Saturday, November 17, 2007

Memphis: ALICJA

Alicja is singer and guitarist for an array of Memphis-based bands, including the Lost Sounds and the River City Tanlines. We meet her at the HiTone, an eclectic retro-styled rock club where she is tending door. On a break between sets, she pulls us into the back room for a chat, before shooing us back to see the bands for a special discount. She is clearly a fixture in the scene here, as every few moments the interview is interrupted by a hello or congratulations on her recent baby. Alicja (left, backstage at the HiTone) tells us she started playing music with girls in high school, but always related more to males in rock music. She found that guys would approach her and say they don’t often relate to music written by girls, but they liked hers.

Has she experienced any discrimination being a woman in the heavily male-dominated garage and punk scenes? She looks bored with the question, but lets us know “men always soundcheck you last, look embarrassed for you, and always try to give advice to you if you are in an all-girl band.” I ask her about how she relates to the tradition of ostentatious rocker front-women: “I’m a jeans and t-shirt kinda girl--I let my pride and vanity go out the door. I want to be able to play with the boys.” She admits though that she “stands out. But I use it to my advantage, without dressing slutty when I play.” The last time I saw Alicja play in Chicago, she was six months pregnant and rocking out in a flowing red dress, riling the crowd with her punk pregnancy performance. She tells us that she hopes that her newborn daughter will be impressed with her mom one day, that she’ll see her with a “flying v-guitar” and think “mom is a bad-ass.”

Does she relate to feminism? “I secretly get satisfaction from the feminist movement, but I have felt repelled by the term, and by women who can’t stand up for themselves without relating to the term. I know I am a great guitarist already.” Alicja’s attitude is typical of many woman musicians, who have felt singled out for their gender, and have traded irreverence and confidence for being pigeonholed. “I can’t live down the stereotype of always being a woman in rock. I don’t understand, women are not a race. We are not like the Aztecs or Eskimos. We are 50% of the world, why do we keep being defined as separate from it?”


Discussion Questions:
Question 1

Memphis: KRISTA

Krista, originally from Sioux Falls, SD, moved to the city with her girlfriend after she graduated from Macalester this year to teach high school biology in North Memphis. She doesn’t consider herself a feminist because “calling oneself a feminist is an excuse for bad behavior.” She explains, “A lot of feminists I know tend to be anti-man and anti-trans. They gloss over things like race and class. I took one class on feminism in college and found that there was a lot missing, so I decided to study rocks instead.”

As a teacher, she does notice gender issues forming early: “Girls in the high school I am teaching in either act cute and dumb, or tough—that’s how they deal with things. They will hide the strong, intelligent part of themselves in front of boys. I think a lot of women keep on doing that for a while.”


Discussion Questions:
Question 1

New Orleans, Day 3: KATE

We meet Kate at nightfall (left, on her fire escape), in the lively collective anarchist bookstore and arts space, The Iron Rail. Before heading up to her loft, she takes us on a tour of the various colorful happenings and resources this unassuming industrial building provides. The bookstore overflows with literature, zines, records, and attractive gutter punks. Zig zagging through the halls, we pass a yoga class, a female and trans friendly bike shop, a library for prisoners, we meet a trapeze artist, and somehow end up in the street being taught how to hula-hoop with industrial piping.

Finally, we brew some tea and get pens ready for Kate’s story. She had a feminist upbringing in Phoenix, but chooses “not to identify with that label anymore. Anarchist is a more powerful label…it means fighting hierarchies overall.” Kate became frustrated with the male-dominated anarchy scene some years back, but after attending the North American Anarchist conference in 2000 in LA she became inspired by the presence of “loud, brash anarchist women,” and decided to make a documentary to expose the voices of female and trans anarchists. So far she has video-interviewed over 200 subjects, and is still working with the hopes it will become “an interview compilation, sort of a library resource.”

Despite her continued involvement in anarchist action, Kate became frustrated with the stagnancy of rhetoric, and decided to push her interest in women’s health and social justice into a career as a midwife. She cites a pivotal moment as attending a birth the night before Katrina hit. “Before, I politically analyzed every situation, now I am more in touch with exhibiting compassion, using my hands. It has really changed the way I interact with people in this city…[In midwifery] I’ve found an outlet for my liberation politics---attending births and helping at the hospital, increasing patient info, giving power back to the mother.” Kate previously had worked at Planned Parenthood, but found it “disempowering”: “There was a desperation for professionalism and acceptance of the status quo. Non-profits like Planned Parenthood just delay and control resources. Many feminists (and at Planned Parenthood) automatically assume that if someone gets pregnant at a young age, they're not going to have any kind of life…it’s a weak analysis around gender combined with an undercurrent of racism and classism.”


Discussion Questions:
Question 1
Question 2

New Orleans, Day 3: SARAH

We met Sarah while getting a tour of the anarchist collective from Kate. She was stretching for a free evening yoga class, and invited us to join. We had an interview to attend, but we wouldn't continue on until she showed off some trapeze moves for us (pictured left).

Sarah is a writer, but has worked as a park ranger, boxer, aerialist, and department chair. She has been living New Orleans in 1997, and has since published a number of books and written for (“a website dedicated to chronicling life in post-apocalypse New Orleans”) in addition to continuing to perform and teach aerial arts. She was more than obliged to answer a few of our questions, here a few snippets from her responses:
“I went to college during the height of the Political Correctness Movement, so naturally I was exposed to a certain brand of feminism… it has developed so much negative connotation that I think people are afraid to define themselves as feminists, but those who treat men and women equally are feminists whether they realize it or not. Because of where I live, I see the most burning political issues as those related to economics.”


New Orleans, Day 3: NOEL

When we arrived at Noel’s house in our first night in New Orleans, we are greeted by a handful of lesbians watching a DVD of their drag king show they had just performed in. There was Noel on the screen, dancing onstage in guy’s clothing. The last time I had seen Noel, who is an old friend of one of my besties, she looked like a completely different person. She had longer, curly, angelic blond curls, wore tight jeans and lip gloss, and slept with guys. She was a ballerina and a flirt, the most stereotypically “feminine” woman you could possibly dream up. But as I observed her in the first few minutes of New Orleans, she looked happy, comfortable, and completely at ease with herself.

Days later, we finally go out to breakfast to interview Noel (left, on Magazine street), who moved to the city to meet her mom, a native New Orleanian. Noel’s mother had relocated to NOLA after her daughter's college graduation and had urged Noel to come down and do some work after Katrina. Noel worked for Common Ground for a little and established a media collective, then worked for non-profits and schools until she started doing video editing on a freelance basis. After a little while, we ask her about the dramatic recent changes in her life. “The process was slower than you think,” Noel tells us. “I kinda knew I was gay when I went abroad to Stockholm and the girls were all free to be a little bi. Then I took a look at Loren Cameron’s Body Alchemy [a book of transsexual portraits]. At first I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s kinda sexy,’ then ‘No, this is too alternative, too weird.’ But eventually I ended up dating a transmale for 9 months.”

Noel describes her straight life as unnerving for years—“I don’t know why, but I felt like I had to be the girliest girl. Other girls weren’t very nice to me, and guys were just ridiculous. I felt like I wasn’t well-respected and faced the most absurd amount of harassment, I even had gender nightmares…I made drastic changes to make my experience as a woman better…being with women feels so much better for me.” Noel does connect her recent experience to feminism, but notes that she was a feminist from the start—“My mom was a huge tomboy and I had elements of that, too. When I dated guys, I always wanted to take on some masculine traits and be ‘one of the guys’ and they just weren’t into it.”

She sees straight guys, out of everyone, as the most stuck in the gender binary. “If a guy hooks up with a guy, it’s epic, but with girls, it’s more accepted. People are progressing…but so far it’s just little pockets.” To Noel, the future of feminism includes expanding definitions of gender. “I really like the fact that in the queer community, genderbending is an actual activity, like our drag show. It’s just inefficient and unintuitive to separate genders.”


Discussion Questions:
Question 1

Friday, November 16, 2007

New Orleans, Day 2: MAYABA AND MANDISA

Mayaba and Mandisa, both young women active in the New Orleans branch of INCITE, meet up with us on Esplanade for late afternoon coffee. Mayaba, 27, is from DC and has been in New Orleans for 6 years. She works with INCITE, the New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic, and Critical Resistance, an organization against the prison industrial complex. “The complex needs sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism in place, or else people would realize that locking people up is not about safety, it’s about money,” Mayaba says. “In New Orleans, if you look at the rebuilding, they are just more cops, they are rebuilding a new jail, and meanwhile kids aren’t getting educated.” CR is now working on getting amnesty for prisoners whose cases were affected by Katrina.

Mandisa, 22, born in New York, moved here when she was 10. Through her work at INCITE, she also got involved with the Women's Health Clinic and Women's Health and Justice Initiative, and now is "a budding sexual health literacy organizer." Mandisa also worked in public housing in New Orleans when the Storm hit, which, as she tells us, "got coopted by white people. Public housing [inhabitants] in New Orleans were mostly black women and children. I have a serious problem with the white male taking the lead on this struggle. You can sit in the back and be an ally, but you can't just lead the movement."

INCITE's emphasis on the overlap of gender and race made Mandisa realize that "women of color are the ones who lie in this crazy intersection of vulnerability and violence." After the Storm, she found that people were talking plenty about race and class, but not gender. "I saw myself on TV every day, I saw black women from the ages of 5 and 50. Yet there was no gender analysis of this storm? That was painful." Mandisa describes the women involved in these projects as "center[ing] the experiences of women of color in post-Katrina New Orleans and being committed to rendering ourselves visible." Mayaba adds, "When they shut down public housing, there was an 83 percent drop of female head-of-households in New Orleans, mostly low-income, mostly black. Now, the government is denying the fact that black women are back here, and they block federal grants and money to help this population. So the Women's Health Clinic is a point of resistance in itself…saying, 'Look, we're getting people in and providing these services…there is a need.'"

Both women consider themselves feminists, but not without qualifiers. "I identify as a queer black radical feminist," Mandisa (right) says. "Feminism should not be devoid of race or ethnicity." Also, "If you can't see the ideals of capitalism as oppressive, you ain't a feminist. Until we see that white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy are all intertwined, then I question your gender politic." Mayaba agrees. "I'm a black radical feminist…and an anarchist on a given day," she says. Mayaba felt at age 14 that "something was not right." She was introduced to feminism through the white mainstream, mentioning Susan Faludi's Backlash as one of the first feminist texts she ever read. But most of it "left me stuck because it left race out of the picture." Mayaba thinks, like Mandisa, that white supremacy above all needs to be challenged. "I'm not going to focus on forming feminism when we have this massive problem. Things are really oppressive right now."

As both ladies realize they need to leave shortly, one of Mandisa's earlier comments sticks in my mind: "I know a lot of people put a lot of emphasis on how we identify. But at the same time I'm just like, 'Fuck! Just do the work.'"


New Orleans, Day 2: LYNN

Lynn, 25, meets us in the Marigny for some lunch. A self-proclaimed "army brat," she's gotten around but considers New Orleans her home because she spent a bunch of formative years here. She feels such a connection to the city that she abandoned her full scholarship to college in Philly because she hated the east coast so much. "I was a weird kid because I actually talked to people and looked them in the eye," Lynn says.

Lynn (left, in front of an abandoned mansion on Esplanade) became a feminist in her early teens. "My parents started telling me to look for a husband in 8th grade," she confesses. "They told me that college is a waste of money for a woman because I should be a wife and mother. Feminism made sense to me when I was told that simply because I was a woman, I wouldn't have a home." After Katrina hit, her sense of being a woman became even stronger. "At one point there was one woman for every 25 men, and everyone tried to grope you. There was an extreme intensity in the air."

Lynn's "live-in-the-moment," plan-phobic attitude also coalesced after Katrina, since after the Storm, "locals realized that there was a big bad world out there...I gave up on the planning, because if you can't take joy out the moment, then why do you bother?" But, she says, "If I had one life goal, it would be working in sex education and sexual health." Lynn gets to talking about her two jobs--being a bartender at a Hustler strip club on Bourbon Street, and a saleswoman at a sex toy shop. "Sex work is an inherently feminist act," she proclaims. "Working voluntarily in the sex industry is lessening the gender dichotomy and reclaiming something that patriarchy has made us shameful about." She tells us that most women at her club love what they do. Lynn sees burlesque troupes like Big Star in Austin or alt-porn sites like Suicide Girls as no more or less feminist than mainstream strip clubs and porn. "The industry has really high standards, very regulated. Also, a lot of women are turned on by mainstream porn!" She also describes the everyday triumphs of working at the sex shop, telling us about how just the other day she enlightened a 60-year-old woman about her orgasmic clitoris.

Imagine our surprise, then, when
Lynn suddenly says, "Feminists are such in a rush to be inclusive that people make too many things fit with the feminist movement. Sex really shouldn't be important." But didn't we just spend the last 45 minutes talking about Lynn's sex-positive attitude, how stripping is a feminist act, how women should know how to give themselves an orgasm? We are confused but Lynn stands her ground. "Talking about sex is treating the symptoms and not the disease. Until we change society's views, we will still have to be teaching 60-year-old women how to get off."


Thursday, November 15, 2007


Jessica, who teaches digital media and graphic design at a high school, found us on the web and invited us via email to a feminist party in our honor. We were much obliged and drove west from New Orleans in eager anticipation.

Weaving through the party, we pick up tidbits from more than twenty women, including two of Jessica’s older mentors. It is a tight-knight community, one that bands together in the conservative region, and has forums, radio shows, and frequent soirees. The buzz of conversation is fascinating, whether chain-smoking around the campfire, or eating cookies in the kitchen.

Two recent college graduates tell me of being called “baby-killers” in the newspaper for working at Planned Parenthood, even though their branch doesn’t even perform abortions--only one in Louisiana does. Another girl tells us about being drugged during the growing roofie problem on the LSU campus (don’t worry, her friends got to her first). An hour away from the Hollywood of the South we talk to a budding queer filmmaker. Some of the ladies are headed to Critical Sass soon, the women-friendly version of the popular bike march. A self-proclaimed “triple-threat” actress/singer/writer has just today auditioned for the Baton Rouge production of Steel Magnolias. These are accomplished and challenging women. There is a ceramics artist and teacher, a graphic designer, an attorney, a horror movie scholar, tons of PhD students, one of whom is even writing on the way the Internet and blogosphere is forging a new feminist future. Because we can’t interview everyone personally, we resort to hand-scrawled Xeroxed questionnaires (wait for the book!), which everyone fills out diligently before I yell, “Who’s ready for their mugshot?”

Tonight, we learn many things. That Baton Rouge has the most bad-ass feminist posse, full of dynamic women who hold their own amidst a dearth of feminism in Louisiana. That while singing "Me and Bobby McGee" on karaoke, you should be prepared for the "na-na-na"s. That just a little blog could create a huge feast including sesame kale, garlic pizza, three bean soup, and home baked focaccia. Talk about Southern hospitality (oh and thanks for letting me pass out on your couch...)


New Orleans, Day 1: Seen and Heard

“I know we’re the ones who bring people into this crap ass world. I know I’m a woman, but I like to keep things PG. When people talk about their vaginas, I’m like errr…”--Charlotte

“I don’t know if I’m a feminist.

I believe in equality.”--Angie

New Orleans, Day 1: LOYOLA LADIES

On our first morning in New Orleans, we visit Loyola University’s tree-lined campus to meet up with 3 young women. Our first appointment is with Puja, a junior biology major minoring in business. Born and raised in New Orleans, Puja is president of an on-campus group called Bridging the Gap, which promotes awareness of racial and cultural injustices not by “scolding people, but teaching them how to accept others.” Puja (left) doesn’t call herself a feminist: “I’m defined as a woman, but that’s not all I am. Being Hindu and raised in a Catholic city, Hinduism defines me more than being female.” Puja feels connected to her cultural traditions, and she’s “not completely against” arranged marriages because they are “based on compromises and family—everyone gets to be involved.” When we touch on the topic of body image and young girls, Puja has a refreshingly positive point of view: “People becoming anorexic just to look like a movie star is really sad to me. I personally feel that I’ve never met an ugly person before. I believe that it is our duty as human beings to outweigh people’s good qualities over their bad.”

An hour later, we hook up with two other girls, Maria (right) and Azebe, who have never met but seem to easily bounce off each other’s ideas. Maria’s family immigrated to Kenner (just outside of New Orleans) from Nicaragua, and moved to Miami after Katrina. Maria, a sociology major, wants to travel after college and maybe become a human rights lawyer. Azebe, the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, cites the Storm as a major turning point in her life and wants to join Doctors Beyond Borders when she graduates.

They both consider themselves feminists—Maria because she wants to be a “strong and independent person” and Azebe (left) because “I think I can accomplish anything.” Both women are politically progressive, and don’t seem to put a box around the definition of feminism. “Having children is compatible with feminism,” Azebe tells us, “because for every amazing person, every Martin Luther King, there’s a strong woman raising them.” Their views differ, though, on how feminism can conflict with traditional ideals, such as the Christian sentiment that infiltrated both of their childhoods. Maria tells us about her senior project assignment at her Catholic private high school—to plan out her own wedding. “I didn’t like that people were choosing my life for me,” Maria says. “It scared me to think that women were taught that marriage was all there is—there’s so much more!” But Azebe has a more personal interpretation of her faith, telling us, “Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I’m a feminist. The way I see it, God wouldn’t want women to waste their gifts.”


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Austin, third night: CARMEN AND YASMINE

Tonight we share pints with Yasmine and Carmen (left and right respectively, at Beauty Bar) in a balmy beer garden in west Austin. The two have never met: Yasmine is a friend of mine from high school, and I know Carmen from college. But they have a lot in common, both with each other and the other women we have talked to in Austin. Young accomplished activists, they came to Austin after college seeking the progressive community and organizations here.

Carmen is originally from Austin, and works with Erika at PODER. Her parents are both activists and musicians, and taught her that her environment and food are political issues. She sees class and race issues trumping feminism: “movements are always going to have identity lines, especially when peoples are not imprisoned the same way.” She still feels the need for balance between masculinity and femininity. “We need a transformation of the aggression that seems natural to men, that causes abuse in relationships and the violence born of war.”

Yasmine is French-Persian, grew up in NYC, and works at a firm that helps disenfranchised immigrants and refugees. “I can’t identify with the word feminism because it is not a stable term. I would never say it with a period at the end of the sentence. I’m against societal misogyny...but [poet] Erin Jackson said something like, 'if I shave my legs have I killed the revolution?' ” We all giggle, and in the same breath Yasmine attests, “Of course I’m a feminist if I’m going to be real, but my head gets so wrapped up in all the different movements and meaning.” Her dad is a lefty poly sci prof, and the extremism he dealt with in Iran influenced the progressive way he brought up Yasmine. Yasmine notes, “To deny that sexism effects us is a direct result of sexism, of being taught to be a quiet woman. Claiming to be ‘humanist’ is a result of sexism. At the same time, it is a privilege to be able to say you’re not a feminist, to not feel that anger.”


Discussion Question:
Question 1

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Austin, Day 3: INGRID

We meet Ingrid, 20, for a quick Mexican lunch. She is a history and philosophy senior at the University of Texas-Austin and was raised in DC, Connecticut, and NYC. Ingrid wants to be a journalist in the deep South after graduation. Another one of the ladies who reached out to us through our blog, Ingrid heard about us through her professor Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade. She considers herself a feminist—“I would have winced at the word a few years ago,” she says, but after being in a controlling relationship, she realized how important it was to take her experience as a woman seriously.

Ingrid has a serene, unassuming, yet wise look about her, reflected in her voice as she explains her views on feminist theory: “I get fed up with the way academic feminism de-emphasizes male thinkers and writers. There’s a reason there aren’t all that many classic women writers—up until recently, there was no birth control and women had fewer options. It’s important to give yourself role models regardless of gender. It’s not good to be too worried about ‘patriarchal’ literature.” She sees academia as the only realm keeping the word “feminism” alive—but, she says, “even if the term seems outdated, the issues haven’t died at all."


Discussion Questions:
Question 1

Austin, Day 3: ABBY AND GINGER

Abby and Ginger met at UT-Austin freshman year. They share a similar ethos and wide-eyed gushy exuberance. Neither identifies as “feminist” per se, but as Abby puts it, “I’m probably going to get pissed when men stand in my way.” They count themselves as members of the boy’s club. Abby feels closer to dudes in general, counting Ginger as one of her few close female friends. Ginger remembers from an early age scoffing in the face of gender roles, wanting to “play football, hunt, repair motorcycles.”

Abby (left) was raised in Austin, is studying biology, and has hopes of teaching after graduation. She doesn’t sense much gender inequality in her science classes, but “likes surprising people” with her smarts. Abby sees feminism mostly as a historical series of movements, but notes that “women still need to be protected” in society. She is most passionate about battling meth addiction, the Bush administration, and the obesity epidemic. Ginger's eyes fill with fiery light when food and health come up. It is her lifelong goal to start an organic farm. When she says “the manipulation of food in this country hurts my feelings,” you know she means it.

That isn’t all Ginger (right) feels should be left natural. She doesn’t shave her legs, and gets constantly called “feminist” as a result. She explains: “it’s yet another expectation society puts on us” but I have feeling it has much to do with being a women as it does her spiritual passion for not fucking with “the gifts God gives us.” Ginger was raised strict Baptist near San Antonio, and although she’s not a fan of organized religion, she found herself quitting school last year and joining a 25-person Christian house. She was disillusioned with the excessiveness of her life, the intangibility of textbooks and school, wanted real “life experience,” so she sold her car and railed across Europe. She wanted “Truth, not knowledge.” It was a life awakening, she tells us with a possessed glow: “God must have sent me an angel.” To bring it full circle, Ginger and Abby delve into talking about how access to birth control is the catalyst to change for women. Without it, Ginger says, we cannot “control our destiny, our endless possibility of being.”


Discussion Questions:
Question 1
Question 2

Monday, November 12, 2007


Texas organizers are a different breed entirely from your garden variety east or west coast activist. Austin, an oasis of liberal bustle in the thick of Texas’s vast conservatism, seems to be a springboard for bad-ass women committed to local organizing. We talked to 3 native Texans these last few days, all of whom feel an urgency to put into action the change they want to see.

Elsa (left), the chief-of-staff for state representative Trey Martinez Fischer, chose the world of politics to pursue what she believes in. She grew up in the border town Pharr, surrounded by “incredibly tough” Mexican women and her activist father. She is a feminist, putting issues like sexual health and family planning in the forefront of her politics. Elsa splits her time between Austin and San Antonio, which makes her contemplate the dynamic of activism in each place. “It can be soul-killing to organize outside of Austin,” she says, “but it’s tough to be in an urban area where the same ideas are thrown around.” Mostly she sees her job as “connecting the dots,” and besides convincing the other side, “work[ing] with like-minded groups to build coalitions.” Elsa is hopeful about the future of feminism. “If you’re an organizer, you have to be optimistic about change…or else you might as well get off the wagon right now.”

Laurie (right), the 27-year-old political director of Texas’s branch of NARAL, was born and raised in both Austin and South Texas. She has spent years committed to pro-choice activism in Texas, reaching out to as diverse groups by arguing in logical, relatable terms. “Of course I am a feminist, but I would never call myself that at the Capitol,” she says. “Why poke that hornet’s nest? I tell people, ‘Texas is the #1 state for teen pregnancy—at least we can all agree on pregnancy prevention, right?’” Meanwhile, she says, she frames the issue differently when talking with Mexican-American women in border towns. Condemning teenage pregnancy is “not appropriate,” Laurie says; in communities where young pregnancy is part of the culture, she frames the issue as the right to prenatal health care. No matter who she is talking to, her Texas roots come in handy. “I’m aware, and I think it comes across to people, that I’m sweeping my own doorstep.”

Erika (below), also 27, grew up in the border town of Eagle Pass in a trailer park. Her father was a Tejano musician and her mother worked at Walmart for many years before she got her teaching degree, a goal which Erika also pursued. But later, Erika became involved with PODER, which she now co-directs. PODER was started by a group of Chicanos to challenge environmental injustices in East Austin, an area to which people of color were once forcibly relocated. Erika would have called herself a feminist a few years ago but now feels less comfortable with the title. “I call myself a woman or a woman of color…but also I don’t have a problem with the term ‘Chicana feminist.’” She acknowledges that feminism isn't a priority for most women, explaining “If you asked the women of Juarez facing femicide if they were feminists, they would say, ‘I don’t care, I’m just trying to get my children back.’” Regardless of the barriers between women and the issues they face, she hopes to see all women “come together somehow” in the future.


Discussion Questions:
Question 1

Austin, Day 2: LIZA

Liza is originally from New York, moved to Austin after her Americorp service in New Mexico, and now teaches at a public high school. She is also a member of a mostly male anarchist soccer team--“One day, a woman player told me she was sick of playing soccer and not having enough confidence for it, like what happened in soccer was the same as the way we are in life.” She told us her thoughts about feminism in Bookwoman, one of the only feminist bookstore in the South:

“The idea of feminism is almost part of my invisible knapsack—I have always taken it for granted that all genders should be equal. In my life, it’s always seemed like kinda of a moot point. Only when I come up against a challenge do I think about it, but that doesn’t happen often. I don’t feel limited by my gender all that much.”


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Austin, first night: BIG STAR BURLESQUE TROUPE

The minute we land in Austin, we meet with Big Star, a plus size burlesque troupe. Here are the ladies:

Raine (left), 22, was born in Austin, has been doing burlesque for a year and is the head seamstress in soft goods for (a lingerie company). She lives with her husband in the house we have all gathered in, and also dabbles in phone sex for extra money on the side. She thinks of herself as a “modern, hip feminist,” one who got married when she was 20 because she wanted to, not because she was “pregnant or pressured.”

Cait, 18, is from Michigan, and after dropping out of high school, moved to Austin for a month and works with Raine at the soft goods manufacturer. She fell in love with Austin after a visit in July. She’s a feminist--“not an extreme feminist, but what Raine said…a modern one.”

Florinda (right), 29, is a “playwright, artist, activist, singer, educator” and a through-and-through Texas girl, raised outside of Houston. She works for the non-profit the Theater Action Project. She is a self-proclaimed feminist (although not an equalist: “I would fight in solidarity for women to do anything, but that doesn’t mean I would want to go fight in the war.”)

Rebecca, 22, is originally from California and has been in Austin for two years. She is a corporate recruiter by day—“every other day is a struggle to the top”—but doesn’t want to stereotype herself as a feminist.

Originally from Queens, Stephanie (left), 29, is the founder and “mother hen” of Big Star burlesque. She had the idea a year ago. Always interested in pin-ups but, as a larger woman, she had to find a venue for it. Now she runs a full variety show and is a telephone dominatrix—“the best-paid acting job I ever had”—where she can make upwards of $2 a minute.


Stephanie started the troupe because she wanted plus size ladies to feel a sort of “freedom in their own skin.” Her family never made her ashamed of her size, but she always felt like she had to remind herself, ‘Be careful, keep covered.’ Stephanie tells us that Big Star has more of a feminist slant than other troupes because it presents big women as “normal, beautiful, sensual, bold…campy, smart, sexy and entertaining,” without having to be merely “sassy ladies or comedic fodder.”

Most of the women seemed to have had a “lightbulb” moment when they realized they wanted to do burlesque. Rebecca (right) saw it as a chance to “get her femininity back,” being raised in an environment where women were the breadwinners. Florinda saw it as a way to make other bigger women feel sexy. Very thin once upon a time, Florinda gained weight later in life and realized how embarrassed other big women felt. She wanted to somehow tell them, ‘You ain’t seen a big girl like this before.’ Cait (below) adds, “Burlesque was a huge feminist step. It seemed to be a stab at the status quo."

I ask Stephanie and the other women why burlesque is often more considered “feminist” than, say, stripping. The consensus is that it’s a more female-run industry and concept, and a conscious decision to participate rather than having to strip for a living. The ladies make a distinction between class and education at this point. With the exception of Stephanie, none of the women in the troupe have a college degree, but all make enough money to sacrifice a Sunday to practice burlesque. “We’re all here by choice and don’t have to be working that third job,” Stephanie says. Florinda agrees. “We get to practice art. And I’ve always recognized art as a privilege.” All the women agree that living in Austin gives them easy access to an intellectual, liberal environment. Cait, when she explains to her friends what she’s doing, they react by saying, ‘Wait, so you’re a stripper who works at a factory?’ But in a community like this, those pursuits can take on a whole new meaning. They can not only be a way to make a living, but also a way to feel empowered, independent, and sexy, regardless of size or interest.


Discussion Questions:
Question 1