From ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ to ‘Flawless’: Ms. Foundation CEO Teresa Younger on the #MyFeminismIs Campaign

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Q & A Human Rights

From ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ to ‘Flawless’: Ms. Foundation CEO Teresa Younger on the #MyFeminismIs Campaign

Regina Mahone

I recently chatted with the Ms. Foundation's Teresa Younger about its new "MyFeminismIs" campaign, the importance of lifting up all-inclusive feminism, and the role of foundations in bolstering movement building.

I declared myself a feminist in the early aughts after my first gender studies class at The College of New Jersey, before I truly understood what my feminism looked like. I just knew it didn’t make sense the way that some people, often women of color, were treated like they were less than some other people and that they had to struggle to access basic things (like a quality education, food, and health care) as a result. Fast forward to today, and I would say that my feminism looks like health and human rights for all and is a movement that centers the voices and experiences of people who are most marginalized, including single Black mothers, immigrant populations, and trans individuals.

The thing is, I didn’t really start to think about what my feminism is until I heard about and took part in the Ms. Foundation’s PSA. The campaign, which officially kicks off Monday, “invites feminists to paint a picture of 21st-century feminism.” And it wasn’t until I started listing what my feminism looks like and sharing that vision with others did I get why this project is so desperately needed. Some people still don’t understand that, ultimately, feminism is about the social, economic, and political equality of all genders, and that regardless of what you wear or read or listen to, it’s about your actions and the actions of others in lifting up those who are most often kicked down.

As Teresa Younger, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation, explained to me via email, while self-proclaimed feminists like Beyoncé and Matt McGorry have “done a lot to raise the awareness of feminism, the overall representation of everyday feminists is broader and more inclusive than what we see in the media today.” As such, today seems “like as good a time as any to push back on the traditional definition and the assumptions about the word to reflect changing times through new forms of social media.” Indeed.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our email conversation about the new campaign, the importance of lifting up all-inclusive feminism, and the role of foundations in bolstering movement building.

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RewireCan you tell readers what the “MyFeminismIs” project is and how it came about?

Teresa Younger: You could say that the MyFeminismIs project started the day I began my tenure as the president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation. Although the concept did not exist at the time, I understood that the Ms. Foundation was uniquely situated as the grassroots organization to build, strengthen, and cultivate the collective voices of all women. In 2014, I began a year-long listening tour around the country and I went to over 45 cities, over 45,000 miles, and spoke with over 600 individuals. I listened as they told me about their work, their communities, and their lives.

Over the course of the year some strong themes stuck out in the conversations I was having with advocates, activists, and grassroots leaders around the country: that people were looking to the Ms. Foundation, based on its reputation and unique positioning as a convener, to be a strong national voice; that feminism was alive and well; and that people wanted to be a part of the larger movement but needed to be invited to the table.

The videos you will see are the result of a 72-hour period, where Ms. Foundation staff recorded interviews with over 30 participants, including advocates, activists, writers, philanthropic leaders, and organizers. Participants included TV host Melissa Harris-Perry, comedian and co-creator of the Daily Show Lizz Winstead, president and CEO of the Victory Fund Aisha Moodie-Mills, and former NFL player and LGBTQ advocate Wade Davis. Each interviewee was asked why they are a feminist, what they believe intersectional feminism looks like, and why they believe in feminism.

But, the videos are not the end of the campaign. We are inviting anyone to tell us what their feminism looks like via social media with the hashtag, #MyFeminismIs.

Rewire: Why do you believe feminism needs a PSA? I mean, was Beyoncé’s “Flawless” not enough? Kidding aside, it would seem as if more public figures today have been coming out in support of feminism than ever before. So, why a PSA? And why now?

TY: Revisiting a very needed conversation around feminism is critical, especially in this day when the values around equality and fairness are relevant. We live in a time when each person holds a responsibility to push for change and challenge and rewrite history/herstory to reflect who we are in an accurate way.

I wish feminism and equal rights were things that had one solution and that we could fix everything in one blow. But as we continue to understand the complexities of the lives of women around the country, the Ms. Foundation is seeing a need to ensure that the work of feminism is more inclusive. Although, as Gloria Steinem says in one of our series of videos, Beyoncé has done a lot to raise awareness of feminism, the overall representation of everyday feminists is broader and more inclusive than what we see in the media today.

One key example is the public’s views of equality and feminism. Earlier this year, in response to the themes I found on my tour, the Ms. Foundation commissioned a public poll where we surveyed the public’s views of women’s leadership, equality, and feminism. We found that 82 percent of all surveyed believed in equality of women and men. In addition, we found that both women and men believed we have work to do for equality, but when respondents were asked if they considered themselves feminists only 16 percent said yes. After hearing the definition we are using in the PSA“the social, economic, and political equality of ALL genders”—that number jumped to 52 percent. Clearly, there is a need to continue educating the public about the definition and spirit of feminism.

The term feminism started getting a negative connotation nearly 50 years ago when men, predominantly white men, controlled the media. This seems like as good a time as any to push back on the traditional definition and the assumptions about the word to reflect changing times through new forms of social media.

Rewire: What is your goal? Are you, for example, hoping to change the minds of individuals who see feminism through a non-intersectional lens, or people who see feminism as a dirty word? Or both?

TY: The majority of the public already believes in the equality of “ALL genders,” we just want to make sure people understand that is exactly what feminism is. The objective of this campaign is to paint a broad, inclusive, and intersectional picture of feminism as we continue to challenge and change the conversation around equal rights. And by “intersectional” I mean that the movement includes everyone, all people who represent multiple identities.

Another key objective of this campaign is to ensure that the full image of feminism is being painted. As you will see in the PSA and subsequent videos, the movement of feminism includes all races, ages, sexes, orientations, ethnicities, and cultures.

Rewire: What is your feminism?

TY: What defines me as a feminist is this core belief that all individuals—men, women, and anyone who defines themselves as outside the gender binary—should have access to the social, political, and economic equality that this world presents to us.

Rewire: What does intersectional feminism look like to you?

TY: I think people have their own impression of what feminism is about, and what its history holds. Many people oftentimes feel that the word itself leaves out the history, leaves out individual voices, and isn’t the most inclusive—and it has been defined in the media by white men. Honestly, at the end of the day I look in the mirror and I’m a Black woman, and I don’t fit that stereotype. That doesn’t mean I am not a feminist. 

The stereotype leaves many asking what is feminism: Many think that it is meant for “some people”—”that’s not us.” Men could say, “we’re not a part of that,” and Black and Asian and Latino women could say, “we’re not a part of that,” because every vision that was put in front of them, as a feminist, has previously been a white, middle-class, “privileged” woman. Intersectional feminism means that we are continuously asking the question: How do we make the table larger? How do we expand the room? How do we ensure that all women’s and men’s voices are being heard while being aware of our differences?

Rewire: Why in this moment is it important to lift up intersectional feminism in particular?

TY: I will say there is nothing particularly special about this moment. Lifting up intersectional feminism has and will always be important; it is something that needs to be continuously discussed. As some of our interviewees commented, the idea of a complex movement has always been important. Marcia Gillespie mentioned in her interview “Sojourner Truth Feminism,” while our vice president of programs, Susan Wefald, mentioned “Third World Feminist” to reference Asian American/Pacific Islander women. What does that mean? It means that feminism is intersectional and lifting that up is the key purpose of the campaign and the broader language. We are lifting up the intent of the word to reflect a future where we no longer need to say “intersectional feminism,” because it is implied.

Rewire: What is the Ms. Foundation’s role in this work?

TY: The core mission of the Ms. Foundation is to build the collective voice of women. Through efforts to amplify the voices of women and our capacity building, we work every day to strengthen and support grassroots movements around the country run by women who are working to build better lives for all women. Feminism, like the lives of women, is a movement that’s forever evolving to continue meeting its core mission of equal rights. So feminists and the Ms. Foundation are always working to broaden our work and paint a more inclusive picture of feminism through our work and our national voice.  

Rewire: What do you say to individuals who believe feminism “is dead”? And what proof do you have to show, as you said earlier this year at the Ms. Foundation Gala, it is “not only alive, it’s thriving”?

TY: What I heard on my listening tour from those I listened to is why I believe that feminism is thriving. I heard, “I believe in equality and I want to be part of a movement but I want to be sure that the movement is reflective of who I am.” Men said this, young women said this… this is the first time when such a large percentage of the population has grown up with Title IX, post-Roe, and with access to education, voting rights, and greater economic security. This is a unique time.

Rewire: How can a person participate in the #MyFeminismIs project?

TY: Simple, the call to action for this campaign is to, “Tell us what your feminsim looks like.” We want people to send us their stories, definitions, and pictures via email, [email protected]org. We also want people to tweet and post what their feminism looks like with the hashtag, #MyFeminismIs. This campaign is about starting a dialogue and we want everyone to be a part of the conversation.