Not far into Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein’s book, Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, the word drive takes on new definition. Friends since they were 11, the duo spent summers together at Camp Kinderland, (where they return to teach a gender awareness workshop at their journey’s end). Aronowitz describes their mutual upbringing as one in which they incubated within the same “bubble: the liberal Jewish one that inhabits New York’s Upper West Side and Greenwich Village.” Post-college, over Bloody Marys and brunch, they hatch a plan to drive across America to try to understand what feminism means to twentysomethings outside this shell. After planning and saving, they set off for an odyssey of exploration, crashing on couches, interviewing in living rooms as well as in bars, doing their best to catch the flavor of whatever city they’re in and to measure how the word “feminist” translates.
Through series of snapshots â€“ both visual and written â€“ they tease out from their interviewees whether or not they comfortably embrace the word “feminist” as part of their self-definition. The book feels like a gloss â€“ in the best sense â€“ Bernstein’s photos are vivid and edgy as is each page’s sleek design. Aronowitz is responsible for the bulk of the writing and through her capsule write-ups she imbues mutable definitions into the word “feminist.”
The two discover a “badass feminist posse in Baton Rouge,” are so taken with the “fascinating women in Nashville,” they say on an extra day, dress up as frumpy second-wavers for some Halloween partying on the Las Vegas strip. They interview members of Big Star Burlesque, a plus-size dance troupe in Austin, chat with graduate students in San Diego and parse the contributions and detriments of “academic feminism,” learn from a young single mother on welfare tending bar in Sioux Falls, and bring some of their “guy friends” directly into the discussion in Kansas City. They drop acid in Abiquiu, follow a text to an afterhours “noise show” in Portland, feel surprised by Seattle’s “crunchy clean,” spend much of their holidays in New York City zigzagging across the boroughs to capture the rich communities of writers, artists, and activists they find.
The effect is one of pastiche, weaving, or braiding, all good second-wave tropes, but with the conversation focused on third-wave concerns. Aronowitz and Bernstein are transparent about their process throughout â€“ and frank about what surprised them. Working out and through the interconnective fibers that bind generations of women is their work. They encounter women who mightily resist the word “feminist” due to generational preconceptions, but still desperately want gender injustice to end. Some embrace the word “humanist” or just want to be called an activist, minus any labels. When some women were confused by what the word “feminist” even meant, the two asked, “What pisses you off about being a woman?” or “What keeps you up nights?” often to a flood of response. The collective narrative picks up friction when Aronowitz and Bernstein openly grapple with women who say they plan to have a “traditional” marriage or eschew premarital sex or are ardently anti-choice. These moments are compelling as Aronowitz and Bernstein gamely push up against these comments, and fairly include them.
Interviews with second wave feminists leaven the book as the two ask what legacy has been handed down, and what these women hope for their generation. The two sit down with Erica Jong, Katha Pollitt (and her daughter), Michele Wallace, poets Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Anne Waldman, Starhawk, (among others), pay homage to Kathleen Hanna, and close the book with an interview with feminist artist Susan Bee Bernstein, Emma’s mother.
If I could wish for one change, it would be less breadth. Surveying with a wide lens is the point of their project â€“ to collage viewpoints and show the multiplicity of meanings that inhabit the word “feminist.” Yet at times the interviewees’ comments are so brief they don’t allow meaning to accrete. The richest part of the book is its sheer panoply of voices and images, but more interstitial reflection would help frame the montage.
It is impossible to not commend the two for the ambitious scope of this project, to admire their commitment, and the sense of passion present in their quest. Sadly, it’s also impossible to not think about the losses that accompany the book â€“ especially the resonating silence that surrounds losing the voice of a young feminist from the collective conversation. But the echo left is one of fervid dialogue â€“ richly diverse â€“ engaged in trying to create what changes lie ahead.