Q & A With Courtney E. Martin
East Bay writer and activist Courtney E. Martin shares her thoughts on the future of feminism and her hopes for the next generation of trailblazers.
Author and activist Courtney E. Martin at her Oakland home.
Photo by Cali Godley
It would be difficult to ignore the power of feminism these days. The #MeToo phenomenon of the last several months has swept across cultures, industries, and borders to empower women to speak up about sexual assault and harassment. But it has done more than that: It has brought real consequences to bear, put a sustained spotlight on feminism, and magnified the voices at the forefront of this movement across the country and here in the East Bay. One of those helping to advance the conversation is Courtney E. Martin.
The Oakland-based author and social and political activist has spoken at universities and conducted several TED talks, and previously coedited the blog Feministing. Martin also writes a weekly column for The On Being Project’s website and has penned articles for YES! Magazine and The New York Times. Her most recent book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, published in 2016, explores how the American Dream is being transformed in the wake of the Great Recession. (Her other books include 2010’s Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists; 2007’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women; and various coauthored titles.) She is a recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and in 2013 helped found the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that promotes rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Here, Martin shares her thoughts on feminism, honoring diverse stories, and the next generation of trailblazers.
Q: How does feminism affect our society right now?
A: Feminism—emboldened by how bad and obvious things have gotten—is writing a different story. It’s in boardrooms, where men who have long felt entitled to proposition their subordinates are being held accountable. It’s in the streets, where people are coming out in numbers not seen pounding the pavement since the Civil Rights era. It’s in our movie theaters, where films made by and about women and people of color are gloriously abundant.
Q: Should people feel discouraged or encouraged about our progress given the sexism that still exists?
A: Here’s the thing: That darkness has already produced a whole hell of a lot of light—big lightning cracks of women and people of color saying, “Enough!” Black folks and their allies shutting down airports and taking over city streets, waiters joining together and telling the truth about the harassment they’ve endured from beloved chefs and restaurateurs, janitors with so much to lose bravely revealing their sexual assault experiences on the night shift. And even kids, not yet 18, using their grief to propel them straight to Washington, to look their political leaders in the eye and refuse to back down—whether on immigration or gun policy.
Q: How do we create a framework for all this?
A: The question of our time, in many ways, is: Which stories do you honor? They want us to believe that the real story, the most important story, is always being authored by white men, and that they, of course, are the protagonists. Or even the villains—but either way, they want to be the stars.
Q: How do young people fit in?
A: Their imaginations are more nimble, more colorful, less colonized to begin with. The backlash to feminism has been fierce these last few years, no doubt, but these young people spent over a decade marinating in it: Michelle Obama’s dignified leadership, Beyoncé’s bold embrace of her own power, Janet Mock’s rightful place on prime-time television. No generation has understood gender as a spectrum so readily. No generation has grasped intersectionality so automatically. Theirs are the stories I most want to honor.
Q: What’s inspiring about this time in the East Bay?
A: I can’t believe how talented, fascinating, and ethical folks in the East Bay are. I am consistently blown away by the mix of creativity, self-examination, systemic literacy, and do-it-yourself attitude that so many people demonstrate. Which is not to say, of course, that we don’t have massive issues with regard to income inequality, gentrification, a broken public school system, etc. But I’ve never lived in a place where [so many] people are earnestly trying to be part of collective solutions.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
A: As a citizen, as a feminist, as a mother of two young girls, I know that it is my duty to see the darkness and the light simultaneously. The dystopian themes weaving themselves around all of our lives are frighteningly real. I am sober about how long and hard the reclaiming and rebuilding period will inevitably be after so much havoc. But the glimpses of utopia remind me that we’ve got what it takes. Or more accurately, we’ve got who it takes—the punk kids, the “nasty women,” the dreamers, the black girl magic, the movement leaders, the organizers, the rabble rousers . . . all the true patriots.
Courtney E. Martin: 30-Second Bio
Education: B.A., Barnard College; M.A., New York University.
Family: Partner and two daughters (though she thinks of her cohousing community as her extended family).
Favorite place to write: “Anywhere my children are not.”
Favorite playground: Mosswood Park.
Favorite hike: Tilden Regional Park.
Favorite walk: Mountain View Cemetery.
Favorite restaurant: Cholita Linda.
Favorite beer garden: Temescal Brewing.
Favorite movie theater: The New Parkway Theater.
Tip for the next generation: “Figure out how you want to be when you grow up, not what you want to be when you grow up.”