- NYT: Why Black Panther is a Defining Moment for Black America
- The Atlantic: The Real Reasons for Marvel Comics’ Woes
- The Forward: The Secret Jewish History of ‘Black Panther’
- Tablet: Make Superman Jewish Again
- From Vanity Fair: The Future of Women in Comics
- EC Comics: Judgment Day
- White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books
- Superman: America’s Jewish Superhero and an Immigrant Icon
By David Michael Newstead.
With the upcoming release of Marvel’s Black Panther, I sought out the most avid comic book reader I know to discuss action, adventure, and diversity on the pages of pop culture’s most important industry. And while her identity has been kept secret, she is undoubtedly on the side of truth and justice.
David Newstead: So, did you always like comic books?
The Amazing Amy #1: I didn’t. In fact, when I was really young I went through a phase where I didn’t like reading at all. Because I started reading very young, my parents assumed passion for reading would follow. I read the books required in for my grade school classes, but wasn’t interested in expanding past that. My interest in reading was sparked and nurtured by my interest in comic books.
David Newstead: Do you remember the first comic books you bought? What was that experience like?
The Amazing Amy #1: My very first comic book was an Archie comic. I know many comic readers don’t consider it a true comic, but it’s in the name, so hold off on scoffing! The first superhero comic series I really fell in love with was Volume 2 of the Amazing Spider-Man. I identified a lot with Spider-Man and Peter Parker. He was just a kid like me; most of the problems he encountered were of his own making; and, he was a nerd who got to prove his bullies wrong! I still have a special place in my heart for Spider-Man. I even confess to liking all the film versions. Okay, not Spider-Man 3. I have some standards.
David Newstead: What are some of your favorite titles and characters right now?
The Amazing Amy #1: I’m gearing up for Black Panther, so I’m rereading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther stories and Roxane Gay’s Women of Wakanda, which were both sadly cancelled. I also really love the Saga series by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples.
David Newstead: Did you always feel welcomed in comic book stores or in the comic book community?
The Amazing Amy #1: I think there’s a general mistrust of women’s interest in comics. I’ve certainly experienced gatekeeping in comics and sci-fi fandom, where guys I’ve known have doubted my love for comics. When I somehow prove my fandom to them, there’s this gross line that I would hear – “Well, you really like comics. Other girls just fake it.” I don’t personally understand what faking an appreciation for comics would look like, why someone would do that, or why those guys care, but the mindset sadly persists. I do think the attitude towards women comic readers has improved in recent years, but I do not think that attitude has extended towards people of color or LGBTQ comic readers.
David Newstead: If I remember correctly, you frequent Fantom Comics in Washington DC, which seems to really lead the way in being welcoming and inclusive. What do you like about Fantom Comics? And what distinguishes them from other comic book stores in your experience?
The Amazing Amy #1: I do like Fantom Comics. I think they excel at giving personalized recommendations and they have a lot of really fun events. They’ve introduced me to some of my favorite comics including Saga. I will admit that I do get most of my comics from the DC Public Library though. If I didn’t, my reading and comic book reading habit wouldn’t be financially sustainable!
David Newstead: To kind of build off of your point about diversity in readership, I’m curious about your view on this. Should existing characters be adapted to reflect greater diversity and inclusion like Iron Man becoming Iron Heart? Or should we create brand new characters entirely?
The Amazing Amy #1: Both! Before Tom Holland was cast in the newest Spider-Man film franchise, I remember discussion about whether the film should center Peter Parker or Miles Morales. The main interest that I saw on the internet around choosing Miles Morales was so that Spider-Man could be played by a black actor in the film. But guess what, Peter Parker can be black! Obviously, a white guy was chosen for the reboot of Spider-Man, just like he was for the other two film series in the last couple decades. We should keep in mind though that it is possible for future reboots. And diversity is coming through in some other ways: open confirmation that Diana Prince is bisexual, diverse casting for secondary comic characters like in CW’s the Flash and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The cancellation of World of Wakanda after only two issues was very disappointing, and it doesn’t indicate that Marvel is committed to diversity in its creators or characters. Hopefully the success of on-screen formats like Black Panther and CW’s Black Lightning (with a black lesbian superhero!) contribute to more inclusion in the comics industry.
David Newstead: I guess I didn’t think about it much, but Marvel’s Nick Fury (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson) was recast from a white guy with an eyepatch to a black guy with an eyepatch and no one seemed to care. That said, diversity in comic books typically attracts attention from people who have a problem with diversity in general. For example, last year one Marvel executive caused a controversy by blaming the company’s declining sales on their increasingly diverse line-up of heroes. Any thoughts on that sentiment?
The Amazing Amy #1: I think there is less concern for secondary characters being recast as a person of color. But, in both cases I mention above, there was a backlash from some fans. I think the difference we’re seeing is a reaction because a character is the hero’s love interest, as is the case for Iris West and MJ.
“Caused a controversy” is one way to put it. A corner (albeit small) of the internet practically exploded. I almost don’t want to address it because it’s such a ridiculous argument. But, sure, I’ll engage. I think people have lost interest in comics in the last several years, in part, because they didn’t feel welcomed or included in the comics world. I also think you need to give new characters, new authors, and new stories some time to breathe. People need time to discover and fall in love with characters and their worlds. One benefit of expanding the pool of voices in comic creation and on the page is that it brings new audiences, but it is a slow process. Change happens at a snail’s pace for DC and Marvel, so if you can’t wait indie comics have much more diversity!
David Newstead: The stereotype of comic book characters (and comic book fans for that matter) is that they are basically all white and male. That’s started to change for the better and I’m curious what you think the significance of these changes are for American culture as a whole?
The Amazing Amy #1: That stereotype exists around so much of pop culture and I think it has been harmful. Straight white male fandom can sometimes lead to gatekeeping and the growing awareness that the fandom doesn’t all think/look the same way is leading to great strides in pop culture. Whenever the stereotype gets particularly frustrating, I remember that the first sci-fi novel was written by a woman. Thanks, Mary Shelley!
David Newstead: So, why do comic books matter to you?
The Amazing Amy #1: Comic books helped me fall in love with books in general. I’m now a voracious reader, and comics opened my eyes to how reading could bring worlds to life and give me new perspectives. Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as a member of the Dora Milaje or as Kal-El? Comics let you do that.
David Newstead: Final question… Are you going to see Black Panther on Friday? And if you could select the next superhero blockbuster, what would you pick?
The Amazing Amy #1: Of course I’m going to see Black Panther! And my choice would be—Ms. Marvel. There’s nothing quite as fun as a teen superhero.
In our next thrilling issue, the Amazing Amy battles against the diabolical villainy of the world’s most evil organization – The Patriarchy!
By David Michael Newstead.
For decades, Rob Okun has been a leading figure in the pro-feminist men’s movement through his long-running publication Voice Male. Today, Rob Okun joins me to offer some perspective on men, feminism, and the problems we’re still struggling to overcome. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: It seems like there’s a limited number of pro-feminist men. They have some good ideas, but it makes you wish more people were out there making these points.
Rob Okun: I’d agree with you. And it’s very frustrating, particularly when things happen out in the world like mass shootings. You know, there’s been some variation of the same op-ed that a handful of us have written I don’t know how many times over the last 20 plus years. So, that definitely is frustrating. However, I think that this moment that we’re in right now is a real opportunity for men’s voices to be in this conversation about sexual assault and overall attitudes.
I was listening to the New Yorker Radio Hour and David Remnick was interviewing author bell hooks. She wrote a book in 2004 called Masculinity and the Will to Change in which she’s positing it’s really not individual men that we have to be thinking about, but the whole system of patriarchy that warps how men think about how they get to be in the world. So, being a class-half-full person, I’m hopeful this is going to be one of those moments where our voices are finally going to get some traction. I’m hopeful.
David Newstead: You’ve been working in this space for a long time. 30 plus years. So because you’re hopeful, would you say that even though we’re grappling with a lot of difficult issues right now that things are getting better than they once were?
Rob Okun: That’s a complicated question. I mean, I guess overall I would say yes, because there are certainly a number of younger men who have become involved in this work. There’s a whole generation of guys in their 20s and 30s that are stepping up, while those of us who have been doing this for a long time are getting older and some are changing their orientations. So, that’s definitely a positive. There’s been this uptick, small though it might be, of new men coming into the field who are doing this more professionally. That’s one aspect.
But I think the other side of that is the number of men who are awakening through the portal of fathering. There are a lot of more involved fathers than there were. You know just picking a point in time… When I first became a father 30 something years ago, there were not a lot of dads at the playground. There certainly weren’t changing tables in men’s rooms. So, there are all of those kinds of shifts where men are taking space as involved fathers. Fatherhood has been a place where many men have found a way to wake up to their responsibilities and how they want to live their lives. And some of the research that has been on expectations of men in their 20s who might be thinking about marriage and family show that the expectation now is that “Of course, we’ll both be working. And of course, I will be a fully involved part of the caregiving and domestic chore responsibility in my family.” Those are shifts that weren’t there when I first started doing this work.
David Newstead: Do you recall when you started identifying as a feminist or a pro-feminist? Or if there was a specific incident that motivated that when you were younger?
Rob Okun: There’s a couple of ways I can answer a question like that. One is that in the early 1980s, I became interested in feminist art. My partner at that time was identifying as a feminist artist. And I used to look at a lot of art that women were making that, if not overtly feminist, had women’s empowerment themes. The whole notion of what was happening in the women’s movement like the level of support women were providing to each other, understanding of their plight having been an opposed group for so long – all of those things and how they were addressing them were very appealing to me. So, I was like “Oh, this is interesting what they’re doing. This is exciting!” Then, seeing that through the lens of feminist art in the 1980s like Miriam Schapiro and Cheri Gaulke… There was just something about what was happening that felt resonant to me.
And then, I wasn’t aware of this until I got more into my work, but my own father was kind of unusual as I see it now. He was gentle, soft-spoken, very relational, and just passed on a legacy of being more available in the family than I subsequently learned of others’ experiences. You know, your dad is just your dad. So, you don’t really know what other people consider to be normal. You just know what you know. He was an older dad. He was 43 when I was born, which is these days more common. But back then, he was way older than a lot of the other dads.
So, I think that kind of prepared me to think about redefining manhood and masculinity and those issues. It kind of prepared me for that orientation. Years later, I ran groups for men acting abusively in their primary relationships. Batterer intervention groups. It was only after listening to man after man after man in these groups talking about how hard their relationships were with their fathers and how distant they were and in many cases how abusive they were that I got more than a glimmer as to what a gift I had be given with my dad. And you know I realize that’s not the kind of thing that I could easily talk about with them, because it was just so foreign to their experience.
David Newstead: Did a lot of these experiences inspire the launch of Voice Male? I know it was originally created through an organization at the time, but you’ve been doing this for 30 years now. So, there’s a lot of personal initiative that goes into that I would imagine.
Rob Okun: When I decided I wanted to be more intentional about my involvement with “men’s work”, that orientation towards feminist art and towards being an involved father that was just part of the thread of my daily life. But it wasn’t my work at that point. You know, I was maybe doing some radio commentaries about dads. But it really wasn’t until I became actively involved with the Men’s Resource Connection (MRC), which we renamed a couple times. It wasn’t until I became really involved with the MRC that I looked at the funky little organizational newsletter and having started my work life as a journalist, I saw the potential for this to play a larger role than just being a publication of a center with mostly activities of and around what was going on locally. I saw the potential for it to be more of a voice.
There were a couple of years where I was involved peripherally and then closer and closer. And then, 20 something years ago, I started editing it. And then, it’ll be 10 years in 2018 since I began publishing it independently.
David Newstead: Over the years, what kind of reactions have you gotten to the publication since it takes a pro-feminist stance?
Rob Okun: You know, a lot of people when they discover Voice Male are happy to see it like women who are involved in women’s activism. A lot of my colleagues would say that there’s always a happy surprise when women discover what some men have been doing for a really long time. Then, there are men who range from skeptical to positive. Occasionally, there’s some strong negative reaction. The term manginas gets thrown around as a slur to describe men who are promoting the feminist agenda and are able to articulate the benefits of feminism for men. Of the people who find us and read us and are involved, there’s more of a positive response. But there’s certainly are those members of the men’s rights movement or any of that aggrieved part of the white male population that has become so much of a discussion point since 2016 who are pretty angry and upset at feminist men. I just got something this past week in response to an op-ed I wrote about mass shooters that just talks about how we keep missing the most obvious common denominator among all the shooters and this guy just really laid into me. It’s pretty nasty, saying that you’re anti-male basically. And it so misses the point of what the work is.
We’re really pro-male. We don’t hate men. We value men. We appreciate men. The reason we’re doing this work is for our sons and our grandsons and our brothers and fathers. And it’s for our mothers and sisters and daughters. This movement has been unfolding since the late 1970s. And it’s a pretty substantial body of work if we look at the number of books and some of the films that have been made and some of the activist projects that have been engaged in. But on the back of my book says “One of the most important social justice movements you may never have heard of.”
David Newstead: With the anthology and Voice Male in general, you’re providing this platform for different men’s voices. You’re seeing this cross-section of different experiences. Since you’ve been involved in this for a while, what do you think the future of masculinity is?
Rob Okun: Being a glass-half-full person, I’d like to say that what’s happening now will be looked back on as the beginning of this shift of men redefining what masculinity is. I don’t know how long that’s going to take. And I don’t know how many men who are in positions of power are going to see the value of relinquishing that power or sharing that power in such a way that it makes it clear that the old definitions of what it is to “be a man” are suddenly going to change. But I think that there’s a portal that this moment has opened that any man who actually is brave enough to walk through can see what their life will look like that doesn’t presume their privilege and doesn’t presume their entitlement. You know, some men are naturally fearful of what any of these new developments could mean. For a lot of us who have been doing this work, it’s not surprising what’s been played out here. What’s surprising is how surprised the media and the pundits are about women’s experiences. If anyone would be willing to listen and take them seriously, then they would have said “Of course, this is what’s happening.”
So, we’re in a moment. We’re in a moment and it won’t really completely open up as this transformative moment until (or unless) more men are willing to give up the privilege and the entitlement that they have simply by the luck of the draw by arriving on the planet in a male identified body that gave them extra privilege and extra entitlement and created a very slanted and unleveled playing field. If they’re willing to give that up and risk what their life might look like if they redefine their ideas about power and equality, then this glimpse into a more egalitarian future offers some very optimistic scenarios. But I don’t know if we can get there. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there. Ironically, the most powerful men can afford to give up privilege and power, because they can still keep some of their privilege and some of their power and a lot of their money and still create change. They can still be change makers. So, we’re not even in the first chapter. We’re in the prologue of this story. But the fact that women are being believed, that’s a totally different cultural moment than when Anita Hill was speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.
The majority of men are not behaving in a toxic way. I mean, that’s a powerful word meaning poisonous. There’s a lot of men who are confused. The landscape has shifted. The rise of women does not mean the fall of men. The rise of women means that there’s an opportunity for there to be a rise of men. And I think that whatever the portal that we walk through as men whether it’s being a coach or a father or a mentor, all of that is up for reevaluation. Seeing men with lots of power and lots of influence out in the world being brought down in this moment is not in my mind a sign of toxic masculinity as much as it is a sign of a hopeful moment for men with the will to change. We’ve all been socialized to be men with a message that undermines and compromises the full expression of our humanity. We can do better. The ways that a lot of men have been acting out in our culture have shown some of the worst of what we can be. We don’t hear about the coaches and the mentors and younger activists working on campuses. We need to be looking for those examples as we go forward and they’re there! There’s been a movement that’s been articulating these messages for over 40 years. And it’s time that we come out of the desert and into the communities that we’re living in and saying that this is the moment for men to change.
David Newstead: If you could give advice to younger men about how to be a better man and how to improve themselves, what would you tell them?
Rob Okun: I’ll paraphrase my father. You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so you should listen more than you talk. So, you should listen more and speak less. You should not physically invade space. That would be one thing. And another would be to look for opportunities to have conversations with other men that are deeper and more meaningful than talking about sports or politics. Look for opportunities to connect and go deeper in your emotional life. And for those who identify as straight, don’t look just look to your female partner as your source of emotional support. See what it would look like to have men in your life who you could turn to.
In the latest issue of Voice Male, there’s an interview with an older and a younger men’s group. And the older men’s group has been meeting for like over 30 years once a month for the whole day on a Sunday, which is kind of extraordinary when you think about it. But those men have been facing each other through all kinds of life changes: deaths, divorces. They’ve been there for each other. So, having the courage to find your emotional center and to plumb it and to go there. I think that some of our language is gendered and that while the word courage might be gendered male and nurture would be gendered female. I think that some of the most courageous things that a man can do would be opening up to his own vulnerability and thinking about it and looking at those places in his personal life where he’s shutdown.
You know, we all arrive on the planet with the same potential to be nurturing and loving and compassionate. And those words are not female words. They’re human words. And that’s where I think we’re going. The bridge for expressing our full humanity has to start with those of us who male identify going deeper and not being afraid of that. When you see this epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assaults, you have to ask yourself what is the need, what is the insecurity, what is the problem that is going on with these men? What would it mean to challenge those negative behaviors and to hold each other accountable? I think some of the richest and most important conversations could be entered be into by men. We can’t say to women “You organize these workshops and you organize these panels and we’ll just show up.” Doesn’t work like that. We’re going to have to find within our own community of men enough leadership and enough risk-taking to address these issues at the gym. At weekly pickup basketball. Over beers. We need to check in with each other. It may require college administrators to get involved or faith communities. And it may require creative and innovative managers or Human Resource people. And it may just require some of us to say if no one else is doing it, I have to step up.
By David Michael Newstead.
Nikki van der Gaag is a gender expert and author whose latest book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Feminism, is a wide-ranging examination of the issues impacting women’s rights around the world. Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Nikki about her work and about feminism today. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: What do you hope people will get out of this book? And why do you think it is significant right now?
Nikki van der Gaag: I did a No Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights almost 10 years ago. And I said I’ve got to completely re-do it, because the political and social and economic framing of the way that we’re looking at gender has changed so radically. We needed something which tried to look at the way that feminists are responding to the world in the way that it’s changing. Both in terms of the things that have improved and will continue to improve and in terms of the things have and will get worse.
David Newstead: There’s really a wealth of material in this book and you cover a lot. You have conversations with people, you talk about sex workers, and climate change. That’s a wide range. What are some of things that stood out the most to you, while you were writing it?
Nikki van der Gaag: Good question. And a difficult one to answer. Inevitably when you’re writing something short, you’re really condensing things down. But I also wanted to make it readable. I wanted the statistics in there, but I also wanted the stories. I didn’t want this to be something that’s only read on an academic course. I wanted it to be read by people who are interested in the issue from all walks of life, men as well as women. So, I was trying to write it in a grounded and accessible way.
The reason I wanted to do it was because I felt really excited by young feminisms and those from the Global South feminisms that were growingly vocal and growingly public, saying some really interesting and different things. In addition, in a context where women have clearly made huge gains in lots of different ways, there has been such a pushback from conservative agendas all over the world. I’ve got Indian friends who are talking about what’s happening in India with Modi and it’s not actually that different from what’s happening with Trump. So, I wanted to take a global perspective. I wanted examples from lots of different countries.
But I also felt really strongly that the stories and the way that things have changed began to form a pattern as I was writing. For example, the way that conflicts within feminisms sometimes are presented as a negative thing and women pulling apart. It can be. But actually when you’re doing a book like this, you get such a sense of the diversity. I think that very diversity is really exciting and vibrant. It means we’re dealing with the difficult things as well as the easy things. And that really excited me. Whether that’s between younger and older women, whether that’s between Global North and Global South, or black, minority, ethnic and white. The kind of vibrancy of it I think is exciting. And it is the diversity itself that builds a strong movement that is capable of discussion and dissent.
Having done the Feminism and Men book, I did think about doing a whole chapter on men, because it seems to me that is absolutely key. But in the end, I tried to weave it in. It’s the old story of if you put something in a chapter on its own, then it doesn’t become part of the fabric of what you’re doing. The way men are getting involved in gender equality has been something I’ve been exploring for about ten years. I wanted to bring that into this in a different sort of way.
Then, I was trying to think about: what are the main threats to feminism and women’s rights? Consumerism and capitalism, conflict, climate change, and the broader agenda of religious conservatism, which isn’t just about Islam and isn’t just about Trump seem to me to be absolutely key – not just in terms of the rise of misogyny, but the rise in intolerance and violence more generally as well.
David Newstead: I remember the line about “our diversity being our strength” coming up. And I liked it quite a bit just because I don’t think I had ever seen it articulated that way. Because usually like you’re saying it’s mentioned as a sign of lack of consensus, when really it’s a sign of everyone being engaged with diverse opinions.
Nikki van der Gaag: Yes, they are difficult discussions. For example, getting involved in some of the debates around the women’s marches in January. In some countries, they were quite bitter about the fact that in many northern countries this was organized by white middle-class women and where’s the black, minority, and ethnic equal participation? But actually, I think we learn far more from the areas where it’s difficult than from the areas where it’s not.
David Newstead: I’m sure this stands in contrast with some of your previous books, but one thing that stood out to me is you talk about online abuse that women and prominent feminists face. You know that existed 10 years ago, but not to the extent it does now and I was hoping you could say more about that.
Nikki van der Gaag: It has existed, but it’s booming now. I think it does put a lot of women off. If you’re out there in a public space talking about feminism, you know you’re going to get attacked. When I did my TEDx talk, it got on some horrible Men’s Rights website and I stopped looking at the comments, because they’re so abusive. So, you either stop looking at them. Or you try to fight back. In the UK, for example, the historian Mary Beard had a lot of abuse on Twitter. I thought she was really brave. She didn’t ignore it. What she did was to contact the people who were saying these horrible things and I actually she met with them and talked to them and engaged with them.
Online abuse, particularly for young women, is just terrifying. How do you separate online and offline abuse, because there’s clearly a link there as well? I don’t know if there has been a rise in violence against women, but there certainly hasn’t been a decrease. It seems to be often increasingly accepted and violent and part of a culture of intolerance. And I don’t know what you do about it. There’s been lots of lobbying of Facebook and Twitter to monitor better. And I think Facebook just employed a lot more people to do that kind of monitoring job. But in the end, unless you actually work with people so they don’t make those kind of abusive comments then you’re shutting the door after the horse has bolted. That’s why I think working with young people, particularly young men, is so important.
I was on a board of a small NGO here in the UK called Great Men Value Women, which worked with young men in schools and I went along to watch them do a couple of sessions. Just really interesting, because they were getting these young men who were between 15 and 17 to think about what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. They did an exercise cutting out pictures of women from magazines and getting them to discuss it. Once they started talking about, often for the first time, they were really shocked at the ubiquity of naked women, women being used to sell things, or used in provocative positions. So you’ve got that bit of it. In addition, pornography seems to be increasingly driving lots of young men’s (and young women’s too perhaps) ideas about what sex and relationships are about. And we just have to work with that. We have to be open and honest and discuss it.
David Newstead: Two combine the two strands of your response, I don’t know if you’re familiar with revenge porn at all?
Nikki van der Gaag: Indeed.
David Newstead: A friend of mine got revenge porn’ed once by her ex-husband from like six years earlier. Anyway, it was very dark and not a good experience. But the fact is that online abuse can take multiple forms and it’s hard to separate out what is an actual threat from an attempt to slander and demean you. You know, is it somebody just rattling off? Or is it something more serious than that? And how can it affect your life?
Nikki van der Gaag: There’s a group of men’s rights activists that are just out and out misogynists and horrendous. Then, there’s a group that I’ve tried to engage with globally and in the U.K. who would say that they are not misogynistic, but not feminists. I remember one tweet, somebody saying “I don’t know why women are making such a fuss about their body’s being objectified. Here’s an example of a man’s body being used in an advert.”
But what they do is they completely lose the hundreds of years of objectification and abuse that women have had to face. And they completely ignore the current relationships into which that one image is slotted. You can’t take one event and just disassociate from everything else that’s gone before and everything that’s happening everywhere else. I think often that’s what happens. Revenge porn, is kind of angry men too, isn’t it? Trying to take revenge on the people they can most take revenge on.
David Newstead: Last time we spoke, I asked you about what you thought of the state of feminism in the world. And what I’d like to ask now is, I’m curious what you think the state of patriarchy is in the world today?
Nikki van der Gaag: One of the difficulties of doing a book like this is ending up making vast generalizations about what’s happening. Because what’s happening in a rural village in Indonesia is so incredibly different from what’s happening in New York or in Kigali.
But I’m still an eternal optimist. That’s partly because I have the privilege of doing the kind of work, which takes me around the world meeting the most amazing women and men who are very aware of what we mean by patriarchy and are really concretely trying to put into place to challenge it and change it and questioning their own power and privilege. Meeting those kind of people all over the world gives me a huge amount of hope.
But that said, if you look at the kind of structures that are still in place… You know next year in the UK, it’s going to be a hundred years since women got the vote. And we still have less than only around 30 percent of women in parliament. Patriarchy is still pretty stuck in there and that’s why I feel it’s so important for men to challenge it as well, because women have been doing it relatively successfully for quite a long time. But we also need to work with men in power as well as women. It’s still alive and kicking, I reckon.
David Newstead: As you detail in the book, you know you talk about all the progress that’s been made with girls’ education over the years. So maybe, that’s a lot of the seeds of future progress.
Nikki van der Gaag: I think it is if you also make sure that you look at structural barriers. Thinking about some of the girls I met in Pakistan a couple years ago, they were living in a very rural area and a few of them were going to the local boys school, because there wasn’t a girls’ secondary school. I could see that they might want to grow up to be leaders and teachers and have these dreams for the future. But actually, the society they were living in and structures and institutions around them were not going to allow them to do that.
I’ve been quite critical of the discussions around simply empowering and supporting girls whether that’s through education or in others ways without looking at the wider patriarchal structures.
I remember being invited into one project that had been started in Morocco. There was a young woman that this organization had worked with who was fantastic and had really challenged what was going on around her. And basically, her dad had beat her up. He said “I’m not having my daughter speak to me like that,” because that wasn’t the kind of cultural ambiance where she was growing up. So, we absolutely look at the structural issues, patriarchal issues, and we need to look at questions of power as well as giving girls education and knowledge and working with boys.
David Newstead: Especially considering everything that’s happened even since you wrote this, where does feminism go from here?
Nikki van der Gaag: That’s a good question. I think for the moment: more of the same. But my point I made at the beginning about diversity becomes even more important. Sounds like Star Wars, but there are forces out there who are desperate to divide people whether that’s by gender or race or class or geography. What the Women’s March was trying to do, not always successfully, was to bring people together. So, that’s one of the things that I’m working on in Oxfam, to think about the fact that working with women overseas for example is not so different from working with marginalized women in the US or the UK.
Some of the issues are the same. Bringing people together feels like a really important task at the moment, even if that’s bringing people together who don’t agree with each other. You know, that whole idea about building bridges and countering the divides that we see and talking to the people who we don’t agree with. You must be struggling with that in the U.S. We’re certainly struggling with that around the Brexit decision here: trying to understand why people make the decisions they do. And There are reasons why people vote the way that they do and think they way that they do.
I think the really scary thing in the last six months here in the UK is how much more acceptable it’s become to say the really nasty things that people were probably thinking, but now they’re saying. That kind of openly voiced intolerance and misogyny is really scary and those of us who are more progressive need to find ways to talk to those people in the same way that historian talked to her Twitter trolls. So, I think the biggest task for feminists today is building bridges, with each other and with those we disagree with. That is the way our movement will grow.
By David Michael Newstead.
The NoNonsense Guide to Feminism by Nikki van der Gaag covers everything from sex workers to LGBTQ rights, advances in girls’ education to the history of feminism. And among its criticisms of patriarchy and capitalism, here are two highlights that stuck out to me.
Even from a neoliberal point of view, there are few arguments for not pushing a feminist agenda. In monetary terms alone, the International Labour Organization points out that the barriers which hold back women ‘also hold back economic growth and development in countries with large gender gaps.’ A McKinsey Global Institute report puts a figure on this – it finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. In India, ‘gender equality would have a larger economic impact than in any other region in the world – $700 billion of added GDP in 2025,’ but for this to happen, comprehensive change is needed, including ‘raising women’s participation in India’s labor force by 10 percentage points between now and 2025, bringing 68 million more women into the labor force. This will require bridging both economic and social gender gaps.’
She also wrote:
Feminism seems to provoke particular fury online. Perhaps this is because it now has such a public profile; women who stand up or speak out somehow become the focus of men’s (and other women’s) rage. As British writer Laurie Penny has pointed out, ‘the people sending these messages are often perfectly ordinary men holding down perfectly ordinary jobs.’ She cites a particularly vile and violent comment that was written by a Richard White, ‘who lived in Sidcup, outside London, with a wife and kids, and just happened to run a hate website directed at women and minorities’.
By David Michael Newstead.
With women’s rights at the forefront of politics, I’ve been trying to reach out to different people I know: to ask questions, learn more, and to get their perspectives on gender issues in America. Recently, I had the chance to speak with my friend, Charity Sperringer, about the role feminism has played in her life. Charity is a committed feminist living in Washington, D.C. where she’s started a feminist book club to delve into many of these issues. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: When and how did you first become a feminist?
Charity Sperringer: First of all, I am in no way an expert to all things pertaining to feminism. If you asked me prior to the book club’s humble beginnings in December 2014, I may have not considered myself a feminist. Now that I know what being a feminist entails (thanks to the diversity of texts and open discussions from the book club members!), I would say I’ve only recently been the feminist I want to be – the one who advocates for feminism beyond my own personal gains.
I have been entering traditionally male dominated spaces since I was young because I didn’t understand the typical female trajectory that society expects from women. Some examples include taking advanced level statistics among a class of males because I knew that having a woman question statistics was rare in panel discussions and of course playing video games and watching animes with my brothers while growing up. This is partial to having been raised with expectations similar to my older brother and partial to being told by society to be someone that I wanted/would like to challenge. That’s one way of looking at feminism, in a personal way.
In college I dated a man who was vocal that he was a feminist. I didn’t know what that meant for a man to do that. He wanted to fight for equality for all races, genders, and sexualities. He also worked for the ACLU and dated women before me who were passionate about acting for others. That’s another way to look at feminism and the way I aspire to be.
I can’t forget about entering the private sector and leaving the non-profit sector. That’s when I started the book club. That was a whammy for realizing work place inequality. The book club was a safe space to discuss whatever we wanted. I was immersed with mostly women previously at non-profits, then I jumped into an area dominated by men in leadership and unfortunately with ulterior motives. I still work in a mostly male dominated environment and am constantly presented with scenarios that are laughably about me being a female rather than my abilities or qualities.
David: Do you feel like that becoming a feminist has changed you as a person? If so, how? Are there any examples from your personal or professional life that you’d feel comfortable sharing?
Charity: Yes, owning the label “feminist” has changed me. I have more open discussions about gender, race, equality, access, and history with coworkers, family members, my boyfriend (also a feminist) and friends. I’m referred to as the liberal or the feminist at work now and am completely comfortable with it – whereas before I was hesitant to accept it because I associated it with women who knew more about being a female than I did. Now that I’ve built this identity, I have former colleagues from school ask me questions about impacts on women of policies and I have coworkers who send me events and news articles they think would be of interest to me. It just so happens that it’s a great time to be a feminist! Making it ok to be labeled as a feminist is a bizarre step towards the goal that I’ll take. Letting people know that feminism entails equality in addition to WHY with examples of inequality to illustrate, and what the next steps are – this is more meaningful. As I said, I’m no expert in feminism and I hope other people don’t feel that they have to be to consider themselves as a feminist. If I have to be that person in the office to encourage dialogue, I’ll be that person. Every office should have that person.
David: What do you think are the best ways of addressing negative and toxic forms of masculinity?
Charity: Some great ways to address negative and toxic forms of masculinity are to address them head-on. This is something I admit need to do more so at the workplace when I’m confronted with scenarios of male colleague using language to belittle me because I’m a female (calling me “sexy”, referring to me as “little girl”, laughing at my female colleague for getting harassed on the street as a “china doll”, and more). I’m also trying to be more patient to the males in my office who defer to violence as the answer to understand why they approach difficult scenarios this way. I’ll let you know how this method works. Talking to your male partner, father, brother about negative and toxic forms of masculinity is also important so that they can carry these conversations back to their male buds and relatives. Lastly, accepting males when they aren’t traditionally masculine and letting them know you appreciate their qualities is important. Everyone just wants validation.
David: In closing, what’s the main challenge or challenges confronting feminism right now and how should they be addressed?
Charity: Can I have a less weighty question? Haha. I think it’s pretty basic and not even substantial to the critical principles of it – getting people on board that it means equality and not special privileges for women. And that you can be a Republican and also a feminist. Kind of like you can be a Democrat or a Republican and think that trafficking humans is wrong. Unfortunately “feminism” denotes “female” and starts fun, circular and ceaseless conversations about why feminism doesn’t mean equality among everyone. How to address this? Discussing inequality can be enough to get people on board with tackling it. And then you can say GOTCHA! You’re a feminist! But also, getting males into the conversation of feminism.