On this Thanksgiving holiday, in between bites of turkey and the company of family and friends I am thankful for, I reflected on two events dealing with the future of feminism that recently took place. I was grateful for both experiences. They gave me hope that despite the war in Iraq, a president who is out of control, and a rapidly warming planet, that women working together can impact society and make a difference.
On Monday, November 20th, I attended Reconsidering Feminism: A Year in Review, at The Museum of Modern Art. The panel was chaired by Connie Butler, Chief Curator of Drawings and the force behind WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. An auditorium of over one hundred people attended. There was a hunger to listen to and engage in dialogue. Discussion included the questions, “How can the art world galvanize around political issues?” and “What can art contribute to feminism?”
Connie Butler made two references that I had heard repeatedly at the Freedom on Our Own Terms Conference, eight days prior. One was to the “horrifying situation in the world” and the other was her question of “How can we reimagine our own history?” For me, art and feminism are intertwined. Perhaps this idea is informed by my experience as a woman artist.
I was totally energized by the Freedom on Our Own Terms 30th Anniversary celebration of the National Women’s Conference in Houston. Bella Abzug had served as the 1977 Chairperson. Liz Abzug, founder of The Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, was the moving force behind this gathering at Hunter College in New York (November 10-11). Her mission was intergenerational participation, and “reigniting the fight for full political equality for women and girls.” There were 600 attendees from 21 states, with 70 endorsing organizations. One of them was The Feminist Art Project, whose tag line is: “Recognizing the aesthetic and intellectual impact of women on the visual arts and culture.”
For those too young to know much about the watershed history of Houston, there was a panel to contextualize the past for a better understanding of the present. Charlotte Bunch talked about the issues that had surrounded the sexual preference plank, at a time when “Kill a queer for Christ” was a popular quote. She noted that Houston crystallized the “realization that mainstream and radical had a common agenda.” Loretta Ross spoke powerfully about diversity stating, “If you don’t know the history of women of color in this movement, the history is distorted. She advocated the end of divisions among women, and called for creating a base that “expands and connects to people who can use the f word, and those that don’t.” The consensus from speakers, espousing varied agendas, was “We can’t do it alone.”
Expectations were high in anticipation of Rosie O’Donnell’s keynote speech. Congresswoman Nita Lowry and Attallah Shabazz handled the introductions. Shabazz, who resembles her father Malcolm X, told the crowd, “You have to know what your power is,” adding “We are the heartbeat. We are all in this fight together.”
A phalanx of camera people set up to film O’Donnell’s talk, and they packed up quickly when she was through. “It’s a scary time here in America,” O’Donnell began. “Anyway you cut it, war is not the answer.” She addressed numerous issues with passion and clarity including the diminished status of America in the world, the treatment of Iraq Veterans, the media, and President Bush. Waves of applause greeted her statement, “I don’t know what you have to do in this country to be impeached.” She followed up with a scatological comment on the one thing Bush hadn’t done to the Constitution. It was not the kind of observation that would win the hearts and minds of red-state folks, but it was pure Rosie as comedienne/provocateur. She had the crowd riveted when she ended with, “Speak your truth. Tell the story. I’m here because I still have hope.”
Meredith Wagner of Lifetime Television humorously lamented drawing the post-Rosie slot. She didn’t have to worry. A brass tacks outline of Lifetime’s formidable commitment to women, and news of their participation in the non-partisan campaign, Everywoman Counts, made an impression. Wagner clicked off the facts: women comprise only 16% of Congress; 9 out of 50 Governors are women; the United States ranks 68th in women’s representation in world government. Not good.
My concern about the future of the women’s movement was put to rest as I listened to the presenters on intergenerational feminism. The motivated, fervent twenty-somethings were impressive. They made it clear that the time had come for the older generation to step aside and pass the baton. Liz Abzug ended the session encouraging the next generation to “take the mantle.”
The second day featured Gloria Steinem delivering the keynote address. There was electricity and anticipation in the air. Here was one of the founders of the movement, an icon, the real deal. Steinem combined reflections with current concerns. She commented on Houston, “It was a huge success for it’s time, but it was just one step.” Steinem stressed the importance of voting, and urged that a redefinition of work needed to take place. She declared that care giving is 30% of productive labor and emphasized that a monetary value had to be attributed to this work, making it viable and thereby recognized via the tax code. I can think of a lot of women who can relate to this issue. This is a cause that could galvanize those caught in the sandwich generation…across political lines.
The remainder of the day was breakout caucuses, and an open forum discussing an “action agenda” to present to presidential candidates. With the frequent mention of Hillary Clinton, you couldn’t help thinking about Bella Abzug’s question, “Will power change women, or will women change power?”
Liz Abzug pronounced in her closing comments, “Feminism isn’t dead…it’s alive and moving into the 21st Century.” Or as Bella said several decades earlier, “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick – Those days are over.”
A good thought to take into 2008.