Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In college, I was talking about feminism with a friend. "I feel united with women everywhere," I said. "I think of myself as a woman."

"Really?" she said. "I think of myself first as Hispanic and second as a woman." Her experiences of exclusion were based more on race than gender.

It was a little disappointing to me, because white people don't usually say "I think of myself first as white and second as a woman," although maybe we should. Whiteness is so diffused throughout the media and the corporate world that it's not often thought of as an identity.

This conversation was my first notion that women of color have different feminist issues than white women, that their identities could be more complex and involve more than one layer. Indeed, as I read some prominent feminists, I realized that cultural richness and vastly different viewpoints among feminists of different races is a big feature of the theory today.

And according to Angela Davis, radical scholar, feminism in the United States is not superior to other forms of feminism worldwide. Our values do not need to be spread to other places where women may have been thinking and developing their own ideas for centuries. (She says the same thing about our democratic values.)

Among people who don't read or think much about it, feminism is commonly thought of as a phenomenon that happened among educated white women at universities in the 1970s, that involved bra-burning and fighting for status in the workplace. It is thought to have birthed Hillary Clinton and others like her. It generally thought of in a negative, joking light.

But feminism has been around for longer than that, with women of all races and classes working for different things worldwide, some under the official banner of feminism, some not. And so feminism today can look like many things. It can be advocating for more women painters at an art retrospective, it can be fighting for a safe public space for lesbians to hang out in a conservative town, or it can be offering free childcare to low-income women.

So women really are very diverse, and walking many different paths. And to say that a privileged woman has some sort of spiritual bond with a really oppressed woman is probably too romanticized.

But I do think we have a bond. And the bond is not feminism, or a common fight, but a common love. The love of children.

When I was 10 and visiting Japan with my parents, I thought I was lost in a shopping mall and burst into tears. A female clerk came over to me, knelt down to my height, and began asking me questions in Japanese. "I can't find my mom!" I said. "Mama?" the woman asked. She understood immediately, and stood up straight and saw my parents just a little ways away, and brought me there. She did not speak English, but she understood the language of mother.

Not all women love children, but most do have an innate maternalism. And you will see this on the bus or elevator when one woman looks down at a stroller and gives a big smile to the baby or child inside. All else becomes unimportant as she gets tunnel vision and interacts with the baby. And then she'll smile at the mother, and perhaps they will talk. Or perhaps not, if they speak different languages. The two women would not have bonded without the child, but with the child between them they feel a common love, and they will at least smile at each other. And the mother is so proud of her child, and loves to hear the details of how cute or bright her child is.

It could be a corporate lawyer smiling at the child of a grocery clerk, or vice versa, but because of the child, that boundary is dissolved. All judgement and competition disappears for a brief moment.

Monday, January 4, 2010

He's a Real Nowhere Man

I took a year off of college almost ten years ago, and one of the places I visited during that year was Mendocino, a magical town in Northern California. It is right next to the ocean and surrounded by old-growth forest.

My traveling buddy and I happened upon a tree-sit, and I say "happened upon" because that's literally what happened--one of the hippies in town asked us if we'd like to visit. We ended up living there, sitting in a tree 150 feet off the ground, for a month or so. It was not as difficult as is rumored, because we were able to come down every couple of days and even go into town once in awhile to get some sundries for the tree. In reality, it was a pretty nice existence.

I met a few of the passionate activists who were involved in trying to save this and other trees from being cut down. There was Osha, who lived in a trailer a mile away, who was trying to figure out how to put up sits in some of the other trees that were supposed to come down first. There was Currynt, the leader of the sit, who reused every little thing and walked everywhere. There was a man who delayed the loggers by a month or so because he wouldn't allow them to cross his land. There was even a woman who did topless demonstrations in front of loggers because they couldn't arrest her--physically grab her--because of her nudity. All these people weaved in and out of my existence during that month.

But I remember one day Osha introduced me to two men, maybe in their late twenties, wearing scruffy clothes but not homeless-looking, unlike so many of the hippies who lived outdoors in Mendocino. They were the type of guys you'd expect to have trail-building jobs and not be able to function in an office environment. "These are the guys who built the sit," said Osha, and I looked at them, impressed, but they didn't have much to say. In fact, they were socially awkward and disappeared after a half hour or so.

Building a tree-sit is an incredibly difficult thing. The people in Mendocino did it without the foot spikes that go into the tree (as Lisa Simpson uses in the tree-sitting episode of the Simpsons). They did it by wrapping a rope around the trunk and inching their way up little by little. I watched Osha try and do this in a smaller tree and saw her face wrenched with pain after just ten or so feet. So these men got through 150 feet of this climbing. I'm sure they rested on branches in between, but still, they had the perseverance to go all that way up the tree, plus rig some giant boards to the tree, all with rope--no nails, so that people could live up there.

The most famous name in tree-sitting is Julia Butterfly, a woman who sat in a Redwood tree for two years without coming down. Her refusal to come down led to that tree and thousands around it to be saved, and to more mainstream awareness of deforestation. But before Julia, there had to be a couple of guys (or women) who trudged through the forest with boards, ropes and buckets to build the platform that would become her home.

The history of activism and positive world change is littered with these anonymous folks--people who aren't charming or good on camera--but who build things, cook things, mail things, and generally do unglamorous work.