Feminists We Love: Layli Maparyan – The Feminist Wire

Feminists We Love: Layli Maparyan

MaparyanLayli Maparyan is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of The Wellesley Centers for Women, one of the nation’s leading organizations committed to research and action programs dedicated to women and girls. Regarding her appointment, Wellesley College President H. Kim Bottomly stated,

I am so pleased that Dr. Maparyan will join Wellesley in this important role. Her work on women’s issues and her dynamic leadership abilities are ideal for building upon the Centers’ legacy of influential and groundbreaking programming.

After earning a B.A. in Philosophy from Spelman College, an M.S. in Psychology from Penn State University (State College), and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Temple University, Maparyan joined the University of Georgia as an Assistant Professor of Psychology and African-American Studies. During her time at the University, Maparyan became the founding Co-Director of the Womanist Studies Consortium. Subsequently, Maparyan served as an Associate Professor and Graduate Director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University, where she was also an associated faculty member in the Department of African American Studies and a University Senator.

Maparyan is best known for her work on womanist theory and praxis. In 2006, she published the groundbreaking anthology The Womanist Reader: The First Quarter Century of Womanist Thought (Routledge), and most recently, she published The Womanist Idea (Routledge, 2012). Maparyan has also published in the Handbook of Feminist Family Studies, Journal of African American Studies, Locating Women’s Studies: Theorizing Critical Concepts for a 21st Century Field, Women and Therapy, Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, and Defining Difference: Race and Racism in the History of Psychology, among other texts.

Given the significance of her scholarship and teaching, Maparyan has received funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, the Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowships Program, and the Fulbright Specialists Program, to name a few. She was also awarded an Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award for outstanding teaching that affects social change.


TFW: I recently re-watched the interview you gave as part of the Salzburg Global Seminar on the topic of “Women, Spirituality, and Religion.” During the interview, you talked about being interested in the pragmatic application of spirituality, especially the ways in which women integrate religion and spirituality into their everyday practices:

Can you share with me the impetus for this interest of yours?  Also, what are some of the implications of carefully considering such practices for feminist and womanist thinkers, teachers, and activists?

So many people around the world are spiritual or religious, myself included.  I grew up in a very spiritual/religious Baha’i household with early exposure to mysticism as well as the concept that all of the world’s religions are interconnected and of value.  Additionally, my maternal grandmother was a staunch Baptist and very religious.  As a child and a teenager, I observed how her religion and spirituality shaped her compassionate, giving, and upright walk in this world, even though she wasn’t technically “political.”  She was a world-changer through her everyday actions, which began with daily Bible reading and daily prayer for her loved ones.  She took the instructions of her faith seriously, and, in fact, held herself to a high standard in terms of decent, loving conduct in the world.  In my second book, The Womanist Idea (Routledge, 2012), where I write at length about the concept and practice of spiritual activism, I talk about how, at its most basic level, “spiritual activism can be as basic as putting one’s faith or ethical system into action by simply doing all the good things it recommendations.” If everyone who rates themselves as spiritual or religious or even ethical did this in their everyday life, we’d have a tremendous political and economic revolution in life on earth, immediately.  That’s what I’m talking about.  It doesn’t matter whether you call yourself womanist, feminist, all of the above, none of the above, or something else – this simple act would change the world in all the ways we long for.

Africa WomanTFW: I enjoyed looking at the pictures you recently posted when your son Thaddeus graduated from UCLA, which I know was an extremely proud moment for you and your family.  You also have four other children, if I’m not mistaken.  Thinking about this in preparation for this interview prompted me to ask about the ways in which womanism influenced your role as a mother.  What do your children think about their mother being one of the most influential womanist thinkers of this late 20th and 21st centuries? 

Your question is interesting, because actually I think my role as a mother has influenced my view on womanism more than womanism has influence my view on motherhood!  Awareness of the methodologies I used to raise my older children and my observation of these methods’ successes and failures gave me some deep understandings about how human beings can transform and in what ways we can influence each other to transform.  I went into motherhood with clear ideas about what I hoped to effectuate through my mothering – that is, I wanted my mothering to produce ethical, spiritual, politically conscious, intelligent, articulate, principled, and self-disciplined people – and it basically worked (no, I am not biased about how wonderful my kids came out, LOL!).  So, I was able to reflect on that.  I could see where I fell short and where my efforts paid off.  I could see how the personalities, traits, and talents my kids brought into the world straight out of my womb intersected with my efforts to shape them as well as others’ efforts to do the same.  I could also see how they shaped me – and also where my own efforts failed or were misguided.  It was basically a couple of decades of an intense but highly valuable learning process.  And now I have a second set of kids on their way to my household courtesy of my new-ish marriage to a man from Liberia, and I am looking forward to putting the methods to the test again.  The bottom line is this: mothering is a powerful social change modality, not to be taken lightly.  So much social change can be achieved through mothering alone that we can’t fail to look at it as a social change methodology in its own right.  It is probably the most basic one – taking into account, of course, that parents can be of any gender and parenting by parents of any gender can have this same social change impact.

I have to admit that my ideas about the relationship between motherhood and social change were influenced heavily by two scholars – Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi and Tamara Beauboeuf Lafontant – who both wrote about the relationship between womanism and motherhood.  Chief among Ogunyemi’s arguments, in her book Africa Wo/Man Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women (University of Chicago, 1996), were that mothering has a spiritual foundation (especially in Yoruba/Ifa spirituality, which she draws from), that mothering is not limited by biology or gender, that mothering is not limited to one’s own children, and that “community mothering” (for example, the Iyalode/Omunwa, or “mother in the public domain”) is a powerful political positionality and methodology.  Thus, mothering is not just “raising children” but it can also be “raising a community” or “raising a nation” or, by extension, “raising humanity” to its highest potential.  Again, this is powerful political and spiritual methodology – yet overlooked by many as mundane.  The womanist position is that it is not simply mundane – or, that its very mundaneness is its power.

Tamara Beaubeouf Lafontant, whose article, “A Womanist Experience of Caring: Understanding the Pedagogy of Exemplary Black Women Teachers,” was reprinted in my first book, The Womanist Reader: The First Quarter Century of Womanist Thought (Routledge, 2006), did a comparison of teachers from three different ethnic backgrounds – black, white, and Jewish – and noted that black women teachers drew from their ideas about motherhood to be effective in the classroom.  Teachers from the other two groups, however, tended to view societal notions about motherhood as something to escape, something that could pull women down in a negative way, and something that should not shape their engagement in the classroom.  Tamara made the case that black teachers’ invocation of motherhood in their role as teachers was a manifestation of womanism.  In my mind, I linked this to Ogunyemi’s notions about “community mothers,” and I expanded on this theme in The Womanist Idea.

Mothers and parents of all genders need more support for raising their kids with intentionality and purpose, with an eye on social ideals and social transformation.  If people were better supported in their roles as parents – as mothers, othermothers, and all kinds of kindred of all genders – so much immediate social change would take place, just like I said with the spiritual stuff.  I also think we can learn a lot in our movement building work from cultures that have an explicitly “community mother” type role.  For example, West African women’s ability to mobilize other women on a dime for a cause they care about is phenomenal – we could learn from that here in the U.S., but we will only learn from it if we recognize and celebrate the cultural difference from which it springs.

TFW: You’re also married to freelance Journalist and documentary Videographer Seboe Maparyan.  How does womanism influence your role as a life partner?  What does your partner, Seboe, think about your womanist work and its influence on so many feminists and womanists throughout the world?

Thank you for recognizing my partner, Seboe.  Seboe is truly one of the best womanist men in the world (and, again, I am not the slightest bit biased, LOL!) – he sets an example for other men and is a guiding light for a very positive form of masculinity and pro-woman politics.  He is also a very engaged father.  Spirituality is central to our partnership, and spirituality is at the foundation of our politics.  Indeed, cross-gender partnerships and alliances are central to the womanist idea.  Because we are able to walk that walk together – and converse across and through our differences (he’s Baptist, I’m Baha’i/mystical; he’s West African, I’m African American, etc.) – and learn from each other, we develop between ourselves a methodology for having similar kinds of conversations with other people we encounter.  It is a very enjoyable, evolving work-in-progress, and a wonderful spiritual-political companionship/comradeship.  Seboe loves womanism and helps “spread the word” in every way he can – but little does he know he is also co-constructing worldwide womanism through his male womanist walk.  For that, I am deeply grateful to and for him.

WellesleyTFW: As aforementioned, you became the Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women just over a year ago.  I’m hoping you can tell our readers about some recent projects being undertaken by the centers, as well as what kinds of projects you’re hoping to implement in the near future.

The Wellesley Centers for Women is an amazing institution with a long legacy of influential research, theory, and action projects going back nearly 40 years now.  From relational-cultural theory that was developed by Jean Baker Miller and colleagues in the Stone Center (one of the founding Centers of the Wellesley Centers for Women) to Peggy McIntosh’s well-known work on white privilege to Nan Stein’s widely-cited Shifting Boundaries intervention and evaluation that addresses sexual violence in schools to the Centers’ authoring of the influential report, How Schools Shortchange Girls, we have a history of high-impact work of which I am incredibly proud – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Recent projects have included a large-scale evaluation of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts‘ innovative “Get Real” sex education curriculum for middle-schoolers, pilot testing of online interventions for families grappling with depression, research on how working women are affected by elder care, and research on low-wage women’s ability to utilize family leave policies.

We also lead ongoing work in the areas of children’s social-emotional learning in schools and the professionalization of the out-of-school time field–standard setting, evaluation, and training.  And I’m very excited about the fact that we are about to launch an investigation of how mindfulness practices relate to children and language learning.  We are also an officially recognized U.N. NGO with special consultative status to the Economic and Social Council, under which falls the Commission on the Status of Women.  As you can see, we have a lot going on!  We are a large organization of over 90 employees, two dozen of whom are primary investigators or project directors, and all of us are about doing the kind of work that will advance justice and well-being for women and girls, indeed people of all genders, and their families and communities worldwide.  Our motto, coined by former WCW Director Susan Bailey, is “A world that is good for women is good for everyone.”

TFW: So many of us appreciate your groundbreaking anthology The Womanist Reader, which documents the first quarter-century of womanist thought.  I still teach it in my black feminist thought class every session, because I appreciate the way it gives nuance to conversations about women of color and womanism in so many areas, including literature, history, religion, and even health and medicine.  In what ways has womanist theory and criticism progressed in ways that you didn’t imagine when you first published the anthology?  Additionally, in what ways do you think womanism can and should be further developed?

I am deeply honored that you use my texts in your classes.  Thank you!!  I think that womanism has continued its proliferative growth since 2006.  Some of the key developments that excite me relate to deeper discussions about spirituality, particularly from varied cultural perspectives, the expanding voice of ecowomanism, and the increasingly diverse domains to which people are applying womanism – because it is, in fact, meant to be applied! – as well as the increasingly diverse authors who are claiming womanism as their own, including men and transfolk.  I would cite, for example, emerging work by Xiumei Pu and Melanie L. Harris – Xiumei’s because she is going deep with women’s indigenous religions from China (Di Mu) and Tibet (Bon) through a womanist lens and looking particularly at the ecological implications, and Melanie’s because she is developing an autonomous ecowomanist perspective with a heavy focus on Earth justice.  She is doing some thought-provoking work on the Black Southern influence in the American West and how this has shaped a particular kind of ecowomanist point-of-view.  I am also very amped about the recent publication of Epifania Amoo-Adare’s book on women and space in Ghana – Spatial Literacy: Contemporary Asante Women’s Place-making (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) – sort of a womanist architecture/urban studies study that reflects the deep Africanity of womanism at the same time as it makes us ask new questions about what kind of world we are building with the buildings we build!  I am excited about recent applications of womanism to technology by Tiffany Russell in her TEDx Charleston Talk, as well as to self-help literature by Yolo Akili in his recent book Dear Universe: Letters of Affirmation and Empowerment for All of Us (Michael Todd Books, 2013).  Last but not least, I have to give a shout out to my spiritual-intellectual soul sister, AnaLouise Keating, whose recent book, Transformation Now!: Toward a Post-oppositional Politics of Change (University of Illinois, 2012), raises and addresses a lot of the questions that I think people aren’t even asking yet but need to – about how to move past the political stalemates (governmental or movement-wise) that are impeding progress toward real liberation and better everyday lives for everybody.  I hope I didn’t leave anybody out, because there is just so much good, new womanist work hitting the shelves and cyberspace every day!!

Womanist IdeaTFW: I was so excited when you published The Womanist Idea.  I plan on teaching the text when I teach black feminist thought again this spring.  Every time I teach that class, I always tell my students that if I could, I would ask you about the debates between various scholars regarding the differences between feminism and womanism.  More specifically, I wonder if you could talk a bit about the position of Clenora Hudson-Weems and how her work influenced your understanding of womanism.

People ask me a lot about Clenora Hudson-Weems and her work and how it has informed my own intellectual journey around womanism.  My answer is this: In her book, Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves (Bedford Publishers, 1995), she makes two important points without a lot of apology:  First, that white supremacy is not okay and we need to address it, period; and, second, that anyone can be a womanist as long as they acknowledge their cultural (not racial) heritage in its specificity.  She made it clear early on that even Europeans can be womanist if they draw from their ancestral cultures for guidance – which is a nod to the overlooked wisdom, particularly women’s wisdom, that is latent in most of the world’s indigenous and ancestral cultures.  No other womanist has made these points as clearly and unapologetically as she has, and for those reasons, her voice is an important part of what womanism means today.  At the same time, I have gone on record that I disagree with her about sexuality issues, at least as she expressed them in that book (her perspective might have changed since then).  As for her argument that race and class supersede gender, for me they are all intertwined rather than ranked, yet I understand her view and I know so many people who share her view that it’s worth being in a space to dialogue with people who hold this position.  In fact, womanism in general is about creating a space for people to dialogue – lovingly yet not fearful of challenges and tensions – across difference…not ideologically, but as regular, flesh-and-blood human beings.

TFW: One of the things I most admire about you is your ability to assume positions of leadership in an effort to affect change.  As aforementioned, you’re currently serving as the Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women.  Additionally, you’ve been an especially influential member of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), serving as Women of Color Leadership Project Coordinator, Women of Color Caucus Co-Chair, Program Administration and Development Advisory Committee member, and Governing Council member.  You also were extremely active in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ Women’s Initiative while you were in Atlanta, serving as Managing Consultant.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  What advice would you give to emerging feminist and womanist scholars and activists regarding leadership? 

My advice about leadership is that you can and should lead from anywhere and everywhere.  Leadership is not a job, it’s an orientation to life.  It has to begin with leading the self, the Self, that is, leading oneself to a place where one is able to critically review oneself, one’s thoughts and feelings, one’s actions, one’s relationships, one’s energy field, and be in a state of constant refinement to align it with one’s vision of what is ideal, right, best.  This is, as I call it in The Womanist Idea, the “inner work.”  Once this is somewhat in place (it will never be complete – it’s an ongoing practice), one can turn to the “outer work,” which is trying to influence change in the world beyond oneself.  Begin proximally, nearby, “begin where you are,” as they say – say, what can I do right here, right now, with the talents, skills, resources, and insights that I have?  Is my energy correct?  Are my feelings conducive to the kind of world I’m trying to create?  Are my thoughts creating that world?  Are my actions building on those very intentional thoughts?  Then converse with others about similar things.  Set examples. Encourage people who are trying. Form networks, mobilize, scale up.  Find opportunities to be of aid on a higher octave.  I just so happen to be an academic, so a lot of my work has been in the academic arena or through academic methods or with academic audiences – because this is where I have found myself.  I have asked myself, what is the maximum good that can come from working in this arena, and I have tried to be a part of creating that.  My experience is, the deeper you go into it, the more opportunities come, the more trust the Universe gives you, and the greater the responsibility you are invited to accept.  But it all begins by creating the readiness and being brave enough to step into it!

Suggested Links:

TFW’s Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Review: Dear Universe by Yolo Akili
Maparyan on the Wellesley Centers for Women (Video)