Back in May I held forth on the subject of why feminism matters to universities with other goals in mind.  But today I’m inspired to write on it again after trawling through news, both recent and from a few years ago, about the actor Ashley Judd.  What, you say?  You mean “Kiss the Girls” and “Ruby in Paradise” Ashley Judd, the youngest member of the freakishly beautiful and always very carefully put-together Judd clan of country singers?  Just a look at her collection of feminist t-shirts and you’ll know why I’m impressed.  She’s a kick-ass feminist, a remarkably smart and eloquent woman, and an intelligent and informed political figure — and she attributes the beginnings of these identifications to a college class she took.  We seldom want to acknowledge that our beautiful actors have brains or political opinions, but Judd just completed a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and has been an outspoken feminist since her undergrad days at the University of Kentucky.  (She majored in French and had minors in art history, theater, anthropology, and women’s studies.  Busy.)  Just recently she’s been earning even more stripes as a public intellectual and humanitarian due to her work overseas, and is especially astute as a commentator on the ties between violence against women and the global economy.

Back in 2004, she was interviewed in a Marie Claire article (see transcript here) about such resolutely unpopular topics as feminism and reproductive rights (which she supports).  “So are you a feminist?” the journalist asked.  Here’s her response:

First of all, I think it’s important to define “feminism.” Feminism means that you support social, political, and economic equality for women.  Maybe if it were described in those terms more often, more people would say they’re feminists.  There are still people who say they’re not feminists because they don’t wear Birkenstocks or let hair grow under their arms!  Yes, I’m a feminist.

Q:  Where did your ideas about feminism gel?

In college.  I took a women’s-studies class, and it changed my life, opened everything up for me.  College taught me to trust that I had a certain innate intellect, with which I could do a lot.

I’m not afraid to admit it:  I read this and it warmed the cynical spaces in my heart, and not just because I’m teaching those kinds of classes.  It’s very similar to the experience I had in a class on feminism in college.  I started out as an 18-year-old who wasn’t sure whether I was a feminist and ended up as a firebrand.  (Staying in the university has only pointed out more how necessary feminism is.)  It reminds me in my current life as a college professor that sometimes I forget that one of those students who isn’t speaking up might actually be having a feminist come-to-Jesus experience because of the classes I teach, and that they too will trust that they have “a certain innate intellect, with which they can do a lot.”  Hey, if I can teach anyone to trust their own intellects, I’ve achieved something great. 

And man, Judd is putting her money where her mouth is.  After completing the Harvard MPS in May 2010 she’s raised her game to a new level.  Just last month she published an op-ed on about the mass rapes of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo; but this was no simplistic hand-wringing exercise.  Rather, she ties these rapes to the broader socioeconomic problems in West Africa over conflict minerals — not just diamonds, but other minerals used to make electronics.  The fact that those minerals are so invaluable to our profits-crazed electronics market plays a role in the fact that governments in places like Congo are so unstable.  Who suffers?  Women; one estimate has it that 400,000 women there have been raped by soldiers and others.  In addition, she’s worked as an AIDS activist and educator, and as a spokesperson about prostitution and STDs.  Her profile as an observer of international human rights violations is certainly more informed than many politically-active actors and really ought to make her more prominent into the future.  

She took on Sarah Palin’s aerial shooting of wolves from helicopters; last summer, she spoke before the National Press Club to oppose mountaintop removal in Appalachia (video here) in a way that’s both intelligent and moving, calling it a form of environmental rape — but again tying it convincingly to the distressed poverty of that region:

“I am here to tell you, mountaintop removal coal mining simply would not happen in any other mountain range in the United States.  It is utterly inconceivable that the Smokies would be blasted, the Rockies razed, the Sierra Nevadas flattened, that bombs the equivalent to Hiroshima would be detonated every single week for three decades.  The fact that the Appalachians are the Appalachians makes this environmental genocide possible and permissible.”

Sometimes I find out more about actors and I’m distressed by their utter narcissistic myopia; but every once in a while I find out more about someone like Judd and I wish we could sit on my sofa and talk about feminism, geopolitics, and movies.  Ashley, I’m so impressed and so happy you’re fighting the good fight — and it reminds me to keep up the optimism that maybe I’m fighting it, too, even when it doesn’t seem that way.