This is not to say that Ensler portrays her subjects with insensitivity or condescension; as a reader, I believed in Ensler’s earnest hopes that the book is “a call to listen to the voice inside you that might want something different, that hears, that knows, the way only you can hear and know.  It’s a call to your original girl self, to your emotional creature self, to move at your speed, to walk with your step, to wear your color.”  But there’s something very trivializing about the voice of certain girls within the book, particularly Ensler’s uninspired perspective on the American suburban teen.  In “Let Me In,” the speaker obsesses over purple UGGs and whether there’s room for her at the popular kid’s table in the cafeteria.  The speaker comes off false, shrill, self-absorbed and petty.  Contrast that monologue with the girls of Bulgaria (“I Have 35 Minutes Before He Comes Looking for Me”) or Palestine (“Sky Sky Sky”), young women who engage with their environment, politics, families, and communities.  They are also poor, suffering, in desperate need of aid. This dichotomy establishes the class and race privilege of the white Western girl, sure, but it’s hardly empowering for the girl of color whose only shown in a victimized, one-dimensional point of view.

This is really the heart of my issue with Ensler.  As a famous, successful and established playwright, Ensler was in the perfect position to work with young women in writing and publishing THEIR monologues.  Yet Ensler only credits a V-Girls Advisory Circle.  Wouldn’t it have been better to let these young women from Palestine, China, Israel, Iran, France, and the U.S. write their own stories in their own authentic voices?  Much of this work feels like a co-optation of experience, a wasted opportunity to give voice to young women’s lives, despite the protestations of the author.

If readers are hoping to expand their ideas of what it means to be a teen girl in different parts of the world, this book won’t do much to expand the story.  Ensler’s intentions are noble, but like the voices of the young women portrayed in I Am An Emotional Creature, they are slightly off-the-mark.

“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.” – Anne Frank

There are plenty of researchers publishing trendy new findings and studies on the subject of happiness: what it means to be happy today, how happy or unhappy we all are, what we can do to make ourselves more happy.  I quote Anne Frank because a lot of these articles and books, like the objective of happiness itself, are all different and yet the same.  While being marketed in separate and distinctive ways, many offer the same reductive stance on life — the modern adult is frazzled, in need of rest and recooperation from the stresses of our hectic world, and here in this text lies the cure-all/best course of action/the latest product or service to find and keep real, lasting happiness.  But what if we weren’t really looking for an easy answer in the form of a good or service?  What if the issue of happiness required an understanding of gender, race, class, and individual privilege?  Ariel Gore’s new book Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness examines happiness from a feminist standpoint, insisting that “There is no ‘happily ever after.’  There is only meditation, action, change, friendship, idea, inspiration, creation.” 

The book follows Gore and a panel of 100 women she interviewed over the course of a a year.  Their ideas challenge gendered studies and notions of happiness, particularly the axiom that women who follow traditional patriarchal value systems are “more content” — Gore instead insists that empowerment through resistance, taking charge of anxiety, and self-care are essential to an authentic experience of happiness.  Her intersectional understanding of happiness critiques writings on happiness which ignore the many identity-based divisions of women’s lives, particularly class, as Bluebird questions the popular notion that selflessness is inherent to happiness; if women are socialized into selflessness by family and culture, is this cultivating happiness?   “If service is the secret of joy,” writes Gore, “one has to wonder why waitresses, maids, and mothers aren’t the happiest people on earth.  The answer is clear: that service has to be voluntary rather than coerced.” 

I appreciated her frankness in discussing her ambivalence toward capitalism, particularly her relationship to money as a working-class artist and a queer mother of two.   As a reader, I fully embraced her journey toward self-actualization in finding inspiration, inner peace, and hope for the future, all of which she sees as the necessary means to happiness for herself and her family.  The book bravely tackles a critical and important understanding of the specific identity politics which inhabit happiness studies and why it shouldn’t be a pursuit solely made possible by connections, wealth, or class status; if we cultivate ourselves and our communities, she argues, we can always find happiness on our own terms.  It’s an accessible, deeply thoughtful take on a complex topic and a great read for anyone in search of an intersectional and feminist approach to women’s happiness.

Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is available on January 19 in bookstores and through online booksellers, including Powells and Amazon.

Cover of "Women of Color and Feminism" by Maythee Rojas (Seal Press, 2009)

Maythee Rojas is a teacher, critic, and writer.  Author of the new book Women of Color and Feminism (Seal Press), she is currently an associate professor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach.   The book is a fascinating overview of feminist history and the construction of identity politics within feminist movements, with a diverse representation of notable icons, which includes not only Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash and Saartjie Baartman, but Tracy Chapman and Laura Aguilar as well.  It’s a smart, page-turning read that offers numerous examples to illustrate powerful points.  The book easily belongs in the hands of the many online feminists today who are in search of a book to start the critical journey of self-education on the connections between race, class, sexuality and gender.

Over phone and email, I recently spoke with Maythee Rojas about intersectionality, resisting multiple oppressions within feminist movements, and the hopes for her new book in addressing important issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in feminism(s) today:

Allison McCarthy:  What led you to working on a book focused on women of color and feminism?

Maythee Rojas: I have been teaching a course on the subject for the last nine years and the literature and theory by women of color is something I have studied closely as a scholar. However, when I set out to write this book, I wanted to avoid writing something that could be construed as the authoritative book on women of color.  There’s no such thing, nor should there be. I respect Seal for taking something academic and making a commitment to developing it as part of a mainstream series. It helps create bridges with the academic world and find new audiences beyond the Ivory Tower.  My hope is that this book will lead other presses – mainstream and academic — to publish more works on women of color.

AM:  In what ways did your academic research on Chicana/o and Latina/o literature contribute to your literary vision for Women of Color and Feminism?
MR: In the book, I consciously attempt to focus on multiple groups and communities. Learning about Chicana/o and Latina/o culture has never been in isolation for me.  In fact, if you look at the history, experiences, and creative expressions of Chicana/os and Latina/os, you’ll find that other communities of color have often influenced them.  There’s a lot of overlap in terms of the messages relayed and socio-political issues addressed.  As a scholar, I have the same approach: having a specialization in Chicana/o and Latina/o literature requires me to think about other groups in an intersectional manner.

AM:  Why do you see the theory of intersectionality as critical for all feminists when addressing issues raised by women of color?
MR: Intersectionality applies to everyone, period.  We all have multiple facets of identity.  However, intersectionality is often applied only to those who do not fit mainstream categories of identity. Much of it has to do with people’s lack of deep introspection; or, whether they are willing to think about their positions of privilege on a daily basis and the effect of their actions upon others.  It’s a journey of integrity and honesty that’s a part of self-actualization in our lives.  If feminism is truly going to produce the result of equality for women and opportunities in a less biased society, we have to think about how women from different communities can reach that success.  We’re not all on the same level in any place.  What factors and what privileges stand in the way?  It’s really about working collectively.  It requires reflecting on people around you: their lives, opportunities, limitations.  If you’re working in a social justice movement or a place of transformation, you have to take those factors into account or it’s going to be a flawed attempt.  It does require those things.

AM:  How have women of color, outside of global feminist movements, contributed to a greater public understanding of gender, race, class, and sexuality?
MR: I think it’s through daily actions.  The interactions of everyday life are bound to challenge us.  So often, we have perceptions of others based on media, politics, and education.  However, when we encounter people who embody particular markers of race and class and sexuality and we interact with them, those markers fall away to flesh and bone individuals.  I also think our interactions with non-academics – our families and friends– teach us as much about culture as they do about them.  It’s more about what we are willing to open ourselves up to.  Does what we what learn about others connect with what we assumed about their background, sexuality, culture?  To more specifically answer your question, I believe women of color contribute to life through their daily interactions in public spaces, through the ways they raise their families, through the challenges they make to a system, a classroom, a workplace, etc.  For creatively minded individuals, it’s also through their cultural production (art, film, music, etc) and how they shape these expressions to share with other people.  I think a lot of people aren’t actually part of organized social movements, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of social change.

AM:  Have the feminist movements of past and present failed to address the needs and lives of women of color?
MR: I don’t think they’ve outright failed.  If I believed that, I would have to rethink why I am in Women’s Studies.  Have they had their shortcomings?  Yeah.  But that’s part of understanding that we haven’t accomplished all the goals of feminism and there’s a lot left to do.  I think it’s important that we’re critical of these shortcomings and that we register our disappointments.  We can use that as a preventive measure.  The book is rather critical at times of past movements, but I don’t think it argues that they haven’t worked at all. The people who have been responsible for writing about feminism and promoting feminism have been remiss in their inclusion of women of color and that’s important to take into account.  How willing are feminists to really self-interrogate, to really consider what they’ve gained at the expense of others, what hasn’t been achieved in the ongoing project of feminism?  For us to stay abreast of what hasn’t worked, what hasn’t been done, and whose voices are missing keeps us alive and moving forward toward an ideal.  Even if it’s not achieved in our lifetime, it shouldn’t be something we stop striving for.

AM:  Who did you envision as the audience for this book?  Have any of the responses to the book thus far surprised you?
MR: I kind of thought about it in two ways.  One of the audiences it’s geared towards is obviously college students, both graduate and undergraduate, and I think you can hear that in the classroom descriptions I use.  I was also encouraged to learn that it would be available in independent and mainstream bookstores, so that anyone could find her/his way to the book.  You might think that a book on women of color is only for women of color.  I can’t stop anyone from thinking that, but I hope that for anyone who reads past the first few lines, the reader will see that it’s for anyone who is interested in knowing themselves better and knowing more about the world around them.

AM: What projects are you currently working on?
MR: I have three projects that I’d like to see happen.  First, I want to finish my book, Following the Flesh: Embodied Transgressions in Chicana Literature, which looks at literary characters who are cast as “bad” women (mistresses, murderers, lesbians) and are maligned by society, and help us rethink what “bad” means. Examining these issues within both US and Latin American contexts, the book addresses crossing not only social borders, but also physical ones.  The next project I would like to pursue is a cultural history of Latinos and dogs. Drawn by my own passion for animals, I’m really interested in looking at how dogs show up in Latino culture.  Living in L.A. with a large Latino population and a dog-friendly attitude, there have been several race and class bias in the city’s laws that have been passed and I wanted to address those biases. I’m also interested in immigration issues in terms of how they relate to cultural shifts about pets as immigrants become more assimilated to the US.  A third project, which is much farther down the line, is a cultural history on feminism in Costa Rica.  My grandmother is nearing her 104th birthday and I would like to parallel her personal experiences as a woman (she has lived a very nontraditional life) with the development of women’s lives and issues in Costa Rica over the past century.  I imagine describing the historical and social changes of my family’s country vis-à-vis my grandmother’s own life.

Impossible Motherhood is a new memoir by Irene Vilar, editor of The Americas series at Texas Tech University Press and a writer who uses the history of her life and the lives of her mother and maternal grandmother to highlight critical relationships between colonialism, sexism, reproductive rights, and motherhood. But this will not be the headline that captures the interest of the public. Vilar’s fifteen abortions in fifteen years, on the other hand, seems to be causing quite a stir of attention.

In many ways, this is a memoir about misery. Throughout the book, Vilar critiques the idea that her success on paper — early graduation from high school and a move from Puerto Rico to the U.S. at the age of fifteen, marriage to a Syracuse University professor, book publishing – has not kept her from suffering with severe issues of depression, abuse, self-mutilation, and addiction. Her marriage to a highly regarded, intellectual writer several decades her senior, who defines “independence” by keeping her forever at an emotional distance from him and insisting that the couple cannot have children together, triggers a downward spiral which culminated in twelve abortions in an eleven year relationship, followed by three others with another partner after the dissolution of her marriage. However, with intense therapy and a happy second marriage, Vilar overcomes her painful ambivalence toward biological motherhood and gives birth to two daughters.

The seemingly happy ending of Vilar’s tale of thwarted motherhood will still raise ethical and moral red flags in readers, causing us to squirm uncomfortably as we embark on the author’s lifelong journey of recovery.  Vilar does not go for pat answers or self-satisfied conclusions about her decision to repeatedly abort unwanted pregnancies rather than utilize birth control (which was available during her time in the U.S.).  Instead, this a complex, emotional account of one woman’s emergence from cycles of oppression into an acceptance of her unique identity and experiences.

Cover of Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict by Irene Vilar

Vilar’s unhappy childhood – a distant philandering father and a mother who committed suicide when Vilar was only eight years old – contributes to her feelings of abandonment and a need to please authority figures, if only to ensure her survival. Vilar is not claiming to be a representative for pro-choice or pro-life arguments, though she does offer this disclaimer in the prologue:

“This testimony… does not grapple with the political issues revolving around abortion, nor does it have anything to do with illegal, unsafe abortion, a historical and important concern for generations of women.  Instead, my story is an exploration of family trauma, self-inflicted wounds, compulsive patterns, and the moral clarity and moral confusion guiding my choice.  This story won’t fit neatly into the bumper sticker slogan ‘my body, my choice.’  In order to protect reproductive freedom, many of us pro-choice women usually choose to not talk publicly about experiences such as mine because we might compromise our right to choose.  In opening up the conversation on abortion to the existential experience that it can represent to many, for the sake of greater honesty and a richer language of choice, we run risks.”

Reproductive justice movements, particularly in the U.S. and its territories, often have a tumultuous history with communities of color.  But many readers will likely approach the book with little, if any, background knowledge of reproductive justice movements in Puerto Rico. So how did colonialist policies and a U.S.-driven abortion counseling, abortion services, and abortion outreach contribute to these decisions?  In an interview with The L.A. Times, :

“Puerto Rico, at the time, was a living laboratory for American-sponsored birth control research. In 1956, the first birth control pills — 20 times stronger than they are today — were tested on mostly poor Puerto Rican women, who suffered dramatic side effects. Starting in the 1930s, the American government’s fear of overpopulation and poverty on the island led to a program of coerced sterilization. After Vilar’s mother gave birth to one of her brothers, she writes, doctors threatened to withhold care unless she consented to a tubal ligation.  These feelings of powerlessness — born of a colonial past, acted out on a grand scale or an intimate one — are the ties that bind the women of Vilar’s family.

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How did the pro-choice movement fail to help a survivor of abuse like Vilar?  Is there a theoretical and activist disconnect between three major intersections — martial strife/violence, psychological trauma, and reproductive justice?  Pro-choice communities would do well to examine books like these and form outreach for women who have experienced multiple abortions.  Vilar understands the stigma which confronts women who have had multiple abortions and does not shame these women, but tries to provide a lens of her own experiences with repeat abortions as a way to personalize this sensitive issue.  In a 2006 Broadsheet post, Page Rockwell notes that:

Liberal message-makers would probably have an easier time if repeat abortions were rare, but the truth is, they’re not: According to a report (PDF) released last week by the Guttmacher Institute, which we found thanks to a flare from the Kaiser Foundation, about half of the women who terminated pregnancies in 2002 had previously had at least one abortion. (The report notes that because many women do not accurately report their abortion experiences, these findings are “exploratory.”) Rates of repeat abortion have been on the rise since Roe v. Wade, and ignoring that fact isn’t doing women who need multiple procedures any favors.

In the anthology Making Face, Making Soul, Gloria Anzaldúa wrote that, “[W]omen of color strip off the mascaras [masks] others have imposed on us, see through the disguises we hide behind and drop our personas so that we may become subjects in our own discourses.  We rip out the stitches, expose the multi-layered ‘inner faces,’ attempting to confront and oust the internalized oppression embedded in them, and remake anew both inner and outer faces…. We begin to acquire the agency of making our own caras [faces].”  This is one of those books that rips out the metaphoric stitches and exposes Vilar’s process of multilation and healing, addiction and recovery, for readers to examine.  This is not an easy or light book; it will trigger and it will probe and it will leave readers feeling as if they’ve been punched in the stomach, repeatedly.  But it also has the power to transform and expose previously hidden oppressions.

The outer face of Vilar is a brave one and so is the inner face.  Impossible Motherhood is a book for any pro-choice believer who wants a deeper understanding of the complex issues surrounding reproductive rights in the U.S. and its territories in the twentieth century.  This is also a book for people who believe in the power of personal redemption.  It will leave readers aching, hopeful, and perhaps a little more empathetic to Vilar’s life.

Hi, everyone!

I’m a somewhat familiar face here at GirlwPen.  Deborah Siegel and Kristen Loveland have both very graciously edited some of my guest posts featured at this site over the last year, including interviews with noted feminist authors such as Leora Tanenbaum, Kyria Abrahams, Susan Campbell, and Kathryn Joyce, as well as the occasional book review.  I’m very excited to be a part of the new GirlwPen editorial staff and I greatly look forward to writing here alongside their work, every second Monday of each month!

For those who are not familiar with Shira Tarrant’s excellent new book, Men and Feminism, Shira will be on tour this fall, sharing her ideas on masculinity, feminism, and intimate connections between the two with longtime readers and newcomers alike.  Please check out her tour schedule here and make sure to take a look at her new book!

Identity politics are central to the writing I hope to share in this space.  Patricia Hill Collins, a black feminist writer and scholar, defines intersectionality as “the focal point where two [or more] exceptionally powerful and prevalent systems of oppression come together” (please see the article Patricia Hill Collins: Intersecting Oppressions for further explanation).  As a feminist, I have often been complacent in allowing my identity as a woman to exist solely without descriptors, as though my womanhood had no context other than gender (and not even an understanding of cisgendered womanhood, at that!).  It has taken me a lot of time, reading, reflection, and then some more time to come to terms with the impact of intersectionality in my life.  It has also taken me just as long to understand many of the ways in which the theory of intersectionality is both embraced and/or ignored by various feminist groups. I still have a ways to go and the journey, as far as I’m concerned, will never be complete and will never rest solely in my hands.

The description of this column includes a definition for one of the least-known but greatly critical academic terms: kyriarchy.  Like many in the blogosphere, I was introduced to the concept of kyriarchy via this fantastic post by Lisa at My Ecdysis.  In reading, I began to understand that unlike the term “patriarchy,” kyriarchy provides a much-needed framework for understanding many varied systems of oppression, domination, subordination and superordination.  Arwyn at Raising My Boychick notes that “most of us exist with a complex array of privilege in some areas and oppression in others” (see her complex and highly informative perspective on kyriarchy here).  These include, but are not limited to: age, race, gender, gender expression, nationality, social class, sexuality, disability, body type, weight, citizenship, religion, and much, much more. 

In understanding kyriarchy, I can see where parts of my identity have contributed to my personal experiences of oppression and subordination.  Just as importantly, it also helps for me to understand where I act as an oppressor through unearned privileges granted to me by facets of my identity.  As a white, cisgendered, twentysomething, bisexual, middle-class, able-bodied, zaftig, American citizen and woman, I struggle to fully own my identity and the facets which might seem contradictory.  One example: I was raised in a large family  by a single mother; there wasn’t much money growing up, and I find that even though my class status has changed from scholarship-student to white-collar employee and freelancing writer, I worry over money in many of the same ways I did as a child.  Despite having savings and some of the trappings of middle-class privilege, my mentality of being raised on food stamps, free lunches, and living on only a few “extra” dollars from paycheck to paycheck has not evolved as quickly as my circumstances have.

Yet kyriarchy has not only contributed to self-awareness, but also to a greater understanding of global politics.  Kyriarchy is never static; the shifts in power and powerlessness depend on context, and with ever-changing circumstances, we are all forced to contend with our changing social roles.  I often wonder how kyriarchy contributes to certain power structures and how those structures are overtly and subtly underminded by those who are not in power, yet still work to implement social change. 

I hope to reflect on some of these ideas, and hopefully more, in posts yet to be written.  I hope readers of GirlwPen will embrace this journey with me.