I have known Garry Atkinson for a long time. His mother was braille transcriber and educational assistant for me, starting from when I was in the 1st grade.
One day I discovered her son was good friends with my cousin Morgan. They liked to play music together.
Garry has remained close to my aunt and uncle, my cousins, and I have admired him for the work he’s been doing, for years. I really wanted to talk to a man about an often mostly women’s topic. I was fascinated to hear, from a male perspective, what feminism means and how it plays a role in his life and all of our lives.
What do labels do, for good or bad, in our society?
Garry is a middle-class, white, heterosexual male living in Canada. Many in his shoes might not stop to give feminism a second thought. Why has he?
He has a mother, sisters, friends, daughters, and a partner. Is that why he cares so much? I was determined to find out what drives him to do the work he does.
Sometimes I feel like I have a double pressure, being a female with a disability, but this is why I care so much and am so incredibly passionate and concerned for feminism and equality. I thought, who better than Garry Atkinson, to speak out on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Garry: First of all, thank you so kindly for this opportunity – it is truly an honor.
Kerry: The honor is all mine. Thank you for agreeing to speak to me. I would like to do my part for advocacy in the areas of people with disabilities, women, equal rights and I want to speak about that as much as I can. I am happy to learn what your experience has been.
1) First, what did you go to school for exactly and can you explain a little bit about that?
My undergraduate degree consisted of an honors specialization in women’s studies and feminist research with a minor in French studies. I started my undergrad in a general arts program in 2009, with an introductory women’s studies course as one of my classes. Having two young children at the time and reading Lois Gould’s “X – A fabulous child’s story” for my first class, I was awe-struck by a discussion about the ways in which gendered toys and clothing would shape my children’s future, and how a fixation on gender more broadly was a tool for organizing a society to ultimately privilege men. It was at that time I decided I would enroll in the program, and continued in the women’s studies and feminist research program for my graduate degree as well.
2) How has your own mother influenced that decision? What did she teach you about equality growing up?
I think some of the most important ways my mom had an impact on my decision to study women’s studies and feminist research was by fostering an environment in which it was safe to be me – and that the ways in which I differed from the traditional constructions of masculinity as a child, a young adult, and as I matured, were okay. My mom has always had a passion for fairness – among her children and grandchildren, her siblings, friends, students and colleagues – her dedication to being fair has always been at the core, and has subsequently taught me a lot about equality. Her work with people with disabilities throughout my life also taught me a lot about difference, the value in those differences, and how celebrating difference can nurture mutually positive relationships.
3) Do you consider yourself a feminist and why?
Absolutely, but I think it goes beyond embracing a label or political position. For me, personally, I think it’s about being in constant conversation with what it means to be a feminist as a white, heterosexual, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, male. From that location, it’s about constantly reflecting on my inherent privileges that are grounded in the structures of society that benefit people who share my social location, and always being open to being challenged on that privilege. I have to allow myself to be uncomfortable – to accept that my role in the feminist movement is to ultimately listen and learn, and to do my very best to challenge and acknowledge those privileges in everything I do. I am a feminist, but I can’t just say it – it has to be present in my actions, and, perhaps most importantly, in a critical self-reflection that guides those actions. Ultimately, I think being a feminist is about a commitment to a life-long conversation. I’m committed to that conversation, and that’s why I consider myself a feminist.
4) What does feminism mean to you?
To me, feminism is about social equality. It’s about addressing the inequalities that have become inherent in our socialization and social structures based on gender, race, class, and ability, to name a few. This doesn’t mean that it’s about treating everyone equally, but rather recognizing and celebrating the differences among us, and eliminating the structures, policies, laws, etc., that lend privilege to a limited group of people. Feminism advocates for the celebration of difference, which is what I find most exciting, because it opens up the opportunity to grow our communities, expand our knowledge, and ultimately initiate new ways for us to exist as cohabitants on our journey through life.
5) What do you think the stigma around feminism is all about? Why do you think it’s become a bad word, the new F word for some people?
I don’t think the stigma around feminism is new, but I do think technological advancement and social media has made it more apparent. Ultimately, I think the stigmas associated with feminism are about people being afraid of losing privilege.
6) What would you say is the worst danger against equality for women and all people?
I don’t think I could begin to pinpoint one ‘worst danger’ against equality, but perhaps trying to find one answer or solution would be part of the problem. The dangers against equality are very different for everyone, shaped by the differences of our social locations and how those locations intersect. We need to start by recognizing and celebrating difference in order to understand what equality even looks like.
7) November was Women Abuse Prevention Month. What does this cause mean to you?
Women are disproportionately affected by violence in heterosexual relationships in particular, and by acts of male violence in general. This isn’t to say that men aren’t affected, or that we shouldn’t have a conversation about violence in same-sex communities – but Woman Abuse Prevention Month offers a time we can reflect on the staggering number of women who have lost their lives, homes, families, or sense of self-security to abuse, and how we can move forward as a community to create safe spaces and challenge what has traditionally been regarded as an acceptable way of treating women.
8) Who do you admire, those in media, literature, politics, who you feel stands for equality? A feminist or other? Which literature do you look to about these causes?
There are so many, it is difficult to name a few – many of the people I admire for their position on equality are in my life, and I constantly look to them for guidance, feedback, suggestions, and insight. If I were to reflect on authors, however, I’d have to say that “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde was one of the collections of writings that had a huge impact on me as I began my academic journey, and I repeatedly returned to her work throughout my studies. Chela Sandoval’s “Methodology of the Oppressed,” Mariana Ortega’s “Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant,” and several of Michel Foucault’s writings were also all important for me as a way of building a framework of understanding and thinking about feminist causes.
9) What are some of the most important, valuable things you learned in your years of university?
Self-reflection, critical analysis, collaboration, it was really an endless experience of learning.
10 ) What do you want to instill in your own daughters from all you’ve learned?
Mostly, I want them to know that their options in life are limitless, whether it be an economic pursuit, a social role, or a sexual preference – and I want them to value that in the people they meet along the way as well. At the same time, I want them to understand the importance of being self-reflective of the privileges they have, and critical of the challenges they face. Whatever that looks like for them in the future is their decision, so ultimately I just want them to know that I support them and hope that I can foster the trust they need to be fully comfortable and confident with the choices they make.
11) Where do you see feminism going forward into the future?
I think there is an increasing awareness of feminism, and feminist causes – with social media playing a pivotal role in its dissemination. Whether or not the material effects of that movement are on par with the increasing awareness about feminism, however, is another conversation. Women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts, disproportionately experience violence, are subjected to ridiculous standards of beauty, and continue to bear the brunt of unpaid work such as childcare and caregiving – just to scratch the surface. Moving forward I think feminism will continue to address these issues, but perhaps more importantly get us to think about how these issues are also informed by race, class, ability, and ethnicity, for example, so we can look to difference for the knowledge and experiences we need in order to inspire our future laws, policies, and social structures, and create a more just society.
Kerry: Thank you so much for doing this.
Sometimes I feel like I have a double pressure, being a female with a disability, but this is why I care so much and am so incredibly passionate and concerned for feminism and equality. I appreciate hearing your thoughts.
Garry: I really want to respond to your feeling a ‘double pressure’ as a female with a disability by saying that I appreciate it, and that I think recognizing it is one of the fundamental aspects of feminism. In my training, we were taught to call it “intersectionality,” most prominently introduced by authors such as Kimberly Crenshaw and Patricia Hill-Collins as a way to bring attention to how women of color experienced systems of oppression differently, not only based on their gender, but through racism as well. The ways in which your gender intersects with a disability are inseparable in how you experience the world – sometimes sexism and misogyny may take the fore, and sometimes ableist attitudes may be more dominant, but they are always both intersecting to shape your experiences. How you experience misogyny or sexism is informed by your disability, and how you experience ableist attitudes is informed by your gender. I know you are well aware, I just thought this might give you some language to think through it.
I love that you have found a passion for feminism, and I really look forward to seeing where it takes you, how you engage with it, challenge it, question it, and draw on it.
Kerry: Well, thanks for taking the time and I am glad we could have an important discussion on these extremely vital issues for both men and women, for us all.
Garry: Thanks again Kerry.
This interview first appeared on Her Headache.