Jamia Wilson is basically a feminist rockstar. She’s a media activist, writer, speaker and the executive director of Women, Action, & the Media (a non-profit organization fighting for gender justice in the media). She’s also a reader of Her Campus!
Her articles have been featured in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, among other publications. She has spoken at TED Talks, universities around the country and world, and various other engagements.
Wilson found time to speak with us right before a speaking event at SUNY Old Westbury. We talked about what feminism truly means, what more can be done to further the cause and why people are so averse to improvements for women’s rights.
HC: What do you think the state of the feminist movement is today? What more do you think needs to be done in terms of women’s rights?
I think at this point, a really exciting opportunity that we have right now is that there’s a big pop cultural conversation that has emerged around feminism. Thanks to proclamations of feminism from celebrities like Beyonce, J. Lo, Emma Watson, Katy Perry, even Miley Cyrus, those feminist proclamations have helped make this conversation on feminism more mainstream. That is a good thing in terms of getting people in the public conversation talking about gender, justice and equality.
I’m also thinking there’s a lot of work we have to do: You know, we still don’t have an equal rights amendment. We have a situation where there’s a pay gap, and for women of color specifically that pay gap is even deeper. There still needs to be a lot of work done to protect reproductive rights and health access for women and girls. We do have a lot of work to do, but I do believe that there is a lot of energy that is happening right now, and social media and blogging has allowed for more democratization of voices and for feminists to be able to amplify their voices in more accessible ways.
What do you think can be done right now, in the short term time frame, about this issue?
I think that we need to continue to keep this increased energy sustained. We should definitely be using our collective energy to continue to keep these issues surfaced in the daily conversation, so that when people are thinking about the issues of the day, they reflect a feminist lense. When they reflect a feminist lense, then that means everyone is counted because feminism is a belief in the cultural, social and political equality of all genders and all sexes. So my belief is that when we are talking about any issue, be it economics or any other issue of public import, that people are thinking about the intersections of race, intersections of class, intersections of gender in that conversation, and making sure that we are surfacing the needs of our marginalized people.
You mentioned the gender pay gap, which has existed ever since women began entering the workforce and has persisted until today. Why do you think it still exists and why isn’t anybody doing anything about it on the legislative level where it matters?
I think that there needs to be a larger conversation about what is really at stake, and how much of a disparity there is. I think there needs to be more awareness about that. Over a lifetime it really adds up, and when you think about the fact that the gender pay gap is worse for mothers for example—It continues to grow with age which is impacting families. When you think about the pay gap being present in almost every single occupation that exists, that is very disturbing.
So it’s really important for us to think about what that means for this economy as well as what that means for fairness and our values. And also what it means around our lifetimes, because we women tend to live longer statistically as well, so that means that when women are living longer and they are getting paid less over a lifetime, they are lacking in retirement benefits and also the money that they didn’t get paid over time. That is a dire situation. When you think of all the other expenses that we also have to face, when you think about the fact that it’s just plain unfair, when you think about the fact that there are people who have to pay for a tampon tax, you know these are things that people just shouldn’t have to do.
Sorry – what’s this about a tampon tax?
So there are people in some communities around the world being taxed on tampons. And when you think about women who are homeless or low income for example, and the cost of getting basic needs that women need—Women who are identified in their bodies or trans people who bleed, they have additional expenses that they have to pay. The fact that there are some contexts where there’s a sales tax that’s applied to this basic service, and the fact that we’re paid differently, is just another way to illuminate how women have these extra added costs to the basic experience of womanhood. There are actual countries where the tax does exist; you know here in the U.S. it’s sales tax that in the states applies to tampons, but there are other countries where there’s an actual tampon tax.
We are seeing more and more often that feminism is receiving almost a backlash from people who believe that certain feminists are too overzealous, or that feminism is unnecessary in today’s modern society. What would you say to the skeptics and naysayers?
I actually think that a lot of times the backlash comes from the fact that we are making progress, and I think that sometimes there’s a fear of actual change because there’s fear of people stepping outside their comfort zone or losing privileges that they’ve had. I think that people should recognize that feminism means equality for everyone. With the liberation of women will come the liberation of men. Men are also harmed by patriarchy, and it creates social problems that affect us all—That’s the paradigm shift that we need. Women’s issues are issues that impact the entire community. We are a majority of the population and when women are liberated, then that trickles to others in the community.
I also believe that when you’re talking about racial justice as well, and gender justice. The day that black transgender women are free will be the day that I will be free. If all of our systems and our culture were set up in a way that they were free from oppression, then that means I would be free too, and that means that any man or woman of any race would be free because of the level of marginalization that currently exists in our society.
Jennifer Lawrence recently published an essay in Lenny newsletter commenting on the systematic sexism that prevailed in Hollywood, from a ridiculous pay gap to a double standard in the treatment of actresses and actors when they voice opinions. Have you seen workplace sexism in your professional experience?
I’ve definitely seen it in my personal experience, and I’ve seen it blatantly but I’ve also seen it most often as small microaggressions and covert coded language and harassment. Oftentimes those are more insidious, because it can sometimes be harder to name or to fit into existing policies, in terms of reporting and that sort of thing. I do see it and I do think it’s really important for us to combat that sort of culture, because that sort of culture can create the sort of hostile environment that can lead to even greater impact and more harm.
Do you have any advice for our readers who are hoping to work in media?
My advice would be to write and write every day, and write anywhere that you get the chance! Amplify your voice, create media. We need to own media without allowing it to own us. Create the media that you want to see, pitch the places that you like to read. Put yourself out there and tell your story because your story is important and your story matters, and it’s a very revolutionary act when women amplify their voices and take their righteous place and make themselves heard in a culture where we’re often rendered invisible and silent.
Our Her Campus readers are pretty savvy to most of these women’s inequality issues which we have discussed so far. What advice can you give to our readers about how to make a difference and promote a solution to these issues?
I think that what young women and women in general should do is to really amplify our voices: We need to tell our stories, we need to shape the public narrative about these conversations because culture is so important and the media is such an important public education tool that we need to leverage. Also we need to make sure that we are amplifying our voices to decisionmakers and policymakers about the policies we need to see for equality. We need to organize, and I think that a lot of people feel that they’re alone, but they’re not. There are other people who agree with us, and it’s important for us to create a strong network together so that we can collectively use our strengths to make change.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If people are interested in joining our movement to build a more inclusive, more equal, more robust movement for gender justice and media, you can check us out at womenactionmedia.org and start a chapter in your community or join one of our existing ones.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. The first two photos are courtesy of the SUNY Old Westbury Women’s Center.