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The Evolution of Feminism
Posted on Dec 9, 2011
By Christen Clifford
I loved the interview with Loretta Ross and her insight into the Sister Song collective that asked, “What does looking at abortion rights through a social justice lens look like?” Ross even changed the name of the biggest protest march in American history, from the March for Freedom of Choice to the March for Women’s Lives. Ross’ story is an amazing piece of feminist history that I fear would be lost without activist/historians like Baumgardner to record it. Ross coined the term “reproductive justice” as an alternative to “reproductive rights”—the difference being that reproductive justice demands health insurance that is full and pays for prenatal care and abortions, whereas reproductive rights still has a “keep your government’s hands off of my body” stigma, which has proven to be not so helpful for a generation of women. Ross speaks movingly about becoming a feminist. “That involvement in feminism explained to me all the things that had happened to me in my life. My story was at the intersection of reproductive violence and sexual violence.”
Some of the interviews I could have done without: Debbie Stoller (Bust magazine), who describes herself as a cultural feminist, doesn’t make any friends with statements like, “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation ruined by being stay at home moms.” Substantial mention of the “Mommy Wars” is conspicuously absent here, likely because Baumgardner co-parented her first child with a man with whom she wasn’t “romantically coupled,” thereby allowing her “time to take a walk, meet a friend or go to a dinner party.”
The 1996 Bjork interview reads as very out of date. It was one of a few pieces that seemed like padding, or included merely to add celebrity glimmer. “How to Do Everything Wrong” is a fluff piece of journalism from Babble (2006) that was completely unnecessary in a book of serious feminism.
Baumgardner also interviews Shelby Knox (best known for the documentary “The Education of Shelby Knox”), a feminist in her 20s who says that the Fourth Wave’s “activism is inseparable from technology.” In a recent New York Magazine article, Knox says that the blogosphere is like “our conciousness raising groups.”
I love Baumgardner’s lists of required reading: “SCUM Manifesto” by Valerie Solanas; “Memoirs of an Ex Prom Queen” by Alix Kates Schulman; “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft; “The Mermaid and the Minotaur” by Dorothy Dinnerstein; “The Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone; and “Ain’t I a Woman” by bell hooks. In our minute-to-minute lifestyles it’s difficult to see what came before, to see beyond the fact that NOW (and I don’t mean the National Organization for Women) is vital and that our own struggles and cultural politics get in the way, so I appreciated Baumgardner’s efforts to connect generations of women thinking about women. It’s good to be reminded that Feministing and the Lady Bloggers have a long history behind them.
I was very taken by Baumgardner’s personal stories and her youthful connection of The Patriarchy to her father. She describes how, years later, after the birth of her second son, her father “carried my days-old son around the apartment for hours, patting his back, rocking him, changing his diaper and putting him down for naps. The word ‘patriarch’ didn’t come to mind—but ‘father’ did.”
Abortion is one of Baumgardner’s specialties. Some of her strongest work is on this topic. In “Why We Speak Out When We Speak Out,” “When Mom and Dad Don’t Know What’s Best” and “Trouble in Numbers,” she writes clearly and concisely about the ambivalence and complexity surrounding “the procedure” today.
One of my friends had an abortion a few months ago. She’s the working mother of a happy 3-year-old. She didn’t want another child, was careless about birth control on a vacation and wound up at the doctor. Afterward, she said she felt good about her decision—she had suffered terrible postpartum depression with her baby—and knew it was best for her whole family. But beforehand she was searching for information or stories about women like her—women who were already mothers but couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t do it again. I wish I had had this book to give her then.
Baumgardner writes honestly about her own phobias—about transwomen in particular—and writes with humor and relief about her changing views on gender and identifying as a bisexual. Again, I understand. I’m married to a man—but neither of us are straight—and we are in a committed relationship with two kids. I can claim my rights as a bisexual, pansexual gender-queer motherfucker too—but most days I’d rather have free child care, a valued job and a support system.
There is an almost palpable sense of Baumgardner “taking up space” in the book. She has to document her own history as well as make it. No one else is going to do it for her. “Most social justice campaigns are long,” Baumgardner writes in an essay about sustainable feminism. Later in the same piece she admits, “I’m not sure we knew how to inhabit the political theories we believed.” Feminism has come through the suffragettes to women’s libbers, from riot grrrls to Lady Bloggers, and Baumgardner’s “F ’em!” is an intelligent guide through our recent history. It’s a feminist book that should be on everyone’s shelf.
Christen Clifford is a writer, performer and curator in New York.
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