Last weekend I attended the 40th annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in Baltimore, Maryland. I accompanied my wife, Peggy, who directs the Women and Gender Studies Program (WGS) at Berea College, where I taught for 40 years (1974-2014). Peggy was there with a colleague and seven of her WGS students. The gathering’s theme was “Feminist scholars and activists engage the movement for Black Lives.”
Given the theme of the conference, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the diversity of attendees. Nonetheless, I was astounded by what I saw. It seemed to me that 50% or more of the attendees were women of color (WOC).
From the opening plenary, the atmosphere was absolutely electric and energizing.
Even more, I was pleasantly surprised by the radical nature of everything I observed there. It put me to shame in terms of revealing my own timidity that restrains me from being more outspoken and calling things by their real names in this time of unprecedented crisis. By comparison with what I heard and observed in Baltimore, my own writing, speaking, and teaching are far too understated. As one of the presenters I heard put it, “civility is overrated.” The times cry out for thoughtful radicalism.
“Radical” in this case means discourse attempting to uncover the roots of our world’s problems identified by NWSA speakers as the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy. On feminist analysis, that’s what’s behind today’s resurgent fascism with its racism, misogyny, cult of denial, massive incarceration, voter suppression, police violence, gun worship, daily mass shootings, universal surveillance, union-busting, climate-change reversals, threats of nuclear war, pay disparities between men and women, and overriding fear of immigrants, Muslims, and the heterogendered. In the language of NWSA presenters, the problems are “intersectional” – the results of inter-related elements of a multi-faceted oppressive system with patriarchy as its taproot.
Put otherwise, women aren’t merely victims of some monolithic patriarchy; they are oppressed by misogyny, racism, ageism, and prejudice against queers, immigrants, the aged, and the differently abled. Resistance to such oppression is signaled today by coalescing movements that include black queer feminists, domestic workers, home health care providers, restaurant employees, and agricultural laborers.
With such inclusivity, the discourse I heard at the NWSA was far from the blah, blah spouted by the overwhelmingly conservative, white, elderly and protofascist males who continue to run our country. Unlike the self-described “bad ass organizers” in Baltimore, the academic representatives of the predominantly male political class typically cultivate silence and equivocation in the service of their own professional advancement disguised as intellectual respectability.
For their parts, the NWSA women were far more incisive. That’s because their scholarship is rooted in their insurgent activism. Embracing the role of “outsiders within” (the academic establishment), the goal of feminist hell-raising and scholarship is a just distribution of society’s benefits determined not by what humans can work for or achieve, but by what everybody needs. Their focus is not so much piercing the infamous glass ceiling that prevents the well-educated and wealthy from advancing within corporate hierarchies, but protecting and repairing the floor boards splintering and eroding beneath the very feet of women at the bottom of neoliberal constructions.
Take, for instance, the opening plenary presentation. It centralized a conversation between Angela Davis and Alicia Garza. Davis, of course, is the iconic and by now septuagenarian Black Panther scholar and activist who once led the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Her current efforts are directed towards abolitionism – the uprooting of prisons, policing, and education as we know them. Alicia Garza is one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM). A widely published activist, she currently directs special projects for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. (When, at the beginning of her remarks, Garza asked for any who had participated in BLM demonstrations to stand, a third of the audience, it seemed, got to its feet and received a warmly appreciative ovation.)
Here are some of the (paraphrased) key thoughts Davis (AD) and Garza (AG) shared with us on opening night:
- AD: At this otherwise depressing moment in history, I’m encouraged by the activism evoked by the ongoing right-wing revolution. Left-wing revolution is once again in the air. With the Boycott, Divest & Sanction Movement (BDS), Palestinian liberation is now openly part of the agenda. Together we stand on the left, but on the right side of history.
- AG: Revolution is a process, not a destination. It is the transformation of how power operates – a passage from punitive, predatory, power-over models to cooperative, interdependent ways of operating. Revolution in this sense expands the notion of “our loved ones.”
- AD: The world does not revolve around the United States. The struggle is global. We must learn some humility and be willing to sit at the feet of liberation movements in the Global South – for instance, from the black feminist movements of Brazil.
- AG: Black Lives Matter is not an instance of “identity politics,” as the FBI alleges by inventing the category “black identity extremists.” The FBI category represents just one more official attempt to dismantle BLM. The underlying assumption of its phrasing is that we’re not all in relationship with each other and with over-arching institutions. On the contrary, identity is shaped by capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. It’s not that BLM cares only about its particular group. It’s that BLM realizes that when black people get free, everyone gets free.
- AG: Feminism is about challenging normativities.
- AD: We need art, because we can’t say it all.
Women like Angela Davis and Alicia Garza are inspiring. They evince much more courage than most males I know – or, let me say it clearly, much more than me! Once they enter the realm of critical consciousness, feminists become our natural leaders. Somehow they seem less attached to the cult of personality. They know how to cooperate. This isn’t the movement of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or John Lewis. Its leadership is more collective than that – more empowering and inclusive. Their range of issues are more, well, “intersectional.”
That’s the hope I found at the 40th anniversary meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association meeting. I’m glad I went.