Hundreds of thousands of women packed the streets in January as part of the Women’s March. Many donned pink, cat-eared “pussy hats” to mark their participation. This march, alongside many other public demonstrations and landmark court decisions throughout history, have made the fight for gender equality visible to the greater American public. But the movement has really been fueled day-to-day by the work of activists, organizers and regular citizens.
The specific agenda is ever evolving: from a fight for fair wages and equal pay to a push for a movement that is intersectional – one that embraces how overlapping identities like race, class or sexual orientation affect how people experience the world. Host Frank Stasio is joined by a panel of guests to examine where the feminist movement is today. They consider the key players involved in propelling feminist causes forward and unpack the issues that various constituents are focused on.
This conversation was recorded on Wednesday, Oct. 11 in front of a live audience at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill as part of a yearlong celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Carolina Women’s Center.
Stasio talks with Lisa Levenstein, professor of history at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, about trends that have shaped the feminist movement since the 1990s. They are joined by Naomi Randolph, executive director of Women AdvaNCe, and Saira Estrada, Latinx services specialist with the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, to discuss coalition building within North Carolina. Stasio closes the conversation discussing feminist activism on college campuses with Paige Meltzer, director of the Women’s Center at Wake Forest University, D’atra Jackson, co-director of Ignite NC and co-chair of the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, and Kennedy Bridges, junior at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Lisa Levenstein on major trends in the feminist movement since the 1990s:
This is a moment when people were saying two things about the movement. There were the people who said, “Feminism is over. It’s dead. We’re in a post-feminist generation.” … Another refrain, which I think is the more interesting refrain … People would say … “Feminism is everywhere.” … What that captured was a real distinction between the feminism of the 1960s and ‘70s, which we think of as the sit-ins, the marches, the consciousness-raising groups. Suddenly in the ‘90s it seemed to be everywhere, but nobody could put their finger on where the everywhere was.
Two things might be important … First is institutionalization … One of the things that happened to feminism is it became institutionalized. It became embedded in institutions, such as universities … There were both women’s studies departments, women’s centers, student organizations on campus doing feminist work … Women’s health specialties, in the legal sector … The other thing that happens is a process of professionalization … We had a moment where nonprofits become one of the key ways that feminism is done … Increasingly it’s something that people can do for pay. They’re getting grants to do feminist work.
Naomi Randolph on where she thinks the feminist movement is today:
The movement is both experiencing a renaissance, and we’re in peril … All of these wonderful, dynamic, vibrant voices are coming into the movement with full voice … Fully clear about what is important to them … And they are inserting that into the work in the moment … Things that are making people uncomfortable and things that are making people hopeful.
I also think that we’re in peril … We have to collectively be a bit more visionary, and I also think we have to be a bit more strategic … The moment that we have been in over the past 15 years … Has us being very reactionary … If we look at movements and their sustainability and their survival, there has to be a space in which you’re not responding all the time, and you’re building. So as a movement we have to find a balance between building in all of these new wonderful voices … And then to have our eye on 2050. What do we want to not have a conversation about in 2050?
Saira Estrada on connecting her personal experience to the broader feminist movement:
I am a childhood survivor of domestic violence, and that kind of really set me up to be in this movement and to be part of the solution … As a Latinx person, survivor, there are a lot of things within our culture that we are unaware of as children. I was not aware of the movement, the violence, until I was a grown adult. And when I did find out my world was shifted completely, and I didn’t know how to react … I think it’s important to take that, label it, and build those gaps. See where the gap was as a child and try to build that … Coming from a very rural community … The lack of resources in these rural communities make it that much harder to break the cycle and propel the movement in those areas.
D’atra Jackson on framing feminism for younger activists:
The politic that I work from is from a black, queer feminist lens … We talk a lot about centering the most marginalized and the most directly impacted by the issues in our society every day. Continuing the legacy of black women, specifically from Combahee River Collective and Ella Baker, and Marsha P. Johnson, Fannie Lou Hamer … Wanting to use that as a framework for how we build real power in the state.
Paige Meltzer on the role of women’s centers in the feminist movement:
Women’s centers are spaces to support women and promote gender equity on college campuses – really developing feminist knowledge, attitude and skills. [They are] building the bridge between the theoretical framework students are learning in a classroom and then their application on the college campuses more broadly so then they’re prepared to be feminist change agents in the community at large … One of the things that women’s centers do well is get people to think critically about the water that we’re swimming in. We’re swimming in a lot of accepted notions about gender, race, class, sexual orientation. All the different kinds of identities. Women’s centers raise those kinds of discussions and make that more accessible to a broader campus community.
Kennedy Bridges on how the Carolina Women’s Center has impacted her life:
The women’s and gender studies department in partnership with the women's center has changed what I understood feminism to be and my place in that. It completely changed what I thought my skillset was. It completely changed what I thought my life in this movement was going to be, and so I was able to open myself up to politics – to really getting into that space … I got to learn what community activism is really about, what the grassroots movement is really about, how the history of the women’s movement still impacts what it looks like today.