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Book Review

The Evolution of Feminism

“F ’em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls”

A book by Jennifer Baumgardner

In my life, feminism is everywhere and nowhere. I am mother to an 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. The night my daughter was born (at home with a midwife, for those who care about that sort of thing), I spent the entire time obsessing over whether I was a good enough feminist to mother a daughter, instead of basking in the hormone high of new love.

“Our job today is less to kick open doors and more to walk into rooms.” So says Jennifer Baumgardner in her new book of feminist essays, “F ’em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls.”

As a stay-at-home mother, work-from-home writer, part-time teacher/performer/curator, I understand Baumgardner’s words. I worried that choices I’d made would somehow set my daughter back — that she wouldn’t have a role model. I struggled with the demands of raising a family and needing health insurance while my husband made more money and I was exclusively breastfeeding. This was not the idea I had of myself as a feminist.

To read Truthdig excerpts of “F ’em” click here.

Baumgardner gives us her core ideas of feminism: “Egalitarianism, eradicating sexism and recognizing the historic oppression of women. Feminism is the belief in the full political, social and economic equality of all people. Feminism is also a movement to make sure that all people have access to enough information and resources (money, social support) to make authentic decisions about their lives. Thus it’s not the decision one makes so much as the ability to make a decision.” She explains that the feminism she practiced was an “expression of the trends that shaped [her] youth.”

Baumgardner’s first essay is “The Third Wave Is 40.” It opens with a neurotic moment about the author’s looks.

book cover

F ’em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls

By Jennifer Baumgardner

Seal Press, 256 pages

Buy the book

Really? This is a book about feminism and you open with your looks?

I mean, I get it. I just turned 40 and I’m losing my looks too. I’m a feminist who is also mourning the loss of being an object, however retro and unenlightened that may sound. It’s part of what lies underneath the loss of Baumgardner’s identity as a “young feminist.”

She does admit to “a certain dissonance in my attempt to be a good actualized feminist and my desire to get the love and sexual attention I wanted.” And it is Baumgardner’s unflinching willingness to explore territory like this that makes “F ’em!” such an exciting read.

I love how Baumgardner connects her (my) generation with the feminists of the ’70s and also the women younger than we are. She puts ’90s feminism in as much of a historical perspective as possible, given that it was so recent.

An important theme of “F em!” is the existence of Third Wave feminism. The First Wave (1840-1920) focused on the rights of citizenship. The Second Wave (1960-1988) “fought for women to share in the opportunities and responsibilities men had, including creating a career, pushing off the drudgery of housework and refusing to be held hostage by their reproductive systems.” The Third Wave, which Baumgardner identifies with, was approximately 1988-2010: “Whether or not these individual men and women were raised by self-described feminists — or called themselves feminists — they were living feminist lives: Females were playing sports and running marathons, taking charge of their sex lives, being educated in greater numbers than men, running for office and working outside the home.” The most recent wave, the Fourth, approximately 2008 and onward, continues the legacy of the Third Wave and moves it into the tech-savvy, gender-sophisticated world of blogs, Twitter campaigns, transgenderism, male feminists, sex work and complex relationships within the media.

I understand why Second Wavers, who lobbied for Roe v. Wade, Title IX and the Equal Pay Act, see the Third Wavers as frivolous in our lipstick and lace T-shirts. We wore no bluestockings or even redstockings — just fishnets. And there were holes in our argument too — that taking control of our sexuality was powerful. Current TV shows like “Two Broke Girls” and “Up All Night” get a lot of credit for being female-driven, supposedly showing feminism in action, and while I personally find them enjoyable, it’s more for the liberal sprinkling of vagina jokes than anything else. I can see why some Second Wavers would be mad at us. Baumgardner writes of Second Wavers, “They were no longer the ones needing abortions or utilizing current technology.” Ouch. They fought so hard to get us out of the kitchen for this?

Competition between women, and the exclusion and rage that accompanies it, is a theme throughout “F ’em!.” Female competition is used to keep women down, and surely those who are oppressed oppress others, right? Baumgardner acknowledges this: “There is a sense that mentoring and torch passing steal from one’s own hard-won store of power.” I would have loved a more overt study of female competition.

“Every few years, feminism gets kicked up to marquee status under the rubric of having failed, like a stain remover that just didn’t do its job.” So starts an essay about the divides feminism has succumbed to — black/white, gay/straight, pro sex/anti porn — and, more specifically, about Ariel Levy’s 2005 work “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” which accused Third Wave feminists like Baumgardner of “making sex objects of other women and of themselves.” The writing is lively and fun and Baumgardner’s epilogue is what’s interesting here: She recounts meeting Levy for a drink “over the warm buzz of cocktails on a wintry Manhattan night” and liking her, noticing what they had in common. Baumgardner’s willingness to look back on her own work and show us how her positions have changed or matured is just one of the generous gifts she has to offer.

One of my favorite pieces in this collection is “Womyn’s Music 101,” which should be required reading for any cultural feminist. And certainly for any woman who makes music. This piece connects activism and art, giving us a history of women’s music in the ’60s and ’70s. It chronicles the beginnings of “lesbionic” Olivia Records (I was so happy Baumgardner used that word!) and Ladyslipper, which were around long before Lilith Fair. I had never heard of Cris Williamson before, nor did I know that the lesbian cruise line Olivia had begun as Olivia Records. She draws lines between Williamson in 1973 and Riot Grrrl in 1992.

The impact of “women’s music” is still reverberating today. But remember — for those of you who were around — when there were weird strong women in rock? When Courtney Love was cool in 1994? My friend Cat and I would make an open fist with an “O” and punch the air repeatedly whenever a Hole song came on in a bar.
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.

book cover

F ’em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls

By Jennifer Baumgardner

Seal Press, 256 pages

Buy the book

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.

Christen Clifford

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