Popaganda’s HEAT season comes to a fiery conclusion this week—with host Carmen Rios in conversation with a slew of inspiring feminist trailblazers. Inspired by her own crisis of conscience, and her own feelings of displacement and isolation in the movement, Carmen calls on iconic movement leaders and shakers and encourages listeners to appreciate the sacrifices and the challenges that women like them face in real-time when they work to build a better feminism.
This extended episode features some of the most prominent agitators for intersectional movement-building across generations and issues.
Barbara Smith, cofounder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and the Combahee River Collective, opens up about movement-building outside of the mainstream. Charlene Carruthers, founder of the Chicago Center for Leadership and Transformation and author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, talks about the tables she’s walked away from.
Fellow Kitchen Table cofounder and coeditor of This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe Moraga, remembers the white feminist movement that told her she didn’t have enough language. Daisy Hernández, author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed and coeditor of Colonize This!, lays out strategies for finding community even when feminist spaces don’t serve you—and Sarah Eagle Heart, an Emmy-award winning storyteller and strategist, connects the dots between her work for Indigenous Peoples rights and her growing influence in those feminist spaces.
Karla Jay, the first female chair of the Gay Liberation Fund and card-carrying Lavender Menace, gives listeners a behind-the-scenes look at the “zap” that challenged the second-wave feminist movement to embrace women at its margins. Julia Serano, author of three popular books on trans feminism and trans exclusion in feminism, takes us back to Camp Trans. And Carol Leigh, a.k.a. the Scarlot Harlot, examines the ways in which feminism empowered her as a woman and harmed her as a sex worker.
Carmen learns a lot from her conversations with these fearless feminists—but what she’s hellbent on declaring in this episode of Popaganda is that it’s time for feminism to do more than celebrate and revere its trailblazers after their work has successfully shaped the movement. Instead, she posits, it’s time to build a movement in which all of us feel supported and empowered to clear the way for those yet to rise up and resist—and encouraged to tell the movement’s whole herstory.
Let’s start with the basics: We’re assuming you wanna know more about all of these trailblazers.
Some primary sources referenced in this episode might be unfamiliar—and they also need to be read within their social and political contexts.
Photo via Twelve Literary Arts
Subscribe to Bitch’s podcasts on iTunes, Soundcloud, or the Stitcher mobile app.
Subscribe to Bitch’s podcasts through our audio RSS feed.
CARMEN RIOS: Hi again! Carmen Rios here—feminist writer, editor, and digital media superstar—and the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. Today, we’re wrapping up our HEAT season, which went from the bedroom to the kitchen, from lighting up to burning out with some real talk from some fiery feminist trailblazers.
BARBARA SMITH: We were like people who were hacking through a wilderness, you know. We were clearing the path. We had like our little implements, my [unclear], whatever. And we’re trying to clear this path through this wilderness. And then some other people come along who have not paid any of those dues, and they say, “Oh, what a beautiful path this is through the forest.” We were the groundbreakers. We are the people who were making a way to make it easier for other people.
DAISY HERNÁNDEZ: I feel most at home with women of color feminists. [Laughs.] I can’t say that I feel more at home in a larger white feminist movement. Because I think that there’s a deep awareness among white feminists, but I think that [heavy sigh] nonprofits, even Women’s and Gender Studies, I mean all of that is still so, you know, even when they are making spaces still primarily guided by their concerns. It’s still too easy for me to walk into those kinda spaces, and I’m the only Latina there or the only queer Latina there.
So, I prefer to think of that community where I feel most at home is like with these women, [laughs] you know? At our book launch, I felt most at home. We had a wonderful, at my college here in Ohio, we had a wonderful symposium that is about women, race, and gender and is very much intersectional. And so, we had amazing panels, and we had amazing speakers. I felt very at home there, but I also think it was because it was so deliberately organized to give space for women of color and for people writing about these issues. So, yeah, I feel like I have to be very intentional about where am I going to feel at home
KARLA JAY: Struggle can’t be entirely about me. It has to be about people who are suffering. You know, back in the 1960s, we believed in intersectionality, and I still believe in that today: that we have to connect to other people in other groups and work for things that may not even personally affect us. And I also strongly believe that sexism is strongly at the root of heterosexism and homophobia and transphobia and that all of these things are connected. For me, they’re connected. And racism as well that this pernicious placing of one group above another is just at the heart of every fight. And there’s no way for me to pull out one strand without unraveling everything.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Frankly, I’ve not ever been one to try to bring a seat to a table that I’m not a part of building or the people who I’m aligned with and the people who are working on the same things. Not that we all have to agree with each other, but if folks who I can’t identify some shared values, assumptions, interests, I’m not gonna fight my way into anybody’s table. Like that’s just not my thing. That’s not my orientation. So, there’s so many other tables that I can be at without fighting to be there. And I understand why people do fight to be at certain tables. And at the same time, there’s so many tables, and I don’t move from a frame of or mindset of scarcity. And people can do work in multiple areas, and there have been times where I think I have a struggle with other people around expanding tables. I think I’m at a different place in my work now where I’m really interested in building with folks, whether or not we agree on all things, folks who have some kind of shared purpose. And so that’s just…. And there are groups that there’s a whole set of people or institutions or groups that are clearly not interested in having people like me at the table. I’m definitely not interested in fighting with them to be there.
SARAH EAGLE HEART: I wouldn’t say there are places where people don’t see. I would say I generally feel like people are like, “Yeah, we see.” The issue for me is that people are like, “Oh, we see,” and then do nothing. That’s [laughs]—
SARAH: That’s what gets me. Yeah, for sure. Yeah, that gets me because for me, you know, it is really a call to action because it’s like, you know, we’ve been hearing these great words for decades. Let me tell you. Other people before me, like the great legends, like Winona LaDuke—who’s still alive by the way—but like Wilma Mankiller and these great legends that have been working—Sacheen Littlefeather, these elders that have been working on this for decades. Believe me. Everybody has heard very nice intentions from people, and so I’m kind of over the intentions. I’m like, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s great that you feel like a little bit more woke, but what are you going to do? And I think it’s that action component that that’s where I’m at. Because I’m a mother, and I have two sons. And I have a family that’s still living on the reservation in poverty. The issues are getting more dire: like climate issues, poverty issues, violence issues. The economic, like, employment availability for people is not there. So, for me, these issues are still real. And I think now I’m like, okay, something has to change, and I really want to see it change in my lifetime.
CAROL LEIGH: Being in a very diverse community as a sex worker who’s involved in intersectional issues and diverse communities, I mean, how many of my friends who are women of color, transgender women—with a history of feminists against transgender women—I mean, how many of these women have had horrific relationships with feminism? So, I think I’ve told you that’s my general thing. That’s where I’m at now. I wrote some little message asking other people if they felt like we need to kind of have feminists come out and admit this. And we need at least a hashtag for feminists to say yes, we have hurt prostitutes.
CHERRÍE MORAGA: When anybody talks about feminism, we go, “Duh? Are you talking women of color feminism? ’Cause if you’re not, you know, it’s like, that’s a failed movement.” Anytime you make invisible oppression visible, that is a great radical position, right? But it is not a single issue. It is never a single issue. And as long as white women think its single issue, they’re not, they’re not—I don’t even like the word “allies,” you know—they’re just not, they’re not my comrades in struggle, whatever language you wanna use. It’s like, because the ally part that I don’t like is that it’s like they’re gonna help us out. They’re not gonna help us out! People of color don’t need allies. They need white people to do their own work.
I teach college students that notion that they’re gonna be an ally for this group an ally for this group. And I’m looking at them. I say, “What about your junk? You know, what about your stuff? What about your stuff? You are useless in the movement unless you look at yourself.” Which is why I always talk about going home. Go home. Figure it out, you know. And that’s where you gain courage because that’s the hardest part. That’s the great thing about feminism is the personal is political. The political is highly personal. So, without that strength, I’m looking to who’s the neighbor, right? Where have you been? Have you gone home? Do you know who you are? And if you do, to a certain degree, if you’ve done those struggles, and regardless of your race or class or gender, you and I might be able to walk together down this very hard road, you know? But without that, it’s kind of like I’ve seen people just bonk bonk. They just fall to the wayside because when you really have to know…when to speak up and how to speak up, it’s just all strategic. And you have to know who you are in order to stand right there in that place and take whatever’s gonna come. Because it comes. It really comes. And it comes sometimes in the people that look just like you.
[Tracy Chapman live performance of “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”]
♪ “Don’t you know/
They’re talking ’bout a revolution/
It sounds like a whisper/
Don’t you know/
They’re talkin’ bout a revolution….” ♪
CARMEN: This episode starts in a parking garage, because I live in Los Angeles, and I’m always driving directly into my feelings. More accurately, it starts on Santa Monica Boulevard, on my way to The Wing. I’m on the phone with my mom, and I’m in the middle of a full-blown feminist crisis. I’m telling her that I don’t know if this movement really sees me, or maybe that it doesn’t want to. I’m telling her that I don’t know how a mixed-race, queer person from a working-class background with a single mother moves forward inside of a movement that so often erases, dismisses, and ignores my experiences and my identities. I’m telling her that this is it. This is what women before me have talked about: That this is why they left, and that it’s why I have to leave too. And then my mother says something to me that shakes me to the bone, that rattles me to the core, that still to this day follows me to work and pings me when I open my laptop. If I leave, she asks me, who stays?
I decided before we hung up the phone that it wasn’t time to back down or walk away or abandon ship or even abandon hope. I decided right then that I had to dig in my heels instead, make more room, expand these spaces that were stifling so that more people like me could make room for themselves inside of them. When I worried that it would be isolating or lonely, when I was anxious that I wasn’t strong enough to stand in place or raise my fist or raise my voice, I thought about the women who came before me: the women who made it possible for someone like me to claim this movement as her own at all and who made feminism better by pushing back and rising up and demanding better of their sisters. And I realized that even though I’ve revered them, written about them, celebrated and lionized them, I never thought about asking them how it felt to do that work. So, I did.
♪ “Talkin’ bout a revolution, oh no/
Talkin’ bout a revolution, oh no/
Talkin’ bout a revolution, oh no” ♪
[crowd cheers and applauds as recording fades out]
BARBARA: So, I didn’t really understand. When I first heard about feminism, I didn’t really understand because I saw it as being a white women’s movement about white women’s issues. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what white women had to complain about since they had nothing like the burdens that we had as Black women. They certainly weren’t dealing with racism and poverty and discrimination, etc. So, it was just like, what do they have to complain about?
I soon, once I got out in the world after college, I suddenly began to experience sexism, particularly in the context of employment and things like that. And because I was such a huge reader, always have been, always will be, I was certainly reading about the women’s movement and reading primary sources about the women’s movement, like for example, Kate Millett’s book Sexual Politics
, and thinking that yeah, that sounds quite accurate. [Chuckles
.] And then I got involved. I was able to be in a CR group, a consciousness raising group, in the Boston area when I lived there in the early ’70s. I was the only Black woman in the consciousness raising group. But the thing that was really a catalyst was the fact that there were other Black women, somewhat older than I, because I was still in my mid-20s at that point, who were starting—mid- late 20s—who had started the National Black Feminist Organization. And there was an Eastern regional conference of the National Black Feminist Organization, known as NBFO, in New York City. And I went to that, and that was really my entree into the feminist movement. So, when I found the women’s movement, specifically Black feminism, I just thought, okay, I guess I have a home now. [Laughs
That’s Barbara Smith, the Black lesbian feminist socialist movement-builder who cofounded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and
the Combahee River Collective
and urged feminists to consider intersectionality long before it became a buzzword. Barbara has since served in elected office, taught at numerous colleges and universities, and published her own story, in 2014, with the release of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith.CHARLENE:
The first time anyone ever introduced me formally to the idea of Black feminism was when I was a college student. And it wasn’t until my senior year in college when I took a course in the education and sociology department with Dr. Venus Evans-Winters. And she’s a Black feminist. She’s a professor. She’s now like my sorority sister. She is also a clinical social worker. And I remember us reading various texts, whether or not they were explicitly Black feminists texts wasn’t even, that wasn’t what did it for me, saying like, this is Black feminist reading. It was the body of work that she was involved in, the topics and the issues that she exposed me and other young Black women to. The relationship that I built with her was, and her putting words Black feminism contextualized generally how I was raised, how I, in many ways, how I was thinking about the world and some of the critical questions that I just began to ask, or I began to ask myself. So, I think those were some of the most important moments for me. And particularly the conversations we would have in her office, the conversations we would have after class. And from there, my learnings about Black feminism didn’t happen in the classroom. They happened through self-study. They happened in movement spaces, in my own friendships, relationships, and family.
CAROL: Well, it was about 1973 and I was in college. There was just so much talk in the air: Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer. And I was reading these books, and it fit perfectly with the scenario in my family life. And I mean I’m from a kind of a YPSL socialist background, and my parents were very progressive anyway. My mother was really attached to feminism. I mean strong Jewish women. And so, it made so much sense. And also my father was very verbally abusive, and I feel like feminism expressed the relationship between my mother and my father. She always felt like it was hard for her to assert herself. So, I think feminism could not have made more sense to me. I mean it just explained my life!
That’s Carol Leigh, an iconic sex workers’ rights activist whose acts of rebellions against the feminist movement include coining the actual phrase “sex work” at a feminist conference about the so-called “sex use industry,” no less. Carol, who nicknamed herself the Scarlot Harlot, is an artist, author, and filmmaker who got her start working with organizations like COYOTE and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and now chairs the Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival and BAYSWAN
, the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network.
CHERRÍE: I went to college in the early ’70s, and that’s when I became aware of feminism. That was where I met Gloria Steinem, you know. And I mean, not like I did personally shake her hand, but it’s like she came to speak. But it was also all of that very early, you know, late ’60s, early ’70 feminist literature. I wasn’t really reading it at that time, but I was being impacted by it. By the time I got out of college—and I graduated in ’74—that what feminism did for me is it put language to this invisible site of silence that I had felt my whole life. So, definitely I was interested. I was hungry for it. I was like, oh my god. You mean this is not a natural-born condition. That it’s actually— You didn’t use that language then, you know, “socially constructed,” but that is the idea, right? Is that, oh my god, it’s not just me, you know. And I always talking about my sister saying that to me after she had read Betty Friedan. It was like, oh, Cherríe, it’s not just our family.
That’s Cherríe Moraga, cofounder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and coeditor of the legendary anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color
. Cherríe is also the author of several other collections, including A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness
and her recent memoir, Native Country of the Heart
, which tore mine right open. Cherríe is the recipient of awards like the United States Artist Rockefeller Fellowship for Literature, the American Studies Association Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Lambda Foundation’s “Pioneer” award. She’s also one of the foremost Latina voices that emerged in the second wave to claim space for women of color, queer women, and working-class and immigrant people.
DAISY: I went to a workshop at my college about sexuality. And so, that felt very transgressive immediately. I grew up in a Cuban Colombian immigrant home, working class. And you know, we didn’t talk about sex. So just, it felt like, whoa! This is what college is about! You get to talk about sex now very openly and with other women. And then as part of that workshop, which was led by a facilitator who was affiliated with Planned Parenthood, she had us write down our most positive experiences with sex. But the moment that was the jolt for me or the aha or the feminist click of like, oh, wow, I’m part of a larger narrative was when the facilitator turned over the index cards we had all, she had asked us to write our most negative experiences around sex or sexuality. And most of them were about sexual assault of some kind, whether it was being molested when we were children or more recently having been assaulted. And that was the moment for me. Because I thought I was the only one. And I had been molested as a child, and so had other friends. But I really thought it was, in the way that you rationalize abuse, you know, you think it’s just you, or it’s just a few women that you know. And every woman in that room was a stranger. So, was the moment when I realized, oh my gosh, this is about me being a girl. This is about me being a woman.
KARLA: I think that there were two transformative things that made me a feminist. The first thing was that two women I was very close to as undergraduates at Barnard College had pregnancy issues. One of the women was sent home by the school because you couldn’t be pregnant and go to college in the 1960s. And her parents locked her up in a room in a rural house, at the end of which, she gave birth to a stillborn baby. My roommate went to Puerto Rico and got a—this is another roommate—got an illegal abortion, came back, lay down on the couch, and bled for two weeks without ever saying a word about it. I mean, I knew she’d gone off to Puerto Rico for a vacation, but I really couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. She was really sick. She could barely get up. And it took me a while to figure out that she couldn’t speak of it because she had committed a felony. And for both of these women, their lives were negatively impacted. No matter which road they took, it was a road that they took without meaningful choice. And it made a lasting impression on my life.
And the other thing that happened was the Columbia uprising. I mean, without going into a long story about the 1968 spring uprising of Columbia University
, as an undergraduate, I quickly learned that the men on the left were not so far away from men on the right, except that they felt that women were everybody’s property and that we should sleep with them to help them along in the revolution. And it was a very discouraging event. And so, after I got out of college, I quickly gravitated to the radical feminist movement. I was not particularly interested in NOW, which was around. And I became a member of Redstockings, which was a radical feminist organization in the late 1960s.
CARMEN: That’s Karla Jay, an acclaimed scholar, cultural critic, and author who has been leading the fight for Women’s Rights and LGBTQ rights for over a half-century. Karla was an early member, and ultimately the first female chair, of the Gay Liberation Front, the organization founded in the wake of the Stonewall Riots. She was also a member of the now-infamous lesbian feminist organization Lavender Menace, and she participated in their historic “zap” at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in May 1970, successfully agitating for the inclusion of queer women and other women at the margins in the second wave feminist movement.
JULIA SERANO: For me as a trans woman who was socialized male, and so basically, through my 20s, I was moving through the world as male. I was trans, but I wasn’t identifying as a woman at the time. So, I definitely had a period during then where I was definitely, I would’ve called myself like a feminist ally. And I definitely agreed with a lot of general tenants about women should be treated as not inferiorly or less legitimately than men. And I didn’t really have, I hadn’t really thought through exactly what my feminist philosophy was. I was just generally on the side of people should be treated equally. As I was working towards transitioning and I was reading a lot of trans stuff and a lot of queer literature, I also started reading feminist literature rather than just kind of absorbing it generally through the culture. And it was very important for me when I was transitioning and in the early stages of when I was actually moving through the world as a woman and experiencing a lot of things that my past partners and friends who are women and who are feminists had told me about that I knew would probably happen: the ways in which I was treated, whether it’s like street harassment or just having men talk over me or talk down to me in ways that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child. [Chuckles.] So anyway, shortly after transitioning I became an outspoken, both trans activist but also very feminist-minded in my writing and my activism.
Before I transitioned, during my transition, after my transition, my life very much was one big effort to try to understand gender, to understand sexism, to understand my own personal experiences with it, to understand other people’s reactions to me. Feminism has been really crucial to help me make sense of it. Feminism ended up being really important for me in trying to make sense of my own experiences.
SARAH: So, what made me a feminist was being 16-years-old, living in very rural South Dakota in this community that was a mostly-white farming community. And my tribe, I lived about a mile outside of this white farming community. And seeing this very racist, spiritually degrading, sexist homecoming “ceremony” where five women and a medicine man and a big chief were all together in this drama. The women sang “Indian Love Song,” and the medicine man danced around them to pick one to give to the big chief and picked them by looking in their mouth, their ears, manually weighing them. And then the gift was to the big chief. And so, for me at 16, I was like, oh my gosh. Nobody’s…no one thinks there’s a problem with this?! And it was going on for 57 years. So, everybody was like, no, we’re honoring you. Even though the whole thing was completely fabricated, we were supposed to feel honored by it. And women in general were supposed to feel honored by this, you know? I was like, even if you didn’t see the racism, can’t you see the other part of it? So, yeah, that was my click moment.
CARMEN: That’s Sarah Eagle Heart—an Emmy-award winning storyteller, consultant, activist, author, media strategist, and producer hellbent on movement-building for Indigenous people’s rights. Sarah is the former CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy and recently embarked on two new adventures: writing a book with her sister called Warrior Princes Strikes Back: How Lakota Twins Triumph Over Oppression and Heal, and joining the Women’s March Board.
[Solange’s “F.U.B.U.” plays]
♪ “Oh, when you feeling all alone/
And you can’t even be you up in your home/
When you even feeling it from your own/
When you got it figured out/
When a tryna board the plane/
And they ask you, ‘What’s your name again?’
’Cause they thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re all the same’/
Oh, it’s for us” ♪
CARMEN: The stories these trailblazers told me when I asked for their feminist click moments sounded familiar because they’re the kind of stories I hear others tell, and tell myself, quite often. I’m the daughter of a single mother with no college degree. I’m queer as hell. I’m mixed-race. I’m here because there was nowhere else for me to go. Because without feminism, nothing in this world would make sense to me. This movement isn’t a philosophical thought experiment. This movement is in my blood. This movement is a calling.But that wouldn’t be as true, maybe, without trailblazers like Barbara, Carol, Charlene, Cherríe, Daisy, Julia, Karla, and Sarah. The work these women are doing, and have done, quite literally paved the way for my own. Because without voices like theirs, the feminist movement that raised me might not have had any space left for me and my weirdo friends. But I wanted to know: what makes an activist into a trailblazer? What turns a feminist into a tried-and-true revolutionary? What compels one woman to speak up and stand up to her sisters? I recognized their feminist click moments. But what about their trailblazer click moments?
CHERRÍE: I was told as a young writer by white, middle-class feminists that I didn’t have enough language. And I’m thinking, oh my god, I don’t have enough language? Are you kidding? I said, [laughing] I’m the first to go to college. And so, for me, that was kind of a first note around class, but actually, it also was related to culture so that finally when I left Los Angeles where I grew up, and I went to the Bay Area, and that’s when I got involved with the Feminist Writers Guild. And the Feminist Writers Guild was an organization that was founded by pretty much upper-middle-class and middle-class white lesbians and straight women both, but who had done a certain amount of publishing already. So, it was sort of like the Robin Morgan era, right? And some of them were fairly well known. Like Susan Griffin, I remember, ’cause I was there in the—it may not be a name you know [laughs]—but they’re in the Bay Area. And at the time, there were a lot of feminist writers beginning to emerge. And so, that was all great. And I was like, yeah, right on. Looks good.
And then, but I’m in those meetings, and I’m thinking, god! It’s like that isn’t my point of reference. And that was where I met Gloria Anzaldua
with whom I coedited This Bridge Called My Back
. And it’s like she spotted me, and the way she spotted me was language. Because when I did speak—And I also at the time, started to go to San Francisco state. I designed my own graduate feminist studies program. I had a lot of good support. But even in those settings—so, I was speaking all the time—and even in those settings, I always felt like my language was not appropriate. And I kept speaking, and it was Gloria who, after a meeting, said to me, “You’re Chicana, aren’t you?” You know, and I’m like, what? So, it’s like I go, “Oh, you could tell.” And she said, “Oh yeah, by the way you talk.” [Sighs
]How was I going…how was I going to…I wouldn’t even use the word interrupt. It was like, how am I, if I don’t have a race and class analysis, then I’m always in the position of thinking I need to write like them. And that’s what started in college. You know, I knew I wasn’t Walt Whitman’s, heritage, right? So, first, it’s white men, and then it became white women. And when it became white women, I’m going wait a minute. So, feminism is not enough. If I couldn’t find a way to be a lesbian and keep my culture, I didn’t know what I was, you know, that was highly problematic. I couldn’t give up either one of them. So, thus, that’s the birth of lesbian of color identity, you know? That’s the birth of This Bridge Called My Back. Thus the birth of theory in the flesh, you know, which way proceeded intersectionality that the academics talk about.
CAROL: I found that I was, I didn’t necessarily fit the rules, and something seemed a bit odd to me about that. It just, I never, I was always sensitive to any kind of discrimination, but at the same time, as being a devotee of progressive politics, you know, sometimes one would feel that one just needs to sort of suppress one’s response to that kind of oppression because it’s for the best of the community, right? So, you know, I wrestled with that a little bit, but just went on. But that was always something. But boy! As someone who grew up in a household that discussed socialism in the way that, say, that their communities of friends reacted to Stalin, I certainly understood all the complications of being involved in a political movement in which one wasn’t really sure of one’s position, and one was facing a lot of questions and power struggles. So, this is all, that made total sense. I didn’t think too much. I mean, I just thought this was part of the struggle. But just noting and then also noting as an early feminist, remember I moved to Boston, and I went on a tour of the porn district where they were showing how bad it was that the women were in the magazines naked, and went I to the bookstore. Woman holds up the magazine says, “This is disgusting.”
And again, I don’t know. Because as someone who I just, that posture seemed old to me, and I didn’t know really what I thought. I was perfectly willing to think that porn was a bad thing and perfectly willing to explore the idea that we can even censor it. I really did not have any special feeling. I mean I was pretty young. I was willing, but the posture was something that struck me. And I thought, I feel like this posture doesn’t necessarily reflect change at the kind of current attitudes about women exploring sexuality. I ultimately moved to San Francisco. I was curious about becoming a prostitute. I hadn’t done it yet. I dabbled a little ’cause I was so curious. Finally, I moved to San Francisco, and there were signs: sex, massage, girls. And I really needed money. I mean, I just figured, you know, Gloria Steinem. Remember, she went to work for Playboy so she could write an article trashing it, and it worked out. She got to write her article trashing it. And I thought, well, if she gets to work at Playboy and at the Playboy Club and write an article trashing it, I can certainly try prostitution, and then I can say something. So, I ultimately did. I thought, oh, you know, that’s a taboo. Like if you do it one time, then that’s it, that you’re spoiled forever. I mean, I’ve seen feminists actually say that, and I thought, well, wait a minute. That is a misogynist taboo because a human being’s whole being can’t be dependent on one sexual encounter. That seems like a sexist thing to me. Anyway. So, Hemingway went off to war, and I knew that prostitutes who were in the front lines of the battle of the sexes. And I was very involved in that, you know.
So, first time I did it, I went to a massage parlor. It was sleazy, so I knew that they actually sold sex not ambience. And I went to that massage parlor, and the first encounter I had, they sent me in with a regular. And it was actually really positive for me. I was fascinated. I made $35. That was so much. A and around me, I saw all these women from all over the world, and they were even the first day, but as time went on, I saw so many of them had such strong spirits and were survivors. And I mean the energy and the sisterhood there, I mean, I never read anything about this. I never heard about this. And I, right away, the first day I went home from the work, I was looking in the mirror. And I thought, oh, that’s a prostitute. And then it was like that line between me and the prostitute disappeared, and I had stepped over it. And I knew I was, and I understood that that line separating prostitutes from other women wasn’t right. It was based on this kind of misogynistic idea that this sexual activity defines us. And I understood that bringing forth a perspective from someone who’s working currently as a prostitute would be good information and really important. And I was ready.
DAISY: After that workshop, I did join the feminist group on campus. And I was really lucky because the president was a queer Latina, and that was very unusual. I went to a predominantly white state college in New Jersey. That was very unusual at that time. So, I got really, really lucky. But it was also like, it was just her and me! [Laughing.] Like it wasn’t like the entire group was that multiracial or anything. But I did have a moment. There was a woman in the group who had also been abused sexually as a child, and she was, I think, much further on her healing journey than I was. And she could really speak. I just felt like she spoke so deeply and eloquently to the experience of having experienced sexual abuse. And I connected so much with what she was saying. And I remember one day sitting at our weekly, ’cause our weekly meetings where these discussions, feminist-consciousness raising moments. So, we were just sitting around eating Doritos and talking basically about everything and anything, and it was wonderful. And I remember like, she was talking about her experience, and I was like, yes, yes! And she had so much, you know, she could clearly identify the male abuser in her life as being the center of all evil and the center of all problems. And I was like, yes! Yes! And then I was like, but not totally, you know? And so, this is when I’m in college, and she’s saying that. I’m like, that doesn’t— It wasn’t that it was alienating. It was more that it just did not speak to me completely. And I remember feeling that feeling of something’s missing in this story that she’s telling.
And around the same time, my father had lost his factory job, so I would drive my dad to the unemployment agency. It was an English dominant environment. He’s Spanish dominant. So, I would translate for him. So, we’re standing on line, and I’m looking around and realizing like, everybody on this line is either brown or Black immigrants, a lot of immigrants. And I’m like, oh yeah. I can’t find…I can’t find the fault only with the men in my community because with my father, I’m like literally his voice in the community, right? Like when he has to go outside of our little community, I am his voice, and I have to speak for him. The same was true for other uncles as well and other just men in our community. And so, it was not, I was like, that was the moment where I realized, oh my god, this amazing white feminist has kind of like half of my story, [laughing] you know? And then the other half has to do with language, with citizenships, with issues around class that complicate my experience. It was just this moment of realizing this is so much more complicated than just being about men and women. This has to do with experiences around race and the fact that my dad is an immigrant and doesn’t speak English and doesn’t feel empowered. And so, in this other environment, I’m super empowered in another way.
CHARLENE: Black feminism, specifically radical Black feminism, is a journey. It wasn’t something I just woke up and arrived to. And it isn’t anything that I’m gonna arrive to at some point. I remember a time where I didn’t even know about a prison abolitionist movement. I didn’t even know it existed. And once I learned that that existed and that it made sense to me, it in turn, now informs my feminism. And so, it’s something I just didn’t know. And now I know, and it’s something that I’ve been working through for the past six years in connecting and expanding my understanding of radical Black feminism.
I came to a point of realizing that that has to, I had to engage in broader feminism, and I would say also, broader Black liberation movements to push the edges of what people in the room thought were possible. And I really think that’s something that radical Black feminists have always done. And as I learn more and more about Black feminists like Claudia Jones, Rosa Parks, even learning more about Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, all this work, whether or not they call themselves Black feminists, it fits within the Black radical tradition of feminism. And to me, it’s just a part of my own personal development, the relationships I’ve been able to build, and also people consistently agitating me around my ideas and the actual actions that I take.
JULIA: A lot of it kind of centered around my experience at Camp Trans in 2003. It became really clear how much a, trans woman nonacceptance was often, although not always, tied to kind of the acceptance of trans male and trans masculine people in a lot of the same spaces. And a lot of the people who kind of were into accepting trans male and trans masculine people would say really, not only derogatory things about trans women, but blatantly misogynistic things. And that really clicked for me both how this was really a fundamental problem. It wasn’t just there are some anti-trans feminists or queer women. It was just some people were pro-trans but anti-trans woman. And that was around the time that I focused a lot of my efforts on challenging trans woman exclusion. And that work led towards me writing my first book, Whipping Girl, which was kind of explores the way in which misogyny and anti-feminine sentiment definitely play a huge role in what would normally be described as transphobia or specifically, animosity or the demonization of trans female and feminine spectrum people.
KARLA: I was highly invested in the larger goals of the radical feminist movement. I was not interested in getting a few more pennies on the dollars for women. I was interested in the fate of working-class women who had no stake at all in the economy. Abortion was illegal throughout the United States, and those of us who were in radical feminism were involved in going after legislators. Because the hearings they had involved only male speakers as experts [laughing] in abortion. It was kind of almost ludicrous. And television shows at the time had women in shadow because of course, the women had committed felonies. So, I was very involved in many of the issues: housework, the politics of housework, ways to create equitable relationships between women and men.
But, and this was a big but, Redstockings, which was a Marxist feminist group, analyzed everything in terms of class. And lesbians did not fit neatly into this class analysis. And therefore, they seemed to see us as a kind of diversion, which they did not want to deal with. They really, at best, didn’t want to speak about lesbianism. They thought it was off the track of what they wanted to do. And at worst, they could be absolutely homophobic. When the Stonewall uprising happened, I very quickly found my way to the gay liberation front. I mean, Betty Friedan is the case in point. I mean, she was the one who called lesbians a “lavender menace,” who, if allowed to be in the movement, would destroy the credibility of the women’s movement. And she, threw people she suspected of being lesbians out of the hierarchy of NOW. She fired Rita Mae Brown, who was the editor of the newsletter of NOW. But she also cleaned house in the hierarchy, and she got rid of women, some of whom were lesbians. Not all of these women were lesbians. And then in addition to that, on March 16, 1970, Susan Brownmiller wrote an article that was in the New York Times magazine
, which was the first major article in a mainstream paper or a magazine that was about the women’s liberation movement. And she dismissed lesbianism as a lavender herring, that we were like a red herring. Again, we were some diversion, but we weren’t important. And we certainly weren’t a menace. And so, we were either being just dismissed in a derogatory fashion, or we were being thrown out.
BARBARA: Unlike some people, I never had miserable experiences of going to white women’s organizational meetings, like to NOW meetings, for example, the National Organization for Women meetings. I never had that experience. And I also don’t like the fact that sometimes Black feminism is characterized as a reaction to the white women’s movement because I don’t really see it that way. I see it as having a need to organize with an agenda that was relevant to our experiences and our present. It was hardly, you know, I don’t know where I would put dissatisfaction with the white women’s movement or reacting to the white women’s movement on that list. But that was certainly not the only reason, or even the primary reason, that we felt a need to build an authentic Black feminist movement.
It’s not that I never experienced any racism in the context of the women’s movement, but I also, and I wanna make this very clear, I never did work in the bourgeois women’s movement. So, the kinds of negative reactions that might’ve been more prevalent if indeed I had been working in that kind of context. A lot of the work that the Combahee River Collective did with people who were not women of color during the 1970s was with socialist feminists. So, as I said, it’s not that there was never any racism whatsoever; it’s just that we were not beating our heads up against the wall of lean-in feminists of their day, if you see what I’m saying. We weren’t trying to organize with people whose class status, their analysis of why things were the way they were, who were fine with capitalism, who didn’t give much thought to white supremacy, we were not trying to organize with them. Because we were not immersed with the establishment part of the movement, and because we were working with people who shared a race and class analysis, and we were working on very significant issues like sterilization abuse, like access to reproductive freedom, particularly after the Hyde Amendment
was passed in 1977, and also when 12 Black women were murdered in Boston in 1979.
We were dealing with real stuff. So, I think that there might’ve been more, what’s the word, more conflict in the context of women’s studies than there was in the context of the grassroots feminism that we were involved in, in the Boston area, the city of Boston and surrounding areas. There were a number of interventions around racism, particularly in relationship to the national Women’s Studies Association. So, I think there might’ve been definitely more pushback and more feelings of why are you bringing this up, and why do we have to talk about this? And my feelings are hurt and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But as I said, my general sense of what we were doing in those days was to build a strong Black feminist autonomous movement and to work in coalition with other people who saw that as being a vital thing to do.
CARMEN: And I also know what feminist organizing looks like, but I wanted to know what deliberate trailblazing looked like. After someone has that click moment—after they realize they want more from this movement—where do they go? What does the work look like? For women like Charlene, Sarah, Julia, it’s meant a lot of calling in: pushing well-intentioned folks to go even further.
CHARLENE: I believe we have to have more robust conversations about what kind of economy and what kind of politics or political system or governance systems is one that we want and we deserve to have. And to not shy away from it and to go way bigger than single-level conversations about access to abortion and really, really make commitments to working through a reproductive justice framework. And in doing so, we have to tell much, much more complete stories in order to develop more complete solutions. Because what is happening all too often across feminist movement is there’s a tendency to tell incomplete stories. And I get it on some level why people, people can speak from their direct experience. Then we have to say, okay, who’s missing here? Who’s not here? And make that the aspiration. And to know that I don’t think it will ever be a situation where every single person is represented in every single decision and every single process. Being committed to a constant process of expansion, we have to have much more rigorous conversations about governance, about the economy, and all the things that go along with that, like work, relationships, pleasure, faith, and spirituality. And how are we actually going to radically change the way we deal with conflict-con environments?
You know, being a part of the Women’s March
since the very first march, I’ve definitely seen just a growth pattern. And believe me, even with the very first march, it happened because there was a group of women, Native women, that kind of early on wee saying, “Hey, there are no Native or Indigenous women on the steering committee.” And was like, “There’s nothing. What’s going on here?” And so, it really did take sort of a, what are you guys doing about it and consistently calling them out on it. And to their credit, they were like, “Yeah, you’re right. We do need to figure this out.” And then inviting a group of women to join them to help them figure it out. It’s not perfect. Nobody’s perfect. I think the intersectional women’s movement is so new, and we’re seeing it play out live right now, especially with the new Board at the Women’s March.
Sisters Rising is a new project that I’m working on with we stand United and Justice for Migrant Women and a couple of our amazing influencers that have come on early: Anne Hathaway and Mark Ruffalo. And so, it’s really a get out the vote project that has an educational twist in it. We are recognizing the history of the Women’s Equality Movement and looking at the history of the women’s suffragette movement that doesn’t really acknowledge that they were inspired by the Haudenosaunee women. Yeah. So, we were like, okay, the 100th anniversary is coming up. How do we help educate America? [Laughs.]
CARMEN: [Laughs.] No small task.
SARAH: Yeah! If we’re gonna do this, we just need Anne Hathaway. [Laughs.]
We’re kind of at a moment where, for instance, the term “fourth wave,” I’ve heard used about 20 different ways to refer to, everyone who uses it has their own slightly different idea of what direction we should be moving in. I think right now, I think there definitely is work to be done towards making feminism inclusive for other people. Particularly in the U.K., what we describe as TERF or trans exclusive radical feminists
, those people exist and have gotten louder. And particularly in the U.K., but to a certain degree here in the U.S., there’s definitely a kind of a overlap between their activism and kind of far right anti-trans activism. So, those debates and everything are still going on. And I think within other areas like the inclusion of other groups is still important and ongoing. I do feel that most feminists that I interact with on a regular basis get that fact maybe none of us are perfect all of the time. But I think there’s awareness that we should be trying. And I find that if someone says, “Oh, there’s a problem here in this space, or this group is a kind of being shut out of this debate,” that people do try to make inclusion for that more.
CARMEN: For Carol, it meant taking to the streets, although you may not have recognized her there.
CAROL: I mean, of course there was a set, a prostitute’s rights movement already, COYOTE. And first chance I could, I marched to a National Organization for Women meeting where COYOTE was doing a panel. Priscilla Alexander was there. I wore a paper bag on my head. This paper bag symbolizes the anonymity prostitutes are forced to adopt! And of course, right away, it was very clear that there was a huge part of the feminist movement that just completely disapproved of us, that rejected us, that rejected prostitution, again, I felt for reasons that were old-fashioned and didn’t really reflect kinda contemporary changes in women’s positions. So then, my path after that—I’d say that was by late-’70s, early-’80s—by then, my path after that was kind of looking into what those feminists were doing. And I felt very deeply that rejecting prostitutes as part of feminism was one of the key problems with feminism.
And I was still, as you can imagine, I was completely identifying as a feminist because it fit every other aspect of my life. So, I just felt like that was the wrong feminism. It wasn’t my, it was a problematic feminism that needed to be developed and changed. So, I feel like culturally, I’m a feminist, and I identify that it’s like part of the tribes I’ve been involved with in my life. But I do feel like that gender analysis, if it’s central, if that is the only center of my politics, that that is a problematic analysis for looking at economic disparities and discriminations and that sort of thing. So, I do have a critique of the kind of classic definition of feminism and probably actual feminism. It’s just that I still call myself a feminist because it had been my tribe. And as far as renouncing it, well, I think I do enough to renounce it. I feel like one of the priorities with feminism and with sex workers is that we need to recognize how women’s movements and feminism have hurt prostitutes really for a long time. So, we need some kind of movement. And I still feel like I would like to find a context to blossom a movement where we ask feminist organizations and movements to admit the harms that these movements have done and dedicate themselves to turning things around.
CARMEN: It also meant staring down her sisters, over and over and over again.
CAROL: It was bad right away. I remember from the one-woman show, it was at the National Festival of Women’s Theatre in California. And after I did this really dramatic show, somebody stands up and says, “You know, that’s not the real story,” or something like that. And it really hurt me as an actress. It was very sensitive to me. And somebody to do it at that moment was really scary and awful where I just, you know…. The workshop in which I invented the term “sex work,” I don’t remember being in that workshop with anyone else who was even on my side. And remember, there were always people who just hadn’t, I mean it was only a few people in a context who would be against sex workers or prostitutes. The majority wouldn’t know and would be perfectly open to considering. And at that point, really, there wasn’t quite as big an anti-prostitution movement within feminism. They hadn’t reached out quite as much. So, it was always mixed situation. It did take a lot of courage, but I don’t think I was meeting quite as much hostility in the individual context.
CARMEN: Karla had to do the same, and she had to tell the movement the truth, knowing that there would be consequences.
KARLA: What had happened was Betty Friedan’s calling us a Lavender Menace and Susan Brownmiller calling us a Lavender Herring, but to call the action The Lavender Herring Group Action [chuckles] sounded kind of silly. So, we, radical lesbians, as we eventually called ourselves, we came from the Gay Liberation Front and from the Women’s Movement. And we felt time’s up, and we have had enough of this heterosexism from the Women’s Movement. So, we got together as a group, and we wrote a manifesto called The Woman Identified Woman, which is probably the most famous document I think that came out of the lesbian movement, of that period. To zap the Second Congress to Unite Women, which NOW was organizing on May 1, 1970, without doing something humorous, could expose us, first of all, to arrest and also to be being ignored. So, we wanted to create what then was called The Zap. And The Zap was an action that combined a little street theater, and it had an element of being humorous and also was very political. And we put these things together into an action. We dyed t-shirts that said, “Lavender Menace.” So, we got the manifesto, we got the t-shirts, and we went to the Congress, and we had scoped out the place.
And when the Congress started, two women were backstage, and they cut all of the lights. And there were about 40 of us involved in the action. And when the lights went back on, the aisles were filled with radical lesbians with signs and placards and lavender menace t-shirts. And the sign said things like, “Women’s liberation is a lesbian plot,” “Take a lesbian to lunch,” “We are your worst nightmare. We are your best fantasy.” And I was planted in the audience, in my street clothes. And I stood up in the audience, and I yelled, “Sisters, sisters. I’m tired of being in the closet in this movement.” And I pulled off my blouse to screams in the audience. And underneath, I had a lavender menace t-shirt. So, we went up on the stage, and we said, you know, you cannot go on and not have a single item on this two-day conferences agenda that addresses lesbianism. Nothing! And there was nothing also that would address class. And there was nothing that would address race. I mean, this was 1970, and we demanded that the Congress of Women address all three issues, that they put all three on the agenda, and they did! And the movement never took them off the table again.
CARMEN: For Barbara, those costs weren’t just felt in feminist spaces. They were felt in Black movement spaces, too.
One of the most memorable experiences for me was not a Combahee event per se. It was me presenting at the Nassau Writers Conference, the Nassau Black Writers Conference that, at that point, happened at Howard University annually. and I was invited to speak there. It would’ve been probably ’78, and I was invited to speak because I’d written the essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism
” where I tried to lay out a framework for thinking about Black women’s literature and also asserted that it was important to include lesbians in the Pantheon of Black women writers. I was invited, as I said, to speak at this Black writers’ conference, and to say the reaction was hostile is, I think, an understatement. One of the most memorable things that was said to me that day after this free for all of condemnation, because I dared to say that I was a lesbian in a Black public place, I ran into someone at the back of this large auditorium at Howard who I’d known because he was a literary critic and wrote for the New York Times
And as I said, I’d had some interaction with him previously, and I was just devastated. Needless to say, I was devastated. And I said to him how I felt about how I had been responded to. And this individual, who was a Black man, said to me, “Well, at least you were not lynched.” Far more painful than anything that ever happened in relationship to the white women’s movement is being ostracized from the Black community. Because living under white supremacy, when you’re ostracized from your racial community and you are indeed a target of white supremacy, where indeed are you, and where do you go?
CARMEN: And of course, for most of the trailblazers I talked to, the work means taking those challenges to the movement and writing them down, building, in the process, sites of connection for women like them and for feminists who were invested in doing better by them.
CHERRÍE: The thing about Bridge was when Bridge came out—and that was already after I was finishing my graduate school—as Bridge was coming out, that was the time that everybody was like, so, all the white feminists then were sort of like, oh great, this is the book. This is the book. So, on a certain level, it helped sell the book! But the book, and it was supposed to be originally to talk about these very things about racism in the Women’s Movement. But that as we got together with all these other women of color, that became much less interesting. So, we were much more interested in each other, much more interest in each other and what we didn’t know about each other and the places of similarity with each other. And the truth of the matter is—so, that book came out in ’81—that first year when I began and then up until ’83 when Kitchen Table Press took the book over, there was a lot of, so much interest in it. But I can tell you how many times that I presented on that book, and when it came right down to really discussing the issues of the book, there was times I would speak, white women would get up and walk out in en masse, you know. And still, that happens to this day for different sets of reasons, you know. So, I think that it is sort of like too, anytime you challenge, sometimes even very progressive notions, and people are very fixed on their progressive notion, you challenge those things. I mean, I’ve been on the other side of it. I’ve been on the side where people say things, I’m like, oh my god. That’s me. I haven’t thought about that.
DAISY: It wasn’t until after college that I started reading the works of Audre Lorde and Cherríe Moraga and Barbara Smith. And then I started to see like, oh my gosh, there are these other feminists out there who recognize what we now know, thanks to Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw as the intersectionality of our identities and of our lived experiences. And Colonize This initially happened because, I started writing essays because I needed to figure out what was going on in my life, you know. It’s like if you grew up in an immigrant family, it doesn’t prepare you to be queer. It doesn’t prepare you to be a feminist necessarily. Explicitly, my mother was preparing me in ways that she did not realize herself! But it wasn’t, you know, I didn’t grow up in a home where there was feminist literature and where people embraced these ideas. And so, for me it was really pivotal to find these women of color who were publishing books, and it was pivotal for me to start writing about it, to figure it out.
And that led me to an editor at Seal Press, and she was the one who had the idea for Colonize This, who suggested that maybe we needed a version of This Bridge Called My Back for those of us who had grown up with Women’s Studies and Gender Studies. And so, the book began there. And the minute she said it, I was like, yes! Because This Bridge Called My Back had been so influential for me, and I still recommend it for everyone. It’s a must-read. And at the same time, I knew that our experiences were different because that was the generation that got Women’s Studies to be institutionalized in colleges and that made a lot of other things, you know, other reforms happen. And then my generation was the one that started growing up with this already in place. And so, hence in Colonize This, you see an entire section that’s about talking back because we realized, oh wait, we’re in conversation now with institutional practices around feminism. So, our feminism and our conversations look a little differently.
I think the only time that there was, I don’t know if pushback is the right word necessarily, but I definitely have had students, like when I’ve gone to college campuses and talked about Colonize This, I definitely have had white students—always a white student—who will say something along the lines of like, “Well, don’t these women have agency? Don’t you believe that they can change their circumstances? You’re acting like they’re victims,” blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, Noooooo! You missed the point! [Laughs.] But I think in general, that’s the minority. I think there’s really a lot of curiosity. And a lot of what I’ve heard from, again more so students of who’ve read the book usually in a college class or who have found it their public library is like, they feel like the book helped them to feel less isolated. Like they might not have their tribe where they live or in their community; they might feel very isolated. And so, the book was like, oh my god! There’s like 30 other people who feel the same way that I feel! I’m not crazy. So, I think the book has been amazing in that way for readers.
[“No Name” by Self plays]
♪ “Maybe this the album you listen to in your car when you driving home late at night/
Really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches/
Maybe this is the interest before you get to the river/
I had him before the heathen no reason for you to like me/
Maybe this your life he just wanted a clean divorce/
The baby ain’t really yours/
That’s really for baby’s teething, the chicken wings underseasoned/
Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?/
Maybe this your answer for that, a crack addict in the Reagan administration/
That niggas are still scared of, nah actually this is for me/
This one for TT at the lake serving the mac and the cheese/
This one a small apology for all the calls that I screamed….” ♪
CARMEN: When I was talking to these women, that moment in my car weighed really heavily on me. I confessed to each and every one of them that I was feeling sort of displaced in this movement that has always defined me as a person and has served as the map for my own freedom road. I reveled in listening to their stories, and I gained strength from recognizing the ways in which I wasn’t alone. And I even saw this glimmer of hope in these conversations. Maybe I was a trailblazer, too, one that women and girls like me needed just as badly as I needed the work these women did to feel like my movement was getting closer to becoming whole. But I was still swishing that question from my mom around in my mouth. I couldn’t spit it out. I couldn’t even speak back to it. Because I needed help answering it. Why do trailblazers keep lighting the path? When this movement fails us, why do we keep fighting?
What I learned in asking that question again and again is that the answer is something intangible. It’s a calling that can’t be put into words. The answer is that there comes a time in every woman’s life, in this movement and outside of it, where she realizes that there’s a fight bigger than her. The answer is that you don’t have to set out to save the feminist movement in order to end up making it better. All you have to do is demand that there be space for you. All you have to do is imagine the grass on the other side of the brush and insist on tearing it down until you finally get there, with everyone you love following not so far behind.
DAISY: I never thought about leaving, but I have to admit that I was exceptionally lucky in one way, which is that right after college— So, our feminist group, except for like me and the other Latina was pretty white. But then once I was done with college, I found this other amazing group in New York City. It was a group called Women in Literature and Letters, and it was a group started by these three Latina feminists. And so, this is luck, and it’s also the privilege of coming after Cherríe Moraga and her generation. It is like the luck of demographics that I was near New York City, and these three Latino feminists started this organization. But actually. when I started working on Colonize This, the first edition in 2002, I was part of that community. So, I was just complete, And it wasn’t only Latinas. It was a very women-of-color-centric organization. And so, I was actually with all these really amazing women of color feminists! [Laughs.] It was like kind of, I mean, I don’t wanna represent it as like a total paradise, but it was a little paradise! [Laughs.] So, I didn’t feel like I had to leave actually, because I found these amazing women of color who I was learning so much from them, it was blowing my mind.
But I’m also pretty stubborn. So, I kind of feel like, no, I get to be here, you know? And that said, I also feel like I have to be really honest and admit that I’ve purposefully shaped this life where I constantly put myself in contact with other women of color feminists. So, I have amazing white feminist friends, but I feel like, very consciously, I seek out not just Latina feminists but other women of color too ’cause I feel like that’s nourishing. So, I always tell people, I always tell other women of color feminists, if you’re in a completely white feminist space, no. You need to find your tribe. [laughs] That’s not right. That’s not right to you and your heart because it’s important for us to, as you were saying, make sure that this space is there for others who come behind us. But I don’t believe that the movement requires us to sacrifice ourselves. If a movement requires you to sacrifice yourself, it’s the wrong movement. [Laughs.] You know?
JULIA: I’ve been doing this for like 20-some years or 20-ish years. And in that time, I’ve seen lots of people kind of appear for a while and do activism, and then they sort of disappear. And a lot of times, whether people burn out or they move on in their lives, for whatever reason, I’ve ended up sticking around. [Laughs.] I definitely had my angry activist period. You know, there are lots of different ways to be an activist, and sometimes being an angry activist who’s the one making noise and bringing attention to something— Well, anger doesn’t always, it doesn’t solve every problem. There’s always gotta be some people who are doing that. And that’s kind of where I was. And some of that, I think, when I reread parts of Whipping Girl, I can hear it. And I think that maybe that is some of what resonates with people is that you know, I try to stay on a reasonable level, but I can kind of hear my anger [laughs] just behind the words. However, after that came out, in the years after that, I became aware of the fact that all the sudden, I did have a voice, or I was seen as someone who people should listen to. That was a type of privilege that I didn’t have before when I was just kind of this young trans woman. So therefore, I have a responsibility to do good with that [chuckles] and to not use it to drown out other people’s voices or other people’s perspective.
CHARLENE: Well, honestly, I’ve received amazing feedback about the book and have had amazing conversations about the book across the country. And I’m a little surprised by it. [Chuckles.] And I imagine that people are doing more struggle around what I’m saying in their own personal spaces. And I want people to do that. I do want people to do that. I don’t want people to take what I wrote at face value without looking at the citations, interrogating the claims that I make, and all of that. I don’t want people to just follow what I wrote without questioning it. ’Cause that is the least like…that’s far from my own personal values, and it actually won’t get us free. Do I believe what I wrote? Absolutely! Is it grounded in history and experiences, and in some cases, research? Yes. I do believe I make very solid claims and strong arguments. And so, yes. And everybody has to go on their journey in this work and in their lives.
I mean, somebody had to urge me to do better. Like I said, I didn’t wake up thinking all of these things. And being pushed around several—and continuing to be pushed—around several things, be it disability justice, trans justice, and gender justice, those are things that I know less about and that are part of my responsibility to dig more into and not just understand it, but also integrate. ’Cause justice is, those are acts. It’s work. And so, thinking about what work and my call to in the work that I’m required to do to really live in this work towards collective liberation and not just for some of us, but for all of us.
SARAH: I think for me, it comes down to that there’re just not enough Native people that have a voice anywhere. And so, even in my culture, being Ogallala Lakota, we have a big thing on humility. And so do a lot of other groups, right? We’re like, oh, we have to be humble. We’re not supposed to step out into the limelight. And sometimes people don’t want you to, you know. It’s a whole like crabs in a bucket. Like, no! Why you? Why do you get to step out? And even in talking with other women leaders who, they just wrote a book, and it’s like, I just wrote a book. And we’re having a conversation, and they’re saying, “Oh, I’m struggling with talking about this. I gotta go be onstage now.” And I was saying to her, I was like, “Well, the same thing. Like we just don’t have enough of our voices out there.” And so, I feel like it’s a responsibility. And so, for me, it is more of a spiritual calling because I know that this is work that I’m supposed to be doing.
But I also think that part of it is just a myriad of really unique experiences that I’ve had in my life that have really prepared me for this moment. And had I not had an experience of wanting to be in marketing and advertising and wanting to be a writer and then going into working at a faith-based organization doing advocacy work at the Episcopal church. On their staff, presiding bishop, the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who lifted up Indigenous peoples, and then working internationally with other Indigenous groups. And I’m working with a very intersectional group of a team with diversity, social justice, environmental justice. That’s a kind of lens and experience that you just don’t often get at a young age, and I was really fortunate to get it. And then landing in philanthropy and just actually seeing what’s available and the resources that are out there for me, I think, just gave me a really strong grounding. And yes, we have to do this. And the moment is now, when people are actually listening, when doors are open. We have to be able to take advantage of every opportunity that’s out there right now. And for Native Americans historically, we know that the window closes pretty quickly for representation, for media, for anything. It closes within like 18 months, 18 months to two years. So, the goal for many of the groups that are working in this space is really to help make it permanent, that our presence is permanent. And so, we’re all working hard to make that happen.
KARLA: You know, there were many times in the movement when I was doing things with various groups that I was afraid or I was angry or I wanted to stop. But when you give up, then the people who want you to stop have won. And I wasn’t going to let them have that. I think that I just did not allow, at a certain point, for people to ignore my full humanity. And when lesbianism became part of my public persona, I was not going to go back into the closet for anyone’s comfort. And those of us who are radical as lesbians were outspoken as lesbians. And it is also true that there were men in the Gay Liberation Movement who did not like women, and they didn’t like lesbians. And they could be heterosexist and lesbophobic. And these were individuals; it wasn’t the group as a whole. But these people just had to be called out in the way that we should call out any kind of -ism: racism, heterosexism. We would just call it out when we heard it. And I think that a number of us were quite vocal about that, and we didn’t let it happen. I mean, there certainly were actions that I participated in as part of the Women’s Movement where I didn’t have to stand up and say, “I’m doing this because I’m also a lesbian,” where it wasn’t perhaps germane to the action. But it was certainly part of who I was and part of what impelled me as a person to try to change society.
CAROL: I was just so lucky. I was so lucky to have my background, to be in that right place at the right time. I was looking for something to write about and know about. I was just, this is like an amazing gift that I was given to be able to bring this. I mean, I just can’t, you know…. With my fortune, with my privilege, just being fortunate to have learned about this, I was just given this, I feel like. I mean when I was young, I just was kind of a brave person who liked to challenge things. And my parents always taught me to question everything. And my personality because of how I was raised as a red diaper baby, and I just was so lucky. And I’m not courageous like that now! That was just the case of me having those skills at that time. I was just really so lucky. I can’t believe it. I’m so lucky. I knew I was kinda having to stand out alone, and that worked for me. That was the given: that everybody’s gonna disagree with me, and I can have the voice. And that was my, you know, came a lot from, that was part of that fortune that I was in that position. But no, I didn’t have a lot of mixed feeling. I’m not about anything like that.
BARBARA: There was only one time in my life when I thought about not being politically active, and it was not in the context of the Women’s Movement or the LGBTQ Movement. It was when the Civil Rights Movement had transformed into Black power and Black nationalism. And because it was so sexist, that’s another place where I experienced sexism. Because the roles for women—and they did think we had roles, appointed roles as opposed to just open the landscape up and see what these people can do; freedom, in other words—but the roles for women were so limited at that time, I just said, I’ll never be politically active again. ’Cause I am not going to be walking seven steps, three or seven steps, behind anybody. I’m not going to do it. So, that was the point in my life when I thought that I would never be able to be politically active again because of what was going on in some of those circles. And I don’t wanna paint with too broad of a brush. And I don’t think that all revolutionary nationalists were incredibly sexist. But the general tone of that time was very, very patriarchal and very, very demeaning, I think, pretty demeaning of Black women and being told that you had to let that be the case because it was for the struggle. But so, that was a time. That was a time when I consciously thought, I just don’t think I’ll be able to do this.
CARMEN: So, how do we do it? How can any single one of us take on the herculean task of filling these kinds of shoes, of doing this kind of revolutionary work? How can we build this movement into something better? How do we find the strength, resilience, power, and peace of mind to fight for ourselves in spaces that demand that we quiet ourselves? How do we keep talking? How do we keep going? How do we leave the lights on for those who will come after us? First of all, you do what you have to do, knowing that your cause will go far beyond your own contributions.
SARAH: It’s hard when our communities are just not healed. And I think you can sometimes feel attacked, and you can feel isolated in that. But again, for me, I think I’ve always had this feeling of a calling to the work and feeling like there was something beyond me that really propelled me, that I kept feeling, you know, like this intuition of knowing of okay. You’re supposed to be paying attention here. This is a direction that you’re supposed to be going and your gut telling you. And so, for me, I’ve always just fallen back on my spirituality and fallen back on that intuition and knowing. And that’s made me a lot stronger as a leader, as a woman, as a individual, as a mother.
CHARLENE: The things that motivate me and keep me on the path of doing the work that I do is knowing that I’m not in it alone. I’m not the only one who thinks these things. And also understanding that it is a long-term journey, not even just a marathon, as if it were a race. It is something that is like, it is ongoing, and it will continue after me. And so much of my work is about helping to shift the terrain that we have to fight on, the conditions that we have to fight under should be improving the material conditions of myself and our people.
KARLA: What bound us together always was this sense of doing an action and planning it together and risking it together. And whatever the action was, for example, taking over the Ladies’ Home Journal, which 100 of us did, and that sense of collegiality in feminism that brought us together around that action really held us together. And for those of us who were the lesbian feminists who wanted to put together a dance and put together the first lesbian dance ever—which was in April of 1970—at the end of which, the mafia came in and beat us up because the bars in New York City were owned and operated by the mafia. And they really didn’t change the competition, you know! So, they showed up at the end of the dance with guns in their belts, and we thought they were gonna kill us. I don’t think that the most misunderstood thing today would be the risks that we took to do things that seem like givens today. That someone would come and try to beat us up or kill us because lesbians wanted to dance in 1970. I mean, it seems really preposterous.
Or that the police would come into a bar in the ’60s and ’70s, and if you weren’t wearing three pieces of identifiable gender-correct women’s clothing, you would be arrested. Because today, we have unisex clothing, but we didn’t have that kind of clothing back then. And the clothing today which is called unisex was men’s clothing in the ’60s and ’70s. So, that kind of risk I find, in general, is often it seems as if we’re from a sci-fi movie, [chuckles] you know, that we lived in this strange world in which we took these risks. People lived with this kind of full commitment to the movement. And we often didn’t consider the risk. I mean, often we were just maybe a little stupid in that regard, but that’s just the way we thought. We thought that there was gonna be a social revolution, and then in the end, everything would change. And we were very radical, and we were there. And we did it for younger feminists. We didn’t think that we would ever see the fruits of our labor personally.
CARMEN: You take up all the space you need, and you demand the movement you deserve.
CHERRÍE: After Bridge came out, I moved to New York, and then I started working I remember for Conditions Press for a while, but as a worker. Then we started Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. And at the same time, because I had to make a living too. But it’s like, so, I started working as a call coordinator of New York Women Against Rape. And the first year I did that, the other coordinator was a white woman, a really good, good woman. And the next year, it was a Puerto Rican sister who I became really good friends with who’s now passed on. But even in that New York Women Against Rape, which was hardcore, really important feminist organization, what we did, Sandra Camacho and I, we organized the first National Conference on Violence Against Women of Color. It was amazing. It was this three-day thing that we all met as women of color together. But then, there was another day in which everybody went. Latinos, Latinas went to the Lower East Side and in the Bronx. And then, the Asian-American women, they met in Chinatown. The Black women met in Harlem. And also, there was the Native Center in New York that’s still there, and Native women went there. So, we kinda respected the specificity of one’s cultural thing, and then at the same time, what was our connection with each other. It was the practice of This Bridge Called My Back.
And so, that is the only politic I’ve been interested in since. There’s no, for me, there’s no reason to have a politic other than that because it’s not exclusionary. What I do know from history is that unless it’s an even playing field, there’s no reason to play. There’s certainly positions in which we are the minority, and a lot of that has to do with our job, right? And you still walk in as a woman of color feminist. You’d walk in as a feminist of color, and that politic remains in your consciousness. You may not always be able to say it the way you need to say it, particularly if it’s about an income, you know? But my feeling has always been this is not about me.
CARMEN: And of course, you don’t do that alone. Because you have to find your people in order to make any of this possible.
DAISY: This last summer, I went to the Macondo Writers Workshop in Texas because I was realizing I need to be around more Latina writers. I’m spending a lot of time in Ohio, [laughs] you know? And there’s Latinx writers here, but I need to go find more, you know. So, yeah. So, I had to get myself there, and I had to give up other things so that I could get there. And I had to put the money aside so I could go there. So, we do end up having, it’s not necessarily easy, you know, but it’s like no one said it was gonna be easy to get your community together, you know? But I went there, and in four days, I was so nourished. I was like, this is gonna carry me through the next academic year for sure. [laughs] Like this will carry me at least till the end of the year and probably into 2020. So, because I was just so filled up to hear the stories of all these amazing writers from all over the country who just came to San Antonio. And it’s a workshop that was started by some that Sandra Cisneros many, many years ago. And so, yeah. So, I think seeking it out, finding community is just essential, essential, essential.
BARBARA: Building community in the context of doing political work is really important. Most of us who were involved in doing this organizing really liked each other and loved each other. And we took great joy in being in each other’s presence. I think the way that we related to each other and the things that we did come just right out of Black women’s culture. We had at our Combahee River Collective meetings, we had delicious refreshments. Sometimes they were meals. At our retreats, we had full meals that were just beautiful because there were a number of people who actually knew how to throw down. And it was just joyous. It was very joyous.
You can’t do it in isolation. You also are not capable of doing the things that need to be done by yourself on a political level. So, I’m talking about you can’t do it in isolation on a personal and emotional level, but you also can’t do it alone on a practical level of getting the work done. I have this concept that I call collective intelligence and the collective mind, and it’s the collective mind that figures out political solutions for problems that would seem to be completely unsolvable if you just looked at it individually. Another thing I would say is that you do need to figure out how to work in coalition and who it is worth working with. It’s very challenging. I think it’s very challenging to build the kind of society that we wish to have for all who are oppressed if we don’t reach out and figure out how to be in solidarity with each other.
CARMEN: You let yourself feel all of your anger, but you let yourself feel compassion and joy too.
JULIA: I think one thing that, for me, has been really helpful is—and maybe this comes from a lot of my early writing. I was trained as a scientist and was a biologist for a long time—and so, particularly going through arguments and trying to address every point in a way that’s very coherent. This is something I’ve tried to do in my essays, whether they’re online essays or things that are chapters in books, to try to lead people through an argument where, at the very end, they should at least be open to the idea that, oh, okay, you just showed me something that I didn’t see. And again, everyone has different reactions. And I have had times in the past where I was very angry and very quick to call someone transphobic and be very upset about it. I still get upset about it, but I’m more likely to try to right the thing or say the thing that just hopefully makes coherent sense [chuckles] and at least wins over maybe not the person I’m talking to, but maybe especially online now with social media, maybe win over people who are kind of observing on the sidelines.
BARBARA: A sense of humor was absolutely a saving grace. And you can’t really live under oppression and do work to challenge oppression if you don’t have a good sense of humor. Humorless activists or humorless organizers, I don’t really know them, but [laughs] they’re not any fun to be around. You have to be able to laugh at this stuff. You have to be able to make sardonic jokes about this stuff because if you don’t, you’ll lose your mind.
SARAH: I feel like it’s an entirely new playing field for us as Native people. We’ve never been in many of these spaces. So, so many amazing people are fighting this fight right, and it’s a new space. And knowing that and knowing that rather than falling back on scarcity mindsets, really looking forward and saying like, oh no. We’re actually in abundance. We can look at this as a healing opportunity. None of us are perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. And we can learn from these mistakes, and we can figure out a way to move forward together. And I think for me, there’s a lot of grace in that and compassion for other people, compassion for yourself, and sort of being like, okay, here’s where we’re at. [Laughs.] And of just being open to what can come next, which, I think for me, is the exciting part ’cause I do think that when you pay attention to your gut and your intuition, if you’re intentional about doing that, I think you’ll be led to the right people and the right partners.
CARMEN: You also have to somehow learn to take a step back and do things that bring you pleasure outside of doing your work.
DAISY: I would make two suggestions. The first is that there’s probably some form of expression that you can do that will help you to break that isolation even with yourself. So, for me, it was writing, but I always tell people, for you, it might be making videos. It might be taking photos. There’s some kind of creative—it might be making food—there’s some kind of creative component that will help you to explore the questions and the issues and the pain that’s coming up, right? Because it’s incredibly painful to be isolated. I know. I live in Ohio. So, really painful [laughs] to be isolated in any way, right? So, I think finding a creative form that allows you to explore those emotions.
BARBARA: You should do some things, maybe several things, that give you great joy, things that don’t necessarily have to do with your political work. If it’s gardening, if it’s going to movies, if it’s cooking, if it’s being with your children if you have such, if it’s being with other children if you don’t. [Laughing.] I mean, whatever it is that makes you think, you know, life’s really worth it. If it’s playing music and hearing music, going to musical performances, whatever it is that brings you joy. There are a lot of things that are just absolutely unmitigated sources of joy here, and we need to find them. I mean if it’s being out in nature. If it’s hiking, birdwatching, mountain climbing, whatever it is, bicycling, all these things I don’t do. [Laughs.] But I know people who love that, and I’ve actually seen a few beautiful vistas myself.
CARMEN: And eventually, you’ll have to learn how to ask for help.
BARBARA: It was a wonderful idea that a dear friend of mine who is actually an intern at Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press back in the late-’80s who I’ve been friends with since that time. Her name is Sheilah Sable. We both live in Albany, New York. She came up with the idea, because she saw me working way past [chuckles] the time that most people retire. I didn’t get to retire until I was 71, and I know people who’ve retired before they were 60 and before they were 65. And I was continuing to work because I had to. And that’s one of the, you know, if you wanna talk about negative consequences of standing up for your principles and being committed to revolutionary change, that’s one of the major drawbacks: You don’t really earn a living doing that. And she saw that it was time for me, past time for me, to be able to do what my age peers were doing, which was to not have to go to a day job on a regular basis. And she came up with the idea of this caring circle. And it has made such a difference for me to be able to do the things that I was already doing without having to fit them into another set of responsibilities. So, and people can give $5 a month. You don’t have to be an heiress or rich or well off to contribute to the caring circle. It’s SmithCaringCircle.com.
CARMEN: And after you’re done resisting, you stick to persisting.
KARLA: I think we have to all come together around certain issues, and those large issues that feminists have embraced are the planet and peace and the rights of women and children, particularly immigrants. And I don’t think the Women’s Movement and feminism, I don’t think they’re by any means perfect. And there still are a lot of flaws. I mean I’m still not particularly charmed by the idea of buying into the mainstream. However, I’m still working to change what little I can. Doing nothing makes you feel depressed. And Pat Schroeder there used to say, you know, you can’t ring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. And it’s true. You have to just roll up your sleeves and get in there. And even if you can spend a little bit of time and you’re skeptical, it’s better than doing nothing and throwing up your hands and sitting in front of a television, eating popcorn. It’s better for the planet and the world.
[Aretha Franklin’s “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” plays]
♪ “Now this is a song to celebrate/
The conscious liberation of the female state! /
Mothers, daughters and their daughters too/
Woman to woman/
We’re singin’ with you/
The inferior sex got a new exterior (Hey!)/
We got doctors, lawyers, politicians too (Oooo)/
Everybody, take a look around/
Can you see, can you see, can you see/
There’s a woman right next to you/
Sisters are doin’ it for themselves (Oh yes, we are) /
Standin’ on their own two feet/
And ringin’ on their own bells/
Sisters are doin’ it for themselves….” ♪
CARMEN: After every single interview I did for this episode, I called my mother back from the same parking garage and told her what I’d learned. I told her how powerful it was to be able to hear directly from my elders, from women who had waged fights more dangerous and difficult than anything I could imagine and who appeared to regret nothing. To hear from women who knew when to walk away from movement spaces that didn’t serve them and figured out how to build better ones all on their own. From women who weren’t afraid to put their faith into a movement beyond the imagination of mainstream feminism and invest in the potential that had to surpass their wildest dreams.
When I have crises of conscience in this movement, it makes me realize how little space we hold for our trailblazers. Sure, we revere them. We plaster their quotes onto notebook covers, we invoke them as our inspirations, and put their faces on votive candles. We even put together pretty little coffee books that tell their stories. But the story we’re not telling is the story of just how grueling and how energizing, how trying and how inspiring, how painful and how powerful it is to do the work of blazing a trail. We don’t admit that trailblazers were never invested in the mainstream movement that has so benefitted from their fights. We don’t admit that in order to make feminism better, fearless women had to suffer in the pursuit of sisterhood. We don’t admit that our trailblazers have been through shit and that we might go through that shit, too. But we really should. Because recognizing just how deliberate a choice it is to pave the way for someone else, for something else, in feminist spaces can empower all of us to do it more often. And that’s the only way out of darkness and into light for this movement. That’s the only way to get out of the parking garage and finally go back home.
[Rihanna’s “Consideration” plays]
♪ “I come fluttering in from Neverland/
Time could never stop me, no, no, no, no/
I know you try to/
I come riding in on a pale white horse/
Sending out his to less fortunate/
I do advise you run it back, run it on back/
When you’re breaking it down for me/
’Cause I can hear you two times/
Run it on back, will it ever make sense to me? /
I got to do things my own way darling/
Will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No/
Do things my own way darling/
You should just let me, why you will never let me grow?/
When I look outside my window/
I can’t get no peace of mind/
When I look outside my window/
I can’t get no peace of mind oh….” ♪
CARMEN: Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was produced by Cher Vincent and hosted by me, feminist writer, editor, and activist, Carmen Rios, as part of our HEAT season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guests were Barbara Smith, Carol Leigh, Charlene Carruthers, Cherríe Moraga, Daisy Hernández, Julia Serano, Karla Jay, and Sarah Eagle Heart.
The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show, and stay tuned on BitchMedia.org for some more clips from these interviews. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter
, and Instagram
to get more feminist content like this in your feed (algorithm willing), and find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr.
is produced by nonprofit, independent, Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is funded entirely by our community. So, if you loved what you just heard, you can support this show directly by joining The Rage, Bitch’s monthly membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at BitchMedia.org/rage
. Members get print and digital subscriptions to Bitch
, a members-only Filled With Rage mug, and other sweet feminist swag. If you wanna send me hate mail, you can do that at carmenfuckingrios.com. And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda
on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.
Stay tuned for our next season, which will be glamorous AF, and some of our upcoming episodes that will tide you over until it hits the runway. Until then, I’ll see you on the internet.
Like what you just read? Help make more pieces like this possible by joining Bitch Media’s membership program, The Rage. You’ll get exclusive perks and members-only swag, all while supporting Bitch’s critical feminist analysis. Join today.