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.

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