The Happy Feminist

Jennifer Baumgardner became the Executive Director of The Feminist Press last year.  Photo by Ali Price.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the Executive Director of The Feminist Press.
Photo by Ali Price.

After being “a feminist in the mainstream” through a twenty-year writing career, last year’s selection of Jennifer Baumgardner as Executive Director of The Feminist Press seemed entirely apt. This “feminist since birth” journalist, activist, and filmmaker spoke with me in late February as the third profile in my feminist publishers series. Baumgardner, who has toured the country and spoken at hundreds of universities and colleges in support of her various projects, spoke to me with great sincerity and clear-headedness about all-things-feminist. She hospitably offered me a steaming mug of dark coffee for our chat on a snowy morning.

Baumgardner’s work has included articles for Ms. Magazine, Glamour, The Nation, and The New York Times, most often publishing articles on sexual identity, abortion, rape, as well as social commentary. I mentioned that her writing has always been boldly feminist, but notably positive in its outlook.

“I’m very positive, actually,” she said. “That’s kind of my thing. Philosophically, the Second Wave grew out of observations of profound inequality, including racial inequality. They critiqued society, pop culture, high culture. . .you name it. I think that my generation, roughly speaking, has the privilege of having a full range of responses to injustice and the privilege of being able to be a ‘positive force.’ Feminism is identifying injustices and inequalities and it’s painful, but feminism is also tapping into power and self-worth and joy and saying that you don’t have to suffer at all times to be a good feminist.”

She matter-of-factly told me: “In fact, the most revolutionary thing that you can do is be happy.”

While Baumgardner has had a prolific writing career, she noted that the creation of her I Had an Abortion project, which included the film I Had an Abortion (co-developed with her friend, Gillian Aldrich), marked her as a writer who would no longer be asked to write about abortion as a journalist. “I think that I was perceived as an activist. . . [Now], my peers get asked to write those stories and I get interviewed as an expert.”

Baumgardner’s first documentary, I Had an Abortion (Women Make Movies, 2005) focused the camera on women who told the stories of how they had come to have an abortion. Her second documentary, It Was Rape, similarly attempted to put a face on a common, but silenced, experience.

“Because of rape shield laws, we actually don’t hear from people who’ve been raped. In a way, our culture doesn’t want to face those people—it’s part of our denial around rape. We’re protecting them and protecting their privacy, but we are also protecting ourselves. ‘I don’t want to know that about you.’ That’s the attitude, I think. So the approach I’ve attempted is that I do want to know about you. People who have abortions or have been raped are our friends, our mothers, ourselves, our sisters, our grandmothers, and we need to face it. Face them and listen.”

Trying to draw people out with her interviews, with her listening, is much like a therapy session, Baumgardner said. “I nod and give silent encouragement and don’t offer any advice: Just interested listening, which is more cathartic than I could have imagined—for both the interviewee and me.”

The 2013 VIDA Count had been released the week that we spoke, setting off a social media flurry among feminist writers and gaining more attention from major news organizations. “What’s funny about it is that it’s the simple numbers and the numbers are persistently bad,” Baumgardner said. “What would happen if the VIDA Count was more equal? It wouldn’t be newsworthy. It gives us information, but it doesn’t give us dimensional information. The VIDA Count does what it says it’s going to do and it does a great job of it, but counting women isn’t my only way of understanding what’s going on.”

As a writer, Baumgardner encourages emerging women writers, particularly those who support themselves with their writing, to be pragmatic about being published. “If I was trying to get a job, my reaction [to the VIDA Count] would be very internal: OK, the deck is stacked; what are things that I can do to get work? Right now, I think it’s still about using your interior resources to get the job done.”

“Do not read into the high points of being published too much because they’re temporary,” she said. “As are the low points and the rejection. Developing this flexible attitude that’s resilient is literally part of your job.”

As the executive director of the world’s longest-running publisher of feminist writing, I was curious to hear Baumgardner’s take on how women, young and old, may either spurn or embrace the label of feminist. I mentioned how many comments our site received in response to Tabitha’s post about Beyonce and feminism. I had been surprised to see how many women rejected the label.

“I have a lot of tolerance and capacity to understand that rejection,” Baumgardner said. “When Manifesta, the book I wrote with Amy Richards, first came out, we toured and heard the vast array of reasons for why people don’t call themselves feminists and it cannot be boiled down to: ‘I’m scared of the word.’ It’s: ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I’m not sure I know what it means,’ ‘Is it something I’m allowed to stake a claim in? Is it something that is written in stone and some feminist politburo tells me what it is?’ The degree to which feminism as a term invites interpretation is something we have to come to embrace. You come to see yourself as a feminist and you start to own it. And you start to feel like you can represent feminism and know who you are and the ways that you’re expanding feminism, which is what I think Beyonce is doing. But before you’re at that place, it just looks like parts of [the individual] won’t be allowed into the definition of feminism.”

I asked her for any insight into the talks about a “new girls network” to rival the old boys network that I had first heard about in December at the Hedgebrook Cookbook reading at Powderkeg (a women’s writing space in Brooklyn). Baumgardner mentioned she’d heard feminists like Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem calling for “new girls networks” since she first arrived in New York 20 years ago. “When you think about social change, pointing out the social inequality is the first of 100 steps that results in meaningful change. Sometimes I wonder, are we actually at step four—building something new—but we just keep doing step one: pointing out inequality? That said, with respect to a new girls network, just because I’ve been hearing about it for years doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. Maybe this is the right time. Maybe that idea’s time has come.”

With her trademark optimism, she said: “I think that if you build something and it’s valuable, people are magnetized to it. If a new girls network resonates for people, it will happen—the way so many other sweeping movements gathered momentum—simply because it’s needed.”

Have a suggestion for a feminist stakeholder for Mary to interview? Suggest them below in the comments, or Tweet them at her. Check back in on March 24 for her next profile. (HINT: It will involve beer.)

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