Interview with Dr. Gail James

Elahe Amani

2021-02-28  

Dr. James, I know you received your B.A  in History and Political Science from Elmira College, New York, and your Ph.D. in French Literature from the University of Arizona. You also studied abroad at the Sorbonne, University of Paris.  Where did you first get involved in working for women’s rights advocacy?

My first awareness was in college, when I first realized that my parents raised me to be a person, not a wife and mother.  I felt freer than my peers, less bound by social norms.  Also, I attended a women’s college, where everyone had an opportunity to step forward and engage.  Then, as the Second Wave of Feminism was taking energy in the 70-80’s, there was an effort to recruit and train young women for leadership.  I was then selected for “Leaders for the 80’s,” a college program to improve the status of women in administration.   I grew to realize that feminist advocacy involved personal reflection, leading to a “perspective transformation,” so that we could see ourselves clearly as independent, confident and accomplished leaders.  I then began to serve on boards that served the interests of women and girls, and to bring diversity and inclusion into the white male-dominated domain of higher education. 

I know you were honored to be in the Political Hall of Fame.   Why is women’s political participation important?  

As Martin Luther King has noted: “ I cannot make you stop hating me, but we can make laws that stop you from lynching me.”   This is a powerful vision of why the continuous evolution of ideas into policy and law makes such a difference in people’s lives.   Human rights, political power and policy directions are crucial to women’s interests in the political sector.  Why are women still only 25% of legislative leadership?  Who will decide?  Who will act on behalf of the under-represented, the marginalized?   Whose voices will be heard?  This is why we encourage civic engagement and active participation in communities, workplace governance and in the political sphere.  As we say in training: “Vote!   Then, Do More Than Vote!” 

We all were counting down to January 20, 2021, for the last four years.  This new chapter in the politics of this country was made possible by many, including millions of women of this country.  What you think should be the priorities of this administration for women and girls? Your wish list?  

I believe that all issues are women’s issues.  Therefore, we are not only interested in pay equity for women in the workplace, but we must pay attention to the income inequality that this country is facing.  Economic justice is not just a campaign slogan, but a fundamental priority.   For me, securing the Equal Rights Amendment and ensuring reproductive justice will guarantee that women – their human rights, bodily autonomy and personal safety – will promote the general public welfare.  I am pleased to note that this administration has re-established a Gender Equity Council, which will develop the research essential for women and girls in education, environment, health and work that is so needed, as well as workable policy plans to move forward for improvement.

Dr. James, you are a true change maker.  In addition to serving higher education institutions for 36 years, you also served the non-profit sector in a whole host of organizations that all shared the same values predominantly on the empowerment of women, girls, and other marginalized groups. You also are a founding member of the Women’s Intercultural Network in 1994.  What was your motivation? How did you connect with Marilyn Fowler and Eileen Hernandez to establish the Women’s Intercultural Network?

I met Marilyn Fowler in 1976, when we worked together on a grant to recognize women during the US Bicentennial celebration.  She drew me into her circle, connecting me to her “tribe,” as she called her friends and like-minded colleagues.  This was her pattern, and why she excelled at organizational development, building networks and coalitions, training young women, and most importantly, creating life-long friends and admirers.   By the early 1990’s, we had collaborated, shared friends and interests, traveled together and rejoiced as the 2nd Wave of Feminism evolved.   Through Marilyn, I met Eileen Hernandez, Fay Wattleston, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug, some of the great foremothers of our time.  In 1994, we attended a conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on International Women’s issues, where the Women’s Intercultural Network was conceived, in collaborative commitment to global women’s lives. Marilyn saw the critical need for diverse groups of women to come together, to interact in collaborative networks, not hierarchical organizations.   By 1995, upon return from the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Marilyn had WIN ready to implement the Beijing Platform for Action via CAWA, the California Women’s Agenda.  Since then, WIN has established itself as a lead voice for “local-global” women’s activism and networking.

 I know you contributed to Cities for CEDAW locally, nationally and you even attended global meetings of CEDAW in Geneva.  What does CEDAW mean to you?

I believe that human rights are local: they play out in how people are treated in workplaces, schools, housing, communities.  Therefore, when we can enhance human rights at the grassroots level, then we are truly reaching people’s lives.   So, when Cities for CEDAW was launched in 2014, it represented a pathway to addressing the discriminatory practices at the municipal level, where a city ordinance could affect positive change.   This, to me, was an immediate and direct approach to assuring equity, safety and empowerment for women and girls in our localities.  The opportunity to meet CEDAW advocates in Geneva led me to appreciate that human rights activism is vibrant across the world, and that we have so much to learn from each other’s experiences in the fight for equity and social justice.

You are on the Executive Board of WIN, what are your aspiration for WIN?

I am committed to re-animating Marilyn Fowler’s legacy of connection and cross-cultural activism, by making WIN as relevant in the 21st century as it was at its inception.  I see WIN’s potential as a fulcrum of implementing Beijing Platform for Action and Cities for CEDAW on the national level, and to connect across cultures for global solidarity among women and girls. My vision coordinates with WIN’s mission to activate the Global Circles, the UN connection and to spur on the national Women’s Agenda that is so needed to move us forward.   I want WIN to incarnate the “go-to sisterhood” that Marilyn Fowler envisioned over 25 years ago.  Her legacy will stay relevant, if we carry forward the torch, actively looking ahead.

As an inspiration leader, what is your message for younger women who are striving for gender equality?

For me, women’s issues make us citizens of the world.  So, my message would be to get interested in the world around us, be a learner, get informed, get prepared, to make your voice heard.   The messages of feminism are clear:  equal means equal, our bodies are ourselves and must be respected, sisterhood is powerful, patriarchy is based on fear, which is the mind-killer.   Fear is paralyzing, so deal with your fears, and find a way to move forward.   When in doubt, think of what our dear mentors, Marilyn Fowler and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would do:  keep going, keep fighting, keep focus, use your brain and voice to make our world better.  Also, as former Texas Governor, Ann Richards, used to say: “Prince Charming isn’t coming. So make your life matter.”  I would add one more thing:  Give yourself the gift of personal power and meaning. 

Thank you, Dr. James.

 

 

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