TEDWomen 2010

Courtney Martin: This isn't her mother's feminism

Filmed:

Blogger Courtney Martin examines the perennially loaded word "feminism" in this personal and heartfelt talk. She talks through the three essential paradoxes of her generation's quest to define the term for themselves.

- Journalist
Courtney E. Martin’s work has two obsessions at its core: storytelling and solutions. Full bio

So I was born
00:15
on the last day
00:17
of the last year of the '70s.
00:19
I was raised on "Free to be you and me" --
00:23
(cheering)
00:26
hip-hop --
00:28
not as many woohoos for hip-hop in the house.
00:30
Thank you. Thank you for hip-hop --
00:32
and Anita Hill.
00:35
(Cheering)
00:37
My parents were radicals --
00:40
(Laughter)
00:43
who became,
00:45
well, grown-ups.
00:47
My dad facetiously says,
00:50
"We wanted to save the world,
00:52
and instead we just got rich."
00:54
We actually just got "middle class"
00:58
in Colorado Springs, Colorado,
01:00
but you get the picture.
01:02
I was raised with a very heavy sense
01:04
of unfinished legacy.
01:06
At this ripe old age of 30,
01:08
I've been thinking a lot about what it means to grow up
01:11
in this horrible, beautiful time,
01:14
and I've decided, for me,
01:17
it's been a real journey and paradox.
01:19
The first paradox
01:22
is that growing up is about rejecting the past
01:24
and then promptly reclaiming it.
01:26
Feminism was the water I grew up in.
01:28
When I was just a little girl,
01:31
my mom started what is now
01:33
the longest-running women's film festival in the world.
01:35
So while other kids were watching sitcoms and cartoons,
01:38
I was watching very esoteric documentaries
01:41
made by and about women.
01:44
You can see how this had an influence.
01:46
But she was not the only feminist in the house.
01:48
My dad actually resigned
01:51
from the male-only business club in my hometown
01:53
because he said he would never be part of an organization
01:56
that would one day welcome his son, but not his daughter.
01:59
(Applause)
02:02
He's actually here today.
02:07
(Applause)
02:09
The trick here
02:14
is my brother would become an experimental poet,
02:16
not a businessman,
02:18
but the intention was really good.
02:20
(Laughter)
02:22
In any case, I didn't readily claim the feminist label,
02:24
even though it was all around me,
02:26
because I associated it with my mom's women's groups,
02:28
her swishy skirts and her shoulder pads --
02:30
none of which had much cachet
02:33
in the hallways of Palmer High School
02:35
where I was trying to be cool at the time.
02:37
But I suspected there was something really important
02:39
about this whole feminism thing,
02:41
so I started covertly tiptoeing into my mom's bookshelves
02:43
and picking books off and reading them --
02:47
never, of course, admitting that I was doing so.
02:50
I didn't actually claim the feminist label
02:52
until I went to Barnard College
02:55
and I heard Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner speak for the first time.
02:57
They were the co-authors of a book called "Manifesta."
03:01
So what very profound epiphany, you might ask,
03:04
was responsible for my feminist click moment?
03:07
Fishnet stockings.
03:10
Jennifer Baumgardner was wearing them.
03:12
I thought they were really hot.
03:14
I decided, okay, I can claim the feminist label.
03:16
Now I tell you this --
03:18
I tell you this at the risk of embarrassing myself,
03:21
because I think part of the work of feminism
03:24
is to admit that aesthetics, that beauty,
03:26
that fun do matter.
03:28
There are lots of very modern political movements
03:30
that have caught fire in no small part
03:33
because of cultural hipness.
03:35
Anyone heard of these two guys as an example?
03:37
So my feminism is very indebted to my mom's,
03:40
but it looks very different.
03:43
My mom says, "patriarchy."
03:45
I say, "intersectionality."
03:47
So race, class, gender, ability,
03:49
all of these things go into our experiences
03:52
of what it means to be a woman.
03:54
Pay equity? Yes. Absolutely a feminist issue.
03:56
But for me, so is immigration. (Applause)
03:58
Thank you.
04:01
My mom says, "Protest march."
04:04
I say, "Online organizing."
04:06
I co-edit, along with a collective
04:09
of other super-smart, amazing women,
04:11
a site called Feministing.com.
04:13
We are the most widely read feminist publication ever,
04:16
and I tell you this
04:21
because I think it's really important to see
04:23
that there's a continuum.
04:25
Feminist blogging is basically the 21st century version
04:27
of consciousness raising.
04:30
But we also have a straightforward political impact.
04:32
Feministing has been able
04:35
to get merchandise pulled off the shelves of Walmart.
04:37
We got a misogynist administrator sending us hate-mail
04:39
fired from a Big Ten school.
04:42
And one of our biggest successes
04:44
is we get mail from teenage girls in the middle of Iowa
04:47
who say, "I Googled Jessica Simpson and stumbled on your site.
04:50
I realized feminism wasn't about man-hating and Birkenstocks."
04:53
So we're able to pull in the next generation
04:56
in a totally new way.
04:59
My mom says, "Gloria Steinem."
05:01
I say, "Samhita Mukhopadhyay,
05:04
Miriam Perez, Ann Friedman,
05:06
Jessica Valenti, Vanessa Valenti,
05:08
and on and on and on and on."
05:10
We don't want one hero.
05:12
We don't want one icon.
05:14
We don't want one face.
05:16
We are thousands of women and men across this country
05:18
doing online writing, community organizing,
05:21
changing institutions from the inside out --
05:24
all continuing the incredible work
05:27
that our mothers and grandmothers started.
05:29
Thank you.
05:33
(Applause)
05:35
Which brings me to the second paradox:
05:37
sobering up about our smallness
05:39
and maintaining faith in our greatness
05:41
all at once.
05:43
Many in my generation --
05:45
because of well-intentioned parenting and self-esteem education --
05:47
were socialized to believe
05:50
that we were special little snowflakes --
05:52
(Laughter)
05:54
who were going to go out and save the world.
05:56
These are three words many of us were raised with.
05:59
We walk across graduation stages,
06:02
high on our overblown expectations,
06:04
and when we float back down to earth,
06:06
we realize we don't know what the heck it means
06:08
to actually save the world anyway.
06:10
The mainstream media often paints my generation
06:13
as apathetic,
06:16
and I think it's much more accurate
06:18
to say we are deeply overwhelmed.
06:20
And there's a lot to be overwhelmed about, to be fair --
06:22
an environmental crisis,
06:24
wealth disparity in this country
06:26
unlike we've seen since 1928,
06:28
and globally,
06:30
a totally immoral and ongoing wealth disparity.
06:32
Xenophobia's on the rise. The trafficking of women and girls.
06:35
It's enough to make you feel very overwhelmed.
06:38
I experienced this firsthand myself
06:41
when I graduated from Barnard College in 2002.
06:43
I was fired up; I was ready to make a difference.
06:46
I went out and I worked at a non-profit,
06:48
I went to grad school, I phone-banked,
06:50
I protested, I volunteered,
06:53
and none of it seemed to matter.
06:56
And on a particularly dark night
07:00
of December of 2004,
07:02
I sat down with my family,
07:04
and I said that I had become very disillusioned.
07:06
I admitted that I'd actually had a fantasy -- kind of a dark fantasy --
07:10
of writing a letter
07:13
about everything that was wrong with the world
07:15
and then lighting myself on fire
07:17
on the White House steps.
07:19
My mom
07:22
took a drink of her signature Sea Breeze,
07:24
her eyes really welled with tears,
07:28
and she looked right at me and she said,
07:31
"I will not stand
07:34
for your desperation."
07:36
She said, "You are smarter, more creative
07:38
and more resilient than that."
07:41
Which brings me to my third paradox.
07:44
Growing up is about aiming to succeed wildly
07:47
and being fulfilled by failing really well.
07:49
(Laughter)
07:52
(Applause)
07:54
There's a writer I've been deeply influenced by, Parker Palmer,
07:56
and he writes that many of us are often whiplashed
07:59
"between arrogant overestimation of ourselves
08:01
and a servile underestimation of ourselves."
08:04
You may have guessed by now,
08:07
I did not light myself on fire.
08:09
I did what I know to do in desperation, which is write.
08:11
I wrote the book I needed to read.
08:14
I wrote a book about eight incredible people
08:17
all over this country
08:19
doing social justice work.
08:21
I wrote about Nia Martin-Robinson,
08:23
the daughter of Detroit and two civil rights activists,
08:25
who's dedicating her life
08:27
to environmental justice.
08:29
I wrote about Emily Apt
08:31
who initially became a caseworker in the welfare system
08:33
because she decided that was the most noble thing she could do,
08:35
but quickly learned, not only did she not like it,
08:38
but she wasn't really good at it.
08:40
Instead, what she really wanted to do was make films.
08:42
So she made a film about the welfare system
08:44
and had a huge impact.
08:46
I wrote about Maricela Guzman, the daughter of Mexican immigrants,
08:48
who joined the military so she could afford college.
08:51
She was actually sexually assaulted in boot camp
08:55
and went on to co-organize a group
08:57
called the Service Women's Action Network.
08:59
What I learned from these people and others
09:02
was that I couldn't judge them
09:04
based on their failure to meet their very lofty goals.
09:06
Many of them are working in deeply intractable systems --
09:09
the military, congress,
09:12
the education system, etc.
09:14
But what they managed to do within those systems
09:16
was be a humanizing force.
09:18
And at the end of the day,
09:21
what could possibly be more important than that?
09:23
Cornel West says, "Of course it's a failure.
09:25
But how good a failure is it?"
09:27
This isn't to say we give up our wildest, biggest dreams.
09:30
It's to say we operate on two levels.
09:33
On one,
09:35
we really go after changing these broken systems
09:37
of which we find ourselves a part.
09:39
But on the other, we root our self-esteem
09:41
in the daily acts of trying to make one person's day
09:43
more kind, more just, etc.
09:46
So when I was a little girl,
09:49
I had a couple of very strange habits.
09:51
One of them was
09:53
I used to lie on the kitchen floor of my childhood home,
09:55
and I would suck the thumb of my left hand
09:57
and hold my mom's cold toes with my right hand.
09:59
(Laughter)
10:02
I was listening to her talk on the phone, which she did a lot.
10:04
She was talking about board meetings,
10:07
she was founding peace organizations,
10:10
she was coordinating carpools, she was consoling friends --
10:12
all these daily acts of care and creativity.
10:15
And surely, at three and four years old,
10:18
I was listening to the soothing sound of her voice,
10:20
but I think I was also getting my first lesson in activist work.
10:23
The activists I interviewed
10:26
had nothing in common, literally, except for one thing,
10:28
which was that they all cited their mothers
10:31
as their most looming and important
10:33
activist influences.
10:35
So often, particularly at a young age,
10:37
we look far afield
10:39
for our models of the meaningful life,
10:42
and sometimes they're in our own kitchens,
10:44
talking on the phone, making us dinner,
10:47
doing all that keeps the world going around and around.
10:49
My mom and so many women like her
10:53
have taught me that life is not about glory,
10:55
or certainty, or security even.
10:58
It's about embracing the paradox.
11:01
It's about acting in the face of overwhelm.
11:03
And it's about loving people really well.
11:06
And at the end of the day,
11:09
these things make for a lifetime
11:11
of challenge and reward.
11:14
Thank you.
11:16
(Applause)
11:18

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About the Speaker:

Courtney E. Martin - Journalist
Courtney E. Martin’s work has two obsessions at its core: storytelling and solutions.

Why you should listen

In her upcoming book, The New Better Off, Courtney E. Martin explores how people are redefining the American dream with an eye toward fulfillment. Martin is a columnist for On Being, and the cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network, Valenti Martin Media, and FRESH Speakers, as well as a strategist for the TED Prize and an editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

In her previous book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, she profiled eight young people doing social justice work, a fascinating look at the generation of world-changers who are now stepping up to the plate.