Identity

What's the Future of the Feminist Movement? 12 Leading Voices Respond

Roxane Gay, bell hooks, King Princess, Jill Soloway, Maggie Nelson, and others describe what a feminist future actually looks like.

by Emma Goldberg, Longpath Labs
Mar 1 2019, 5:04pm

Photos courtesy Aubrie Brick, Jay Grabiec, Joshua Going, John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation. Illustration by Broadly. 

Over the past few years, the rallying cry for a more feminist future has grown louder and louder. But what, exactly, does that look like?

In the past century, we've seen feminists successfully fight for the right to vote, reproductive rights, safer public spaces, and more equal workplaces, among other crucial stepping stones to equality. Today, however, feminist aims seem to be evolving more rapidly.

In 2018 alone, we saw women siege the Senate, protest Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and expose high-power men as abusers. Women made crucial strides—but at the same time, also faced new limitations in fields structured to enforce male views and voices. In the tech sector, we saw research released about the ways that AI software discriminates against women of color, with algorithms developed by white male engineers. In government, we saw new attacks on non-binary and trans communities, especially with the Trump Administration’s threats to limit definitions of gender .

With the focus of feminist organizing constantly expanding to take on new issues and find new approaches to old ones, we can learn from the bigger picture questions: How should the movement evolve in the year to come? And 10 or 20 years beyond that?

To try to tackle those massive questions, we asked leading feminist thinkers what they envision for the movement’s future. We spoke with people of all different generations and backgrounds, including: pop singer-songwriter King Princess; United We Dream founder Cristina Jimenez; legendary feminist scholar bell hooks; MSNBC Queer 2.0 host Jacob Tobia; National Domestic Workers Alliance director Ai-Jen Poo; Transparent creator Jill Soloway; Killing Us Softly creator Jean Kilbourne; Religious Sister and lawyer advocate Simone Campbell; Feminist Press executive director and publisher Jamia Wilson; Black Lives Matter activist Blair Imani; and award-winning authors Roxane Gay and Maggie Nelson.

This virtual roundtable was created from a partnership between Broadly and Longpath Labs, a public-benefit think tank focused on fostering long-term thinking and behavior.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Our culture is saturated with dystopian images of what the future could look like. Imagine you’re in the writers room creating the anti-Black Mirror, or anti-Handmaid’s Tale. Talk to me about the pilot episode. What’s your vision for a world 50 years out from now that looks like a feminist utopia?

King Princess, singer and songwriter: For me, it would look like gays and women and people of colors just running shit. All the white men—in this narrative there’s still a couple, but they’re very docile—just give money to women to fund their ideas. They’re like a bank. In this future, the Oscars would have very few old white people, and we would just honor incredible female, queer, Black, trans art. And we’d end this idea that you have to watch or enjoy certain content just to prove you’re woke. We’d just watch good content. Also, every club would be a drag bar. Damn, this world is really good.

Ai-Jen Poo, Executive Director of National Domestic Workers Association: I could imagine local communities where people really know each other. Maybe there’s a childcare center and a center with activities for the elderly. People gather and help each other out, learn together, play together. But then they’re also able to work decent hours and get paid. I think it’s about building an economy that allows for every single person to find dignified work and feel valued. Embedded in that would be the ability to realize our full potential not just at work but in our communities, in the context of our democracy, in the context of our families across generations.

Jacob Tobia, writer, producer, and author: I think that my utopian future would definitely be a comedy. It would be about two police officers, except they don’t carry guns, and all they do is run around a sweet, trans-inclusive society helping school children cross the street. Basically, it’s a world without prisons and without cops, so cops are just these community members who don’t even need night sticks because they just give people emotional support. And maybe sometimes they have to deal with a little kid who’s stealing from a co-op, and they’re like, "You don’t have to steal, we have universal basic income, Sara!" And Sara’s like, "Oh no, I was just having feelings about being an adolescent." It’s like a post-prison abolition comedy hour.

Cristina Jimenez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream: My vision is for a world and a country where people who have been kept on the margins, like immigrants and women and people of color, are able to live without fear and thrive. This vision isn’t far-fetched. That’s why you see efforts from the right wing to use institutions and policies to oppress marginalized communities—because they know we’re on the verge of turning things around.

Roxane Gay, writer, editor, professor, New York Times best-selling author: If I were to envision a feminist utopia, it would be women in power, in real sustained power in their personal lives and in the public sphere. You would see a world where people weren’t talking about what a young female congresswoman is wearing.

It’s really very simple. Our stewardship would be both to the earth and to gender.

bell hooks, feminist theorist and writer: It’s really very simple. Our stewardship would be both to the earth and to gender. It wouldn’t be to some high tech anything—it would be to the complete embodiment of simple living.

Blair Imani, activist and author of Modern HERstory: There’d be free birth control you can get from a vending machine. There wouldn’t be a luxury tax on tampons and pads. And prisons would be abolished; we’d have restorative justice instead of punitive justice.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK and founder of Nuns on the Bus: I’ve got this odd idea that all of our borders and walls are a throwback to the mammals, to the males of the species who mark their territory. They mark their territory in a way that defines their space. Men continue to do that. My hunch is that with women allowed to flourish, there’d be much less worry about boundaries and way more concern about inclusion, shared benefits, the common good, how all families can flourish, and I think we’d be a lot further ahead.

The experience of growing up feminine can contain a lot of joy, but also a lot of pain and trauma. What are some of the hopes you have for how the next generation experiences gender expression growing up?

bell hooks: Well of course, I’m the high priestess of love. So what I really hope is just for the children of today and of the future to experience what it is to love and sort out whatever we need to about our gender and identity in order to do that.

Roxane Gay: I just want to see parents willing to meet their children where they’re at. I’m not one who wants to throw away gender—as long as people are allowed to express the gender that feels natural to them. I want to see more empathy, more flexibility, more patience. And when kids express themselves freely, I want to see school administrators and teachers and classmates supporting that.

King Princess: What my parents did really well is they raised me in this fluid way. I was allowed to wear whatever I want, get whatever toys I want, play with race cars. I think it can be confusing to raise your children without any idea of gender, but what you can do is provide space to be like, “Okay, how do you want to express yourself? What do you want to wear today? What makes you feel good?”

"I want a world where gender identity matters to people, but it matters as a form of creative expression and not some determination of your self-worth or ability to survive."

Jacob Tobia: I think when we talk about gender self-determination, a lot of people have this vision of some dystopian world where everyone has to wear grey hoodies and nobody has gender. I’m like, ew, gross. Obviously everyone is going to be miserable in that world. I don’t want a gender-less world. I want a gender-full world. I want a world where gender identity matters to people, but it matters as a form of creative expression and not some determination of your self-worth or ability to survive. It’s not that hard to raise gender-full children, but you have to let your kids lead.

Blair Imani: I was staying at a family friend’s house recently, and their daughter’s room was green-yellow because her parents didn’t want her growing up with the garbage ideas that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Now, it turns out that she loves pink and ponies and princess dresses—but she decided that for herself. I loved growing up being hyper feminine. It’s not about taking that away from anyone, but rather getting out of the way and letting kids lead.

It’s not that hard to raise gender-full children, but you have to let your kids lead.

Jill Soloway, producer and writer of “Transparent”: I actually think that a lot of our hope for the future can be found in the way that you’ve asked this question, which is separating femininity from gender. I think as our world begins to see that they are totally different things—that the way we are treated, and the genders we are assigned at birth aren’t necessarily connected, or aren’t essentially connected, but are actually only socially connected—is a clue to starting to understand how we can unhook our bodies from our societal expectations, and begin to create the lives that feel more like we’re choosing them, instead of being hoisted upon us.

Jean Kilbourne, creator of Killing Us Softly: One of the problems we face is that these human qualities we all have get divided up and labeled as masculine or feminine, and the feminine gets devalued. Traditionally those have been things like compassion, nurturance, intuition. What I hope is that we’ll head towards a time when all children get the full range of human qualities, so we allow girls to be strong and powerful and boys to be emotional and vulnerable. In the same way that we’re now understanding that gender is a fluid concept, we have to accept that there’s no such thing as a masculine or feminine quality.

Bodies are, historically, a tough subject. Bodies are politicized, weaponized, stigmatized. And now, with the rapid expansion of AI and automation, we’re being increasingly told that bodies soon won’t matter—they won’t be needed once the singularity arrives. How does your relationship with your body inform your work, and your feminist identity?

Blair Imani: I hear people in the tech space talk about the idea that “bodies won’t matter,” and I’m like, well, for some of us they don’t matter now. Being a Black person, my body has never mattered in the context of mainstream conversations on humanity and autonomy. You’ll see dark-skinned folks try to slide their hands under something automated, and they don’t even get noticed. Tech folks have started talking about the singularity and robots taking over—and I joke with my Black friends that it won’t even affect us, because we’re not even seen as humans.

Jamia Wilson, editor of the Feminist Press: As someone who has had autoimmune issues, I’ve experienced feminist awakenings in doctors’ offices, being told that something I had experienced was part of my imagination—code word for hysteria. I’ve learned that I have to trust my own voice. Being born a Black woman with a disability, there are people who don’t see my humanity. There’s so much wisdom in me that I’ve been taught to quiet down, and I’m working to unlearn that. There are many people whose stories we miss out on because our society teaches us to question realities that go against maleness and whiteness.

Roxane Gay: I’ve been thinking a lot about space, how space does and does not accommodate bodies like mine. What that thinking has done for me is it’s expanded my understanding of the spaces that aren’t open to people living with disabilities. I don’t think we talk enough about that in feminist conversations. We often put ability at the end of the list of issues to consider, without really thinking about what it means for people.

Jacob Tobia: Bodies are everything. Your body is this precious feeling thing, and we can never pretend that bodies don’t matter. The only reason automation should exist is to make it more wonderful to live in the bodies we have. And automation in the right way can lead to all of us having a higher quality of life, and better ability to live in our bodies. That’s why we need more women and femmes and trans people in tech—people who can make sure that our advancements in technology are augmenting and not replacing our human experiences.

Being a Black person, my body has never mattered in the context of mainstream conversations on humanity and autonomy.

King Princess: More and more I’m trying to use my body to do the work I wanna do, to get ideas across. I’ll wake up and be like, "Why do I have titties?" But then I’ll go to a shoot and be like maybe it’d be funny if I push my titties up and make some art with them. I just want to make art that’s aggressively about pussy from a female perspective.

Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts: Any argument that bodies soon won’t matter seem to me in bed with the view that global warming isn’t a lethal threat to the human species, along with the reams of other forms of life. In fact, as the planet warms, I believe bodies and their ability to be sustained, cared for, protected, or their failure to be so is going to become the most pressing and distressing question of the next century. Our bodies won’t be needed in the future in the same sense our planet won’t be needed in the future: that all makes sense so long as we’re no longer in the game.

bell hooks: One of the issues I face, similar to one of my mentor spiritual colleagues, is that for many years we neglected our bodies. Here I am, in my 60s, embracing the body and the value of bodies for the first time totally. I’ve always felt like the body’s not that important, so it’s great to be claiming optimal wellbeing, because i don’t think i ever claimed optimal wellbeing for my body as i think a lot of Black women do not.

Technology and social media are opening space for the emergence of new feminist platforms and movements — but we’re also seeing how mostly male, white technologists are embedding our technological devices with the same sexist and racist tendencies that their developers have. How do you understand the role of technology in the future of feminism?

Roxane Gay: I think we have to re-envision technology as something that accommodates a multiplicity of experiences and lives. Technology can be as simple as a public bathroom. Oftentimes in a public bathroom, the way things are organized in a stall you can see it was designed by a man. We need to think about what it would look like to have a world designed by women, for women, and for women with different types of bodies.

Blair Imani: I’ve been trying to take a direct, hands-on role when it comes to shaping what I want to see on technological platforms. I’ve been working with folks at Twitter to make it a safer space for trans people. I realized how open the developers have been to meeting with us, and recently Twitter made misgendering users on the platform something that goes against its terms of service. I think the next phase of activism needs to be in that same vein—I’ve sat down with Sheryl Sandberg, Brittany Packnett, and Sam White to discuss people masquerading as Black people online.

Jacob Tobia: It’s incredible what a strangle-hold the Elon Musks of this world have on the future. Technology isn’t the future itself, technology is a tool to reach our feminist utopia. We need to reclaim the idea of the future from the tech bros, because we’re only going to build the future that we deem possible. The idea that the future is only controlled by a select few is what’s led to the destruction of the environment and war and famine. To my last breath I will be talking about how wonderful the future is going to be for non-binary people.

For the sake of the feminist movement’s future vibrancy and growth, what is one major—or even third rail—question we need to tackle head-on right now ?

bell hooks: I think the challenge to patriarchy in all its forms is where our hopes lie. It’s not in targeting individual men, it’s in helping people to understand how the system of patriarchy functions as a dominating force in our lives.

Ai-Jen Poo: Our policy discourse really treats women as a special interest group, but the reality is that women are more than half of the electorate, more than half of college graduates. Our experiences are defining the present. A lot of the jobs that will be jobs of the future are held disproportionately by women of color, like elder care and domestic work. The gap we have to bridge is getting women in positions where we can shape the solutions of the future.

Blair Imani: I think we need to tackle the question of what we’re doing to divest from systems that perpetuate our oppression. For example, we need to look at white women who vote for candidates that appeal to white supremacy instead of more progressive and diverse candidates. There are so many ways that we’re complicit in our own experiences of oppression. We need to start moving toward a future that works for everyone.

We need to keep thinking about the fact that women inhabit multiple identities.

Maggie Nelson: The category of “women” as the basis for feminism has always been a fraught topic, which is just as it should be. This has been a foundational third rail of feminism since its inception, which cannot really be “solved” or wished away. The abolition of gender that some dream of as a panacea will likely always remain in steadfast tension with the fierce desires of others to give something that might be called female specificity its due. I don’t see this as unworkable, but it does mean that we have to work on being more fluid and less paranoid about insisting on homogeneity across our political projects. We have to allow for a certain turbulence, contradiction, and chunkiness rather than thinking that if we could just find the one right frame and get everyone to stand within its terms, everything would be alright.

King Princess: I just really hope kids stop trying to tell each other how to be gay. Like why are there kids telling people how to be gay, especially when they don’t even know our history? There’s also this problem with oppression olympics, everyone thinking that their issues are more important than everyone else’s. That’s what the Republicans want, for us to be divided. We all have different needs, but we have very similar goals we’re working toward.

Jean Kilbourne: One thing i would hope for is just a whole lot more opportunity for dialogue with feminists of all ages, so young women can learn from our experiences and we can learn from theirs. I have a 31-year-old daughter who’s a feminist activist and I learn a huge amount from her about gender identity. I’d like to see more constructive intergenerational dialogue.

Roxane Gay: Well, I think we will have a vibrant feminist movement ten years from now. We’re not going to be the generation that kills feminism. But to be truly engaged with women where we’re at, we’re going to need to keep talking about intersectionality. We need to keep thinking about the fact that women inhabit multiple identities.

Jacob Tobia: I think a question that can’t be discussed enough is how do we abolish prisons. Like how do we do it? I’ve identified as a prison abolitionist for a number of years now but I don’t know strategically what that means. The reason I became a prison abolitionist is because I had this realization one day that if I ever go to prison I will probably die, because gender non-conforming people are brutalized in the prison system. I refuse to live in a world where the state has the option to subject me to such violence. I can’t see a feminist future that includes prisons.

Jamia Wilson: I think that especially in a context where a lot of people are attempting to co-opt feminism for financial or cultural capital gain, a big part of maintaining our integrity as a movement is defining ourselves, or someone else will. To define yourself, you have to think about who you are without regard for what other people want you to be. There is something about patriarchy and racism and all these other isms that make me think of myself in terms of the role that others would have me play, so that they can be more comfortable with their privilege. Who am I when released from that molten shell?

Female rage is all the rage these days. And we’re talking about and more about letting ourselves live out our emotions, instead of letting them be policed. How do you understand the role of emotion in building the futures we want for ourselves and our communities?

Female rage is all the rage these days.

Jacob Tobia: Figuring out how to navigate emotions is really tough, because one of the tools that our oppressors have gotten really good at is inundating us with so much bad news that we lose hope and give up. It’s a strategy of fascism to do that, to create so much bad news that people lose the ability to focus. A big part of my self-care and commitment to movement building is to not let the news get the best of me. I don’t consume a great deal of news anymore because it doesn’t help me build a more liberated world. Pain is important, but there’s only so much of it that can be generative. It’s important to know when you should stop scrolling through your news feed.

Blair Imani: This is especially interesting for me because once I started wearing hijabs I was viewed as this meek Muslim woman, but when I have my fro out I’m an angry Black woman. The same passion I always bring makes me either angry or meek. But the passion and anger we have as women is for a reason. We’re embracing it because we have so many reasons to be angry.

In 100 years, how do you think people will look back and understand this moment in the history of feminist organizing?

Cristina Jimenez: What really excites me about this moment is that everywhere I look, all I see are powerful women of color leading transformational work, changing power dynamics, and really challenging systemic racism. Even in the elector sector, when you look at people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Stacey Abrams, we’re seeing women speak truth to power. When I think about what we may say when we look back at this moment, it’s that it was a moment when women in all sectors fought for a multiracial democracy that works for all of us and not just the few. My call for other women reading this is that you want to make sure when you look back that you were part of it.

Ai-Jen Poo: I hope people will look back and realize this moment was a real inflection point for us, because it was the moment when women really led the way in the kind of organizing that opens up new power, new solutions for the future. I hope it is looked at as a point when we refused to be ranked in a hierarchy of human value and decided that we were going to organize in such a way that allowed for every last person to work and live with dignity.

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Sister Simone Campbell: I know know that I can predict what’s to come, but my desire is for me and for all of us to be faithful to the needs of our time. There’s an image in the Christian scriptures of Paul writing how we’re all one body and we can’t all be eyes, we can’t all be the hands or feet. I pray and ask: What part of the body am I? I used to be a lawyer doing direct service, so I was like a hand or foot. Now my part is to be stomach acid, to stir things up, digest food, liberate energy. I can be toxic in large quantities, but I’m doing my part, which allows others to pick up the energy and participate.

For more on Longpath, visit its site and view its founder Ari Wallach's TED Talk.