"An Activist Temperament": An Interview with Charlotte Bunch

Article excerpt

As an activist, scholar, and policy maker, Charlotte Bunch has been at the forefront of feminist activism for more than four decades. She is internationally acclaimed for promoting the concept "women's rights are human rights," now a powerful tool used by women and men throughout the world to seek gender justice. But in earlier years she was the first woman fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.; a founding member of the lesbian feminist collective The Furies; and a founder and editor of Quest: A Feminist Quarterly. Her work has focused on the intersections of feminism, civil rights, lesbian rights, antiwar organizing, and human rights. How did a young girl raised in the small town of Artesia, New Mexico, become an internationally celebrated leader of the women's movement? How do the influences, experiences, and shifts in her life and work reflect broader changes in feminist activism; debates about the meaning of the term "feminist"; and the challenges and limitations of different forms of activism, political strategies, and alliances? We explored these and other questions in a long interview with Charlotte, in which we encouraged her to reflect on the trajectory of her life as an activist, especially on her shift from domestic to international activism.

Charlotte Bunch is currently the founder and executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, where she is also a Board of Governor's Distinguished Service Professor in Women's and Gender Studies. Her books include Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action and Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women's Human Rights, and she has authored many essays and edited or coedited nine anthologies (see "Charlotte Bunch Bibliography" at the end of this interview). She has received numerous accolades, including induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1996), the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights (1999), the Women Who Make a Difference Award from the National Council for Research on Women (2000), and selection for the list 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, compiled by Women's eNews (2001). She is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Division and serves on the boards of the Global Fund for Women and the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She has been a consultant to many United Nations bodies and recently served on the International Advisory Committee for the UN secretary General's 2006 Report to the General Assembly on Violence against Women.

Ethel Brooks: What was your first "act" of activism?

Charlotte Bunch: I would have to answer that in two different ways. I grew up in what I would describe now as an activist family, not a politically defined family, but an activist one. My parents were very involved in civic community affairs. My mother was the first woman president of the local school board, and my father was a family doctor. They were involved in many church and civic activities. My mother was infamous on the school board for being the one who would vote no if she disagreed with the men on something like sports versus academics. So I grew up believing that being active in the community, in what I would call civic affairs in some form or another, is just part of life and part of your responsibility. I'm also an activist by temperament because when I see something amiss, my first reaction is, "Well, what can we do about it?"

My first political awareness of activism as a political movement that shifts it from just something that one does came in the 1960s in the civil rights movement in the South. In 1962, I went to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where I participated in the Methodist student movement campus activities. They were doing an exchange program with the North Carolina Negro College, a black college in Durham, as preparation for the integration of the undergraduate student body of Duke the next year. …