Antioch College hosts Fireside Chat on intergenerational feminism
- Published: October 12, 2023
By Truth Garrett
On Wednesday, Sept. 13, Antioch College hosted a Fireside Chat on intergenerational feminism.
The panel, moderated by Xavier Portis, included Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Ph.D., an American anthropologist, educator, the first woman to serve as president of historically Black institution Spelman College, and former president of Bennett College; Queen Meccasia Zabriskie, Ph.D., the new resident fellow and visiting associate professor of social sciences at Antioch College; and Suparna Bhaskaran, Ph.D., who once taught at Antioch College and is now a nonresident fellow at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School, a private research university in New York City.
Over the course of the evening, the three educators illuminated the multifaceted nature of feminism, emphasizing its intergenerational significance, and the need for a more inclusive and evolving feminism that embraces all identities and perspectives. The educators also spoke on the ways that anti-racism efforts have historically intersected with feminism.
Cole, with a lifetime of reflection behind her, described feminism as both a theory and an action, and stressed the importance of remembering how feminism is connected to societal marginalization on a larger scale.
“Feminism … centers any and all people who identify as women in this struggle against all forms of oppression, but I think we’ve got to add to this powerful necessary idea of feminism, which also calls for the liberation of people in all marginalized communities,” Cole said. “I think it’s really important to understand that we’re not in this struggle for ourselves. We’re in the struggle for all of us.”
Bhaskaran introduced an intriguing perspective by highlighting attention as a political act, and emphasized some aspects of feminism that she considers to be fundamental: What people pay attention to, who they pay attention to, and why they pay attention. Fairness, fighting injustice and dismantling multiple forms of domination, she said, are at the core of feminism.
“Attention is political — it is, therefore, ethical, and moral, all at the same time, and I also think that many of us might already be feminists without actually having the word feminism,” Bhaskaran said.
Zabriskie defined feminism as a movement against a system that perpetuates the idea of men’s superiority and the subsequent power imbalance. In speaking with her fellow panelists, she shared her personal journey into feminism, crediting her mother for instilling values of equality and justice from a young age.
“Before I understood and knew who [feminist writer] bell hooks was … and before I even knew the word feminism … I had the actions of my mother and how she raised us that said … ‘All of you are of value and you need to learn how to do and help out and work together so that this house can function,’” she said.
Bhaskaran and Zabriskie stressed the intergenerational nature of feminism, as it requires different age groups to challenge institutions and structures collectively. Zabriskie went on to affirm that, for her, feminism has always been intergenerational, emphasizing that feminism is inherently woven into her identity and upbringing.
“[My mother] said to my paternal grandparents, ‘Hey, if I come in the house and see my daughters cleaning, while my son is watching TV, my kids are not coming over here again,’” she said.
Considering the intergenerational nature of feminism, Cole also challenged the stereotypical questions often posed to the young and old — such as “What do you want to be when you grow up?” for young people — and advocated for a shift toward more engaging inquiries, such as asking about passions and life experiences.
“The one I think we ought to quit asking the elders is, ‘And what is the greatest thing you’ve ever done?’” Cole said.
She added: “But since it’s gonna be asked I got an answer: I participated in raising three feminist sons, and then I got married and I got a fourth one.”
Cole went on to share an anecdote about growing up as a young, cisgender Black girl in Jacksonville, Florida, during the days of legal racial discrimination. She said she and her family were not poor — she is the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, a formerly enslaved businessman and Florida’s first Black millionaire. Because of her family ties, she said, she and her family were afforded certain privileges within the community — though still not the same privileges as any white person at the time. Recognizing this, she said, prompted her “very first act of social justice.”
“My mother would sometimes get a phone call, and rather than saying ‘Mrs. Batch,’ they would say, ‘Mrs. Batch Ma’am’ — which was quite unusual,” Cole said. “And so this person would say, ‘Mrs. Batch Ma’am, I’m calling from the department store [and] we’ve got some nice new dresses. Bring the girls down tonight. And let them try them on. … One night driving back home, I said, as respectfully as I could, ‘Mama if I cannot try on a dress in the light of day. I don’t ever wanna try on another dress in the darkness.’ And because my mother heard me, I never did.”
Bhaskaran and Zabriskie also discussed how their multiple intersecting identities influenced their lives and strategies for navigating differences. They emphasized the importance of recognizing privilege and the role of identity in forming connections and building solidarity.
“These identities fundamentally color the way I practice or live my life issues — the lens that their experiences have been a great and helpful source of knowledge,” Bhaskaran said. “And so in many ways, my identity as a Brown woman of color, a queer woman of color and a Brown Indian woman, for instance, living a long time in the Midwest, has taught me that I must learn how to make community.”
Zabriskie added: “My complex multiple identities have shaped my experience, but they also helped me to think about what I might have to be, navigating in a particular place. … Understand that in different contexts, different parts of identities are going to shape interactions in particular ways.”
Zabriskie added that her own life has also shown her that not only can intersecting identities produce particular kinds of disadvantages and privileges, but they can also be a part of the strategy used to build solidarity, connections and community.
“Even that strategy of how and when you reveal particular parts of your identity — we shouldn’t have to do that,” she said. “It says something about the problematic systems and institutions we are navigating.”
As the evening wore on, the conversation turned toward the significant role that feminism plays in advocating for queer and trans individuals. Bhaskaran said she believes feminism has been enriched by the experiences of queer and trans people, and they are essential in challenging systems of oppression. She added that understanding privilege and marginalization within these communities is crucial for feminist progress.
“We have rich experiences, and we also come from positions of marginalization and also experiences of privilege,” she said. “Feminism must kind of ask the question, ‘Where do we gain from privilege? And where do we not?’ So it’s very important, I think, for queer and trans people, just like those who are not trans, to ask those same questions.”
The conversation also addressed concerns that feminism may be outdated and exclusionary for younger voices. Bhaskaran asserted that feminism, in its inclusive form, is far from outdated and remains relevant as long as it resonates with one’s experiences. Feminism, she said, is not a fixed ideology, but a dynamic movement that evolves.
“I think younger people, I think in fact kids, make the best social theorists,” Bhaskaran said. “So it is absolutely not some kind of outdated kind of thing. But it’s got to touch you. It has to be meaningful to one’s experiences as well.”
Yellow Springs High School students concluded the event by engaging the panelists with questions about youth involvement in feminism and the challenges of enacting change in less accepting communities.
One student asked: “How can teenagers and young adults become more involved and excited about feminism while understanding its importance as the foundation for a more equitable future?”
This inquiry struck a chord with the audience, and longtime local resident Felicia Chappelle responded by commending the student for asking the question, highlighting that the mere act of questioning is a powerful form of activism. She encouraged the young activists to visualize action, reach out to mentors and tap into the wisdom of those who came before, ultimately emphasizing that asking the right questions can be the catalyst for meaningful change.
Another student delved into the practicality of making change, particularly in environments less receptive to feminism. They asked how they could enact change in places unlike Yellow Springs, known for its open-mindedness. Bhaskaran stressed the importance of building relationships and fostering respectful conversations with diverse perspectives. She encouraged the students to engage with people and spaces they might not be familiar with, promoting dialogue and exchange as essential tools for change. Zabriskie echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the significance of liberatory relationships and interpersonal connections as agents of transformation.
A thoughtful student shared their experience of writing and crafting characters that do not fully reflect their true identity. They admitted to creating idealized versions of themselves that align with societal expectations. This fear of authenticity in creative work raised concerns about self-expression.
As the evening came to a close, Cole responded to the student by invoking famed writer Maya Angelou’s words about courage being paramount for any endeavor:
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.