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How Can Feminism Transform the Future?

 "Feminism Today" at LACC's Da Vinci Gallery | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.

The day before L.A.'s run-off election, the Da Vinci Gallery at L.A. City College (LACC) hosted "Feminism Today," a conversation initiated by three CalArts graduate students, made possible by the LACC undergraduates who run the art space, and led by multi-disciplinary artist Faith Wilding.

Rooted in the history of Feminism, and using Feminist tools for deep talking and listening, the conversation articulated many questions. Among them: What will bring about solidarity and change? What do we need to unlearn? What do you do with political disappointment?"

The timing was coincidental, and Wendy Greuel went unmentioned, but the conversation nonetheless put the local election into historic and ideological context. For while Feminism made Greuel's mayoral bid possible, Faith Wilding's "political disappointment" had little to do with electoral failure; her "political" rejects tinkering in favor of transformation.

The radical transformation that seemed to be "just around the corner" in 1972, when Faith and her cohort in the newly established CalArts Feminist Art Program made Womanhouse in Hollywood, has failed to materialize. Undeniable gains have been made, but the structural oppressions of patriarchy remain in place. And perhaps -- given that the number of American women in prison is now increasing at nearly double the rate of men -- they are grown stronger.

Meital Yaniv, who co-initiated "Feminism Today" with her CalArts fellows Eve LaFountain and Ali Kheradyar, told me that their primary purpose "was to have a conversation using feminist process outside of our 'turf.'" (Declaration of interest: I played a very minor role in co-organizing the event.) She added: "I think we achieved more then we expected, I think it was made clear that Feminism is an issue that is still relevant, and that it's relevant to everybody."

Having had little direct involvement with the Feminist movement myself (though it, of course, has been fundamentally involved with my life and its opportunities), I went to the conversation with a specific question about relevance: what tools does Feminism offer today that will help transform the future?

Artist Faith Wilding at "Feminism Today" | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.
Artist Faith Wilding at "Feminism Today" | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.

Faith Wilding's initial contribution ranged expeditiously over a century and a half of the radical histories of feminism, which, she said, "go way beyond trying to get the vote. That was a cop out, a buy off, a way to silence women and the very radical anti-patriarchy agenda of early feminism."

The silencing occurred again, she said, after New York's Redstockings "originated the feminist process of consciousness raising for their own political education," and began talking "around a room." "Everyone spoke without judgment;" the question "how do you feel?" was "followed by evaluation." In this way "feelings lead to theory and action."

The action was prodigious: Shulamith Firestone wrote "The Dialectic of Sex;" Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics" "lay down the glove to patriarchy;" Roe v. Wade held unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion to be unconstitutional; the activist landscape birthed the first Women's, Black, and Chicano Studies departments opened in US universities; and the Woman's Building opened in Los Angeles.

Kate Millett's "Great Lady" installed for the fifth anniversary of the Woman's Building, Spring Street, Los Angeles (1978). | Image from the "Women's Building Archive, Millard Sheets Library at the Otis College of Art and Design."
Kate Millett's "Great Lady" installed for the fifth anniversary of the Woman's Building, Spring Street, Los Angeles (1978). | Image from the "Women's Building Archive, Millard Sheets Library at the Otis College of Art and Design."

It was period of "organizing and tumult." Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, and status quo fought back. "Our language got tweaked and shoved," Faith explained, "an argument got swept under the carpet."

"Shulamith Firestone died last year," she continued, "probably of starvation." "She felt -- and many others of her generation feel -- that the Radical Feminists of the 60s and 70s had failed." "At her [Firestone's] funeral Kate Millett said we failed to support each other enough, to sustain and care for each other. But the actions of these women changed our country."

Around 40 people gathered at LACC to consider what Feminism is and means today. Unusually for L.A., in my experience, but unsurprising given the degrees of privilege represented by a private art school in Valencia and a public community college in Hollywood -- the group was relatively diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and class.

For LACC student Angel Alvarado, who runs the Da Vinci Gallery with Alfredo Diaz and Jay Kim, "Feminism, especially coming from the perspective of the male gender, is still a very touchy subject." Described by one participant, Feminism is "the 'F' word." "Young men feel like it has nothing to do with them," said another, "and young women say all those battles are fought, I don't need Feminism." ("Until they need an abortion" interjected a third voice quietly.) "Maybe we need to rebrand it?"

"Feminism Today" at LACC's Da Vinci Gallery | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.
"Feminism Today" at LACC's Da Vinci Gallery | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.

"I'm adorable," said one of the young women in the room. "The people with galleries and spaces are men, so I'm adorable. I use my sexuality. I get what I want. I perform. I go." "It's like life in Eastern Europe," said Penka Skachkova: "Women focused on their appearance as the only way to get ahead -- what else are their opportunities, how else were they to express themselves?" "We are flooded with sexualized images." "There's a disconnect with my sister and her friends." "On the one hand these girls are fierce, they don't hold themselves back. But they are also acting in ways they don't define, in a script they don't write."

Understanding that pre-written scripts exist, and having words that mean what we need them to mean, are pre-conditions for crafting new scripts together. "What," asked Ali, "is a language for Feminism today?"

"People get hung up on what words mean," said a young woman recently moved to L.A. from a Native American reservation. "Six-months ago I hadn't heard of cisgender, or LGBT, or LGBTQIA." So many "fractionalized identities," said another. "If our words and terms are coopted by the main stream media, what do we have left?"

Said another: "I'm from South Central; we don't have access to education to translate personal feelings into words. I take it back home, we understand." "There are different types of literacy."

"Self education was a massive part of the civil rights movement. Learning how to organize ourselves, how to build a movement, learning how to analyze the political reality of our time."

"We need to create our own educational structures." "The Farm Workers Union built tools for language and conversation." "There's Friere."

"The amount of negotiation needed to get the big anti-war marches together; it took months. SNICK wouldn't march with the Pacifists, and then another group wouldn't march if the Quakers were there."

"Feminism Today" at LACC's Da Vinci Gallery | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.
"Feminism Today" at LACC's Da Vinci Gallery | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.

"America is arming itself to the teeth...so much fear."

"Fear pervading culture expresses itself in hate crimes, arming ourselves, and fearing to come together in groups."

"Sometimes I think the whole world is just one stupid fruit and yoghurt store," said Jay Kim, who worked in one for two years. "The Latino people got maybe fifty cents less than the Korean students. We were supposed to be glad." "We need to draw a real line between 'them' and 'us'. We need to draw a real line, between people who have $8,000 a week, and people who make $7.50 an hour. Then our differences become diversity."

Artist and CalArts faculty Dont Rhine spoke about a demonstration that morning in support of the L.A. Human Rights Collective, at which demonstrators were "walking round in a circle with air horns in front of City Hall calling out: "We are Deborah Burton."

Deborah Burton is a sixty-year old African American woman and long time L.A. Community Action Network organizer who lives on Skid Row, who has just been charged with three counts of assault for her alleged use of an air horn during a 2011 protest against the monthly Skid Row walks organized by the local B.I.D.

The demonstration, he said, was "performance art, a feminist action." Asked to clarify, Rhine explained that the action was the "production of a space of care, with a commitment to fierceness. Not trying to dissolve differences, and not just a place of struggle. L.A. does terrible things to people who protest for and as the most vulnerable people in the City,[but] spaces for conversation are opened all the time."

Alfredo Diaz reflected: "I didn't know what to expect coming here. These feminists...my take is that we are all humans. Not having tolerance for people's differences is what separates us. But I come here and everyone is talking about tolerance." ("Yay, you're a Feminist," called out a girl beside him.)

And someone else said: "I like bell hooks definition of Feminism that's more about civil rights and equality, and less about women specifically."

In conversation, "Feminism Today" | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.
In conversation, "Feminism Today" | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.

Meital tells me that she, Eve, and Ali, in collaboration with LACC students and faculty Laurel Paley, will continue the conversations at LACC, and "hope to reach more schools and communities, and start building a web of shared interest and concern."

"Feminism Today" held an abundance of differences in terms of gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual identification, and class; and there were numerous possibilities for tension. As Rhine later summarized: "Class conflict was not only brought up in the content of our discussion but it was openly performed in voices, bodies, and desires." I wonder how those tensions will play out as the dialog continues, but on its first iteration, as described by Angel Alvarado, "Feminism Today "made a welcoming space to say your piece without judgment."

"I went into this talk," Angel continued, "with little prior knowledge about feminism as a whole, other than basic facts...I came out of it with a greater thirst to explore the topic on a bigger scale."

"Feminism Today" at LACC's Da Vinci Gallery | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.
"Feminism Today" at LACC's Da Vinci Gallery | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Penka Skachkova.

I too left the Da Vinci Gallery wanting to know more. Yes, because of the explicit content of the conversation - as Penka reflected: "what happened at LACC is especially important now within the current context when feminism and women's studies have been under major attack." But largely because its participants and its process made a space for difference to coexist in ways that might begin to draw Jay's "real line."

In that way the conversation answered some of its own questions. How do we learn "to organize our selves...build a movement...[and] analyze the political reality of our time?" By doing it, like this, together; by simultaneously recognizing the variety of our experiences, and drawing a line of solidarity across the walls of difference that power uses to divide and rule.

Faith Wilding described "Feminism Today" as: "a beginning and an opening of a possibility of a productive inquiry." "Feminism isn't over," she said, "and neither is feminist practice." For Meital: "it's just about continuation."

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