The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Baumgardner

By

Jennifer Baumgardner, a third wave feminist and activist, discusses archiving, zines, Bjork and her new book, F ‘em!: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls.

Baumgardner is currently the editor of the Feminist Classic series reissuing feminist classics including, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. She authored the feminist must-read, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future co-authored with Amy Richards, and Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics. Currently she lives in New York with her husband and two sons, teaching writing at the New School.

Her new collection, F ‘em!: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls, was published this October by Seal Press.

***

The Rumpus: All the pieces included in F’em! “emanate from feminism.” You point out, feminist magazines are often marginalized, but you’ve written about feminism for publications such as The Nation and Harper’s Bazaar reaching a diverse readership. Did you have a specific readership in mind while putting together this collection?

Jennifer Baumgardner: Oddly, feminism is both omnipresent and invisible. You point out, rightly, that I have written primarily for mainstream magazines—and that is an intentional strategy. I want to accomplish several things, like reaching a diverse and mainstream audience and paying my bills, which is much easier to do when you write for big magazines!

The audience I have in mind is always me and my friends. And my two sisters. We’re the feminists in my life—and we are also mothers and daughters and hot and neurotic and existing on wine and coffee and disappointed and brave. When Amy Richards and I wrote Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future in 2000, we were writing to document the feminism we saw in our peers and ourselves. With Look Both Ways, I was writing to all those straight girls who date girls and to the younger Jennifer who fell in love with a girl and was freaking out with excitement and terror. I wasn’t writing to people who have always thought they were gay or straight or even to bisexual activists.

With all my books, though, and all my endeavors, I want people who don’t really know if they’d call themselves a feminist or what it means to have a way in to the book, too. With F’ Em, because so much of it is drawn from past essays, I wanted the reader to be people who already know they like me and people who’ve never heard of me but like short, funny, poignant, personal essays.

Rumpus: F’em! includes both new and past pieces. I imagine it was difficult to narrow down your selection. What was the selection process like for the pieces and interviews being re-released?

Baumgardner: First of all, let me just say that I wanted to do this book in order to archive my own work. Feminists have to do things for themselves and we have to value our own work—we can’t rely on mainstream historians or media to do so. When I came to NYC in 1993, I was fortunate to meet dozens of Second Wave feminists. These wounded warriors were coming off of the backlash of the 1980s and confronting a media that no longer covered them. They were deeply concerned about whether their history was being erased. These were women who did everything for themselves. They created feminist presses, music movements, battered women’s shelters—I mean they learned how to give themselves abortions, for god’s sake—and yet they weren’t archiving their own work. My mantra became (and this was courtesy of my friend Constance DeCherney) “Don’t just MAKE history. Document it!!”

Actually choosing the pieces to make the cut was hard. The pieces I remembered being most proud of were more journalistic—a cover story I did for Ms. magazine on Winona LaDuke, for instance, or a cover story I did for The Nation on Catholics taking over hospitals and refusing to provide birth control, abortions, the Morning After pill for rape victims, or tubal ligations. The first female deemed a sexually violent predator; the effort to make abortion illegal in South Dakota…pieces like that. But these pieces were the most dated when I looked at them for inclusion in this book—too connected to a particular piece of legislation or election to resonate today.

Thus, the more personal pieces worked, the more opinion-y pieces worked, and then this reported about purity balls worked. That was pretty much it. The interviews were women who have strongly influenced my thinking and who are, in my opinion, major architects of feminist political theory and cultural expression right now. Except Bjork. She’s just interesting, so I included an old interview I did with her.

Rumpus: Archiving, as you point out, is crucial in documenting the history of feminism and there’s no denying we’ve inherited a rich literary cannon of feminist works—Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen counted among those. However, there are still many who inaccurately perceive these titles as outdated and irrelevant, belonging to a generation of women that are now our grandmothers. How have you combated these misconceptions in your own writing?

Baumgardner: Some of these books are out-of-date, in terms of the superficial contours of women’s lives. Women aren’t going to college expressly to find a husband, they can attend any college, abortion is legal, they don’t have to wear pantyhose and pointy bras. In some ways, though, the books are poignantly still true. Women who stay home with the children do get lost in the tedium of house work and childcare, which expands always to fill the time allotted. That work is still unpaid (and always will be) so it’s de facto undervalued and the person who does it is dependent on someone else for material necessities.

When I read those books, I read them for the insights that have stood the test of time, for a window on my gender’s progress (or lack thereof) and for the beautiful writing. In the case of novels like Memoirs, the storytelling itself is riveting. As far as my writing, I embroider insights and quotes and continue philosophies that I discovered by reading those second wave classics and the more obscure books, too. For instance, one of the most influential books that I have ever read is Daring To Be Bad, which was published by an academic press—hardly a best-seller—but I still think of what I learned in that account of the early radical feminists on an almost daily basis!

Rumpus: As the feminist movement evolves over time its issues grow more complex and diverse inevitably giving rise to dissenting opinions and ideas. As you point out at the end of your essay critiquing Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How do fellow feminist writers, like Levy, influence and strengthen your own writing?

Baumgardner: It’s so crucial to have debate and dissent. Her arguments raised my hackles, but arguing with this well-researched, beautifully observed, and sharply written book allowed me to refine my own opinions and theories about women, sexuality, mores, and the power of sex.

Rumpus: Young feminists are using blogs, twitter, and other forms of online media to connect to larger audiences. As someone who has witnessed the transition from zines to blogs, where do you see the future of online media taking feminism?

Baumgardner: Online media is the future, and younger feminists are already instrumental in using social media and multi-media platforms on the web to document street harassment (hollaback!), archive and critique the media (Racialicious, Feministing, etc.) and create art (the Arts Effect acting company). It’s not a new world, but it is a new conveyance for the same old expression and communication humans have needed to do since we lived in caves. I’m excited about it and want to be open and receptive to my potential contributions and all that I can learn from those who are more comfortable in online venues.

Rumpus: Many of the essays in this collection are very personal. I imagine when writing about close friendships, family, or past relationships it has the potential to get complicated. Has this ever been a problem for you?

Baumgardner: I think being close to a writer who does memoir is probably hard and requires a lot of confident friends and family members. I’ve written several times about my sister’s abortion when she was a teenager and my role in helping her get it, and obviously I need her permission to do so. But these are all controlled revelations. I’m often making a point or telling a larger story but populating it with carefully chosen anecdotes to set up my reflection. They aren’t like a window in my therapy appointments, my diary, or even my private life. They are merely tiny segments of my experiences that I string together to tell a larger story that is, one hopes, funny, insightful, poignant, and worth reading.

Rumpus: Do you foresee a second collection of essays in the future?

Baumgardner: Well, if ten years from now a good publisher wanted to collect what I wrote between 2011 and 2021, I’d be honored. As I’ve mentioned, I’m obsessed with women making sure that they are as archived as male writers, and having multiple places for people to find your work is critical.

I’m getting back in the saddle of regular writing now that I’ve gotten used to teaching (at The New School, in the writing program). The last three years have been consumed with teaching, falling in love, being pregnant, moving, having a baby, taking care of both kids, getting married, running Soapbox (the company I own with Amy Richards), and finishing this book. Things are just settling down…so time to rev up again!


Margie Cook is a writer of nonfiction, and the occasional poem. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. More from this author →