Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s deputy chief of staff examines feminist thought
Martha Reilly | Friday, February 16, 2018
When she was 10 years old — long before she ascended to the role of deputy chief of staff for mayor Pete Buttigieg — Suzanna Fritzberg dressed up as activist and reformer Susan B. Anthony for Halloween. Since then, her desire to advocate for women’s rights has only intensified, as she developed a more nuanced understanding of feminist thought, she said in a lecture in Spes Unica Hall on Thursday.
“I have learned since then that feminism is about a lot more than predominantly white women protesting for the right to vote, in particular ways,” Fritzberg said.
Fritzberg said she fills three major roles in her job as deputy chief of staff.
“I’m a force multiplier, meaning that if the mayor needs to be somewhere, and he can’t make it … that’s my job,” she said. “I also help to manage city operations, and I am a contact point between departments of the mayor’s office.”
One of her favorite parts of the job involves helping manage the city’s health and human services policy portfolio, she said.
“I’m the city lead for a bunch of things that are big, complex problems that are deeply intertwined with the root cause of poverty,” she said. “For example, right now, I’m leading a work group to focus on developing a rental unit inspection ordinance because we think there are a lot of problems with lead contamination, mold contamination … in our affordable housing stock.”
Fritzberg said she is particularly interested in the connection between social policy and political philosophy. She said this interest shapes her perspective on working for the government.
“Government is a tool for accomplishing moral ends, not just technical ends,” she said. “Often, the problems that we think of as technical — for example, how do you best set up shelter systems so that homeless people have a place to go? — are also really intensely ethical questions.”
Fritzberg said her understanding of women’s studies enables her to approach the challenges of her job with innovation and practicality.
“I find women’s studies a really interesting and urgent academic field, particularly right now because we’re in this moment where dignity and personhood and freedom, if you’re not a white man, is a little up for grabs,” she said. “I find feminist thought particularly validating because it talks about lived experience rather than alternative facts, because it recognizes interdependence rather than elevating individual success at all costs and because it predisposes us to a careful evaluation of government’s role in everyday life, rather than reactive and basic assaults on individual freedom.”
Fritzberg said familiarity with the problems women face can enhance awareness of other issues, as women’s studies is an interdisciplinary pursuit.
“Feminist thought insists on this merger between theory and practice, between learning and doing, between saying and actually putting it on the line,” she said. “I think that women’s studies is such a rich field of productive intellectual labor.”
The link between economic and social regulations cannot be understated, as policy influences gender and vice versa, Fritzberg said.
“A lot of the welfare aid in the United States goes to women with children and there have been a bunch of different rules over many different decades that structure women’s personal, professional and sexual lives around a particular moral ideology,” Fritzberg said. “At one point … there was a rule that if you were receiving U.S. welfare aid, and you were an unmarried mother with children, you couldn’t have a live-in boyfriend or anyone living with you that was a male partner that wasn’t your husband.”
Fritzberg said this precedent, known as “No Man in the House,” demonstrates that the personal really is the political.
“There’s this conservative agenda about household composition,” she said. “At the same time that this program is meeting human need, it’s also exposing a tension over state power in individual lives and where we think the appropriate line is for the state to be dictating morality.”
The interdisciplinary nature of women’s studies, Fritzberg said, benefits her immensely, as her job often requires her to synthesize various avenues of thought.
“When I work on homelessness, for example, I have to get an on-the-ground understanding of our service system and our homeless population — sociology, a little bit of anthropology,” she said. “I have to synthesize data on the public and private expenditures related to homelessness — economics. I have to understand the political levers that we need to implement solutions — political science. And then I have to effectively communicate with city administration, community members, business owners and social service leaders, which is language arts.”
Skills such as creativity and agile thinking foster a strong community capable of striving for social justice, Fritzberg said.
“We’re connected to this long and rich legacy of feminist thought that allows us to turn our attention to any number of different topics with particular grounding in theory and methodology,” Fritzberg said. “I believe my choices at home and at work are opportunities to build a world that’s grounded in my values and my principles.”