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Rojas Examines What It Means to be a Woman of Color and Feminist

Published: June 1, 2010

Women of Color and Feminism comes out of nine years of teaching a course on the subject at CSULB,’ said Maythee Rojas, as associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Rojas examines what it means to be a woman of color and a feminist in her latest book. “Although I was hesitant to take on the difficult task of writing about multiple groups of women and their issues within a single text, it feels great to see the work published.”

In this seventh installment of the academic-focused Seal Studies series from Seal Press, Rojas tackles the question of how women of color experience feminism and how they are affected by race and socioeconomics.

“Often the generic word ‘women’ has meant white women,” explains Rojas, a native Costa Rican who received her Ph.D. in English from Arizona State University in 2001. “Consequently, feminism has not always been embraced by women of color, even those who in all other ways are already politicized individuals.”

Covering a range of topics including sexuality, gender politics, violence, stereotypes, and reproductive rights, Women of Color and Feminism offers a far-reaching view of multi-layered identity. In addition, Rojas profiles such historical figures as a kidnapped African woman dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” the unjustly hanged Mexican Josefa Loaiza and a murdered member of the American Indian Movement, Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, all of whom she argues serve to illustrate the legacy of violence that still plagues contemporary women of color.

The sad story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (1789-1815) forms the focus of one of her book’s chapters. Baartman was a slave of Dutch farmers near Cape Town when the brother of her owner suggested that she travel to England for exhibition. Starring at attractions in 19th century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus, she was forced to display what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features. She continued to be the subject of public curiosity until her death in France at the age of 25. Yet, even thereafter, portions of her body were kept on display until the return of her remains to South Africa in 2002.

Venus’ cultural impact was long-lasting. In his 1847 novel Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray referred to Venus while the science fiction author Paul Di Filippo used her story as the basis for a novel in his Steampunk Trilogy. Joyce Carol Oates used Venus’ tale in her 2006 novel Black Girl/White Girl.

“To understand how African American women are perceived and what their sexuality represents in contemporary society, you have to look back in history to see how European colonists treated African women,” suggests Rojas, who joined the university in 2001. “Venus was a symbol and not the only one. There is a clear trajectory from Venus to today’s video vixens. From Donna Summer to Beyoncé, there is a link between how Venus was treated and how African American women are still viewed today. As sociologist Patricia Hill Collins asserts, in the post-civil rights era, gender has emerged as a prominent feature of what some call a ‘new’ racism. How people see African Americans as men and women as well as their perceptions of African American masculinity and femininity still affect the types of opportunities and discrimination African American women and men encounter in schools, jobs, government agencies, and other American social institutions.”

The exploitation of stereotypes is as timely as today’s headlines. When UC San Diego students invited classmates to a “Compton Cookout,” female participants were encouraged to be “ghetto chicks” with gold teeth, cheap clothes and “short, nappy hair.” UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox called the party “offensive” and a “blatant disregard of our campus values.”

“There is a long history that informs student opinions even before they knew they had opinions,” said Rojas. “It is similar for Asian American women, Native American women and Latinas. They have to deal with similarly negative images. Where do they come from? There is an important historical leap that needs to be made.”

Maythee Rojas

The book also examines healthcare problems such as depression. “Communities of color have high levels of mental ailments and there is little in the way of care,” Rojas said. “When one looks at the numbers of mental ailments in communities of color, one finds that there is a large untreated population. Why do so many cases of depression and bipolar disorder go untreated? One of the big reasons is poverty. When someone who is mentally ill is also dealing with the stresses of being poor, their erratic behavior can be misconstrued or overlooked. Poverty has a way of masking real untreated illness.”

Rojas’ book tries to lay bare how communities grapple with social issues. “I try to give reasons why some patterns develop over time,” she said. “For instance, the book discusses incarceration rates for women of color which seem to increase by the day. These rising rates work to destroy families in communities that already have hard times keeping family units solid and healthy.”

Rojas is currently completing a manuscript on the uses of the erotic in Chicana literature titled Following the Flesh: Embodied Transgressions in Chicana Literature. Her work has appeared in Frontiers, MELUS, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and reference books such as Notable American Women, Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture, and Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia. She also sits on the board of directors for the National Association for Ethnic Studies.

Rojas feels one of the most important parts of Women of Color and Feminism is her discussion of the many significant accomplishments by women of color. “A lot of books that are now required and referenced texts in women’s studies were self-published by women of color with no doctorates,” she notes. “But what they had were ideas they wrote down and which have become standard references.”

Rojas ends her book with a chapter on love.

“I’m not talking about the chocolates and flowers kind of love,” she said. “I’m talking about the kind of love that heals. There is healing for a person and healing for a community.

“Politics mean nothing without love for fellow humans,” concludes Rojas. “Love is what provides a way forward for women of color. A love for their well-being and advancement is what will drive future studies about women of color. It is what will fuel the need for future activism. It is what will help future generations define what feminism means to women of color.”