I met Ruth Anne Koenick at a dinner before my talk on the feminist critique of pornography at Rutgers University in 1997. I had been doing public presentations on that issue for several years, but that was the first time an institution had paid my plane fare to give a lecture. As a young professor, I was a bit nervous but also was feeling pretty self-important.
Koenick, director of Rutgers’ Department of Sexual Assault Services and Crime Victim Assistance, was seated next to me, and when I introduced myself she said, “I’ve seen a lot of men who’ve figured out how to make money off of women’s pain. Are you one of them?”
I admit that I was taken aback, but the question was important and appropriate. I was getting a modest honorarium for the talk, but as a full-time academic who is paid a reasonable salary by my university, I could live without it. Independent writers and artists typically need the support that comes from speaking fees to survive, but I can easily donate that money to activist groups. So, I asked if she thought it would be appropriate for me to sign over the speaking fee to her center, and Koenick accepted.
I will forever be indebted to her for that in-your-face comment. In my first attempt at being an “expert,” Koenick reminded me of all the wrong ways I could use my privilege as a white guy with a university position to put myself above the feminist anti-violence movement, from which I had learned most of what I knew. Koenick later told me she regretted being inappropriately rude, but I suggested it wasn’t necessary to apologize for asking the right question.
Ever since that night I have stayed in touch with Koenick, continuing to be impressed by (1) the great work she and her staff were doing, and (2) how little she seemed to recognize her own accomplishments. As we have talked about her experience in the feminist anti-violence movement -- and as the dominant culture increasingly has pretended to be “post-feminist” -- I began to nag her about putting her insights down on paper. Each time she insisted that her life wasn’t interesting enough and that she didn’t have anything insightful to say. Eventually I wore her down, persuading her that women like her from the “second wave” of feminism should not stay silent, and we finally conducted an interview.
The term second-wave feminism is used to mark the U.S. women’s movement that emerged in the 1960s, distinct from the women’s suffrage movement -- the first wave -- that won the vote in 1920. In the 1990s, the idea of third-wave feminism became popular, though it has never been clear why the crucial insights of the second wave had become irrelevant or why the political work that second-wavers had initiated was somehow magically over. Nowhere is this clearer than in the public-health crisis of epidemic levels of men’s violence against women, where the brutality of patriarchy is so obvious and the analysis and activism of second-wave feminists remains more needed than ever.
The stories of women such as Koenick are more important than ever for all of us -- women and men -- to hear.