Toward a Theory and Praxis of Sustainable Feminism
by Monica J. Casper
In memory of Dennis J. Struck
1. able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
2. involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
3. able to last or continue for a long time
4. capable of being sustained
5. enjoyable, doable
I am a working mom. I need only utter these two words in certain circles to get heads bobbing in enthusiastic agreement. Other working moms know exactly what I mean when I mention, even offhandedly, lack of sleep, inability to concentrate, missed deadlines, disappointed children, infrequent sex, chronic fatigue, recurrent colds, body aches, irritability, acute financial worries, and the persistent sensation of being pulled like taffy in multiple, often competing directions.
To be a working mom is to be perpetually overextended, with never enough ‘self’ to go around.
Unlike some women, though, I do not believe mothering is the hardest job in the world. (I admit to sometimes claiming it is, especially when I’m utterly wiped out; but then it is more of a desperate plea.) The risk of death-by-mothering is lower than, say, crabbing in Alaska or coal mining in rural Illinois. The risk of injury is probably lower than that of professional football player or steelworker. Of course, I am referring here to mothering praxis, and not to morbidity and mortality during pregnancy and childbirth, which is tragically high in many parts of the world. Reproduction, including lack of access to abortion, kills women.
Yet I do believe that mothering is one of the most challenging jobs in the world, in part because it is the most judged. Even the term ‘working mom’—which I use quite deliberately here to foreground labor—is laden with meanings. To mother is to open yourself up to others’ ideas (largely uninvited) of what is right and good and proper in the world. And mothers—especially poor women, women of color, single women, young women, disabled women, queer women, and immigrant women—are especially heavily scrutinized. (They are also increasingly criminalized; see the vital work of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.)
Mothering—like other reproductive experiences, as I have researched for more than two decades—is a fiercely moral and deeply political terrain. Working moms especially often find themselves uncomfortably wedged between the Scylla of traditional—some might say archaic—ideas about gender, and the Charybdis of twenty-first century life, in which over 70 percent of U.S. mothers with children under 18 years of age are in the workforce (for less pay than men). And for many of us, work is not a luxury but a necessity; we work because we have to, even if we also want to. Working moms, like me, thus find ourselves negotiating hazardous landscapes in which we strive to nurture, support, and manage everybody in our lives while simultaneously satisfying nobody, including ourselves.
To open this essay on “sustainable feminism” with a discussion of motherhood as labor is not coincidental. I am a feminist and a writer, in my bones. Yet I am also a mother, a scholar, a teacher, a department head, an editor, an activist, a daughter, a sister, a partner, and a friend. These identities intersect, each shaping the others, and they also battle. They are situational, emerging in context but always present in me. Without straying into the unconstructive motherlympics of “who’s the busiest of them all,” let me just say that my life is hectic and my varied identities are constantly in motion. My life, while rich and full, does not feel sustainable, even on the slow days.
As Adrienne Rich and others so beautifully theorized, mothering is both institution and embodied experience. And yet in both senses of the term, mothering is structurally under-resourced. Whether feminists mother or not, motherhood is a women’s issue and a feminist issue. What makes motherhood sustainable, if indeed it is or can ever be, are the all-too-invisible labors of women who mother, connecting mothering as praxis and labor to other arenas in which women’s work is invisible, unrecognized, and uncompensated. No wonder women are so tired.
I grew up in Chicago and small-town Wisconsin, the daughter of working-class parents. And in the Midwest, you don’t complain about hardship, whether it’s eight feet of snow in the driveway or orthodontia bills or an illness in the family. In the face of adversity, you just keep on doing (and maybe write about it later). Even when terrible, awful things happen, you pick yourself up, take one step forward and then another (if you can still walk), and move on. In my family, we are proudly resilient. We laugh—ha ha!—at tragedy. We’re like those 1970s smiling Weebles toys; we wobble when punched or shoved by life, but we don’t fall down.
This is a valuable survival skill. But it is not sustainable. I learned this the hard way two summers ago when my father died.
When my father died…(oh my, it hurts to type these words). When my father died on August 18, 2012, everything—including my carefully crafted house of survival cards, my modus operandi, my life’s toolkit—crashed down around me. (Crashed down around all of us: my mom, my sister, my brothers, my children, my nephews and niece, my dad’s sister and her family. But I cannot, do not want to, speak for them here. They have their own stories of suffering and loss, and theirs are not mine to share. This is my sorrow, and my story.)
Earlier that summer, I had signed a contract to join the faculty of the University of Arizona, to head the Gender and Women’s Studies Department. For the first time in more than twenty years, I would be living in the same city as my parents, who had relocated from Chicago to Tucson in 2007. I was thrilled. UA also hired my partner, Bill, and we were eager to leave an institution that had become the shiny happy coin of neoliberalism in academia. We arrived in Tucson in early August, in good spirits and ready to settle in. But the very day the movers were arriving from Phoenix to deliver our household goods, my healthy, active 67-year old father was admitted to the ER.
He was recovering from a routine knee replacement surgery and had developed symptoms resembling a heart attack. In the ER, it became clear that he was not suffering from cardiac trouble, but something possibly worse: a life-threatening infection. Those hours in the ER were surreal and fear-soaked and I do not remember all the details. But I will forever be grateful that my father was coherent then. My mom, sister, and I were with him; we talked, we laughed, we cried. He spoke to my brothers, one in California and one in Wisconsin, by phone. My sister and I told him he was the best dad ever. He instructed me, “Answer your phone,” and he told both of us, “Take care of your mom.” When I asked if he was scared, he said, “Yes.”
He underwent surgery that night. The surgeon removed most of his colon (he had developed “megacolon”) and confirmed a diagnosis of C. diff (clostridium difficile). He spent the next two weeks in the ICU, in protective isolation. He was never fully aware again, although I believe he knew we were with him. Specialists came and went, and once they understood we were a family who did not appreciate bullshit, they told us the truth. My father was very sick. And he would likely die. And so my first two weeks in Tucson were spent in a hospital ICU, saying goodbye to my dad.
Some small part of me hoped he might make it, and indeed—surprisingly, given that I study health and medicine—I may have been the last person in my family to understand and accept that he was leaving us. On the last night, I snapped and fled the hospital. I was not with him when he finally left his body. Other family members were there, but I simply could not be.
I regret that now. (“Are you scared?” “Yes.”)
After his death, there were services and ceremonies and remembrances. A trip back to Chicago. A trip to California to scatter his ashes on a bluff overlooking the San Clemente pier—a place he had loved to visit. And there were visits with my devastated mom, both at my parents’ house (where I sobbed like an infant in the garage that had been Denny’s and still smelled of him) and at our rented house in Tucson that he had visited only once. During and immediately after that time, I also began a new job. Edited a book. Enrolled my children in their new school. Cried. Published an issue of TRIVIA. Edited and published essays at The Feminist Wire. Hired a new assistant at work. Cried some more. Started a new book. Completed a co-authored book chapter. Got married. Cried. Mourned my father. Cried. Wrote and published a creative essay. Attended conferences. Didn’t attend conferences. Started projects, stopped them. Traveled to Europe. Came home. Cried.
And started another year of much the same.
For months, I put one foot in front of the other and I moved on. Because this is what I had been taught to do. What I was good at. What I took pride in. We survive, even—perhaps especially—when others do not. We weeble and wobble, but we don’t fall down.
My body spoke to me then. It knew. It told me to slow down.
First, a bout of shingles. Painful and unsightly and somewhat shocking. Because like many, I thought shingles only struck the elderly. Turns out it can also strike the exhausted and immune-suppressed and grief-stricken. I sought treatment, and still I continued my breakneck pace. I needed to work, to focus on the kids and my writing and my many obligations, so that I wouldn’t puddle to the floor in a slick of grief. Then my jaw began to ache, deep inside my cheeks, behind my teeth. TMJ had set in, requiring visits to the dentist and an expensive mouth guard and painkillers. My new physician and her staff kindly instructed me about stress reduction techniques, and I cried in her office and went home and took an anti-anxiety pill.
I kept moving. Work, work, mother, mother, work, work, mother, mother. I did not engage in stress reduction techniques, like yoga or meditation. Who has the time? I preferred wine at night to blur the edges and coax me into a too-restless slumber.
Then my body spoke up again. Loudly.
I experienced heart palpitations. Intense thrumps I could feel through my chest wall. And not just one or two, but hundreds. Every 15 seconds or so for a full day. Then again, for another full day. By the third day, Bill insisted that I visit a doctor. My physician, reached late in the afternoon, sent me to the ER. A heart attack was quickly ruled out (it turns out that presenting in the ER with chest pains lets you jump the line). From there, I posed a mystery to the attending physician. An otherwise healthy 47-year old woman with no history of smoking or drug use (I did cop to the wine), of average weight, and with no family history of heart disease. A corporeal conundrum, I was sent home with a referral to a heart specialist.
The expensive young cardiologist examined me and outfitted me with a Holter monitor, which measured my cardiac rhythms over a 48-hour period. There were some pulses and throbs and blips, but not enough to concern the specialist; the palpitations had reduced in frequency. His diagnosis? Stress. His recommendation? Stress reduction, and less caffeine. (I drink tea, not coffee, but it is my morning ritual, my sustenance.)
I tried. I really did. I set aside ten minutes each day to close my eyes and breathe. I said “no” to requests for reviews, references, and other academic service. I used the balance ball in my office to stretch and release. I replaced my black tea with herbal varieties. I closed my laptop more frequently and took time to gaze at the mountains. I took my children to Starbucks and the public library and we watched the first season of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix.
But I also continued my professional work. I finished another book. I gave several talks. I steered my department through three promotion and tenure cases, a transgender studies search, an academic program review, and various politicized squabbles. My oldest daughter started middle school, which brought a new set of challenges. My neck and shoulders were perpetually sore from being bunched up around my ears. My anxiety spiraled. On a flight home from New York, I couldn’t breathe.
My body was yelling at me to do something I was wholly unequipped to do: “Slow the fuck down!”
One night, I wept from sheer frustration that I simply did not know how to move at a slower pace. I did not have the skills. In learning to survive, I forgot to learn how to sustain. “I just can’t do it,” I cried, also knowing in my gut that there were some duties—my paid day job, mothering my daughters—which would be nigh impossible to let wither. Bill encouraged me. “You can do it,” he urged. My mother blurted, “I don’t want you to die, too!” (Now I could add a layer of guilt to my terrine of emotions.) And my friend LVL advised, “You don’t have to know how to do it. Your body is doing it for you. This isn’t about you making a choice.”
I took a deep breath. And I tried again.
While I was relearning to breathe and listening to my body like a good feminist, I noticed something interesting. Nobody was particularly good at slowing the fuck down. Not me, not my colleagues, not my husband, and certainly not feminism.
While part of the problem in my own life was (and is) a lifelong and ultimately useful habit of surviving, part of the problem is also that I work in spaces that rely on accelerated production schedules. In academia, it’s writewritewrite publishpublishpublish and meetmeetmeet, all the damn time. And not only writewritewrite, but teachteachteach—more butts in seats, because that translates into more dollars. Neoliberalism is alive and well in the nation’s universities. But even in my feminist political work, production is the thing; get the story out, respond to the other side’s advances, make the change, do it now. Now, now now! If we slow down, they will win. So don’t slow down!
Slow the fuck down!
Don’t slow down!
It’s enough to make a woman’s head spin.
Significantly, both at TRIVIA and The Feminist Wire it is invisible feminist labor that keeps these engines running fast. Both publications are labors of love—like much feminist work. Not only are my colleagues and I unpaid for our work with these journals, but some of us (those with resources) actually pay for them. This is in part because we are committed to free and open access; we don’t charge people to submit their work or to read the publications, nor do we pay our authors. (I realize there is much to be said on this latter point.) As a managing editor of The Feminist Wire, my UA professional development funds have paid for the Bluehost subscription ($1500/year) and Submittable ($360/year). I have paid out of pocket and through UA funds for TRIVIA’s webhost ($45/year) and Submittable ($300/year). And I happily contribute $40 per month to The Feminist Wire in order to help ensure sustainability, as do many of my co-editors and a number of our readers. (I share these specific figures at the urging of a TFW friend, to make visible some of the actual costs of doing this work.)
So while I was breathing and trying to recover my body in the wake of my father’s death, I became attuned to the many ways the worlds in which I operate—feminism, academia, publishing, mothering—are not sustainable. Or, rather, they are only made sustainable through the “can’t say no” efforts of those of us who labor on their behalf. In the name of social change, we chew each other up and spit out the bloody parts. We become depleted. And while some of us are laboring to raise our young in ways consistent with our feminist principles, it seems that feminism often eats its young. Some nostalgic ‘second-wave’ feminists mourn the loss of something that was never whole in the first place, while some ‘third-wave’ activists eschew the label ‘feminism’ as out of touch.
We are told we can have it all, to just say no, to lean in, while also being asked time and again to do the work—both inside and outside the home—without compensation or recognition. (I recently agreed to serve as a mentor to emerging sociologists; the ‘thank you’ email asked if I could take on an additional student. No.) A movement, like a family or an industry or a university, that relies on invisible unpaid labor is surely not sustainable—unless one begins to think of workers as replaceable widgets—and it also reproduces systems of contingent labor. Have feminists and scholars and mothers become replaceable widgets under neoliberalism? Valued more for what we produce (i.e., fetuses, babies, articles, books, movements, consumers) than for who we are?
At The Feminist Wire, where we are deeply committed to community and love-in-praxis, we have taken some concrete steps to address the perils of production. We launched a successful campaign to provide funds for TFW to take over payment for Submittable, and we paid our editors a tiny bit of money for their labor. We reorganized our editorial structure, creating teams that will be “on” for a certain amount of time and then “off.” Some folks who weren’t able to commit to doing the work cycled off of the Collective. And we tried to reward folks who were and are doing the work, through small payments for their time and labor. We took a collective breath, breaking for the entire months of December and June—a practice we will continue this year. We wanted to model sustainable feminism—a kind of feminist praxis that is sustainable not only for the journal, but for our own lives. One reader commented, “Now this is work life balance. It is empowering to see women taking care of themselves. Thumbs up!”
And yet, despite the kudos for our efforts, implementing actual systemic change at TFW has been challenging, to say the least. We are not sustainable in even the most rudimentary sense of the term. We do not make money from our publication, which means that as of yet, we do not pay our writers and artists—or ourselves. Being rewarded for ‘doing the work’ often means being tasked with more work. And as associate editor Heather Laine Talley reminded me in response to an earlier version of this essay, “Work is disproportionately accomplished by a small group (rather than unfolding in a truly collective process). And with core members of the collective in financial need, the longterm viability of our current working dynamic is uncertain. Additionally, TFW is another task that folks who ‘do’ take on…The declaration to do sustainability is, in itself, hard. And figuring out how to do it in an era of economic decline and productivism is really fucking hard.”
Audre Lorde famously wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” So what would it look and feel like to practice sustainable feminism? Or sustainable feminist mothering and publishing? What would it look like to engage in the work of care, nurture, and radical progressive change in all its permutations without being “completely used up or destroyed”? And, more importantly, what would it look like to do so while also living to see—and to challenge misogyny, white supremacy, and imperialism—another day, another week, another year, a lifetime?
My ideas about sustainable feminism, spurred by my own multiple embodied entanglements and challenges, are evolving in conversation with friends and colleagues at The Feminist Wire and TRIVIA, and they also build on decades of feminist scholarship, especially by women of color who for whom issues of survival and sustainability have been fundamental. Although still in formation, I want to share here preliminary thoughts about what might be included in a definition of sustainable feminism. To me, these are some of the most basic requirements for making our work sustainable, whether feminism is expressed through publishing, mothering, teaching, writing, activism, or another form of labor.
Pay women for their work. The world runs on invisible women’s labor, as feminist economist Marilyn Waring demonstrated many years ago. Mothering, domestic chores, partnering, writing, activism—these are all typically unpaid labors, especially when women engage in them. When women are paid for their work, they are paid less than men for the same work. What would the world look like if we compensated women for their visible and invisible work? How can we put this into practice in our daily lives as mothers, department heads, editors, publishers, and activists? What would it mean for the future of The Feminist Wire and TRIVIA if we could paid our authors and artists? Who supports the work of feminism, and how?
Practice radical self-care. This means saying no, finding time to breathe and walk and sleep and eat, honoring your body’s needs and desires. It means moving beyond the survival skills so many of us have mastered, to sustaining ourselves and even thriving for the long haul. Fundamentally, it means letting go of the guilt and sense of obligation that surrounds our participation in communities—guilt that others may all too easily manipulate to secure our unpaid (or paid) labor. It’s one thing to say no and not do the work, and it’s another step beyond to not feel shitty about it. Radical self-care means saying no and releasing the guilt—while not completely disconnecting from our communities, which for many of us are vital to our work. But sustainable feminism also means attending to larger structural issues—race, class, sexuality, citizenship status, motherhood—that prevent many women from being able to say no or to step away, and that also contribute negatively to our health status, including racial disparities and chronic stress.
Encourage and support radical self-care in others. When others say no, honor this. Do not ask again and again hoping to secure a ‘yes.’ Give other women the time and space they ask for to do what they need to do. Recognize that exhausted colleagues who burn out do not make for a sustainable movement or a healthy community of allies. Badgering other women to participate on your terms and according to your schedule is not feminist, nor is it sustainable. Operate from an ethic rather than an obligation of care. My TFW colleague Stephanie Gilmore advocates a practice of “cultivating relationships based on mutual care.” This means caring for others but also allowing yourself to be cared for. As my friend Zillah Eisenstein told me, perhaps we need reparations for women, “a break and a hand” so that we do not always have to do it ourselves. Because, let’s be honest here, the horrifying neoliberal version of ‘self-care’ is that we are all in this alone, accountable only to our self and no others—unless we are mothers, in which case other-care is an obligation. A sustainable version of care is that we are all in this together, and we should act accordingly. (With acute awareness that the ‘we’ here is neither guaranteed nor obvious.)
Evolve, change, learn, grow. A sustainable movement (like an organism) is adaptable, not rigid. It is open to new ideas, new directions, new influences, new participants, new language, new relations, new structures. Nostalgic feminism mired in “what used to be” is not sustainable. The past is called ‘the past’ for a reason. This is not to say there is nothing to be learned from history; there is, a great deal, and sometimes astonishingly so. The history of feminism is both necessary and instructive, and it is also deeply inspiring. But attempting to squeeze contemporary feminisms into a unitary Feminism enacts violence against difference (especially racial, sexual, and generational difference) and ultimately fails to attract potential advocates to the urgent cause of women’s freedom. Instead of shaking our heads in frustration that many young women (and others) claim no allegiance to feminism, let’s ask instead how we can make feminism relevant to their lives, which may not look like our own.
Make love, not war. Social movements often emerge from justifiable frustration and outrage, and anger fuels many of us who do progressive work. I’ve spent an entire lifetime operating from a place of anger and resentment. Yet living and acting from the vantage of rage is not healthy. Indeed, it can be destructive to those who rage and hate, whether we work for good or for the Right. Anger makes us reactive and also prevents us from listening, thinking, and planning. We react instead of strategize, strike out instead of look within, fracture instead of connect. What if we acted from a place of love—love for each other, for a better future, and for ourselves? As Darnell Moore and I have written (forthcoming in Ada), “Lovelessness is the epicenter of oppression… love in the time of racism is a radical act that can lead to broader political/social formations and solidarities…”
Build, join, and support coalitions. Consider this: In Texas, you can now be gay married (yay!)–but you cannot secure an abortion; more inmates have been put to death in Texas since 1976 than any other state; it’s one of the most polluted states in the nation; and like my own state, it is a hotbed of anti-immigration sentiment and activity. Texas is an excellent example of why we need to form progressive coalitions. Feminism must join side-by-side with other movements seeking social, cultural, environmental, and economic justice. My TFW colleague Stephanie Troutman notes, “Sustainable feminism…must be connected to self-care and coalition building across difference (race, class, sexuality)…how else can we share resources—both material and intellectual?” Social media makes coalition building easier than ever, as Elisa Kawam-Martinez and others have pointed out.
It’s okay to be wrong. This is a hard one for me. I have built a persona and a career on always being right, which is frankly exhausting. (Simple definition of academia: winning arguments.) It’s also not conducive to healthy partnerships, or to being in community with folks. I’m proud and a bit astonished that in my late 40s, I have finally learned I would rather be in community than be right all the time. To be right is a kind of perfectionism, and it disables love and connection. Unfortunately, our politics are built on right and wrong. And while I absolutely believe there are right and wrong actions and paths, I’ve become more comfortable in the gray zones, the spaces of nuance and contention and difference. For example, I will continue to fight for women’s access to abortion on demand, even while I understand that others may not share my view. At this stage in my life, I’d rather simply do the work than spend time delineating all the ways the other side is wrong–although sometimes, the work is about exposing the lies and violence of the other side(s).
Cultivate a sense of fun. I study trauma, illness, and death, and in my research, the laughs are few and far between. But I enjoy what I do; my work brings me pleasure and satisfaction. And when fun finds me, I make room for it in my life. My partner, William Paul Simmons, is writing a book on joyful human rights, an unstudied topic. Unstudied because we typically associate human rights with pain and abuse. Yet without joy—of survivors, of activists, of scholars—there would be no human rights. At The Feminist Wire, we have fun; being in community means that we support each other, and we try to make each other laugh. We play on Facebook and we send each other funny videos and songs, because we know the work is hard and we need a release. The stereotype that feminists do not have a sense of humor carries a sharp little sliver of truth; often, feminism is deadly serious, officious, and moralistic. (I know, because this is often how I have wielded it.) But feminism can also be fun, and feminist work can be enjoyable. At TRIVIA we also know this, because when LVL, Julie, and I are camped out at my house in Tucson pulling together a new issue, we have a blast. In fact, it’s one of our favorite parts of publishing the journal. A movement without laughter is not a movement I particularly want to be part of, nor is it sustainable. And in the wake of tragedy, laughter has saved my bacon more than once.
Are these the only elements of what I’m calling sustainable feminism? Of course not. But they feel essential and lifesaving and can serve as a working foundation, a blueprint if you will, for shaping feminist labors going forward. Just as I will always be a mother, I will always be a feminist. Since I was eleven years old and declared my faith in ‘women’s lib’ to the local newspaper after I won the school spelling bee, I have fought, written, and acted for the betterment of girls and women’s lives. But as I move into the second half of my life, I intend to be a sustainable feminist—for my daughters, for myself, for my communities, and for a more just world. In the words of the late beloved poet Maya Angelou, “Nothing will work unless you do.”
(With gratitude to Julie Amparano, Tanya Casper, Zillah Eisenstein, Stephanie Gilmore, David Leonard, Tamura Lomax, Darnell Moore, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, William Paul Simmons, Patricia Struck, Heather Laine Talley, Stephanie Troutman, and Linda Van Leuven for engaging with this essay, for fueling my feminist imagination, and for sustaining me in untold ways.)
This was originally published in TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism. Used with permission.
Contributed by Monica J. Casper