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Fresh from participating in a panel discussion at a Chicago screening of Chisolm ‘72: Unbought and Unbossed, feminist writer and organizer Amy Richards describes how she and co-author Jennifer Baumgardner arrived at the idea for their latest book.
Too often, Richards explains, progressive speakers passionately outline a problem, only to resort to the “generic three” answers when asked what comes next: Call your politician, donate money and volunteer. Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism, published in January, is the result of years of fielding such questions from frustrated audience members.
“The political left is at a stalled moment,” Richards says, “not because there is a lack of passion and not because there is a lack of issues, but because there is a lack of ideas.”
The answer, Richards and Baumgardner suggest, is more localized activism, tailored to each person’s circumstances and resources. “We believe that activism is by definition profound, a big deal, revolutionary,” the duo writes. “However, we are challenging the notion that there is one type of person who is an activist — someone serious, rebellious, privileged and unrealistically heroic.”
The tone and structure of Grassroots reveal the ethos of Richards’ life: that politics should emerge from and be embedded in one’s everyday experiences. Drawing from the authors’ own trajectories — from young Third Wave feminist pioneers to thirty-something mothers and professionals—Grassroots tells its story in chapters that organize activism along the life course. The narrative is peppered with anecdotes from activists who wrote in to Richards’ online feminist advice column, “Ask Amy,” and describes the authors’ personal experiences, from meeting at Ms., to writing their last book, Manifesta, to co-founding Soapbox, a lecture agency for “speakers who speak out.”
The result is a bit like the conversation with Richards herself: warm, engaging and — studded as it is with personal asides about famous feminists, East Coast colleges and friends with nannies — more than a bit redolent of privilege. As white, educated and well-connected activists, Richards and Baumgardner have been dogged by accusations of elitism ever since Manifesta was published in 2000.
Richards, whose upbringing included both stints on welfare and in private schools, candidly addresses this issue in Grassroots: “As soon as someone is successful, he or she is often accused of being too privileged to be radical. I don’t fall prey to that critique anymore because I know from my own experience that I am using what privilege I have to expand resources to others.”
But questions of class popped up again last July, when Richards wrote a controversial article for the New York Times Magazine detailing her decision to undergo “selective reduction,” a procedure that reduces the number of fetuses that a pregnant woman is carrying — in Richards’ case, from triplets to one child. The procedure has become more common as women on fertility drugs experience potentially dangerous multiple conceptions. But Richards’ reasons for her decision, based in part on fears of threatening her career and having to “start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise,” struck a nerve.
Anti-abortion activists demanded that the New York Times issue a correction disclosing Richards’ identity as a feminist and abortion-rights advocate, and argued that the term “selective reduction” masked her choice to abort in order to support her own lifestyle. Even pro-choice advocates found Richards’ ethical reasoning difficult to navigate. A blogger at Feministing.com wrote: “I wondered how Richards could ‘get rid of two of’ her pregnancies, just because she didn’t ‘want to’ have them. And then it dawned on me. That’s the entire point! What’s right for another woman may not be right for me. And that’s why reproductive freedom and choice are so crucial.”
“From the left’s perspective, I wasn’t sympathetic enough,” says Richards. “I should have played up the fact that I was really poor, or it was medically dangerous. … This comes from the same movement that always argues, ‘It’s not just poor black women that have abortions!’ ”
Navigating this storm, along with the challenges of raising her son, have prompted Richards’ next book, currently titled Opting In: The Case for Motherhood and Feminism. Writing in reaction to another high-profile New York Times Magazine article, Lisa Belkin’s “The Opt Out Revolution,” Richards will explore contradictions between feminist rhetoric on mothering and activist reality.
Richards’ confessional brand of activism isn’t for everyone, but her life remains admirably consistent with her rhetoric. As the prologue of Grassroots encouragingly concludes, “The real portrait of an activist, after all, is just a mirror.”
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