She may joke about being in her “elderly” 40s, be completely clueless about Twitter, and refer to to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as “Born That Way,” but prominent Third Wave feminist Jennifer Baumgardner has consistently shown a commitment to keeping up with the (feminist) times. In her years as an activist and writer, she has continued to acknowledged the feminists who came before her and honored the experiences of the next generation of feminists trying to carve their own path. Her latest book, cheekily titled F ’em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls, continues her quest to build bridges between the feminist generations.
The book is composed of old and new material; about half of it consists of essays that have been printed elsewhere, while the other half consists of “epilogues” to the previously printed material and interviews with an array of feminists. Focusing on topics like motherhood, gender, sexual orientation, patriarchy, and the political and cultural legislation of female sexuality, Baumgardner explores the many contradictions within the feminist movement(s). Her willingness to explore these gray areas is the thing I loved most about this book.
There are a lot of valuable lessons to be gleaned from this book’s pages. In her discussion about each feminist wave needing to learn from each other and properly build upon the previous generation’s work, Baumgardner recalls an idea she had in her early years: she tried to convince publishers to get out-of-print feminist classics back into print. Since I’ve been participating in a yearlong Feminist Classics project myself, my ears perked up at this. Baumgardner learned several hard lessons in trying to accomplish her goals, one of the biggest being that it wasn’t a straightforward case of The Man trying to keep women down–many times, it was the authors themselves who impeded and chance of a reprint. Case in point: Shulamith Firestone, who rescinded her approval for a new edition of The Dialectic of Sex and told Baumgardner, “If your generation really wants it, there are a few copies available on Amazon.com.”
Looking back on the experience, Baumgardner writes:
As I came to terms with the fact that my vision of a feminist classics series wasn’t going to be realized, I started to see the lesson in Firestone’s actions. Her book was a challenge to the inevitability of the female role, especially that of the mother who has to forgo her own needs by constantly privileging the needs of her progeny. It’s true that men spend significant amounts of time mentoring other men–it’s the positive side of the old boys’ network–but men don’t feel that they owe other men this. With women, perhaps because we’ve only recently entered the public sphere, there is a sense that mentoring and torch passing steal from one’s own hard-won store of power.
That whole chapter in general was fabulous, but I thought long and hard about that lesson in particular.
Baumgardner also writes openly about confronting her own privilege over the years; she is even willing to be honest about her transphobia in years past, analyzing the evolution of her behaviors and beliefs over the last couple of decades. Titled “My Bi-Trans-Feminist Power Trip,” that chapter is one of many that discusses Baumgardner’s bisexuality, but it also discusses the various privileges took advantage of in her interactions with the trans community. The chapter then segues into an interview with trans feminist activist Julia Serano (by the way, if you haven’t read Serano’s Whipping Girl, do it ASAP).
The majority of Baumgardner’s activism has to do with abortion–she’s the woman behind those “I Had an Abortion” t-shirts that stirred up controversy a few years ago–so naturally, part of her book focuses on reproductive justice and the heated conversation surrounding abortion. Over the years, Baumgardner has taken a more nuanced stance; she wants the stigma that comes with abortion to be removed, and she wants women to feel comfortable about speaking about their abortion experiences regardless of whether their experiences were no big deal or a traumatizing event that they continue to struggle with.
My favorite interview in the book is the one featuring Loretta Ross, who is the national coordinator for the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. I’m in awe of Ross’s story, and I’m so glad her interview was included; she discusses at length the implications that the reproductive rights movement has had on women of color. In response to being overlooked, women of color organized and created the reproductive justice movement (which melds reproductive rights with social justice for women of color). The interview is a must-read.
Unfortunately, not every interviewee was as awesome as Loretta Ross; some of them clung stubbornly to the past and were completely out of touch with the current feminist climate. I was dismayed by BUST founder Debbie Stoller’s interview in particular. Considering that she’s running a magazine geared toward younger feminists, it was upsetting to hear her dismissing the work of…younger feminists! What’s more, it often seemed like Stoller, a Third Wave feminist, felt that younger feminists weren’t doing enough to acknowledge the Third Wave:
I don’t see a Fourth Wave yet…I don’t see new strategies coming out of younger feminists. In fact, what I see a lot in the younger generation is sort of a reversion to the Second Wave. It’s about being politicized and not much reclaiming. Third Wave strategies didn’t get that much press, so I don’t know if they ever filtered down to a lot of these younger women. When you look at the textbooks they’re reading, I don’t know if there’s anything Third Wave included.
But worse than Stoller’s dismissal of the work that younger feminists are currently doing is her troubling stance on major issues in feminism. For a Third Waver, she sure seems completely clueless about the necessity of intersectionality:
There is this whole issue in feminism I always find really difficult and touchy. I don’t even know if I can broach it. But I feel like trying to struggle for feminism, just feminism, is almost impossible, because all of these other causes get placed in front. If you look at the democratic convention from the 1970s, when women agitated for equal rights, then the feminist cause became the lesbian cause. Gay rights are absolutely important to me, but gay rights are not feminism. And neither are civil rights. I mean, these are all important things, but they’re not central to feminism.
*sigh* Debbie. Debbie, Debbie, Debbie. That’s so mainstream Second Wave of you. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Regardless of my “disagreements” with some of the interviewees, I do think it’s incredibly important to hear opposing viewpoints, and Baumgardner does a good job trying to clarify questionable statements. There’s a good balance of differing perspectives presented throughout the book, and readers will undoubtedly find something that resonates. I read a lot of books on feminism–all waves included–and F ’em! is one of the most engrossing feminist reads I’ve encountered this year.
F ’em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls was released by Seal Press on September 27, 2011.