Feminist Veteran Zoe Nicholson Explains Why Feminism Is Still Relevant

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.


  1. Zoe Nicholson is my shero!

  2. Zoe,

    I find that I get that question a lot, “when did you become a feminist?” or “What kind of feminist are you?” As an African American women I am often asked if my race impacts my involvement in the feminist community or my beliefs.

    I always answer, “How could it not!” Its frightening that we still have to ask those questions.

    Anyhow, its wonderful to know that you feel the same way!

  3. Taja Eddahbi says:

    Zoe has such spirit! What a glorious representation of the feminist movement, and what a positive role model! I pray that one day I have a similar attitude towards life andthat I never stop fighting the good fight. What Zoe says is so true though…”I would rather ask why one would not want to be a feminist.” and “for full equality, every human being must have unconditional sovereignty over their own body, mind, soul and spirit.” Brilliant.

  4. Eleazar Capuz says:

    I agree with most of the ideas that Zoe had mentioned during her interview. What really stood out for me was her outlook on equality. I certainly agree with her in the sense that modern society’s view on “equality” is a little bit sugar coated in the way that there is not an equal share of rights, there is still that slight lean towards the male population on the scales. Am I feminist? I would have to say that their are certain ideologies and theories that I believe in and support such as equality for men and women. So does that make me feminist, the arrow sure points in that general direction.

  5. Zoë Nicholson’s views are thought provoking and enlighting. I found it interesting when she asked, “I would rather ask why one would not want to be a feminist”. Feminism is a positive ideology, which many avoid due to the negative stigmas and stereotypes that are attached to it. Many people don’t even know the true definition of the term yet, choose not be a feminist because they fear others’ reactions. I like how she changed her personal title from “feminist” to “Equality Activist” because equality is one of the main goals in feminism. The message behind her new title supports her attempt to make a change in the world. She has very admirable ambitions and serves as a positive role model for young feminists.

  6. I like what Zoe says when asked when she started calling herself a feminist. She thinks it is a strange question to ask and so do I. I think all women should be considered feminist because it has to do with them. Don’t all women believe and want equality? I think anyone can be a feminist though. I really like when Zoe said, “for full equality, every human being must have unconditional sovereignty over their own body, mind, soul and spirit.” I can’t believe that it’s 2012 and this is still a problem. Same sex marriage is still an issue, abortion is still an issue and so is religion.

  7. Reading this article made me realize that although many individuals are in fact feminists, they do not think of themselves as a feminist because the label scares many people away. There are countless positive reasons one would be a feminist, such as equality, and are very few reasons why one would not want to be one. Since we live in a patriarchy system, going against the system and going out into the world to get rid of all labels could be very intimidating. After reading this article I came to a conclusion that there are also different levels or degrees of feminists. While some may just think that it is believing that men and women should be equal, some people take those beliefs even further. Some feminists also behave as if men and women were equal and take immediate action. However, it is not only important to have equal opportunity between men and women; but instead, it is important to take action to have equal opportunity for all individuals.

  8. Richard Escobar says:

    Zoe seems like a very interesting person, and I cannot wait to hear what she has to say about feminism next week. One of the things that most stuck out to me was what she said about having been assaulted at the Obama/Boxer event. It honestly scares me just how firmly grounded patriarchy is. The comment she was shouting does seem newsworthy, especially since she seems to be an important equal rights activist. But Zoe getting assaulted for her comments seems even more newsworthy.
    “Get out you ugly cunt, no one wants you here.” I honestly find this quote fascinating. By simply allowing this kind of comment to just slip by, the media is showing just how alive the subordination of women to men is. This kind of misogyny cannot be ignored. And yet, it is, everyday, and accepted by women and men alike. I just hope that more people will come around to the side of feminism, and soon.

  9. Carmelle C says:

    I’m so glad I got to read this interview after I heard Zoe speak; to hear her voice in my head while reading her words, makes everything more real.
    I love that a woman such as Zoe is able to join hands with another woman despite their differences, simply because they used to be friends from an NOW chapter. I believe we all need to be able to see both sides of every situation, if we want people to respect our opinions, we have to accept theirs. Everyone is a minority when it comes to somether, weather it is your gender, race, sexual orientation, or something as simple as your favorite color. Feminism will always be relevant until there is a means to end patriarchy. There really is no excuse for one not to support the feminist movement.
    I must say I am impressed with Zoe’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” demonstration. If I were to ever protest for something i believe in, getting arrested is definetly a very big fear of mine. Zoe put her fears behind her, and stood up for women and men all across the country.

  10. Zoe Nicholson is incredible, just in the fact that she demonstrates here knowledge of equality, characterized through the of the prism of difference, which implies that we’re multifaceted & not just through our class, but also through race and sex. We have a social location within the variety of these categories which are not separate but intersect or overlap, causing an impact from one category to the next. “ …behavior is immediate; it does not wait for the laws to catch up.” She is in essence a force upon herself by which she not only fights for the equality of women in comparison to men, but for equality of all individuals within the spectrum of life. She reframed her calling card from “Feminist” to “Equality Activist.”

  11. Natalie P says:

    This was one of the first posts I read at the start of my Sociology of Gender and Sexuality course. I did not comment at the time but I pulled out my copy today and looked at what I had highlighted at the time. What stuck out the most was the mention of the American Equality Movement. I don’t recall every hearing of the movement, but it makes a lot of sense to me why Zoe changed the way she labeled herself from “Feminist” to “Equality Activist.” Not that the word feminist should be discarded, but I think the Equality Activist term would draw more people to explore the issues of sexism, equality, and patriarchy. The fight for equality is not a new one like Zoe says, and I am moved to discover more information, motivated to become more educated, and inspired to take an active role in the equality movement.

  12. Brittany Fisher says:

    I enjoyed reading this interview because Zoe seemed to have a “sky is the limit” type attitude with every answer she gave. One thing that she said that really made me think was regarding the meaning of feminism to her, in which she states, “it carries within it that the behavior is immediate; it does not wait for the laws to catch up!” I thought this sentence was perfect and brought up the question as to why so many of us are waiting for laws to change, so that we ourselves can then change. It is so interesting that we wonder why there are still so many inequalities within our society, but not enough of us stop to first understand the type of individuals who are creating the laws, in which then overflow onto everyday life within our society. Many of those who are in politics have a majority of traditional views, and these traditional views are nothing but unequal rights. I agree with much of what Zoe has stated in this interview, and especially when she identifies that if you wish to be the change you want to see, you must start with examining yourself.

  13. Jasmin B. says:

    I agree with Nicholson that it is simply irrational for especially a woman to not classify herself as a feminist, and it irritates me that many women do not do so because they are afraid of the label and the stigma that goes along with it. I also believe that all women who want change should follow Nicholson’s approach to not only believe, but simultaneously behave as if men and women are equal and as if there are laws to support their actions. Moreover, I admire Nicholson’s choice to change her role from a feminist to an equality activist and I find it inspiring when she says, “If I am going to be the change I see in the world, then I have to start with me.”

  14. I really enjoyed how Nicholson started off her initial answer with rhetorical questions because it really shows the stupidity of those who don’t believe in equality for not just women, but for people of all ethnicities, social class and sexuality. Nicholson’s changing herself from a “Feminist” to an “Equality Activist” was an intelligent move. This new title not only incorporates women, but anyone who has been treated unequally, which is what Feminism is really about. By changing her title, she takes away the stigma of being a Feminist. However, changing her title to an Equality Activist takes away from the message that would have been sent to specifically the feminist community as opposed to just preaching about equality. Additionally, when the press decided to not report that the man assaulting her, it clearly shows the bias in today’s news that puts down women and the plight they must go through just to get equality, which everyone deserves.

  15. Zoe Nicholson said some very motivating things in this article that I just read. Since I am a man I have never really dealt with feminism or have been discriminated by anybody. I find it very fascinating the way Zoe thinks about feminism and how she relates to it. When they ask her “What does feminism mean to you?” I would of personally answered the same thing I don’t believe men and women should have different opportunities in life. Also, when she was asked “is feminism still relevant today?” I certainly do believe it is still relevant today. In many different countries women are treated differently from men and that is not fair. Everybody should be treated the same no matter what race, religion, or gender they are. I also believe that it is because of some women that women do not have the same rights as men they allow themselves to have less power. If women allow that then equality in gender will never change.

  16. Ms. Nicholson’s opening line resonated with me and made so much sense. “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 personally have spent my entire life believing in the equality of women to men, searching for world in which men were not held as superior to women. I was raised in home where it was just natural part of life, however have to see if manifested in the world in which we live. Contradictory, perhaps I have never identified myself as a feminist because I believed in the stereotypes that they are “men-hating lesbians” and I did not fit those categories. Therefore I was not a feminist. Yet I am female and I believe and conduct my life in ways that enforce” that men and women are equal, equal under the law and with full equality opportunity” so why wouldn’t I be a feminist. I suppose a lack of education of what it means to be feminist, plays a role as well as the naïve belief that women and men are finally equal in today’s society. I admire the fact that she acknowledges her shift from “feminist” to equality activist”, because she is so true when she asks who are you going to dismiss or leave behind. Feminism as I have learned is about a search and achievement of equality for all; it provides the freedom for everyone to be who they wish to be. I appreciate her vocal realization of the exclusivity that might accompany the label Feminist. However, the fact that she speaks somewhat to a returning of the original intentions of feminism is crucial, as seeks to explain feminism to a new generation clouded in collective amnesia, my generation. The classifications, that I now understand as stereotypes are demystified in her explanation of whether or not feminism is still relevant. This article helped me understand what feminism is, why it still matters and why we all should be pursuing

  17. Presley B says:

    I really enjoyed Zoe’s answers to the interview questions, particularly her response to the first question. I, too, find it interesting when women say that they are not feminists, when I have asked women why, many say that they are uncertain of the “feminist” message, or that they support equality for women, but are afraid of the “feminist stereotype”. Zoe’s definition of feminism (full equal opportunity) is something that all women should strive for.

  18. Ashley A. says:

    Zoe Nicholson’s response to “when did you become a feminist?” is perfect. I understand and agree with her completely that you should not have to be questioned about what you consider yourself. If you are gay, bi, straight, black, mix, ect. you shouldn’t have to explain why you are that. This is who you are and people should just except that rather you guys believe in the same thing or disagree. Also, Nicholson’s answer to is feminism still relevant today is great because they are definitely people who believe they are just as equal to the next man or woman.

  19. I really enjoyed this article and the devotion that Zoe has to her beliefs. I like how she said that she has changed her card from being a “feminist” to an “equality activist”. That title really does showcase a more broad acceptance of people and doesn’t disqualify anyone. I also really enjoyed her comments about her conversation with a pro-life advocate. I wish I would hear more stories like this, where people from opposing sides could kindly state their view points on matters but in the end respect each other and appreciate the fact these opinions can be expressed. Oh if only women would rule the world!!

  20. This article has given me an understanding of what a life of an activist is like, which in turn sparked my being with various ideas and wonders. It seems as if it is quiet simple to set one person equal to another like what is the problem with it, how does it hurt to do so. However, in reality, one has to possess a lot of vigor to crush discrimination or to bring the issue into attention, just like Zoe Nicholson. Nicholson’s maintains a very strong ideology and stands by it with sheer courage, guts, and tons of emotions. Whether it is shouting at President Obama or holding hands/interaction with a simple woman who did not share her view about abortion, Nicholson has demonstrated that any kind of action is stronger than words, and there can never be enough activism until the world (or majority of people) has taken those actions into consideration.

  21. Before reading this, I was uncomfortable with officially labeling myself as a “feminist”. Reading Zoe Nicholson’s interview was definitely an eye opener. One quote from her interview stood out to me in particular: “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!)” This totally relates to me and my issue with labeling, and it made me start questioning my decision. Considering this, I also liked that she calls herself an “equality activist,” which made me realize that we all should be fighting for the same equality no matter who we are because we are all people. This being said, I realized that I do not have any problem being called a feminist or whatever label people want to give me because I believe in equality and want to become more active when it comes to fighting for equality for every single human being; I want to fight, whether it be for women, men, people of color, LGBT or any other person because as Zoe said, “Because, who ya gonna leave behind?”

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