Gloria Steinem & Barbara Smith | 2018 MAKERS Conference
Gloria Steinem, Writer, Lecturer, Political Activist, and Feminist Organizer, interviews Barbara Smith, Author, Activist, and Founder of Kitchen Table Press, about the myth of a white women’s movement
- Ladies and gentlemen, Barbara Smith and Gloria Steinem.
GLORIA STEINEM: If any of you hasn't seen the whole Makers interview, you really have to watch it. And I have to say that if any of you doesn't know that Barbara has thought up, written, organized much of what we know as feminism today, you don't know what you're missing, OK? So you have to promise me that you're going to catch up on this woman. Because, otherwise, I'm afraid she's just going to talk about other women.
And incidentally, in the last decade, she decided that she would see whether democracy worked or not, right?
BARBARA SMITH: Yes.
GLORIA STEINEM: And so, she took the corrupt city of Albany and turned it into a democracy, which elected women--
BARBARA SMITH: By running for office. Yes, two terms.
GLORIA STEINEM: And I think we're ready to hear the message today because of the results of the election. I think the country has finally realized because of the fact that-- what, 96% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton and 51% of white married women-- married women-- I would like to speak up for single women. But anyway--
BARBARA SMITH: Yes, let's speak up for us.
GLORIA STEINEM: --voted for Trump. Perhaps we are finally ready to admit that the women's movement has always, always, always-- feminism has always been disproportionately women of color and disproportionately black women. And in--
In the very first issue of "Ms." magazine, we published a Louis Harris poll. I think it was the first big poll of women's opinions on the women's movement and on specific issues. And something like 96% of black women supported what was then called the Women's Liberation Movement, not feminism--
BARBARA SMITH: Mhm, right.
GLORIA STEINEM: --and supported the issues, compared to only 30-something percent of white women. So let's just say that the hidden figures that we are-- let's just say our hidden figures should so not be hidden. I mean, it is the result of the way the movement has been covered. So-- and also, your genius title. The title was all the--
BARBARA SMITH: I'll say it.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yeah.
BARBARA SMITH: Yeah, "All of the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of us are Brave-- Black Women Studies." It was the first book published in the United States about black women studies, specifically about black women studies.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yeah, so I just-- here's my personal question to you. How do you keep from going completely bonkers with rage when turn on-- when you go online and people are talking about white feminism. And, you know, hello, then it's not feminism, right-- and, you know, and just when you see the so-called second wave characterized as a white woman's movement.
BARBARA SMITH: Well, as we know, people in the United States, they probably got a C in history. Most people in the United States would have gotten a C in history because history really is not taught very effectively in our nation. That's because there's a lot that they wish to hide, particularly the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of my people of African people.
So the fact that we don't know about the history and the participation of women of color in the second wave of the women's movement, that's just like one of 2,000 things that most people don't know. As far as how do I not go bonkers, it's because I've spent my entire life trying to counter that-- those omissions and that ignorance. So I can always content myself with the fact, well, at least I tried. At least I did that book, did that anthology, started that press, whatever. You know, I have done all I possibly could to uplift the voices of women of color.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yeah, nobody-- nobody has done more. And since in your spare time, you've educated me over all these years.
BARBARA SMITH: We did a book together.
GLORIA STEINEM: Right, we-- right, OK.
BARBARA SMITH: That was quite a long haul.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yes, and we survived.
BARBARA SMITH: Yes.
GLORIA STEINEM: OK, so educate us. I mean, give us some of the hidden figures who should not be hidden.
BARBARA SMITH: Well, I find this a fascinating topic. But the one thing I want to say to begin with is it is hard sometimes to place women and black women-- and I'm speaking specifically about African-American women today, since that's my home community. It can be difficult to place us accurately in the history, in the chronology of feminism if what you're looking for are explicit statements of I am a feminist, and this is what I believe because I'm a feminist.
Now, if we look at history, we go back to the 19th century. And we see black women like Anna Julia Cooper, Nannie Burroughs, people-- Mary McLeod Bethune into the early 20th century who definitely were working on women's issues, who were in the black women's club movement but who did not necessarily use the F word, the feminist word. There are a few people I wanted to talk about, and I don't know if I myself would say that they were a part of the women's movement, because I don't know what they would say about it.
GLORIA STEINEM: Mhm.
BARBARA SMITH: I'm thinking about Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer was a pillar of the civil rights movement. And, of course, that's when I became politically active as a teenager in the civil rights movement.
She was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, poor, a sharecropper. And she was about justice and freedom. Eventually, she became a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
She was beaten brutally and carried the disabilities from that brutal beating, when she was in jail for trying to register to vote in her county. She did that, and then she became, as I said, a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that at the 1964 Democratic Convention tried to get the illegitimate all-white delegation unseated.
GLORIA STEINEM: But I would say she was definitely a feminist because she was a founder of the reproductive justice movement. Because she was the first person to talk about sterilization.
BARBARA SMITH: Yes, the Mississippi Appendectomy.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yes, right.
BARBARA SMITH: That's what they called it.
GLORIA STEINEM: Right.
BARBARA SMITH: And sterilization was so frequent and was used so often to abuse black women that they referred to it as a Mississippi Appendectomy. She had been sterilized herself.
GLORIA STEINEM: Right, and she-- she had tried to raise this in SNCC. And I think the guys were a little embarrassed by it.
BARBARA SMITH: Right.
GLORIA STEINEM: And so, actually, it was because of Ruth Ginsburg, who was then head of the women's rights at the ACLU.
BARBARA SMITH: Mhm.
GLORIA STEINEM: And sent me and another woman to interview Fannie Lou about the fact that she had been sterilized, and this was a systemic problem.
BARBARA SMITH: Right.
GLORIA STEINEM: So, to me, she is a founder-- one of the founders of the reproductive justice movement.
BARBARA SMITH: By speaking out about her own lived experience.
GLORIA STEINEM: Right.
BARBARA SMITH: So that's why scholars and historians kind of go back and forth about where does feminism start. Who was a part of it? Because does it require using certain terms and words?
GLORIA STEINEM: Well, I would go for content over form, wouldn't you?
BARBARA SMITH: Right. I think I'm with you.
GLORIA STEINEM: OK, all right. So who else do you want to tell us about?
BARBARA SMITH: I wanted to mention Johnnie Tillmon. She was born in 1917. I'm sorry, I may be getting her birth date wrong. I'm looking at my notes.
Fannie Lou Hamer was definitely born in 1917. But I think that Johnnie Tillmon was born around the same time. She was the founder-- she was a woman who, after having worked at a union job-- and I think she was based out here in California. Her circumstances changed, but I think perhaps because of illness. And she had to go on welfare. She really did not want to do that.
But out of that experience and out of the abuse of the system as it existed at that time-- and, of course, differently at this time too, because they tried to get rid of welfare in the 1990s and were pretty successful at that-- she started the national-- she, with others, started the National Welfare Rights Organization. And that was a really important group for looking at issues of class and gender. She talked about the welfare system as being like being in a bad marriage with a bad husband.
And she wrote an article that appeared, guess where? In the first issue of "Ms." magazine about the issues of black women, and women in general and welfare. So she's someone to know about.
And the other person I wanted to mention is Fran Beal. She wrote an article in, I think, the late 1960s. She was a part of SNCC. And she was also a part of the left. So she had a strong race, class, gender analysis.
She wrote an article called "Double Jeopardy." And she was talking about patriarchal attitudes and sexism within black context. And I have to tell you having done the same thing myself, it does not get you many friends, I have to say, particularly if you look at that period of the mid-20th century.
So she spoke out very strongly-- so sorry to be hoarse. I always am in the morning. And, of course, it's catching up with me, unfortunately.
But in any event, she spoke out about the intersectional issues. That term wasn't coined until a few decades later. And she also was a part of an organization and a founder of the Third World Women's Alliance, which was explicitly feminist.
GLORIA STEINEM: Before intersectionality came "Double Jeopardy." Hello? I mean, this was not, you know, a totally new concept.
BARBARA SMITH: And sometimes triple jeopardy.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yes, right, right, right. And we have Pauli Murray, who, you know, really invented the idea for now and the basis of Ruth Ginsburg. I mean, you know, we could go on. But I see it's telling us to move to Q&A. It says here, right here. OK.
BARBARA SMITH: Well, there we go.
GLORIA STEINEM: OK.
BARBARA SMITH: Now, it's for you.
- I'm coming. Hi, Gloria-- Tina Chen-- and Barbara.
GLORIA STEINEM: Hello. Hi, Tina.
- Thank you so much for this.
BARBARA SMITH: Nice to meet you.
- So I see in your stories a direct line to women of color today. And I'm thinking in particular as I stand here of folks like Cleo Pendleton in Chicago, the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed. She's the young girl who was shot and killed after marching in President Obama's second inauguration parade, and the many mothers of the fallen-- Trayvon Martin's mother.
And my question is, from your-- from the historical studies and the studies of the women that you've described for us, what lessons can we learn as a broader movement, as a modern movement right now on how to support those voices, how to make them come to the forefront? Because I see, they're still not at the forefront and where they need to be in the work that we're doing today.
BARBARA SMITH: I think it's so important for women of color not to be seen as an afterthought or an add-on. We were committed feminists. And when I say we, I'm talking about members of the Combahee River Collective, which you may be familiar with. Because we wrote a statement that has been widely, widely used, read, reprinted.
And now there's a new book with the statement in it called "How We Get Free, Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective." There are interviews with the three co-authors of the statement, including my sister, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier. But we grappled as committed feminists in Boston in the 1970s with being marginalized within the women's movement.
I'll never forget that someone who is still a dear friend who I had just met at that time saying as we were riding along in the car, probably just a meeting or a demonstration. She said is that little group of yours still meeting? And I was like, are you kidding me?
So don't marginalize us. Think about how every issue that you're working on-- even if it's something as obscure as algorithms and technology, which we know nothing about, think about it how it affects women of color, women of different classes, women of different religions, Muslim women. Look at who's most under attack in our society at the time, and figure out how your activism is touching and changing their lives.
Also, read an article that appears in one of my books, "Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology," by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who you may know as a founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. The article is titled "Coalition Politics, Turning the Century." And everyone needs to read that article to figure out how to do principled work across our differences.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yeah, and I would just say don't start a group until it looks like the people who are affected by the issue. Because if you start a group as white women and then say-- you know, you've taken on the power to include. Hello? Don't start until it--
BARBARA SMITH: Exactly, and take the time.
GLORIA STEINEM: Right.
BARBARA SMITH: Take the time that it will take to dig deeper and do more principled and inclusive organizing.
GLORIA STEINEM: Right. Maybe we should pass the mic around. See, there's the problem of transit time here. OK, all right.
- Hi, my name is Kim Foxx. I'm from Chicago. And my question piggybacks off of Tina's question. What do you say to women of color who have felt perhaps that they were not included and are now feeling like the movement is happening?
And are we welcome? What do you say to them, who perhaps say we would rather stay over here because they fear that talking about inner sectionalism will somehow alienate them from their allies? What are your words of encouragement for women of color?
BARBARA SMITH: I think that's why that article that I mentioned-- "Coalition Politics Turning the Century"-- is so useful. Because it makes a distinction between home and the movement. The movement is not your home necessarily.
It might become your home, but you have to have a place where you feel fully seen, fully empowered, and you can do your own work. So what I would recommend to anyone who is marginalized in many different ways are, you know-- and particularly around race, have that place where you can be yourself and talk the way you want to talk about whatever it is you wish to.
But you can't have a movement in a vacuum. Movements are big, broad, and inclusive. So we have to be able to work with others who are different from ourselves. And we expect people who are not of the same background are co-conspirators-- not allies, because allies is a little too weak for me. But we want our co-conspirators to step up and to be there with us.
- Thank you.
GLORIA STEINEM: All right, and it's sort of blank there. Does that mean-- do we have time for one more question?
BARBARA SMITH: We had 12 seconds.
GLORIA STEINEM: Oh, 12 seconds? OK, all right. OK, quick. Run!
BARBARA SMITH: No, I think we're going to run it out. Two offers for-- OK.
- I'll speak loudly, and you can repeat.
GLORIA STEINEM: Yeah.
- Gloria, you turned to Barbara and you said educate us, which I loved. Barbara, can you tell us-- now that you've educated us-- how we can continue to educate ourselves. What are your top three go do this right now?
BARBARA SMITH: Well, you must be reading my mind because there a couple of books I was going to recommend, besides all of mine. I would recommend-- there are two authors that I think-- my actual field is teaching literature, African American literature and black women writers-- two authors who you're going to learn a lot from.
One is Margaret Walker. The book is "Jubilee." It's a novel. It's an antidote to "Gone with the Wind." It's a real story of enslavement, told from a black woman's point of view.
The other one is Ann Petry's "The Street." It is a novel that takes place in the 1940s in New York City, a story of a black single mother, struggling economically. But what Ann Petry does so brilliantly is to show how gender, as well as race and class, get in the way of her hopes and her dreams. So those are just FYIs. And if you turn to my books, you'll find a lot of bibliographies.
GLORIA STEINEM: And I just want to say, you have to read everything this woman has written, OK?
BARBARA SMITH: Or at least a little of it.
GLORIA STEINEM: She's made me what I am today. And I hope she's satisfied.
BARBARA SMITH: I am. I am.