By Jenny Baker, Margaret Allen, and Maureen Dyer
Activist Intellectual Cluster Group of the Fay Gale Centre
The three of us have been interviewing ourselves, following bell hooks’ example, in order to reflect and consider the circumstances and social connections that lead to our own social activism, defined here as a form of social caring.
bell hooks/Gloria Watkins
‘GW: Why remember the pain, that’s how you began?
bh: Because I am sometimes awed, as in finding something terrifying, when I see how many of the people who are writing about domination and oppression are distanced from the pain, the woundedness, the ugliness. That its so much of the time just a subject – a “discourse”. (hooks 1990:215)
I grew up in a deeply gender segregated world. But as a white girl in a fairly comfortable family, mine is not a story of personal pain, but rather largely one of learning of the other’s pain and injustice. I was the first from my family to go to University. The Vietnam War was a radicalising experience. I learnt of US imperialism and the military/industrial complex. Involved with Aboriginal families through the Methodist Mission, I learned about systemic racism. I was active in the academics’ union 1982-1994, working to control casualisation.
The women’s movement changed my life, giving me a political frame for understanding myself and society in general. As Judith Newton wrote,
‘ “The scales fell from my eyes.” … it felt like a moment of empowerment, not of impotence. Dominant and totalising theories were not objectively true; they were informed by male bias. Our identities had been culturally constructed, and we were not alone.’ (Newton 1988:93)
Being part of a cohort of like-minded women made it easy to explore new ideas and to move forward together. My work in introducing and growing gender studies was always a joint effort, carried on with other women.
I grew up working class, on the largest housing commission estate in England. None of my family had been to high school and my father had little belief in girls’ education. At the 11+ examination, no-one at my primary school was completely successful. I was interviewed, getting in by the skin of my teeth. I later learnt how culturally specific the 11+ was, and that whole forms succeeded in middle class areas. I had so internalised the dominant hegemony of class to see myself as a somewhat inferior girl who did not really fit in.
But I worked hard and with the encouragement of a sympathetic teacher, I applied and succeeded in getting into university. Again I felt completely out of place; especially in the Residence Hall. There were very few working class girls, and none with a cockney accent. The Warden asked if I felt I was in the right place for someone like me.
Becoming an activist involves an awareness and experience of discrimination, and understanding the systematic exercise of power. Through postgraduate studies, I became conscious of the class discrimination I had suffered. My light bulb moments came from reading Sennett and Cobb’s work on class (Sennet and Cobb 1972) and through the Women’s Movement of the 70s when I put this together with gender discrimination. Since then I have worked to end such patronising attitudes to working class children.
From my earliest memories my family were in a state of disintegration coping with events in their lives: my Mirning Aboriginal mother in her late 30s suddenly with two baby daughters 11 months apart coming ten years after four older children; the family moving to the city in the late 1940s from a farm in a remote country region into a one-room shack and a small caravan, close friends, horses and dogs left behind. These were some of ‘the straws that broke’ the spirit in our family. The death of my seventeen year old brother on a motorcycle four years after moving to the city sealed that sadness that seemed to linger in our lives. My sister and I grew up with our non-Aboriginal father and the four, and then three, older children had difficult lives working out where they should live.
Why remember the pain or is it possible to not remember the pain? Is it the pain that leads to activism and social caring or is it education and radical analysis that enables that to happen. Unfortunately an analysis that examines the intersection of ‘race, class and gender’ is unavailable for many people trying to battle pain and dislocation in their lives as it has been for my three older siblings. Those moments when’ the scales fall from your eyes’ and you become aware of the relationship between ‘power and knowledge’ (Foucault) are radicalising and they provided me with a new understanding of ‘care’ (Narayan 1995).
People need to care in order for a process of caring to begin (Tronto 1995). It requires ongoing political struggle to keep ‘caring’ as the grounded basis for any society and not simply a discourse within caring professions. Revisiting one’s journey to social caring has involved a re-valuing of our past in the context of today, so thank you bell hooks.
Derrida, J. (1998 (1981)). Geopsychoanalysis: “… and the rest of the world”. The Psychoanalysis of Race. C. Lane. New York, Columbia University Press.
Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge. London, Tavistock.
hooks, b. (1990). An interview with bell hooks by Gloria Watkins: No not talking back, just talking to myself. Yearning: race, gender and cultural politics. b. hooks. Boston MA, South End Press.
Narayan, U. (1995). “Colonialism and its Other: Considerations on Rights and Care Discourses.” Hypatia 10(2): 133-140.
Newton, J. (1988). “History as Usual? Feminisms and the New Historicism.” Cultural Critique 9(Spring).
Sennet, R. and J. Cobb (1972). The hidden injuries of class. New York, Vintage Books.
Tronto, J. (1995). “Care as a Basis for Radical Political Judgments.” Hypatia 10(2):