Busting the “Post-Patriarchy” Myth

Ellen Bravo is a long-time activist and author who’s spent decades organizing among low-wage women from a social justice feminist framework. She’s the Co-Founder of Family Values At Work, a network of state coalitions that advocate for paid sick days and paid family medical leave. Previously, Ellen served as the longtime director of 9to5. She’s written several non-fiction books, including Taking on the Big Boys. Her first novel, Again and Again, dealt with date rape and politics. Her second, Standing Up, written with her husband and released on March 8, highlights moments when workers band together to stand up to oppression.

The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Narrative Initiative: You’re working on a third novel. Can you tell me about Americanida?

Ellen Bravo: Americanida is the Greek word for “an American woman.” It’s a story of a young woman finding her voice. She’s married to a Greek guy and is the only non-Greek and the only Jewish person in a Greek resistance group in the late 60s and early 70s. There was a military coup in Greece and a dictatorship and [the book] is really about being in the middle of all those contradictions, finding feminism, learning about fascism and anti-imperialism, and how that impacts her marriage and her life. Her husband, who’s in exile, can’t go back because he’s spoken out against the regime. What will that mean for her? Who will she be if she goes with him? And what will be the loss if she doesn’t?

Narrative Initiative: In interweaving your feminist views and your organizing background into this novel, what narratives are you trying to shift through the Miriam’s story?

Ellen Bravo

Ellen Bravo: So I feel like there’s a narrative out there right now that people talk about – “post-racial.” There’s also a post-patriarchal notion that women can do whatever they want. In fact, they get preference [over men]. They’re the majority in college so they’re taking over everything. The “Me Too” movement came in and swept away the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct and so on. And so I think it’s really important to remind people how enormous these problems are, and how harmful the consequences are. They’re not frivolous.  I’m writing about a time when somebody is discovering the women’s movement. And I also want to share the joy of realizing that the things that happened to you weren’t inevitable, or not just [a part of] life. And that it didn’t happen just to [one person]. And that together, the world can be transformed.

This book is auto-fiction, so the character is very much inspired by my experience. [But] I want to capture that moment and show that, even in 1968, issues of race, class, and sexuality were real. So, here’s this person, on the one hand, finding things that are so true to her and important and, on the other hand, it’s an all-white group. Her best friend, who’s Black, decides not to go to the meeting because she suspects that it’s going to be all white. Of course, she’s right and Miriam has a lot to learn about that. She says, “Oh yeah, we have to do better outreach.” And her friend Yvonne says, “This isn’t about outreach. It’s about who are the land ladies, who are the bosses, who are the social workers, who are the people that the women I work with interact with? They’re white.” And it opens up a whole other area for Miriam to understand. So I really wanted to capture both the joy and the learning and the resistance that she faces in multiple ways.

Narrative Initiative: You mentioned that you wanted to show that, even in 1968, these issues of race, class, sexuality, and patriarchy were still a thing. Is it that you’re trying to show these issues at the height or the peak of their turbulence for an audience in the 21st century who may not realize how hard these movements have fought?

Ellen Bravo: I want to show that the leadership of women of color, the presence of people demanding attention to issues of sexuality, the harm caused by ignoring class differences – that goes way back. It’s not a new phenomenon and it makes it all the more important that we haven’t solved it. It makes it really important to recognize that sometimes people talk about the women’s movement as if it were a white women’s movement, but it was always multi-racial. It just wasn’t always integrated. There was always leadership from women of color. That’s not a new thing that somehow people have made way for. It was always there and always important, and I want to show somebody who’s recognizing what needs to be changed, and then understanding who needs to be at the center of that change. And then understanding that, that takes [organizing]. What role can she play in helping to make that happen? What will that mean for her life? That it’s not just an activity. I really dislike the word “the cause.” I don’t think these are causes. I think these are essential to our being able to breathe, being able to operate in the world. 

I also want to show what things we took for granted. This is a woman who had some strong feelings about women and independence and yet went along with all kinds of patriarchal customs. And then, she found this group and, all of a sudden, all those things got called into question – that moment when you realize what a contradiction it was to have accepted this lack of liberation for yourself. So I hope those are moments that readers will recognize in their own lives.

Narrative Initiative: I want to pull out two things that you said – one about the feminist movement itself and the other about patriarchy. You mentioned that the feminist movement has always been multiracial and that there have always been women of color at the center of it,  sometimes in leadership positions. I want to push back against that. As a Black woman myself, I have often heard – and sometimes even felt – that there’s a specific brand of feminism, especially in the United States, that is very white woman-centered and focused and there is not room for women of color. And that is why many women of color identify, as Alice Walker defined, as “womanist,” where it’s a more holistic and inclusive approach that feels right for women of color who have some similar issues within feminism, but the added component of racism to combat against. How do you account for that in your narrative with the fact your character’s best friend is a woman of color?

Ellen Bravo: Let me be really clear: there are many movements within the women’s movement. And I feel like there are some people who talk as if only white women were in movement. That’s what I’m disputing and that’s what I hope the book shows. There’s work that Yvonne does, in the Black community, that’s really path-setting for Miriam. 

Even in groups that were multiracial, like 9to5, I mean [which] started in 1973, there were always women of color. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t white women-centered or didn’t have problems in leadership. But it wasn’t only white women. So both of those things – the existence of other groups and activity and leadership and resources and commentary and all those things among women of color, and within groups that were multiracial, but were still dominated by white women. That’s the thing I was trying to get at.

Narrative Initiative: I also want to pick up on the thread of patriarchy because, as you mentioned, even though your character evolves and is coming into herself, especially as a feminist, she still easily goes along with some of those roots of patriarchy, such as the division of labor, and taking on her husband’s last name. What I’ve found in my life – and in my reading and learning – is that, many times, marginalized classes of people will perform the behaviors of those who are in power, sometimes unbeknownst to them, and sometimes intentionally, because it gives them a degree of power. It was said after President Trump’s election in 2016, that many white women voted against their own interests, because they chose the part of them that was more powerful than the part of them that was marginalized. Basically, they choose their whiteness over their femininity. And so in addressing some of that in your novel, how do you want to shift that mindset amongst people who will do the work of the oppressors for them?

Ellen Bravo: Well, I think there’s a difference between things like taking your husband’s name and assuming certain divisions of labor and operating in ways that benefit you because of your race. So the first doesn’t benefit you. I think it’s impossible to grow up in a dominant culture and not be impacted by it. So it’s not surprising that patriarchy has left its stamp on what people assume is normal. It’s not surprising that white people have drunk in racism from the earliest time, even if they think, I’m not that kind of person. I would never do that. And so I wanted to show people learning.

But, I have to say I’m amazed at how common it is for people to still change their names and assume that they will live where their husband wants to live or that his career should come first or his family situation, etc. And also just the rituals of marriage. I don’t really talk about this, but the whole idea of proposing, being given away by your father…I feel like we haven’t disrupted that enough. There are new models, both within heterosexual couples and same-sex or non-binary relationships. Although this book precedes some of the conversations we’re having now, I don’t want to be ahistorical. I hope that it opens up room for that.

Narrative Initiative: So, with that said, what do you want readers, or people who are within feminist movements, to glean from your text that maybe they have not thought of, or have not done enough to change as of this moment?

Ellen Bravo: I hope readers will connect with the idea of finding your own voice and asking what it means to be your whole self and refusing to accept less than that for yourself. Also, what it means to act with others and find community and build community that reflects both what you think will be the best way for you to thrive, and also the best way for all of us to win. 

So, for example, there are things in the book about abortion. There was a struggle, within my women’s group in Montreal, to have a single focus on abortion. Even though Miriam will do whatever she can to support it, she’s concerned and raises the things that Yvonne’s group is doing to connect it to fighting [against] sterilization and the need for pregnancy and parental leave. That tension still exists within the movement for reproductive justice. Likewise, the things that we’ve won . .  in the book, Miriam’s sister is a teacher and she gets fired when she’s pregnant. It’s supposedly unseemly for children to see her [pregnant], as if they don’t see their mothers and aunts and neighbors and so on. We changed the law. If you work for a company that has fewer than 50 employees, it’s illegal to fire you for being pregnant, but they don’t have to hold your job open. If you work for a company with fewer than 15 employees, they can fire you for any reason they want, even if they know you’re pregnant. So, I hope people will say, “Well, that was happening back then and we haven’t fixed it.” We haven’t finished fixing it. There’s still a long way to go.

I hope readers will rejoice and recognize moments when similar things in the book happened to them. I hope it’ll reinforce the understanding of intersectionality and open eyes for those who don’t. I hope people will appreciate that sometimes contradictions are complicated and multiple. For example, what does it mean to take your own name back? What does it mean when the feminism that you’re fighting for is seen as American imperialism because your government has done lots of harm? How do you understand that there’s someone who’s done good in the world, and yet, can also do these harmful things? How do we hold that reality about them? But, also, how do we decide how are we going to relate to that individual? So I hope they’re threads like that, that people connect to. Of course, I hope, above all, that it’s a good story and that readers care about this woman and the love relationship. 

Narrative Initiative: Is there anything else that you would like to add that I have not asked?

Ellen Bravo: One other thing that’s important to me about the book is showing all the ways that women lead – even if they aren’t in a leadership role and even if they don’t name themselves as either activist or a feminist. [They] are building paths and providing insight, care, and resistance in all kinds of ways. That was a joyous recognition for Miriam and I hope it will be for readers who need to see that as well.

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