Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, author of The Space Between Black and White, has dedicated her life to fighting for women's rights. In honour of IWD2021 we've asked her some questions about her experience as an activist.
1. What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
It means wonderful memories. Being a Feminist is for life, but we do need a day to celebrate – and it seems to have turned into a whole month of activities now! I remember my very first International Women’s Day, in 1973, aged 19, walking round and round Trafalgar Square in the rain with a handful of other Women’s Libbers, whilst bemused bystanders shouted, “International Women’s what?” at us, as well as less printable comments. Quite a contrast to 100,000 marchers converging on the streets of London on IWD 2017, as part of the worldwide anti-Trump demonstrations. There have been so many memorable IWDs for me in between; not least, drinking neat rum with Angela Davis in a flat in King’s Cross after her electrifying speech in Hammersmith in 1986; or unveiling my own portrait in Leicester University’s Council chamber, in the very same room where I had organised a sit-in as first Black woman President of the Student’s union, forty years before. At last year’s IWD, I was launching my Memoir at the 2020 Women of the World Conference at the South Bank, just before lockdown. We didn’t know then what was coming! Wherever and however we celebrate IWD, women share the same spirit the world over; sisterhood, solidarity and celebration for all that we have achieved since the first International Women’s Day more than a century ago, and for all our triumphs to come.
2. What does feminism mean to you in 2021?
Feminism is part of my lifelong journey. I knew I was a Feminist by the age of 15. I was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex all night in my little bedroom in a remote cottage in Norfolk, in the middle of a snowstorm, and by the time dawn broke, I had seen the light. Since then, my Feminism has evolved over half a century with the changing times, and with my own personal development. In my teens I was into Black Power, at a time when the Feminist movement in the UK was predominantly White. As a student, I was active in the Women’s Liberation and Anti-Apartheid Movements. For me, Feminism was always about the profound intersection between Race and Gender oppression, and other forms of injustice. In my Memoir, The Space Between Black and White, I describe how I wrestled with my identity as a Mixed-Race Black woman, through childhood, adolescence and young womanhood. I was always aware that my experience is different from a man of Colour or from a White woman - what we might now call ‘Misogynoir’.
Now, in 2021, in the middle of a global pandemic, Feminism is more relevant than ever in the face of a multitude of world crises - economic, social, racial and political; and rocketing inequalities in health, wealth, access to resources, and of course, climate change. During serial lockdowns, women have borne the brunt of increased stress and trauma as the majority of nurses, cleaners and care-workers on the frontline, together with increased violence and abuse against women and girls in the home, and widening gender and race pay gaps, poverty, job losses in predominantly women’s employment sectors such as retail and service industries, and women’s increased workload because of caring responsibilities and home schooling.
In the 1970s we Feminists used to say we didn’t believe in equality; we had something better in mind! Something more transformational. In 2021 we need to re-imagine a better future created with Feminist values of well-being, caring, and quality of life at its heart.
3. How have you been inspired by women?
I’ve been inspired by so many women, in my family, my village, my friends, in literature, politics and the women’s movement. Where to begin? Firstly, I want to pay tribute to the strong and wonderful women in my family in UK and Ghana – my mother and stepmother, my daughter and my sister, and other women family members, for the struggles they battled with through the generations to achieve their goals in life.
I've also been captivated and inspired by learning about West African women's traditional leadership throughout history, as Queen Mothers, warriors and community activists. I want to pay tribute to the women and ancestors in my village in Ghana, and especially my Great, Great Grandmother Esuantsiwa, the warrior Queen, whose name I inherited when I was enstooled as Queen of Development of our village in 2009.
I have also been inspired by my sisters in the Women’s Movements around the world, and women’s organisations I have led and campaigned alongside for decades - the Fawcett Society, the Women’s Resource Centre, Womankind, the Gender and Development Network, Healing Solidarity, FORWARD, African Women’s Diaspora Network, Phenomenal Women, the European Women’s Lobby, FiLiA, the women in my Mixed-Race Networks, and many more. Thank you for your brilliant work! It’s been a joyful, fulfilling, exciting journey and a privilege to part of the action.
And of course, I have been enthralled and inspired by Black and Mixed-Race women writers, from the great African American Feminists - Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, to contemporaries like Afua Hirsch, Zadie Smith, Jackie Kaye, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bernadine Evaristo, and all our wonderful women writers and the editorial team at Jacaranda.
One woman above all has been my role model and guiding light throughout my life, since I was a student - as she has to many other women around the world. Angela Davis, writer, leader, philosopher, and campaigner, whose words and leadership have never ceased to inspire me: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
4. Do you have a standout example of a time when you chose to challenge inequality?
I’ve been a rebel and an activist all my life. I’ve always challenged inequality from as far back as I can remember. Perhaps that’s because I was an ‘only-one’. Growing up in 1950s Britain, as the Mixed-Race daughter of a single, White mother, I spent the first six weeks of life in an unmarried mothers’ home, and then in my grandparents’ home on a working-class estate in Battersea. In an all-White community, I was the only brown kid on the block. At primary school, I got fed up with kids asking me where I come from and calling me names - woggie, darkie, blackie, nig-nog, you’ve-been-rolling-in-dog-shit. If I complained, my teachers and my family told me to ignore it, and not to get ‘a chip on my shoulder’. So, when I was only eight years old, I wrote a play called ‘Why I am Brown’, and myself and some of my schoolmates performed it in front of the class, with my friends playing the roles of my family and my disappeared Ghanaian Dad. The play went down well. It was a good lesson, learned young. Telling your story makes people see you differently, and there are lots of positive ways to challenge and fight back against injustice.
5. What message do you want to give other women and girls?
Although we are going through tough times, I feel hopeful for the future, because young women will be leading the change - and we’ll be right behind you! When I was a young woman in the 1970s, it was all about campaigning for equalities laws, equal treatment, the Right to Choose, and an end to sexual stereotypes and violence against women and girls. People were still questioning the whole concept of Feminism and equality between women and men. We thought that was challenging enough! These days we are in the midst of a world crisis in just about everything – resources, climate, austerity, democracy, social media, race, class, inequality, identity. The world is at a tipping point, and it can feel daunting, especially for young women, to imagine how we are going to fix these gigantic problems post-Covid, when some of the rights women have gained seem to be going backwards, and misogyny and harassment of women online has gone viral. But ‘business as usual’ isn't an option. What was considered ‘normal’ - White supremacy, global capitalism, and Patriarchy – is actually the cause of our problems. Women have a unique opportunity now to create a new future, a power shift, centred on the Feminist principles of care, collaboration, quality of life and sustainability.
Now’s the time, and every single one of us can be part of it. And we have so many great women leaders to show us the way, many of them Women of Colour. Young women like Greta Thunberg, Malala, and Amanda Gorman; and women who sparked worldwide movements - Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors and Opal Tometi, who began the Black Lives Matter movement, and Tarana Burke, the original creator of the #MeToo movement. The best-performing countries during the Covid crisis are all led by women – New Zealand, Taiwan, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany. 2021 has already kicked off to a great start, with Kamala Harris inaugurated as first Woman of Colour Vice-President of the United States, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the first African Woman head of the World Trade Organisation, and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is showing the world how leadership can and should be done. Women may be bearing the brunt of the current crisis, but we have fantastic Feminist leaders and women’s movements to inspire us to action, and show the world we can lead global change.
- As a woman writer what advice would you give to other aspiring writers and what improvements would you recommend to the publishing industry as a whole?
I’d say, don’t give up, budding writers! This is your time! Find your authentic voice, nurture your own style, break the mould. Write what you absolutely have to write, follow your passion, ignore people who say it won’t sell. Write for liberation, so that others may be free. If you get stuck, speak it into autotype; if you can’t find your voice, pump up the music and dance! That worked for me. I see my writing as political, a part of my activism - writing for justice, solidarity, equality, validation, bearing witness to our experiences told in our own words. It’s really important that minority stories and women’s and girls’ voices are heard. As a kid growing up in the 1950s, there were no books or stories that reflected my experience or the way I looked, which had a profound effect on my sense of self and identity. I badly needed some positive images to aspire to. Even today, the educational curriculum remains very patriarchal and colonial, and in 2019, only 1% of all books published in the UK were written by writers of colour or had black characters, whether for adults or kids. Not good enough!
Nowadays, there are some fabulous books being published for all ages, challenging gender, race and minority stereotypes, and offering us positive images and exciting, original narratives. We still have a long way to go, but I do feel positive and optimistic.
And to the Publishing industry, who said there weren’t any black writers and there isn’t a market for them, I’d say, wake up! Be bold in your choices, take on and support Black writers, promote our work; and Judges, award more literary prizes to writers of colour, in recognition and celebration of our achievements in offering up new worlds and innovative, fresh ways of writing to our readers. Recently the Black British Writers Guild has been established to take on the publishing industry, calling for Publishers, agents, distributors, book prize judges, to stop being so White, to risk averse, understand and challenge racism in their own industry, and confront unconscious bias about what good writers and good writing looks like.
There’s no doubt that readers of all kinds are out there, clamouring for more diverse books during lockdown in the wake of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Young Black women are one of the largest and fastest-growing group of readers among the book-buying public, and they need books that reflect their life’s journey.
Jacaranda has already shown how successfully it can be done, publishing twenty Black writers across multiple genres – poets, novelists, non-fiction, crime thrillers, all in the middle of a Global pandemic, with an all-Women-of-Colour publishing team. Phenomenal. So proud to have been part of it.
- As someone who has dedicated their life to challenging inequality, how can we challenge and call out gender bias and inequality in our everyday lives?
There are lots of things we can all do to make change happen, individually and collectively, at work, home and in our communities. The important thing is to be brave, call out injustice when you see it, don’t leave it to the person who is experiencing it. Be an ally to women who are challenging the norm, fighting back. Be aware of your own power, your own advantages that you take for granted, and think about how you can share power and make space for others. You can mentor women, put them forward, give women great feedback to increase their confidence.
‘Doing the work’ is a great start - changing your own behaviour, attitudes and biases in everyday interactions that may be negatively affecting women and People of Colour. But a lot of these problems are systemic. Being ‘Woke’ is crucial, but if we really want to change the system and shift the power, we still need collective action to radically change the way we do things, and to transform the Patriarchal structures and institutions in which we operate. We can all actively support, fund and join individual women, Feminist leaders, women’s organisations, and the women’s movement. That’s got to be good for everyone on this planet. Yes, Choose to Challenge! It’s not always easy. But it can be a lot of fun.
Happy International Women’s day to writers and readers everywhere!
Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith