In front of nearly 1,000 people, the speaker pauses from her prepared notes.
“Let me tell you a personal story,” she says. “In 1972, I was in jail. I was on the FBI’s most wanted list — that’s what activism was.”
And the crowd erupts in cheerful praise.
Angela Davis, a divisive, highly influential activist and feminist scholar, spoke on Kansas University’s campus Tuesday as the final event in a week celebrating the 40th anniversary of the February Sisters, a group of about 35 who occupied a university building in 1972 with six demands for increased women’s rights, all of which were eventually met.
Davis talked about a wide range of issues in her lecture, “Feminism and Activism.” She touched on her personal history of activism, her stance as a prison abolitionist, what she sees as present-day threats to reproductive rights and “both how far we have come and how far we have not come” as a culture and nation on issues of women’s rights.
The nature of feminism and of activism were two resounding themes, and Channette Alexander, one of the original February Sisters present at the event, said she agreed with Davis’ assertion that there are as many forms of feminism as there are feminists.
“There are many definitions,” she said of feminism, “and to categorize into one would diminish the others.”
Davis praised the courage of the February Sisters but empathized continuing challenges to their original demands and to feminism in general.
“We like to have a nice Hollywood ending to struggle, but that’s not how it works,” she said. “Women throughout the country, for example, need free day care now more than ever.”
She continued to discuss the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1974 that legalized abortion and her refusal to accept a “single-issue campaign” but said that abortion rights are part of a larger spectrum of rights.
“I did not want to take abortion out of the greater conglomerate of women’s reproductive rights — I cannot talk about it in isolation,” she said.
And not all of Davis’ views are critical, she said. She does acknowledge advances made.
“Who could have imagined a woman as chancellor at a university like this? Much less a black woman?” she said, referring to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, and to much applause.
She stressed that to be a feminist and activist is to always continue to struggle, and that the framework allows for complex thinking about the world.
“Feminism helps us to inhabit contradictions,” she said. “With it, we can understand being critical and supportive at the same time.”
Teresa Leslie-Canty grew up with Davis as a hero and, after seeing her speak elsewhere, brought along her young daughter. She said Davis’ “message was not that different” than it was in the 1970s and praised Davis’ calls to find solutions to societal ills such as intimate and sexual violence.
“Domestic violence is a significant issue with women and teenage girls — if only we could disrupt that cycle,” she said.
Davis closed her lecture on feminism and activism, the radical and the everyday with a message of encouragement for upcoming generations — a quote often used on the campaign trail by President Barack Obama but originally written by black feminist poet June Jordan: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
With this in mind, an audience member asked Davis if she had found herself tempered in her thoughts and actions as she’s grown older.
“As an older person, I still try to be radical,” Davis, who’s 68, said with a laugh. “But no matter what, you can’t be radical as an individual. You have to be a part of a larger movement, and we are in an era in which revolutionary movements can re-emerge."