How did I become a feminist?

18 Oct

This brief clip from the recent “Black Women as Public Intellectuals” symposium at the University of Alabama was such a wonderful interlude that it inspired me to reflect on my own trajectory in becoming a crunk feminist.

Like many, instead of fitting into a neat narrative, my feminism came in fits and starts, inspired by teachers and friends. By my wonderful family. By poets and writers that spoke my own internal fears and hopes back to me. By musicians that sang my dreams to me.  So in homage to the work of the CFC, and the legacy of feminists from which we come, here are just a few snapshots of the moments I became more and more a feminist. It’s not a complete list by any means, and my feminism is forged daily, but these were pivot points in my life. In the comments, please share yours.

  1. High school, Friendswood, TX: Skipping last period English class to help a classmate find out where the local Planned Parenthood clinic was. She was terrified. We weren’t really even friends. We happened to be in the bathroom together and she was crying, and I had no idea what to do. Being completely unprepared to offer anything by my research skills, I told her to meet me in the computer lab to find out whatever we could. That afternoon, she said something to me that I’ll never forget, “This should be something my mom or my best friends can help me with, but I can’t even imagine talking to them about it. Ever. For the rest of my life.” It would be many years from that day that I would take my first job working in the reproductive justice movement, but it was that day that understood the injustice of shame and fear.
  2. Sophomore year in college, in a class called “Modern Philosophy:” The class covered major enlightenment thinkers and, demonstrating the power of a women’s college education, my professor added text to our syllabus called, “Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period.” The book included a series of letters written by sisters, aunts, friends, and lovers of the early modern philosophers we were reading in the course. In these letters these women share ideas, and help to refine the ideas of the men with whom they correspond. For example, “Descartes’ “Passions of the Soul” derives from his conversations with Elisabeth of Bohemia. And Leibniz wrote, “My philosophical views approach somewhat closely those of the late Countess of Conway.” Yet these women are not taught in most modern philosophy classes. What also struck me was the awareness that these women were wealthy, European, and white. In this moment, despite my unabashed love for the discipline of philosophy, I understood the systemic silencing of women, their thoughts and their contributions to intellectual history.
  3. Senior year of college, upon reading Toward a Feminist Theory of the State by Catherine MacKinnon: Read as part of an independent study on feminist theory, it changed the way I think about power and the law. I carried it around for weeks reading and re-reading passages. But I didn’t see myself in it — not fully, at least. There is a paragraph (maybe two) in the book in which MacKinnon refers to women of color and the divergent experiences they have. She admits that her perspective and narrative is limited, without making any serious effort to address this limitation. It was a heartswell and a heartbreak in a matter of moments. It was then that I understood the difference between the second wave and the third wave of feminism, in a visceral way. I read bell hooks and Arundhati Roy in the weeks following, and I found a deep and resonant solace in their words and methods.
  4. First summer after college, spent doing research on human rights in Cambridge, Mass: In retrospect, I learned a lot about human rights and international law that summer but it’s the poetry that stands out. Having zero dollars of discretionary income and armed with a Harvard library card (everyone should be so lucky for at least some part of their lives) I lurked around the poetry room in Widener Library every evening, and most weekends. That was the summer of Sister Outsider and Dream of a Common Language. I almost cried when the latter was re-called and might still have my copy of Sister Outsider somewhere (shhh.)
  5. Traveling to India for the 2005 International Women and Health Meeting in New Delhi. I went with colleagues to share our work on reproductive justice activism in the US. I met feminist activists from all over the world, and was moved by their persistence in the face of terrible state oppression. But it was the informal conversations with Indian feminists that are seared into my memory. Conversations about advocating for reproductive rights and choices in an international context; we discussed femicide and transnational surrogacy. I felt embraced, validated and nourished by those women and those conversations. We talked about feminism within the South Asian community in the US and my experiences here. We spoke in Hindi and English, alternating between the two without noticing. We shared stories of giddy victories and shattering losses, both personal and political. There I began to fully understand the power of history, legacy and the achingly long line of feminists and freedom fighters from which I come.

Now here I find myself — with these and dozens of other transformative moments that comprise my trajectory, alongside a group of feminist friends (sisters, really) who are unrelentingly present in my life, offering constant love, support and intellectual fuel (because feminists get tired, too, y’all).  Without them, I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable in my skin and in my mind as I am today.

I’d love to hear your feminist forging moments and pivot points. Please share them in the comments.

On we go.

8 Responses to “How did I become a feminist?”

  1. RachelA October 18, 2010 at 1:05 PM #

    I became a feminist when I took my first Women’s Studies class in college. I originally signed up to it just to fulfill a GE requirement, but then I became totally addicted. Changed my major, did a master’s in Gender Studies and now I’m applying for PhD programs. I want to be a professional feminist academic. It’s the only thing I can imagine doing with my life, now, and it all started because of freakishly fortunate scheduling accident. Makes me believe in fate.

  2. Vertigo October 18, 2010 at 8:43 PM #

    I was very moved by your high school story.

  3. jeffliveshere October 29, 2010 at 11:45 AM #

    Thanks for this post. I managed to get through an entire MA program in philosophy without reading Atherton’s book–no big surprise!

    I was wondering if you know of any other videos from the symposium?

    • crunktastic October 29, 2010 at 1:20 PM #

      More video from the symposium is forthcoming in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for reading.

  4. BPerez October 30, 2010 at 11:20 PM #

    I learned I was a feminist early on in my life. I still did not have the words or could articulate the word itself. The day my mother asked my dad to leave. She said these words that stood out to me. “You have to leave because I love myself more than I love you.” To hear this woman, this powerful sheroe…choose her life over a man. To choose to be a single parent of four kids in a foreign world. To raise her US born children in a place that saw her as an immigrant, terrorist, outsider. To see her get up at the crack of dawn to start the first of her three jobs so that we could have food on our plates.. Oh I always knew I was a feminista. B/c my mom early on learned she was a feminista.

    I am a feminista! Viva Feministas!!


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