Dear Jessica Valenti!
I just finished reading your book Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters and though I am actually a young white man, 22 or so, I wanted to respond to your book, as your project and feminism generally are crucial to the struggles we are fighting in this world of ours and because in reading it I was challenges to think about where we need to go as feminists and as progressive change-makers generally. (As a quick about me: I am a ‘radical’ community organizer and at this point my main claim to fame would be a free school for social change project called the Experimental College or EXCO: www.EXCOtc.org).
Your book is at its fantastic best when discussing everyday issues with clarity and flair, particularly when it is happy to be badass about it. “I’m better than you in bed and I’ve got feminism to thank for it”. Badass. Sex should be fun, and safe, women are undervalued, set up to impossible standards, harassed, violated, and worse, and we know it, we see it everyday, and in recognizing this and doing something about it we are happier, cooler, and more powerful—this is what feminism is about. This is what I got as the core message of the book and for me that is right on.
The book is also solid in its recognition of the ways in which feminism has overemphasized the struggles of monied, straight white women. Being upfront about those issues and discussing how oppression is different based on race, class, and sexuality was great, and you did a particularly good job with making sure to include queer issues, a perspective that has had increasing influence on my own work, particularly through drag/gender performance (see below).
That being said, I thought the book was weakest in the action piece, a problem we see across all our movements. What do we do? How do we raise hell again? This, my friends, is the task, the challenge, the fun, the work ahead of us! This is how I would like to have seen your book end, as I think it is important to note that we haven’t really figured out new strategies and tactics that are effective in making change, though certainly you and those you mention are miles ahead of many in terms of hipness and tactics—blogs for one! I also thought the cell-phone-picture snapping of harassers was frigging amazing.
So while perhaps I am unusual in enjoying being challenged to figure out how to raise hell, I do think it is the task at hand. It is this that I would like to address in the rest of this piece, and it is this that I am curious about your thoughts (and the thoughts of whoever else is out there!).
The need to reconsider strategy was made salient to me in your section on voting, where you touch on where many young people feel that it doesn’t matter who wins elections. And while I understand, and in some ways am sympathetic to the approach that “shit! it does matter”, I feel like the problem is that we haven’t successfully created a politics of everyday life, so that politics becomes disempowering representational and representative politics—nonprofits, special interests, elections—and that feminism in this mode remains immensely alienating despite its potential and individual impact as a powerfully liberating identity.
This word, identity, to me is in many ways the crux of the problem. Not because identity is limiting or fragmentary, but because identity as a motive and connection isn’t sufficiently strong to be able to create the power and change that we need everywhere, and to feel in our everyday lives. Identity is an electoral concept, or a consumer concept, while power is based in the ability to do things directly, and is rooted in communities or institutions, and institutions on their own maintain, rather than change, the status quo. As such we need to make feminism, and feminist organizing and struggle into feminist communities, feminist relationships, feminist practices, feminist power.
What do I mean by this? I’m not entirely sure myself but let me give you some examples and inspirations from my own research, ideas I am right now trying to figure out in practice.
I know that in Italy in the 60s and well through the 70s, the feminist movement set up a huge number of women’s centers, as safe spaces for women to come together, to build community, to support each other, and to fight together for a variety of things, including abortion rights, and as such served as the heart of community change-making and the alternative to a male-dominated workers’ movement.
Drag performance is an interesting venue for me, particularly in that it seems to be designed as precisely a safe space for sexuality, a place where sexual experimentation and expression, gender identities or un-identities, of all types can be played out and celebrated. Just as feminism provides a way of seeing through the bullshit, drag provides a collective space to not only mock it and parade its destruction, but also to experiment with new ways of being, in relation to gender and its intersection with a variety of forms of power and oppression.
On a negative note, there has been an increasing professionalization of nonprofits, and as such a increasingly clinical approach to victims of all types of oppression, and as such, people come to nonprofits to be served, not to be supported and join the struggle against the forces that have victimized them. As such, nonprofits have been a mode of coping with disempowerment rather than that of building power and community, and the INCITE! Collective, Women of Color Against Violence have put out an amazing book on the topic called The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Against the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, which has been essential to my attempts to re-think organizing in this crazy globalizing world.
At the core then, I think we need to return to our own histories and draw out not the legislative successes but the things that build the movements that made these successes possible, like self-defense classes, women’s centers, collective daycare, participatory skits on everyday harassment to give men a chance to experience, or witness, what its like in the workplace or in the streets…and to use new things, like gender performance and the internet, for example.
The internet in particular is a power and a risk, in that it allows us to forget the importance of the personal, of relationships, of face to face discussion, local support and community—that which is most important!—even as it allows us to link together, learn from each other, and synchronize action as never before. I am tempted to say that the internet is only really a useful tool only after we have build a community and are in the process of inviting more people in, growing our base and solidarity and projects at the grassroots level. And while this ignores the importance of the internet in getting local people together (something not to be ignored), it is crucial to realize that the trust needed to change our everyday lives cannot be virtual, that the community needed to make the changes we want to see are not sufficiently expressed by a shared identity or value, as anyone who has joined a march and left as lonely and with as many friends as they arrived with can attest.
Lastly, I would challenge us to think economically, to engage directly with what keeps us physically helpless. Not only at the level of yes, lets work so that we can stand on our own, but the fact that we need to work or we will starve, that we are exploited in workplaces, or to say it in another way, that freedom, not love, is the opposite of fear.
Bringing a feminist lens to these problems can make more meaningful an economic movement for worker controlled workplaces and alternative economies, and to make feminism more powerful. Sexual harassment, being paid less, normative maleness in relation to health care and child-care, and the tyrannical structure of workplaces are related, and recognizing and fighting that together has the powerful opportunity to re-articulate some aspects of the feminist project and to convince those who are otherwise alienated from it of its deep relevance for their everyday lives.
What do you think?
Is it weird that some white dude is writing this? How am I negotiating, successfully or otherwise, the male-feminist category? Do these ideas have the potential I think they do to re-invigorate radical, grassroots, and community based change? Why, why not? What are the key problems, misassumptions, or challenges of such an approach? Am I sufficiently androgynous, masculine, or feminine in my tone?
Love to hear your thoughts and think about who is doing this type of work and how we can build the movement locally, nationally, and around the globe.
All the best,