Sometimes, as activists, we get so caught up in the action that we forget to stop and think about exactly why we are doing what we are doing. Most of the time we will know, but maybe we have a hard time articulating it clearly. Actively building theory will help you to more clearly see what problems lie at the root of a given issue, which will help you to know the best ways to tackle it. The more you build theory, it will become more obvious which tactics would be effective to use. You will be a more informed, articulate, thoughtful activist and you will feel more confident in your abilities to make change.
A great jumping off point to building feminist theory is to learn the history of the feminist movement. This will make clear to what has already been accomplished and thus what still needs to be done. It will also help you to see where the women’s movement has failed, which will help you to know which mistakes to avoid repeating. Some great books to get started on this are Tidal Wave by Sarah Evans, The Feminist Memoir Project edited by Ann Snitow and Rachel Duplessis, and This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua.
Another great way to build feminist theory is to read some of the famous theory written by the “superstars” of the movement, like Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millet, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Naomi Wolf, etc., etc. While there really is no substitute for reading the theory by those who wrote it, sometimes it can be helpful to read a compendium. A great compendium of feminist theory is Feminist Thought by Rosemarie Putnam Tong. This book is great because it gives an overview of most schools of feminist thought. The only major exclusion is that of anarcha-feminism (to learn more about anarcha-feminism I suggest reading Red Emma Speaks by Alix Kates Shulman and Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 by Margaret Marsh).
One of the most valuable aspects to being a feminist activist at college is the privilege of having access to a plethora of opportunities to develop theory to inform one’s activism. College campuses are exciting hubs of knowledge just begging to be tapped into, and fortunately for us Third Wavers, we have thirty years of academic feminism to draw upon to inform our personal theory. An amazing opportunity college women have is access to women’s studies and/or gender studies courses. I don’t see how a feminist activist at college could possibly miss out on taking at least one women’s studies class while at school. The classroom environment really lends itself to engaging with the ideas in a big way through reflective writing and discussion. If you absolutely cannot fit a women’s studies course into your schedule, try writing one of your research papers for another course on a feminist topic. This summer I wrote a paper called “Rape, Violence and Masculinity in the United States” that significantly helped me in developing theory about United States rape culture. If you want to read it to get an example of what thinking about or grappling with theory might look like, shoot me an e-mail, and I will be happy to send it to you. While this is a column for feminist activists at college, feminists who can’t afford to go to school might think about auditing a college course (attending class without paying tuition, and thus receiving no credit) or organizing your own class with a group of friends (I am a huge fan of guerilla education).
An additional way for college grrrls to build theory on campus is to tap into the events being put on by campus clubs and offices like Women’s Center’s, LGBTAs and Ethnic Student Centers. A person could get a rich education by attending all of the events on campus alone. Some great programs I attended last year were a Roe v. Wade panel, an undressing stereotypes fashion show for Women of Color Week, the Vagina Memoirs (like The Vagina Monologues, except the cast writes their own monologues and there is a discussion following the performance), and the Night of Testimony, a speak-out held the night before Take Back the Night. Many of my most intense revelations about feminism have occurred at campus events such as these, so it goes without saying that I strongly urge every college womyn to attend at least one every quarter.
Building theory does not necessarily have to entail an academic process. Just journaling about feminism will help you get your ideas straightened out. As a white, middle-class participant in the feminist movement, I am constantly journaling about feminism and race issues. It is such a complex and complicated issue for me that I would be lost without journaling about it. No matter how you go about it, the key to building theory is simply asking yourself why? Why is it necessary for you to do the work you do? Why do these problems exist? Just keep on asking yourself why, and keep on finding answers to your questions. I am so excited for the next wave of feminist theory, and this is why I want all feminists everywhere to be thinking about it. Let’s expand upon the ideas of the past and discover fresh ways to impact the future. Let’s remind the world that feminism never died, that it lives on in Third Wave.
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Brooke N. Benjestorf is a senior at Fairhaven College, an interdisciplinary concentration design program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Her chosen concentration is Feminist Activism and it includes study in writing, film, women’s studies, and social change. When she is not being a feminist activist extraordinaire she loves to hang out with her girlfriends, make art, and take good care of her dog (her best friend), Paytah.