In the interest of behaving badly, let us first say that we won’t apologize for the “roving feminist gangs” comment, nor the laughter that ensued at our July 11 “Bay Area Feminism Today” panel. In the light of the sexual attacks that have terrorized Mission District residents this year, Celeste Chan’s joke (actually a reference to comments made by Fox News in reference to the New Jersey Seven) has to be read as a self defense tactic — and source of comfort and strength to the women living in the neighborhood. Not a threat to men. Unless they’re commiting sexual assault, of course — but then, women commiting sexual assault will probably have the gang’s wrath to face as well.
Seven women from all walks of Bay Area activism — arts, nightlife, immigrant advocacy, domestic violence organizations, and more — came together at City College’s Mission branch to discuss what our SF progressive community needs to work on, recent feminist victories, whether they even believe in the term “feminism,” and everything in between. Our “Faces of feminism” cover story announcing the event attracted a decent-sized crowd of around 120 (mainly young women, with zero male elected officials in attendance.) We laughed, we nearly cried, we came away with a lot to think about. Here’s some of the general topics that were discussed. And here’s to this being a spark for continued talks, however a Fourth Wave Bay feminism may take shape.
Reproductive justice has long been a feminist goal, but with the recent spate of attacks on birth control and abortion access it’s come up again. Are we here in the Bay Area isolated from the War On Women?Some panelists thought we can affect the country’s situation positively.
“Part of what we do here in the Bay Area is we send strong women to Washington,” the Drug Policy Alliance‘s Laura Thomas said. “We are responsible for a significant amount of women in Congress.” But California’s reproductive justice situation is more complicated than it may seem. St. James Infirmary‘s Stephany Ashley noted that reproductive health here is under attack with “criminalization of HIV-positive people,” and that California “just cut all funding for HIV prevention for women.”
Chan, founder of Queer Rebels Productions, added that California is cutting domestic violence services through slashing CalWORKS funding. Mujeres Unidas‘ Juana Flores noted that the Bay’s Latino communities can find it difficult to support aspects of reproductive health because of religion and tradition. But she said that people need to work together and realize that “it’s a real war. It’s a real war on us.” She warned that “politicians are not going to fix things just because they want to improve our lives. We need to fight back.”
Transgender activist and member of SF’s Youth Commission Mia Tu Mutch said that part of the war on women has been a wave of anti-trans legislation across the country, as well as a wave of hate crimes, especially against trans women of color. Some legislation in Tennessee is making it more difficult for trans people to go the bathroom, she said. “Reproductive justice is important, but we also need just the simple right to pee.”
But what about the word itself?
Does feminism have power as its own concept now, or has its work been rightly subsumed into the queer movement, the civil rights movement, and other forms of activism? “A lot of us can agree that there isn’t something you can point to and say, this is the feminist movement in San Francisco,” Ashley said. “But there are many important feminist projects happening.”
Alix Rosenthal, who created a controversial women’s slate in her bid for re-election on the SF Democratic County Central Committee recalled how “30 to 40 years ago, we all had to join together because there weren’t enough of us. Now people have splintered off.” Chan brought up the bicycle scene in 1983’s feminist sci-fi film Born in Flames, and quoted Audre Lourde: “for so long, we’ve been on the edge of each other’s battles.”
Tu Mutch said that she “would rather identify as fighting for LGBT rights, progressive rights” than as feminist. But, she continued that it is “under the system of patriarchy that we’re all getting screwed over.” She said that women are treated as second-class citizens, and trans and gender non-conforming people are treated as third class citizens in our society. Edaj, longtime Bay Area DJ and director of the Women’s Stage at Pride for a decade, agreed that the word feminism “sparks a lot of emotion in people” and can create obstacles in growing support. Said Flores: “it’s a big word. People call me a feminist when I claim my rights. When I see another women who is suffering or being abused it’s unbearable to me,” Flores said. “When someone calls me a feminist, I feel proud.”
The inward gaze: how does the San Francisco progressive community do on feminist issues?
In a word: okay. But there’s work to be done even here, in “progressive” San Francisco. Thomas led the charge, talking about the state’s current legal ability to shackle women prisoners during childbirth. Tu Mutch expressed a need to stop “pitting groups against each other,” and to get rid of a City Hall attitude that says “my budget is more important than yours.” Tu Mutch said “there’s still rampant transphobia and gender essentialism,” that affects not just women, but the “countless people born with intersex conditions and who identify outside the binary.”
Ashley pointed out that “even some of our favorite male progressive politicians, you don’t see them cultivating leadership among women, queer people, trans people.” She talked about how that’s a traditional feminist organizing principle, “mentorship and meaningful participation, not just tokenizing participation.”
As a (not) side note, there wasn’t a single male politician in the audience that day. As Ashley put it, “patriarchy is really the problem.” Ashley and panel moderator, SFBG culture editor Caitlin Donohue shared the fact that they’ve felt diminished by remarks made by and in the company of the city’s so-called “progressive politicians.”
Recent feminist victories
But enough depressing stuff. How about recent feminist victories, asked an audience member.
This question was met with a disconcerting silence. Until Chan jumped in: “I’m really inspired by the place queer arts are at right now.” She told of the “lineage of resistance” of art that deals with questions like “how do people survive the unimaginable? How do people survive the truly horrific?” Disturbing incidents like that of transgender prisoner Cece McDonald beg the question, “is the perfect victim a dead victim? If you fight back, you’ll be criminalized? Now more than ever we need a movement. We really need to come together,” concluded Chan.
Rosenthal saw hope in surprising places. “Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman,” she said. “These women are so incompetent. But they made it. They really made it.” She talked about how usually women have had to be five times better than the men they competed with, but “Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman are not five times better than anyone. But they made it.”
Laura Thomas was inspired by Julia Bluhm, the 14-year old ballet dancer from Maine whose online petition led Seventeen to promise to stop using Photoshop to alter women’s body types. Ashley acknowledged Tu Mutch’s advocacy work, and said she was recently inspired by a “take back the plaza” event Tu Mutch had organized. Edaj was inspired by being named a Pride Grand Marshall, and the feeling that the Pride organization was acknowledging the importance of the space created at the Women’s Stage. She was also inspired by Morningstar Vancil, a Filipino vet who is a two-spirit drag king, and Vancil’s commitment to disabled veterans issues.
In response to a question that asked what the 2012 action plan for Bay Area feminists should involve, Ashley said “principles of intersectionality, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism” had to be valued more than they have been in past feminist movements. They’re there in Third Wave feminism, Ashely said, only they are “wrapped up in theory and academia.” Those guiding principles should have “more on the ground” applicability. What needs to happen right now, speaking of on the ground? Back to 2012’s spate of sexual violence in the Mission, there’s a distinct necessity for “a perfect community response that doesn’t involve the police, so that we all of a sudden feel really comfortable taking a walk at 3 in the morning through our favorite neighborhood.”
Flores said that any new form of feminism would need to be about “mutual respect” and “against any form of injustice,” to which Thomas agreed, saying it needs to be “less theory, more practice.” It also, Thomas said “has to deal with gender in a different way. A new feminism needs to go beyond gender, or deal with gender differently” in the sense of respecting gender non-conforming identities. A tricky prospect, she admitted. “How you develop a gendered movement that doesn’t use gender as a defining construct, I don’t know.” More specifically, she underlined the importance of “progressive revenue measures,” and “an end to cuts to childcare and domestic violence programs.” “Our economy’s not coming back through more cuts. We need revenue, more taxes,” she said, to cheers from the crowd. Well this was a Guardian forum, after all.
Edaj reiterated that “that word scares off a lot of people who might otherwise want to join.” Tu Mutch underlined that it would need to “take up the idea that men and women are opposites. That only serves to degrade women.” A new feminism, she said, would be about “turning away from that and realizing there’s lots of different genders.”
Tu Mutch said she would like to see success for her organization to fight for trans healthcare rights, FEATHER. “People have to spend ridiculous amounts of money to transition,” she said. “We need universal healthcare for all, including trans people.”
Chan pondered the question. In the end, she concluded, “roving feminist gangs,” inspiring at least one angry letter from a slighted middleaged white man in the crowd. Which wasn’t the only reason why we deemed the panel a success, but an important one.