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A panel of five millennial feminist activists, artists, and writers drew a crowd of more than 200 to the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on Thursday for a panel on contemporary feminism.
The Institute convened “Feminisms Now” in honor of the Schlesinger Library’s 75th Anniversary. The event highlighted how feminism has changed over time. The five panelists discussed the “intersectional” nature of 21st century feminism and reflected on their relationship with “second wave” feminist scholars and activists.
The sold-out event featured poet and screenwriter Fatimah Asghar, activists Dana Bolger and Emi Koyama, Monmouth University professor and author Melissa Febos, and cultural critic Kimberly N. Foster ’11.
History Professor Jane Kamensky, who helped organize the event, said organizers wanted to have an “intergenerational” conversation about the “plural nature” of contemporary feminism.
“We wanted to represent the variety of voices. The combination of art and activism was important,” Kamensky said.
She added the Schlesinger Library had hoped to get a young conservative women’s rights activist to join the panel, but their effort was unsuccessful as potential speakers declined the invitations.
All five panelists emphasized that feminism today is more conscious of “intersectionality” than it has been in the past. Intersectional feminism treats inequality as a web, with women situated in different places in that web based on different racial and socioeconomic identities as well as gender.
Koyama, a trans activist and writer, discussed how intersectionality can complicate old debates, using the example of who can use public bathrooms.
“In this debate about bathrooms, we think about trans people, we don’t think about the homeless people and people using drugs in public bathrooms because there are no other safe places to do so,” Koyama said.
“There are so many signs around Seattle where the sign says ‘all are welcome’ and then right next to that, ‘bathrooms are for customers only,’” she added. “We’re only thinking about whether privileged white trans women can use these bathrooms, but we need our public spaces reimagined radically, not just the genders.”
Women and Gender Studies Professor Robert F. Reid-Pharr, who moderated the panel, called Koyama’s idea “remarkable.”
Panelists also paid homage to older feminists who paved the way for feminists today.
“Citation is so important to me,” Foster said. “We are not the first people to do this, and while we’re altering our conversation in a very unique way, it’s also building on the shoulders of the people who came before.”
Activists on the panel spoke about how technology has changed feminism. Both Bolger and Foster started their activism online, where they said they could engage with women of different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Audience members said they liked hearing from diverse panelists, many of whom were different from speakers the Library typically hosts.
“It’s so important to provide space for people who are outside of who normally speaks at Harvard and is represented at these events,” Schlesinger Library employee Nikoleta Sremac said. “I’m so overwhelmed. It’s so thought-provoking, each panelist’s experience.”
The Schlesinger Library presented the event in partnership with VIDA, an organization that advocates for gender parity in the publishing industry.
—Staff writer Cecilia R. D’Arms can be reached at cecilia.d’firstname.lastname@example.org.
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