Plenary: Politics/Organizations/Coalitions: Past and Future

Plenary: Politics/Organizations/Coalitions: Past and Future

Anne, Carol

Plenary: Politics/Organizations/Coalitions; Past and Future

Urvashi Vaid: sexual orientation and the future of feminist politics

Urvashi Vaid, director of the Policy Institute, an organization affiliated with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, asked whether NWSA members were ready for four kinds of partnerships: between activists and academics; between lesbians, bisexuals, and straight women; among feminists of all colors challenging racism in this country and the world; and across class lines. Yells of “yes” rang out from the audience.

She read from a fundraising letter letter sent out by Gary Bauer of the Right-wing Family Research Council. June is the traditional month for weddings celebrating God’s love and plan for procreation, he wrote. But sadly popular culture is in revolt against God’s plan (whoops from the audience) and many want to destroy marriage (more whoops from the audience). Lesbians and gays have taken over June, he suggested.

Lesbian and gay activists working on the marriage issue are trying to redeem marriage, Vaid pointed out. She noted that half of all straight marriages end in divorce. But feminists, while they support equal protection for lesbian and gay relationships, have a critique of the political institution of marriage and support the choice not to marry. This position is rarely discussed in either the gay or straight press in the marriage debate, Vaid noted. “It’s as if we feminists have nothing to say.”

“This is the disjunction between your work and mine,” she said, urging more theoretically-oriented feminists to join the popular debate.

“I do consider all of you activists,” she told the NWSA members. “Women’s Studies started out as much more than a career path.” Harkening back to Florence Howe’s speech of the previous day, she noted that it was first seen as the academic arm of the feminist movement.

“But the backlash put us on the defensive,” Vaid said. “They sneered at our work as `p.c.'”

“Our movement in academia often became a movement of academics largely playing the same old roles.” Women’s Studies became reduced to “the study of women,” she noted.

Of course we must defend our departments and our courses, Vaid said. But why have many feminist academics and NWSA been relatively silent about the attempt to demonize us? she asked. There has been no public defense of multiculturalism, Vaid asserted.

The split between academics and activists is not your fault alone, Vaid told the NWSA members. “Activists must bear our share of the responsibility. We have valorized personal experience” over theory. We have criticized elitism in education, but we have not fought for higher education for all people, Vaid said. (There was much applause here.)

The feminist movement has collapsed into a series of single-issue problems, Vaid commented. Instead of a movement for economic, social, and political justice for all, we work on issues such as abortion, battering, and sexual harassment as if they were separate. We have gotten away from broad-based organizations and are working in isolation and specialization.

what ties feminist and queer politics?

Lesbians, ex-lesbians, bisexuals, and straight feminists need to talk honestly and work together, Vaid urged. We need to recognize the existence of heterosexism and of homosexual nationalism.

We need to find what ties feminist and queer politics together, Vaid said. Those points are: the connection between homophobia and sexism; the redefinition of gender; an analysis of the limitations and pathology of the traditional nuclear family; and, a commitment to autonomy and choice for all women. But not all feminists agree that there are these connections, Vaid noted.

Gays in the military and sports are particularly contested areas because they threaten traditional male bonding, Vaid said.

The Right Wing realizes that redefining gender is a political issue, she said, noting that conservative groups tried to get the word “gender” out of all documents prior to the United Nations’ conference on women in Beijing and replace it with the word “women” because they feared that the former language could apply to gays and transgender people. They said that the word “gender” was a radical feminist plot to deconstruct “women.” They know our theories and sometimes make more use of them than we do, Vaid noted.

Women’s and gay groups working against the Right have talked about the family in the most insipid language, Vaid said. Women’s groups have tried to play it safe, but they must specify that the patriarchal family is not the only model.

We must concede that neither side of the feminist movement is doing enough to construct a feminist cross-cultural movement, Vaid said. Do we still believe it’s possible? she asked. Many women of different races have secretly or overtly abandoned the idea of that as a goal, she suggested.

We need a compelling vision of what a multicultural society would look like, Vaid urged. Would that look like the old integration model, or like the nationalist model that I hear about from young people? Or would it be race-blind? It is ironic that people like Newt Gingrich have appropriated Dr. Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, although what they meant about it and what he meant are radically different.

Before Vaid could speak about class, her time was up, which seemed symbolic. She said that she would talk about it at the question period, but this reporter, for one, had to leave to catch a plane before that took place.

At this point, this reporter had to leave to catch a plane. I have tried to contact the last two speakers, Maria Luisa “Papusa” Molina of the California Institute of Integral Studies and Estelle Disch of the University of Massachusetts-Boston. I have been unable to reach them, probably because it is summer, or anyone who feels that she can give an adequate account of what they said. I particularly regret missing Papusa’s remarks, because she was one of the Women of Color who walked out of NWSA in 1990 over NWSA’s firing of an African American woman, Ruby Sales, and the way that NWSA handled the firing at its conference in Akron, Ohio. I have heard that Papusa spoke about her departure from–and return to–NWSA, and I intend continue trying to obtain a copy of her remarks. I ask NWSA, as I have mentioned in coverage of previous years, to please not schedule some of the most important speakers in the last minutes of the conference, when many people are rushing out.

The next NWSA will be held June 10-14, in Oswego, New York.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Aug 1997

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