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a road trip, a blog, a book

You’ll have to excuse me

November 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment

…for a few more days. I haven’t had one millisecond to blog about anything intelligent. I do have some plans in the works, like a whole week of spotlighting young female activists/feminists in the South. And in the meantime, I can keep feeding you Girldrive-worthy links:

Judy Berman at Broadsheet discusses how race, weight, and body issues impacts teen sex.

resized_Rihanna_Glamour_December_2009_Cover_Picture21-year-old Rihanna finally (semi) speaks out about her abusive relationship, and the lady blogosphere responds.

Julie of The F Bomb is horrified at the abortion billboards circling outside a Phoenix High School. Yes, high school.

Feministe’s Chally on “Peeling the sticky tape away from sex ed.”

KRS One says we need more women in hip hop. Uhh…yeah! As Girldriver Likwuid said back in the day, “People are saying that hip hop is dead. Of course it’s dead! How you gonna have life with one gender?” (Related: The Sexist’s Amanda Hess asks today, “Lil’ Wayne: Feminist or misogynist?“)

Lil’ Wayne’s “Prostitute Flange”: anti-slut-shaming anthem?

And shameless self-promotion–here are some more good links about Girldrive:

A Q&A with’s Frieda Klotz

Some college press: A piece in the Daily Orange by Krystie Yandoli (a fellow young feminist from Syracuse U) and a piece in the UCLA’s Daily Bruin. Working on getting a way to read Nicole Gervasio’s piece in Bryn Mawr’s The College News, because it’s pretty much the best thing written about Girldrive so far. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Nicole’s review of Girldrive and interview with me is copied in full after the jump.

Girldrive: Taking Feminism on the Road
By Nicole Gervasio

Girldrive can very basically be described as the memoir of two inspired twenty-somethings traveling across America in pursuit of modern-day feminism. And yet, the moment I write that, the description falters. The book really does share so much more than an everyday road trip—or even an offbeat, “In your face, Kerouac!” adventure. In fact, its authors, journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz and artist Emma Bee Bernstein, both daughters of notable Second-Wave feminist moms, barely devote any of those pages to their own compelling stories.

Rather, the majority of the book involves a series of provocative interviews with women across all ages, races, nationalities, professions, and even political ideologies, starting in Chicago, looping around the Western coast, belting the South and circling back towards the Northeast. Visits to a few states, mostly in the Northwest and Deep South, get missed in the shuffle, along with those two perhaps habitual aliens in road trip narratives, Alaska and Hawaii.

I’d say, though, that the absence of a comprehensive geographical study isn’t really important at all, especially in comparison with the incredible variety of women that these authors encounter. Cobbling together an ambitious roster of interviews through old friends, blogs, and even a few impromptu checkout counter rendezvous, Girldrive really does brazenly say what’s on the minds of women through their own words.

As a result, the book has an episodic quality. Interviews diligently pair words with a face. Snapshots of the women who so graciously offered their takes on feminism are often haunting and yet somehow strikingly glamorous.

You’ll meet Siman, a Somalian-born, once-fundamentalist Muslim woman, raising her daughter alone in Phoenix, Arizona. In Lake Andes, South Dakota, hear from Charon, a member of Oklahoma’s Comanche tribe and founder of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center.

In Kansas City, 25-year-old Monica, a daughter of Mexican-Indian and German parents, discloses her time in prison and the military. Stephanie, the “mother hen” of Big Star Burlesque, makes body image a big deal in the sex industry of Austin, Texas. In Northampton, Massachusetts, poet, playwright, and actress Lenelle talks about growing up “pomosexual” in a Haitian household.

Even one Mawrtyr makes the cut: Nathan, one of the few trans interviewees in the book, discusses the transgendered community in Philadelphia, quitting Bryn Mawr, and re-viewing feminism from a man’s perspective.

These are only a few of the many profiles that I took to heart. The intimacy of each gives the whole series a very personalized, scrapbook quality, almost as if the reader herself has a hand in crafting the movement catalogued here. Each state has its own eclectic feminists, from trapeze artists to community mobilizers, indie musicians, and would-be nuns. I still can’t get over the sheer diversity of women—whether pro-life or pro-choice, straight or queer, punk, folk, or hip-hop, African, Japanese or Mexican, middle-aged or teenaged—that this book has managed to encompass.

Nona’s and Emma’s stories about dressing up as “Emma GHOULman” and “Bella AbZOMBIE” for Halloween in Vegas, dropping acid in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and cautiously documenting New Orleans’s traumatized Ninth Ward, among several others, punctuate the interviews with a narrative arc.

But their adventures are deliberately secondary, and perhaps rightfully so—any single travel diary would pale in comparison to encountering such a myriad of insightful, refreshing, and often challenging perspectives on feminism.

That said, it does seem worth mentioning that a pungent sense of loss underlies most of Emma and Nona’s journey. In the first place, the death of Nona’s mother, Ellen Willis, a well-known journalist and cultural critic in New York, is the impetus for Nona and Emma taking feminism to the road. Emma’s grandfather also died around the same time.
After their journey’s end, Emma herself succumbs to an unshakable depression and commits suicide.

The fact that the book succeeds in offering such an uplifting, invigorating call to action despite this thread of tragedy is an enormous accomplishment in itself. Several themes, especially surrounding women’s health, music (most predominantly, the punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the mid-1990s), art, motherhood, and sex work, recur frequently.

Maybe surprisingly to us at Bryn Mawr, the problematic nature of feminism in academia—as an abrasive, straitjacketing way of seeing the world—is also a prevalent topic of discussion. In almost unanimous agreement, women’s oppression is inextricable from race, class, gender, religion, age, and disability, and feminism must advance social justice in its kaleidoscope of forms.

The emphasis on these subjects no doubt has to do with their historical centrality in the women’s rights movement and/or their pertinence to Emma’s and Nona’s personal interests. The authors’ instinct seems right to follow: feminism does thrive in cultural critique, above all else. And I can’t deny that getting inside the heads of feminist s/heroes like Erica Jong, Lauren Berlant, and Starhawk (okay, so you might only recognize the last one if you went through a Wiccan phase in middle school like I did) left me more than a little star-struck.

But the preponderance of artists, writers, critics, and activists did make me wonder kept one question on my mind. What would women who aren’t working jobs that involve creativity or talent—or, in many cases, any options for mobility—have to say about feminism? What about women inside cubicles, doing endless, mind-numbing data entry? What about women working assembly lines, in sweatshops, or behind fast food counters, or women cleaning chain hotels, or those who are homeless?

Immediately my own mother comes to mind: a full-time medical coder with two part-time jobs, stay-at-home mom, and self-proclaimed anti-feminist, a woman who feels like no movement—whether feminist or otherwise—can do anything for her. Then I remember the female managers I knew at Bed Bath and Beyond, often lonely, working-class and overworked women, peddling bridal fantasies through gift registries without living the dream themselves.

I realize that Girldrive isn’t meant to address these questions—that it would be ludicrous to expect any 220 pages of text to cover the whole spectrum, and in broadcasting the views of so many women, there would inevitably be gaps in perspective. But these gaps, ironically, are the perfect space for furthering the conversation that has been started within these pages—to rally to action, follow the command of Mandisa, one New Orleans activist interviewed in Girldrive, and “Fuck! Just do the work.”

Q&A with Nona:

Navigating Girldrive: An Interview with Nona Willis Aronowitz
By Nicole Gervasio

Nona Willis Aronowitz, one of the authors of Girldrive, a book reviewed in this issue of the college news, took a few minutes to talk with me about the hopes, surprises, bumps, and virgins that she encountered on the road.

Q. You mention a little bit in the introduction about what inspired you to do Girldrive, but can you say more about it? Why were you and Emma so compelled to it?
A. We thought about it a few weeks after my mom died. At the time, we were just really curious to see what young women across the country thought about feminism because we lived in this New York bubble… We weren’t too tapped into the feminist blogosphere, partially because it wasn’t as prevalent in 2006 as it is now but also because we knew a lot of people didn’t post on blogs. There was a whole population that needed people to come to them… We just wanted to be on the road and talk to women face to face. We were sort of inspired by wanderlust on the one hand and our curiosity about feminism across the country on the other.

Q. I think there’s something so refreshingly selfless about the way you’ve used your writing to give voice to so many women’s narratives. Had you done grassroots activism or journalism in the past?
A. I’ve been doing journalism since I graduated. When I first got into it, I had no idea that feminism was going to be such a prevalent theme in my writing… I didn’t think of journalism as activism, even though my mom was basically an activist journalist… I guess I had written about women’s issues, but when you write for and the New York Observer, it’s not necessarily activism in the same way, because it’s this set audience that’s not as far-reaching. Emma hadn’t been involved in activism since Riot Grrl, when she was thirteen or fourteen years old … She kind of rejected feminism, not because she didn’t consider herself a feminist but because she was disillusioned by all the in-fighting in Riot Grrl. She felt like it wasn’t as inclusive as she wanted it to be. I think it was the first activist thing that either of us had done in awhile, if ever.

Q. What surprised you most about everything you heard about feminism along the way?
A. It was actually a lot harder to interview women who knew a lot about feminism and were really educated… Not in all cases, of course; a lot of women who were really into our project were also really educated. But then this whole other set was very wary of it. They worried we were generalizing or essentializing; the word “feminism” was so loaded for them that they couldn’t talk to the real experience. It was just weird because we thought women who went to small liberal arts schools and knew about feminism would be our allies, and they were actually some of the ones who met us with the most dissension… It was really surprising that some people who didn’t know anything about feminism could speak really freely about how their lives were impacted by the fact that they were women.

Q. Did you have a favorite state or visit that you made? What would you point out as the highlights?
A. New Orleans was really amazing… All the women we talked to had such passionate responses to these questions, whether they were involved in feminist activism or not… The city had this urgent, kind of eerie quality: all the richness of New Orleans coupled with the shadow of Katrina everywhere. It was two years after Katrina, but it was on the tips of everybody’s tongues…

I always say my favorite interview was this one woman in Nashville named Lauren. It was the turning point for me in Girldrive… She was really actively conservative, actively pro-life, and working at a crisis pregnancy center. She also was twenty-three, a virgin, had never kissed anyone, and believed that casual sex was really, really bad. But we didn’t get to any of these issues until halfway through the interview.

For the first half, she was talking about how she was training to be a midwife, which is traditionally very connected to feminism, and how we have to put the process of birth back into women’s hands. She felt really strongly about giving women control over their own bodies. We had no idea what her political leanings were just by talking to her about midwifery. I don’t think she was down with word “feminism,” but she really cared about women and their agency.

When we asked what issues were really important to her, she suddenly said abortion and pro-life. It was a perfect example of why it’s so important to go on the road and talk to women. I would have heard of that woman in New York; I probably would have brushed her off as really self-hating, a woman who thinks of crisis pregnancy centers as the antichrist… That was really important for me, because that doesn’t happen in the blogosphere or when you’re in your nonprofit, working on policy. It happens when you sit down with someone and just talk to them.

Q. You touch on so many topics like that through so many women—from motherhood to pornography to the wage gap and so on. So, let’s turn the tables: Do you consider yourself a feminist? What does it mean to you?
A. I definitely consider myself a feminist. Before the road trip, I just got that feminism meant for the equality, safety and freedom of women, but now I think feminism also means that you’re conscious of sexism and women’s issues in the U.S., that you’re tapped into an awareness of gender issues. It’s not enough to be for women’s equality. No, you have to have an awareness of the way sexism works in society. If you don’t call it feminism, fine, but you need to have some sort of gender consciousness… Feminism was always kind of a given for me because of the way I grew up with my mom. It was never a bad thing for me.

Q. Even though there is so much hope in this book, one of the major issues underpinning the whole story really is that sense of loss—from the tragic deaths of your mother and Emma’s grandfather that started the trip, to that of Emma herself near the journey’s end. How did you persevere to get this book finished after all?
A. It really sucked. For the first few weeks, I really was just like, “How is anybody going to believe in this book when Emma herself couldn’t even finish it?” But what I would say is that Emma suffered from depression, which was completely separate from Girldrive. She believes in feminism and all these women, but in the end, no “–ism” can save you from really severe depression… To all of these women, it would have totally been a diss to them— to say that this one tragedy could overshadow all the amazing stuff these amazing women were doing… It would have just been so defeating not to finish the book. Actually, I never even thought of not doing it; I have to make sure this is put out into the world.

Q. What do you see this book offering to readers, whether they’re feminists or not? Why should they want to read it?
A. I think, regardless of whether you’re a feminist, as a young woman, you should be curious about the vast amount of issues affecting your generation. It’s kind of a call to action, to wake the fuck up and realize these issues are not dead. You can call it feminism or not, but you have to realize that there is so much work to be done and so many different ways to be an activist. The easiest way is to spark up a conversation with friends and make people more aware.

One really funny thing is that it kind of harps on this old, Second-Wave feminist idea of “consciousness raising,” where feminists would just get together in their living rooms, talk about these issues, and hash them out. It’s kind of the same thing but 2.0; it extends to the blogosphere, to this big network of women, but it’s not a movement… I know a lot of feminists will read this book and just open their eyes to all the geographical differences— all the issues that come up intertwined with feminism, race, class, professions, and different experiences. I hope older women will read this, that it will spark an intergenerational conversation, and that they will be kind of heartened by it. I more generally hope men will read it, because feminism isn’t just about women, and we can’t accomplish anything without male allies.

Q. What would you say to women who read this and feel inspired to go on their own cross-country journey, whether for feminism or their own ideas?
A. I would say to do it as soon as you can, before you’re locked into whatever job or family you have. It’s really hard to do these things when you have “things to lose,” but when you find yourself in a position with nothing to lose, just save a couple thousand dollars… There are beautiful, fascinating, complicated people out there, and we’re really quick to generalize areas. I found kick-ass feminists in the most conservative areas and the most apathetic in the most liberal. You never know what’s going on; it’s just really important to get to know your own country.

Tags: Girldrive News · Girls with Drive · Grass Routes

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