An Interview with Sara K. Gould

It seems like you can’t turn on the news anymore without hearing about the disastrous pit of doom that is our economy. As often happens when people find themselves in a situation they have little control over, the blame game is in full force, and at the end of the pointing fingers there always seems to be a white man from Wall Street. It seems we are in unanimous agreement that the way the financial industry is run in our country, and in the world, needs to change. Sara K. Gould, president of the Ms. Foundation since 2004, and the founder of the Collaborative Fund for Women’s Economic Development (a program that supports female entrepreneurship) has a few ideas about improving economic wellbeing.

Ms. Gould earned her master’s degree in economic development from Harvard in 1977, and noticed that women were completely left of the economic system. Ms. Gould believes that only by integrating women into the economy, and into leadership positions, we have the possibility to make better policies.

Ms. Gould talked to The FBomb about her feminist identity, her work in economic development, and where our generation fits into the equation.

When did you first personally identify as a feminist? I first personally identified as a feminist when I was 20 and in college-- I got married when I was a junior in college and then became a secretary so my husband could go to law school. I was living in the university town in 1973, 1974, and I became exposed to a lot of new ideas and a lot of young people who were not like me – they had not married when they were 20. They were living different sort of lives and I realized that I had very early in my life made a decision that I was uncomfortable with. I was already beginning to diminish my own potential in order for my husband to move forward, and I had done that because of my role as a woman. People will make that decision for all kinds of reasons, but I had made it because I was a woman. And that’s when I realized I was a feminist.  So then I made a change: I divorced, I went back to graduate school and I happened to do that in the Boston area in 1975 and then I got into contact with many more women who defined themselves as feminists and were thinking about feminism. Before that I was coming into my own feminism by realizing that I wasn’t taking my life in the direction that I wanted to take it.

You clearly have a background and interest in women and the economy and economic stability. Can you speak about some of your projects and goals surrounding this topic? I’ve been at the Ms. Foundation now for over 23 years, and I came to start a program on women’s economic development. Over the years at the foundation we have run a large program around women micro-enterprise development where we give grants to organizations that help low income women and women of color start their own micro-enterprises small businesses. We’ve also done a lot in the areas of economic justice, and we do think of micro-enterprise as a strategy towards economic justice. But we’ve also pursued other strategies and still pursue funding women that are organizing at their work place for higher wages and better benefits. We’ve done a lot of grant making for women in the labor movement, and we’ve done work around raising the minimum wage which is happening right now – legislation that was passed long ago. There’s an increase in minimum wage that is coming about right now as a result of that legislation. We did a great deal of work several years ago on the minimum wage because it is an issue that is so important to women because the majority of minimum wage workers are women. So we’ve taken that strategy and we were involved in the conversation around the economic stimulus package. We were pretty vocal in trying to shape the package so that it would actually reach low income women and women of color. We are also vocal about green jobs. As the recession started and there were many men losing their jobs in manufacturing and construction, there was a lot of talk that these green jobs should go to men who were losing other jobs and we and many other women’s advocates said no – the opportunity for green jobs has to be open for women. It’s a new occupation, it pays well relatively to some other occupations, and it is not traditional for many women. It’s as important now to break open into old and new occupations – to keep pushing so that more and more women benefit because otherwise the majority of women work in very few occupations. And those occupations are characterized by low pay and few benefits.

Many people say that the economic crisis is positive for women in that because the industry is changing there are more opportunities for women to move in on now, like green jobs. What do you think the lasting effects of this are? I don’t think it’s positive for anybody, this economic downturn, and particularly given what it comes from. A lot of changes in the financial industry led to practices that have proven to be very, very detrimental and really almost brought down an economy. So I think this will have impact on every generation, on the boomers like myself who are aging – it has a huge impact on retirement -- and it will have a big impact on your generation. I think though that your generation has to be at the forefront of figuring it out – your generation will be in the economy that we now have and so you are becoming more and more involved in how to shape that economy how to find the things that can continue to make the economy better and boomers like myself will be retiring in the next 5-8 years. So we’ll still be putting forward a lot of thoughts but its your age group that will be living with the economy going forward for the longest period of time so I think it’s really important that you are all very engaged in what you want the economy to look like.

How do you see our generation, as we start to take over where your generation left off? Well, I think you can’t group all young girls into one group or one category so I think that there are very activist young girls across race and class and young girls who are really motivated and who see what’s wrong or things they want to change in their communities or the country or the world and that’s a big motivating factor for them. And I think that if you take girls as a group I think that they are targeted by – there are huge forces that are advertising and marketing forces that are really just out there marketing to girls around beauty, around being cool, and really sexualizing. I think there is a huge sexualization. I’m 58 years old and I cringe so often when I see advertising and I think it’s just terrible. It must be very difficult as a young woman today moving through all this hyper-sexuality that’s out there on the horizon. So I think that the landscape, the world out there that girls grow into is a difficult one for girls and young women and I think that they are absolutely changing feminism and women’s rights, or however you want to say it, women’s rights isn’t the right way to say it. They’re changing the way the world views women in a profound way. We’re in a different era and a very different external environment then either when I was a girl, or when I became a feminist in the late 70’s.

How would you like to see my generation take the Ms. Foundation’s idea of social justice feminism to the next level? What do you think our generation can accomplish that others couldn’t? I think your generation is making social justice feminism real. What we mean by social justice feminism is that feminism should really be at the intersection or connection of gender, race and class and that social justice work should be in that same connection of gender, race and class. And because when you are reaching that connection and you’re reaching low-income women, women of color, immigrant women and you find through listening to them you find solutions that make their lives better, then you’re making everybody’s lives better. And I think it is in your generation that this will really be lived because I know, and the foundation believes, that your generation and activists are making that connection. The work that’s going on at the local level now is making connections across movements across constituencies across issues and I do think that that’s a lot because of younger people and the way younger people organize and the way younger people live their lives and young feminists, both women feminists and male feminists. I think it’s your generation that gives me the most hope that this dream we have about social justice feminism can go forward.

Do you have any advice for young teenage feminists today? Get connected! Which you already are, and find each other, organize, because I think it takes a lot of tenacity to overcome all the marketing around sexualization of girls and the kinds of things that make girls feel insecure and hinder them or are barriers to them figuring out what they want to do with their own lives. So my advice is connect to each other and organize with each other to make change.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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