Jodi: Would you tell us about yourself in relation to your activism?
Jenn: I am Jenn Steinfeld, the Executive Director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. I have been an activist and agitator for social justice for more than 20 years, and have a commitment to working in an intersectional, anti-racist, liberationist framework. I believe in the power of democratic participation and civic engagement to make government work for us all. As a visibly queer woman, I have not always felt welcome in feminist and women’s spaces, so I am excited about being a visible part of the local women’s movement.
Jodi: When did you first identify as a feminist, and how do you define feminism?
Jenn: I’m the product of a wonderful and narrow point in history I like to call the “Free to Be You and Me” Generation. We fall between Gen X and Gen Y. I was raised to be feminist— to believe that women had the same inherent value as men and deserve to be fully participatory in the workplace, government, and community as well as the family. My mom worked hard to help my sister and me recognize and deconstruct rigid gender roles. I think she feels it worked a little too well in my case, but I believe her commitment to the mantra “girls can do anything” has allowed me to live comfortably in my own skin, identifying as a queer butch woman with a variant gender presentation. Now I live in a world with a diversity of genders, so I would say that I define feminism as the belief that all people are inherently equal, regardless of gender, while recognizing that the gender expectations with which we are raised and the ways that people treat us based on their perception of our gender have a huge impact on how we see ourselves and the world. I also am committed to an intersectional feminism, meaning that I try to look at the many ways that privilege and oppression work together, and to find ways to elevate women that include women of color and trans women and women with disabilities and undocumented women, etc. The feminist movement has (often deservedly) gotten a bad rap for only addressing issues of importance to women with race and class privilege, and I am committed to opening that agenda up and to working to recognize the ways my own privilege shapes my thinking.
Jodi: Where do you find feminism in Rhode Island today?
Jenn: I find feminism everywhere in Rhode Island today. I think we are at an exciting time for gender liberation, and we have two large populations pushing to move a feminist agenda: the aging Boomers, who see the unfinished promise of the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], and the up-and-coming Millennials, who have an unprecedented expectation of equity and equality in their families and their workplaces. I also find a lot of “undercover feminism” in the sense that there are many organizations that are living feminism without necessarily centering the label. For example, I’m on the board of Girls Rock! RI, and our mission is to “use music creation and critical thinking to foster empowerment, collaborative relationships, and the development of healthy identities in women and girls.” We do identify as a feminist organization, but participants don’t have to, and “the F-word” isn’t in our mission or vision. Or the PVD Lady Project, whose mission is to “connect, inspire, and showcase awesome women doing amazing things”—they don’t define themselves as a feminist networking group, but they are elevating and supporting one another in incredible ways. Rhode Island NOW is also an inspiring source of local, vibrant feminist action; their Traveling Book Club features current writing on issues that impact women and they have a young, political cohort that continuously impresses me. I am not aware of much organizational active queer feminism right now, but Rhode Island Pride and Anthony Maselli (Mr Gay RI 2014) are incredibly intersectional in their approach to community. If you haven’t seen Anthony talk about the 2015 Pride theme indivisible, click over right now: http://www.rifuture.org/indivisible-ri-pride-is-radicalized.html.
Jodi: How can we, as a community, keep feminism alive and thriving?
Jenn: This is a struggle for all social movements. I think feminism is alive and thriving, and I think the label is coming back. I also think feminist issues vary across communities and generations, and we all sometimes struggle with positions that are not our own. For instance, I had an argument with my mother about young educated women leaving the workforce to stay home with their kids. Her position was, we fought for the right to work while pregnant, with kids, after getting married, etc., and these young women are squandering those gains. And I had a few thoughts. First, my understanding was that feminism fought for the right of women to make their own choices and have more autonomy, and therefore we should support women making decisions even when we don’t agree with them, or wish they would make different ones. Second, women of color and women with less economic privilege have always worked outside the home out of necessity, so there are some racist and classist issues with her viewpoint. And lastly, that because of cost and availability of childcare, many people are “choosing” to stay home because they can’t afford to do anything else. So, if we want to see women staying in the workforce we need to advocate for things like paid leave, affordable child care, living wages, etc. To keep feminism thriving, we have to recognize that issues and priorities change, and show up and listen to people who have different perspectives. I know a lot of women who do not identify as feminists because they have felt shamed by other women for their choices, beliefs, desires, and priorities; this is not a way to build a sustainable movement!
One thing I am struggling with in my own work is talking about women’s issues in a way that includes trans and queer folks. At the Women’s Fund we work at a systemic level to promote gender equality and level the playing field for women and girls. And for me, that means fighting the patriarchy and getting us all out of limited gender roles and into more possibility. But I know that, especially because many branches of feminism are hanging on tight to essentialist views of gender, many trans women don’t feel included or welcome under our umbrella. I want readers to know that most of our programming is open to people of all genders, and anyone who identifies as a woman is welcome to participate in our leadership development program. And if anyone has an issue with our language or anything we put out, please let me know—I want to do better.