“For us it’s not the issue of regulation. It’s the issue of survival.” — Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim –
“If I were a young person, I would start to ask my government very seriously,‘Why didn’t you listen?’ I would start to look at companies and corporations and ask, ‘What did you do when you knew?’” –Farhana Yamin–
Feminism is having a moment — and, increasingly, a multicultural one.
These things are seasonal, with seasons being marked by generations rather than in quarter years. Feminism and civil rights and all manner of movement towards an eventuality where we will be able to take for granted our common humanity, consigning no one to the margins, waxes and wanes, falling fallow in the winter of our collective lives only to surge forth again at the start of spring. It’s a perpetual cycling in which we continue to spiral upward, in fits and starts, to higher levels of human consciousness, and higher levels of manifest human possibility.
Young and very visible women, like Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer are using their considerable platforms to break silence with the many invisible ways in which sexism permeates the culture. They are working at the level of culture creation, which after every legal battle has been fault, is where the battle will ultimately be won. We can make the world different only when we change our hearts and minds.
Of course, hearts and minds follow experience, which is why it is essential that we see the faces, and hear the voices of women — and women of color in particular, without whose voices we cannot claim to be engaged in a serious conversation about making change in any corner of our world.
When I opened my computer on November 30, 2015, intent on doing a little procrastinating (ahem, I mean, warm-up for my writing day), I felt vindicated by Vogue.com’s piece, “Climate Warriors,“ which centered women of all races, nationalities and economic circumstances in the essential conversation about climate change which, let’s face it, is really a conversation about humanity’s continued survival on Earth, a conversation whose public face is too often male, and privileged and white — a kind of myopia we can no longer afford. The next leg of the human journey requires that we engage with the all-of-us, wherever it is that we come from, whatever the color of our skin, whatever our sex, whatever level of economic opportunity we enjoy.
The Vogue piece appeared as the world’s leaders gather in Paris for the Conference of the Parties, the annual United Nations summit on climate change, now in its 21st year, where the work of persuading countries large and small to give up fossil fuels takes place, along with the equally critical work of putting in place systems that will make that possible, for developed and developing countries alike, while ensuring that the world’s poor, who are disproportionately present in the developing world, the same opportunities to rise and fulfill their human potential as we enjoy, to varying degrees, in the developed pockets of the world.
Past UN climate summit negotiations have produced important treaties, like the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord, but this year’s meeting, the COP21, is expected to yield the world’s first binding, universal agreement to cut carbon emissions and begin to address climate change.
As Cameron Russell writes in her Vogue magazine tribute to women who are leading the way in global climate change, “The stakes have never been higher: Scientists have identified 2 degrees Celsius of warming as a dangerous tipping point for the planet, and we are 0.85 degrees of the way there.” “But hope, too,” she reminds us, “is at an all-time high: the international community has never been closer to taking decisive action” — and women, of all races, ages, nationalities, and levels of wealth, are also leading the way .
The essential role of women, who are equal to men and different from many, with many overlapping areas of sameness (for example, we are the same in our intellectual capacities, in our ability to wield power) must not be overlooked. Whether our differences are biologically determined, experientially-based, or most probably both — nature and nurture, socially constructed and innate — women embody a reality that endows us with another lens for seeing, a lens we can no longer afford to live, or to govern, without.
And so this too, this climate change conversation, is a feminist moment, as indeed every moment, and every conversation, must be, just as every moment must also be about race and class and nationality and sexual orientation and sexual identity, for only then are we having a truly human conversation. Humanity is all of us. It exists at the intersections of race and gender and so much else.
The modern women’s movement dates, roughly, to the Seneca Falls Convention of July 1848, organized by a group of Quaker women, and by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famous suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement, to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.”
Even then, the women’s movement kept common cause with the movement for racial justice, the foundation upon which the movements for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and other movements for social and economic justice have been built. It was Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, who insisted that the issue of women’s suffrage remain on the list of resolutions put forth by the convention.
Of course even in feminist circles, women and men of goodwill struggle with the tendency, so deeply ingrained, to place the black, the brown, the yellow, the red — in other words, the non-white, at the margins, to hew, in naming women’s experiences, to the stories of women who are white and middle and upper middle class.
Even if we are people of good will, even if we are ourselves black or brown or yellow or red, the tendency is to treat whiteness (and white femaleness) as normative, a tendency the famous feminist abolitionist Sojourner Truth pointed to in her game-changing, extemporaneous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, in Akron, Ohio in 1851 (a full fifteen years before the abolition of slavery), in which she spoke simply and powerfully about her own humanity, and in so doing gave the lie to the notion that femaleness is white, or that humanness is male. She is quoted by one attendee as saying:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? (member of audience whispers, “intellect”) That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
As we race toward a future in which human life on Earth as we know it will cease to exist if we don’t set things, in Truth’s words, “right side up again,”
The Vogue piece, which you can see in its entirety here, features photos by the famed fashion photographer duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, of 13 of the formidable women who are standing beyond the boundaries of race, class and nationality that too often divide us, in order to set the world right side up again. Because it’s going to take all of us. We can no longer afford a world in which only some of the world’s people have a voice. All of our voices are needed, not just for the sake of the voiceless, but for the sake of all of us who need so desperately to hear what they have to say. This is what human survival looks like. It looks like each of us having the opportunity to realize our full potential so that our world can reach it’s full potential.
As we face a future in which the old habits of dominion (over nature and over our fellow man) will not serve us, we need more than ever to be listening to the voices of women — and women of color as much as white women — and making common cause across the borders of gender and race and nationality and class to ensure our common future.
To give you a taste of the diversity of leadership that we are privileged to bear witness to, I’ll introduce you to two of the women highlighted in the Vogue piece who reflect what I call the diverse necessity of the moment. These women, Hindou Oumarou (pictured above top) and Farhana Yahim (pictured above bottom) stand as a reminder that the voices we don’t often listen to are necessary voices, that diversity isn’t
Without further ado, Oumarou and Yamin.
“Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is from the Sahel region of Chad, where devastating droughts and floods are now the norm. As cochair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, Ibrahim works to contain the humanitarian and ecological fallout from the vanishing of Lake Chad, a lifeline for an estimated 30 million people in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger. “If women come together, they can have more impact than any agreement, than any negotiations,” says Ibrahim. “Because we know that the future—it’s coming from us.”
International climate lawyer Farhana Yamin attended the very first climate negotiation in 1992, in Lima, Peru. Four children and 20 negotiations later, Yamin is still coming back, this time representing the Marshall Islands, with a clear message: Zero emissions by 2050. “What keeps me going is a sense of change. In the negotiations that I follow, we’ve had a whole decade where the dominant narrative was, ‘I’ll do something if you do something. You go first, and then I’ll do something.’ And now I think that’s really being replaced by, ‘Let’s all do something together.’ ””
I urge you to read the Vogue piece in its entirety, where you can read the bios of the 13 featured “Climate Warriors.” And my hats off to Vogue for naming them climate warriors, not “female climate warriors.” We need every reminder we can get that “humanity” isn’t male, and it isn’t white or privileged either. It is all of us.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY INEZ VAN LAMSWEERDE AND VINOODH MATADIN for VOGUE
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.