The continuous work of history.
By Kelsey Kitzke
The overturn of Roe is, possibly, our time’s most stark reminder of the resurgence of history. A landmark decision that guided and, perhaps, enabled our understanding of the solidity of historical moments and the forward march of societal progress is no more. What used to be a grim but passing comment about what once was—a pre-Roe America—has become our enduring reality. It is simple to say that history never unfolds in a straight line, but it is harder to say that history is made in the small efforts of the present. As Barnard history professor Premilla Nadasen reminded me, history is an urgent question of the contemporary moment. How do we imagine our past in ways that mobilize our future? How does the focus of our historical thinking prioritize those most marginalized? And what does it mean to engage with feminist efforts of the past both critically and inclusively?
Nadasen faced these questions from an early age. Her political engagement began at 17 after a visit from her father’s friend, a South African who was imprisoned and tortured in Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela for donating $25 to an anti-apartheid organization. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1980s, she became involved in the anti-apartheid movement herself, through organizations led by women of color. As a scholar and historian, she has written about Black women’s often-ignored organizing efforts in domestic workers’ collectives and the welfare rights movement. And at this critical juncture for political organizing on the left, I talked with Nadasen about where we have been and where we have to go.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: How did your early political experiences impact your interest in studying social movements?
Premilla Nadasen: I was an undergrad in the 1980s, and we don’t really think of that as a decade of social movement organizing or activism. With the Reagan-Thatcher era, it’s probably defined more in terms of big hair and bad music and bad politics. But that was the formative decade of my political development. And it actually started when I was 17, and a high school friend of my father’s came to stay with us during my senior year. He was in Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and a lot of other prisoners—he was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience—and he just started talking to me about his time as an activist there. And as a 17-year-old, I was deeply moved by the stories he told me about when he was detained and tortured. I think one of the most vivid things I remember was when he would tell me, “Don’t sit on my right side, sit on my left side because they broke my eardrum when they tortured me and I can’t hear on my right side.”
As a 17-year-old who lived a relatively good life, it was really, really powerful for me to hear that. Out of that, I started an anti-apartheid organization in my high school. But I also think that the question of politics was something I had a gut instinct about from the time I was very young. My family immigrated from South Africa, my mother worked in a factory; we didn’t have a lot of money. There was a lot of gender inequality in our family, where my brother was asked to do certain chores and my sister and I were asked to do other kinds of chores. So I always had a gut instinct about social justice, but I didn’t have words for it and I didn’t have a framework to understand it. As I became politicized, I developed that language and I developed that worldview that helped me understand what I had been feeling for so long.
When I went to college, I was involved in a couple different organizations. One was an anti-apartheid organization and one was an organization that was focused on racism at the University of Michigan. We were a radical multiracial organization led by women of color. And this was in the mid-to-late eighties—so before Kim Crenshaw wrote that famous article on intersectionality, before Patricia Hill Collins wrote her book on Black feminist thought, we were engaged in and practicing intersectional politics and the importance of women of color leadership. And then, on the academic side, I was taking courses that really solidified my thinking and really expanded my thinking. I remember a course that was taught by Aldon Morris, a sociologist, who would help me see how to understand social transformation from the point of view of social movement. We think about history as changing because laws are passed, because we elect presidents who take initiative. But I think Aldon Morris’ course helped me understand how history is transformed from the bottom up.
B&W: When looking at second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s, I think most people now tend to think about it as a movement dominated by white, upper middle-class women and their issues. And certainly it was, but how has your study of the organizing work of Black women at this time changed that idea of what feminism meant?
PN: I’ve always had a fairly expansive notion of what feminism is. So for me, even though I first became politicized around the anti-apartheid movement, feminism was always really integral to what that meant. I first learned about the welfare rights movement in my organizing as an undergraduate. Our organization called the United Coalition Against Racism was addressing the question of racism on campus and the particular experiences of African Americans on campus, but we also started an oral history project in the larger Ann Arbor community. That was a movement that I had not read about or heard about before. The welfare rights movement and the domestic workers movement helped me realize and understand what the practice of intersectional politics looks like on the ground, particularly for poor Black women.
We think of intersectional politics as something that emerged in the 1990s, but I think it was a practice long before that. African American women, Asian American women, Latin American women, Latinx women have been practicing intersectional politics for generations because, for them, the questions of race and gender and class are inseparable. I call [people in the welfare rights movement] “organic intellectuals” because they were articulating a politics of social transformation that sought to critique the welfare system as something that oppressed women. Johnnie Tillmon, for example, wrote a really important essay in Ms. Magazine in 1972 called “Welfare is a Women’s Issue” and that was something that was very novel at the time because nobody in the 1970s thought about welfare as a women’s issue—welfare was a class issue. But what Tillmon was saying in her essay is that welfare is the way in which poor Black women can achieve autonomy, bodily control, liberation—can be able to take control over their own lives.
The feminist movement in the 1960s was so centered on white middle-class women who wanted to liberate themselves from the household, so they wanted to get jobs outside the home, they didn’t want to be tied down as mothers. But for Black women, the history of motherhood and work has been very, very different. Black women under slavery were separated from their children, were denied the right to be mothers, have always worked outside the home at much higher rates than white women. And so that idea of staying home and taking care of their children was not something that they had access to or the privilege to have. And so the welfare rights movement was [for] state assistance to be able to stay home and raise their children. And that was a very different feminist demand than what we normally think of as feminism.
B&W: And it sounds like an entirely different kind of question of bodily autonomy that white feminists at the time were fighting for.
B&W: Does that need to broaden our definition of sexual and bodily autonomy also include a definitional broadening of motherhood?
PN: Yes, absolutely. So, women of color and white women have had very different experiences as mothers. When you read the social work journals and the popular literature [of the 1960s], there were a lot of social pressures on white women to stay home and take care of children, and so the social work journals wrote about how children would be somehow damaged, would feel abandoned if their mothers went out to work, psychological damage to them. At the very same time, there were a lot of social work journals who were writing about why Black women needed to go into the workforce—that if, in fact, they didn’t go into the workforce, their children would experience psychological damage and would not understand the importance of the work ethic. And so we’ve seen a very different language around the construction of Black women as mothers and the construction of white women as mothers. Historically, there has been a lot of pressure on white women to be a certain kind of mother, to be a “good” mother, while at the same time, for Indigenous women, for African American women, for Latinx women, there has been very little support and very little acknowledgment of the importance of their roles as mothers.
B&W: It seems like the opposite, like a denial of the fact that they are mothering at all.
PN: Exactly, exactly. And that has to do with the very long history of their role in the labor force. Because women of color are more often seen as workers than they are as mothers.
B&W: Thinking of contemporary feminism, some people bemoan the fact that it’s become this bloated thing, as I know you talked about in your Washington Post opinion piece, that has every kind of issue under the sun. But at the same time, I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing over what is and isn’t a feminist issue. How do you find yourself determining what is considered “feminist?”
PN: In my academic work and my popular writing, I’ve really tried to expand the notion of what feminism means because I think too often the mantle of feminism has been claimed by white middle-class women, people like Sheryl Sandberg who have a particular vision of feminism that’s really centered on the most privileged women. So my intention has been to say hey, wait a second, there are lots of women who are feminists who practice a feminist politics that are not centered around privilege but are really around economic liberation, about bodily autonomy in different ways. I think it’s important to reclaim the notion of feminism. But at the same time, I don’t want to get caught up in semantics. So my goal is not to debate how we want to use the word “feminist.” It’s really about trying to understand what is the politics around feminist liberation. And for me, the politics around feminist liberation is inclusive in the sense that anyone, male or female, poor or rich, or whatever racial background, can collapse around a radical agenda that is centered around liberating the most oppressed sectors of society. I think it’s important to use the term feminism to reclaim the term feminism; I think that has to sit alongside a genderqueer liberation, alongside class liberation, national liberation, and an anti-racist politics.
B&W: At the same time, I think after Roe was overturned it seemed like it was the embodiment of women’s rights in the U.S. How did abortion became the feminist issue—even the women’s issue?
PN: I think at this very moment, the politics of abortion has kind of become ground zero for political organizing for people on the left. And I think we absolutely have to push back against the Dobbs decision and insist that women have reproductive autonomy, because I think the Dobbs decision is the beginning of what could cascade into more restrictions on not just women’s, but on people’s right to sexual autonomy. At the same time, I think that that notion of an agenda around abortion alone has misrepresented the broader struggle around reproductive justice. The welfare rights movement, as I’ve mentioned—their campaign was around the right to raise children and have the resources to have the right to raise their children. So they fought for state assistance; they also fought against coerced sterilization. Puerto Rican women, African American women, Indigenous women have a very long history in this country of coerced sterilization by either state or private entities. So, I think when we talk about reproductive justice, that includes the right to abortion but it also fundamentally includes the right to bodily autonomy, it includes the right to have a child, it includes the right to contraception, it includes the choice to be in an intimate relationship with whoever you want regardless of gender, it includes the right to live your life however you feel most comfortable regardless of the gender that was selected for you at birth. But in addition to that, we have to look at whether or not people have the resources to be able to make those choices. That includes state resources to raise children, it includes the right to free reproductive health care, it includes the right to gender confirmation surgery, and so we have to think about rights not just in terms of legal rights but in terms of economic support so people can make the choices to live their lives in the ways they feel most comfortable.
B&W: Have you seen that activist knowledge has had an impact on knowledge production in academic spaces?
PN: When I was a graduate student in the 1990s, that was an era of postmodernism. There were very few people, either professors or students, who wanted to address the question of why does this work matter? How does this work impact ordinary people? There was even really this pressure against making academic knowledge accessible or partnering with community organizations. So it was a really alienating time for me because all of my work has really centered on how to uplift the voices of ordinary people, how to make work accessible beyond the academy. I think what I have seen over the past 25 years has been a growing acceptance of engaging with people outside academia. So today, there are more and more people who are engaged scholars or scholar-activists who are thinking about how can I engage with communities? How can community organizing enrich how academics produce knowledge? How can we involve students in what’s happening in communities? Barnard got a grant from the Mellon Foundation for a program called Barnard Engages, which is centered on faculty and students partnering with community organizations for the purpose of furthering the work of the community organization.
B&W: And what is the ideal of academic activism in your mind?
PN: I think there is the kind of academic activism that is extractive, where professors or students go into communities to learn and they take that knowledge and they write papers or books and they never give anything back. There’s an unequal relationship between people in academia and people who are in community organizations. The first thing we have to do is acknowledge that. For me, the ideal is one in which the community organization has equal say and is an equal partner in the kind of work that is produced.
Last year, during the pandemic, I taught a Barnard Engages course with a group called the Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a group for labor-trafficking survivors in Lower Manhattan, mostly Filipino. So [Damayan members] were co-curators of the course, they looked at the syllabus, they helped me decide what readings to assign to students, they decided what the final project would be based on the work they were doing. They asked us to interview labor trafficking survivors and staff members of Damayan and produce a report about the impact of the pandemic on the Filipino community. And that was a report they then used, they shared with their constituents, they shared with representatives on the city councils and other advocates.
I [also] taught a course called the Mississippi Semester, and this was in partnership with a low-income women’s organization in Biloxi, Mississippi. This is an organization that lobbies on behalf of women on welfare and tries to expand child care assistance for poor women in Mississippi. They needed some assistance to develop an index around women’s economic security. So I organized a course so the students could do the research for the organization, and we did eventually produce a report. We went down there for a week over spring break, traveled all around the state of Mississippi to meet with the various stakeholders. Our goal was to really try to understand the meaning of poverty and economic security for poor women in Mississippi. What I wanted the students to learn was actually how to listen, that we as academics are not always the experts, that we have to talk to people on the ground. We have to disabuse this notion of academic expertise and think about how knowledge can be co-created with community organizations and how that partnership strengthens both academia and community organizations.
B&W: Considering the increasingly devastating urgency of questions about our future, what makes history also an urgent question in our present politics?
PN: History is contested terrain. It’s an extremely important foundation for our understanding of the world. We see that in our debates around monuments, we see it in the debates around people who are trying to construct a vision of the history of this country centered on a white republic. In that, there’s been an erasure of the history of Indigenous people, the history of slavery, African Americans, the history of immigration, the history of imperialism. And unless we look honestly at what our history is, we cannot understand the complexity of this nation, we cannot understand the contributions of different groups of people. I think people like Dorothy Bolden and Johnnie Tillmon are inspirational models for us today. We are living in challenging times, but they also lived in challenging times. They were poor women who were not formally educated who had enormous hurdles to overcome to become the kind of leaders that they did eventually become. And when we unearth stories of people like that, it offers us a way [to see] how social transformation can happen. History is not just about the great leaders, not just about people in power, but about persistence, about organizing, about baby steps towards trying to achieve the kind of society we want to achieve.
B&W: History isn’t just in the moments that they put in textbooks, but is happening every day, continuously.
PN: In my classes, I talk about how the framework of the 1960s has actually circumscribed our understanding of social transformation. Because it was organizing in the 1950s and 1940s that laid the groundwork for what happened in the 1960s. So I think we have to think about resistance and organizing as a continuum rather than these short bursts of transformation. Even in this moment, it seems like there’s been a lot of setbacks, but there are still a lot of people who are organizing on the ground: the Damayan Migrant Workers Association, the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, the Movement for Black Lives, the mutual aid work that’s happening all around the country right now. I think we have to embrace and uplift those examples of organizing and we will eventually see the fruits of that labor.