‘My Feminism Starts 300 Years Ago’

By Carla Murphy Sep 15, 2014

"A lot of corporate capitalist feminism begins with the idea that feminism is always starting on the day the person discovered feminism," Tressie McMillan Cottom said to great laughter from an auditorium comprised mainly of white women this past Saturday. The event: Baffler magazine’s all-day conference, Feminism for What? Equality in the Workplace After ["]Lean In<["]. "[But] my feminism can’t start when you discover it, I need mine to start 300 years ago." Cottom’s speech like her writing is quick-and-tart wrapped in personable Southern charm. Audience disarmed, she then goes on to explain that her feminist talking points are wealth not income, followed closely by economic reparations for African-Americans and dismantling the for profit prison complex. After, Colorlines sat with Cottom, a Panther baby and Ph.D. student in sociology at Emory University to talk about the women and work that inform her feminism. While Cottom shared a class analysis with today’s multi-generational crowd she had been clear: beginning the conversation at "Lean In" wasn’t so much uninteresting as extraordinarily irrelevant to the black and brown women she works for.

How do you connect today’s feminism and work conversation around Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In"thesis with the women–mainly moms, low-wage earners and students of color–whom you center in your research?

I couldn’t go tell the overwhelmingly black and brown women that I interview in the course of my research what this conference seems to think feminism is. I really couldn’t.

Explain what you mean.

The typical woman I talk to is doing shift work. In places like Atlanta that usually means at a bank so it has a slightly higher status but, it’s still shift work. She’s working from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, usually customer service. Then she’s going over to [for profit university] Strayer twice a week trying to get a degree. She’s hoping it’ll lead to her becoming a manager, which comes with a more stable schedule. The women I work for, they’re hustlin’–that’s how they describe it. So if I go and tell them something like, "You should lean in." or, "I think Sheryl Sandberg reinvigorates the policy conversation around the work-life balance," these women would laugh me out the room. What do you mean work-life balance?! It ain’t no work-life balance. It’s work. All of it is work! Their man is work. Their kids are work. Work is work. They’re not having it. But! Those are also the women whom I think are living feminism in ways that we don’t talk about.

Or ways that they don’t talk about either?

That’s right. They very rarely call it feminism. But they’ll say things like, they’re starting to make different types of decisions around partners for instance. They need somebody who’s willing to take care of those kids because they’ve just worked 10 hours and are now getting ready to work four more hours at school. So they can’t mess with those boys they used to date. They need somebody who’s a little more invested in helping them do that. So this changes how they look at mating and it does exert some pressure on the dudes. It is changing those [relationship] dynamics but not in ways we always honor or respect as feminist.

You mentioned the recent fast-food strikes earlier. You and your mom went down to a McDonald’s in Charlotte and handed out food and water to the protesting workers. Why?

We’ve always done stuff like that! My mom was a member of the Black Panther Party in Winston-Salem and she grew up in the model of organizing where being a witness was an active thing to do. [That Thursday,] I was driving past, saw the folks out at McDonald’s and so I went home, got mom and we just dropped back [around]. Particularly with everything we just watched in Ferguson, you know what the state and the police state is capable of and I remember thinking, "The people who decided to show up and witness the violence in Ferguson were very important." So, just in case anything happened mom and I thought, "We’d be there."

Help put the fast food worker movement into context. How do you understand it?

We’ve always had this idea of who did that type of work and it was always thought to be a temporary stopgap. Maybe you did it as a teenager or, if you were older then it was to supplement social security. But increasingly this is the work people are doing for the long haul. It’s not a stopgap. And so if that’s what they’re going to be doing, then we need a basement beneath it. We need a minimally acceptable quality of life attached to those jobs. And I think we all are starting to wake up to something that some policy folks and others have said for a while: we’re seeing a permanent structural change in how we live and work.

It’s been two years of protest. How do the fast-food worker strikes fit into policy conversations today?

Not the way I’d like for it to fit. I think the policy line is still that most of these workers are teenagers or young people and that this is their first stepping stone job. But this flies entirely in the face of the empirical evidence. People are supporting families on these jobs. And the jobs benefit from the extent to which the state subsidizes that labor. So they’ve got to start paying into that contract. We don’t have many social contracts left but the few that we have you cannot depend on the state to subsidize low wages and then not re-invest in upgrading the quality of those jobs. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable workers are the ones who have to have that conversation–but look this is a middle class labor problem, too. It just hasn’t gotten to us yet. And I don’t think we understand that.

Give me an example.

There’s not much difference to me between the adjunct crisis in higher education and the labor conversations that fast food and other low-wage workers are having. It’s just that we like to see ourselves as different. We like to see our destinies as different. But they’re the same thing.

In your public writing, you’re often in dialogue with middle and upper middle class white women and your research centers low-income women of color. Do you think of yourself as a bridge between the two?

Hmm, that’s interesting. I’m always very sensitive about this as I don’t want to translate the women that I think I work for. When your life becomes my data, I have some responsibility to you. I don’t want to translate them for the women who’re at this conference today. If I was going to be a bridge I would much rather translate these women to them. Often when you translate people with less power to people who have it, you can end up compounding how marginalized some of those women are. I can see going back and translating high theory and economic policy to the women I interview however. Nothing makes me happier than that.

I read a guest post recently on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog that suggested black feminists tie feminist solidarity to reparations. What do you think about that?

Well that’s what I was trying to put on the table in there today. But I got stuck at universal basic income and I was like, "I think that’s as radical as we could go!" But this is what I meant about an affirmative feminism. Feminism wants to start today. Always. Even the historian in there said, Well feminism started in 1970–and I almost fell out the chair. Like, really? I’ve got black feminists organizing in 1889. But even when we’re talking historical terms we’re not dealing with history. And I think that an affirmative feminism would be precisely that. That says to me, "Don’t talk to me about what I’m supposed to do from today on, start talking about what has been done to me." Then economic reparations becomes a fundamentally feminist policy because it’s about the redistribution of wealth primarily to black women.

Would you make support for reparations a precondition for solidarity with white feminists?

You know what? Yes I would. We always give something up in the building of solidarity with majority movements. We always give up the most to get the least amount of return to our commitment to movements. So, yeah.

Who’re your feminist contemporaries whose work is grabbing your attention?

Audrey Watters is one. She tends to talk about how we’re being turned into data points, the kinds of private data that can be extracted from you on-line without you knowing it and how that is going to complicate our very notions of what group based movements are going to be able to do. We’ve relied so heavily on being able to say statistically, we’re here–and we can’t do that when the data on us is private and they have it and we don’t. Also, Sarah Jaffe at In These Times. She’s so influenced my thinking of what the Left looks like. I’d given up on that as even a possible idea as a politic for a black woman. But Sarah’s re-contextualized that for me.

What are you up to lately?

Writing. I’m writing a book right now about my research around for-profit education.

Tressie McMillan Cottom blogs at some of us are brave.