Just Saying You’re a Feminist Isn’t Enough
June Eric-Udorie is only 20, but her anthology “Can We All Be Feminists?” is changing the conversation
There’s often a proclamation of each year being a great one for story collections, novels, or essays. So I’ll insert my own perspective that 2018 was a wonderful year in anthologies, especially those celebrating and prioritizing marginalized voices. As I said to editor and young activist June Eric-Udorie, when I first heard about yet another book on feminism I was hesitant. The abundance of posts, think pieces, and so on already had my mind reeling. But the question itself—can we all be feminists?—is a good one. It also brings up further questions in its dissection: What is a feminist? Who can call themselves one? How has feminism in itself hurt or helped various groups over the years? What struck me about Udorie’s anthology was that it wasn’t preaching to a choir as much as it was showcasing how we should be thinking about everything in our lives, not solely feminism.
As a woman of color with her own privilege I came to think more on what I don’t know, because that was way more vast than what I do. Reading the contributions in Can We All Be Feminists? I was struck by essays from Nicole Dennis-Benn, Evette Dionne, and Wei Ming Kam discussing what they learned in their own experiences. Gabrielle Bellot discusses the fall from grace of a literary idol who doesn’t recognize harmful thinking and language. Emer O’Toole expounds on the barbaric anti-abortion laws in the U.K. that have led to the death of way too many women. The voices of sex workers, transgender women, women of color, immigrants, the religious inclined, and those in the LGBTQ+ community show the swath of topics and perspectives we need in any book broaching the question of the people we can and should seek to be. I was eager to speak to Udorie, editor to editor, on how the process of compiling such an anthology came to be, whatever struggles she experienced, and the overall goals and needs when tackling such a potent question of how feminism works for us in the day-to-day.
Jennifer Baker: Obviously the title is Can We All Be Feminists? But it really speaks to the issue of privilege. Maybe there’s the concern that these things can be didactic in a way rather than I’m learning something. But we’re learning about sex workers, immigration, and the trans body, and the African body, and abortion happening in Ireland. This awareness is embedded in each essay.
June Eric-Udorie: Yeah, we spent a lot of time thinking and talking on the phone, back and forth on emails. Another thing I tell people is that these essays were edited four or five times, six for some writers. We would say, “This is good, give me more.” “This is good, I can see you digging even more here.” It wasn’t edited once or twice. There was a lot of time in structural edits where I would say to my writers “This is good but you’re not thinking about disabled writers when you’re making this comment here” or “Oh, this is good but have you considered the fact that your argument is kind of racist by leaving out Afro-Latinx people?” And kind of getting them to see their own biases. I think all my writers understood that even though we’re marginalized in some ways, we all have some privileges. And we have to make sure we’re addressing many of them in the essays themselves. A lot of times developing their ideas, a lot of times editing as well. And you know the great thing was I had two U.S. editors and two U.K. editors across the board some were queer, Muslim, working-class, so there were a number of different perspectives that were coming in from everyone throughout the editorial process involved.
JB: When you’re asking people to contribute essays to working a way forward in feminism, is there a way to even not look at the problem? Can We All Be Feminists? is a criticism of feminism, yet also contains elements of how do we have a larger conversation as feminists.
JEU: Yeah, that’s why the first step is recognizing there’s an issue and the second step is recognizing we can fix it. And that is why we wanted each essayist to write about what can we do to make this better. I didn’t want it to feel depressing or to feel like there’s no hope because I don’t think that’s the message of the book. I think the message of the book is: here’s how feminism has helped us; here’s the mistakes that’s been made; and here’s what we can do to make it even more effective tool for political activism, personal activism, and for women’s rights. Anything can be off. And I think that’s why I was really kind of clear with my writers of “how would you think it being better.”
JB: After curating something like this, is there something you wish you could’ve included in that sense? You do span a lot.
JEU: We try to do as much as we could. I wish I had Indigenous women, I wish I had those differences represented. I did try, it didn’t work out either because it was time schedules, stuff they were doing, due to publishing trajectory. But yeah, I wish we did have essays from working mothers and kind of talking about craft and motherhood and feminism, how that works. I wish we did have Indigenous women’s voices and thinking about how they fit in this because they’re very much invisible [in this conversation]. I do recognize that we did as much as we could. But there’s always space for us to be better. And I don’t want people to think that this is the perfect book that does everything, it does a lot. I’m definitely proud of how much we were able to publish in this scope everything from immigration to abortion to disability to representation to queerness, and queerness in different forms, and being trans, and being trans in different ways, and class and religion. We tried to cover as much as we could but I think one of the big things at the core of feminism is that even when I think I’m doing as much as I could I’m always reminding myself there are still people who are not in the room. And so it’s never perfect. And I think that’s my thing with feminism, I think it’s weird to always being perfect. I think we keep trying to strive to be as good as can be and maybe in doing that itself you have bring enough people on board to be included. I don’t think feminism will ever be completely perfect. I don’t know that any social movement will be able to do that.
JB: I feel like the pressure on women of color is we feel like we haven’t done enough. [laughs] We could do so much more even though you’ve done so much already. You have so many voices that I haven’t seen in recent feminist essays, in anything that is or isn’t speaking to feminism, so I feel like this is not necessarily a 101 book. But I think if you’re coming into trying to understand more about feminism as well, Can We All Be Feminists? is a book that can help you learn a lot more than what the basics are which is: if you believe we should all have all have equal rights then great, you’re a feminist! And it seems so simplistic when that’s said, like, you’re a feminist now!
JEU: I think that was what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to move away from this whole … “[if] you claim it you are it” [approach]. You have to do the work. You have to examine your power and privilege. You have to think about your past actions, your current conventional ways aside. There’s Women’s March and wearing pussy hats and suddenly you’re contributing and that’s not the case because we really want you to think about the ways in which you react to other women. Think about the ways in which you vote. Women are always, at least they’re saying, women are voting for their interests and I don’t think they are. They’re voting to uphold white supremacy because it benefits them. In the means of pursuing abortion rights you have to think about how much racism plays a factor in America; they’re still able to oppress other people. I think the base part of feminism is actually sitting down and doing personal work and thinking about your own actions over your lifetime. And which issues do you care about? How do we show up for people? Do you show up at that Black Lives Matter rally or is it just okay to go to the feminist one? Whose lives are you prioritizing? Whose issues are you prioritizing? It’s not enough to proclaim yourself a feminist and that’s the beginning and the end of it. You should be able to help us reach liberation. Something I always think about of feminism is which part of me is going to be free first? Because we really have this movement that is not intersectional. Is my gender gonna be there? Is my race holding back? Or I’m queer, is that holding me back? I think as feminists we really should be doing is saying, “yeah, I may be freeing this area but there are still so many people who are not.”
JB: How have the conversations been so far? In online spaces [feminism conversations] gets so tenuous. I don’t know if you were in the States for the 2016 Presidential Election.
JEU: I was not.
JB: Oh good god. I mean Brexit also happened that year so it was just a mess. But here there was this uniting of Pantsuit Nation, started by white women, moderated by white women. And then the immediate change happened when Hillary Clinton didn’t win. The energy became totally different. We had the stats of a majority of White women voting for the other candidate. And so that discussion couldn’t be had in that space because people said “How dare you! We’re supposed to be united as women!” To me it’s become so expected of how these kind of surface-level uniters change so quickly. And how we use books like this to note that.
JEU: I think the biggest kind of lies we say to ourselves as feminists is thinking that we’re the same. We’re absolutely not the same. And if we can get to a point where we can recognize that we’re not the same then maybe we can have those discussions and start doing the work where we’re examining the situation from the standpoint that is not trying to assume that everybody is on the same, equal footing ground.
This is something Audre Lorde talks about a lot of us trying to figure out our difference. If we can reconcile these differences and kind of acknowledge that they’re okay and that being different doesn’t stop us from working together, then maybe we can start working towards a sisterhood or some kind of movement that understands the fact that being intersectional and living a different intersection is not a problem. It’s not going to inhibit our ability to work towards a greater ideal. This is something feminists of color have been saying, it’s not just Audre Lorde, there have been a number of Black feminists who have been saying this for a long time.
But, I think white feminism is so far gone as saying: let’s pretend we’re the same. You drop your race, your sexuality, your disability, your class, leave it at the door, just walk in as a woman. That’s impossible right? Because all those different intersections inform how I move in the world. And so you cannot ask me to leave that at the door. And I say this in my introduction, none of us should be part of a feminism that does that. I want nothing to do with a feminism that asks me to leave me being Black, queer, disabled at the table. I want a feminism that sees that as a good thing, that sees that as valuable to our freedom. The liberation includes everyone.
JB: I also think as people of color we’re inherently taught to recognize those differences. It comes to privilege: I never had to think about being different. But when you’re marginalized you’re constantly reminded of that. And I wonder if that’s what comes into play?
JEU: I don’t think this is something that only plagues white feminist movements. I think a lot of times we don’t want to talk about homophobia in Black feminism or talk about sexism, let’s just talk about race. As if race is the only mark of oppression. And it feeds into different groups. I don’t know why we do it to be honest with you. We do it inter-community. I think it’s harmful because you’re kind of asking subsume parts of themselves, like different parts of themselves that matter.
JB: I really, really, really loved this book. And [at first] I was thinking “oh gosh how is this going to go?” Even editing one I know not everything might be right. But I came out of it with so much more than what I came into it with.
JEU: I’m so glad. And I think this is something that I’ve been telling people a lot, people keep telling me “Oh you know everything.” There was so much, so so much editing this book. There was so much that I thought I knew. I don’t really know. I don’t really know what it is to have chronic illness. I don’t know what it is to be a fat Black woman. This didn’t make it in the final cut of the essay [but] Thompson once wrote about people throwing bottles at her and people calling her “Fat Black shit.” I don’t know that. Because I had the privilege of not having to walk around the world in a body that we haven’t deemed to be unruly and violent that merits a kind of oppression and violence. And I’m not trans, right? I have friends who are trans but I’ve never had to sit down to interrogate what it might be to lose your family due to the person you are. So I think the lesson I want people [to get]: there’s always so much that we don’t know. Even I’ve been working from this fact for five years and I went into this book and thought “Oh crap” here’s all this shit I hadn’t been thinking about. And I don’t think that’s something you hear.