3.31.2020
International Women’s Month: Conversations About Feminism
Here’s to strong women - may we know them, may we be them, and may we raise them

When we began to mark Women’s History Month in early March, we had little idea how much our lives - and work environment - would change in a few short weeks due to COVID-19. It was then that we asked women across Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights how they define themselves as feminists. 

Many - now juggling the added demands of simultaneously parenting and working from home and juggling the healthcare challenges of themselves and their loved ones - still found the time to respond to these queries, illustrating an amazing ability to multitask at the most difficult of times. In this spirit of community, here’s a look at their inspirational and uplifting responses.

Alfre Woodard: Artist, activist, member of our Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Leadership Council

Who was your female role model growing up?

I grew up at the tail end of segregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Back then, the best and brightest African-American women taught school. That was all that was allowed to them. Today they’d be in boardrooms, legislatures, officially running the world. I reaped the benefits of that horrible injustice. They stood before us in their knit suits and pumps and insisted that their little charges strive and work to our full capacity. They expected great things from us and we delivered. My Ralph Bunche Elementary and Marian Anderson Jr. High School teachers were bold, self aware in-charge, and confident women. I remember every one of their names, from kindergarten through ninth grade, and what they taught me in the particular year. 

I’ll also never forget seeing Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech at the Democratic National Convention when I was 12 years old, as she called out America’s refusal to grant black citizens the right to vote. Lyndon Johnson was spooked by her -- he tried everything to block the media from hearing her voice. She, who had taken torrents of blows and degradation, told the truth, exposed the nation’s shame, dared it not to right the wrong; thereby setting in motion the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s the very same act that to this day, we are fighting to protect. That is when I realized I could exercise a power outside of my small life. It was scary. At the same time, I wanted to be like that.

What do you consider your personal motto to be? 

I don’t have a personal motto. I am visited by Angel thoughts daily, hourly, that inspire me, challenge me and encourage me. People are reflecting truths all around me and I recognize them when I hear them.

Could you complete this sentence? The feminist future I'd like to see includes....

The feminist future I’d like to see would be an elevated thought that belongs to all the genders. That means a legacy Inherited from women who waged the struggle, insisted and persisted until the recognition of the innate femme power, MotherWit and strength that manifests itself by securing the whole family, has now become a people thing. It’s also natural, everyone is endowed with it. I’d like to see a future where feminism is a given, like saying human beings breathe or they turn their faces to the rising sun.

Angelita Baeyens: Program Director, Advocacy and Litigation

Who was your female role model growing up?

My mother. She was a working mom that enjoyed her work very much and worked really hard but managed (I don’t know how!) to be a very strong and present mom as well. She showed me that even though it is hard to balance work with family, I didn’t have to choose one over the other and that one’s identity as a person, as a woman, goes way beyond whether we are or not a mother, whether we work or not or even what we work on.

What do you consider your personal motto to be? 

Be kind and work hard to make things happen. No matter how stressful work or life can get, the people around you deserve your kindness and to make things happen you have to be willing to be ‘all hands on deck’ if necessary.

Could you complete this sentence? The feminist future I'd like to see includes…

Being able to be whoever we are and want to be. Not being interrupted or ‘validated’ by male counterparts all the time. Walking alone at night without fear. Being taken seriously for what I know. Equal pay for equal work. A future with more representation in leadership positions, but not only of women but also LGBTQ people. A future where unpaid care is equally shared in households. A future where women can decide freely about their bodies… and the list goes on!

Elisa Massimino: Senior Fellow, Human Rights, Center for American Progress Secretary, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Board of Directors

Who was your female role model growing up?  

That’s easy: it was, and still is, my mom, Frances Delia Bonadio Massimino. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. My dad was a submarine officer in the Navy during the Cold War and spent months at sea, completely incommunicado. My mom was the anchor for our family, especially us five kids. Though I know she must have struggled at times to hold everything together, she never let on. She took the curve-balls life threw in stride and turned our challenges—new town, new school, new everything every year—into adventures. While she made sure that we took life seriously—it was a gift, not to be wasted—she never let us take ourselves too seriously. We laughed at—and with—each other. Of the many core values she instilled in us growing up was that we were a team. We grew up knowing that the way we lived, the way we treated others, our work ethic—all of it—reflected on the team. And when one of us was down, or struggling or facing adversity, or needed someone to celebrate with, we had a duty to one another and we knew could depend on each other. I can tell you, living life with that kind of safety net is a very special blessing. Whether it was living as part of a greater Navy family or in our broader community, mom taught us—and showed us by example—that in addition to the duty we had to our family, we were also members of a much bigger team—we had a duty to our community, our country, and the wider world as well. Because we are all in this together.

What do you consider your personal motto to be? 

That’s also easy, and probably not surprising given the above: “We are all in this together.”

Could you complete this sentence? The feminist future I'd like to see includes....

The complete political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes.  As my old yoga instructor Moses Brown used to say when he taught us a new asana, “It’s simple. Simple, but not easy.” It can sometimes be daunting to think about how much fundamental transformation has to happen to make this vision a reality. But I’ve never been more optimistic about our chances of getting there. One reason why is how much data we now have to support the assertion that all of us are better off when the political, economic, personal and social rights of women and girls are respected. There’s a fair amount of research, for example, that shows that companies will make riskier investments if there is a lack of gender diversity on the board, and that peacebuilding efforts are more just and endure longer if women are involved in negotiations. As a society, we will be more prosperous and more peaceful when there is greater representation of women in leadership. Equality is a right. But we do not want equality simply for the sake of equality. We want it because it makes us better as a society.

Mónica Durán: Development Manager Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Who was your female role model growing up?

My mom! Growing up, we lived in multiple cities in Ecuador, my home country, and even spent a few years in Venezuela for my dad’s work. My mom gave up her career as a chemical engineer to make sure we were properly supported throughout all of these transitions.  Being uprooted from family and friends with young children isn’t easy, but she managed the changes with grace and positivity.

What do you consider your personal motto to be? 

Be present. In times like this, you quickly realize that a lot of things are out of your control and all you have is the now.

Could you complete this sentence? The feminist future I'd like to see includes....

Equal parental leave and increased visibility of unpaid care work, which till this day has been largely done by women. Women (myself included) spend a tremendous amount of time doing routine housework, meal planning, and tending to people in our families. These tasks, although unpaid, are integral to the functioning of our economies. As a society, we need to recognize its inherent value.

Kacey Mordecai: Program Officer Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Who was your female role model growing up?

My mom. My mom always talks about how she taught both her kids to ride a bike even though she never learned how to ride herself. That embodies who she is. She did not have many opportunities growing up, but she gives everything to her kids. My life at 32 looks very different from hers at that age, but if I work half as hard as she does, care half as much as she does, and give back half as much as she does, I will consider myself successful. 

What do you consider your personal motto to be? 

“Set your own standards.” As long as I meet my own standards and behave accordingly, I sleep well at night and don’t worry about what others think. 

Could you complete this sentence? The feminist future I'd like to see includes…

Full awareness of the mental load. And I look forward to all-women representation at all levels of government, the judiciary, and in companies being utterly unremarkable.

Sushma Raman: Executive Director, Harvard’s Carr Center, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Board of Directors

Who was your female role model growing up?

My personal female role model while growing up as a child in India was my maternal grandmother, Susila, who was intelligent and kind. I lived with her as a small child for some time, along with my two sisters, and have vivid and happy memories from that time. Role models can be people we see in the public eye, but they can also be those who we see daily and who we seek to emulate and whose values we aspire to live up to.  

What do you consider your personal motto to be? 

Justice and Compassion are my guiding values.  I think we need both to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” 

Could you complete this sentence? The feminist future I'd like to see includes....

The feminist future I would like to see includes intersectionality, inclusion and imagination. Intersectionality to include gender, sexual orientation, race and other communities. Inclusion to ensure those most excluded from the halls of power are able to lead change efforts. Imagination to create a better, more just, more peaceful and sustainable world.