My Beautiful Wickedness

The rest of the story…
January 30, 2008, 9:38 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Aunt B. has been mulling over the lingering (and in some instances) counter-productive influence that older and more institutionally powerful white feminists hold over the course of American feminism.  This is a subject really near to my heart these days.  On the one hand, this is the generation who showed us a glimpse of the possible, who made my life as it is today thinkable. One only has to look at the number of women hired as full-time history professors in 1970 and compare it to the number in 2008 to see the impact of their work. They are the women who we read about, the women whose strength, struggle, and savvy defined what we grew up calling The Movement.  There were activists before them, but there wasn’t a Movement.  So, maybe more than most (because I’ve read some of their private papers and know something of their histories), I respect their past accomplishments.On the other hand…it seems like they are making current feminist organizing more difficult. The things that they are doing, the way that they live in the world, the ways that they treat other women around them make me wonder if I understood their work right at all. Was it all just to get some privilege for themselves and screw the rest of us? If the power they sought was the power to be race/class privilege-oblivious assholes, well, they’ve really made it, baby.Let me give you a few examples drawn from my experience in the last month. I’ve been somewhat involved in work around pay equity issues for women. That’s a big issue and cuts across class and racial lines, so there are a lot of different feminist groups involved. I’m helping to organize a statewide event that’s going to focus on getting pay increases for librarians, library aides, teaching aides, nurses, and food service workers — sectors of the workforce that are overwhelmingly women and severely underpaid for the care-centered services that they provide. Now let’s not exaggerate, my role in organizing this has been pretty minor. I’ve attended a few meetings, offered some resources, sent a few e-mails. Even at 43, I’m a youngster in this group and I don’t mind that — this is how you learn how it’s done and also what not to do. The people with the most badass radical cred are the ones who surprise you over and over with their generosity, humility, and gumption. They never want credit, they merely want movement on the issues that are important to them. They don’t need a groveling admission of past wrongdoing; they want to move forward together and if it’s necessary to acknowledge the harms to close the distance between peoples, then that’s what is sensible. Otherwise, it’s all about what can be done from where we are now. The people who are the biggest pains in the ass are the ones with the biggest press kits, the ones who want to direct traffic without getting out of the car. They are there to sell the water, whereas the little people (of which I’m definitely one) are there to haul the water. Whatever. Coalition building takes all types. The latter group wanted to bring in Gloria Steinem to speak. I was ambivalent — she reaches the people she reaches, but there are other more important feminist voices locally and regionally that might be more effective on issues of pay. I was voted down. Well, so we’re all busting our ass for several months trying to make arrangements for this event — and by we, remember, I’m a bit player but others, including many prominent African-American and Latina activists, are moving heaven and earth to get a big enough venue, to smooth her path. And then she writes her infuriatingly shallow Times op-ed in essence telling blacks to get to the back of the political bus and seemingly forgetting that not every feminist is white and middle-class.The aftermath has been pretty much of a nightmare. She’s still coming (depending on how the primaries are going, I’ve heard that the Albany leg might turn into a Clinton campaign event — count me out). The planning committee has, as you might imagine, grown much smaller and cooler. The meetings are tense. So much good could have been done, but nooooooooo….it’s not about change, but about winning. It’s been very frustrating to watch this event fall apart.Another example: I’m planning this conference. Panelists from five continents are coming to our campus (a fine place, but not an international powerhouse, intellectually speaking), a bit of a budget…it’s been a lot of work. We invite a prominent feminist author — you’d all know her if I was petty enough to mention her name — in early September. She immediately asks for more money. That’s cool, a worker knowing the worth of her hire and whatall. It’s a pinch because we’re not a big program and we have very little money, but we meet her demand because she’s talented and worth it. She asks for us to purchase many more books than we can sell of her new book — which has nothing to do with our conference theme. We tell her that we’ll buy copies and distribute her books to local libraries so that she can get exposure. She wants royalties, so she’s kind of pissed about that. She becomes a high-maintenance nightmare — there’s some complaints about how big the hall is (she’s grumpy that we don’t have a bigger venue on campus, though that was explained up front when the contract was signed), she’s prickly about press opportunities (even though she says she wants to promote that book that has nothing to do with the conference theme and we’re cool with her doing so), she doesn’t actually want to participate in the conference but scoot into town and out with as little contact with the plebes as possible. She won’t give us any promotional copy — she doesn’t want to tell us the title of her talk. She won’t book her actual travel to the conference site. We juggle our schedules. We juggle the conference schedule. We are basically running around trying to placate one whim when another crosses her mind. Finally, with a month to go before the conference and after all the publicity is in place, she informs her booking agency (not me) that she’s going to break her contract with us because “she is going to take a vacation in Italy with her husband and it would be impossible to fly back during the middle of it.” It is alleged that she asked her agent if we could just move the conference date so she could still speak, but at a more convenient time. We’ve yet to get an apology, a go to hell, or even an acknowledgement that her unprofessional (and, mind you, tortious) behavior has thrown our conference planning for a loop. What the fuck does she care? She’s off to Italy! And where that leaves the people that she’s left in the lurch is subject to debate.Shoot, now I have to go teach. I’ll try to wrap up the point of this later.


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