On the (very) off chance you have not yet heard of Zerlina Maxwell, allow me to introduce you. And please, mark my words, she will soon be a household name — so you should pay attention.
Maxwell is a feminist force who takes on everything from politics, sexual assault and domestic violence to pop culture in one fell swoop. She’s been everywhere from the White House to the pages of the New York Times. She can seamlessly transition from commanding a room to starting a Twitter movement.
If there’s a conversation about women’s issues happening, it’s likely you’ll find Maxwell at the center of it, motivating her fans and followers to critically think and spread the message of equality as far as digitally possible.
You received your law degree after obtaining a B.A. in International Relations. What was your motivation for seeking higher education?
Education was something my parents saw as valuable, and so I thought was valuable from an early age. They didn’t really even have to tell me at a certain point to do my homework. I was just trying to be an over-achiever. I also was really fortunate because I grew up in a pretty affluent white suburb in New Jersey that had a school that was a public school, but was really a private school funded by the state. Something like 99% of the graduates go to college, and so I was fortunate and privileged to be in an environment, a learning environment, that I was going to go to college no matter what and I was going to go to a top 25 school if possible. I ended up at Tufts largely because it was a really popular school to apply to for students in my town.
I always wanted to go to law school, that was always something I wanted to do. I don’t know if it was just how lawyers are portrayed in media when I was growing up. Even those historic moments where you can always trace back to work a lawyer did, a Thurgood Marshall or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, inspiring me to look at the law as a tool to make the changes in the world that I wanted. I think education allows you to use the levers of power, because you’re armed with knowledge about how the system works, how law and policy impact people’s lives.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow your career path?
Well, I think I’m re-evaluating a lot of different things about how I got where I am now, and what I want to do next. I get that question a lot, and I would say a lot of people ask specifically, “How do I get started with writing?” or, “I want to be a journalist and be in the media,” and I always say you have to start. Right? I mean, if you want to be a writer, you have to start writing.
I would also say to find a good mentor right away, because they can allow you to grow and get better, but also act as sort of a sounding board and facilitate introductions to people who are in the industry you want to work in. Then you can see if you want to actually do that. But, I think you shouldn’t be tied to one thing or another. You should be open to different types of careers.
I’m actually reading a really good book right now by Carla Harris, who worked at Morgan Stanley as a vice president. She is an amazing black woman who’s the head of the National Women’s Business Council, which advises the White House on how to get more women to start their own businesses. In her book, she talks about the content of the job. Like what your day-to-day is, what things you’re actually doing, and not just titles. I think that’s great advice for a young person who is unsure, because a lot of people of all different ages are not sure what they want for their career, and I think if you do an exercise where you make a list of the things you like to do, and then make another list alongside that of the jobs that have those aspects to it.
For millenials, I think out of necessity because the economy was so bad when a lot of us were graduating we were forced to have that entrepreneurial head state where you’re not going to go get a job and work your way up from an entry level position and then work there for 30 years. That’s no longer a working model for our generation. So for me it’s all about what makes me excited to get out of bed in the morning.
How do you think feminists can help eradicate rape culture?
We just have to keep talking about it. Right now is such an interesting moment historically, because feminists have been talking about rape culture since the 1970s and right now we are in this moment where the President is talking about rape culture at the Grammy Awards, and saying that men need to become part of the solution.
It’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of just repeating the same message over and over and over until it begins to resonate. Just keep talking, because it’s working.
There’s going to be a backlash, there already has right? We’ve already seen a lot of different high-profile articles where people are decrying the anti-rape movement campus movement, citing the impact on a hypothetical male who might be accused someday of sexual assault who may not have done it, but we don’t know who he. We do know who all of these survivors are that are not being supported.
As feminists what we can do is support each other in public. Keep talking and infiltrating main stream spaces because nothing is more powerful than the media. I believe that I have a unique perspective and so someone’s going to be saying something on television or on the radio or writing articles, and I want the message to be the right one. So who better than me to say it? Or you? Or the next person? Because this is not a one leader movement, we’re out of that model.
How can the feminist movement be more inclusive?
Listening is important. It can be more inclusive in terms of what voices are promoted and lifted up, and also listened to and respected. I think this is a very fluid thing and we’ve had several waves of the movement where there were a lot of voices that were marginalized.
You know, that’s one of the debates that I think the feminist blogosphere has allowed us to flourish so that we can approach all of these issues from a broader perspective to make sure we’re actually fighting for everyone and not just the privileged among us.
I think that part of it too is not being defensive. I’m getting better at it, but we all struggle with this. We’re all human and we never want to be wrong, but if you do something wrong or you offend or you had a blind spot when you were doing your analysis and somebody points that out, I think it’s important to just not tweet in that moment, right? And maybe just say, “Well, I may have to re-evaluate that.”
For me, I always say being more inclusive means that we’re listening to people and respecting their perspective and treating their experience as valid, and continuing to validate in public the experiences of the most marginalized people. I’m a human being, so when I mess up — and I will mess up — I would hope that I’m just able to be self aware and try not to mess up the next time. That allows a movement to not only become more inclusive, but to flourish because we’re not fighting each other when we should be fighting the people who are working every day to take away our rights and stifle progress.
What is your biggest success moment to date?
I would say law school, because it was really hard for me to finish. My sexual assault happened three weeks before I was starting classes, and I had to take time off. It was really hard, but I felt like it was a test. Do I really want this? So I started out and faced insurmountable obstacles, but I followed it through to the end.
After I worked on the Obama campaign I started on Twitter and blogging on a Blogspot with my friends, and there was a day — I think it was like December in 2013 — I was invited to a meeting at the White House. I get to the meeting and there’s all the name tags, and I went to mine and I sat down, then I looked next me and there wasn’t a name tag. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s were the President sits?”
Here’s @ZerlinaMaxwell casually hanging out with the President.
Who inspires you?
My parents are really inspiring, but also my grandfather was a civil rights activist and a preacher and he marched in Selma. One of my aunts was also at Selma and was an activist, and I just feel that in my blood and it inspires me everyday.
As far as feminists, there’s so many I can’t even list them, right?
Donna Brazile because she was the first, well… Laverne Cox calls it a “possibility model.” She says you can’t imagine yourself doing certain things unless you see someone who looks just like you doing it. So seeing Donna Brazile, being a political operative, a presidential campaign manager and then being on television, analyzing politics, breaking down everything on election night, I was like, “I want to do that.”
Then there is Melissa Harris-Perry. The first time I saw her was on like Bill Maher or something, and she was saying things that I hadn’t heard anyone say on TV before. That was really inspiring to me, because I think that especially now when we have so many channels and so many shows but somehow we don’t have a diversity of perspective. Even with Netflix and Hulu and all these things we still are only getting a slice of it. She’s so inspiring to me because she’s brilliant. Like, her brain is just bigger.
What’s your favorite thing about yourself?
I would say that I’m pretty fearless. It’s not that I don’t have fear, but I immerse myself in personal development books and training, because I’m trying really hard to always wake up and be a little bit better than I was the day before.