40 Years After Combahee: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives

This past weekend several Dickinsonians from the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Department traveled to Baltimore for the National Women’s Studies Association Conference (NWSA). The weekend consisted of over 500 sessions of panels and roundtable events from Thursday, November 16 to Sunday, November 19.

The weekend kicked off with a keynote conversation between the fabulous Angela Davis and the inspiring co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza. Dr. Barbara Ransby, the president of NWSA, spoke before the keynote and began by saying “I want to acknowledge that we are standing on stolen land.” This was so powerful to me because I had never heard anyone say that in a speech before, but it’s so important to acknowledge that in the U.S. currently, we are always standing on land stolen from the Native Americans. Angela and Alicia then discussed prison abolition, how power operates in our society, and the Combahee River Collective Statement that was written shortly after the Combahee River Collective was founded by black feminists and lesbians in 1974. For those unfamiliar with it, the Combahee River Collective Statement was a groundbreaking document at the time that described the intersections of different oppressions and how they operate together, not singularly. Kimberle Crenshaw would later term this “intersectionality” in 1989. At the end of their conversation, Angela and Alicia praised each other’s work and inspired the audience to keep fighting for a more just world and not give in to the dark days that seem to be upon us.

Angelica Mishra and Gloria Steinem

The next days were full of interesting and inspiring panels on various topics such as writing for the feminist popular press, reproductive justice, how hashtag activism on Twitter affects black women, and so on. The list of sessions to attend was endless. I attended a talk about radical reproductive justice in the age of Trump, where one of the panelists was Loretta Ross, who is one of the 12 black women who coined the term “reproductive justice” in 1994. She is teaching a class next semester at her college called “White Supremacy in the Age of Trump.” Other panels I attended were about gendered memories and perspectives of women under state terror and war in Latin America, fighting the alt-right, a Women’s and Gender Studies study abroad program in South Africa, and fat studies/fat feminism. Panelists would read their papers or discuss topics amongst themselves, and the moderator would open it up for Q&A afterwards. At many of the sessions I attended, professors from colleges across the country would ask what they could do to better teach their students about institutional and systemic racism and how intersectionality works. It was encouraging to hear that people all around the country are trying to help their students better understand their own privileges to help make the U.S. a more inclusive and loving place for everyone. Of course the subject of Trump came up quite a bit, even though no panelist actually referred to him by name, in order to try to diminish his power and prestige a bit. Even though he was mentioned a lot, I didn’t leave the conference feeling sad about the state of our society under his hateful and white supremacist administration. I left the conference feeling hopeful and encouraged by all the wonderful people who attended, who would take what they learned back to their places of work or universities where they could help influence the next generation. I also noticed little things at the conference meant to make it more inclusive for everyone: maternal care rooms, the no-perfume rule to keep the area allergen-free, and gender neutral bathrooms. Overall, the conference was incredibly inspiring, especially in this day and age, and I think it was just what everyone needed to keep the momentum going for social justice for all!

Written by Angelica Mishra ’19, WGRC student worker and Secretary of the Dickinson College AAUW chapter