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Courtney Martin: Reinventing feminism

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So I was born on the last day of the last year of the '70s. I was raised on "Free to be you and me" -- (cheering) hip-hop -- not as many woohoos for hip-hop in the house. Thank you. Thank you for hip-hop -- and Anita Hill. (Cheering) My parents were radicals -- (Laughter) who became, well, grown-ups. My dad facetiously says, "We wanted to save the world, and instead we just got rich." We actually just got "middle class" in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but you get the picture. I was raised with a very heavy sense of unfinished legacy.

At this ripe old age of 30, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to grow up in this horrible, beautiful time, and I've decided, for me, it's been a real journey and paradox. The first paradox is that growing up is about rejecting the past and then promptly reclaiming it. Feminism was the water I grew up in. When I was just a little girl, my mom started what is now the longest-running women's film festival in the world. So while other kids were watching sitcoms and cartoons, I was watching very esoteric documentaries made by and about women. You can see how this had an influence. But she was not the only feminist in the house.

My dad actually resigned from the male-only business club in my hometown because he said he would never be part of an organization that would one day welcome his son, but not his daughter. (Applause) He's actually here today. (Applause) The trick here is my brother would become an experimental poet, not a businessman, but the intention was really good.


In any case, I didn't readily claim the feminist label, even though it was all around me, because I associated it with my mom's women's groups, her swishy skirts and her shoulder pads -- none of which had much cachet in the hallways of Palmer High School where I was trying to be cool at the time. But I suspected there was something really important about this whole feminism thing, so I started covertly tiptoeing into my mom's bookshelves and picking books off and reading them -- never, of course, admitting that I was doing so. I didn't actually claim the feminist label until I went to Barnard College and I heard Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner speak for the first time. They were the co-authors of a book called "Manifesta." So what very profound epiphany, you might ask, was responsible for my feminist click moment? Fishnet stockings. Jennifer Baumgardner was wearing them. I thought they were really hot. I decided, okay, I can claim the feminist label. Now I tell you this -- I tell you this at the risk of embarrassing myself, because I think part of the work of feminism is to admit that aesthetics, that beauty, that fun do matter. There are lots of very modern political movements that have caught fire in no small part because of cultural hipness. Anyone heard of these two guys as an example?

So my feminism is very indebted to my mom's, but it looks very different. My mom says, "patriarchy." I say, "intersectionality." So race, class, gender, ability, all of these things go into our experiences of what it means to be a woman. Pay equity? Yes. Absolutely a feminist issue. But for me, so is immigration. (Applause) Thank you. My mom says, "Protest march." I say, "Online organizing." I co-edit, along with a collective of other super-smart, amazing women, a site called We are the most widely read feminist publication ever, and I tell you this because I think it's really important to see that there's a continuum.

Feminist blogging is basically the 21st century version of consciousness raising. But we also have a straightforward political impact. Feministing has been able to get merchandise pulled off the shelves of Walmart. We got a misogynist administrator sending us hate-mail fired from a Big Ten school. And one of our biggest successes is we get mail from teenage girls in the middle of Iowa who say, "I Googled Jessica Simpson and stumbled on your site. I realized feminism wasn't about man-hating and Birkenstocks." So we're able to pull in the next generation in a totally new way.

My mom says, "Gloria Steinem." I say, "Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Miriam Perez, Ann Friedman, Jessica Valenti, Vanessa Valenti, and on and on and on and on." We don't want one hero. We don't want one icon. We don't want one face. We are thousands of women and men across this country doing online writing, community organizing, changing institutions from the inside out -- all continuing the incredible work that our mothers and grandmothers started. Thank you.


Which brings me to the second paradox: sobering up about our smallness and maintaining faith in our greatness all at once. Many in my generation -- because of well-intentioned parenting and self-esteem education -- were socialized to believe that we were special little snowflakes -- (Laughter) who were going to go out and save the world. These are three words many of us were raised with. We walk across graduation stages, high on our overblown expectations, and when we float back down to earth, we realize we don't know what the heck it means to actually save the world anyway. The mainstream media often paints my generation as apathetic, and I think it's much more accurate to say we are deeply overwhelmed. And there's a lot to be overwhelmed about, to be fair -- an environmental crisis, wealth disparity in this country unlike we've seen since 1928, and globally, a totally immoral and ongoing wealth disparity. Xenophobia's on the rise. The trafficking of women and girls. It's enough to make you feel very overwhelmed.

I experienced this firsthand myself when I graduated from Barnard College in 2002. I was fired up; I was ready to make a difference. I went out and I worked at a non-profit, I went to grad school, I phone-banked, I protested, I volunteered, and none of it seemed to matter. And on a particularly dark night of December of 2004, I sat down with my family, and I said that I had become very disillusioned. I admitted that I'd actually had a fantasy -- kind of a dark fantasy -- of writing a letter about everything that was wrong with the world and then lighting myself on fire on the White House steps. My mom took a drink of her signature Sea Breeze, her eyes really welled with tears, and she looked right at me and she said, "I will not stand for your desperation." She said, "You are smarter, more creative and more resilient than that."

Which brings me to my third paradox. Growing up is about aiming to succeed wildly and being fulfilled by failing really well. (Laughter) (Applause) There's a writer I've been deeply influenced by, Parker Palmer, and he writes that many of us are often whiplashed "between arrogant overestimation of ourselves and a servile underestimation of ourselves." You may have guessed by now, I did not light myself on fire. I did what I know to do in desperation, which is write. I wrote the book I needed to read. I wrote a book about eight incredible people all over this country doing social justice work. I wrote about Nia Martin-Robinson, the daughter of Detroit and two civil rights activists, who's dedicating her life to environmental justice. I wrote about Emily Apt who initially became a caseworker in the welfare system because she decided that was the most noble thing she could do, but quickly learned, not only did she not like it, but she wasn't really good at it. Instead, what she really wanted to do was make films. So she made a film about the welfare system and had a huge impact. I wrote about Maricela Guzman, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who joined the military so she could afford college. She was actually sexually assaulted in boot camp and went on to co-organize a group called the Service Women's Action Network.

What I learned from these people and others was that I couldn't judge them based on their failure to meet their very lofty goals. Many of them are working in deeply intractable systems -- the military, congress, the education system, etc. But what they managed to do within those systems was be a humanizing force. And at the end of the day, what could possibly be more important than that? Cornel West says, "Of course it's a failure. But how good a failure is it?" This isn't to say we give up our wildest, biggest dreams. It's to say we operate on two levels. On one, we really go after changing these broken systems of which we find ourselves a part. But on the other, we root our self-esteem in the daily acts of trying to make one person's day more kind, more just, etc.

So when I was a little girl, I had a couple of very strange habits. One of them was I used to lie on the kitchen floor of my childhood home, and I would suck the thumb of my left hand and hold my mom's cold toes with my right hand. (Laughter) I was listening to her talk on the phone, which she did a lot. She was talking about board meetings, she was founding peace organizations, she was coordinating carpools, she was consoling friends -- all these daily acts of care and creativity. And surely, at three and four years old, I was listening to the soothing sound of her voice, but I think I was also getting my first lesson in activist work.

The activists I interviewed had nothing in common, literally, except for one thing, which was that they all cited their mothers as their most looming and important activist influences. So often, particularly at a young age, we look far afield for our models of the meaningful life, and sometimes they're in our own kitchens, talking on the phone, making us dinner, doing all that keeps the world going around and around. My mom and so many women like her have taught me that life is not about glory, or certainty, or security even. It's about embracing the paradox. It's about acting in the face of overwhelm. And it's about loving people really well. And at the end of the day, these things make for a lifetime of challenge and reward.

Thank you.


Video Details

Duration: 11 minutes and 6 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 491
Posted by: tedtalks on Mar 9, 2011

Blogger Courtney Martin examines the perennially loaded word "feminism" in this personal and heartfelt talk. She talks through the three essential paradoxes of her generation's quest to define the term for themselves.

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