Feminist Conversations is a weekly column, where we spotlight activists from around the country to find out what feminism means to them. Today we’re talking to long-time feminist activist Zoe Nicholson. Zoe was part of the group of women who fasted for 37 days for passage of the ERA in 1982. She is the founder of ERA Once and For All, a life-long member of NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus, Veteran Feminists of America, and outspoken voice for LGBTQAI rights.
When did you first call yourself a feminist, and what helped influence that decision?
I have always been a feminist. The question is asked often these days, and I find it so peculiar. Would you ask a person of color if they believed in equality? Would you ask a trans person if they believe in LGBTQAI Civil Rights? I would rather ask why one would not want to be a feminist. I can think of only one legitimate reason, and it is because they are really stretching the boundaries of US thinking to drop all labels and make that their mission. (gender fluid!)
Did I ever think women or men were innately unequal? Never. Nor people of different races, ages or classes. Certainly my deeply devotional childhood influenced me. I look at the books I read, the saints I admired, and they were all people who worked with making life better; Mother Seton, Vincent DePaul, Catherine Laboure, even St. Nicholas and St. Valentine worked with the oppressed, the poor. It just seemed like the obvious choice. When I got older and found out that the word and meaning of Christian had been entirely co-opted, I converted to Buddhism. Funny thing is, it makes more sense to me to think of John XXIII, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem as all practitioners of Buddhism. They are all invested in Self-Discovery. (I digress)
What does feminism mean to you?
To me a feminist is a person who believes and behaves as if men and women are equal; equal under the law, and with full equal opportunity. What distinguishes my answer, I believe, is that it carries within it that the behavior is immediate; it does not wait for the laws to catch up. So, even though there is no Fair Paycheck Act, I would pay my employees equal pay for equal work, offer equal benefits and operate with no discrimination due to sex. In other words, as if there was an Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution.
You might find it interesting that about two years ago I changed my card from “Feminist” to “Equality Activist.” Because, who ya gonna leave behind? If I am going to be the change I see in the world, then I have to start with me. Since I am bi – I really get to speak to so many facets of equality. I was married to a man, had an abortion, fell in love with a woman, discovered I am bi. I am horrified at the terrible river of transphobia that ran through the feminism of the Twentieth Century. I am very motivated to expose it and get rid of it. Recently I was asked if I am a trans woman, and it really roared through me that somehow my answer was going to grant or deny some privilege. I refused to answer.
What are some of your favorite activist memories?
As I tell my audiences, I haven’t peaked yet! I found that being escorted out of an Obama/Boxer event by the Secret Service in April 2010 was interesting. I was shouting the very thing President Obama had said at a fundraiser Oct. 10, 2009, “Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is the right thing to do.” What the press did not report was that a man assaulted me screaming, “Get out you ugly cunt, no one wants you here.” He was trying to drown me out and was slamming his shoes into my toes. The Secret Service men had to peel him off of me.
One of my most favorite was at a Roe v. Wade vigil. An anti-abortion woman, who had been watching me for some time, stopped me and asked if my name was Zoe. She told me that 30 years ago she had been a member of my NOW chapter. I said yes and offered my hand. We stood there holding hands for the longest time. Her teenage children were horrified, my friends were confounded but I wasn’t ~ she wasn’t. I asked her what had changed her mind about choice and abortion, and since it was an authentic question, she answered sincerely. She told me she had seen some in-utero footage on a TV show and felt that a fetus was actually a baby. She listened to me share that I thought life began at breathing air. And so we stood, warmly, kindly. I love that moment.
Is feminism still relevant today?
Relevant? Maybe the label is a bit tarnished, as all labels are a big pain in the ass, but the fundamental meaning is wholly relevant. For full equality, every human being must have unconditional sovereignty over their own body, mind, soul and spirit. For full equality, all laws must apply equally for all; including marriage, insurance, employment, military service, all contracts. Abigail Adams knew it, this is not something newfangled.
I am particularly mournful that my society (I am such a Westerner and American) does not know what life would be like if women shared leadership, if all people had full reproductive autonomy, if all families and children were respected. And imagine what we could do if we didn’t have to spend so much time dealing with inequality. It is dazzling to think about.
If you could meet a famous feminist, past or present, who would it be, and why?
Holy Toledo! One? Alice Paul, Emmeline Pankhurst, Jane Addams, Mohandas Gandhi, Golda Maier, Emma Goldman, Ann Richards, Cleopatra, Lucretia Borgia, Mary Cassatt, Lydia Emerson, Frida Kahlo . . . no really, I can’t name just one. Let me say I would like to meet Lady Gaga, Esther Hicks, Susan Sarandon, Queen Noor, Angelina Jolie, Melinda Gates, Annise Parker, and Tammy Baldwin.
And how do I skip over the magic of who I do know? Jacqui Ceballos, Sally Miller Gearhart, Gloria Steinem, Erin Matson, Lindsey Horvath, Barbara Love, Laura McFerrin, and you. I know you and Linda Perkins and Melanie Klein and so many wonderful men and women in the American Equality Movement. And tomorrow, I will meet someone new. I just can’t wait!
Zoe Nicholson regularly speaks at events related to women’s rights, LGBTQAI activism, the ERA, and so much more. Her books are available through Lune Soleil Press, and you can follow her on Twitter or on her blog, Online With Zoe.