A lot of discussion about WAM! is going on. Some of it's in public blogs, like here, and here, here, here, and here. (I know, that's a lazy way of linking, but I'm tired....) Also here. (OK, I promise I'll stop that.)
A lot of the discussion is also happening over email, and so it's not public. I've participated in some of this email discussion, but in the interest of being open about my perceptions, I'd like to mention some of the things I've written about in emails…
This was my first WAM! experience, so I have no direct points of comparison. In all honesty, I've outright avoided WAM! up until this year. Here's why...
When I first learned of WAM! a few years ago, one of their sponsors was Whole Foods Market. That was my first clue that WAM! did not promote the kind of feminism I adhere to—one that includes in its conception things like labor/workers' rights, local economies, community-building...
In the interest of full self-disclosure, Whole Foods has long been a particularly sharp thorn in my side. I've participated in efforts to raise public awareness of their history of violating workers' rights, destroying local economies, food webs, and small farms, strategically opening stores in communities where small local grocers and co-ops are struggling to survive. I was also involved in a grassroots and community-based unionizing campaign at one of their stores.
Anyway. So I was suspicious. And pessimistic and jaded—I'd had enough experiences intended "for women" and "for feminists" to know how far out in the margins I am with my belief that feminism isn't all about "women," and that any feminism that doesn't critique privilege, power, elitism, state violence—capitalism—is, frankly, not only a waste of time but totally destructive to movements for actual social change.
And indeed, the email list affiliated with the conference and reports from politically radical friends and colleagues who'd attended provided truth to my assumption that the prevailing type of feminism at WAM! would be disconnected—from things that should be central to it, like racial/economic justice, from challenging privilege, from critiquing state violence… I don't mean to imply that there wouldn't be exceptions. Nor do I mean to imply that it's solely the obligation of the conference organizers to change this culture. Like many nonprofits, the Center for New Words—of which WAM! is a program–is working within the confines of having a tiny budget, a tiny staff, and a tiny amount of resources.
Moving on... I decided to attend WAM! this year.
And I'm very glad I did. I met a number of amazing and inspiring folks. I was touched by the number of people who came up to me to tell me how valuable Bitch is in their lives, and touched further by the number who asked how they could support our work. I'm incredibly grateful to WAM! for offering scholarships to those of us in financial need. I'm grateful to other folks who, despite their misgivings, took a risk and gave it a chance—in particular, women of color/queers/radicals/young folks/anyone who feels marginalized and left out of feminism.
I attended a few phenomenal sessions—most notably one on empowering youth through media. I was thrilled to sit in a packed room of mostly young people (a number of whom were actually still in high school) who were invested in feminism and media justice. I was profoundly moved to listen to their stories and experiences—trying to understand what it's like to be a politically aware and active teenager in this age of reality TV, celebrity worship, and suffocating commercialism in every open space. Hearing young women of color talk about how damaging shows like Flavor of Love are to their lives, to their perceptions of beauty and relationship expectations was incredibly moving. Heartbreaking.
I was thrilled that so many people came out at 9am on Sunday to participate in a discussion about how to grow and sustain mission-driven feminist/social change-oriented media: in the room were folks from New Moon (a magazine for "girls and their dreams," ad free!), Make/Shift (an awesome new politically radical feminist magazine, of which the incredible Jessica Hoffman co- edits/publishes), Shameless (a magazine out of Toronto aimed at girls and young women but with writing so great it's engaging for all ages), In These Times (one of the few publications importantly focusing on labor/union/workers' rights), $pread (the only [I think?] magazine specifically about sex workers and the sex industry); also the wonderful Tara Roberts of the-now-defunct Fierce (who's now an editor at Cosmo Girl; talking to her reminded me of how essential it is to have feminists involved in mainstream publications like this), the ever-dedicated and tireless Jen Angel of the-now-defunct Clamor.... Near the end of the discussion, I even recognized the voice of someone from my entry into the world of feminist publishing, the publisher of the Minnesota Women's Press, where I volunteered many, many years ago. Unexpected! Audacia Ray and Amber Rhea "live blogged" the session (a concept I hadn't even heard about), and we even had a question from someone following the live blog. Coooool...
Overall, in terms of my own politics and identity, I felt tremendously out of place (as, among other things, a radical, as a queer, as not-class-privileged, as someone who doesn't really identify with the label "woman," as someone who finds the schmoozing-aspect of conferences, well, kind of tacky). I was frustrated at the overall energy of the conference, in terms of how feminism is (and, more importantly, isn't) conceived. I was dismayed at the number of people who, frankly, seemed solely interested in promoting their work, uninterested (unaware?) of the deeper struggle, oblivious to the fact that really, shouldn't we all be "working" ourselves out of work?
When this discussion came up on the email list affiliated with the conference, lots of folks jumped in to express what an amazing experience it was for them, especially folks who work within mainstream publishing and face every day the horrors of blatant sexism, misogyny—things I am extremely lucky to not be confronted with overtly, hourly, in the relative "safety" of Bitch. I'm grateful for them that they have this space—one weekend a year—to strategize about things like dealing with those experiences and figuring out how to get more feminist voices in the mainstream.
Others added that lots of folks coming to WAM! are totally new to feminism, so find the space almost revolutionary, compared to what they're used to.
Wonderful, I say.
But. There are other people who didn't have such a great experience (and some who had a downright painful experience), and it's critical that those voices are heard and that we make change.
As I explained on the email list, yes, of course it's essential to make a space that feels welcoming to people just beginning to come into an awareness of feminism. But equally important is to create a space that feels welcoming to those of who are way past that point, who see the need for systemic change, and are trying to do something about it. And especially welcoming to those who've been marginalized and left out of "feminism." And when these people are telling you they don't feel welcome, or they have criticisms, that's a huge problem that we all have an oblgation to deal with, especially those with the power to do something about it.
As I also explained on the list, frankly, over the past several years, it's been increasingly difficult for me to even call myself a feminist. As I'm endlessly saying (in fact I think this is the third time in this post), I think feminism without capitalist critique is not just a waste of time, I think it's absolutely destructive. I think the reluctance (and too many times outright refusal) on the part of "professional feminists" to engage with the hard work of facing the clear strains of, among other things, racism and class privilege within feminism/within themselves is beyond fucked up.
Perhaps part of the conference could be a session teaching self-awareness skills? I'm only half-kidding.
It's deeply disturbing to me that it's so difficult to find like-minded people at conferences like this. And more disturbing to discover (again) the unwillingness of those with the power to listen, to yield, to make space. I know it's true that people don't concede power without a struggle. But damn. Sometimes it just seems like it shouldn't be this difficult.
I hope the folks who went and felt marginalized won't give up yet. I really do think there's potential in this space. I appreciate WAM!'s "big tent" approach; it offers an amazing opportunity to bring folks together with all sorts of perspectives, backgrounds, approaches. And it's an amazing opportunity to radicalize people.Anyway. I'm losing steam. There's so much more to say, but I'll end for now.