Viewpoints: Getting young activists in touch with feminist movement of past

By Camille Hayes
Special to The Bee

Kim Wyatt is a woman with a mission. When the Lake Tahoe publisher set out to compile an essay collection about the war on women's rights, she had a specific problem in mind that she wanted to solve – and it's probably not the one you're thinking.

Wyatt's main interest wasn't denouncing politicians for their sexist comments on rape and contraception, or finding new policy solutions to the age-old problem of women's inequality. Instead, she wanted to publish a feminist book because she thought the young women working in her company were disengaged from politics and seemed unaware of the threat current political controversies posed to their individual rights.

"During the last election they were apathetic about voting, and feeling like it didn't matter," she said. "They didn't seem to understand that their rights were being systematically chipped away, rights they took for granted."

Wyatt decided that the best remedy for her employees' apathy was a strong dose of women's history. The volume that came out of her quest to educate the next generation, "Get Out of My Crotch! Twenty-One Writers Respond to the War on Women's Rights and Reproductive Health," provides lively commentary on the history of the women's movement, as well as real-time documentation of the battles we're fighting today.

As one of the contributing authors, I wanted to organize an event in Sacramento that captured the spirit of Wyatt's original intent to put younger activists in touch with the past. I teamed up with a group of young feminists called W.O.R.D., or Women Organized to Resist and Defend, to host a "Get Out" reading that would bring different generations of feminists together to talk about their shared experiences and learn from each others' perspectives.

When I took my idea for the reading to a meeting of W.O.R.D. organizers, I wasn't sure how it would be received, or if they'd even be interested in the book. I remembered myself as a college-aged feminist, steeped in Women's Studies courses that taught me how to think critically about pop culture and politics, but didn't encourage much reflection about the women's movement itself. I arrived at the meeting armed against their possible indifference with a roster of facts and statistics, prepared to meet disinterest with a rousing call to action.

What I wasn't prepared for was how eager they seemed to learn from me, as an older activist – and how much they had to teach me in return. I spent most of that night just listening, as they planned an upcoming "speak out" on violence against women, and some shared their own stories of how abuse had touched their lives.

While it was heartrending to realize how vulnerable women still are, even after 40 years of activism, it was inspiring to watch them tackle the old problem of public awareness with new technology and a renewed sense of excitement. I asked W.O.R.D. coordinator Autumn Thomas Morales what she thought her generation of women could teach older feminists, and her answer was simple: organizing. The grassroots game has changed; the most important interactions don't necessarily happen in face-to-face meetings, but play out on Facebook and Twitter.

"Living in the age where almost everything is digitized it's hard to get people mobilized," she said. "I believe older feminists can learn a lot from the younger generation about online activism and agitating. Just as previous generations of activists have the insight on how to plan and maneuver events in the street, the younger generations are masters of online organizing and promotion, and we need to come together and skill swap for our movement as a whole to progress."

The organizing power of digital platforms is undeniable – we saw it reach its global pinnacle with the Occupy movement – but I still cling to the old school idea that nothing beats an in-person encounter for building unity and finding common cause.

Originally published by the Sacramento Bee