Northwest Arkansas women in politics have inspired UA political science students to pursue government careers and speak out against inequality.
A group of NWA politicians including Nicole Clowney (D-86) met at the Bentonville Skylight Cinema on Oct. 28 for a screening and panel discussion of “From the Second Wave to the Tidal Wave,” a film about the progression of the feminist movement from the 1920s to the present day. There, they discussed the different forms of feminism.
Billie Firmin, a freshman majoring in political science, was first introduced to politics when her mother became a justice of the peace, she said.
“She showed me from an early age that women can be in positions of power and that it’s not an unusual thing to see,” Firmin said. “My grandma has also been super active with social initiatives around here.”
Having role models like her mother and grandmother showed Firmin that she could be successful in a political career if that was what she chose to pursue, she said.
Panelist Judith Yanez, a justice of the peace (D-4) and first Latina elected official in NWA, decided to run for office because in many cases, she was the first teacher that her students could identify with in terms of ethnicity, she said.
Yanez grew up with undocumented parents in severe poverty, she said. She returned to school as a single mom and finished her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Yanez is open with her story because she wants the Latino community to know that while it is hard to achieve what she has achieved, it is still possible, she said.
Chloe Briggs, a graduate student studying political science, said she thinks it is important for young girls to see women in power, she said in an email.
“I hope they know politics is a place for them too, to pursue the changes they wish to make in our world,” Briggs said.
Allison “Fredi” Hayes, a sophomore, said she has met multiple women who are working in city and county offices, and it has encouraged her to continue on her path toward a career in government.
Hayes has been empowered to do what she wants to do in life without doubting if it is possible by the support she has received from her female political science professors, she said.
Hayes has always considered herself a feminist and thinks that more of the women that she knows have felt empowered to speak up about harassment and unfair treatment because of how mainstream feminism has become, she said.
“From the Second Wave to the Tidal Wave” follows the stories of several women who joined the second-wave feminist movement immediately after starting college.
The movement of the 1960s and 1970s known as the second wave of feminism followed the post-suffrage era and was characterized by a break from social gender norms.
The film summarizes the waves of the feminist movement and tells the stories of women and their struggles of not being taken seriously in school or in the workplace. It features coverage of the 2016 election, focusing on women’s hopeful comments about Hillary Clinton winning the presidency over candidate Donald Trump.
Following the film, best-selling author Ronetta Francis (D-1), who is running for Arkansas Senate in 2020, discussed feminism in its many forms, including white feminism and intersectional feminism.
Clowney said that before she started her job as a state representative, she was advised that to get people to listen to her, she had to get them to like and trust her.
“As a woman, it’s harder to be liked and trusted than as a man,” she said, “and as a white woman, it’s easier for me than just about any other woman.”
Francis, who is representing a district that is 2.3% African American, according to the Demographic Statistical Atlas, made the decision to announce her candidacy knowing that the demographic she would be representing is not one that would normally embrace her because of her race, she said.
“Now is the time, as the demographics change, to recognize and appreciate that we need a different voice at the table,” said Francis on her candidacy in Bentonville as an African American woman. “We need diversity of thought, we need inclusion of all of us to be represented at the table. That’s my stake in feminism.”
Panelist Simone Cottrell voiced her concerns about the diversity, equity and inclusion movement in NWA.
White-led organizations that are pushing diversity and inclusion are not removing themselves from the spotlight, Cottrell said. They are expecting people of color to come into their organizations and assimilate to what is already there.
“When you are relating to another person, probably the ickiest thing that could be said to me is, ‘I totally relate to you,’” she said. “You can say, ‘I understand or I hear you in these things,’ but if you’re relating to me, then you’re centering yourself again with your privilege. You haven’t been through what I’ve been through.”
Cottrel thinks that instead of trying to relate to marginalized groups, these organizations should take action to change the narrative within the power structure so that the white experience is not at the center of it all, she said.
Congressional Candidate Celeste Williams (D-3) said that while she has spent a lot of time thinking about the intersectionality of birthplace, ethnicity and religion as it relates to the lives of marginalized groups, she hesitates to speak on it because it was not her lived experience.
Some of the things that keep people from becoming feminists are socioeconomic status, fundamentalism, lack of punishment for crimes against women and lack of education, Williams said.
To create a path for everyone to succeed, there needs to be a pathway to a good education and financial stability, Williams said.