‘I have been everything’: Author Isabel Allende talks feminism, inclusivity at Scripps Presents

Author Isabel Allende looks to the right.
Author Isabel Allende has written 24 books and earned more than 60 awards in over 15 countries, according to her website. (Courtesy: Lesekreis via Wikimedia Commons)

To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, Scripps College partnered with PEN Out Loud and the Strand Bookstore to spotlight an international feminist: award-winning Latin American author Isabel Allende, who received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014

Allende said she became aware of the many injustices of the world early, at 5 years old. It was when she discovered feminism and feminist literature — she co-founded and worked for years at Chilean feminist magazine Paula — that she felt part of a larger justice movement, “something much bigger.”

“Feminism is a revolution, and all revolutions begin with rage, being furious at some kind of injustice or exploitation or violence. And I have had it all my life. But rage needs to be channeled — you cannot just let it loose and destroy your life.”

Her new channel takes the form of her recently published memoir-manifesto, “The Soul of a Woman,” a departure from the historical novels for which she is known. Focused on parenting, aging and womanhood, the book was born as she reflected on her journey as a feminist and the changing landscape of the twenty-first century’s feminist movements. 

“There’s a new wave of young feminists that are so inclusive, they have invited to the movement everybody else. Gender doesn’t define feminism anymore … Everybody’s in there,” Allende said of intersectionality.

Allende, too, has long defied boundaries. Her memoir is an exploration of this, but Allende always returns to her roots in feminism. 

“I have been everything. All my life I have been a foreigner, so I’ve moved from one place to another, and in every one of those moves, I needed to reinvent myself,” she said. “But the thread that has linked everything is my obsession with justice, and that has manifested itself in feminism.”

In a passage from the novel, read aloud by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Allende reveals she has been training all her life to be a “passionate old woman,” resisting caution from destroying her long-lived zeal.

“People think that when you get older, you get wiser,” Allende explained. “You only become more of what you have always been … When I say train for passion, [I mean] keep yourself engaged in the world. Try to make things better. Serve others. Connect. Connect to others, and that keeps you going with incredible strength. That’s why I have been so sad with the pandemic because so many people are isolated and lonely.”

The recent deaths of Allende’s parents underscored for the author the importance of a collective mourning period. Commemoration en masse will begin to patch together the human connection lost during the pandemic, she said.

“We will have to come up with ceremonies, with ways in which we can honor those who have left us. And ways in which individually and collectively we can transform this mourning into art, into ways of interconnection. We need to grieve,” she said.

Allende also emphasized the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women: women were the first to lose jobs in the recent recession, they now often have increased child care duties and are susceptible to increased rates of domestic violence

Despite these increased inequalities, Allende noted that young, privileged women — including Allende’s daughter, she said — often don’t understand the need for feminism until they enter the workforce, especially since men have been successful at painting feminists as “crazy man-haters.”

“There will be a point when she will realize that she cannot walk alone in the streets at night,” she said. “She has to be careful when she crosses in front of the construction sites full of male workers. She will not be getting in a car that she doesn’t know the driver. She will not go in a bar if she is not sure if she can get out.”

“There is a war against women, an undeclared war.” —Isabel Allende

“So, we live threatened with a feeling of being unsafe. In other places with fear, real fear, because there is a war against women, an undeclared war.”

For those disillusioned with the term “feminism,” Allende said, the work of undoing systemic misogyny becomes more important than labeling oneself a feminist. 

“For me, it was never a war against men; it was an uprising against the patriarchy,” she said. “And the patriarchy is a system of oppression that gives the main gender supremacy over women … and other men as well, because those men who don’t fit in the system are also victims of the system. So, that’s what I want: to defeat the patriarchy and replace it — with the help of men, of course.”

This inclusivity is crucial to the fight for equality. To keep people from uniting and defeating the oppressive system, the patriarchy divides people. For instance, Allende referenced a conversation she had about the intersections of racism and misogyny with Alicia Garza, co-founder of the international Black Lives Matter movement. According to Allende, all groups fighting for equality need to join based on their common ground, instead of focusing on their differences.

“In a way, we are all fighting for the same causes in different fields,” Allende said. “What is important is that we get together and that we find ways of working together because we have so much in common that the patriarchy tries to keep apart.”

Drawing upon the historical research for her novels, she hopes that the global nature of the pandemic will help unite the world. 

“Women alone are very vulnerable, but when we get together, we are invincible,” she said.

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