One of the things that drew me to Ralph Watkins was that he was a committed feminist ally. For a man of his generation, whose masculinity was formed in the pre-Second Feminist wave era, he was truly unique. Ralph genuinely liked women and women genuinely liked Ralph. He was comfortable around them and they were comfortable around him.
Perhaps his ease and comfort with women had something to do with how he was never interested in objectifying women. Or maybe it had something to do with being raised by his mother and his grandmother. I do know that he saw women as having a unique perspective that helped him understand the world around him in a new way. In fact, many of his friends were women: mature women, young women, Black women, White women, Latinas and Asian American women, lesbian women, straight women, U.S.-born or women born in other countries, artists, scholars, the mail carrier. His youngest female friend, our great niece, was ten years old!
Women were drawn to him because he was safe. You never got the usual sexual politics with Ralph. He assumed that women had something important to say, that they were thinking beings, and that he would learn from them in some way. I always found his relationship to the women in his life inspiring. I admired him his ability to put the women he interacted with immediately at ease. I marveled at how he seemed to attract women like a magnet. One memory I have regarding how women were drawn to him revolves around a conference on Puerto Rican women we both attended at SUNY-Albany in the early ‘90s. I had just returned to the East coast from graduate school to do field work in New York City. I found out about the conference and he came along, interested as he was in women’s issues and scholarship on, by or about women. Over the course of the two days, every time I turned around some woman was calling out to him by name and saying hello or stopping him to talk intently about something they had learned in a session. I was amazed at how many people---women---he met at the place and said to him “damn, Ralph, you’re a woman-magnet.” He shook his head and smiled that enigmatic smile of his.
Ralph was the one who put the landmark book on multiracial feminism, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, into my hands when I was 20 years old. This book had the effect of transforming my life by articulating so much of my own submerged political and social values and ideas about what it means to be a working class woman of color raised in the United States. He had met the Black feminist Barbara Smith at a conference while she was tabling for Kitchen Table Press and struck up a conversation with her. He ended up buying a copy of the book for me and one for him.
On Ralph’s memorial folder is a quote from a play by Ntozake Shange, the black revolutionary poet and playwright from the 70s. Shange once came to speak at SUCO. Ralph was responsible for taking her around. Shange had been severely criticized by black men, especially black revolutionary men, for her feminist views in her commercially successful play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. But in Ralph she found a kindred spirit who saw the beauty of her vision ----that unless Black women are free none of us are---and was not daunted by it. Ralph was committed to freedom in the largest sense of the word. They had such a marvelous time together that by the end of the day they were holding hands as they walked around campus like old friends. I savored that image of them for years.
Just this past June, I was about to attend a woman’s drumming event about two hours away from here. I did not read the fine print and found out from a friend that the group sponsoring the event had a policy of “only women-born women” allowed to the event. “Only women-born women” I yelled as I read the policy, and went to find Ralph to share this and my sense of stunned outrage with him. He immediately, without equivocation said “Oh, well you can’t go.” For me that summarizes so much about Ralph. His commitment to women was inclusive, had integrity and was unflinching, even for those women who acquired their gender identity as women much later in life than the rest of us. It has been that unflinching commitment to social justice that made my 23 years with Ralph so wonderful.