It was like a spectacular sea of thousands of “Columbia blue” graduation gowns along with row after row and hundreds of family, friends, and relatives, but I was much more entertained by my book and the whole grain perfection of my ever so famous “Absolute” bagel than the excitement in the collegiate quad carved out of the hustle and bustle of Morningside Heights, 116th and Broadway. My mom was busy scanning the graduation program, but then she suddenly nudged me and said, “Nan, look—Gloria Steinem is getting an honorary degree today!” This was not the first time my mom had mentioned the likes of the esteemed Ms. Steinem in reference to the emergence of my evolving feminist identity. I typically send my mom all of my Develle Dish pieces and following a late night of writing, I sent her my last article “F*******” only to wake up to both an email and a voicemail the next morning echoing a similar sentiment—“You sound just like Gloria Steinem.” Although of course extremely flattering, to be considered in the same breath as someone that will live forever in American history and more specifically in all narratives of women’s rights, I felt that I was completely undeserving of this distinction.
The heart of my feminist “activism” is writing for Develle Dish and engaging in my Women’s Studies classes with maybe a couple spontaneous feminist rants here and there with friends, but nothing that resembles the sparkling achievements of Gloria Steinem—penning books, starting magazines, foundations, organizations, etc. Maybe it was the sudden realization that in two years I would be donning my own graduation robes, but Gloria Steinem’s academic coronation on this spectacular Wednesday morning in May left me with a sense of urgency—This is the type of person that I strive to be, want to be, and dream to be…and someday I want my words to matter.
I often wonder about the role of the power of words in my “activism” on campus. Posting my not so private introspective ramblings have helped me to uncover the core of my identity, a personal excavation of sorts, clearing away the parts of me that were never quite “me”… but writing as part of a feminist publication does not automatically label me as an activist. Or does it? Is every writer a variation of an activist, employing words to give meaning to their own personal experiences? On some level, this holds true, but a part of me cannot help but see that it’s not just the physical words that make them such a powerful change agent. It’s how the words speak for the author, giving him/her meaning beyond the present, extending to its future interpretations and validations. Words do not define us, but rather give a glimpse into what we value and what we ultimately stand for—my feminist framework, the way that I understand the world through feminism makes me a feminist, but without the words, the vocabulary, and the language I would feel powerless. Writing about feminism has made me more critical and vocal about the every day occurrences in my life while encouraging me to question things, people, events that may not be a threat, but can potentially pose a threat to the lives of women now or even later down the road. So if our words help us maintain a feminist consciousness, then is that feminist activism?
Or is feminist activism simply acknowledging and exposing hidden dangers, tucked away in all corners of society? Am I a feminist activist by recognizing my own individual responsibility to remain vigilant and alert to the potential dangers that confront women? In an email exchange with one of my professors, he signed off with a quote from Foucault:
“My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do…”
Reflecting on the implications of this concept of “pessimistic activism” almost left me angsty and well, a little disillusioned as a writer, thinker, woman, and person. But then I began to see it as a daily challenge—to inspire and motivate so as to transform our understanding of social change as developing a constant state of consciousness or in this case, a feminist consciousness.
I am not quite sure how many people read my posts on Develle Dish and I am not convinced that I personally have changed public perception of ‘what a feminist looks like,’—what a feminist does, thinks, says, or whatnot. But I do know that trying to make sense of a woman’s place within and of the world, through words that simultaneously spread and share a feminist consciousness is both an understated and undervalued means of modern activism. I have come to perceive my “activism” as no longer clinging to silence for its built in comfort, sense of vacuous “positivity,” and the idea of ‘it’s-not-so-bad-yet-so-why-bother’ mindset. I will admit that I tend to overanalyze and see things as more dangerous than they ultimately may be, but the converse effects, silence and apathy downright scare me. My “activism” might not make me Gloria Steinem per se, but writing keeps my feminism on its toes, always engaged and present in the moment.
In a joint Duke-UNC dialogue about immigration earlier this year, Jose Antonio Vargas said, “If you’re being silent, you’re just as much of a problem.”
I’ll take that as a cue to keep writing…