February 07, 2021
And that’s the tee… on Audre Lorde’s feminist legacy
Happy Galentine’s Day, ladies! Hope you’re out there enjoying the day and celebrating the empowering women you know and love <3
Last month we introduced you to “And That’s the Tee,” where we spill on the inspiration and herstory behind our favorite Feminista graphic tees, right here on The F Word blog. And now, in honor of Black History Month and our new collection commemorating some of the greats in Black feminist history—drum roll, please—it’s time for our second installment. Neat!
The tee in question features the iconic Audre Lorde quote: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are different from mine.” And today we’re going to learn a little about where those words come from and the legendary woman who spoke them.
Audre Lorde: “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”
Audre Lorde was a visionary feminist poet, activist, and writer born in Harlem in 1934 to two immigrants from Grenada (a small island in the Caribbean). She found poetry at an early age, attended a school for gifted children, and was first published at the age of fifteen when one of her poems appeared in Seventeen magazine. In 1954, she spent a year at the National University of Mexico and then returned to New York to attend Hunter College. She graduated in 1959 and went on to earn her master’s in library science at Columbia University in 1961.
During those and the years following, Lorde immersed herself in the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements, the issues and ideals of which bled naturally into her identity-focused poetry and prose—published regularly throughout the sixties and until she died in 1992. Some of her most famous works include Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Sister Outsider, The Cancer Journals, A Burst of Light and Other Essays, and The Black Unicorn: Poems.
She was an outspoken critic of second-wave feminism, which tended to exclude women of color, queer women, and women belonging to other minority groups. Those five words: “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” are the ones she used to introduce herself at public speaking engagements, poetry readings, and on stage at conferences and advocacy events throughout her career, as a reminder to her audiences that all aspects of her identity stood before them, that they were all intertwined, and that none of them could not be filtered out or ignored.
Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, wrote of Audre Lorde, “her thinking always embodied what we now know as intersectionality… she was as concerned with class, gender, and sexuality as she was with race… She valued the differences between us as strengths rather than weaknesses.” Hell to the yes. We’d even add ageism, ablism, cissexism, and cultural identification to the list. (She was definitely ahead of her time.)
And she wasn’t just some radical idealist academic type. Her challenges to the patriarchy and white supremacy (white feminists, in particular) were sharp and unwavering, but also incredibly gracious, and always came paired with actionable ways for others to rise to the occasion (which she didn’t owe anyone, by the way, but gifted to us all the same).
The Uses of Anger & the speech that made herstory
By the time 1981 rolled around, Audre Lorde was already famous for so many things—her technical mastery of poetry, her incisive essays on civil rights and feminism, her activism, public speaking, and teaching career… But in June of that year, she was asked to give the keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference.
It was titled, The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, and in it she makes clear what so much of her work already attests: that the word “woman” is not a monolith. That every feminist comes from a different background and therefore experiences misogyny and oppression differently.
With that in mind, she asked her audience, “what woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heel-print upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?”
Here, she invites women to look outside their own experience, to embrace the struggles of others as their own, and to channel their anger into action for the benefit of all women. For, she famously says, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are different from mine.” (And that’s the Audre Lorde tee, quite literally. Praise be.)
How to honor Audre Lorde? Follow in her footsteps
She made that historic speech over 40 years ago, but the message feels just as prescient today. So we rounded up a few of our favorite Audre Lorde quotes to help inform and inspire the three ways we plan to honor her legacy in our everyday lives:
1. Exercise empathy
In her essay, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, Lorde tells us: “the future of our earth may depend on the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference.” Preach!
You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: listen to the stories of those who are different from you. Listen closely! Then think more expansively. Remember that trans rights are women’s rights. Black history is world history. Other women are not your competition. Keep it intersectional, ladies!
2. Speak up
Audre Lorde is famous for saying, “your silence will not protect you,” in her seminal essay The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. So make your voice heard. Take a stand like Rosa took a seat. Fight for the things you care about á la RBG.
Standing up for other women is one important part of the work, but Audre Lorde also implores feminists to share with one another and build community—to represent the kinds of human stories that can eventually make change. In this case, she’s talking about her experience with breast cancer, but her message about visibility applies to domestic violence, immigration and refugee stories, reproductive rights, and so much more: “if we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.”
(tl;dr: get loud & own your truth because representation matters)
3. Stay tuned
We may or may not have saved the best Audre Lorde quote for last (spoiler alert: we did): “the revolution is not a one-time event.” This is such an important reminder. Every time you take action, you should feel good about it—hopeful about the change it might insight—but until we’re all equal, there will be work to do, so we’ve got to keep it up.
Our favorite way to stay engaged in the feminist movement? Well, we might be just a tiny bit biased, but we’d say sign up for our newsletter, The F Word, and get weekly info and inspo to keep you in the loop on everything from important herstory and inspiring women like Audre to current events and trends through an unapologetically feminist lens.
It’s Audre Lorde’s birthday on February 18th, so let’s all do our best channel our anger, empathy, and love in a more intentional, intersectional way on that day and every day after. And if you want to read some of her work firsthand, we highly recommend this recently published anthology of her work: The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, which features several of the quotes we included in this article, plus an introduction by our favorite Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay.