A conversation with Kathy Spillar on feminism and the patriarchy today

PHOTO BY KELLY PIEN ’20  Katherine Spillar explains how the prominence of Donald Trump caused a resurgence in the feminist movement.


Katherine Spillar explains how the prominence of Donald Trump caused a resurgence in the feminist movement.

Claudia Olson ’22 | Assistant Features Editor

On Friday, Jan. 25, I went to Professor Carrie Baker’s office and introduced myself. There, I met Kathy Spillar, the executive editor of Ms., one of the country’s most prominent feminist magazines. I sat with Baker, the director of Smith’s program for the study of women and gender, and Spillar, who would later be giving a talk to the Smith community entitled “Rise Up! Resisting the Patriarchy in the Age of Trump.” I first asked Spillar how she defines the modern patriarchy and how the idea of patriarchy has shifted since Donald Trump has become president. “Well, there’s not much modern about the patriarchy,” Spillar replied with a laugh. She went on to describe how Trump is the modern embodiment of the patriarchy and how his values, or lack thereof, have allowed many other patriarchal figures to be open and accepted in today’s society. The Kavanaugh hearings were the perfect examples of public patriarchy. The male rage and resentment put on display by male Republicans, Trump’s defense team and Brett Kavanaugh, himself, was a showcase of how men in our society can lack any sense of proper behavior and still be placed in positions of power. However, Spillar credits the prominence of patriarchs for the resurgence of the feminist movement in a way the world has never seen. Feminists around the world have risen up and confronted the presidential patriarch, challenging his agenda. As Spillar put it: “We are fighting a rearguard action to turn back the clock on 50 years of progress.”

One of the most essential weapons in this fight is the power of voting. I asked Spillar to explain why women vote differently than men, a phenomenon known as the “gender gap.” This discrepancy originates from the fact that in our society, women lead very different lives than men — at least partly due to prescribed gender roles and stereotypes. Women are often paid less, discriminated against and burdened with the task of caregiving. These societal forces cause the government to have a different role in the lives of women than men. Men are more likely to want a “hands-off” government, one that does little to interfere with their daily lives. Because of their experiences and roles in society, women want the government to provide them with certain initiatives, such as a strong public education system, social safety net programs and publicly available child care. Women also see stopping discrimination as a reason for the government to be actively involved in the lives of citizens. Whether it be preventing inequity on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexuality, women see that the government has the power to value equality and uphold the Constitution (though the famous decree that “all men are created equal” wasn’t written with us in mind).

The 2018 midterm election was a showcase for the power of women voters and their values. Over 100 women now have seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, many of which were flipped from red to blue. When asked if these women would be able to protect and advance women’s rights under the Trump administration, Spillar responded, “Big time. … They’re going to be real fighters in there.” She believes that these women, many of whom are both Democrats and feminists, will be able to carry legislation to make real progress in Congress, similar to how their foremothers did so decades before with Title VII and Title IX. She is especially hopeful that these women can make important change because of their diverse backgrounds. The newly elected class of congresswomen is not only diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and age; the group is also made up of a wide variety of professions, including social workers, schoolteachers and human trafficking experts. Notably, Kim Schrier became the first woman physician to be elected to the House. Because so many of these women come to Congress with specialties outside of simply law, they can focus on specific problems the United States faces, such as the homeless crisis and women’s medical issues. In Spillar’s words: “We finally got people in there who have experience and understanding and guts, so maybe we can really start tackling these problems.”

Towards the end of our discussion, I asked Spillar how young people, such as Smith students, can resist the patriarchy as individuals and as a campus community. “Fight like hell and get involved now,” she said in response. She explained to me that the feminist movement is so massive that it can’t be mapped. The movement spans around the world and across many sub-movements. Feminists around the world are fighting for more than just the rights of women. Activists from all backgrounds are organizing for a more peaceful and sustainable world, one that recognizes the human rights of all people. “It’s an exciting time to be in college and to be thinking about how you can impact the world,” Spillar added. She made special mention of the internship program Ms.offers in their Los Angeles office as an opportunity to spread feminist ideas through journalism. By interviewing Spillar, I learned what feminists are fighting for and why this fight is so crucial. We all have the ability and obligation to join this fight and rise up against the not-so-modern patriarchy. Following Spillar’s advice, I hope my role as a journalist can empower readers to take up the cause and become involved in the global movement for the rights of humanity.

Sophian Smith