Two years ago, a pair of New York feminists, 23-year-old Nona Willis Aronowitz and her friend 22-year-old Emma Bee Bernstein, decided to drive across America to ask women what they thought about feminism. They are both daughters of big second-wave feminists, writer Ellen Willis and artist Susan Bee. Tragedy has since struck: Emma committed suicide last December. But Nona now has a blog for young feminists, and their book charting the views of the women they met was just published. It’s called “Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism.”
How did “Girldrive” come about?
In November 2006, my mother died. She was a very well-known feminist writer, who had a lot of feminist friends, and as soon as she died, all of her friends started reaching out to me, and it was a real whirlwind of feminism. It started to occur to me that this legacy was slipping through my fingers, or our generation’s fingers.
Then one day, a few weeks after my mom died, Emma and I, we were just having brunch, and I asked her what she was going to do after she graduated, and she said she wanted to take a road trip. And then it just clicked — this combination of self-discovery and pro-active research, and wanting to get answers about what feminism meant to our generation.
A lot of the women you interviewed were feminists but some were not. What do you think of people who reject the label?
There were two different types of women that said they weren’t feminists. One group were the women who harped on about the stereotypes — that feminists are man-haters, or radical activists. They were holding onto stereotypes, and it’s partly our education system’s fault and our culture’s fault, rather than their fault. That was really disheartening. So we tried to break down the stereotypes for them, we did insert ourselves into the conversation at that point.
Then there was a whole other set of women who knew a lot about feminism but felt marginalized by establishment feminism. They were doing really amazing work, they had a real working knowledge of how gender works in society, they had feminist awareness and they knew what they were talking about. So in those cases I couldn’t care less. If they have to put a qualifier on it and call themselves womanist or humanist, I don’t care, as long as they’re doing the work, as long as they’re aware of their surroundings, and as long as they’re having a conversation.
What are the differences between your generation’s experiences and your mom’s?
The second-wave movement was hugely successful but it failed in really addressing every woman’s issue. That legacy is still so alive: Almost all the women of color that we talked to had something to say about it; the same with some queer women too.
The road trip is part of a long American tradition. Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson did it, and on film, so did Thelma and Louise. Were you writing in response to that?
Most of these road trip tropes in the United States are about men. We weren’t men, but we were also not Thelma and Louise, we weren’t running away from a rape or a murder. We weren’t victims, we weren’t trying to get revenge on men, we were having fun. We were just trying to be the female counterparts to Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, without all the misogyny. If you read “On the Road,” the only women in the book are whores or idiots, and we just wanted to be part of those late-night freewheeling conversations and have our own amazing experience without having to be these helpless women that were angry at society.
We were young women, we were 23. We weren’t going to be goody two-shoes. We wanted to show that this road trip was fun and it was a little reckless and we are a little irresponsible and we don’t have to be these perfect studious feminists. Feminists can have fun too.