Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism


By Nona Willis Aronowitz

By Emma Bee Bernstein

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What do young women care about? What are their hopes, worries, and ambitions? Have they heard of feminism, and do they relate to it?

These are just a few of the questions journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz and photographer Emma Bee Bernstein set out to answer in Girldrive. In October 2007, Aronowitz and Bernstein took a cross-country road trip to meet with the 127 women profiled in this book, ranging from well-known feminists like Kathleen Hanna, Laura Kipnis, Erica Jong, and Michele Wallace, to women who don’t relate to feminism at all. The result of these interviews, Girldrive is a regional chronicle of the struggles, concerns, successes, and insights of young women who are grappling—just as hard as their mothers and grandmothers did—to find, define, and fight for gender equity.


For two kick-ass feminists who left this world too early—
Emma Bee Bernstein, my intellectual soulmate, whose biggest strength
and weakness was feeling everything like a stab in the heart,
and my mom, Ellen Willis, whose amazing life and jarring death was
what inspired the Girldrive adventure in the first place.

While I was in college, before Anita Hill was cross-examined by the Senate but after I knew without a doubt I was a feminist, I remember feeling electrified by the radicals of the '60s and '70s women's movement. Their anger was mine; their books (Dialectic of Sex, This Bridge) my bibles. Their mantras became mine, too. "Well, the personal is political," I'd say at meetings of my campus women's group, inspired if not entirely firm about what that meant. "We are clicking-things-into-place-angry, because we have suddenly and shockingly perceived the basic disorder in what has been believed to be the natural order of things"—a line from "The Housewife's Moment of Truth," a 1972 article by Jane O'Reilly—showed up in the first issue of a zine I created with friends in 1991.
I may have quoted these words as if cutting open my own vein, but what wasn't mine—and it took me years to understand this—was the context in which the feminists of the '60s and '70s came up with these insights. I actually wasn't a housewife, despite the way O'Reilly's words excited me. The world had changed, opening up new territory for women, and it was up to my generation of feminists—to me?!—to inhabit that territory and figure out what feminism meant right now. To recreate the past, however glorious, was the coward's way out.
I thought about that exhilarating journey from grateful feminist heiress to woman with my own mission as I read Girldrive. It was daunting to step out from under the radical comfort of a world created by a previous generation. I thought about how I might not have been able to had I not talked to my peers, and especially had I not found a trusted, inspiring ally (in my case, Amy Richards).
Nona and Emma, fifteen years my juniors, undertook Girldrive to make sense of feminism for their generation. If anything, Nona and Emma had more reasons to be daunted than I did: their actual mothers are significant figures in the women's movement. But they also had more reasons to be brave because of the confidence and sense of potential that was their birthright as daughters of the second wave.
Their journey begins with a brainstorm ("We should go on a road trip!") over eggs and Bloody Marys during one of their epic girlfriend brunches. It begins, also, with death: Nona has lost her mother, brilliant writer Ellen Willis, and soon after Emma's grandfather dies. The project ends with a heartbreaking, troubling loss, too. But throughout the hundreds of interviews, it is Nona and Emma's friendship—their interest in talking to each other, the fact that each has found an intellectual and political muse—that enables incredible gains. Their friendship drives them to criss-cross the United States in a Chevy Cavalier, and really listen to women—and men—talk about feminism. By the time Girldrive was over, I was relating to Nona and Emma fully, realizing how much my story was similar to theirs, as well as how much it isn't. As for the latter, I am grateful for the insights into the ways in which feminism is being remade right now.
Throughout this project, Nona and Emma work hard to maintain connections across generations while still letting go of received wisdom—even the healthy and righteous received wisdom of feminism. Their interview with Kathleen Hanna, now in her forties, who was a creator of Riot Grrrl, is illustrative. "Kathleen wants women to learn who they are as activists," they conclude. "And after butting their heads against some of the same problems of the past, 'they will hopefully be able to move forward.' . . . . What [Hanna] hopes is what we've been talking about—that this half-forgotten history learned from our mothers and mentors does not discourage us; that it instead pushes us forward to talk to our generation—productively."
What could be more productive than turning off one's computer, getting into a car, and actually going to find people whose lives intersect with feminism? What could be more productive than creating this record of those meetings for those who wonder what young people are thinking or doing to push gender justice forward?
When I closed this book, I wanted to get in my car with my best friend and hit the road. If you feel the same way, I say go, go, go. I can't wait for more reports from the future of feminism.
—Jennifer Baumgardner
New York City, May 2009

The story of Girldrive begins with eggs and Bloody Marys. Emma and I were having one of our three-hour brunches, a tradition that started a few years ago when we left to go to colleges nine hundred miles away from each other and could only hang out during vacations. We'd been friends since we were eleven years old. We met at Camp Kinderland and both came from the same bubble: the liberal Jewish one that inhabits New York's Upper West Side and Greenwich Village. We had one of those friendships where we wouldn't talk for months, and then it would feel like no time had passed when we'd finally make a point to get together—which in our later years usually included meeting up at random dive bars for whiskey sours, or our occasional brunch dates on hungover mornings.
This particular Sunday wasn't a typical catch-up sesh. In a sudden acceleration of gradually creeping lung cancer, my mom, Ellen Willis, a well-known feminist writer, had died a couple weeks earlier. Emma had been in the thick of her finals at the University of Chicago and hadn't been able to come to the funeral, so she made it her first order of business to see me over Thanksgiving. I told her about the outpouring of feminist love I had received—from my mom's friends, students, and anonymous admirers. It was like a crash course in feminism and its endless definitions. Emma, meanwhile, was fresh from the Feminist Future symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, where she'd recently been sucked into a whirlpool of several generations of feminists for three days straight. She'd come away with the observation that the relationships between young women like her and older feminists wavered between inspiration and disconnect. So we'd both been confronted with the legacy of feminism head-on, and there was no denying that this word, this history, this feeling meant something to us.
The way we saw it, being feminists meant being conscious of and angry about gender injustice—from unequal pay and domestic violence to slut-shaming and the lack of paid maternity leave. It meant believing in the right to freedom, safety, and pleasure. It meant understanding how gender intertwines with race, class, and politics. It meant educating ourselves about the many incarnations of feminism and building on each one's progress. To us, it was a tool, a code word, and a state of mind. We both grew up with stridently feminist moms, knew a lot about feminism's history, and had no problems calling ourselves feminists.
This was our reality, but we had no idea what other women around the country were thinking, women who didn't post on blogs or put themselves in the media's spotlight. We wanted to seek out the opinions of our generation—young women whose future was raw and indeterminate; women who were independent, thoughtful, fun-loving, and motivated; women who were kicking ass and changing the world. We were dying to know: What do other twentysomething women care about? What are their hopes, worries, and ambitions? Have they heard of this nebulous idea of "feminism," and do they relate to it?
We were on our third Bloody when Emma blurted out, "Let's go on a road trip! You're a writer. I'm a photographer. Let's write a book; let's do a project. Let's fucking do something!"
A road trip seemed like a perfect plan. Not only would it give us a chance to talk face-to-face to women our age from different cities, backgrounds, religions, and professions but it would also allow us to photograph these women in their own spaces. It would also be a time for self-discovery, a break from the blur of our lives in order to figure out what we truly wanted—which, to us, was what feminism was all about. Most of all, it would obviously be a total blast.
Based solely on the idea, we managed to find an agent, who bluntly told us, "Nobody's going to give two unknown twenty-two-year-olds a book deal without anything to show for it. You have to take a risk. You have to just go." So we prepared to do just that. We started saving and planning, working shitty jobs around the clock to fund our adventure. We sent emails out to hundreds of people, asking them to spread the word, eventually hearing from women three or four degrees of separation away. When our email blasts didn't reach certain demographics, we sought them out ourselves. Later, we decided to also track down older, influential feminists we admired to get their take on our generation. After all, how could we determine the future of feminism if we didn't talk to women who had made it their life's work?
By August 2007, we had compiled a list of over two hundred women to talk to. Their knowledge of feminism ranged from none at all to being the focus of their lives. While interviewing in cities, we spontaneously contacted other women whom our interviewees recommended on the spot. When our blog started to gain popularity, we began to get contacted by women all over America inviting us to come interview them.
A week into our trip, it became apparent that using "feminism" to start a conversation didn't work for everyone. Some women's faces would go blank when we brought up the word, but would later light up when we'd ask, "What pisses you off about being a woman?" or, "What keeps you up nights?" Others couldn't get past the term's loaded meaning, dwelling on its fraught history rather than relating it to their own experience. In Girldrive, Emma and I make no secret of the fact that the concept of feminism was central to our lives. But we also never pretend that all women will or should get behind the same word or issue, given the vastly different lives we lead. Feminism made sense to us, so we used it as a framework to talk about the way we view our lives as young women—but if it wasn't vibing, we tried something else.
Girldrive is an assemblage of reporting, photos, and personal impressions that documents this journey we took in the fall of 2007 and into 2008. This book allows gutsy young women across the American landscape to be seen and heard. It evaluates, through an intergenerational dialogue, the current state of feminism and its many definitions. It's about the past and the present, and it glimmers on the future. It's about the promise of the open road. It's about how young women grapple with the concepts of freedom, equality, joy, ambition, sex, and love—whether they call it "feminism" or not.

Navigating Girldrive

This book is not a definitive guide to contemporary feminism. In fact, it is redefinition in its purest form—a continuation of an open-ended, fluid conversation. Emma and I chose to simply lay our evidence out on the table and mostly let our peers and she-roes speak for themselves. Girldrive can be read cover-to-cover, or it can be browsed through like an anthology or a magazine. Most of the vignettes stand on their own; the same goes for each of the chapters, which are divided by region and track the route we took across the United States. Reading the text in between our reportage reveals Emma's and my personal journey, a search for freedom and purpose propelled by our restlessness and budding self-awareness.
Although I did most of the writing and Emma took most of the photos, there are instances where we switched roles—and there was quite a lot of writing (especially from Chapter 8 on) that I ended up, unexpectedly, doing on my own after Emma's untimely death. Everything that was written by Emma is marked with her byline; you will see a handful of photos accredited to me and other people (for those photos in which Emma appears, or where one of her images didn't turn out and we needed to call on our interviewees for replacements).
Chapter 10, chronicling our time in New York City, is a lot longer than the other chapters, for a few reasons. One, New York is a feminist hot spot. Many notable feminists have settled there precisely because of the like-minded community the city has to offer. Two, we were born there. Our networks reached far and wide, and people we'd known forever came through for us hardcore. Three, we had time. We spent several weeks in New York during the winter holidays, which was a far cry from the touch-and-go nature of our whirlwind national tour. But none of this means that we valued the voices of New York women more than those of women from any other city. If this were true, we would have never hit the road in the first place.
Most of our peers are introduced by their first names, while public figures (younger or older) are referred to by their full name. Many of the younger women preferred this, and I think it emphasizes the informal feeling of the conversations we had with our peers. This format is not meant to somehow elevate the opinions of more famous women.
Throughout our travels, we were asked this question a lot: Why didn't you include more rural women? This was quite simply a time, money, and efficiency issue. Given our budget, we needed to stop amid the densest populations of young women we could find. But feel free to conduct a Girldrive Part II that hits up all those rural pockets we missed! I'm sure it would add a-whole-nother layer to the Girldrive adventure.

The Ladies Behind the Wheel

Emma and I are from roughly the same political and social backgrounds, but our similarities end there. Our collaboration is truly yin and yang: I am the reporter, the investigator, the historian, the one with the burning questions. Emma was the artist, the aesthete, the romantic, the visual interpreter. While I was toiling away at profiles and concise arguments, Emma had her nose buried in her diary—scrawling half-sentences, observing cosmic connections—or was busy snapping her camera.
We came to feminism and our sense of femaleness through different avenues. Until college, I never used the word feminism, even though I was all for women's rights and always saw the connection between gender and politics. I was a girl who started shaving her legs at age ten, a teenager who watched MTV and wore push-up bras and flared Mudd Jeans, a college student who had many male lovers and friends. Despite my criticisms of it, I saw the value in inhabiting the mainstream. Even though I (usually) wouldn't put up with any sexist bullshit, I was never a misfit or a radical. But since my mom was a feminist and yet never said a critical word about my miniskirts or hip-hop CDs, I never thought that any of what I did or how I lived in the world was in contradiction with feminism, as long as I was a self-aware and thoughtful person. The feminist concepts I read about in books and on the web gradually started to make sense, and I embraced them.
Emma was punkier and rebellious, more avant garde and blasé. Unlike me, she had dabbled in feminist activism when she was young. She looked to Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, Frida Kahlo, and Sylvia Plath as some of her artistic idols. She also found a role model in Kathleen Hanna, who helped form Third Wave feminism's Riot Grrrl movement in the early 1990s. There was something about Hanna's incendiary call to action—"Revolution grrrl style now!"—that ignited Emma's love for pink hair and fishnet tights, that led her to adopt a style rejecting ideals of body image and taking on sexuality and aggressiveness while elbowing through a sea of testosterone. Emma eventually grew out of her punk phase and became disillusioned with the girls-against-boys mentality of "sisterhood." But she began to identify with feminism again when she found herself drawn to the work of feminist scholars, artists, and photographers during her senior year of college.
We each brought our separate perspectives along for the ride, and by the end of our road trip we knew that the politics of feminism could not be separated from more intangible connections to beauty, life, and each other. I had tackled the voyage with my journalistic curiosity and yearning for the truth; Emma's experience was imbued by her keen sense of pure, euphoric lyricism. We had created a bridge between the logical and the intuitive. We had started the project on opposite sides of the spectrum and had ended up hopelessly intertwined.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be writing this introduction alone. This same desperate thirst for passion later drove Emma to self-destruction and madness. It was an inexplicable force that resulted in her ending her own life in Venice, Italy, in December 2008, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, when we were knee-deep in the Girldrive manuscript. The first couple weeks after her death, I felt betrayed and listless, like the verve behind Girldrive had been irreparably damaged. But I ultimately realized that it was exactly the opposite—that finishing Girldrive would prove more than ever that utopianism can prevail over very real tragedy. Emma's despair was in spite of her high hopes for feminism and her utter dedication to making the world a better place for young women. Emma battled with depression that ultimately killed her, but that cannot overshadow the fact that she was, at core, a fervently idealistic soul.
It is the same idealism that permeates Girldrive, a feeling that you, the reader, will surely pick up on as you follow our journey through the country. My hope is that Girldrive will have a ripple effect—that it will get your wheels turning, that it will get you thinking and talking about the pressing questions that come alive in these pages. If you find one vignette, one issue, even one sentence in this book that sparks a conversation or gets you off your ass to work toward what you believe in, then we will have achieved with Girldrive exactly what we set out to do.
—Nona, spring 2009

Taking the Wheel


It is early in the morning on October 11—Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday—and I have just left New York with no clear idea of when I will return. I am headed west to Chicago in m Chevy Cavalier to meet Emma before our journey. Just a few days ago we decided last-minute to schedule a "test run" to the Twin Cities before we really leave to drive northwest to Wyoming. My head floods with what lies ahead: adventure, flat tires, epiphanies, wrong directions, freedom, fear; my twelve-hour drive to Chicago is a blur of future fantasies. Finally, jittery from anticipation and gas station coffee, I park my car on Emma's street. This is going to be one long week, I think.

Lucy and Antonia

A few hours after I arrive in Chicago, Emma and I meet up with Lucy and Antonia at Sigara, a hookah bar in Ukrainian Village. Lucy and Toni are Emma's and my respective best friends and two of our future companions on different sections of the road trip. Lucy went to Wesleyan with me. She's a Chicago native working for a postproduction house, but she wants to be a filmmaker and screenwriter. Antonia just graduated from the University of Chicago with Emma and got a job working for an advertising agency—even though art history is her real passion. Because of Antonia's doe-eyed stare and porcelain features, she has long been Emma's photographic muse.
We decide to bounce ideas off of our best girls. "What do you guys think of this project?" we ask. Both nod vigorously in support. "I like it!" Lucy exclaims in her breathy singsong. "Who doesn't like to just hang out and talk with other women?"
"But what about feminism?" I venture. Even though Emma and I had been thinking about Girldrive for months, we still weren't in the habit of discussing the F-word with our friends. Lucy shrugs and asks, "How can you be a woman and not be a feminist? To me being a feminist is not ignoring the fact that if you're a woman you experience things a certain way, no matter what—whether you want to face it or not."
Antonia tells us about an art project she's doing that she thinks is related. For the last few months, she's been going to strip clubs and sketching the dancers, often chatting with them as well. She tells us that she relates to these women—not only when they are having a "manufactured intimate moment," but also when she feels her own body being objectified by men. Antonia thinks that women's awareness of their beauty and the pleasure men get out of it has both positive and negative effects on women. She adds, "I think both sexes are complicit in this dynamic."
These words and questions ignite good conversation, but we wonder if we will feel the same spark with dozens of strangers in the months ahead of us.
The night before Emma and I set out to start Girldrive, the adventure we'd been plotting for a year, we meet at the California Clipper in Humboldt Park, Chicago, for a couple beers. The Clipper is an oasis among the clutter of to-do lists that have been overtaking our brains during this insane week of planning. Things have been hard lately. I just left New York behind, and Emma's grandpa suddenly is dying. Both of us have had moneymoneymoney issues, despite working like crazy to save. We are both going through nauseating breakups. Preparing for two months on the road has been an uphill battle.
And yet, these are the things we've been consumed by: buying digital recorders and a 2008 atlas and a portable iPod charger and a cheapie $60 BlackBerry on eBay. Here we are writing hundreds of emails to women we've never met. Here I am, in a new city, about to search out dozens more. We're really doing this—all by ourselves.
Emma and I recount the summer's painful moments over beer, and each of us confesses that people have been coaxing us to postpone Girldrive. "Just tell Emma it's not the right time. She'll understand," one of my friends had said. "I don't get it. Why don't you and Nona wait a year for a grant to come along?" one of her friends had offered. We recall moments where we'd said to ourselves, Fuck it. We can't just take off. Our lives are too complicated. It's too scary to come back utterly penniless. But then we'd each shaken those thoughts off and kept planning.
We make a toast with our $2.00 Pabsts and clasp our hands together, like a scene in some corny movie. It is a tiny moment where we realize that this is the perfect time for the trip. We are about to take on the biggest challenge of our lives, and it's too late to let anything get in the way.


We pack our car for the prevoyage—a condensed tour of Minneapolis and W St. Paul—with a few of our friends from Chicago. We don't quite get the rush of the road as expected, which probably has to do with being squashed into a tiny car for hours on end with five people. With the exception of an amazing excursion to a Wisconsin cheese mill, we power through the trip quickly and arrive late at night. In the morning we officially kick off Girldrive with our first interview with a lady after Emma's own heart—a girl with a soft spot for the '90s underground feminist punk movement, Riot Grrrl.


We meet Maria, twenty-four, for breakfast at a crunchy organic co-op. Maria is originally from Texas, from a matriarchal middle-class Mexican family. She organized Ladyfest (a women's music festival with many urban incarnations) in Denton, Texas, founded Film Fatale (a festival featuring exclusively women's films), and recently started GirlBad, a monthly showcase of women rock bands. But she doesn't call herself a feminist because "it boxes you in." She notes that like a secret code, "feminism" can be used among friends that "are down" and don't subscribe to popular myths like angry, hairy-armpitted lesbians.
But Maria does get turned off by the 1970s Second Wave aesthetic because, in her words, "it's not threatening enough." In her high school years she found Riot Grrrl music to be an empowering update, if not the answer, to the touchy-feeliness of the Second Wave. Her number one goal is to give girls a space in the music industry, to "change dude-rock," and to force men in the industry to be more progressive.


On Sale
Jul 24, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Seal Press

Nona Willis Aronowitz

About the Author

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a political and cultural critic who has written about women, sex, music, technology, film, and youth culture for numerous publications including The Nation, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, VenusZine, and, among others. She graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in American Studies, and since has worked for Tango magazine,, Legal Momentum (formerly the NOW Legal Defense Fund), and as a photojournalism teacher for Step Up Women’s Network. She lives in Chicago and is a reporter and editor for the Tribune Company. She is currently working on an anthology of her mother Ellen Willis’s rock criticism, entitled Out of the Vinyl Deeps.

Emma Bee Bernstein grew up in Manhattan. She started taking photos when she was in 8th grade, and continued to hone her artistic craft throughout her life. She earned degrees in Visual Arts & Art History from the University of Chicago, and served as the photo editor for the university’s newspaper. Emma’s writing and artwork have been published and shown in numerous journals and galleries. She took her own life in December 2008, at the age of 23.

Both authors’ relationships to their mothers pushed them to tackle this topic. Nona’s mother, Ellen Willis, who died in November 2007, was a renowned cultural and political critic, a radical pro-sex feminist who co-founded the Redstockings, and the first rock critic for The New Yorker. Emma’s mother has long been a feminist painter, co-edits the art theory and feminist journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and was an early member of A.I.R, the first all-women art gallery.

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