Ending mass incarceration, stifling sexual assault and police violence, fighting for equality for all races, genders, and sexualities — are the pillars of the abolitionist feminism movement. 

As a political philosophy and a practice, abolitionist feminism was founded in the 1830s when antislavery and women’s suffrage movements linked. This tandem, still in cooperation today, fights against the inequalities perpetuated through the prison industrial complex today. 

In a series called “Visualizing Abolition,” the Institute of Arts and Sciences hosted University of Chicago criminology department head Beth Richie, artist Sonya Clark, and professor of education and women’s studies at Illinois Northeastern University Erica Meiners for their segment “Visualizing Abolition: Abolitionist Feminisms.” Richie, Clark, and Meiners joined Gina Dent, a professor in feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz, to discuss the role of feminism in the abolitionist movement on Feb. 23. 

The event began with Richie introducing an informal definition of “abolitionist feminism,” one that puts into perspective not only the history of the term, but also the role it plays in the movement today. 

“I do so not really as a way to formally or absolutely define what abolition feminism is, but rather to share some of the elements of what I think of as a mosaic political strategy that can advance our intellectual work or activism, or emotional relationship to the fight for freedom, the artistic work that surrounds abolition feminism,” said Richie during the event. “And for me, a very concrete practical way to work for freedom. That’s what I think abolition feminism offers us.” 

Following the discussion from Richie, Clark spoke about the role of artistry in abolition. Clark intertwined quotes from acclaimed artists and abolitionists like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Paul Laurence Dunbar to accentuate her point on the importance of art in conversations of abolition feminism.

Clark has been curating interactive art to highlight the goals of the abolition feminist movement for decades. A video demonstration of her piece “Unraveling” in 2015, was shown at the event. The performance piece had audience members pull on threads from a Confederate battle flag until it fell apart, illustrating that by working together racist symbols in America can be stripped down. 

“It’s not just sort of the metaphor of how everyone should be engaged in abolition feminist struggles,” Clark said during the event. “But also that it takes stepping up to just pull even a little piece of thread, next to someone who might have a bigger vision of what the large flag looks like. I think there’s something quite beautiful about that.” 

Beth Richie is the head of Criminology, Law, and Justice department at the University of Chicago. With pieces about feminism published in publications like Psychology Press and Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, Richie stands as a strong advocate for abolition and feminism. 
Sonya Clark is a fiber artist who creates art using materials like hair and cloth to address issues such as class, race, and history. 
Erica Meiners is a professor of education and Women’s studies at the Illinois Northeastern University. She is also the author of several book tackling issues regarding violence, gender, and sexuality.

Educator and organizer Erica Meiner launched into a speech about the importance of organization within the abolitionist feminist movement. Meiner highlighted forms of activism like vernacular photography – photography depicting everyday lives – posters, and magazines. She spoke on the importance of genealogy and localized activism that lends itself to larger organizational events like marches, spotlighting the activism in her hometown of Chicago.

Meiner said that Chicago-based abolition feminist organizations are so well-organized that hundreds of people are willing to show up in basements, backyards, classrooms and storefronts with the intention of spreading awareness for their movement. 

As the event came to a close, questions came pouring in from the audience, asking what it means to be an abolitionist and feminist in a world still plagued with racism and sexism.  

“I’m thinking about the person who was accused of not being a feminist because of her support of abolitionist feminism. And I’m thinking, that is a brilliant dialogue to be right in the middle of, that’s where the work is. It’s right there,” said Clark during the event. “If you’re with everybody who agrees with you, that’s not where the work is, the work is right there in that nexus, where there’s tension.”