I’ll admit it. When I picture an activist, I tend to envision picket lines and marches and petitions; if I associate it with a profession or field, it’s probably the law or politics. Activism is all of those things, but as I browsed with amazement through the website of Philadelphia Printworks, I realized that a true activist can infuse any of her endeavors with that spirit – art, fashion, business, writing, or, in the case of Printworks founder Maryam Pugh, all of the above.
The local business, which Pugh, 35, created in 2010, sells clothes in thought-provoking collections such as School of Thought, whose collegiate designs bear the names, not of famed universities, but of iconic black thinkers and leaders such as Harriet Tubman or Audre Lord. Other collections include Cats Against Catcalling, Professional Black Girl and Cognitive Dissonance – basically, these are clothes that are guaranteed to start a conversation.
The PPW website is also part magazine, chock-full of wide-ranging articles, interviews and columns by staff writers and freelancer bloggers alike. Readers can deep-dive into reflections on politics, race, culture, art and more.
I spoke to Pugh about her work, and about one of the topics that has most fascinated and troubled me in recent months: the divisions within the feminist movement, or, depending on your perspective, the divisions between feminists and groups we have excluded. Excerpts follow.
I’ve read a bit about how you came up with the idea of a design or clothing company with a powerful social message, but how did Philadelphia Printworks become such a hub for great writing?
The blog came about about two years ago. Blogging was really catching on during that time, and I was seeing it done a lot of places. I felt that it would be an organic addition to the community I was trying to build. It took time to develop, but it just fit into our mission.
You recently Tweeted about how in the aftermath of the Women’s March on Washington, you’ve had a lot of interesting conversations regarding feminism vs. womanism*. Could you elaborate on what those conversations have entailed?
Over the past few years I’ve definitely used the label “feminist” to describe myself, and to me that simply means the equality of the sexes. But… some feedback was given to the Women’s March in terms of being inclusive and not centering on sexual organs or parts, the vagina, basically, as what it means to be a woman. PPW Instagram posted a photo of some of that feedback. Someone had Tweeted, “For all the trans people who don’t have a vagina who are out there marching today, I see you and you matter.”
That got soooo many comments. And I think it’s good that we’re having these discussions, but some of the comments were along the lines of, “If you don’t have a vagina, feminism isn’t for you. It’s about being female, so find another organization to be a part of.”
Um, where does it say that? Can you please point me to some kind of respected mission statement on feminism where anyone has said that? Intersection is very important to what I’m interested in and the work that I’m doing. So it made me pause to reflect: is that the overall feeling? Does that mean I’m trying to push to change a movement that doesn’t want to be changed?
That made me realize, this is why some people call themselves womanists… not to mention to history of lack of intersection in feminism.
It also goes back to the black community – my father recently said to me, “I agree with you 99% of the time. It’s only when you bring up feminism that I’ve got a problem with it.” [Laughs.] It’s because feminism was very destructive to the black community at one time.
Can we bridge this gap? I’m very curious to see. There is divide that needs to be addressed and talked about. I think the Women’s March has been doing it… but there’s a lot of healing there, or work that needs to be done to understand what it means to be a feminist or a womanist.
But you think those conversations might be opening up the way they need to?
I think so, and I might just be biased because that’s the kind of space we have at PPW. The majority of the United States probably isn’t thinking in these terms. Seeing all those women in the vagina heads was kind of a testament to that. I don’t think they were trying to be exclusive. I think it just never occurred to them.
Yeah. I’ll be honest – I, like many others, have been really ignorant about these issues. I think it often comes from ignorance and not having sought out the right conversations.
Totally. I was really surprised when I went to the Women’s March – I was with a group called Girl Trek, one of the largest organizations related to black women’s health and fitness in the United States. They had a lot of posters of historical black figures like Ida B. Wells, Fanny Lou Hamer. I was really surprised walking around how many people didn’t know who these people were. They were like, “Oh, that’s your grandma?”
Clearly that must have been part of the motivation behind creating School of Thought. Do people who wear that line say it gets a reaction?
I think a lot of our shirts have that effect. People do ask questions and start those conversations.
Tell me more about your line focused on self-care for people of color.
It’s called the Embodied Collection… Jean-Jacques Gabriel, a black yogi in the Philadelphia area, reached out the idea. I’m a firm believer in the fact that you have to balance activism and protest and all the other dirty work that has to be done to create change, with self-care and healing. We released it about a month ago, and the timing worked in our favor. It was right on the heels of Trump being elected, so we’re all collectively looking for ways to maintain our sanity and take care of ourselves.
Obviously there’s been a lot of discussion nationwide about how many people, with the 2016 election, came to understand some of the problems in our country in a new way, but lots of others – especially in communities of color – said, “Uh, welcome to what we’ve been working on for years.” How much has your work just moved ahead on a continuum, and how much has it changed in reaction to national political events?
It’s a little bit of both. I was watching some old episodes of Vice News last night, and one of the organizers of the Women’s March [on Washington] was on. She was a white woman, and she was saying that “couch or chair activism” wasn’t gonna be enough. We were going to have to do a lot more and get up and protest and march.
To me that statement was very limited. I felt like she needed to qualify that to other white women, because as you said, black people have been out there. People in minority communities have already been impacted, and have been very active in social justice reform.
But for any type of effective organizing, you do have to be able to be mindful of what’s going on in the world. So when Donald Trump was elected, I did have to pause. I had to sit back and reflect and think about our strategy was going to be moving forward.
Everyone’s still watching what’s unfolding, so I imagine that’s still a work in progress – but have any plans emerged?
Yes, it’s a work in progress. But we want to do more: whatever anyone was doing before, there is an urgency to do a lot more of it. I also want to formalize my activity a lot more, a four-step plan: what kinds of initiatives are we going to push for the type of changes that we want to see?
It’s a reflection of my own personal evolution as an activist. As you become more comfortable with it, and you see what the playing field looks like, you try to find ways to be as effective as possible.
*If you’re interested in reading more about womanism and how Alice Walker coined the term check this out. Other articles or books you’re reading on this topic? Please share.
Read previous interviews with public-education advocate Alyse Surratt Galvin and immigration lawyer Allegra Love.
Are you passionate about the issues discussed here, or do you have a nominee for this series? Please share your suggestions or comments below or contact me; you can also follow Shadow Cabinet on Facebook or Twitter. I’ll share in a future post some comments on putting Maryam’s advice (and yours) into action.
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