Fuck Activism/Forget Feminism

The following is a transcript of a short performance piece by Martha Easton and Maggie M. Williams, two members of the Material Collective. They presented it during the BABEL-sponsored session, Fuck This: On Finally Letting Go, on May 10, 2012 in Kalamazoo.

Maggie and her son at the National Labor Relations Board in New York.

Martha and I are mothers. We are feminists. We are art historians. We are activists. We have each struggled to keep those identities carefully compartmentalized to achieve some abstract notion of success. Both of us were drawn to the Fuck This/Fuck Me sessions out of a sense of frustration: dissatisfaction with the tactics of purportedly activist groups, disillusionment with the hypocrisies of academic life, and disappointment in our own and others’ willingness to rock the boat.

Today, we are finally letting go of preserving our secret identities. Together, we will unmask our true selves, telling our stories and sharing our hopes for real change. Rather than coping silently, we want to call for real progressive action among medievalists.

We will be presenting a short performance piece that collages our experiences into a single narrative. We invite you to participate by chanting with us. (We’ll tell you when!)

Martha

Martha at a rally in support of the nuclear freeze. Right: Nuclear freeze march in Manhattan, June 12, 1982

I became a feminist the first day of fourth grade, when my teacher wrote “Ms. Wolman” on the board, not “Mrs.” or “Miss” like the other teachers. By the time I was in college I was a committed organizer and activist.

I chaired a newly-formed committee on sexual harassment and physical violence, organized protests against the Solomon Amendment which tied draft registration to financial aid, and agitated for the nuclear freeze – a photo of me in full regalia got picked up by the national wires and published in papers across the country.

Maggie

GSEU/UAW Strike (2004)

Feminism was instinctive for me, but I was reserved and rather shy. I had never been an activist. About a month before I finished my dissertation, I went to my first union meeting. The moving testimony of my grad student colleagues flipped a switch in me, and before I knew it, I was leading hundreds of TAs and RAs out on strike.

Maggie: Hey hey, ho ho…
Martha: …the status quo has got to go!
Together: Hey hey, ho ho…the status quo has got to go!
Audience: Hey hey, ho ho…the status quo has got to go! (2x)

Martha

Women’s Action coalition (WAC) logo and demonstration, probably 1992.

In graduate school I joined WAC, the Women’s Action Coalition, which formed in 1992 after the outrage sparked by the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. We participated in direct actions like protesting, together with the Guerilla Girls, the new Soho branch of the Guggenheim Museum — not one woman was included in the opening exhibition. Around that time, my funding for graduate school got pulled because I married a lawyer, while a fellow graduate student, a man, also married a lawyer and retained his.

Maggie

GSEU/UAW grad employees on strike (2004-2005)

Marching outside of those hallowed gates day after day, week after week, we built our own university. Physicists and philosophers, administrative assistants and art historians, together we confronted our love objects (Columbia, our research projects, our paychecks) and said, “FUCK THIS!” If we can’t have fairness, we don’t want academia. If we can’t have transparency, we don’t want scholarship.

We needed to break the silence.

Maggie: Tell me what democracy looks like…
Martha: …this is what democracy looks like.
Together: TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE…
Audience: THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! (2x)

Martha

A mother and union activist at Occupy Wall Street (2012).

I struggle with the gendered choices I have made, with a non-conventional career path that allowed me to focus on my two children. My scholarship focuses on feminist issues and I teach classes on gender, but I miss the days of action. It seems to me that many of my students have felt that the battle has been won, that feminism is no longer necessary, or is even embarrassing. And yet ironically, the Republican war on women, which would roll back gains we have made and severely limit the control women have over their own bodies and lives, seems to have reawakened a sense of urgency. The opposite of feminism is complacency.

Together: FUCK COMPLACENCY!

Maggie

Maggie’s photo of the 99% projection from the Brooklyn Bridge at OWS/labor rally (2012).

After the strikes, I retreated into domesticity, teaching, and motherhood, losing myself in that ultimate, elusive love object: the tenure-track job. Take-to-the-streets activism seemed out of reach, but then there was BABEL: worlds collided, collectives were formed, real change began . . . .

Maggie: We are unstoppable…
Martha: …another world is possible!
Together: WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE, ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!
Audience: WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE, ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE! (REPEAT AS OFTEN AS NEEDED.)

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2 Responses to “Fuck Activism/Forget Feminism”

  1. Alexa July 17, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

    Maggie and Martha,
    I missed your presentation at Kalamazoo, but heard from a number of people how powerful it was and how deeply it spoke to them. So it was great to read this, though I’m sure it was even more forceful live. I think you’ve hit on something really critical about the present moment in feminism: some of us, privileged to have been raised and come of age in the heyday of ardent second-wave feminist activism, exposed early on by mothers or aunts or older cousins, siblings, teachers, etc. to the excitement and power of the women’s movement, are looking about and thinking “how did it come to this… again?” and also, “oh my god, do I really have to get out and march at my age?” Yet when I think back to my own days as a gung-ho marcher and protester (NARAL March on Washington for Reproductive Freedom, 1989, Berkeley Graduate Student Union strikes, 1992), I remember how important it was for me to see the people I admired and looked up to, my professors, my coaches, and yes, my mom, being engaged, and if not marching or sitting in, at least cheering us on. Plus, as my mother-in-law (also an academic, also lost her grad school funding when she married), one of the original Mothers Against the War and now a Grandmother Against War, keeps reminding me, that even at the age of 79 you can still get out there and raise your voice. I think she would say that the struggle goes on, and sometimes you are raising your kids or making sure you get that next article published, so you don’t show up for the rally, but then your life changes again, and once more you can get out there and shake your fist at injustice and bigotry. And that’s when we get to say “Fuck this” to the idea that our relevance as women and as people decreases once we hit menopause, our kids move out, and we’re staring down the barrel of old age.
    Keep up the good work!
    Alexa

  2. Maggie Williams August 12, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    Hi Alexa,

    So sorry for the delayed reply, but thanks for your comments! I’m really happy to know that people are moved by what we did. Great stuff!

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