By Staff Writer Samantha Wahl
Last Tuesday, the UMassD Center for Women and Gender Studies hosted a panel discussion entitled “50 Years of Feminism: Local, National & Global Perspectives.”
As the title implies, the talk was in part a retrospective on the history of the feminist movement; but more than that, it was also a reflection of the obstacles facing women in contemporary society, and the issues that remain on the table for contemporary feminists.
One may ask, why fifty years? The feminist cause has, after all, existed for centuries. The number, it turns out, has special local significance: 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of UMassD’s Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality.
The Center was founded in 1970 under the name “Women’s Referral Center.” Through the years, the Center has experienced many name changes. In 1996, it was referred to as the “Women’s Resource Center.” 2011 saw it transition into its current incarnation.
The past of the Center was celebrated with the appearance of two of its former leaders: sitting on the panel were Mary Niesluchowska, the first director of the UMass Dartmouth Women’s Center; and Janet Freedman, a former Director of Women’s Studies. Rounding out the Roster was Gail Fortes, who oversees the New Bedford-area YWCA’s as Executive Director of its Southeastern Massachusetts locations.
Each panelist brought a unique perspective to the discussion. Niesluchowska spoke of her time living in Poland, and how a theocratic government affected women’s right to choose following the fall of the Soviet Union.
She, like both of the other panelists, brings decades of activism to the table. Freedman brought her memories of advocating for feminism in the seventies, explaining the concept of consciousness-raising in feminism.
To consciousness-raise is to encourage awareness of social norms-specifically, how they have come to be, and how we may interrogate them in order to make our world more just.
In the words of Freedman, consciousness raising asks: “What is? Why is? What should? How should?” Initially, she remembers, such questions were “trivialized and cartooned as a gabfest for gossipy girls.” She stresses the importance of rising up in spite of such condescension and fighting for equality through activism and advocacy.
Fortes, with her work in the YWCA, brings a unique perspective to the table. In her work with local women, she sees firsthand the need for political involvement and awareness among women, and for education of the next generation.
Through the YWCA (the name, Fortes stresses, is “just letters” at this point; YWCA Centers serve everyone, not just young Christian women, as the name originally stood for), programs are run that raise political awareness in young people, like the ones that bring teenagers to Washington, D.C. to meet political leaders.
This political education empowers the youth; both girls and boys.
Fortes stresses the importance of advocating not only for ourselves, but for others. On the topic of women standing up for each other, she has this to say:
“You have to speak up. You have to find your voice. Even if it’s not you that it’s happening to… just [support] each other.”
Together, Fortes, Niesluchowska, and Freedman paint a vivid picture of a collective lifetime of feminist advocacy.
At the close of her address, Freedman leaves the audience with a set of lyrics from Judy Collins’ “Pass it On.”
They seem appropriate to close this article with, as well:
“[Freedom] doesn’t come down like a bird on the wing.
You’ve got to work for it, fight for it.
Day-and-night for it.
And every generation’s got to do it again.”