From Dictator’s Victim to Democratic Leader—the Story of a Feminist Hero

By Leora Lihach, President’s Office Intern

In times of war and turmoil, women have mobilized to take the suffering out of their countries. One of these heroes is the first female president of Chile, who led her country back to health after it suffered a rapacious regime. From dictator’s victim to democratic leader, Michelle Bachelet transformed what is possible for all oppressed people to imagine.

On January 15, 2006, hundreds of thousands of Chileans filled the streets of Santiago to celebrate the victory of Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet. She is the first female president in Latin America who is not the wife or relative of male political elites—the first to be elected entirely on her own merits. Furthermore, Michelle is an agnostic, divorced single mother who has one child out of wedlock—a striking deviance from Chile’s historically conservative machismo culture. As Michelle describes herself, “I was a woman, a divorcee, a socialist, an agnostic—all possible sins together” (qtd. in Gutsch). Michelle is living proof that even those on the margins of society can rise to the highest elected office of their country. But the question remains: How did a longtime patriarchal country come to view someone embodying “all possible sins” as a leader?

At her story’s beginning, Michelle was as far from beloved president as she could be—she was a discarded victim of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime. September 11, 1973 marks the beginning of Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, 17 years of systematic repression and forced disappearances. Michelle’s family opposed the regime and her father was tortured to death. Michelle recalls, “When I walked down the street, people who had been very close to us crossed to the other side so as not to have to see us” (qtd. in Worth 66-7). In 1975, not long after her father’s death and just 22 years old, Michelle endured a month of detainment and interrogation alongside her mother in what had been a luxurious estate before Pinochet’s takeover. Former detainee Humberto Vergara remembers,

It was like a palace, with marble stairways and an indoor swimming pool. […] In the dark, we could hear screams all day and sobbing all night. It was how I imagined hell would be … The guards would splash in the pool and pass by the cells, saying they were going to kill this one or … that one. (qtd. in Worth 67)

Chilean professor Elizabeth Lira, an expert on the regime, further explains the horrors Michelle would have known:

It was 30 days of total fear. Rape was frequent. Plus the punches, sexual abuse, denigration. They had very long interrogations and the use of electric current was common. You had to listen to others being tortured. (qtd. in Worth 70)

Despite these abuses, Michelle remained strong. A woman who was imprisoned with Michelle recalls,

We could hear the screams from the torture chamber opposite our cell. [Michelle] remained calm and tried to help us with her medical skills, singing with us in the afternoons. […] [The guards] kept telling her that if she didn’t collaborate [and tell them about her political activities] they would kill her mother, but she never broke down. (qtd. in Worth 70)

After a month, Michelle and her mother were forced into exile. In the following years, not only did Michelle organize protests against Pinochet, but she continued her medical studies and later pursued defense policies, becoming the type of person who could nurse a country back to health—and that is exactly what she did.

Shortly after the restoration of democracy in 1990, Michelle became Chile’s Minister of Defense in 2002—the first woman to hold such a position in Latin America. In this role, Michelle captivated Chileans by encouraging the military and human rights advocates to move forward in peace, despite the tragedy Pinochet’s regime had caused her. Before long, Michelle’s political party asked her to run for president.

The campaign revolved around debates over whether a woman could be capable of presidential leadership. Michelle’s main opponent, Sebastián Piñera, drew on a tradition of paternalism in Chilean politics. But Chileans had an appetite for change—for new leaders who would ensure a future of liberty.

Michelle promoted a new style of leadership, “liderazgo femenino” or feminine leadership. As a feminist who raised three children herself, Michelle insisted that women can embrace a style of leadership modeled on motherhood. Michelle earned so much popularity in part because Chileans sought a leader who would give them some sense of nurturing reassurance. John Powers writes, “Bachelet’s soothingly sensible demeanor seems ideal for a country that’s shaking off its old ways. Her style is gentle, almost consciously maternal” (Vogue). Michelle claimed the gendered critiques of her leadership potential as sexist and asserted:

Strength knows no gender, and neither does honesty, conviction or ability. I bring a different kind of leadership, with the perspective of someone who looks at things from a different angle. Let us change our mentality. (qtd. in Thomas 76)

More than anything, Chileans marveled at Michelle’s approach to life—the resilience she mustered from a heart that knew tragedy. Michelle offered up her pain, allowing her tragic past to inform her leadership in a most selfless and necessary way. She explains, “I saw friends disappear, who were jailed or tortured. But I decided to turn my pain into a constructive force—guaranteeing that future generations never have to go through what we went through” (qtd. in Langman and Contreras).

Michelle won her country’s vote as a symbol of Chile’s new era of democracy. To an exuberant crowd on the night of her victory, Michelle beautifully conveyed in just one line why she ran for president: “Because I was a victim of hate, I’ve dedicated my life to turning hate into understanding, tolerance, and — why not say it? — love” (qtd. in Powers).

As president, Michelle maintained a cabinet of ministers with 50/50 gender parity—one of only few examples in the entire world. She also prioritized initiatives targeted towards women, including:

  • A non-discrimination and good labor practices code for the public sector, with voluntary adoption for the private sector
  • An end to discrimination against women of childbearing age in private healthcare plans
  • A bill to ensure that family welfare benefits and subsidies are paid to mothers
  • Stricter laws against domestic abuse along with more shelters for victims
  • And her star initiative—a program to provide free public day-care for all working parents

Constitutionally prohibited from serving a second consecutive term, Michelle left office in March 2010 with record-high approval ratings.

She then pioneered the United Nations’ gender equality agenda as the Executive Director of the newly-established UN-Women. But in March 2013, Michelle resigned in order to campaign for a second term as president of Chile. Upon learning of her resignation, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated,

Her visionary leadership gave UN-Women the dynamic start it needed. Her fearlessness in advocating for women’s rights raised the global profile of this key issue. Her drive and compassion enabled her to mobilize and make a difference for millions of people across the world. […] This is a stellar legacy, and I am determined to build on it. (“Secretary-General”)

Back in Chile, Michelle once again became president on March 11, 2014, having come so far since the young victim of detention, interrogation, and exile she once was. In comparing her two campaigns, there is one remarkable difference. In the first election, Michelle had to assert women’s leadership potential against an overtly patriarchal man. In the second, Michelle’s main opponent was in fact another woman. This campaign is made even more phenomenal by the intertwining fates of Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. They are both the daughters of generals. However, Matthei’s father was a member of Pinochet’s regime, the same regime that caused Michelle so much tragedy. Defeating Matthei in the election, Michelle’s story came full circle.

Her story demonstrates that women can gain respect for a special kind of feminine leadership—a nurturing, moral, and reconciliatory approach. Upon winning her first election, Michelle pondered,

Maybe history will tell what happened and why I came here because there are so many interpretations. Some people said it’s because people need on one hand, authority, but also need somebody to protect them. So some people said, ‘You are the big mother of everybody.’ (qtd. in Women, Power and Politics)

In a 2013 interview with the Journal of International Affairs, Michelle discussed the importance of women in leadership. She noted that in 2013, after years of patriarchal dictators, Latin America emerged as the leading region in terms of women parliamentarians—the legacy of countless women who fought against corrupt regimes. Michelle emphasized that the lessons from Latin America should be expanded worldwide:

The participation of women in politics is firstly, a matter of justice; secondly, a democratic necessity; and thirdly, efficient, because improving deliberative representation can lead to better policies that will have a positive impact on society as a whole.

In the manner of a true visionary, Michelle ended with this call to action: “If we are serious about the importance of increasing the involvement of women in politics, then we need to move towards a critical mass of female political leaders.”

One can only marvel at what Michelle will accomplish in her two remaining years this presidential term, and what wonders Michelle will contribute to history in all the years of her life yet to come. One thing is certain—we are all living in a truly remarkable world where a story like this can be the work of real life.


Bachelet, Michelle. Interview. “Making Gender Rights Visible.” Journal of International Affairs 66.2 (2013): 145-50.ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

Gutsch, Bonnie. “Michelle Bachelet.” Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Langman, Jimmy, and Joseph Contreras. “An Unlikely Pioneer; Michelle Bachelet: The first woman to be elected to lead a major Latin American nation could well be an agnostic, socialist, single mother. but that’s just what Chileans like about her.” Newsweek Dec 26 2005: 66. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

Powers, John. “A Woman of the People.” Vogue 05 2006: 268-271+. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

“Secretary-General Praises ‘Visionary’ Leadership of Michelle Bachelet, Following Announcement by UN-Women Chief of Departure.” Targeted News Service Mar. 15 2013. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

Thomas, Gwynn. “Michelle Bachelet’s Liderazgo Femenino (Feminine Leadership).” International Feminist Journal of Politics. 13.1 (2011): 63-82. Print.

Women, Power and Politics. Dir. Mary Olive Smith. Supervising Prod. & Writ. Maria Hinojosa. Senior Ed. & Writ. David Brancaccio. JumpStart Productions, 2008. Film. <>.

Worth, Richard. Modern World Leaders: Michelle Bachelet. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 2008. Print.  Posted 04/08/2016 by & filed under Activism, Feminist History/Achievements, Global Feminisim.

50 Years Later, Sister Corita’s Political Pop Art is Relevant As Ever

May 16, 2016 by

Sister Corita Kent is a Pop Art pioneer too often erased from the annals of modern art history. Now, she’s taking center stage at an exhibition at Miami’s Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. In the Beginning Was The Word, which opened Saturday and will remain on view until September 18, is part of a three-part program at the museum called The Summer of Women, lending space and attention to a wide range of female artists.

Kent’s journey to social justice-oriented art pioneer was unusual. She joined a Catholic convent in 1936—right after she completed high school—and served in the Immaculate Heart of Mary order in Los Angeles for three decades as a “rebel nun” and head of the art department. (She ultimately left the order to pursue art in Boston, feeling stifled by an archdiocese that did not always stand by her politicized service.)

In 1962, she took her students to a gallery exhibition for a man who, at the time, was little known: Andy Warhol. In response to viewing his now-iconic soup can paintings, Kent began a career in Pop Art that utilized logos and corporate slogans as backdrops in silkscreen pieces calling for world peace, civil rights and dissent. She was a feminist who weaved the words of Gertrude Stein, Martin Luther King, Jr. and even the Beatles into works that remain relevant in a time where the gains of the sixties and seventies are under attack.

Wonder Bread

“Her works reflect the activist ethos of the time and express her concerns about racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War,” Dr. Jordana Pomeroy, director of the Frost Art Museum, said in a press release. “She saw her calling to use art as a response to cultural discord and shifts in public sentiment. Corita Kent’s legacy as a Sister who sought to awaken social consciousness in the United States is exemplified by her dynamic colorful prints that continue to provoke discussion and promulgate sentiments about social iniquities that still exist in our society, half a century after their creation.”

Kent’s art did more, though, than simply spark conversation. Her works were frequently spotted at protests in the sixties and seventies, where activists carried them as protest signs. She herself also walked the walk of activism by designing posters and billboards for organizations like Amnesty International, the International Walk for Hunger and Physicians for Social Responsibility in order to lend a hand to the movements that defined her career.


Despite her contributions to not only the art world but cultural conversations at-large, Sister Corita is often left behind in conversations about Pop Art, and even when her career was reaching a fevered peak she remained on the fringe of the male-dominated art movement. As a woman in the arts, she was already at a disadvantage; as a woman of the cloth, she stood in even starker opposition to the art world’s typical heroes: Men.

“An ‘artist’ was from New York,” Ian Berry, who co-curated a retrospective of her work at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said in an interview with NPR. “They were a man; they were an epic, abstract painter. And she wore a habit—she just didn’t look like what the, sort of, movie version of an artist looked like.”

Art historian Susan Dackerman made the same point in Harvard Magazine. “Corita Kent in her habit couldn’t very well go hang out at The Factory with Warhol,” she told Jonathan Shaw. “There wasn’t really room in Pop art’s macho style for women artists.”

Nevertheless, Sister Corita and her work endure—and 50 years after some of her most important pieces made their original debut, she’s finally getting her due.

Photos are all from the Corita Art Center.

carmen riosCarmen Rios is the digital editor at Ms., community director and feminism editor at Autostraddle, and a contributing writer at Everyday Feminism. Her work has also appeared in MEL, Mic, BuzzFeed, Feministing, and BITCH. She’s been dubbed a “digital native” and “vapid and uninteresting” by various people across the Internet and stays very zen in L.A. traffic. You can find her on Twitter,Instagram and Tumblr

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50 Years Later, Sister Corita’s Political Pop Art is Relevant As Ever

The Radical Dissent of Helen Keller

Here’s what they don’t teach: When the blind-deaf visionary learned that poor people were more likely to be blind than others, she set off down a pacifist, socialist path that broke the boundaries of her time—and continues to challenge ours today.

posted Jul 12, 2012

“So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle.’ But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics—that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world—that is a different matter! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.”

—Helen Keller (letter to Senator Robert La Follette, 1924)

The bronze statue of Helen Keller that sits in the U.S. Capitol shows the blind girl standing at a water pump. It depicts the moment in 1887 when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, spelled “W-A-T-E-R” into one of her 7-year-old pupil’s hands while water streamed into the other. This was Keller’s awakening, when she made the connection between the word Sullivan spelled and the tangible substance splashing from the pump, whispering “wah-wah,”—her way of saying “water.” This scene, made famous in the play and film “The Miracle Worker,” has long defined Keller in the public mind as a symbol of courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

Less well known (but no less inspiring) is the fact that Keller, who was born in 1880 and died in 1968, was a lifelong radical who participated in the great movements for social justice of her time. In her investigations into the causes of blindness, she discovered that poor people were more likely than the rich to be blind, and soon connected the mistreatment of the blind to the oppression of workers, women, and other groups, leading her to embrace socialism, feminism, and pacifism.

Early Life

Helen Keller at Water Pump photo by Jimmy Wayne

Photo by Jimmy Wayne.

Keller was born on a plantation in Tuscumbia, Alabama, to Arthur Keller, a former Confederate officer and a conservative newspaper publisher, and Kate Keller, a descendant of John Adams. At nineteen months old, she lost her sight and hearing as a result of a fever. She became uncontrollable, prone to tantrums—kicking, biting, and smashing anything within reach. In that era, many blind and deaf people were consigned to an asylum. Some family members suggested that this was where Helen belonged.

Instead, her mother contacted the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, which recommended that a former student, the 20-year-old Sullivan, become Helen’s private tutor. In 1887 Sullivan—the daughter of poor Irish immigrants and nearly blind herself—moved to the Kellers’ home. She helped calm Helen’s rages and channel her insatiable curiosity and exceptional intelligence. She patiently spelled out letters and words in Keller’s hand. With Sullivan’s support, her student soon learned to read and write Braille, and by the age of ten she had begun to speak.

Her story became well known and she, a celebrity. Newspapers and magazines in Europe and America wrote glowing stories about the young Keller. Her family connections and fame opened up many opportunities, including private schools and an elite college education. Mark Twain, who admired Keller’s courage and youthful writings, introduced her to Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huttleston Rogers, who paid for her education. She later acknowledged, “I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment. I have learned that the power to rise is not within the reach of everyone.”

“I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment. I have learned that the power to rise is not within the reach of everyone.”

In 1894, at 14, Keller began formal schooling—initially at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York and then at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. Sullivan accompanied her, spelling into her hand letter-by-letter so she could read the books assigned in her classes. In 1900, at age 20, Keller entered Radcliffe College with Sullivan still at her side. At Radcliffe (from which she graduated magna cum laude in 1904), Keller was first exposed to the radical ideas that helped her draw connections among different forms of injustice. She began to write about herself and her growing understanding of the world.

“I Must Speak”

In a 1901 article entitled “I Must Speak” in the Ladies Home Journal,Keller wrote, “Once I believed that blindness, deafness, tuberculosis, and other causes of suffering were necessary, unpreventable. But gradually my reading extended, and I found that those evils are to be laid not at the door of Providence, but at the door of mankind; that they are, in large measure, due to ignorance, stupidity and sin.”

She visited slums and learned about the struggles of workers and immigrants to improve their working and living conditions. “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums,” she wrote, “If I could not see it, I could smell it.”

In 1908 Sullivan’s socialist husband, John Macy, encouraged Keller to read H. G. Wells’s New Worlds for Old, which influenced her views about radical change. She soon began to devour Macy’s extensive collection of political books, reading socialist publications (often in German Braille) and Marxist economists. In addition to giving inspirational lectures about blindness, Keller also talked, wrote, and agitated about radical social and political causes, making her class analysis explicit in such books as Social Causes of Blindness (1911), The Unemployed (1911), and The Underprivileged (1931). In 1915, after learning about the Ludlow Massacre—in which John D. Rockefeller’s private army killed coal miners and their wives and children in a labor confrontation in Colorado—Keller denounced him as a “monster of capitalism.”

In 1909 Keller joined the Socialist Party, wrote articles in support of its ideas, campaigned for its candidates, and lent her name to help striking workers. Although she was universally praised for her courage in the face of her physical disabilities, she now found herself criticized for her political views. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagleattacked her radical ideas, attributing them to “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” In her 1912 essay “How I Became a Socialist,” published in the Call, a socialist newspaper, Keller wrote, “At that time, the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error.”

Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, and War

Keller was part of wide circle of reformers and radicals who participated in a variety of overlapping causes.  She was a strong advocate for women’s rights and women’s suffrage, writing in 1916: “Women have discovered that they cannot rely on men’s chivalry to give them justice.” She supported birth control and praised its leading advocate, Margaret Sanger, with whom she had many mutual friends. Keller argued that capitalists wanted workers to have large families to supply cheap labor to factories but forced poor children to live in miserable conditions. “Only by taking the responsibility of birth control into their own hands,” Keller said, “can [women] roll back the awful tide of misery that is sweeping over them and their children.”

“Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings! Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction! Be heroes in an army of construction!”

She donated money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—then a young and controversial civil rights organization that focused on opposition to lynching and job and housing discrimination against African Americans—and wrote for its magazine. At an antiwar rally in January 1916, sponsored by the Women’s Peace Party at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Keller said, “Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines. Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought! Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder! Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings! Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction! Be heroes in an army of construction!”

Helen Keller portrait

Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.

In 1918 she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, which was initially organized to challenge the U.S. government’s attempts to suppress the ideas of and jail or deport radicals who opposed World War I, including Socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The following year she wrote a letter, addressed to “Dear Comrade” Eugene Debs, the Socialist labor leader and presidential candidate, in jail for advocating draft resistance during World War I. She wrote, “I want you to know that I should be proud if the Supreme Court convicted me of abhorring war, and doing all in my power to oppose it.”

In 1924, while campaigning for Senator Robert La Follette, the Wisconsin radical and anti-war stalwart who was running for president on the Progressive Party ticket, Keller wrote him a note: “I am for you because you stand for liberal and progressive government. I am for you because you believe the people should rule. I am for you because you believe that labor should participate in public life.”

After 1924, Keller devoted most of her time and energy to speaking and fundraising for the American Foundation for the Blind, but still supported radical causes. Even as feminism began to ebb, she continued to agitate for women’s rights. In 1932, she wrote an article for Homemagazine, “Great American Women,” praising the early suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She also penned a humorous article for the Atlantic Monthly, “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen.”

Between 1946 and 1957 she visited 35 countries on five continents. In 1948, Keller visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities destroyed by American atomic bombs at the end of World War II, and spoke out against nuclear war.

In 1955, at the height of the Cold War, she wrote a public birthday greeting and letter of support to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leading Communist activist, then in jail on charges of violating the Smith Act. In response, some supporters of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), for which Keller was the national face, threatened to withdraw their support. The AFB’s executive director wrote to one of his trustees, “Helen Keller’s habit of playing around with communists and near communists has long been a source of embarrassment to her conservative friends.” 

The FBI kept Keller under surveillance for most of her adult life for her radical views. But Keller, who died in 1968, never saw a contradiction between her crusade to address the causes of blindness and her efforts to promote economic and social justice. 

Keller is well known for being blind, but she also deserves to be heralded for her progressive social vision.


Dorothy Herrmann. Helen Keller: A Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

John Davis. Helen Keller. New York: Ocean Press, 2003.

Kim Nielsen,  The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Staff picks: Feminist books for International Women’s Day

In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8th March, the women workers of Verso and New Left Review share some of our favourite feminist books in tribute to the radical roots of the observance.

– Jo  Spence/Rosy Martin, Mother as Factory Worker, 1984-88

Essays, Criticism, Theory

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler (Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006; 1990)

A classic work of gender and queer theory. Butler recently said in interview:

Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore “unreal.” That was never my intention. I sought to expand our sense of what gender realities could be. But I think I needed to pay more attention to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported. I did not mean to argue that gender is fluid and changeable (mine certainly is not). I only meant to say that we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization. I join in the struggle to realize such a world.

Love for Sale: Courting, Treating and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945
 by Elizabeth Alice Clement (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

A fascinating materialist history of dating, and the economics of dining out, evening entertainment, dresses, stockings, and more. Clement explores the history of “treating” in industrializing New York City in which working-class women now employed at shops and factories during the day informally paired off with men to afford nightlife fun in (implicit or explicit) exchange for sexual relationships. 

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis (Haymarket Books, 2016)

In this collection of essays, interviews, and speeches, Angela Davis reflects on the importance of Black feminism, intersectionality, and prison abolitionism for today’s struggles, and analyzes struggles against state terror, from Ferguson to Palestine.

Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici (PM Press, 2012)

Written between 1974 and 2012, the essays collected in this volume represent forty years of research and theorizing on questions of social reproduction and the transformations which the globalization process has produced. Starting from Federici’s incendiary writing around the Wages For Housework movement, the range broadens out to the international restructuring of reproductive labour, the globalization of care work and sex work.

Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher (Zed Books, 2014)

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China is a a compelling and innovative sociological enquiry into the political economy of gender in contemporary China.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
 by Melissa Gira Grant(Verso, 2014)

“To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.” Melissa Gira Grant

A political critique that takes sex work out from under its usual autobiographical (and voyeuristic) lens, Playing the Whore situates it firmly as a form of labour that demands political attention. Holding the media to account for perpetuating some of the most harmful myths about sex work and sex workers rights, Gira Grant argues that separating sex work from the “legitimate” economy only harms those who perform sexual labour.

The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Hoschchild (University of California Press, 2012)

A landmark examination of gendered emotional labour of pink-collar service workers and the instrumentalization of our emotions in the world of work. Emotional labour, Hoshchild argues, alienates us from our feelings and estranges us from our expressions of feeling, like a manual worker who becomes estranged from what he or she makes.

Read more about emotional labour: Love’s Labour’s Cost: The Political Economy of Intimacy By Emma Dowling

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Ten Speed Press, 2014)

Sister Outsider is an absolutely essential collection of fifteen essays and speeches from 1976 to 1984 including and the origin of the “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Audre Lorde, both the ‘sister’ and ‘outsider’ of the title, explores the complexities of identity, drawing from her personal experiences with oppression, including sexism, heterosexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and ageism. In response to the tendency of mainstream feminism to deny difference between women, thus replicating hierarchies where the most privileged dominate, Lorde argues that difference—and the anger of the oppressed—can be productive for liberation. Sister Outsider presents groundbreaking work that is strikingly relevant today, and is all the more valuable for challenging its readers to question and scrutinize their own complicity in structures of oppression and the privilege that blinds them.

Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, ed. by Katherine McKittrick (Duke University Press, 2014)

Katherine McKittrick spills open Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter’s inquiring body of work. Wynter’s decolonial, radically futuristic writing interrogates the exclusive category of “human” and provides blueprints for how to dismantle white supremacy

This Bridge Called My Back, ed. by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (SUNY Press, 2015)

Arguably one of the most influential feminist anthologies ever published, and deservedly. Originally released in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back is a testimony to women of colour feminism as it emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Through personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art, the collection explores, as coeditor Cherríe Moraga writes, “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—systemic to women of color oppression and liberation.”

As Angela Y. Davis writes: “This Bridge Called My Back … dispels all doubt about the power of a single text to radically transform the terrain of our theory and practice. Twenty years after its publication, we can now see how it helped to untether the production of knowledge from its disciplinary anchors—and not only in the field of women’s studies. This Bridge has allowed us to define the promise of research on race, gender, class and sexuality as profoundly linked to collaboration and coalition-building. And perhaps most important, it has offered us strategies for transformative political practice that are as valid today as they were two decades ago.”

Woman’s Estate by Juliet Mitchell (Verso, 2014; 1971)

Combining the energy of the early seventies feminist movement with the perceptive analyses of the trained theorist, Woman’s Estate is one of the most influential socialist feminist statements of its time. Scrutinizing the political background of the movement, its sources and its common ground with other radical manifestations of the sixties, Woman’s Estate describes the organization of women’s liberation in Western Europe and America. In this foundational text, Mitchell locates the areas of women’s oppression in four key areas: work, reproduction, sexuality and the socialization of children. Through a close study of the modern family and a re-evaluation of Freud’s work in this field, Mitchell paints a detailed picture of patriarchy in action.

Read more: Looking back at Woman’s Estate
Juliet Mitchell reflects on how the joy and practical experience afforded by Women’s Liberation—and its tensions with other protest movements of the time—inflected the writing of her book in 1969-1970.

Angry Women (RE/Search publications, 1991)

In this illustrated, interview-format volume, 16 women performance artists animatedly address the volatile issues of male domination, feminism, race and denial. Among the modern warriors here are Diamanda Galás, a composer of ritualistic “plague masses” about AIDS who refuses to tolerate pity or weakness; Lydia Lunch, a self-described “instigator” who explains that her graphic portrayals of exploitation stem from her victimization as a child; and Wanda Coleman, a poet who rages against racism and ignorance. Goddess worshipper and former porn star Annie Sprinkle enthusiastically promotes positive sexual attitudes; bell hooks eloquently discusses societal power structures in terms of race and gender; Holly Hughes, Sapphire and Susie Bright expound on lesbianism and oppression; pro-choice advocates Suzy Kerr and Dianne Malley describe their struggles for reproductive rights.

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts (Vintage, 2000; 1997)

A necessary biopolitical history of systematic reproductive violence against Black women in the US, both legal and social — the reproductive “property” of women in slavery, the ties between the early birth control and the eugenics movements, welfare, and the race and class implications of reproductive technology new and old. 

Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto Sterling (Basic Books, 2000)
Fausto-Sterling is a biologist who explores the social construction of gender to show not simply the truism that gender is a separate category from biological sex, but more importantly that the science behind what is known as “biological sex” is already constructed in a historically politicized context so that there is much more physiological fluidity and variety and source of definition than typically acknowledged. An important history of intersexuality as well as technology and medical intervention.


A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000; 1988)

In this short memoir Kincaid welcomes you to Antigua, her home. You, the well-meaning but ignorant tourist arrive on her island and are shown the sights of an island that is “too beautiful” in a way that seems “unreal”, particularly when seen in contrast to its current state of poverty and dilapidation, and history of slavery. First published in 1988, A Small Place is an angry autobiography that challenges its reader to reconsider the behaviour of the tourist as well as more broadly considering the role of the coloniser in a stark and often unusual way.

Disavowals by Claude Cahun (Tate Publishing, 2008)

A brilliant book of ‘cancelled confessions’ based on Cahun’s 1930 bookAveux non avenues, Disavowals is the first English translation of her writings. Throughout the book she explores ideas around gender-bending, humour, narcissism the self and sexuality; using photomontage and statement Cahun presents herself as resistant to identification itself, instead maintaining “the mania of the exception.”

King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes (Serpent’s Tail, 2009)

Charting Despentes’ journey through poverty, rape, sex work, pornography and then fame as the director of Baise-Moi, it’s a furious, polemic-come-memoir as provocative and contentious as it is illuminating. Feminist fire for the soul. 

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock (Atria Books, 2014)

Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness defines her womanhood as a journey too vast and expansive to be limited by biological essentialism. Mock’s womanhood is self-determined and powerful; cultivated through community, third gender traditions such as Hawaii’s Māhū, blackness, and the cultural impressions of Destiny’s Child and Janet Jackson.  

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose (NYRB Classics, 2011)

Written in the months preceding her untimely death at the age of 48, Love’s Work offers up the richest autobiographical details of Rose’s life, focusing on several friendships and love affairs, as well as her fiercely intelligent relationship with the study of philosophy. Love, for Rose, is merciful and important but never eternal, requiring the hard work of the mind and body for sustenance. This is a book for anyone with an interest in the qualities and connections between love, death and learning.

Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties by Sheila Rowbotham(Verso, 2001)

A moving and funny account of a blossoming feminist consciousness during the 1960s by the pioneering feminist historian and activist. Sheila Rowbotham’s memoir is a feminist bildungsroman threading together the films, books and memories created by women that influenced her. Set in the exhilarating sixties, Promise of a Dream portrays the idealism and the ambiguity of the era, including the deep-rooted sexism of the New Left and the hippies.

Read more: 
– Looking back at Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s WorldRowbotham looks back at the world of Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World‘s birth in the Women’s Liberation movement, as she sought to situate her feminist politics in relation to the changing shape of capitalism to forge a new way to describe the interaction between inner perceptions and external material life.
– Looking back at Women, Resistance and Revolution
Women, Resistance and Revolution was Rowbotham’s first book written in the summer of 1969 when she was 26.

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (Zed Books, 2014)

A leading figure in the 70s Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur was placed on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list in 2013, 40 years after she received a life sentence for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, and nearly three decades after she escaped prison and was offered political asylum in Cuba.

This courageous autobiography explores her childhood and political activism, as well as the endemic racism and abuse she experienced in the American prison system, her many legal battles, and American civil rights.


Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan (Post Apollo Press, 1973)

Etel Adnan’s poetic novel takes place in Beirut during the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Sitt Marie Rose, a Christian fighting for Palestinian liberation, embodies Adnan’s dream of a feminist anti-war movement.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (Headline, 2014; 1979)

Black feminist science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s Kindred is simply devastating. In this genre-bending novel of speculative fiction, time travel transports a self-possessed and strong woman protagonist between 1976 and an early 19th century Maryland plantation for a nuanced, gripping and complex portrayal of the effects of chattel slavery on generations.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (Penguin, 2005)

The Hearing Trumpet is British-born Surrealist Leonora Carrington’s best-known work written in the 1960s and first published in 1974. This riotous novel is full of rebellious joy in the trailblazing feminist magical realist vein of Carrington’s artistic practice. Deaf, bearded Marian Leatherby, 92 years old, has been committed to an institution for the elderly where another resident gives her a forbidden book recounting the secret life of a great woman. The surreal adventures that unfold with a delightful coterie of witchy women have rightfully earned this book a place in the subversive, anti-institutional feminist pantheon.

Read more: “I have no delusions. I am playing”—Leonora Carrington’s Madness and Art
Joanna Walsh examines the intertwining of madness and art in surrealism and how Carrington refused the surrealist romanticisation of female madness, describing her time in the Spanish asylum in terms of a forced incarceration. Through her life and work, Walsh traces Carrington’s rejection of patriarchal authority through her political activism and through the creation of dreams, myths and symbols centred around the feminine in her art.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Pantheon, 1985)

The Lover draws on a love affair between the 15 year-old Duras and a wealthy older Chinese man. Set in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh, Duras’s luminous novella is a deceptively simple exploration of the complexities of race, gender and class told through the eyes of a nameless ‘I’ from an impoverished colonial family with a widowed and mentally unwell mother and a bullying brother. Enchanting and heartbreaking, this representation of an illicit affair is also a provocation to the constructed palace of memory: Duras would write the story over and over again in her lifetime, completing The Lover aged 70. Born in Indochina, Duras left for France at the age of 17 where she was to become involved in the Resistance (while working for the Vichy government) and the PCF, from which she was expelled. Awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1984.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa, 2005)

As in all of Ferrante’s brilliant books, Days of Abandonment strikes right at the heart of the quotidian misery of domestic life. Intensely claustrophobic, and claustrophobically intense, it follows the near-breakdown of a woman whose husband leaves without warning. Set almost entirely within the walls of her apartment, it is an almost unbearable confrontation with the pressures and resentments of motherhood, grief and sexuality. Visceral, dizzying, terrifying—this slim book does more in 192 pages than most in double that.

Airless Spaces by Shulamith Firestone (MIT Press, 1998)

Airless Spaces comprises Firestone’s first collection of fiction—stark, sad and sometimes sly short stories about “airless spaces”: mental illness and the institutions that seek to contain and cure it. The author of the feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex (Verso, 2015) paints compelling portraits of those in mental hospital, precarious lives after hospital, “losers”, suicides and obituaries of people she knew, including Valerie Solanas.

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Serpents Tail, 1983)Michael Haneke made a beautiful and stark film from this novel, homing in on the mother-daughter power dynamics at the heart of the story, but in the adaptation he necessarily lost much of what makes this novel so brutally intense – its setting in the haute-bourgeois Viennese music conservatory, the linguistic experimentation that boils over with a feminist rage. Preoccupied in everything she does with the social division of power, Jelinek writes unflinchingly about sex, a perfect antidote to all those Bellow and Roth sex scenes you’ve had to endure.

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle) by Ursula K. Le Guin (Atheneum, 2012; 1971)

Set in the Place of Tombs, a society of women and eunuchs, The Tombs of Atuan follows the life of Tenar, renamed Arha (the eaten one) after she is made high priestess to the Nameless One. She is confined to the underground labyrinth temple, where light is forbidden and no one but her is permitted to enter. However, when she captures and holds prisoner the wizard Sparrowhawk (of the previous Earthsea book) who is trespassing in the labyrinth she begins to question the fierce structures of her dark world.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber, 2014)

“The answer to every single question is Fuck.”

The uncompromising, fragmented prose in this outstanding novel unravels a relentless story of Irish girlhood; full of emotional betrayals, physical abuse, and staggering twists that will have you gasping for air.

That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time. Thin tight gelled hair. Moustache brown eyes. Clark Gable-alike when he was young, she said. But every man was I think then, when she was growing up. Under the thumb of him. Under his hand. Movie star father with his fifteen young. His poor Carole Lombard fucked into the ground. Though we don’t say those words. To each other. Yet. They were true God fearing in for a penny in for a pound. Saturday til afternoon dedicated for praying with his wife – when none of the little could enter without a big knock. Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. With their babies and babies lining up the stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up. Twenty years in bed and a few after this before she conked.

The Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (Penguin, 2000; 1934)

In depicting the disturbing journey from the Dominican periphery to the heart of empire, The Voyage Out turns Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on its head. Rhys depicts London in all its brutality – its deep class-structures, casual cruelty and grey banality. As with all her novels, this takes the vantage point of the dispossessed, women locked-out, caught somewhere in an ambiguous zone verging on prostitution. Deceptively unremarkable sentences capture the captivity of women, and the longing, rage and desperation to be free.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hetata, and foreword by Miriam Cooke (Zed Books, 2015; 1975)

Reissued by Zed Books this year as part of a gorgeous set of three new editions, this classic feminist work is still as powerful, relevant, and compelling as ever. Described as a “blood-curdling indictment of patriarchal society” by the Guardian, is it easy to see within just a couple of pages why Nawal El Saadawi is one of the most influential feminist thinkers in the Arab world. What’s harder to understand is why she has been left out of the western feminist literary canon for so long.

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (Capuchin, 2010; Simon and Schuster, 2010; 1940)

The eponymous man of this novel is NOT a paedophile, he’s an arch-idealist bureaucrat in Washington who subjects his family and his writer-to-be daughter to the same chipper narcissism as he does his all-American fellow-patriots. It’s a reign of terror. This book operates at such a pitch of psychological violence to have you gasping for air, and rooting for Louie’s escape.

Read more:

– A reading list of Verso titles for International Women’s Day
– Staff Picks: Books of the Year 2015—Chosen by Verso
– Download our free Feminist Radical Thinkers sampler ebook!

More in #Feminism #StaffPicks

I’m Not A Feminist But…

These American teens look up to their strong mothers and believe in equal rights. So why won’t they use the F-word?

By Pamela Erens

My teenaged children and I were hanging out in our kitchen, just as we’d done thousands of times before, when one of them said something that made me retort: ‘Well, I consider myself a feminist.’

My 14-year-old daughter looked at me in surprise: ‘You do?’ My 16-year-old son seemed equally startled. I was startled in return. Was this some great revelation to them? Had they never before connected the idea of feminism — absolutely central to my identity — with me, their mother? Evidently not.

The conversation that followed, in which I attempted to give my definition of feminism and understand theirs, was a rocky one. I pride myself on being the type of parent who doesn’t get riled by my children’s opinions — they are beings in flux; it doesn’t pay to panic — but I lost my cool on this. I’ve called myself a feminist since at least my senior year of high school. Even earlier, as a kid growing up in the 1970s — and as the daughter of the author of Issues in Feminist Film Criticism (1990) — I absorbed feminism’s basic values and aims. Women should have the same job opportunities as men and be paid the same for their work. Women are and should be treated as men’s legal, moral and intellectual equals. Women should have control over their bodies. And so on.

When my children were very young, I made a conscious decision, one that I began to regret that afternoon in the kitchen, that I wouldn’t make a big deal of the ‘girls versus boys’ issue, nor give them pep talks about girls being just as good as boys. Why even put into their innocent heads the thought that anyone had ever considered otherwise? But now I wondered if I’d fallen down on the job. Maybe I should have introduced the F-word some time ago.

When I pressed my children further, it became clear that my son associated feminists with girls in his high school who, to hear him tell it, were constantly complaining that they were victimised because they were female, yet seemed to him to have every advantage the boys had. My daughter simply felt equality between men and women had been achieved, and so didn’t understand why anyone today would identify herself with the fight for it. To her, being a feminist seemed to make as much sense as being an abolitionist. By this time, I had tears in my eyes. How could I explain that, for me, feminism is not just about laws and job access but is something much larger: a philosophy and a point of view that is informed by a careful study of history, anthropology, biology, sociology, and psychology?

In a blog on The Guardian’s website this June, a 17-year-old British girl named Jinan Younis described being subjected to a barrage of Twitter abuse from boys she knew after attempting to start a feminist society at her school. The comments included statements such as: ‘feminism doesn’t mean they don’t like the D [dick], they just haven’t found one to satisfy them yet’. And the abuse increased when Younis’s feminist society took part in the online project Who Needs Feminism, in which girls hold up signs completing the sentence ‘I need feminism because…’. As Younis reported: ‘We were told that our “militant vaginas” were “as dry as the Sahara desert”…. details of the sex lives of some of the girls were posted beside their photos, and others were sent threatening messages warning them that things would soon “get personal”.’

Do such nasty comments reflect widespread teenage male attitudes to feminism? Do they show what teenage girls will be subjected to if they identify themselves as feminists? Was my own children’s indifference the most benign face of a generalised teen hostility to the idea of feminism?

Disturbed by such questions, I decided to conduct my own small-scale investigation into what teenagers today think of feminism and feminists. Do they feel indebted to the feminist movements of the past, or do they see feminism as a fringe tendency and an irrelevant history?

It would take an enormous study and years of reporting to get durable answers to such questions, but I could still get a glimpse of the truth. Rather than try to achieve a diversity of gender, race, and class in my small group of interviewees (15), I decided on a certain degree of randomness. I asked my neighbours and the members of my book group if I could talk to their children, and ended up with nine girls and six boys, including my own two children, whom I interviewed last, asking the same formal questions I’d asked the others. The age range was 13 to 19. Eleven interviewees were white, two were African-American, and two were mixed white-Asian. Seven attended private schools, six attended public schools, and two were public-school graduates. The demographic was solidly middle- to upper-middle class kids, although at least a couple of the families were experiencing financial strains due to a parent being out of work or in debt for their own or their children’s schooling. Our town skews heavily liberal and Democrat.

When I asked my interviewees what they knew about the history of women’s rights, their knowledge was extremely sketchy. The slavery, emancipation, and civil rights eras are given great attention in our local schools; the various women’s movements less so: only the battle for the vote had been covered in the curriculum. Nor are these teens getting information from extra-curricular clubs. Although six local schools were represented in my interview group, only one hosted a club that might be considered feminist. An article published in the school newspaper claimed that the group had more than 30 members of both sexes and was set up ‘to detach from the stereotypes that are commonly identified with feminists’. All that my interviewees knew about it was that it had petitioned to allow girls to wear spaghetti-strap tank tops, currently prohibited by the school dress code. I found this immensely disheartening.

Teens weren’t hearing about feminism at home either. I could hardly tsk-tsk at this, as I had chosen the same tack myself. So where were they getting their information and opinions about feminism and gender equality? Mostly from an amalgam of received wisdom, personal observation, the media, self-questioning (when prompted) — and, as I found out, the examples set by their mothers.

When I asked my interviewees if they believed inequalities still existed between men and women, nearly all the girls and about half the boys said yes. The workplace was identified as the locus of inequality, in particular the paucity of women in the highest-paying and highest-profile jobs. I don’t know if this was because Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (2013) had been getting a good deal of attention at the time, or because, as children of affluent families, they projected themselves into the most influential work bracket, but there wasn’t much awareness of the struggles of women lower down the economic ladder.

One brother and sister, 16 and 13, tried to puzzle out why it was that their mother had been the one to leave paid work when they were young. The brother: ‘In most families, like in our family, once the mom feels the kids aren’t having enough time [with a parent] she will leave work. It’s always the mom, why is that?’ The sister: ‘My mom worked until she found out that she wanted to be with us more than being out full-time, so I guess they agreed that my mom would retire and my dad would keep working. But I’m not really sure why. It’s not that my dad had a better job or anything because they both had similar-paying jobs.’ The brother: ‘Why wasn’t it Dad that came home, why is it the mom who has to give up her job?’ The sister: ‘Cause moms are more warm. Moms are more mom-y.’

One boy named sports as another area of inequality for women, saying that women’s sports were underfunded and under-attended. A couple of my interviewees, including one graduate who had spent time volunteering and working abroad, had a global perspective, and pointed out that forced prostitution, rape without consequences, and virtual enslavement of women still exist in many other countries.

In general, the teenagers I spoke to were shaky on recent developments relating to women’s rights. They knew of isolated incidents that attracted much media attention, such as the comments made in 2012 by Todd Aiken, the House of Representatives member who said that ‘legitimate rape’ could not result in pregnancy, and the all-male panel that led a hearing on birth control in the House earlier that same year. National Public Radio (NPR) was most often the source of such information, with the kids hearing news items when their parents had it on. Parents take note: there is still at least one way to make sure your children are absorbing the news.

I suspect that these teenagers are no more ignorant of the political scene than their earlier counterparts. I don’t remember having much grasp of the US political process or current controversies until college, even though my friends and I, unlike most teens today, regularly read the daily newspaper and watched the evening news on TV. However, I was taken aback by my interviewees’ lack of knowledge about the women’s movement. Political history of the past 20 or 40 years was a near-blank to most of them. One senior had more information due to a school elective in which she had done a presentation on the legal and social history of violence against women. Only four teens, one a boy, mentioned the Roe v. Wade court case of 1973, which legalised abortion in the US, or the battle for reproductive rights in general; only one invoked the term ‘second wave’ and the women’s movement of the 1970s. When I asked her where she’d learnt about these things, she said it was mainly from an article on Jezebel or from ‘checking around on Wikipedia’.

This same boy said that abortion was once a feminist issue but, since Roe v. Wade, it isn’t any more

While most of the teenagers claimed that they didn’t see gender inequalities at their schools, a few reported that boys sometimes didn’t take girls’ opinions seriously inside or outside the classroom, and that boys spoke up in class more than girls. One 15-year-old girl complained that, in her first week of high school, the teacher of her accelerated math class, a woman, expressed surprise that the class had more girls than boys. ‘They expect guys to be more intelligent,’ this student said.

The issue that girls — not boys — alluded to most often after the workplace and social disrespect was what a couple of them called the ‘rape culture’ or ‘slut-shaming’. They meant the encouragement of male sexual aggression and the blaming or shaming of women who are sexually violated or seen as behaving in an overtly sexual manner. If there is one second-wave feminist idea that seems to be held as an article of faith by teenagers who have never heard of Susan Brownmiller it is that rape is not a crime of sexual desire but of power. I remember how that formulation shook me when I read Brownmiller’sAgainst Our Will (1975) as an 18- or 19-year-old. It is simply taken for granted now. A 15-year-old girl told me that rape was ‘a form of a male thinking that they need to be superior to women and that’s the only way that they can.’ A 16-year-old boy said that rape had to do with ‘the fact that some men believe that they have power over women or can take over women. It shows that they think of them as lesser beings.’

The three interviewees most vocal about the problem of rape culture were among the oldest. One of the graduates told me that ‘rape is a big issue on college campuses’. She spoke of a woman at a college near hers whose reports of rape were disbelieved and who afterwards developed post-traumatic symptoms. She mentioned that her freshman orientation included presentations which amounted to ‘How you women can avoid rape.’ The hypothetical scenarios presented to her group seemed to blame the woman: ‘She should have been clearer about what she wanted.’ ‘She should not have drunk so much.’ The graduate added: ‘Girls sometimes learn from a young age that they need to be scared about rape. I’ve talked to friends who are really nervous about getting raped even though they aren’t even in potentially threatening situations. They’re just worried about it in general, as a kind of abstract thing. And that’s the most terrible thing! That should not be something that people are walking around worrying about.’

The other graduate related a similar story. In her senior year of high school, her health class read a story about a girl getting raped at a party. ‘After the reading,’ wrote the graduate in an email to me, ‘I and two other girls spent the remainder of the class trying to convince a group of boys that, no matter what the victim in the story had said or been wearing, the rape was 100 per cent the fault of the rapist. We were unsuccessful. We were not the only girls in the class, which was quite large. The teacher never once stepped in to say that we were in the right; instead, he participated as if he were facilitating an abstract philosophical debate, and actually suggested that people assign each character in the story a percentage of the blame.’

The high-school senior said that rape culture has to do with ‘the mindset that sex is a commodity’. She elaborated: ‘It’s the idea that sex is something that men should want and that women should give in exchange for emotional support or nice dates. From the male perspective, it’s: “OK, if I do this and this, then now I deserve sex… If you are not having sex with me or in a romantic relationship with me then I am somehow cheated.”’

For my interviewees, rape culture and slut-shaming seemed more like atmospheric pressures than forces they’d run up against in their own lives. But that might be only because my interviewees weren’t jumping to offer me details about their own sexual and romantic experiences. Some of them were too young to have had any. When I probed a little with the older ones, they claimed they’d experienced few gender-role dilemmas with their opposite-sex partners (none of them self-defined, at least to me, as gay). I was told by a 15-year-old boy that traditional gender roles still kick in when it comes to cars. ‘I don’t usually see a girl driving around a boy unless the girl is older and the boy can’t drive.’ When I asked him to speculate why, he said: ‘I don’t know, actually. It’s something that’s just, like, there. You always see in the movies that the guy picks up the girl from the house, the guy drops her off.’

So my interviewees were aware of gender inequality, and some of the girls were sensitised to the connections between sexuality and power. But did they actually define rape and rape culture as feminist issues? What about related body and sexuality issues such as abortion and domestic violence? For me, there is no question. You cannot fully understand the prevalence of these social realities, or their impact on women, without understanding how societies have alternately forbidden, encouraged, ignored, or covered up these acts. So I asked each of my interviewees if they saw rape, abortion, or domestic violence as specifically feminist issues. The older girls tended to say yes. One answered: ‘Abortion is a feminist issue in that much of the debate about the morality of aborting a pregnancy undervalues the opinion and the well-being of the woman with child. In a similar sense, rape and domestic violence are feminist issues not because they are unique to women, but because of the way they are discussed in the media and dealt with by the law.’

But some of the boys and the younger girls were puzzled by the question. They seemed to think that ‘feminist’ meant ‘matters only to women’. More than one responded — sometimes with annoyance — ‘No, that’s a human issue.’ It was pointed out that men get raped and beaten too, so rape and domestic violence could not be feminist issues. As we talked more, some said that abortion, rape, and domestic violence could be seen as feminist issues in certain cases — for example, if the police or courts refused to pursue a rape case. One 16-year-old boy said that even the latter wouldn’t necessarily make rape a feminist issue. ‘My feeling is that if this happened, it would not be because the rape wasn’t taken seriously but because it’s very hard to prosecute rape. You have to get physical evidence fast, and [if you can’t] it’s one person’s testimony against another, unless there are witnesses. What prosecutor would want to take a case they can’t win? It’s right that you shouldn’t get a conviction on those grounds.’ This same boy said that abortion was once a feminist issue but, since Roe v. Wade, it isn’t any more. When I pointed out that many US states are cutting back access to abortion, he changed his mind, saying that he hadn’t known this, and that he could see protecting what had already been obtained as a feminist goal.

If our schools are offering mixed messages, if feminism isn’t discussed at home, and if some gender stereotyping still holds force, where are these teens getting their basic acceptance of the idea of women’s equality? They did, to a person, say they believed in that idea. Many had a simple answer to this question: their moms. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not those mothers worked outside the home. One girl said that ‘growing up in my household, my mom always had a career. I always thought that men and women should be equal.’ When I pointed out that her mother had left paid work to have four children and had returned to employment only when my interviewee, the third of the four, was about nine years old, she replied: ‘I don’t know how to explain it. She just somehow always has been a working mom; she’s always been very ambitious.’

Another girl told me: ‘My mom has a high-powered position at work. And she just got promoted. So I’ve been around women in higher positions. She’s a good influence on me to make me want strength and independence. A lot of my friends have parents who are divorced or something happened, so they have moms who are strong.’ Yet another girl said that her mother, who was not employed, had never spoken directly to her about feminism but was ‘a strong-minded mom’ who had passed along the message that ‘You shouldn’t let people hold you back; you can do whatever you want.’

One 15-year-old said she couldn’t call herself a feminist because she had other priorities — in her case, an interest in government and what she called ‘leadership’

Does the transmission of such attitudes lead these teens to define themselves as feminists? I returned to the question I started with — what do teenagers really think of that term? If I had feared that many of these young people would say that feminists were angry man-haters who burned bras, I was pleasantly surprised. The charge that feminists were whiny or complained too much was as bad as it got. One 16-year-old boy declared that feminists are ‘extreme — they’re, like, “Women aren’t given any opportunity that men are.”’ Some interviewees could not come up with a mental picture of a ‘feminist’, but among those who did, Rosie the Riveter was the frequent answer.

This Second World War-era American propaganda figure, with her rolled-up sleeves and developed biceps, has somehow become a generalised icon of female strength and competence. The kids had learnt about Rosie from different sources — some from school; one brother and sister because their mother had received a toolbox for her birthday with a Rosie (‘We Can Do It!’) card. I was happy that their association was such a positive one, but am not sure what to think about the fact that almost no one came up with a more contemporary figure. Hillary Clinton? Alice Walker? Tina Fey? One 17-year-old said she thought of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Barack Obama, as he had appeared on the Ms. magazine cover montage in 2009, ripping open his shirt to reveal the slogan: THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE.

As for whether my interviewees saw themselves as feminists, the responses were split. None of the boys did, with the exception of one 18-year-old who answered ‘Yes and no’, suggesting that he wasn’t sure ‘feminist’ could apply to a man. I was told by other boys, and one girl, that a boy or a man could not be a feminist. But two-thirds of the girls said they were feminists. Age made all the difference. All of the girls aged 16 and over said they were feminists, while all but one of the younger girls said they were not feminists or had trouble answering the question.

Icame away from my conversations feeling reasonably optimistic about today’s teenagers, at least those who are getting decent educations and living in stable families. If many of them didn’t have a particularly accurate or detailed concept of feminism, most seemed to have developed the habits of mind — curiosity, self-questioning, respect for new information — that are likely to lead them to thoughtful positions on these matters.

Yet, in some respects, I remain uneasy. I don’t see how the term ‘feminist’ will ever gain more acceptance than it has now — not nearly enough — when adults and teens alike continue to define it in narrow ways. When I asked the girls who didn’t consider themselves feminists why not, they said either that it was because they were not ‘activists’ or because other issues were more important to them. I see feminism as a lens through which to view the world, or as a set of interpretive tools. But most of these young people see feminism as an act. It’s about ‘holding up signs’ and rabble-rousing. It’s also an exclusive designation. One 15-year-old said she couldn’t call herself a feminist because she had other priorities — in her case, an interest in government and what she called ‘leadership’. She did not see being a feminist as something that could coexist with and even inform those passions.

At the same time, a lack of grounding in feminist history and thought can also produce a ‘feminism’ so broad as to be meaningless. One 17-year-old told me that she believed we were at a stage at which feminism is ‘whatever you want it to be’. She explained: ‘If you [a woman] find something empowering for you, fantastic. If you want to be a housewife and make cookies all day, great. If not, great.’ I asked if there was anything she wouldn’t call feminist just because a woman declared it to be so. She mentioned a report about a woman who’d auctioned off her virginity online. The woman stated that this was a feminist act because she was turning the value patriarchal society puts on a woman’s virginity to her own benefit. ‘But if it is just you that is benefiting,’ she said, ‘you can’t really call that feminism. It is still promoting patriarchy.’ This student is clearly sophisticated enough to draw distinctions, but ‘feminism is whatever you want it to be’ is a pop-culture-friendly notion that could lead to some perverse outcomes.

When I asked this clearly passionate and motivated student if she had read any of the seminal books on feminism, she hadn’t — not Susan Brownmiller nor Susan Faludi nor Naomi Wolf nor Betty Friedan, although she had heard of her book The Feminine Mystique (1963) and planned to read it eventually. It might be a lot to ask of high-schoolers that they steep themselves in this literature, but if even this special case — a 17-year-old girl who said she’d called herself a feminist since the age of six — not only hadn’t read but didn’t seem to be aware of most second- and post-second-wave feminist literature, I do think there is cause for concern. She might get to these books in college — I wouldn’t be surprised; I didn’t get to them until college myself. But most of her female peers, and nearly all of her male peers, probably won’t ever read them. They won’t take women’s studies courses; they won’t ground their reflexive impulse toward equality with a knowledge that will make it more flexible and durable, so that they can draw coherent conclusions about the next rape case or budget debate or discrimination lawsuit in the news.

Today’s young people are probably more egalitarian than any generation that has come before. But they might not have any greater understanding of that elusive term ‘feminist’, and that’s a loss to us all.

14 October 2013

Millennial Feminists and Armchair Activists

Published on Jul 17, 2015
Millennial Feminists: Some older feminists say millennials are not as feminist as they hoped. Meanwhile, some young women flood social media with #WhyIDontNeedFeminism. Armchair Activism: Are young feminist activists spending too much time online and not doing enough in the “real world”? PANEL: Erin Matson, Rina Shah Bharara, Anushay Hossain, Francesca Chambers

Why I’m Ready—and Excited—for Hillary

Clinton is running as a feminist—and that matters for all women.

Katha Pollitt June 2, 2015 | This article appeared in the June 22-29, 2015 edition of The Nation.

Hillary Clinton speaks during the sixth annual Women in the World Summit. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Hillary Clinton speaks during the sixth annual Women in the World Summit. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

My women college classmates (Radcliffe ‘71) aren’t so excited about Hillary Clinton. An e-mail to our New York City potluck group elicited distinctly modified rapture. They’re bothered by her high-priced speeches and the aura of favor-trading and favor-banking around the Clinton Foundation. They don’t like her Wall Street connections, and they don’t like Bill (a k a the “ick” factor). Plus, she’s not progressive enough. “It’s all so old and tired,” wrote one; “she’s been running forever.” “I’m definitely excited about the prospect of a woman,” another chimed in. “I am weary, not excited, about her in particular, and find it sad that she’s our best hope.” I should mention that these women are demographically much like Hillary (Wellesley ‘69) herself: prosperous, white, highly educated, sixtysomething feminists and professional women. You would think these women, of all people, would be jumping for joy at the prospect of someone so like themselves winning the White House.

But this is where women differ from the other American groups underrepresented in politics. Racial and ethnic minorities can be extremely loyal to their own, but women are hard on other women—and feminists are no exception. Even the idea of electing a Democratic, pro-choice woman president doesn’t necessarily get a rousing cheer. “I’m glad we have a female presidential candidate,” one 22-year-old woman told National Journal, “but it’s incredibly difficult to get excited about something that should have happened decades ago.” Why the world-weariness? Black people were pretty excited about Barack Obama, although electing the nation’s first nonwhite president is another thing that should have happened decades ago. You’d better believe that when the first Jew wins the White House, there will be kvelling from coast to coast, although there have been White House–qualified Jews for a century or more. It’s as if women believe that all those things that should have happened decades ago—passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the enshrinement of abortion rights with the Roe decision, vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination law, equal representation in government, federally funded childcare—actually took place and we can all move on.

Here are three reasons why I’m excited about Hillary. First, I’m excited about beating the Republicans, and she’s the best candidate for that job. Even Bernie Sanders recognizes that, which is why, after making stirring speeches that will push her to talk more about inequality, poverty, and campaign-finance reform, he will endorse her. Martin O’Malley may have a few high-profile progressive positions, but his claim to be more liberal than Hillary—or, rather, to have come to the same positions as Hillary sooner—is dubious. As mayor of Baltimore, he set in place the brutal and racist policing strategies that brought us the death of Freddie Gray and the arrest of one-sixth of the city’s entire population in 2005. Furthermore, as Ed Kilgore revealed in his Political Animal blog, back in 2007 O’Malley had the same “vital centrist” Democratic Leadership Council politics that he now accuses Clinton of promoting. So there.

Second, Hillary will be the first woman president—and that is important. At this point in world history, it is embarrassing how backward the United States is. More than 70 women have been chosen to lead their nations, including in gender-conservative countries like Pakistan, Ireland, and the Philippines—and 22 nations have female leaders right now. What is the matter with us? Indeed, we score poorly on every measure of women in politics: not quite 20 percent in Congress (which places us 72nd internationally, between Kenya and Panama); 24 percent in state legislatures; only 17 mayors in the top 100 most populous cities; and only six governors out of 50. A woman president—not a Sarah Palin or Margaret Thatcher, but a liberal Democrat keen on promoting women in politics—would shake up the old-boy networks, energize the women’s vote, and draw more women to the party. To those who say a woman president is only symbolic, I say symbols matter—and who’s to say it will stop there? It’s hard to imagine having the #BlackLivesMatter conversation without Obama in the White House. Maybe Hillary will change the discourse in a similar way.

Third, Hillary is a feminist and is running as one—as she made clear in an April speech: “It is hard to believe that in 2015, so many women still pay a price for being mothers. It is also hard to believe that so many women are also paid less than men for the same work, with even wider gaps for women of color. And if you don’t believe what I say, look to the World Economic Forum, hardly a hotbed of feminist thought. Their rankings show that the United States is 65th out of 142 nations and other territories on equal pay.” She might not have the language of intersectionality down pat, but on a range of issues that matter to women—reproductive rights, healthcare, childcare, pay equity—she will move the ball forward. She will nominate liberal women and people of color to important posts. On the crucial issue of the Supreme Court, where Scalia and Kennedy are close to 80 and Ginsburg is 82, the next president will make choices that shape the nation in fundamental ways for the next 20 or 30 years. Who do you want making those nominations: Hillary, or the Republican who beats Bernie Sanders? Look me in the eye and tell me that you don’t care because what’s really important is Mark Penn, or those State Department e-mails, or that failed Clinton healthcare plan from 22 years ago.

“Why does one have to be ‘excited’ about a person running for president?” one classmate wrote. “Can’t we just be determined?” Point taken, but excitement matters in a campaign. It means donations, volunteers, spreading the word, firing up your friends, and actually making the effort to register and get to the polls.

Still, if you can’t muster any excitement, determination is a good back-up plan. So go out there, feminists, and be determined.