Two twenty-something, upper class, educated, Jewish girls traipse around the United States looking for the feminism of a new generation, and once they find it, one of them kills herself. That’s not exactly what the back cover of Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism reads, but that’s one version of what happened. Best friends since 1997, Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein decided to take a road trip and talk to a cross section of young women about the F-word. They met 127 women—including a sex shop clerk, a Bible college student, a witch, a future nun, a former Air Force worker, and an anarchist—to find out why some woman love feminism with a fierceness and why others don’t relate to it at all.
You went on the Girldrive road trip without a guarantee of a publisher or knowing if anyone beyond the blogosphere would read your work. What made you throw caution to the wind and take the risk?
An agent told us we needed to just go on the trip and have a blog’s worth of work before we could even dream of getting a publisher since we were two unknown 22-year-old girls. I was a waitress, and at one point had a summer job at the Board of Education. Emma was a barista and an art teacher. We were sort of in purgatory and knew that if we didn’t go now, eventually our careers or families or whatever else would get in the way. It was a perfect time to go on an adventure because we had nothing to lose. We didn’t need all that much money, so we saved the old-fashioned way and had about $4,000 each when we launched the project.
How did you find the women you visited?
We started by emailing hundreds of people asking to hear from cool, opinionated, motivated, smart, twenty-something women who had a story to tell. From there, we started getting suggestions of women a few degrees of separation away. Once we had a working list, we identified some demographic gaps and actively sought women out who hadn’t contacted us. When the blog took off, some women asked us to come interview them.
What were the interviews like?
We recorded most of them, but they were pretty informal. We had more peer-to-peer chill sessions than anything else. Except the interviews with “famous” feminists, which were more formal—but in every case they were very open-ended. We didn’t have much of a set list of questions.
Some of the conversations seemed like they got a little tense. Who ended up being a difficult to interview?
The tense ones were more often women who were familiar with feminism or identify as feminists. Strangely, the interviews with conservative women weren’t tense in the traditional way. I was nervous to talk to a pro-life midwife in Nashville who works at a crisis pregnancy center and is probably the most opposite from me in terms of ideals, but we had a calm, reasonable conversation. I was like, “Wow. I was not expecting this!” Then I’d talk to someone like Lynn from New Orleans who was a pro-sex feminist, and it was much easier to argue because we were coming from the same general perspective.
Written through the lens of your own feminist perspective, Girldrive has very little overt analysis. Why did you choose a storytelling format that traces your experience while travelling throughout the country?
We didn’t want to be feminist evangelists. We wanted to actually listen and allow these women to speak for themselves. Originally, we were going to have thematic essays in the book, but that seemed to take away from the myriad ways other women expressed. It became clear that the value of Girldrive was in the stories—not the analysis. The idea is that once the reader is hit with all these different experiences and opinions, they can start to have their own gender analysis.
Ultimately, as the narrators, you and Emma are a filter for the women’s stories. How did you choose what to include in and exclude from the book?
It was hard to narrow it down. There was a lot of repetition in our interviews, and we showed some of that to illustrate themes, but we tried to include women whose opinions aren’t part of the mainstream narrative of feminism. There were a lot of educated white girls we talked to who don’t appear in the book because we didn’t want to give disproportionate weight to their voices. Obviously, we didn’t take them out altogether.
But you felt like you had to mitigate a sentiment that was cliché and well-worn?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of people expected Girldrive to just be a smattering of white liberal arts graduates. We chose women who we felt particularly embodied their respective cities. We also chose women were doing local, grassroots work and had a lot to say about gender differences in their cities.
What new knowledge do you think Girldrive brings to the conversation about the relevancy of feminism for young women today?
I think it brings to light that feminism works less as a movement and more as a sensibility. It’s clear that young women aren’t going to get behind a few specific issues or follow the lead of one icon.
Is that another way of saying the feminist movement is dead?
(Laughs.) I think feminism as a “movement” may be dead, but that’s not a bad thing. That said, feminism as a concept is very much alive. Feminism exists as a lens, as a codeword to start conversation about the fact that our “choices” are influenced by gender roles and societal expectations and bring an awareness of gender into women’s lives. Once women (or anyone really) start to see the world through that lens, it inevitably affects politics.
We tried to be very aware and not have blinders on, which was a struggle when negotiating how important the word “feminism” was or was not—and how much we should focus on it in the book. As feminists ourselves, the word was very important to us, and we thought it would be a good way to spark conversation about the issues that were important to young women, but we found out that this was not always the case. The two opinions women had were 1) Who the f*ck cares how you identify? Just do the work. and 2) Feminism is the key to being able to understand how gender works in society. Emma and I talked a lot about whether the word “feminism” is important to these discussions.
What was most challenging about the Girldrive experience?
Where do I even start?! (Laughs.) The whole thing was very challenging—not exactly the freewheeling road trip you might imagine. Trying to include everyone was a very daunting task. I regret not talking to more rural women, and I wish we’d talked with more women in traditionally male jobs, like firefighters and construction workers. But that would have required a lot more money and time than we had. Since we knew we didn’t have the resources to scour the country, so we mostly focused on cities.
Despite sisterhood not existing on a societal level, Girldrive is proof that it exists between women in smaller ways. What was it like to take a literal and metaphorical journey with another feminist?
It was seriously eye-opening—and it was amazing to have somebody to bounce ideas off of about feminism. I feel like there’s this constant fear that you’ll say something wrong or that you’ll offend this group or that, but it was great to be able to hash these things out with someone I trusted on this trip. When I was getting so much information thrown at me, it was good to be able to process it in a productive way.
I think Girldrive sparks these kinds of conversations and gets women thinking. It opens up a whole rich history and tradition that people should learn about. Beyond that, if a woman needs to put a qualifier before “feminist” (i.e., queer black radical feminist) or choose a different word like “womanist,” I don’t care so long as they’re educated about what feminism is all about and they have gender consciousness.