Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Girltalk with Nona Willis Aronowitz

Written by Kristin Ito
 Active Image “Why did you move?” I’ve recently set up digs in a new city, and since my day job is such that people figure I didn’t move here for it, I often get asked this question. My response is always, Why not? I’ve never needed much of an excuse to pick up my life and try something new.
{mosimage width=500}“Why did you move?” I’ve recently set up digs in a new city, and since my day job is such that people figure I didn’t move here for it, I often get asked this question. My response is always, Why not? I’ve never needed much of an excuse to pick up my life and try something new.
 
And it’s not that I’m out trying to prove something, nor am I running from anything. It’s just a part of figuring myself out, navigating through life while knowing I have the ability to make choices, both good and bad. And this is what, in Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, Nona Willis Aronowitz and the late Emma Bee Bernstein seem to understand about women in their twenties—that self-discovery is key in a way that is unique to our gender.

In Girldrive, Aronowitz and Bernstein embark on a road trip across the country. Along the way, they meet up with nearly two hundred women to talk about the issues that matter to them, as well as about feminism. What Aronowitz and Bernstein find is fascinating and inspiring. They encounter a diverse group of women who are struggling, creating, teaching, learning, and most of all, doing—all the while being thoughtful about how gender plays a role in their lives.

What I like most about Girldrive is that it forces you to ask, “Am I a feminist?” It gets you thinking about your identity and talking about it with friends, too. I’m going to leave it on the coffee table (once I get one), because this artistic, engaging collection of vignettes (Aronowitz did most of the writing, Bernstein took most of the photos) is easy to pick up and hard to put down. Recently, I chatted with Nona Willis Aronowitz about feminism, its future, and how it relates to all of us.

Kristin: I really liked that the book was very much about figuring out who we are and what we really want in life. Would you say this book is especially meaningful for young women in [their] twenties?

Nona: Yes, definitely. It’s when you can actually drop everything and take a road trip and go explore. It seems hard to just leave your life behind, and of course you need a car—but you don’t have all that much to lose when you're twenty-two. And I think travel and feminism are very much connected. They’re both about self-discovery.

Kristin: Ooh, that’s true. That’s what I liked about the book, that sense that you two were looking for something...

Nona: Well, we weren't so much looking for something as trying to get to know our peers, and getting ourselves out of our own bubbles. We weren’t “looking” for feminists so much as taking the pulse of young feminism.

Kristin: I see...so you were trying to find out what feminism meant to your peers?

Nona: Yeah, and what issues were important to them. We started out by thinking we could find a sort of unity within our generation, but then realized that the issues were so vast that this idea of “unity” was sort of pointless. The well-known feminists were to include other generations in the conversation and to get perspective—so that we don’t just repeat what other generations did.

Kristin: [Another] thing I really liked about Girldrive—in addition to its focus on feminism—were the parts about you two bar hopping and running amuck. How much did you want this sense of free-spirited fun to carry through in the book?
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Nona: We wanted to make it clear that we weren’t these super-serious feminists. We were also women in our early twenties who wanted to enjoy life. We wanted to revise this idea of the road trip as either being male, or being female, but angry at the world à la Thelma & Louise or Boys on the Side. We weren't running from anything. We were having fun, being ourselves.

Kristin: And what about Kerouac’s On the Road? Did you ever think of Girldrive as a response to that?

Nona: Kind of, yeah, we did. We got the book on tape and were horrified at the nonchalant sexism. [Maybe we were like] the female counterparts to On the Road, not “Screw you, we're women!” but more, “We can have those late night freewheeling conversations, too.” All the women in that book are prostitutes or just vapid. On the Road does have a universal message. Too bad it’s marred with blatant sexism!

Kristin: Yeah, it’s pretty shocking. But going along with the idea that feminism is so intersected now, would you say that rather than iconic feminists, your role models have been some of the women you’ve met along the way?

Nona: Yeah, definitely. I have some [big name] feminists I admire—Erica Jong and Michele Wallace are two—but basically I’m more inspired by my own generation who doesn’t have to put themselves in the spotlight. They're just getting things done. I admire women who tell it to you straight—either writers who don't tiptoe around their opinions, or activists who are, well, active in their communities.

Kristin: Do you feel that the “work” of feminism is being done?

Nona:  I do. I just think it’s kind of ghettoized right now.

Kristin: What do you mean by that?

Nona: Just that sometimes I think it’s disturbing that women’s issues have to be so separate, like that Slate had to start a new mag called DoubleX, meaning they don't want to put those articles in the mainstream magazine. And I’m glad these pubs exist (Sadie for example :)—I just wish they weren't so separate from the mainstream, national narrative.  When I’ve been pitching Girldrive, I’ve gotten a lot of “Oh, well that's about feminism, so we don't really cover those issues,” and I’m like, What issues?  Life issues?
 
Kristin: Seriously. I studied English in grad school and the “Feminism & Academia” [section] in Girldrive really hit home. I feel like I never quite understood how to connect what I was learning in the classroom to the “real” world. Do you think there is a place to talk about feminism outside of the ivory tower? Can you explain a bit more about…the problems of applying what you learn/discuss/theorize…in class to the “real” world?

Nona:  I think women’s studies classes are all well and good, but they have a high potential for alienating people, and turning them off to feminism. It really does get weighed down with this PC connotation, like “Don’t say that, you might be essentializing!”

Kristin: I HATE that word!

Nona: Ha ha, I know—engendering is another annoying one. But yeah, with “everyday feminism” it’s easier to be honest and express yourself, to relate feminism to your daily life.

Kristin: Yeah, I was reading that you came to feminism later on?

Nona:  I sought out some feminist theory and literature on my own but was never “taught” it. And I’m kind of happy about that. That said, I do think women’s studies classes and programs are invaluable because they at least bring a consciousness about gender issues, provide a community, and host feminist speakers. That’s incredibly important.

Kristin: Right. You mentioned in the book that you weren’t too aware of feminist theory before college. Do you think it’s a bad thing for young women not to be conscious of it?

Nona: Hmm, well feminist theory isn’t for everybody. But feminist history should be taught alongside the civil rights movements. It’s embarrassing that it isn’t. Girls know who Martin Luther King is; everyone now knows who Harvey Milk is; but often you get blank stares when you mention Gloria Steinem or Angela Davis. Can you imagine a biopic about a feminist? It would be awesome, but I can’t picture it right now.

Kristin: Hmm, never thought of that! I read that a lot of the time [on your road trip], you met resistance when wanting to talk about feminism. Was that frustrating?

Nona: I mean, everyone was down to talk about feminism, but many women didn’t identify it. Hearing the “hairy-legged, bra-burning” stereotypes was frustrating, but hearing the other reasons wasn’t so annoying, e.g. that it was exclusive, or blind to certain race and class issues.

Kristin: I see. So, do you think there’s a problem with the word itself, or that the word is obsolete in a way?

Nona: No, because I think it still has the power to spark these conversations. It still has the power to ignite a gender consciousness, even if women might take issue with it. It’s a code word for talking about gender disparity, and that’s extremely important. I don’t think it’s useful for describing or starting a movement. There’s just too damn many of us, with countless issues that take precedence.

Kristin: Right. I thought it was interesting when you talked to women of different races and the “being black/Hispanic/Asian before being a woman” issue came up. Did you find this to be the case among many of your racially diverse interviewees?

Nona: Not necessarily. Everybody was different, but some had that view. I personally think that’s paralyzing, as if race and gender are two separate issues? They're not. Even if racism is more palpable to women of color, they’re still privy to all the gender dynamics that go on in this country and they need to own that. If a woman is going to reject feminism, fine—but she at least has to be aware of how gender functions in her life.

Kristin: Right. I always identify with being Asian American, but what I realize I’m really talking about is being an Asian American woman.

Nona: Exactly. Modern feminism is intersectional. But that doesn’t mean gender issues should be brushed to the side.

Kristin: So what about the future of feminism? Where do you think it is going?

Nona: I think the future of feminism is going to be expressed in the form of local activism on the one hand—targeting what’s important to your community of women—and a pervading cultural conversation on the other hand. General awareness. No icons, no “faces” of feminism—that gets people pissed off—always has, always will. I think the old, second-wave concept of consciousness-raising is still essential to feminism—just getting women talking to each other and realizing, this is bullshit!

Kristin: Right. But the icon thing is too bad—that biopic sounds pretty awesome...

Nona: Ha ha, I mean that's true. People should know about feminist icons in history.  And I’m not saying people shouldn’t be feminist role models to other women, but it gets sticky when you try to have a spokesperson for feminism. There are just too many women for that.

Kristin: Right…So, when's your next road trip?

Nona: Ha ha ha! I think I’ll leave Girldrive Part II for someone else. A road trip is one thing, but a road trip that turns into a project is a LOT of work, lemme tell ya.
 
Read Kristin Ito's Road Trip Tips!
 
Images courtesy of Nona Willis Aronowitz

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