Friday, March 6, 2009

Behold Cara Lays Down Some Truth

Cara Kulwicki is a feminist blogger for both The Curvature and Feministe. She is a contributor to the new feminist anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.  When not discussing how to smash systems of oppression, she is almost certainly discussing her favourite band The Beatles.

1) It is my understanding that you identify as feminist.  It is no secret that a major tenet of the second wave is that the personal is political and with that in mind, what would you say lead you to have a “click moment”.

You know, I can’t say that I had just one click moment, I had a few.  I identified as a feminist from a young age, mostly because my father, who does indeed listen to Rush Limbaugh, would jokingly call me a “feminazi.” I figured that if thinking I deserved to be treated equally to my brothers and to not be subjected to sexist jokes made me a feminist – and if being a feminist was so worthy of vitriol from the people who didn’t think that I deserved those things – then a feminist was definitely something that I wanted to be!

I had another click moment on my first day of college.  The professor, who taught the very first lecture I ever attended and ended up being my favorite, was an openly gay man and queer theorist, and he automatically launched into a lecture about homophobia, and how homophobia is really just yet another deep-seeded form of the pervasive misogyny (and hatred of anything feminine) in our culture.  This was an English lecture, mind you!  How it was relevant exactly, I don’t remember; but it was love at first listen, and my first real exposure to any kind of feminist theory beyond “hey, that’s sexist.”

My last big click moment came in 2006, when South Dakota passed its now infamous abortion ban.  I just didn’t think that anything like that could happen.  That was when I decided to stop just being a feminist in my personal life, and to get involved.  I started reading feminist books, picking up feminist magazines, reading feminist blogs . . . and here we are.

Of course, I’ve had many click moments since then within my feminism, with regards to white privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, etc.  But the things above are what brought me to feminism in the first place.

2) How do you define feminism?  Do you feel that your definition is standard i.e. does it apply across the board?

To me, feminism is a social justice movement that is founded on the idea that women are oppressed in unique ways in a huge number of areas throughout life, and that there are things we can do to combat and eventually end that oppression.  In my view, that means also combating oppression based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, disability, and more, both because people facing these oppressions are also women and because I think that all oppression is interconnected (see “kyriarchy”).

Though I wish that my definition was the dominant one (or I’d pick a new one!), I don’t think that it currently is.  I think that paying attention to other oppressions besides gender oppression, and how these other oppressions interact with gender oppression, is something that a lot of feminists still don’t accept, or only pay lip service to.  Sometimes, I too fail in that respect.  The good news though is that I think the discourse around this is slowly but surely changing, and more and more feminists are coming to understand not only the benefits but the imperatives of intersectionality.

3) What would you say are the most important issues facing women today and what if any solutions do you believe are possible to these concerns?

I imagine that it’s flat out impossible to pick the most important issue facing women today, but if I had to do it, I’d probably pick violence.  Gender-based violence, from sexual violence to intimate partner violence, to hate crime violence, to war violence, has a tremendous impact on women all around the globe.  Many types of violence affect women very disproportionately, and all types of violence affect us uniquely.

There is no one solution to these problems, and never will be.  But some things which I believe need to happen include: creating a world in which women are seen as equals in all aspects of life, from work to relationships to sex to education, working with communities to create unique solutions for their specific needs, and addressing the other root causes of violence like poverty, lack of health care and limited economic opportunity.

4) What role does blogging play in your activism and do you believe that your daily online exchanges are a path to true growth both for you as a blogger and for the women that read your work?

Though I volunteer with Planned Parenthood, have lobbied legislators, attended rallies, etc., I’d certainly say that blogging makes up a majority of my activism.

Which, of course, isn’t to say that there isn’t much more to be done.  But I’m not someone who’s good at organizing.  I’m not someone who’s great at public speaking.  And I’m certainly not someone who’s diplomatic!  Writing is what I have always been good at, and has always been the one and only thing that I’ve wanted to do.  Activism doesn’t stop with consciousness raising; if it did nothing would ever get done.  It’s just the part where I focus most of my efforts, because it’s where my personal abilities best fit.  And when I am able to give a boost to a smaller blogger or to a local project, when I’m able to educate someone on an issue they didn’t know anything about, and when I get the occasional email or comment saying “you’ve opened my eyes” or “you’ve changed my mind about feminism,” I like to think of that as real and important growth.  It’s certainly the rewarding part.

5) How important is recognizing your individual privilege in the work that you do and does it have a significant impact upon your writing?

I try to recognize my privilege without actively pondering on it too much, primarily because I find that it makes me prone to dwell in the “white (straight/cisgender/etc.) guilt” area that is so incredibly counter-productive.  I try to make sure that I always keep my privilege in check, listen when other people are talking about privilege that I have, and engage when necessary.

Where I try to most actively recognize my individual privilege is in a somewhat more subtle way, mainly through determining what I blog about.  If I’m inclined to blog about two different things, and know that I won’t get time to do both, I try to choose the one that allows me to use an intersectional approach and bring attention to more marginalized issues.  You know, that anti-abortion legislation affects me more on a personal level, but every feminist blogger is going to end up covering it; so what about that transphobic legislation over there?  I quite simply can’t blog about everything I want to, but I can choose what I do and don’t blog about.  And when blogging about those issues that don’t affect me personally, I of course also make an effort to do a whole lot of linking.

6) Obviously as bloggers we have specific areas that we tend to focus on, making our work niche specific within feminism, do you find that this hampers your ability to do ally work?

The short answer is: I hope not.

The longer answer is that it’s not really up to me to say.  As I just discussed above, I make a concentrated effort to blog about issues specifically affecting women of color, poor women, LGBT individuals, sex workers, and so on.  Because I feel that these are feminist issues.  I can always do better, of course.  But in my experience, it seems that so long as you make a serious effort to consider ally work as a part of your feminism, it doesn’t really interfere.  Even if, again, it’s up to the people that I attempt to be an ally with to tell me how I’m doing in that area.  I hope I’m doing alright, but I’m always open to making changes.

7) Though feminism is an absolute necessity to improving the lives of women, many refuse to identify as such.  What do you feel has lead to this backlash and what concrete steps can be taken to rehabilitate the image of feminism in wider social circles?

Well it seems to me that there are two main groups of women who refuse to identify as feminists.  There are those who think that feminism is icky, that gender inequality either doesn’t exist or is just  how things are, don’t realize what feminism has done for their lives and can do for them, and all in all just haven’t had their “click moments.” Then there are those who believe fully in gender equality and are deeply committed to social justice, but don’t identify as feminist because they don’t believe that the movement excludes them, for a whole variety of reasons – such as race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on.

So with regards to the first group and rehabilitating the image of feminism in wider social circles, I think that representation is key.  Having more feminist women represented at large media outlets would of course enrage detractors, but also would help to normalize the movement in the broader public consciousness, and also give more little girls someone to look up to.  I mean, it’s worked for the religious right, which most Americans don’t even agree with.  I also think, as many people like BFP have argued before me, that getting out there beyond university and beyond newspapers is important.  Doing visible work at community levels that is relevant to and heavily involves those communities can only serve to build coalitions and to ultimately benefit the lives of more women – which is supposed to be the point.

As for the second group of women who are on the side of gender equality but don’t want to identify themselves with feminism (since I already brought her up, like BFP), the decision makes me incredibly sad, but I also understand it.  I think that the only possible chance of getting those people to reclaim the label (and it’s a slim chance) is for us as a whole to show that feminism has a real commitment to intersectionality, rather than just using the buzz word and trying it out for short periods before dropping it again.  I think that’s going to be a long time coming, unfortunately.  And I think that when one is already committed to gender equality, the label they choose to use or not use is hardly the most important thing about them and their work.

8) During the election you did quite a bit of political blogging, how did your commitment to feminism play a role in your political activism?

For me, a great big chunk of feminism is about political activism, anyway, whether it be at totally grassroots levels, state levels, or the gigantic level of our presidential election.  And though I do think that real change comes from the ground up, oppression obviously comes primarily from the top down.  So I personally think that these things matter.  Especially in a year like this one, where we had so much white male establishment commentary even while the two main contenders for the Democratic nomination were a white woman and a black man, it was important to make progressive, feminist voices heard. 

Not everything I said about the election could be filed into a strictly feminist context, at least in the sense of “feminist” meaning “issues that pertain primarily to women in very obvious ways.” Issues of racism came up, as did issues around health care, sex education, the economy, and more.  But as I’ve already stated, I think that all of these things are feminist issues.  So even when not employing a specifically feminist analysis to something that was said, or to a policy position, my feminism still informed the analysis all the same.

9) Much of your work involves sex education? How do you feel that good sex education empowers women and what would you say are the most important things that children should be actively taught?

I’ve said it over and over again: I think that people have a fundamental right to information about their own bodies.  Implied in that statement is the fact that people also have a fundamental right to their own bodies.  And I think that’s incredibly empowering to women, who are so often told that they don’t have a right to their own bodies (rape apologism, anti-abortion rhetoric, hatred towards someone like Nadya Sulemen, etc.).  I think that sex education is particularly empowering to women (especially straight and bisexual ones, for these purposes) because they are the ones who get pregnant – and I’m convinced that most abstinence-only education is actually about privately acknowledging that and then using it to publicly shame girls who do have sex without information about how to protect themselves.

I think that children should be taught first and foremost that sexuality is not dirty.  Sexuality is natural, it’s human, it’s varied, and all of that is okay.  They should secondly be taught that consent must be affirmative and enthusiastic – it’s wrong for anyone to sexually touch you when you don’t want it, and it’s wrong for you to sexually touch anyone else unless they say they want it without pressure.  And thirdly, they should be taught not only how to protect themselves in terms of how to use a condom, but also the important skills of negotiating condom and other contraceptive usage.  In order to use contraception and safer sex effectively, kids also need to be able to discuss contraception and safer sex effectively, not just go through the physical motions.

10) If you had to set goals for feminist advancement what would they be?

Since this is for International Women’s Day, I’ve decided that I’m just going to be incredibly outlandish and ostentatious by not saying “I want this bill passed,” but instead saying what it really is that we ought to all want.

I want an end to rape culture.  No more victim-blaming, no more excuses for rapists, just real prevention efforts, and fair, efficient trials.  I want economic justice for women all over the world, and that means not only equal pay but also creating a path to economic prosperity and sustainability in those places where men live on extremely little, too.  I want reproductive justice – not just a right to abortion and birth control, but a right to have a child, a right to parental leave, day care, and health care.  I want a world where no one is “illegal,” where, sex is not seen as bad, where physical and emotional abuse is not tolerated, and where no one is murdered because her genitals didn’t meet someone else’s expectations for what makes a woman.  I want a world where police don’t go around killing people of color, where job discrimination is not tolerated, and where children and adults alike don’t go hungry under the banner of “personal responsibility.”

These are really not outlandish wishes.  I look at this list, and I see things that we should already have, that in a just world would be givens.  But they are also far off goals.  They will require a whole lot of those small bills being passed, alongside lots of big ones, a lot of education, community building and minds changed.  And though I’m young, I doubt I’ll see most of them in my lifetime.  I hope that I’ll see more than I expect, but it’s going to take work, and it’s going to take a bigger and stronger movement.  But those things above, along with the many things I certainly forgot, should sure as hell be our goals.  If they’re not, I’m not sure what we’re in this for.


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