PRAISE FOR JENNIFER BAUMGARDNER
"Jennifer Baumgardner is the cultural, historical observer of our generation. My film The Itty Bitty Titty Committee was inspired by her uniquely irreverent, boundary-pushing writing."
—Jamie Babbit, director of But I'm a Cheerleader
"In F 'em!, Jennifer Baumgardner writes about feminism with such unforced panache, it feels as if she's speaking directly, fascinatingly, into the reader's ear. Even the most controversial or erudite subjects are warmly grounded by her sane, candid, witty, intelligent voice. She is a kickass writer."
—Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man and The Astral
"Feminism is frequently defined in terms of 'waves,' as if women were continually out to sea. I count on feminists like Jennifer Baumgardner to get out of the damned water so that we can finally begin basking in the sun of complete equality."
—Judy Chicago, artist, writer, and educator
"This new collection of essays and interviews by the fearlessly intelligent Jennifer Baumgardner is the book you want to give your sister, your best friend, the college roommate who invited you to your first Take Back the Night and your brother who has two teenage daughters. I hope someone gives it to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Sarah Palin. The book is called F 'em, but the writing gets an A+."
—Veronica Chambers, journalist and author of several books, including Kickboxing Geishas and The Joy of Doing Things Badly
who encapsulated writing and activism for me when he said, "I like Silly Putty, but the more interesting toy is 'Serious Putty.' Serious Putty is a blank piece of paper."
And for Magnus and BD,
who, with just the right combination of serious and silly, created the Bedbaums.
IS THIS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE?
"Is Sarah Palin a feminist?" I asked a group of intelligent, fresh-faced Iowa undergrads, their professors, and assorted locals in the fall of 2010. I was giving a lecture at Cornell College, standing in their commons. "No way!" was the immediate reply from a few, coupled with some hissing. I was game. "Okay, why?" I asked. "What precludes Sarah Palin from being a feminist? Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist, acknowledges that her station in life is in part due to feminist battles fought in the past, and believes women can and should be in positions of power and authority. Her husband is the supporting player in their marriage and doesn't appear emasculated by the role. She has five children, a grandchild, and she works full-time. Is it because she's a Republican?"
No one thought being a Republican meant you couldn't be a feminist.
"She's pro-life," offered one student with long dark hair. "That's my problem with her."
"Do you have to be pro-choice to be a feminist?" I asked.
Some people nodded, but the dark-haired student said, "No. I don't think you do."
"You can be personally pro-life," offered another student, "but you can't pass laws that make it so women can't get abortions." Others nodded.
"But Sarah Palin hasn't done that," I countered, playing the Grizzly Mama's advocate. "She had opportunities as governor to restrict abortion and she didn't take them." We ended up with an awkward consensus that Sarah Palin didn't seem like she could be a feminist, but it was hard to say why.
Lady Gaga was similarly vexing. "She doesn't self-describe as a feminist," said a women's studies professor in the audience, citing a Norwegian interview. "But she does," I challenged, citing several other quotes in the LA Times, Cosmopolitan, and Bust. "She's self-made, sexual-yet-untethered to one person or gender, writes her own music, makes strange videos that make me think about women and gender and sex, and she is electrifying," I added. After all, Gaga's "Born That Way" anthem helps me get out of a recent neurotic state about my own looks.
IN NEARLY FIFTEEN years of lecturing across the country about feminism, visiting more than 300 colleges, community groups, and high schools, I have learned two things. First: Many, many people relate to its core ideas—egalitarianism, eradicating sexism, and recognizing the historic oppression of women. Second: Most of these same people are very confused about feminism. What does the philosophy mean? Who can be a feminist? What does feminism demand of a person?
Feminism is a belief in the full political, social, and economic equality of all people. This part is uncontroversial to most people I meet because it shares qualities with other widely held belief systems such as democracy, meritocracy, and human rights. Feminism is also a movement to make sure that all people have access to enough information and resources (money, social support) to make authentic decisions about their lives. Thus, it's not the decision one makes so much as the ability to make a decision that indicates whether feminism has arrived in your life. This part of the definition is more controversial because it implies freedom (which people like) but also confounds commonly held assumptions about what makes a decision feminist. Is taking your husband's name anti-feminist? How about having your fourth abortion? In both cases, context is all.
Because some choices have historically been labeled feminist. The Second Wave critiqued institutions that unfairly targeted women, such as marriage, makeup, and domestic labor.
The critiques were designed to unmask the constraints that married life, beauty standards, and housework unfairly placed on women, usually for the benefit of men. This analysis also interrupted the idea that a woman's value was based primarily on her looks and her ability to attract a man who would support her while she did unpaid labor for him. The criticism implied that there were choices that challenged norms, but not that there was a laundry list of automatically feminist decisions. You weren't a feminist simply because you kept your own name, didn't marry, wore hemp clothing, ate vegan, slept only with women, or didn't shave—though certainly you could be a feminist who did those things. In other words, you might be a feminist who wore stilettos, but your shoes neither clinched nor disqualified your membership.
Regardless of one's footwear, a feminist understands and acknowledges the historic oppression of women and the existence of sexism. Sexist assumptions certainly hurt men, but it is women and girls who are more often the victims of laws and norms that hold men above women. A feminist acknowledges this history also but reacts to the conditions of his or her time, taking insight and strategies from the past but not living in it. To live in the past is to ignore the obligations and challenges of the present.
Manifesting feminism in the present is hard work. It means willing it to come into being, in our own lives and in our communities, not by ticking off chores on a feminist to-do list, but by constantly turning the central definition of it over and over in our minds, trying to more deeply understand how to expose and defang sexism. Forty years ago, one feminist task was kicking open doors marked "Men Only." The job of the Third Wave wasn't to keep knocking on that door, but to enter and inhabit the rooms.
The pieces in this book all emanate from feminism—the movement and the sensibility. The book is three equally distributed elements: old, new, and inspiration. The old, reprinted pieces span from when I left Ms. magazine (1997), and began writing full time, to the present. During that time, I learned to write the feminist piece for every type of magazine rather than a piece in the (one, often marginalized) feminist magazine. I have been lucky that editors from publications as diverse as The Nation, Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, and Dissent were interested in my perspective and afforded me a chance to learn and delve into the issues that meant most to me—from abortion to rape to sex to parenting. The new essays in this book represent some of my current thinking about feminism, and I hope provoke debate and spur deeper understanding of what feminism can mean. The inspirational pieces are interviews with some of the most important influences on the Third Wave, and on me. Not Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga, but rebels and intellectuals such as Kathleen Hanna, Julia Serano, and Loretta Ross. These are women who revolutionized my thinking and created the architecture of current feminism.
IN THE LAST decade, I have received dozens of "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" shirts. It just recently occurred to me that the slogan isn't just to point out that there is no single feminist "look," the line demonstrates that feminists actually look at the world differently. Every morning , we wake up and put on our feminist lenses. These prescription specs enable us to see history with women in it, to reinterpret our present so that women are valued, and to envision a humane and compassionate future.
At the end of this book, I hope you will believe that it is less important for you to figure out if Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga are feminists, and far more crucial to figure out if you are. If the answer is yes, how will you marshal your power, skills, and values to make the world a place in which all people matter? What will your feminism look like?
—Jennifer Baumgardner, New York City, April 2011
THE THIRD WAVE IS 40
"Why do you do that?" asked my twenty-something student Jake in front of the class. Jake wears skinny cobalt jeans, studded Louboutin shoes, and carries a chic man-satchel. "Why do you always joke that you are elderly and 120 years old? It doesn't fit in with the rest of your attitude."
I stammered a bit. "I think it's because of my forehead wrinkles," I said finally, gesturing at the squiggly lines and raising my eyebrows dramatically. "And because forty seems sort of old to me and . . . " I petered out, deflated by how stupid I sounded. Ever since I'd passed thirty-five, I had found myself constantly referring to my age and my geriatric failings. Instead of just asking that my shyer students speak up, I mentioned my bad hearing. I babbled about how out of it I was, how inept at Twitter. I didn't go so far as to suggest the past tense of "tweet" wasn't "tweeted," but "twat," as a Second Wave friend had, but I peppered my conversation with anxious little belches about my advancing age.
It wasn't an expression of the charming self-deprecation I advise my students at The New School to employ to gain the trust of their readers; it was much more awkward than that. On the surface, it was bait—I wanted people to cut me off with a snort and say, "You? You're hardly old! What are you, thirty?" I wasn't reassured when I occasionally got that response, though, because I knew I all but demanded, rather than inspired, the compliment. Jake was right—given my stated values, I shouldn't need this kind of propping up. I wasn't a "do these jeans make my butt look fat?" kind of gal. I was the "let's tell the truth about our vulnerabilities and use this mirror to look at our vulvas" kind. I don't even believe that forty is remotely old, nor do I fear aging. My grandma is 101 and I want to look like her when I'm 90.
Underneath it all, I believe this unfortunate tic is because of feminism—or at least my identity within it. For nearly twenty years, I have described how the world I was raised in differed from that of the Second Wave and how the feminism I practiced was an expression of the trends that shaped my youth. Thus, my mother's generation couldn't play sports; my generation of girls had many opportunities to do so, thanks to Title IX, the 1972 law that ensured equal access to resources in education. Some of these sports-playing girls went on to found the Women's World Cup and the WNBA, something our foremothers could scarcely have imagined.
When it came to sex, we had birth control, sex education, feminist bibles like Our Bodies, Ourselves, and legal abortion, not to mention toy stores like Babeland and the expectation that girls have sex, just like boys (though not necessarily with boys). My coming-of-age as a feminist began with becoming conscious of the Second Wave, but I wasn't confident about my views and my identity as a feminist until I discovered and aligned with my own peers.
I remember very clearly those first heady days when I began to see what we Third Wavers were doing right. We came into focus one day, and I could suddenly see that we were all over the place, making change and evolving feminism. One snapshot: I read Nomy Lamm's zine I'm So Fucking Beautiful in 1994 and feel electrified by the marriage of DIY form and radical feminist content. Among many accomplishments, Lamm builds on Susie Orbach's seminal Fat Is a Feminist Issue—and introduces me to that Second Wave classic. Click! Or: I'm lecturing at a small Midwestern college with Amy Richards just after our book Manifesta has come out. The crowd is huge, filled with students, and yet the women's studies professor who is our host stands and says, "Young women today reject feminism." Amy and I smile as a crowd of young women and men stand up to protest the characterization. Click! Or: One day in 2003, I interview a woman who says she thinks of her aborted fetus as a baby, and I know, as I didn't the year before, that the feminist thing to do is to listen and learn, not to talk her out of her feelings. Click!
These personal clicks came fast and furious. They enabled Amy and me to write Manifesta, which was primarily an attempt to document the feminism we saw all around us—the women and men leading feminist lives, even if they didn't call it feminism. While we were basically the same people before Manifesta as we were after the book came out, we were treated very differently by many Second Wave feminists. Suddenly, younger women were more visible. The contributions we were making to feminism—our willingness to engage in complicated discussions about rape and abortion and sex work where rhetoric could go only so far—began to look less like backtracking and more like momentum. After all, we were the future. We had inevitability on our side and had even earned some credibility.
Second Wave feminists were still very active and had many important things to do for the movement, and their individual and collective achievements continued to be relevant, effective, inspiring, and vital to women's progress all over the world. On the other hand, they were no longer the ones needing abortions or utilizing current technology. The time had come for those raised on Title IX, Madonna, Riot Grrrls, and Oprah to move the movement.
In college in the early 1990s, I was awakened by the work of Andrea Dworkin and amazed by the antics of the Guerrilla Girls. Still, it wasn't until I read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women—the 1991 bestseller that people passed around my dorm like pot—that I truly felt spoken to as a young feminist. Several years later, I mentioned how influential Wolf's book was for me to Alix Kates Shulman, a Second Wave friend, over tea. An original Redstocking, a major player in the Miss America protest, and a hugely successful author, Alix arched her lovely eyebrow at me. "Really?" she said. "But we [her peers] already wrote all of that theory critiquing beauty standards and how they keep women down in the seventies." It's true, they had. But I hadn't read it until Wolf. And I certainly hadn't received the information in that kind of package. Wolf's voluminous hair, pretty face, and accessible jejuneness had invited me to read the book as much as my interest in feminism had.
"Naomi's a popularizer, I guess," said Alix, after a moment. "We need those people, too."
For me, Wolf, in all her glamour and insight, was soon joined by Rebecca Walker, Kathleen Hanna, Susan Faludi, Amy Richards, Ani DiFranco, Farai Chideya, Ariel Levy, and a whole host of other women who, like I was, were writing and speaking for and about feminists. A critical mass of us emerged, and with that emergence came generational tension characterized by public complaints and private resentments. The Second Wave complaint was that they had gotten there first and were not being acknowledged; furthermore, they were a lot more radical and thus more effective. The Third Wave complained of not being respected by the Second Wave, who seemed preoccupied with asking, "Where are the young feminists?" Yet when all of the Riot Grrrls, Bust readers, and Third Wave activists raised our hands to be counted, they somehow couldn't see or recognize us.
As for radicalism, the Third Wave proudly boasted multiple strategies for changing the world, and mass protest was only one of them. We wrote music, TV shows, magazines, and movies, along with important books. We were as interested in creating pop culture as the Second Wave was in critiquing it. The Third Wave incorporated theory from within the Second Wave—from women of color, gay people, and transpeople—into our feminism and their approach to activism. Thus, abortion wasn't the biggest issue, porn wasn't taboo, and women-only spaces were no longer the priority. Some in the Second Wave worried how "big tent" feminism had become. Susan Faludi called this conflict "Feminism's Ritual Matricide" in a 2010 cover story in Harper's,
With each go-round, women make gains, but the movement never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent—to reproduce itself as a strong and sturdy force. At the core of America's most fruitful political movement resides a perpetual barrenness.
While that grudge continued to simmer, we all aged. Since Manifesta was published, some women who appear in its pages, such as Andrea Dworkin, Betty Friedan, Marilyn French, Mary Daly, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Seaman, June Jordan, and Ellen Willis, as well as civil rights icons like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, have all passed. Meanwhile, my peers are in a different stage, too. In our forties now, we are raising children, struggling with infertility, and getting divorced. We're middle-aged.
There is a power in youth. It's partly the energy—I used to be able to stay up all night to have fun or follow through on an idea, and now I'm lucky if make it to midnight. It's also the effortless beauty—the plump cheeks and shiny hair and body that works the best it ever will. But the strength of youth is also being "in it" and "of it," rather than out of it. When Amy and I were promoting Manifesta, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my red pleather pants (chic in 2000, I swear) and snug "I Spy Sexism" T-shirt spoke volumes about whether feminism was relevant. My working knowledge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was as important as my having read The Feminine Mystique. I addressed crowds of younger women and men at colleges across the country those first few years with Amy, confident that we were speaking as older sisters. "We're here to let you know that feminism is for you," we conveyed with both our friendly talks and our penchant for fishnet stockings, "and you are as important to feminism as anything that came before it."
One young woman, Courtney Martin, wrote about our effect on her when she was an undergrad at Barnard, saying that she had been reluctant to call herself a feminist (in spite of deeply held beliefs) because it was too confusingly connected to her mother and another era. "This was contemporary, brash, even a little sexy," Courtney wrote of our presence. "This is who I wanted to be."
Courtney went on to be a core blogger on Feministing, the author of several books, and the founder of the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy, among many other accomplishments. She's a decade younger than I am, and I can already see a critical mass of her peers having the effect on younger audiences that I once had.
When I address crowds now, I don't dress as zanily as I once did. I'm more likely to wear a blazer than a giant white fake-fur jacket. My remarks are peppered with references to my children and schools and having a mortgage. I attempt to talk about Nicki Minaj, the young rapper with all the gender-extending alter egos, but I know I'm in danger of sounding out of it (as that description perhaps just exemplified). My memories of college, which I drew from to make connections, are now further away and less relevant to my audience. "We didn't have email or the Internet when I was in college," I might say, and it's sort of like the curfews for women that I used to hear Second Wavers reference—interesting, but alien.
Although I'm in another awkward adolescence, it's not one of youth. (You can tell by the wrinkles that frame the zits.) This crisis is one that Second Wave women had to go through, too, when it became clear that they could no longer speak for the fresh recruits of feminism. Their fall from that rampart was complicated by the backlash of the 1980s, when a slew of pop culture and putative journalism piled on to express a nation's anxiety about independent women, causing them to think it was mainly antifeminist forces pushing them from their spotlight. Those feminists licked their wounds for a while, but then some, like Ann Snitow and Charlotte Bunch, turned their attention internationally. Others, like Marie Wilson and Nancy Gruver, skipped over problematic adults altogether and focused on creating a movement to address girls' self esteem, creating the 1990s phenomena Take Our Daughters to Work Day and New Moon Magazine.
And others, like Marcia Ann Gillespie and Winona LaDuke, continued to break barriers for women—becoming the first African American woman to run a "general audience" magazine or the first Native American woman to mount a campaign to become the Vice President of the country.
Still, it was not without resistance that many faced my generation. We heard: "We did that already!" "That's not feminism." "Today's younger women seem to not understand how tenuous their newly won rights are." I found myself in the audience at panels where well-known Second Wavers spoke about my peers, seemingly only to tear us down. I attended meetings where the topic was "What do you young women think about abortion?" and waited in vain for someone to call on any of the young people with their hands raised. Eventually, we started our own organizations, projects, and periodicals. We wrote our own books. We became part of the feminist establishment.
Now it's our turn to feel the pinch of time. I admit I have read a younger feminist's work and said to myself with a mix of alarm and pride, Amy and I already addressed that in Manifesta and Grassroots! I admit I feel anxious about appearing out of it. I am still confused by Twitter, and I don't think I have time to figure it out, either. I don't speak for the future the way I once did. I still have a lot to do and say for feminism, but I'm not the person who will necessarily make audiences of twenty-year-olds say with excitement, "She's like me. Maybe I'm a feminist, too."
As I shed the skin of "young feminist," though, I find myself a lot more settled about being forty. I am working on more interesting projects than I was ten years ago, from a film about rape to hosting feminist summer camps (cocreated with Amy Richards), and don't feel that I am at all irrelevant. Still, there is this magic about being a "young feminist" that has media currency and offered me a cherished and proud identity for a long time. I hope that I will do a good job of getting myself off the stage and into the audience for panels on "young feminism," so I can learn from the future even as I revere my own feminist past.
I feel smarter than I did as a young feminist, it's true, but the feminists fifteen years younger than I am inspire me. These feminists, raised after the horror of 9/11 and the good intentions of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, are confident and evolved, and they do things I'm still reminding myself to do. There's Constance DeCherney, who bravely asks for raises and never went through a phase where she felt she had to reject style to be serious. ("My specialties are abortion and fashion," she told me.) There's Shelby Knox, who is coming up with newer ways of framing feminism that challenge me to reassess my own. And Nancy Redd, who updated Naomi Wolf's update of Second Wave beauty-image theory with Body Drama—a book that features photos of many vulvas, something more liberating to witness than I could have dreamed, even as a proud owner of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Amid these progressive takes on vulvas, negotiating raises, and constantly changing ways of doing feminism, I'm also struck by how much the young fems have to go through the same trials that the Third Wave—and the Second Wave—went through, too. Sexual assault is still rampant, confusion (and humiliation) about how to have an orgasm abounds, and saying, "I had an abortion" is still as risky as it is empowering. I can't save younger feminists from any of this, but as they grow themselves up, my generation can be the allies we always wanted for ourselves. That alone is progress.
THAT SEVENTIES SHOW
On a blustery day in April 2002, I sat in Barnard College's Altschul Hall among fifty accomplished feminists in their fifties and sixties, ten or so students, and two high schoolers for the annual Veteran Feminists of America meeting. Part conference and part awards ceremony, the event is a look back at the early days of the modern women's movement, starring the women who led the charge of the Second Wave. Feminine-mystique buster Betty Friedan was there, as was "zipless fuck" creator Erica Jong. Different-voice researcher Carol Gilligan stopped in for the dinner to receive her medal. Seven of the original thirteen Our Bodies, Ourselves