Rebecca Walker is a co-founder of the Third Wave
Foundation, a national activist, philanthropic organization for young
women aged 15 to 30. Her
anthology To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of
Feminism explores the struggle of young women to redefine and reclaim feminism.
Daughter of writer Alice Walker and civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, Rebecca
has written about her childhood in her memoirs Black, White and Jewish, Autobiography
of a Shifting Self. Her newest book, What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the
Future examines different aspects of masculinity. In 1994, Time Magazine named
her one of the 50 influential American leaders under 40.
Days before giving birth to her first biological child, Rebecca Walker took some
time to share with Sangamithra Iyer her thoughts on feminism today.
Can you describe the Third Wave of feminism and how it addresses the shortcomings
of the movements that came before, specifically with respect to race?
Third Wave was founded in response to the idea that young people were apathetic
and too busy trying to get their MBAs to be concerned with social change; that
feminism, or what I would call “the movement for the eradication of discrimination
based on gender difference,” was dead; and the idea that men had no place
in such a movement.
Third Wave was also a response to critiques of the Second Wave. It was important
to us (the founders) that Third Wave be, at its very core, multi-racial, multi-ethnic,
multi-issue, pan-sexual orientation, with people and issues from all socio-economic
There are many different ways to address race and racism within organizations
and movements, but the key is to make sure that true diversity is at the very
core. This takes some effort in terms of finding commonality and developing strategies
for negotiating profound differences in outlook and belief, but those are two
goals we envisioned for Third Wave.
We [also] decided that social change agents (us) needed to be paid for our labor.
After watching a generation burn itself out with little or no remuneration, we
thought there must be a way to financially survive an attempt to change the world.
Hence our original name: Third Wave Direct Action Corporation. We had the idea
that we could capitalize social change work, which is really what the entire
nonprofit youth movement (which didn’t exist then in the way we know it
now) is about.
When the founders of Third Wave Foundation came together (Catherine Gund, Dawn
Lundy Martin, Amy Richards, and myself) in 1996 we were also responding to the
political climate of the moment and worrisome projections about the future. Our
concern was that young women were not a) recipients of a large slice of the philanthropic
pie (at the time something like two percent of all philanthropic dollars went
toward women 15 to 30), and
b) were not being cultivated to be philanthropists themselves, having no understanding
of the importance of contributing resources to help others as a way of redistributing
You describe yourself as a feminist but not a Feminist, can you elaborate on
This is a very important point, and one that has put me in a fairly controversial
position within what is popularly called the women’s movement. I felt strongly
when we were founding Third Wave that the word feminist had become too divisive
and culturally loaded, and that it had inherent problems in that it was a label
that encouraged people who did not consider themselves feminists to make baseless
assumptions about those who did, and encouraged people who did consider themselves
feminists to cultivate and codify a kind of morally superior, Us vs. Them, Superwoman
vs. the patriarchy kind of identity. Neither, in my opinion, seemed to serve
the ultimate goals of gender equality and world peace. Because I was very invested
in building a bridge between Second and Third Wave, I had no problem dropping “feminist” from
our in-house lexicon and culture. It seemed clear to me that the term had more
of a repellent effect than a magnetizing one within my generation, and I did
not feel the need to prove my allegiance and gratitude to the women that came
before me by holding on to something that had meant so very much to them, but
did not mean that much to me.
Of course, this position also had racial ramifications, in that many women of
color do not feel an affinity with the term because, among other things, we know
firsthand that people who call themselves feminists are not always our friends.
They have not de facto done their work around race, the way we may not have de
facto done our work around class, for example, though would become appalled if
we suggested that some “feminists” were also racist.
In any case, this was a struggle that I lost within the organization. Many of
my colleagues, in addition to droves of Second Wavers, found this to be a capitulation
to mass media’s negative stereotyping of feminists. I believed it was a
smart organizing tool. The goal after all was for young women and men to get
involved in social change work, not to become so attached to a word that we would
spend a lot of valuable energy trying to reclaim.
I continue to feel strongly that the left is getting our collective ass kicked
because of just this kind of romantic, naïve attachment to movement narratives
and aesthetics of 20 and 30 years ago. The right moves fast, changing rhetoric
at will, lying if they have to, having no allegiance to the past, doing whatever
is necessary to win the battle. We, on the other hand, are still taking the “moral
high ground” which is a) culturally constructed like any other moral high
ground, and b) not facilitating many victories. My belief was and still is that
if we could attract young people by being in confluence with rather than opposition
to their resistance to the term, we could have real intergenerational continuity
and thus greater impact. I mean really, do you think Christian fundamentalists
are upset that George Bush is calling their Christian crusade the War on Terror
instead of Contract with America or some other such? I don’t think so.
The key is addressing social ills with rhetoric that is effective on an intuitive
as well as political level. I still do not believe that the use of the term Feminist
galvanizes, unifies, or inspires at the moment. I think it did at one time and
that was fantastic. But not now.
Can you tell us a bit about your book What Makes a Man: 22 Writers
Future? How do you feel feminism has shaped/can shape the other gender?
WMAM is a collection of essays about the changing face of masculinity. Most of
the writers are men, all challenging traditional ideas of what it means to be
a man and sharing their own more humane and psychologically integrated hopes
and dreams for manhood.
I decided to do the book after a discussion one night with my son. He had come
home from school and told me that he wanted to play sports so that girls would
like him. I was shocked and appalled. He is so bright and at the time had so
many other interests. It was as if I had a daughter and she had said she was
going to pretend to be dumb so that boys would like her.
It occurred to me that while many of us who grew up conscious of the ways in
which women and girls are forced into limiting social scripts, we were not yet,
as a culture, giving boys the same kind of consideration. And while we are busy
looking the other way, the culture is seducing them with a kind of hyper-violent
masculinity in the form of video games, advertising, movies, sporting events
and comic books.
Once I began to really think about the programming slated for boys, the more
I realized that our beautiful sons are being primed to go to war, to fight in
battles not of their own making, on behalf of people and interests who care very
little about them. I did the book so that I could hand my son something to support
him on the perilous journey of becoming his own man. I never want him to equate
domination, killing, and control of others with being a real man, and if he does,
I don’t want it to be because I was asleep on the job and didn’t
try to provide options.
I think the women’s movement has been key in making space for a book like
this, and for the men who are stepping out of the shadows with their strength
and vulnerability. If species survival calls for men to be whatever women need
in order to ensure procreation, I think the women’s movement has made it
possible for us to articulate a different set of needs. Because we have laws,
we no longer need the same kind of physical protection from men, and because
we work, we no longer need them to provide the means for our survival. What we
need now are life partners, people with whom we can share the trials and tribulations
of life on a deep and profound level, with whom we can strategize and make effectual
decisions on behalf of ourselves and our children. I think many men are rising
to this challenge. More encouraging perhaps is that some women are letting them!
The outcome of this past election has been disappointing and heartbreaking for
many. What advice do you have for activists for the next four years under this
I think we all pretty much know what the stakes are at this point. New York is,
after all, a blue state. It is important to remember that it has been bad before.
Awful. Black people were enslaved and women couldn’t vote, for starters.
The current state of things is discouraging but temporary, as all states are.
It is very important that we use our energy to create the kinds of families and
communities that can stand and act as real counterpoints to what is currently
Peace will prevail, extinction is the only other option. It may take centuries,
but peace is what we need to spend our time cultivating, especially in the midst
of war, when the tendency is to become more and not less obsessed with the things
that divide us.
Are you a vegetarian?
I was a vegetarian for eight years. It was not, ultimately, a healthy choice
for me. Now I support organic farming plus free range and humanely grown chicken
and beef products. I don’t believe in extreme views that do not take the
complexity of human beings’ lives into consideration. Many people do not
live in climates that are conducive to vegetation for instance, and have survived
by eating animals for hundreds if not thousands of generations. Should they,
or their ancestors in this country who have a genetic predisposition to eating
meat, be judged? And what about the insects that are killed and displaced in
the growing of vegetables? Do we not care as much about them as we do about the
animals? Of course, I do not support the inhumane treatment of animals in the
commercial chicken and beef industries. But I also do not support a simplistic,
vegetarian-good, meat-eater-bad philosophy.
I heard you took the name Satya for a while. Can you tell us about this?
For several years I had a very strong Hindu yoga practice. I spent a fair amount
of time at ashrams, living a yogic lifestyle and studying Hinduism. During that
period I felt very drawn to the name Satya, not only because of Gandhi’s
movement of the same name, but because it means truth, which is something I was
searching for at the time. Not necessarily outer truth, but my own truth, my
own clarity, my own system to live by. Taking the name was a kind of reminder,
an inspiration for me to keep going, to keep shedding what was not important
and honing in on what is.
For more information on Rebecca Walker visit www.rebeccawalker.com.
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