What does the word feminism mean to you?
The promise of a future where you don’t need a word to encapsulate the basic human decency that should be innate to all people.
Why do you think it’s important to be a feminist?
I’ve written a few books about history now, and I can assure you that the world before feminism was hideously bad for women. You may have romantic notions about how the past was a very delicate time where women all wore puffed sleeves and men doted on them. I used to! So it might interest you to know that in in 1851 the House of Lords tried to pass a law preventing women from buying arsenic because so many of them were using it to murder their husbands.
That’s because it was essentially impossible for women to get divorced, and if they tried to leave abusive situations men could retain all their property, and their children.
I think feminism is pretty essential so women have the capacity to leave bad partnerships without becoming a murderer. I think that’s a really good thing for both male and female people. And, while women’s existence is fortunately a lot more liberated than it was in the 19th century, there are still a lot of constraints – whether it’s social pressure to be married, or economic pressures that can arise from leaving the workforce to have children - that keep women tied to bad relationships. I really believe that every relationship should be a wanted relationship. It should not one you’re stuck in because you have kids to feed and you couldn’t get maternity leave, and now you’re out of a job.
With all the noise around feminist issues, the word itself can carry some negative connotations for some people. Why do you think this is?
Any time women ask for life to get better for womankind, or even imply life might not be perfect, they get called spinster monsters. That was true when women began campaigning for suffrage – you can look at some cool anti-suffrage cartoons here.
The insults and jibes about how feminists are bad wives, or mothers, or ugly, or only feminists because they can’t get a husband all remain about the same today.
Basically, if you want any large scale reform that would entail a better world for women – whether you want better health care for mothers (Texas now has the #1 maternal mortality rate in the developed world!) or for women to have greater reproductive autonomy, or to have assured paid parental leave – anti-feminists will get mad. Because reform is hard to enact, and challenges people to change their perceptions of what’s normal and acceptable. Boy, people hate doing that! A lot of people will think that life will be easier if women just shut up and act happy. Since women are conditioned to come off non-threatening and pleasant, calling them ugly or telling them no one will ever love them if they keep this up can be a pretty effective tactic.
What’s a misconception about feminism that really annoys you, and why?
The notion that feminists are all spinsters is really weird to me. A few weeks ago a conservative site wrote a piece about how I was a bitter feminist spinster...
I turned to my fiancé and told him that if he was breaking up with me, this was a real weird way to announce it. (He thought it was hilarious.)
Being married isn’t a testament to your worth. Just objectively, though, most of the cool feminists I can think of are either married or in a serious relationship. Gloria Steinem is married. Sady Doyle is married. Lindy West is married. Jessica Valenti is married. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is married. Lauren Duca is married. So the fact that a lot of anti-feminists immediately respond to feminist articles by shouting that feminists are just bitter man-haters who no one can love is… endlessly bewildering.
What would your advice be to feminism sceptics?
I don’t know, do you want to have a lady partner who fantasizes about buying rat poison so she can kill you in your sleep and thereby achieve the only measure of financial independence available to her? No? Cool. Look forward to seeing you at the next march.
How can people best educate themselves on feminist issues?
If you like novels, read Margaret Atwood (especially The Handmaid’s Tale) and Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and Maya Angelou (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper is a short but essential story.)
Read essays on the topic, too. Read Shrill by Lindy West and Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay and A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Those are just some of my favourites. There are obviously a million more. And talk to people about your thoughts and their thoughts, even if it’s just on a Facebook page.
Change is possible when we realize we are not alone.
There is a debate that it’s not possible to be a feminist and love fashion at the same time; what do you think?
I think that interests that have traditionally been a women’s purview – like fashion, or make-up, or romance – are often seen as less worthy of attention or respect than those that have typically been a man’s. I think that’s really, really dumb.
Fashion is a complex and fascinating topic. Of course it’s something to love. Why would believing women should get maternity care necessitate going around in a potato sack and talking about how much you love some traditionally male interest like carving wood into tiny deer statues or something? Men aren’t considered less serious or intellectual if they’re interested in something like baseball, and baseball is a game where men run around the same four squares for approximately 9 hours.
Have you ever encountered discrimination or misogyny in your work or personal life? If so, how did you deal with it?
Oh! Yes! Many times! I spent my early 20’s trying really, really hard to be nice and sweet and not come off as crazy or mean or bitter to men, ever. This meant remaining quiet when men talked about how overweight women were disgusting, or women with any kind of neediness were crazy, or how underweight women should eat a sandwich. It meant going on dozens of dates where men just casually listed off how they would not date a woman like, say, Drew Barrymore (the guy deemed her too fat.) And it meant sitting there and smiling quietly.
Since I enjoy dressing up, one guy told me that I was “not being real with him.” (Because I wear high heels). But then if I dressed down I got told I looked like I was ill. Confidence was supposed to be sexy, but if I admitted that I thought I was pretty smart and funny, I was told I was too full of myself. I once got told that women making jokes weren’t attractive. Jokes!
I think by my late 20’s I realized there was no way to win this nightmare game called “being a perfectly likeable woman”. Around that same time I met a super amazing, brilliant, kind, funny guy who liked me exactly the way I was (I’m marrying him this August). I decided I cared about zero men’s opinions of whether I was nice and pretty and sane enough except for his. This really freed me up to start talking about feminism. Oh, and then Trump got elected, and, now all I wanted to is shout as loudly as possible about the dumb problems women face every day.
What do you believe are the biggest issues affecting gender equality today?
In America, I’m especially worried about us losing reproductive rights. The DNC has been flirting with the idea of trying to cater to pro-life democrats. I think that shows a lot of historical ignorance of the dangerous position women were placed in before abortions were readily available.
Even today, in countries like El Salvador, where abortion is outlawed, women drink rat poison or try to thrust sharp objects into their cervixes to induce miscarriages. Suicide accounts for 57 per cent of the deaths of pregnant females aged 10 to 19.
Not prioritizing women’s lives really scares me, and, while it may not be the issue affecting the largest group of women right now, it’s been at the forefront of my mind during the Trump administration.
Do you believe in calling out acts of sexism in public or social media?
Oooh! That’s kind of a tricky question. I think call-out culture can be incredibly effective when it comes to brands. After all, their campaigns and products should respond to their consumers. Telling them to change their approach if they want you to buy their products seems reasonable. And I do think that the images we see reflected on television or in magazines matter. That said, I think the immediacy of social media can also make it easy to immediately attack a well intentioned person who made a foolish joke. Generally, I think we should probably go easier on individuals than we do on companies.
We have seen an unprecedented rise in the use of social media and online news. How do you believe this has impacted or shaped feminist issues today?
I think it’s wonderful insofar as it lets you connect with other people who share the same views. It also provides forums where you can be honest with your feelings safely (even anonymously.) I think providing women communities is the biggest advantage to those platforms.
That said, in terms of effecting change… you still have to find a way to talk to people who aren’t on your side. It’s easy to get trapped in a social media echo chamber where everyone agrees with you. Sometimes that can make you forget what’s going on in the outside world. So, don’t forget to make those calls to your representatives, donate to the groups that help people, campaign for candidates who support your beliefs, and all the other stuff that is harder but ultimately more effective than just hashtag activism.
What do you believe is the most important message for women to be told today?
Do what you know is right.
And, for God’s sakes, remember that not everybody has to like you.
Who is your feminist idol and why?
Dorothy Parker! Does Dolly Parton qualify as a feminist idol? Okay, I’m going to say she does. I love her. Margaret Atwood. Hillary Clinton, obviously. Maya Angelou. Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I like your clothes and they are pretty.
Jennifer Wright - living & loving in NYC
Instagram - @jenashleywright
Twitter - @JenAshleyWright