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January 2005
Riding the Third Wave
The Satya Interview with Rebecca Walker


Rebecca Walker
Photo © David Fenton - 2003
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 backgrounds represented.

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 wealth.

You describe yourself as a feminist but not a Feminist, can you elaborate on that distinction?
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 Imagine the 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 administration?
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 going on. 

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 Rebecca would love to hear fromSatya readers—feel free to sign the guestbook and blog on.


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