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What Does Feminist Engagement Mean in Current Political Times?

May 18, 2017

In a collaborative interview, feminist studies PhD students, Caitlin Gunn, Naimah Petigny, Nithya Rajan, and José Manuel Santillana, discuss what constitutes feminist engagement and the multitude of sociopolitical factors that make it necessary in the current political times.

Caitlin Gunn 

Caitlin Gunn is a third-year PhD candidate in feminist studies. Her research interests include digital blackness studies, black speculative fiction, Afrofuturism, and black feminist theory. Gunn is especially interested in making theory come alive. "When the current political climate is creating chaos, my response is to turn to theory as engagement," she says. "I look for how we should be engaging with feminist theory and applying it towards direct action."

Gunn stresses how important it is for feminist scholars to be adaptable. The changing political climate influences what her work looks like; she needs to remain attentive and be prepared to address issues as they are brought to the forefront. "Academica is not the only place to perform feminist theory, especially right now when it's so essential for survival," she says.

Gunn brings up the problematic language frequently used to describe feminist engagement. The word engagement can evoke cooperation—but what if what is intended is feminist disruption? "My description of feminist engagement is not through a liberal white feminist gaze—my feminism doesn't look like that," she says. And if Gunn's engagement doesn't meet preconceptions, it's not legible, and therefore, effectively erased by other feminist scholars and by the public.

The ideas and theories that feminist scholars raise are dangerous for fascism and many objectives of the current political state. Gunn emphasizes that it's crucial that academics work in community and not isolate themselves. "The feminist theory you produce in isolation is less valuable, it's not a...liberatory expression if it's not done in some sort of community." She reflects on protest and direct action and conversations in the academy. One of the things that Gunn suggests gets lost in academia is how subversive the actual material that she teaches really is. "As academics, we can't lose sight of the fact that we're in the academy because we have chosen to teach this radical material."

Naimah Petigny

Raised in Western Massachusetts, Naimah majored in sociology and women's studies at Vassar College, and graduated in 2014. Naimah Petigny is also a third-year PhD student studying body politics and contemporary social movements. Petigny sees questions of feminist engagement as a question of lived experience. "Between classroom spaces, conversations on the bus, and academic conference presentations, my identity as a woman of color, a black feminist, is not limited to any single articulation of my writing or my scholarship," she says. "My identity as a feminist lies in the work I do as a feminist—the ways I read gender and race in everyday life...It's also about joy because it's a pleasure of mine to live this feminist life."

Petigny admits the difficulty in describing her work as it traffics in Black Feminist Theory and pulls together divergent streams of thought about bodies, blackness, and being. It involves ideas of visibility, intelligibility, and corporeality. She and her colleagues recognize that in our contemporary moment there are very solid ideas of liberal white feminism. The large amount of visibility garnished by white feminism makes it impossible to discuss questions of feminism without also interrogating liberalism and whiteness. "Tenets of feminism, radical feminism, queer feminism, POC feminism…don't always make you popular. They are decidedly oppositional, intentionally dissenting. These feminisms push people towards discomfort, and those of us in the field often prioritize this because we know discomfort pushes us into deeper spaces of learning," says Petigny.

Like Gunn, Petigny notes that although working individually is sometimes easier, there is deep power in collective work. Petigny is involved in a research collaboration called "Art of Healing," where UMN students, faculty, and staff examine what healing and health mean for women of color and their visions of justice and liberation.

Petigny works closely with local youth, specifically youth of color. "It's interesting to see how engagement stretches us. In the academy, we are often disconnected from K–12-aged youth," she says. She explains that traditionally in academia, work and life are kept as separate spheres, but that academic roles expand beyond official titles for feminist scholars, graduate students, and activists. Petigny is adamant in assuring that her service is not just to a departmental committee, but also to young people of color across the Twin Cities.

Nithya Rajan

Nithya Rajan, a second-year PhD student, grew up in India and received her master's in gender, women, and sexuality studies from The Ohio State University and from the Department of Social Work at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. She's interested in feminist theory and critical refugee studies, and her current research looks at the labor experiences of refugee women in South Asia.

In regard to feminist engagement during the current political times, Rajan notes that, “We’re all student teachers. One of our feminist engagements is in the form of pedagogy, and when Trump was elected, we responded by changing our syllabi and class discussions to issues that seemed more pertinent to what we were teaching, and the things we told our students.” The stakes and consequences of engaging in acts of protest and civil disobedience can be much higher for POC and international students, Rajan acknowledged.

Rajan reflects on a conversation she recently had with an undergraduate student who asked what advice she would give students in GWSS. She told them to refrain from having a limited idea of what feminism is, but rather to think beyond what we assume feminist engagement and practices are. "It can take forms of protest," she says, "but it takes so many different forms. When you have a limited view, it leads to ignoring the ways in which other people practice feminism." 

For Rajan, feminist engagement means translating what is learned in academia into actual history-making efforts as a response to the current times. It involves asking questions and making connections that need to exist, doing uncomfortable work, and challenging herself and others in a way that can bridge academia and communities. Rajan feels responsible for making these connections. "It's important to go beyond the department, which is one of the challenges, especially at a big university."

José Manuel Santillana

"I identify as community organizer first before an academic. Sometimes they go well together, and sometimes they don't, but they’re both necessary. Organizing has been central to my feminist engagement," says José Manuel Santillana, a second-year PhD student. Santillana, whose parents are Mexican-born immigrants, grew up in central California and was largely influenced by Black and Chicana feminisms, WOC and queer WOC theorists, and community activism. Santillana taught in the women’s studies program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before starting his PhD program at UMN, and considers himself a Chicana and Chicano studies scholar.

In practicing feminist engagement through community organizing, Santillana continues to be involved with student activist groups on campus. "For me, engagement includes pedagogy in the classroom, but it also includes direct action on- and off-campus," he stated. By direct action, Santillana means that he values civil disobedience. "Protest is so important, one of the big issues during this administration is the criminalization of protest, as seen with the rise of bills across the US."

Like his colleagues, Santillana recognizes that today's feminist engagement is largely distorted by mainstream representations of whiteness. "People don't often consider or recognize queer people of color as a part of feminist practice and protest engagement," but for Santillana, it has been important to interrogate what characteristics define feminism. Santillana places importance in a feminist politic that is rooted in agitation, intersectionality, and lived-experience. "We need to think of feminist engagement outside of academia," he says, "and how our families, our mothers, our sisters, and our grandmothers are all engaged in feminist engagements that are not necessarily seen as falling within this concept." Santillana suggests that feminism is interconnected and inseparable from family and friends who experience living in fear—for example, the immigrant families who are being criminalized under the current administration.

Recently, Santillana has been thinking about the complicity of feminist studies programs in upholding the neoliberal university. Feminist studies often, even though it arose from activism and civil disobedience, has not been critical of the violent ways it has appropriated earlier feminist efforts. Santillana maintains that these violences and appropriations are elitist and are forms of respectability politics, which he considers to be anti-feminism. Because of this, he feels that departments, professors, and graduate students need to be constantly critiquing each other to practice accountability when working against the principles that feminisms are founded on. "Critique what it's doing, what it's not doing, and what it's supposed to be doing," says Santillana. "It can get lost and can replicate really oppressive attitudes and ways of being that hurt. We must bring that into the discussion."

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.