Today we welcome a guest post from Rachel F. Seidman, author of Speaking of Feminism: Today’s Activists on the Past, Present and Future of the U.S. Women’s Movement, published today by UNC Press.
From the Women’s Marches to the #MeToo movement, it is clear that feminist activism is still alive and well in the twenty-first century. But how does a new generation of activists understand the work of the movement today? How are their strategies and goals unfolding? What worries feminist leaders most, and what are their hopes for the future? In Speaking of Feminism, Rachel F. Seidman presents insights from twenty-five feminist activists from around the United States, ranging in age from twenty to fifty. Allowing their voices to take center stage through the use of in-depth oral history interviews, Seidman places their narratives in historical context and argues that they help explain how recent new forms of activism developed and flourished so quickly.
Speaking of Feminism is available now in both paperback and ebook editions.
On the Autumn Equinox, Why Today’s Feminists Give Me Hope
Today is the autumnal equinox, when day and night are of equal length. In terms of the seasons, we know what’s coming: night will win, for a while; the days will get shorter and shorter, the weather colder and colder, and eventually, daylight and warmth will return. But if we start thinking about the moment metaphorically, it’s easy to feel less sanguine. Many Americans—on both sides of our political divide—feel that there is a tug of war going on between two vastly different visions of what this country can and should be. Many of us on the left express faith in Dr. Martin Luther King’s saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” That can feel like cold comfort, though, when the pain and suffering around us are so intense, and when we see progress we thought we had made being unraveled, shredded, tossed aside.
What gives me hope is talking to people who are putting their heads down and doing good work. As the Director of the Southern Oral History Program, I get to hear every day the stories of people whose lives are profoundly different from mine, and who seek to make their mark on their families, communities, region, and even the world, in their own unique and powerful ways. No matter what their politics or backgrounds, people’s stories are compelling.
But while I love listening to almost anyone’s personal history, I am particularly inspired by the creativity, energy, and productively channeled rage that I see in feminist activists and organizers. In my new book, Speaking of Feminism: Today’s Activists on the Past, Present and Future of the U.S. Women’s Movement, I share the personal stories of 25 of these indefatigable leaders. Some have nationally recognized names, many work at the grassroots level and are unknown outside their communities. Each one is determined to figure out a way catch their hook onto that moral arc, knowing that if they all tug together, it will bend a little bit quicker.
For this book, I set out to interview feminists who had grown up during or after the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, when American witnessed a profound backlash against feminism: How had they found their way to the women’s movement? What does it mean to them today? In these interviews, activists share stories from their personal and professional lives that shaped their own feminist awakenings and commitment. They talk about the work they do, the choices they make, and the costs they face. Coming from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, sexual identities, and geographic regions across the United States, they discuss in depth what feminism means to them, and what they want it to be.
These individual stories are moving and powerful portraits of individual activists, and they serve an important purpose in breaking down stereotypes and assumptions about who feminists are. Taken together, however, they also reveal the workings of a movement that burst into public view with the March on Washington and the #MeToo Movement. What does it take to sustain a political movement in the face of massive resistance? What kind of day-to-day work is involved? What are the realities that lie behind and beyond Twitter wars and public debates over whether or not a certain celebrity is really a feminist?
When I look at the sky and think about the tug of forces between darkness and light and start to worry about just how long that moral arc is, I remind myself of the people I interviewed, and the thousands of others like them who muster the creativity, commitment, and energy that it takes to go to work every day trying to make the world a better place for the rest of us.
Rachel F. Seidman is director of the Southern Oral History Program in the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.