On the Map: Feminist Road Trippin

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.

by Mandy Van Deven
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

feminists equate white women?

I caught one of them in NPR radio show recently. When the topic shifted into the exclusive nature of White feminist's movement pointed out by one of their interviewees, a Chicana Americana, she dismissed it saying, "I actually don't care!" Well, I bet she really didn't. But I wished she did.

for folks who want to hear the entire interview

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sex shop clerk: to clarify, I wasn't saying I didn't care whether women of color felt marginalized--if you read Girldrive, that sentiment is all over the book! We definitely didn't "dismiss" this sentiment, quite the opposite in fact. I was saying it doesn't bother me if women need to put qualifiers before "feminist" or use another word altogether--as long as they have some sort of gender consciousness. I'm not going to sit there and argue whether "feminism" is the right word to describe these feelings, but I do care if they're absent altogether.

That was way harsh, Mandy

"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."

Really? That's both uncomfortably glib and really sensationalistic. Since you don't mention anything else about Emma Bee Bernstein's death elsewhere in the blog post, it just comes off like you're trivializing her death. Not cool.

I agree with the commenter

I agree with the commenter above, it was very jarring to me, but it intrigued me, so I read on, hoping to hear more. And it did disappoint me when you didn't wrap it up, but thanks for clarifying and wrapping it up in your comment.

This reminds me of a similar journey an artist went on, photographing different people around the country and getting their story. Stuff like this is important for us Americans, considering our country is so large and diverse, it's easy to forget that there are other people outside of one's respectful bubble that think and act differently.

Thank you, Mandy...

...for addressing this. I read this post yesterday and was so stunned by the intro and then nothing about Emma's death, that I couldn't figure out how to comment. Ultimately, I assumed that Nona didn't want to talk about it, and that you were respecting to her wishes, but the intro left me unsettled.


another clarification...

The only thing mandy asked that was even close to asking about emma was, "I've got nothing left, unless you've got something you want to add." I would have been happy to talk about Emma if directly asked. In almost every other interview I've done about Girldrive, one will see that it's not something I've shied away from at all. As Mandy knows, I do agree that this line is jarring and lightweight inappropes...but the rest of the interview reflects my thoughts and feelings accurately, so I'm not stressing too much.

I'm sorry about your

I'm sorry about your friend.
I agree that it was nice to read about Girldrive as a project (as this is the first I have heard of it), but I had also not heard about Emma's death, so the quick mention at the beginning without followup, I found, did the interview a disservice.. After reading the whole thing and before following up by reading more on the project elsewhere, I was sure your blog post had been hacked. It's a bit bizarre to just throw something like that out there without addressing it or even mentioning it, whether in the interview itself or as a side note.

it feels like a terribly inappropriate topic over which to argue

so I'll simply state again that everyone deals with death differently, and those different responses are bound to rub people the wrong way--whether coming off as insensitive b/c it's addressed too lightly or exploitative b/c it's harped on. In this interview, I dealt with it by lightly broaching the topic in my final question and backing off of it when Emma's death was not mentioned by Nona in her response. Perhaps I have made a mistake, and as I said before, I will consider this further outside of this forum, as the impersonal nature of blog commenting makes it an environment that is not conducive to constructive discussions of such a personal nature. If you want to speak more intimately about this, I'm glad to do so via a different form of communication. You can email me through the site.

Nona: I didn't read other interviews before speaking to you. As a general rule, I don't read interviews that have been conducted with a person I plan to interview until <i>after</i> I have interviewed them b/c I don't like the outside influence. I only read the book and parts of the blog, so I took the exemption in your response as an indication that the topic was off-limits and attempted to create a distance from it in intro to the piece. As I said in my response to you via email, my writing is a reflection of my own perspective and way of interpreting the world. It's not always perfect, and if it upset you, I do apologize for that. I'm happy to discuss it further. You have my email.

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