KW: Can you tell me a bit about your father?
AB: When my sister and I were both born, I think he was a little disappointed, and his father certainly was, because there’s such strong son preference in India. But he was very progressive, and really supported and encouraged us.
KW: Do you have sons or daughters?
AB: Sons. Two sons, and a grandson, so this continues! I had no sense of what it would be like to raise sons. Now I really appreciate the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of young men, and it’s given me more compassion. The easy caricaturing of men-versus-women, once you have sons, it just falls away.
KW: In your introduction to Women’s Movements in the Global Era, you talk about how movements against sexual violence often succeed better than pushes for systemic change toward women’s equality. Can you explain that further?
AB: In so many women’s movements, the issue of sexual violence has been crucial. In India, one of the first issues that second wave feminists from the 1970s took on was sexual violence. This was in the context of rape of women in police custody and brutal forms of violence against low-caste women. In the United States, too, the creation of battered women’s shelters, the issue of domestic violence, was at the forefront of feminist organizing. When you can readily identify a harm and the harm is physical, it’s dramatic and people respond to it.
KW: And men want to defend the women in their lives. What was that old line? “If you want to see a feminist, look at a man who has a daughter.”
Amrita Basu (l) with her mother Rasil Basu (center) and sister
Rekha Basu (r).
AB: Actually, there have been some interesting studies of this. Research on the U.S. shows that the attitudes of prominent male politicians towards gender issues are influenced by whether or not they have a daughter. So feminists have been able to identify this as an issue which is a galvanizing call to action.
It’s harder to identify the harms done by structural inequalities, which are interwoven with gender, but that becomes a complicated academic analysis. It’s not one that gets people out to protest.
KW: How would you characterize how women’s movements and LGBT advocacy work together or perhaps don’t?
AB: There has been some tension between LGBTQ activists and feminists, particularly around transgender issues, which is really unfortunate, because the two struggles should go hand in hand and support each other. But I thought the Women’s March on Washington was inspiring because it was addressing a whole range of questions, not only to do with straight women but also LGBTQ groups, people of color, so the hope is that this kind of coalitional politics will continue.
At the micro level at Amherst College, a lot of students who are interested in feminism are also the ones interested in LGBTQ issues. We as a department have become a department of sexuality as well as women and gender studies because that’s become increasingly important to the field.
KW: What most excites you about working at Amherst these days?
AB: I’m energized by teaching students here. I find them savvy and attuned to what’s taking place in the world. Compared to the time I started teaching here, they have more of a global perspective and more understanding of racial and gender inequality. They’re also able to intertwine analytical concerns with personal issues.
KW: I’d like to end by quoting your own writing: “Despite the strengths of women’s movements, gender inequality is systemic, severe and pervasive throughout the world. Many feminist demands remain unfulfilled. Many achievements have been reversed.” I’m going to ask you to go out on a limb. Are we at a time to feel discouraged, or to feel hopeful?
AB: It’s such a difficult question because I feel both. We’ve seen that the gains of feminism are not linear. We’re not going from success to greater success, in part because with achievements comes a backlash against it.
KW: Backlash seems almost organic to the process.
AB: Yes, but it also doesn’t seem that all of those gains can and will be reversed. We make progress and then we face setbacks, but that progress, those struggles, are not going to stop. Right now, we’re living through such difficult times. But if you look at the numbers of women running for electoral office, the mobilizing of women, transnational connections they’re forging, the use of social media to advance feminist goals, all those things are sources of hope.
Then there is the change in the age of women who are getting involved. Not long ago, younger women had this sense that feminism was passé, that women had made the gains they needed.
KW: Right, “feminism” is what your mother’s interested in.
AB: Right. But now, with #MeToo, the Women’s March on Washington, what I see on college campuses is that younger women are getting involved. They are perhaps defining issues in different ways than an older generation of feminists did, but I think that activism is something to be celebrated. So, in the long run, I don’t feel pessimistic.