One-on-one | Gender Equality

German feminist duo: We need more intersectionality in the movement

By - 01.06.2018

Leading feminist activists Dagmar Schultz and Erika Hügel-Marshall on strengthening the cause through embracing genuine diversity.

Audre Lorde once famously said: “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The American writer, feminist and civil rights activist sought to bridge the gap in communication between black and white women, while battling the exclusion of non-white women in the feminist movement in the United States.

Her advocacy for recognizing and addressing differences and different layers of identity, such as class, race, age and gender, had a strong impact on activists beginning to embrace the intersectionality of feminist movements worldwide, while becoming an inspiration for many.

Photo: Blerta Hoçia.

Two of those who she has left a lasting impact on are the feminist German duo, Dagmar Schultz and Erika ‘Ika’ Hügel-Marshall.

A sociologist, filmmaker and professor, Schultz invited Lorde to Berlin in 1984, as a guest professor of African American literature and creative writing at Freie University, where she was herself a professor. A lecture invitation became an enduring experience, with Lorde ending up spending most of her time in Berlin until 1992, when she lost a long battle with cancer.

“During those years, I and others shared Berlin with Audre and she shared with us her boundless knowledge, wisdom, humor, activism and love of life,” Schultz wrote in her dedication, in the Online Journey of Lorde in Berlin, a website dedicated to Lorde’s legacy. Indeed, Lorde had a profound impact on Germany’s black community, igniting the Afro-German movement and challenging white women to constructively use their white privilege.

In order to make this chapter of Lorde’s life memorable, Schultz documented her years in the German capital through the testimonies of colleagues and friends in the award-winning 2012 documentary “The Berlin Years — 1984 – 1992.”  

Hügel-Marshall, a co-writer of the documentary, found particular inspiration in Lorde’s famous words: “Your silence won’t protect you.” In 1998 she published an autobiography, “Invisible Woman,” depicting her struggles as a woman of color in Germany and discussing racism in the country.

Having seen their documentary screened globally, from Berlin Film Festival to Palm Springs, Schultz and Hügel-Marshall brought “The Berlin Years — 1984 – 1992” to Prishtina this week as part of the FemArt feminist festival (25-30 May).

Photo: Blerta Hoçia.

Hours before they headed back to Germany, K2.0 sat down with Schultz and Hügel-Marshall to talk about the impact of Audre Lorde on the black German community and their lives, white privilege, and the intersection of oppressions and differences.

K2.0: What does feminism mean to you?

Schultz: To me, feminism means the self-determination of women about their lives, that they have control over their bodies and over their course of education and work. And that they play a decisive role in government and society and development. Also in sexuality — control over sexuality.

Hügel-Marshall: For me feminism means … first of all, I’m a woman of course — but I am a black woman. So when I was very active in the feminist movement for the first time it was, ‘I’m a woman.’ But then I realized in the feminist movement that they don’t talk about black women. I grew up in Germany but my growing up in Germany was very different from that of a white woman. Until very late it was very hard for white women feminists to also talk about racism. I grew up very different.

"Black women were saying: ‘OK, you’re asking for the right to abortion, but we also ask for the right to have children,’ because black women were often forcefully sterilized. So there are always two sides."

Dagmar Schultz

Just a few days ago, in a referendum in Ireland, people voted overwhelmingly in favor of making legal amendments to legalize abortion. It’s a success story for the feminist movement, but when we’re speaking about having control over your body in a European country today, does it also suggest that women’s rights activists are still facing struggles?

Schultz: I think there has been a lot of backlash. If you think that President Trump is now trying to do the same thing that Ireland has done until now — he is trying to cut back the rights of women to determine whether they want to have an abortion or not. And what’s really bad is that one of the first activities [of Donald Trump’s administration] was to cut off all the money to so-called third world countries if they have anything to do with abortion or even counselling on abortion, which has had a terrible effect on HIV treatment, for instance. So we face a lot of backlash at this time.

But I want to say something else about control over our bodies. It’s something I learnt in the early ’70s when I was in the women’s movement in Chicago, where black women were saying: ‘OK, you’re asking for the right to abortion, but we also ask for the right to have children,’ because black women were often forcefully sterilized. So there are always two sides.

You’re asking for the whites to work, to be professional, to have access to work, and black women were saying: ‘Yes, that’s OK, but at the same time you also have to realize that we’ve worked all our lives, and usually we’ve worked for the white women, taking care of their children in their households.’ So all these kinds of differences and experiences in all fields, and us as white women, we need to be very conscious of that.

It has now become popular to talk about intersectional feminism. Is that because activism by non-white women is more demanding than it used to be?

Schultz: I’m not sure. One thing is that black women, or women of color, started organizing, and of course in the States they organized way back. But … black women, in Germany at least, organized in the ’80s and took the space for themselves.

And maybe that was one reason, not just black women, but also men. And then women of color from different backgrounds also became more vocal and more visible. So in one way it couldn’t be ignored anymore that there were other forces besides the white women’s movement. In one way it was, “OK, we’ll talk about intersectionality,” but I think it [also] became an academic topic for research, conferences, so sometimes academics would talk about something that they could use for their career development.

Photo: Blerta Hoçia.

In terms of different perspectives and thoughts of feminist theories, would the two of you align yourselves with the concept of intersectionality?

Schultz: Yes, I would say so, that’s where we would be. Just recently we went to a big lesbian meeting that takes place every year in spring. And it was white basically. There were only two women of color.

Hügel-Marshall: We showed the film, but I didn’t feel very good and I had to leave. They were all white. There was no discussion about racism and other issues. Especially for Germany, where there are many black people, and there weren’t in the meeting.

"When you organize something you have to look at how the group of women is composed."

Dagmar Schultz

Schultz: There was a lot of discussion on trans, and queer, and they started the concert and there were a few women that also criticized that the meeting was that white. And now I’m thinking of writing something because they are already planning the next one next year. There is an organizing group of nine women right now and I am going to ask them, ‘How are you composed? Is it a group of all white women?’

Because I think to change anything you have to start at the beginning. When you organize something you have to look at how the group of women is composed. Is it a team of white women and women of color, and Jewish women and others, so that you are a diverse group?

Instead of starting with a white group and then saying, ‘Oh, maybe we should ask….’ Then the women of color don’t want to come, you know, because by the time the base is already formed by white women, they say, ‘Forget it, we’ll do our own thing.’ That’s why now you have groups of women of color who don’t really care for dealing with white women anymore.

We wrote in the ’90s about that. We published a book on racism and class oppression and we wrote about all of that, how it’s necessary to do what Audre said to women when she was in Germany: ‘How are you networking? Are you in touch with women of color and immigrant women?’ She said this to white women, and then white women were thinking about it. But now it is kind of upsetting when you go to women’s organizations and they are still white.

Do you think that the feminist movement in Europe is still not diverse and inclusive enough? For example, let’s say the inclusion of Arab women in France, or of women of South Asian origin in the UK, or of women of African or Turkish origin in Germany?

Schultz: It’s not invisible, but alliances aren’t being formed. I cannot talk about other countries, but from what we know, for example, black German women who moved to London feel much more comfortable there. But I don’t know what relationship there is with white organizations there.

I think in Paris there’s quite a bit of work with white women, black, lesbian and refugee women, so there is contact like that. But I mean, the power structures are still the same as the majority of society, which is white.

"I wanted to demonstrate with the book, that we have different experiences from white people, but as persons we are like everybody else."

Erika Hügel-Marshall

Hügel-Marshall: It’s the first time for me in Kosovo … it’s so different from Germany. I feel very welcome here. In the festival [FemArt] people are very friendly and I’ve never had this feeling … for me it was very unusual to have this feeling. And here there are many men, which I liked.

People don’t point at you, and it’s the first I’ve had the feeling that I’m normal — I’m not a special thing. For me it’s been a very special experience being here. Nobody has been asking me where I’m from. Unlike in Germany, where I say I’m from Germany and they say: ‘Where are you from really?’ And I say, ‘I come from Bavaria.’

Audre Lorde had a lot of influence on your decision to write the book, Ika, particularly her saying not to keep silent. How important is to have your own story written?

Hügel-Marshall: First of all, Audre said to me: ‘You have to write the book.’ And it was also important because white German people have a special [conception of] black people, and also African people. And for me it was very important to show me as normal as white people.

I wanted to demonstrate with the book, that we have different experiences from white people, but as persons we are like everybody else. There are black Germans that have taken their life because of racism, but that doesn’t mean that they are to be treated as special people.

Photo: Blerta Hoçia.

In a discussion at FemArt you mentioned that your white German mother is your role model. Can you say a bit more about her?

Hügel-Marshall: I was born in 1947, and the war ended in 1945. So for my mother to have a child was a very difficult situation. She was discriminated against [for having a child with a black American] and they tried to push her out and exclude her from the church.

One effect was that, as a child, whatever experience of discrimination you had, you didn’t tell your mother. As a child you felt that she would suffer from that, and you didn’t want to impose that. It’s not a rational thing, but often children don’t tell their mothers what has been done to them by other children and teachers.

Who are your inspirations Dagmar?

Schultz: I was surrounded by women who, after the war, were single mothers. In my class, 70 percent were fatherless. And I remember I was surrounded by women who managed to continue their lives with children without the men in the household. So that was one role model.

And then later, a woman that I worked with in a family planning program, who was head of the family planning program in Puerto Rico. It was a time when the pill was first being experimented with, and Puerto Rico women were the first to die due to high doses. She was very radical in the way in which she exposed the sterilization of women and the chosen means of contraception. She was a very interesting woman. Later came Audre Lorde and her partner Gloria Joseph, as older black women with lots of activism experience.

She [Lorde] was in a way the first one [to talk about intersectionality] and actually, now it has become an academic and very popular concept that is constantly used. Kimberlé Crenshaw is considered to be the person who founded it, but actually in the ’70s Audre had already named herself as a black feminist, socialist, mother, lesbian, poet, and later cancer survivor. So she always put all the identities that she felt she was composed of out in the open.

Photo: Blerta Hoçia.

In the film that we made, at one point she says: ‘All oppressions intersect.’ And that was in 1984, so she was not recognized so much in the academic context in that way, because she was always an activist at the same time — and a poet. I think nowadays the role that she played in the development of that kind of thinking process is being more recognized.

Was your idea for the documentary driven by creating a fair tribute to Audre’s legacy, particularly when it comes to intersectionality in activism?

I don’t think that the intersectional aspect was so much in the foreground at that time. When I was able to get Audre to Germany as a guest professor at the university where I was teaching, I thought it was such a special thing to have her in Germany. My main purpose was to put her in touch with women from the women’s movement.

I was into documenting all the interviews, readings, in terms of making sound recordings and taking pictures, and I didn’t really plan to film at that time. But she was a special person, somebody who we didn’t have in Germany. Her politics were global … she was also a environmentalist, some things that are not in the film because it would have been too broad.

In recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the refugee crisis, Europe has seen a rise in xenophobia and racism, particularly reflected in the rise of right-wing groups, and Germany hasn’t been excluded from this discussion. What is the role of the feminist movement in all of this? What can activists do?

Schultz: I think it could do so much more. If we think of that lesbian meeting, it was very disappointing. There was some criticism of lesbians, kind of focusing more on having dance evenings and playing cards and activities like that and not being very political. But there are groups.

I think it’s not a big national movement, you have the Green Party, many initiatives in smaller groups who are speaking against white supremacy and racism, and a lot of young women. My hope is in what is happening among young women, because they are more diverse in terms of composition compared to older white women’s groups. And on social media, the way they express their ideas, and are conscious of what’s going on. What influence they can have is something else.

Photo: Blerta Hoçia.

We have just had a big demonstration by the [right-wing populist] Alternative for Germany Party, which is in the parliament in Germany, and there was a big counter demonstration. There is a strong opposition, otherwise it would be awful. But it is still a dangerous situation. It is even more so in the areas where you don’t have refugees and so-called foreigners, in the eastern part of the country.

At one of the FemArt discussions one thing that was particularly highlighted was the need to have more solidarity amongst women, and someone said that the internalized patriarchy makes solidarity very difficult. What do you think about that?

Schultz: I think often when women take positions of power they do act like men. I experienced it in academia; I told my students, ‘If you write a thesis for a degree, maybe you should pick an older male professor rather than a younger female one.’ Because sometimes the female one may think: ‘I had to struggle so much,’ and will think that they should also struggle. Or, ‘I have to defend this person in the commission, and if I give her an A they are going to say that she isn’t being critical enough,’ while an older male professor would be like: ‘I’ll do my best for this young woman, help her along.’

So women sometimes end up overdoing what they have to do, either by affirming their positions, or to protect themselves, or also to be demanding on young women in a way that is not necessary. But generally, at least in Germany, the patriarchy isn’t so strong that young women have grown up internalizing it in that way.

Photo: Blerta Hoçia.

Hügel-Marshall: For me [FemArt] was the first time that I’ve experienced men also standing up for something women demand. They were sitting there and it was interesting — we don’t experience this very much in Germany. It‘s very separate. Here, in every discussion, men were there.

As a final thought, is there anything you wish to add on what aspirations young activists should have?

Schultz: Just that my hope is that in the near future there will be more consciousness on the part of white feminists, that alliance building with other groups is seen as necessary, not just… as one black woman said: ‘We don’t want to be invited because of your feeling of guilt but because you feel that you are missing something by not having us here.’K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.

Feature image: Blerta Hoçia.