What do you feel is the biggest issue facing women today?
Connections. The biggest issue facing women today is seeing that all our issues are connected. We can't reduce violence against women until we have full economic justice that would allow a woman to walk away from her abuser without having to choose to live in her car with her children. What kind of choice is that? We can't rally for abortion rights without repealing the Hyde Amendment so low-income women have better access to what is coined "choice." We still need to acknowledge how race and class impact the issues that the feminist movement usually organizes around.
How did you become interested in women’s rights/social justice?
As long as I can remember, women's history and rights has been an interest of mine. I believe it stems from being a tomboy and coming up against "no girls allowed" rules on the playground, or just looking at the sports teams I followed and realizing that there weren't any women on them. Or looking at presidential history and realizing we aren't there, either. In the fourth grade, I made a zine (This was the mid-80s, so I had no idea that's what I was doing!) of first ladies because I did not feel they were getting as much respect as their husbands. It just grew from there.
How does your work advance equality?
I am the director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender's Women in Science and Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The program was established to work on the facts that 1) women do not enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors at the same rate as men; and 2) nationally, we do not graduate enough of those women. For me, it is always an equity issue. First of all, STEM majors, especially engineering, are consistently some of the top-paying careers. They also have the smallest wage gaps. But we have seen many instances in which the lack of women at the laboratory decision table leads to bad science. For example, air bags were designed for the average man, heart disease was labeled a man's disease for years, and the most outrageous example is that, until the mid-90s, most breast cancer research was done on men because women's reproductive cycles and hormone fluctuations were too messy to deal with. Now that's some equity right there.
What keeps you motivated to keep working for women’s rights/social justice?
We keep winning! It does not always seem like we win, but we are. There are some serious policy disappointments, like abortion coverage, in Obamacare, but we won on birth control and other preventative measures. I have to keep those wins in mind or else this work would wear me out. Don't get me wrong: I get as outraged as any other angry feminist, but I also take time to celebrate our victories and especially point them out to my students. We have a long way to go, but at the same time, we have a lot of victories to be proud of.
Why are women’s stories, particularly the stories of low-income women and women of color, so often left out of the mainstream conversation?
We have to look at who is writing the narratives. This is why I think blogging is powerful. Too many times in the corporate press and even in blogging, if low-income women and women of color aren't telling their stories, we will be overlooked. That is why I love the Chicago Abortion Fund's My Voice, My Choice blog. There are some low-income women, all women of color, sharing their stories. I like to talk about them as much as I can so that perhaps their stories will get into the mainstream conversation. And they have! Ebony did a great piece on one of the leadership women.
What are the biggest struggles you’ve faced bringing these issues to light?
As a Latina, I've been asked to be the emissary to "my people," rather than have a larger discussion as to why Latinas might not be attending this or that event, why Latinas aren't writing about this, etc. So much to unpack there! It's the biggest struggle with being "a movement." We have a lot of parts to this movement and, for the most part, I think we are all working toward the same goal, but in our own way. We don't need to all be working on the same exact issue, but we do need to respect each other's work. If we disagree, do it with respect.
Veronica Arreola is the author of the award-winning blog Viva La Feminista, written at the intersection of motherhood and feminism.