Feminism as a Tool for Justice: An Evening of Activists and Archives

Allie Bernard ’13
Staff Writer

Last Sunday the Sophia Smith Collection held their much anticipated “An Activist Archives,” an event celebrating its 70th anniversary as well as the recent retirement of Sherrill Redmon, director of the Collection from 1993-2012 and by all accounts an unstoppable force for change during her tenure.

The event was split into two parts, starting with a segment focused on the work of cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her memoir Fun Home and ending with a panel focused on activism within archival work as well as social justice, which featured Smith alumna and prominent feminist activist Gloria Steinem and noted feminists Katsi Cook and Loretta Ross.

Bechdel’s portion began with a welcome from President Carol Christ. Christ noted that, among other contributions, Redmon has added 292 collections and 6,000 linear feet to the archives. Kelly Anderson, a professor and oral historian in the Collection, followed Christ’s speech with a description of Redmon’s many achievements throughout the years. The final introduction was by Susan Van Dyne, professor and chair of the Archives Concentration, who gave a history of Bechdel’s work as an artist, saying that Bechdel had “created a graphic archive of queer work over 30 years” and that she “makes queer life livable and legible.”

When it came time for Bechdel to speak, she began with a presentation that detailed the role of archives in her own work, including her long-running cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For, an “unconscious archive of my life and times.” She stressed the importance of creating a visual record of the lesbian subculture that she was living in when writing Dykes.

“I’ve always been intimidated by being the voice of a generation,” Bechdel said, “but I do feel like I can capture small bits of every day life, and that’s worth something.” Bechdel closed her presentation with a reading from Fun Home and a conversation with Van Dyne.

The second half of the event, held in JMG Hall and filled to capacity, began with an introduction by Joyce Follet, the cordinator of Collection Development and director of the Voices of Feminism Project at the Collection. She explored the relationship of the Collection to the women’s movement and posed the question, “Who will benefit from this wonderful accumulation of wisdom and insight?”

After Follet’s introduction, Steinem gave the keynote address, focusing on the many gaps left in history and noting that “[it] has often been written by the top down [and has come] from the few [as opposed to the many]. The Collection has been contributing to human history at last by bringing the past and history closer together.” She closed her address by thanking Redmon. “Dearest Sherrill, you have taught us to hear and we will never tolerate silence again. From now on, we will always know that to save our stories is to save ourselves,” she said.

Steinem’s address was followed by a panel moderated by Associate Professor Jennifer Guglielmo, featuring activists Ross and Cook in conversation with Ada Comstock student Marianne Bullock and Anna Holley ’12. Ross discussed the role that the Collection played in providing her with information on Margaret Sanger to combat a racist campaign in Georgia.

“This is evidence of how important the archives are in service of the future,” she said. “Never think that archives are just collecting dust.” Both Holley and Bullock described how the archives influenced their time at Smith, in their classwork and in their activism outside the Smith community.

Cook described her personal history as being intertwined with the history of her tribal community, the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. She emphasized the importance of empowering women by “familiariz[ing] women with the power that we have.” The panel concluded with a Q&A session with all the speakers that night. The presenters answered a variety of questions, including one on how they avoided burning out from the resulting difficulties of their work.

Perhaps Ross put it best in her concluding words: “There is a great deal of pure, unadulterated joy in feminist work. No matter how bad your day is, you know you’re making a difference in a woman’s life.”

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