Zillah Eisenstein: Unabashedly feminist

Zillah Eisenstein Zillah Eisenstein may have spent decades lecturing at various educational institutions — Cornell University and Ithaca College in the US to name a few — but she refuses to define herself as an academic.

“The academy has never been activist. That’s why I would never call myself an academic. An academic is you want to talk about ideas but kind of not related to practicing them,” she said Wednesday at a gallery in South Jakarta.

Eisenstein had just wrapped up a discussion titled “Gender Trafficking, from the Bronx to Jakarta” that night.

Attended by about 100 people, the discussion stumbled at times, with both participants on the audience floor and Eisenstein saying they had a hard time grasping what the other was saying.

Nevertheless, some audience members found themselves intrigued by her ideas and were still discussing them later that evening.

Eisenstein herself dubbed these ideas “big ideas that I am not really all that sure about, but I am sure that we need to be thinking about them”.

Bite-sized samples of her thoughts include that there are now “transnational mothers and families” thanks, at least partly, to the new global economy; that niqabs and burqas tell the story of the enormous potential power of women; and that the radical right across the globe “knows the consequences of women’s changing transnational genders and families. What else could explain the hypocrisy of today?”

She also tried that evening to draw a connection between the beheading of Indonesian migrant worker Ruyati Binti Satubi last year in Saudi Arabia and the accusations against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly raping a hotel maid in the United States the same year.  

“The movement and migrancy of women’s labor as domestics — paid in hotels and private homes — the question of sexual violation and inadequate systems of protection and power, exist at the very same time in which the globe is promising a new form of global equity,” Eisenstein said.

That her “big ideas” thrown out early in the discussion prompted some lasting frowns on participants’ faces might be an acceptable consequence of the very nature of Eisenstein’s thoughts lately as she described them in her keynote address titled “Audacious Feminisms: Newest Sexes, Races, Genders and Globes” for the Australian National Women’s Studies Association conference in Adelaide, Australia, in June of 2010.

“My thoughts today are chaotic and fluid as they should be. I ask that you move with me from the body to the globe; and the globe to our bodies that are raced, sexed, gendered and so on. Everything is changing and nothing changes. Both of these statements is true, and also not true. It is also true that either way — changing or not — times are unsettled and unsettling. Yet, with the uncertainty comes new possibility,” she said then.  

Describing herself as “an anti-racist, feminist activist”, Eisenstein said that she had been involved with political movements almost all her life. This acceptance of taking a stand on issues one is concerned with links her even closer to activism than the academic world, which she perceives as requiring one to be more or less neutral.

“If someone says to me I’m going to be subjective, I’d say, ‘excuse me, how can you not be subjective?’ This idea that there is an objectivity to life … No. There is a complexity of life and then take a stand … That’s as opposed to normally the term academic, [which] means that you are willing to stand away,” she said.  

Her parents’ involvement in the US civil rights movement also influenced her early thoughts on life and partly inspired her to take up political science as her undergraduate major at Ohio University and a PhD in the same subject at the University of Massachusetts.

“I was brought up by communist parents … I lived a pretty difficult life in the US because of that,” Eisestein recalled.

The ideas of Karl Marx and the like thus played a part in shaping her political views. However, she soon became dissatisfied with them as she discovered feminism.

“I became a feminist when I was quite young. In the 1970s in the women’s movement, that was really when I started becoming an activist and writing. My first book was really criticizing Marxism for needing to be feminist … saying that Marxism wasn’t enough,” Eisenstein said.  

Zillah Eisenstein
Her list of authored books, aside from The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism published in 1981, includes Manmade Breast Cancers published in 2001 and The Audacity of Races and Genders: A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Election published in 2009.

“All of my books talk of different moments. I was involved in the anti-war movement, in civil rights struggles, I became an AIDS activist at one point when AIDS was … a problem in the US and people were being discriminated against…” Eisenstein said.

Despite her refusal to be identified as an academic, she has been involved in work at various educational institutions, from an instructor at the University of Massachusetts in 1972 and 1973 and a visiting professor at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC in 1981 to an appointed professor of politics at Ithaca College — a position she still holds.

Although she has been involved in the feminist struggle all her life, Eisenstein said that the other issues preoccupying her lately involved wars, particularly ones waged by the US.

“I have fought against the Afghan and Iraq wars. That has been my priority during the late decades,” Eisenstein said.  

Her work has taken her to different parts of the globe, including Bosnia, Cuba, India, France and Egypt. “My politics at the moment is to see as much and be as inclusive as possible to the variety of struggles to make this a habitable world…” she said.  

Eisenstein cited the example of Egypt’s latest protests as one of the “variety of struggles” in which she saw women playing vital roles.  

“The struggles go on. That’s what politics is, you engage where you can, at least for me,” she said.

Dina Indrasafitri
The Jakarta Post, 1/18/2012


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