Saturday, November 10, 2007


Melody had invited us to stay with her in Tulsa a few weeks ago, finding out about our project through a post on Feministing. She was raised in Colorado Springs in a traditionally Christian household and is a senior at Tulsa University. Melody, 21, invites her friend Mana to the interview, a graduate of TU who “fell in love with Tulsa when I realized I could do a lot of good here.” Mana, 24 (right), was born in Oklahoma after her parents paid a smuggler to bring them over from Iran. Both women identify as feminists. Mana came to feminism “through a natural progression of being socially conscious.” She jokes that her “heart bleeds for everybody,” telling us that people furrow their brows at the fact that she, a straight woman, works at a LBGT non-profit. “Justice issues are all kind of the same—everyone deserves access to resources.”

Melody (below) possesses an intensity that is countered only by her delicate brown ringlets, porcelain skin and glassy green eyes. In her most serious yet understated tone she tells, “I know this sounds religious, but feminism saved my life.” We both crane forward for the story. “I was in this abusive relationship, and everyone around me was telling me to get out of it. But I was in denial for so long, really isolated…then I started reading stuff about feminism and looking at blogs and livejournals.” Mana murmurs from the couch, “God bless the internet.” Melody says that if it were the seventies and her only option was to go to a “consciousness-raising group,” she would have never made it, but that the internet made her realize, “I was not alone…but plugged into something larger.” She even discovered as she was coming to terms with her abusive relationship that her mother was contemplating her own divorce. “She had a strict, controlling husband, and was a stay-at-home mom for 11 years because it was the good, Christian thing to do…but she made it clear to me that she had regrets and didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.”

Both girls agree that the blogosphere is where feminism really thrives, a place where, as Mana puts it, “the words are more important than the faces.” In states like Oklahoma and Colorado, where feminists are few and far between, online communities allow these ideas to exist in a place where they can’t physically live. Something clicks in Emma and me. At the start of GIRLdrive, the whole blog thing mystified us. We never thought of ourselves as the “blogger” types—we barely knew what a blog was. Even up until now, we loved the responses and were touched by our devoted readers, but still didn’t quite get it.

It now hit us that our initial ignorance about blogs had nothing to do with personal preference—we just had always had those ideas at our fingertips. We needed only to look as far as our own livingrooms to find bookshelves crammed with feminist literature, only as far as our teeming metropolis of New York City to find strong, supported women. Technology, our prime source of angst by the end of our Southwest stretch, suddenly seemed vital to feminism's future, and the only hope for revising the narrow, inaccessible label it constantly drags around.


Discussion Questions:
Question 1

Friday, November 9, 2007

November 9th: ELLEN WILLIS, 1941-2006

My mother, journalist, feminist and cultural critic Ellen Willis, died a year ago today. I’ve been honoring her by reliving the time following her death—obsessively sifting through writing by her and about her. After the funeral, it was sensory overload for weeks on end, not only because responses to death are emotional hurricanes, but because every lazy, indeterminate goal that I had to be both a writer and a feminist suddenly came alive. I began poring over my mother’s writing, filling in the blanks in my knowledge about the women’s movement. I learned how it had literally started from a few women realizing they had common ground and deciding to talk about it. It was a crash course in American feminism, a history lesson in the form of anecdotes, tearful elegies, and primary documents.

At the same time, people who had been affected by my mother’s work all felt drawn to me, to fill the space Mom had left behind. They handed me letters, old papers, photos, pamphlets from feminist conferences, old issues of The Village Voice containing scathing critiques in my mother’s weekly column. I had read my mother’s books in high school, and again in college, each time being moved by the clarity, wit, and subtlety of Mom’s writing but never feeling an urge to identify with the feminist part. But after November 9th, the feminist wheels in my head, once moving perfunctorily, began furiously churning. It was a mere couple weeks after this day last year, over eggs and mimosas in NYC, when GIRLdrive was born.

I knew that a day after she died, NPR had replayed an interview she did in 1989, but for some reason I never got around to listening to it. Every time I’d think of it, I would happen to be checking my email at home on my dad’s prehistoric computer, whose speakers are defunct. I’d think, ‘Tomorrow at work I’ll take a listen’ but would always forget. I stumbled upon it today, in the throes of this road trip, and discovered that it was mostly about how being a mother--I was 5 at the time--had affected her brand of feminism.

My heart stopped when I heard this part:

“I think Stanley [my father] and I do our best in good faith to try to share everything. But then there always are things, like I really have a driving phobia…and definitely I know that its connected with all sorts of things about female-ness. So Stanley does virtually all of the driving when we’re in the city together. Nona has been seeing this…At one point, she even said to me, ‘You have to have a penis to drive, right, Mama?’ I feel like this is really on my agenda as a big thing that I have to deal with… I try to make her understand that this is just my weirdness…Now she sort of sits in the drivers seat and she pretends that she’s driving and she really wants to learn to drive. The most important thing is that she should get the idea that it’s great for her to try to do.”

And I did get that idea—never questioned that I could get my license and have a car. Now, I am dependent on my driver’s license to finish the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m really hoping that, somehow, she can see that she did it right.


Kansas City, third morning: MARIA

Flustered and late, we are greeted with breakfast at Maria Buszek's house on a street lined with autumn leaves. Maria, a third waver, has been a feminist since age 9, when a new papal law banned her from being an altar girl in late-seventies Detroit. "Does the pope think we're not as good as boys?" she asked the adults around her, and realized that "this gender thing was a big deal." Raised in a Catholic family, her dad's "denigrating comments about feminism indicated that it was a powerful, righteous thing."

She is a professor of art history at the Kansas City Art Institute and is the author of Pin-Up Grrrls, which explores the history of the pin-up and its long-standing connection to feminism. She is now working on a book, inspired by some of her crafty students, that is "bridging the art/craft divide" and acknowledging the cohort of artists who are experimenting with craft media. She says that "domestic media," like the subject of her first book, is a concept that "some faculty just doesn't get." It pisses her off when academia hastily judges whether a topic or a piece of art is feminist or not, and Emma fervently agrees. Emma, in her senior thesis, had examined the 1999 exhibit "Another Girl, Another Planet," a group show of young women photographers whose glossy, fashion-y images were harshly criticized for perceived misogyny and superficiality. Maria rolls her eyes. "The minute artists use titillation to attract journalists, they get attacked for it. The press says, 'These are the only images I will pay attention to, how dare you create these images?'"

I bring up the "Girls Gone Wild" phenomenon then. Does she think sexual empowerment has gone too far? "Some women do see this as liberating, but it seems to be an uninformed feeling of power," Maria says. "What we have to find out is what leads these women to believe in the power of showing their boobs at Mardi Gras if they can't even ask for a raise at work." But she thinks it's disrespectful to young women for older feminists to "take the scolding route…assume that these women don't know what they're doing." She has a lot of faith in our generation, but "simply reclaiming one's sexuality is never enough...sort of the narcissistic, Courtney Love, 'feminism for one.' Young women should be aware that their sexuality is a public matter."


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Kansas City: MONICA

Monica (above): 25, was raised in Texas and Kansas, born to “free spirit” Mexican-Indian father and an immigrant German mother, former air force worker (kicked out and arrested for smoking pot), aspiring art teacher.

“I’m raunchy. I’m insulting. I’m sexually harassing. I exploit women. I want to grow up and make my house all pretty and plant flowers, just sit and drink and not have to bust my ass. Most of all, I’m not a feminist because I don’t view issues as a woman. I don’t separate things in terms of gender. Sometimes I feel androgynous…I really feel that I can live my life equally.”

Discussion Questions:
Question 1
Question 2

Kansas City: CRAIG

We are staying with Craig, an artist who I met in NYC many years ago. He hooked us up with all of the great ladies we interviewed in KC, including his girlfriend Angela. After all this we get curious on his thoughts on feminism. He speaks with spastic eloquence, letting insights roll out as if he has been thinking of them for years, but just found the words for the first time…

“I feel insecure about claiming feminism, it is not my movement to own. I more see myself as a male operating between two extremes, two gender lines. I don’t think the movement ended. It never went away. From an objective point of view, I see feminism as ongoing industry, created and needing to be maintained. There is nothing wrong per se with the feminism industry (magazines, books, classes, products), but it can objectify the issue, turn it back on itself, create extremism and separatism that in turn reinforces stereotypes to the world (and creates the other side of extremism). It seems that the feminist industry can create a dangerous political correctness. I am worried that it is not ok to be free anymore. I think to a lot of people feminism is simply associated with sexual harassment, which of course is not right. Movements are supposed to be about change, but this can’t be when it’s stuck in an industry that replicates itself.

But ok, I don’t know shit about shit. I know I am not a woman, but my thoughts are based on a thoughtful process of observing every kind of woman and culture around me. I really respect strong independent woman, and ultimately, I embrace femininity for it’s difference from me.”


Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Angela and her friend, Joey, meet us at Monica’s house for a cup of coffee. Angela, 26, is originally from Kansas City, and although she plans to open a boutique and gallery with her boyfriend, she has a degree in biology and is now working at a lab. Joey, 23, grew up in Denver, wants to be a costume designer, and now sews and crafts freelance wherever she is needed at a show. They both tentatively consider themselves feminists, but they both shy away from the term because of the negative stereotypes. We got to talking about how each of their professions are directly associated with one gender, and they had some interesting things to say:

Joey (right) on the female-dominated field of costume design:

“I’m surrounded by gay guys and women. Little boys don’t sit around thinking about being a costume designer…or maybe they’re not allowed to. I’m sure a lot of men liked it in college but would never major in it because they wouldn’t want a negative label. I think women have passed men in the ability to blend gender roles.”

Angela (left) added,

“Yeah, because men feel like they would lose more, while we only have things to gain. Science teachers would say to the women students, ‘Prove them wrong that men are better at science.’ But in the workplace the doctors are overwhelmingly male, and the nurses are mostly women. I think it’s because nurses get shit on all the time, and also because they’re seen as more maternal. Its funny, though—women nurses are always encouraging other women to go into the profession.”


Denver: SZOKE

Szoke (right): 23, waitress, actress, went to Temple University, New York transplant. Wavers on the feminist question because she believes in the ideals but "isn't doing anything about it."

On the service industry:

“Sometimes I can’t believe I have a job that allows people to treat me certain ways. But I like interacting with people. Waitressing is good money and usually easy. Male waiters are more respected, though. There are always going to be those people who get off on the idea that a woman is serving them.”


Discussion Questions:
Question 1


We interview Mei-Mei over tea the next morning on her sunny balcony overlooking a prehistoric southwest landscape (pictures lost). Mei-Mei is sixty, and has a regal and wise air about her. She is draped in an angular cream tunic, and her calm pointedness resembles the Agnes Martin paintings that hang in her bedroom. She was born in Beijing, from a long line of strong women, her grandmother being the first woman to have a formal education in China. “These dandelions are like a yellow blanket,” she uttered at age five, beginning her long career as a poet. She was the first Chinese-American woman on record to publish a volume of poetry, and as a result of her field, she very much considers herself a feminist, publishing through Kelsey St. Press, an experimental women’s poetry venue. Mei-Mei remained completely focused on her career until she had her daughter at 42, who is “the most significant person” in her life now. She sees an over-stressed, over-competitive streak in our generation, and believes we don’t have enough time to figure out who we are, which will inevitably effect modern feminism. She doesn’t feel much allegiance to “European principles of heroic individuality,” intuiting that a new feminism should “change the worldview to be more about unity and connectedness. Gender now has only elements of convention rather than an absolute.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Phoenix: SIMAN

Siman (left): born in Somalia, practicing Muslim, went to Howard University, works for the public health department, a single mom raising her daughter, Safiya. Does not identify as a feminist.

“I came into fundamentalist Islam in order to get back to basics.” I told my Marxist parents, 'You’re for the proletariat? Well, the proletariat believes in God'...[Eventually] Islam bumped up against my core beliefs….when you get down to the barebones of Islam, women are just NOT equal. I actually started thinking [as a woman], ‘Am I less? This can’t be.’ But it’s hard to give up my religion and culture. It’s a pull of allegiances.”

Discussion Questions:

Question 1
Question 2

Phoenix: LINDSEY

While Emma takes care of some business in Tucson, I go to Phoenix to meet Lindsey, a native New Yorker, for breakfast. She had moved to Arizona right before high school, later attended U of A in Tucson, and is the education director of the Boys and Girls Club in downtown Phoenix.

Lindsey is hesitant to call herself a feminist, because she doesn’t feel she does much to promote women’s equality, but some issues such as self-esteem are important to her. She describes her experience when she first moved to Scottsdale as a teenager: “Every girl was completely different physically than I was. I had streaks in my hair and had my New York unique style going on. But all these girls were blond, getting their nails done, and wearing makeup. Within a year and a half, I was blond and shopping at Abercrombie.” Scottsdale, which she calls a “knockoff of LA,” and the state school she attended projected a specific expectation of a woman prototype.

“Most of my friends were in sororities, but I thought of it as an uberpreppy, pretentious thing,” she tells me. My thoughts veer back in the direction of Colleen, who described her sorority as the most feminist thing she’s ever done, and I ask Lindsey if she thinks sororities have feminist potential. She is skeptical. “Sometimes they help with self-esteem issues, because you have a sense of belonging, but it also breeds insecurity with money and needing to be a certain way.” Eventually, she says, “I stopped caring. I realized I looked terrible as a blond and just wasn’t comfortable with that look anymore.”


Monday, November 5, 2007

Tucson, Day 2: LUKE

Luke, who we are staying with, is one of Emma’s best friends from college and Liz’s younger brother. It is late, and we curl up on his bed in our pajamas, equally craving sleep and munchies. Through a cloud of smoke, Luke tells us his thoughts on male feminism.

“I hate when boys call themselves feminists. It’s not a term one should throw around. Lots of boys say that without thinking about what it means. It should be thought, not said. It seems misogynistic or patriarchal to claim that term. There is a lot of radical power in being separate, energy I feel from feminists. Equality doesn’t mean anything, anyway. We shouldn’t be giving power, we should be sharing it.”



Madeline and Liz are roommates, from Omaha and Dayton, Ohio respectively. Both are feminists and activists. They both work for Food Not Bombs, Liz assists an environmental lawyer and has volunteered helping domestic abuse and rape victims, and Madeline works at an LGBT youth center and is an organizer of upcoming Tucson Trans Awareness week.

Liz (left) is from a progressive family, and was raised Unitarian. “I saw gay couples at church, so was aware from a young age of alternative lifestyles.” She first experienced sexism in the activist groups and hardcore punk circles of Ohio. “I knew there was something wrong with all these boys ruling the mosh pit and the political arguments. I knew this “something” needed a name, and that was feminism.” She continues “it must be invisible to people, but woman still have a lot to struggle with…we think we have choice, there is a lot people don’t want to admit.” Madeline (below) learned about feminism and became connected to the vocabulary early in high school, around the time she came out as a lesbian. Reading a lot of the history and theory gave her confidence in her opinions, which helped especially when she attended conservative University of Arkansas.

Madeline thinks people are afraid of organizing around a definable cause, but Liz notes “The way you live your life is just as important as being an activist.” She does think there are “hints” on the horizon of a new movement, and gives a big smile. “It’d be fucking rad if there was one.”