An Interview with Jessica Valenti
A few months ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Jessica Valenti - founder of Feministing, author of Full Frontal Feminism and awesome person all around.
For those not in the know, Jessica is the author of three books: Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know, and The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women which is being made into a documentary by the Media Education Foundation. Jessica is also the founder of Feministing.com, which Columbia Journalism Review calls “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.”
Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian (UK), The American Prospect, Ms. magazine, Salon and Bitch magazine. She has won a Choice USA Generation award, was featured as one of ELLE magazine’s “IntELLEgentsia”, and was named one of the Left’s Top 25 Journalists by The Daily Beast. She has appeared on The Colbert Report and the Today show, among others, and was recently profiled in The New York Times Magazine under the headline “Fourth Wave Feminism.”
She received her Masters degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from Rutgers University, where she was a part-time lecturer. Jessica lives in Boston with her husband, daughter, and their very cute cat and dog.
And without further ado, here's a Q&A with Jessica Valenti!
What was your feminist click moment? How did you realize you were a feminist?
I think I didn’t really have one specific click moment, it was more of a journey to feminism. I was always a feminist but I didn’t want to use the word because I didn’t want to be associated with the word feminism and also I was afraid that I didn’t know what it meant and that somebody would call me on it and ask me what I thought of something and interrogate me about it, so I was nervous about it. I was always political and interested in women’s rights and always felt like there was something really unfair and unjust going on I just didn’t have the language to put to the feelings that I was having. So I went to a pro-choice march when I was in junior high school with my mom, but I still didn’t identify as a feminist. I think it probably wasn’t until college when I took my first women’s and gender studies class that I was first like, “Oh, okay, I am a feminist.” I think it’s sad that a lot of people come to feminism like that in college and it’s kind of unfortunate because I wish that I would’ve identified as a feminist in high school because I think that it would’ve helped me navigate a whole world of difficulties in a much more effective way.
How do you define feminism?
I totally use the dictionary definition all the time, which is just social, political and economic equality for women. One because it’s the easiest but also because obviously there are a lot of different theoretical schools of feminist thought, but I don’t find it’s useful to talk to people that way or introduce feminism that way, and I think the dictionary definition is also really difficult to argue with. Like, really, you don’t want that? That sounds very simple. So that’s what I like about it, that it’s accessible.
Do you think we need a different word, like humanism? How do you feel about the word "feminism."
I don’t think we need a different word. I think that we need a different mindset about the existing word. I think any word that we came up with to mean feminism would be considered a bad word just because it has to do with women’s rights. So I think that it’s probably better if we stick with the word but try to debunk all of the ridiculous myths and anti-feminist stereotypes that surround it. And I think that is happening to a certain degree, but what scares me now is that we have the anti-feminist myths and then we also have conservative folks like Sarah Palin calling themselves feminists now, so the word is becoming super watered down in a way that freaks me out and makes me worried that maybe we will need another one because nobody will know what it really means – it’ll just become synonymous with “woman” and that’s not really what it’s about.
Do you worry that word "feminism" alienates men? How do you think we can welcome men to this movement. They have a lot of words to themselves. I think that’s why you’ve seen so many women’s studies departments become women’s and gender studies departments or gender and sexuality studies departments. I think that if there was a mass movement for a word for gender justice I think that I could get behind it. But I also do think that feminism is certainly for men but a lot of the thoughts about men and masculinity originated with feminism, and we should give feminism credit for that. And what better way to give them credit for it than keeping the name?
I think that the movement has become a lot better in terms of men – there were always male feminists out there, but especially since the advent of the internet we’re hearing a lot more from them and they’re becoming stronger voices. I think we need to make sure that we address men’s issues when we’re talking about feminism and female feminists, too. But I also think it’s really important that female feminists prompt male feminists’ voices up into leadership positions so that we don’t see them as ansillary or that we don’t see them as on the side. For a long time we’ve been really afraid of putting men in leadership positions in the feminist movement because we’ve been afraid that it’ll become all about men or women’s voices will be drowned out which is an understandable fear but I also think that young men are much more likely to listen to other men so I think it’s really important that their voices are made more audible.
How do you think that feminism can overcome it's past of racism and exclusion? How can we avoid pseudo-diversity?
I think it’s really hard and something that mainstream feminism still hasn’t managed to get away from. I think there’s two things going on. I think there’s a feminist movement that’s totally already diverse and intersectional and happening but it’s not the feminist movement that we tend to see, it’s not the feminist movement that tends to be funded, it’s not the feminist movement that tends to get media attention. I think there's a kind of institutional feminism that’s happening, like big organizations, big powerful names, and those are still majority very straight, white, middle - upper middle class voices and organizations that play to that sort of demographic. I think it’s important that we look at where the power is in feminism and we shift it. Not that we start de-funding big organizations, but that we start actively funding smaller, grass-roots based organizations or organizations that are led by women of color, by queer women, by younger women and that we’re really cogniscent of what voices are put out there.
What are your main issues with the feminist movement? What do you wish you could change about it?
I wish that we were not so stagnant in our thinking about what issues are important. I think that people think about feminism and they think “violence” or “reproductive rights” and they have this list of issues, but I think that list of issues should be constantly moving and changing as the time does and constantly expanding. I think a lot of feminist organizations have been putting out the same press release about the same issue for the past 30 years and I think that it’s just not working and I think we need to think about things in a more intersectional way, but also to come at those ideas from different angles. Come at it from pop-culture. Come at it from a different point of a view. So I think there’s that – there’s not this monolithic platform of what feminism is, but that it’s a constantly moving platform.
I also think that feminists need to stop eating their own. I think that we have this problem like tearing each other down when we should building each other up. And I think that’s a problem that’s not just a feminist problem but a woman problem -- it's a thing that women tend to do and are even taught to do to each other. I think there’s plenty of room for debate and really vigorous debate but there’s a difference between that and personal criticism or just trying to take people down a peg or two or hating on each other. It’s very strange.
Do you think we've entered a fourth wave of feminism?
I do think we’re in a fourth wave of feminism. I think the way feminism operates online is so different than the way feminism operated even 15 years ago that you cannot say that it’s the same. And its not even that I’m super crazy about the wave model either, because it does tend to separate people out by generation when that’s not necessarily the case. So, I wrote a blog post once that it’s more like we’re multiple fourth waves -- plural. There are lots of different kinds of feminism going on. That’s again, not one monolithic wave – not one platform, institution, or leader – but that’s what’s really cool about online feminism, that there’s so much going on. But of course that’s what makes it difficult to define and difficult to explain to people because it’s not so easily explained. And also the age thing – people say that we’re third wave feminists. But when I think third wave feminism I think of a generation that was doing work in the 90s, like Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner -who are amazing - but we do very different work. So I consider myself a fourth wave(s) feminist much more than a third wave feminism.
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