This is a free edition of Brooklyn, Everywhere, a newsletter where I ponder the many meanings of gentrification, and what we lose in our relentless pursuit of “the American dream.” Sign up here to get it in your inbox. For access to all editions of the newsletter, including subscriber-only exclusives, subscribe to The Atlantic.
Past editions I’ve enjoyed include: And Just Like That... Is A Mirror Image of the New NYC, On Gentrification of Self: An Ode to Jeremy Strong, and America's Inside Voice.
I went out to dinner Tuesday night with a female friend and as the hostess sat us down, she wished us a happy International Women’s Day. After I thanked her, she told us, unprompted, that she had lived in many countries in her life and that the United States was the first one where the day passed completely without notice. She said that normally, in other parts of the world, it’s a day for wild celebration. From personal experience, I knew this to be mainly true, and it’s always been something that perplexed me too.
It was the late ’90s when I discovered that International Women’s Day was a thing. I was studying abroad in Florence, and while I fully loved my time in the city, I also understood that my experiences as a young woman there were largely defined by sexism. It was an era when to venture out of your flat was to assume you’d receive catcalls, and to go to a nightclub was to anticipate some kind of sexual predation. At the time, I deemed it a culture more “backward” in this respect than what I knew at home in America.
I was shocked when, on International Women’s Day, thousands of Italian women took to the streets in celebration, rage, and support and love of one another. More puzzling to me was that despite how much the concept of feminism dominated American pop culture, particularly in the Clinton era, the global day to celebrate women seemed to pass by in the U.S. with barely a blip on the radar, even on a campus as notoriously liberal as Brown’s, where I went to school.
Nearly 30 years later, after women’s marches and #MeToo, this is somehow still true. The disconnect has gotten me thinking about my own relationship with feminism, and my frustrations with stagnant progress in improving the quality of women’s lives here at home. As the writer Kim Brooks asked in her op-ed for The New York Times about the impact of the pandemic on women’s lives, “How meaningful was the progress we’ve made in the last three decades, if it can be undone so quickly and so ferociously?”
Like many women of my generation, I was introduced to the concept of feminism at college, even though I was operating under feminist principles already. I believed that I was limitless and should have the same opportunities as my male counterparts; I had just never put a name to those beliefs. As a high-school student, I had watched Anita Hill testify before Congress and understood that what she had experienced was awful. The demonization of Hillary Clinton was the media backdrop for much of my adolescence. But in college, I started to understand feminism and, despite all that I knew and believed, I did not feel it was for me.
My parents were socialist activists in the era of Brown Power—the Latinx activist movements that ran parallel to the Black Power movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s—and though I was not raised by them, race and class were always my primary lenses for thinking about social injustice. Campus feminism, as I found it in the mid-’90s, was rooted in the third wave. It was centered on sexual assault, sexual positivity, and beauty standards. While I saw these as valid concerns, they felt narrow, luxurious even, compared to what I and my fellow classmates of color were experiencing: food insecurity, economic stress, bias—overt and implicit—in the classroom and elsewhere on campus. Using the label of “feminist” felt like speaking to the smallest corner of concern in my heart and life.
I was not alone in this. “Feminist” was not an identity widely taken up by women of color on my particular campus, or in that era. This was merely one more period in the complicated history of feminism and its exclusion of women of color, one that began in 1851 when Sojourner Truth addressed a conference of white women discussing suffrage and famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” The divides would arise again and again, well beyond my tenure in college. On the occasion of the Women’s March, for instance, Ashley Farmer, who studies African American women’s history, remarked, “When we actually get down to representation or creating a list of demands or mobilizing around a set of ideas, it tends to be that white middle-class or upper-class women’s priorities get put above the rest.”
And yet, while I did not embrace a feminist identity in college, when I look back at this time, I strongly remember coming into my own sense of being part of a womanhood. In a time of great struggle for so many of the minority women I knew then, what I remember most is the strength and support of the women I had around me. A community of women, predominantly of color, who, despite our disparate geographic origins and racial, ethnic, or religious differences, had radical empathy for each other. Although we were unfamiliar with one another’s precise pain, we were cognizant enough of the discomfort to want to help, be that in the form of a shoulder to cry on, a loan for a much-needed bus ticket home, or just cheering each other on in hard-earned moments of triumph.
What I came to realize later is that while we might not have identified as feminists, we were already practicing womanists. “Womanism” was coined in 1979 by Alice Walker and defined as “a black feminist or feminist of color … a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually … committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” More poetically, she described the difference as: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” (A completely separate newsletter must be written on how to manage the brilliant work of problematic people like Walker.)
In 1995, the African American scholar and author Clenora F. Hudson-Weems conceived of “Africana womanism,” which declined to situate the concerns of Black women in relation to white feminism, period. Weems refined Walker’s distinction: Feminism confines itself to concerns of the “female,” while womanism is about the concerns of women in society, and therefore includes concerns about family, gender, class, and race.
When thinking about being a Latina woman in America today, I find myself growing more and more dubious of a term I was suspicious of to begin with: feminism. Contemporary feminism has begun to seem, as the critic Jessa Crispin has argued, like it’s operating under the same terms of the patriarchy it’s meant to be working to erode. “If women in power behave like men do, that is not a defeat of the patriarchy. That’s just patriarchy with women in it,” she says. (This quote reminded me of the famous tensions between veteran political leader Nancy Pelosi and AOC.)
For me, feminism has begun to feel less like a movement and more like a battle for a list of demands. A battle defined not by love, but by lack. One that is fundamentally rooted in a patriarchal notion of “power” and simply achieving an equal amount of it. It has primarily valued goals rooted in patriarchy—such as equal pay and the ability to climb a corporate ladder—while historically undervaluing the burdens of a woman’s life outside the traditional male realm, and what women need to ease those burdens: child care, family leave, child tax credits. In short, it has been addressing the lavender of women’s existences, while failing to see the full purple. Much as it did while I was in college, feminism’s agenda feels far more narrow than my concerns and those of my community.
Perhaps the reason that we don’t parade and celebrate women in the streets on World Women’s Day here in the United States is because we—even we women—don’t fully celebrate the far greater burden women take on in our society. The pandemic laid bare, for me at least, the precarious balance that women—particularly women of color—must sustain to survive, let alone thrive, in this country right now. Parity with men no longer feels enough. How can there be parity in a social structure where our overburdened existence beyond the workplace has been made so plain?
And while I am grateful for the gains we have made thanks to the feminist movement, I am starting to wonder if this mode of thinking is serving us any longer. Reproductive rights are in a precarious place, trans rights are under siege (a siege supported by certain groups of self-proclaimed feminists), and we have somehow (mostly) made it through the thick of this pandemic only to have megacorporations lure employees back to offices not with child care, but with free sandwiches and bee hives.
And while it’s wonderful that in recent years the term intersectionality has become part of our consciousness, I find myself chafing at a word that has a built-in reminder to think about race and class and gender. Who is it that we need to remind?
And so, this Women’s History Month, I find myself back at womanism. Back, as I was in college, to thinking of myself less as akin to other women because of a shared feminist identity, and more as a member of a radically empathetic sisterhood who are seeking to advance policy that helps women—in all their complexity and diversity—to thrive. Because when women thrive, children, families, communities, and economies do so as well.