Q: Can you tell me your story of strength? What makes you strong?
I think our understanding of strength changes over time. As a young woman, I thought of strength as having the discipline, the energy, and the ability to accumulate achievements: a high GPA, a good graduate school, a good job. Very little of this had anything to do with reflectiveness, with choosing rather than being driven onto a life course. And yet, that definition of strength served me well enough. I think it’s important not to pathologize conventional understandings of strength (or loyalty or anything else).
Later in life, my definition moved toward being more intentional about my choices, including my definition of strength. Still this is not about purely private musing – there’s always a conversation between your own spirit and the world. The two strongest things I’ve done illustrate that.
One was largely dictated by circumstance: my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I am tremendously proud of how we both used the time that was left us. The way I was able to support him is the hardest work I’ve ever done, and the thing I’m proudest of. But certainly circumstance played a very big role in imposing the challenge.
On the other hand, the work I do now – for human rights for Palestinians — is almost entirely a free choice. In fact, the environment, both in American politics and in my Jewish family, would prefer that I invest my interest in social justice in some other struggle. So here I am entirely following my own interests and passions.
Q: Can you tell me about a woman who exemplifies strength in your life?
On an intellectual level, my sophomore anthropology professor absolutely became my role model. Though I was in an honors program, I felt totally overwhelmed by the prevailing definition of education – amassing the biggest possible pile of random information. I always felt that everyone else had a bigger pile of facts than I did. And then Professor Hammond started the course with a series of lectures about the features of all vertebrate behavior, mammalian behavior, primate behavior, human behavior. And suddenly the world, which had seemed chaotic and random, was revealed as orderly, patterned, comprehensible. This was virtually a conversion experience for me. I’ve been a social scientist ever since.
My mother exemplifies political and social strength. She had a very difficult life, growing up partly in an orphanage where she was very likely sexually abused. But when the Nazis occupied her country (Austria) she was active in a banned socialist youth group, the Red Falcons, and became the head chaperone on the last childrens’ train (Kindertransport) that was allowed to take children to safety outside the war zone. There were 27 children in that group, and their lives were saved thanks to the organization that put the Kindertransport together, but also to the women who set out across Nazi occupied Europe with questionable papers to take those children to England.
I also think we shouldn’t always romanticize strength. My mother was a strong woman, but she also (no surprise, given her history) was full of depression and rage – and those qualities, coupled with the strength to express them, made for some difficult times as well as the wonderful times I miss.
Q: Can you tell me about a time where you feel like you failed or truly disappointed yourself?
Failure in my life comes mostly in moments when I am driven rather than reflective about the choices I make. My first attempt at graduate school was a total disaster. Looking back on it, I realize that all I wanted was OUT of my family, out of Brooklyn, to a less overheated, calmer environment. I got into a PhD program at Yale, and found that I had no idea what I wanted to do there. I had wanted to get out of someplace else, but I made very bad use of the place where I arrived. Eventually, I settled for an MA and left the program. It took me years to get back on track and to figure out what was really my path in life.
Q: How can women better support each other?
I think women’s support for other women has to be much more than just positive comments on Facebook posts. We definitely need to take intersectionality into account: we’re not only women, but of a particular race, class, age, sexuality, etc. So, for example, white feminists and feminists of color may both object to and resist patriarchy. But for white women this can often be reduced to wisecracks about “mansplaining” and other such typically male behavior. Whereas for women of color, there has to be a distinction between challenging patriarchy as a system and, simultaneously, supporting the men in their community who put their lives at risk every time they drive at night and who are, more broadly, always perceived as dangerous and threatening, no matter who they really are as individuals. We need to get better at having those conversations – not because they are politically fashionable, but because they are necessary.