As a woman in a program comprised of mostly women, studying a phenomenon that has a huge effect on women, I have found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention paid to how the political economy of migration has affected the lives of women. So in Oaxaca, I took every opportunity I could to ask questions about how women are affected by shifts in population and social dynamics due to migration.
I asked one of the few women we did meet about how she saw gender and sexuality issues intersecting with her activist work. She said, because it was mostly women working to help other women, men weren’t involved, so it was hard to see if there were inequalities between genders. I didn’t really know what to ask after that, because if women don’t see their work as something feminist or radical, and they just see it as the work they do, then what business do I have trying to name that with language I’ve learned in a classroom at Vassar?
I’m conflicted, because on the one hand, when I look at a situation where women help women, I can see how it fits into a broader framework of the US as a paternalistic colonial power. But on the other hand, women who are just trying to keep their families alive probably don’t have time to think about how their lives fit into some theoretical framework that I’ve worked out sitting at my computer in my dorm. Imposing my feminism is not contributing to their self-empowerment; it’s just a different kind of colonialism. So how do I leave that mentality in the dorm room?
I’m inclined to think it’s not as simple or straightforward as asking some women I just met about how they see gender intersecting with their lives. My instincts tell me that in order to understand how women negotiate the gender dynamics in their lives, I need to just be with them, listening, asking questions, sharing what I know and learning what they know, so the inherent power dynamic of interviewer and interviewee dissolves. I think feminism works better when it comes from a place of mutual sharing and trust.
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.