Girl Talk

It’s an interesting political moment for women and girls as we enter the countdown to the election.  Outrage around the shooting of 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai is still going strong and I want to be hopeful the outpouring of reaction will serve as an impetus for change. The story of the imprisonment of the band Pussy Riot is still unfolding and just a week ago was the International Day of the Girl.  It was deeply heartening to see how widely this was celebrated although each rallying cry highlighted the gross injustices and discrepancies girls still suffer.

Awhile ago I had the chance to interview Sara Marcus whose book Girls to the Front chronicles the Riot Grrrl movement.  It was a different sort of revolution, but one whose effects are still rippling forward.  Here is my review and conversation with her.

Sara Marcus’s history of the Riot Grrrl movement, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, was published in 2010 by Harper Perennial. Since then, the book has been widely praised, and Marcus’s nerve in taking on the famously controversial 1990s punk-feminist movement has been noted as well.  A Los Angeles Times critic prefaced an admiring review by stating, “I wouldn’t go near that hot mess of brilliant idealism and tragic dysfunctions with a 10-foot publishing contract.” As reviewers note, Marcus does go into this cauldron – with meticulous research, engaging narrative retellings of what it was like to participate directly in the Riot Grrrl movement, and reflections on her own experience of stepping into the fire as a teenager and realizing she had found her people.

Her portrayal of the tumult, excitement, breakdowns, and revolutionary zeal that rollercoastered through the movement in the early to mid-90s also includes, as she writes in the epilogue, “the unfortunate parts of the Riot Grrrl story — the parts I didn’t expect to find, the parts I would have preferred never to write.”  But, she concludes, “I had to tell the truth as I saw it.”  The result is that Marcus wraps her head (and arms) around the complicated, messy, yet passion-filled highs and lows of a span of years that left a lasting mark on the history of feminism.  Girls to the Front offers an admirably complex, nuanced view of a movement both from inside a writer’s lived experience of it, and from outside, through a researcher’s honest view.

As more writing comes forward about the Riot Grrrl years, it’s exciting to think back on a movement that is both recent and still revealing its legacy.  New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections now houses a Riot Grrrl Collection, and Kathleen Hanna has endorsed Girls to the Front on her blog, writing that since she was on tour through much of the movement, she learned a lot from reading the book. At the book’s New York release party, Hanna also gave a first-person tribute back to Marcus, (which can be viewed on YouTube), in which she mentions the way Marcus captured the split responses to the movement. In an eloquent review published last fall in Bookforum, Hanna’s Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman offered her own acknowledgment that Marcus addressed the thornier sides of Riot Grrrl’s legacy: “Any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous,” Fateman wrote. Riot Grrrl’s distrust of mainstream media’s representation of the movement, along with the splinters that unsmoothed its potent rage for change, make writing about any of it a tricky feat.  In a phone interview Marcus addressed some of these challenges, discussing her process and Riot Grrrl’s legacy.

Here is my conversation with her:

EL: What was the most radical thing about this movement?  What do you think is its legacy?

SM: One of the most radical things was that it was really fully youth-led, and not created along the model of services or programs designed by adults.  It was not without its shortcomings and drawbacks, but we were crafting a movement that exactly conformed to our needs, our passions, and our strengths.

The legacy [it left] is partly a recognition of the need for communication and critique as activist activities.  New feminists place blogging at the foundation of their activism and move outward from there, creating communities with each other.

EL: How is this different from creating zines?

SM: There are ways it’s better and ways in which it’s worse. The loss of the handmade thing and that intimacy is different.

Blogging is not a detriment to political organization, but when it comes to personal relationships, it pales in comparison with zines — it’s not as intense.  Within the Riot Grrrl movement there was an utter entwinement of politics with really intimate community building.  There’s this aspect that you see running through Riot Grrrl literature, of people needing to take care of each other, and these things can’t be disentwined: political action, self-actualization, and taking care of each other.

EL: In your introduction, you mention the parts you wish you hadn’t had to write. What were these difficulties?

SM: Not everybody had the blissful experience with Riot Grrrl that I had. The mainstream media attention really wrecked it for some people, even as it drew new people in, and so some new people felt judged—“What, I’m not cool enough for you?” This dynamic played into some people’s preexisting insecurities about fitting in, even as for other people the movement absolutely allayed these anxieties and was tremendously healing and empowering and led to lifelong friendships. Later on, some girls used radical politics as a pretext to treat each other pretty terribly. Radical one-ups(wo)manship is not unique to Riot Grrrl; any time you have people assiduously staking their identities on elaborating a political philosophy, there are going to be competitions about having the correct line, or about occupying the optimum subject position from which to claim authority on an issue. Even the nastiest behavior here, though, came out of a truly sincere desire to move feminist thinking forward, to incorporate thinking about multiple differences (race, class, ability, sexuality, and so forth, in addition to gender)—which as any student of feminist history and theory knows is no easy job. We were very young women with little to no training in political organizing, some of whom were recovering from significant childhood trauma, all of us just making everything up as we went along: It’s no wonder that we didn’t get everything right. I still think it’s to everybody’s great credit that we tried so hard to change our lives and change the world and build communities that would support us in these endeavors.

EL:  How do you see the Riot Grrrl movement tying in to issues that were raised around girls in the 1990s, such as the prevalence of the Reviving Ophelia “girls in crisis” story?  Did Riot Grrrl serve to counter this or to work with it?

SM: What was going on in the mid-’90s [when Reviving Ophelia was published] was the result of a renewed attention to adolescent girls’ lives, an attention that had already borne fruit in terms of media hunger about Riot Grrrl. But we were living these things — they were our lives. We were putting things into our zines about it, but it wasn’t as if the books and articles were waking us up to this crisis.

EL: Why do you think Riot Grrrl arose when it did?

SM: Riot Grrrl emerged in tandem with—and, I suggest in the book, rather as a cultural vanguard to—a renewed passion for feminism in the US that was coming about in response to some serious attacks on women, attacks that are looking pretty familiar right about now. When Riot Grrrl was getting started, Susan Faludi was just finishing up work on Backlash; that book was published in October 1991, two months after the first Riot Grrrl meeting, and it became a massive best seller. The Anita Hill hearings took place that same month, sparking a new wave of feminist rage. By the following spring the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey and the feminist movement as a whole was bracing for the end of Roe v. Wade. Although of course Roe was spared, restrictions on reproductive freedom for girls under 18 were widespread. Then in the summer of 1992, you had three conventions: the Democratic National Convention, nominating Bill Clinton and gearing everybody up for the so-called Year of the Woman in Congress; the Republican National Convention, declaring a culture war and labeling Bill and Hillary’s politics “radical feminism”; and the first Riot Grrrl convention. It was an intense time.

And in the midst of all of this, you had the aggravating fact that girls of my generation were growing up with the promises of the women’s liberation movement—promises that we could do anything we wanted, be anything we dreamed of—while sexist stereotypes and double standards, objectification of women in the media, and rigid gender roles were all still as powerful as ever.

EL: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Riot Grrrl during the process of researching and writing this book?

SM: The most surprising thing to me was, as I mentioned, how young we all were.  When you’re 17 and tapped into this revolutionary movement psyching people up so that you can change the world, you don’t feel young, but we were. It’s amazing how much we did with so little. We just gathered up whatever we could within reach and we made something beautiful of it. It had its flaws and shortcomings, but it also had its accomplishments.

EL: What do you think was responsible for the end of the Riot Grrrl movement?

SM: People just grew up. It was pegged to a certain point in development and the creation of the self.  We took what we had gotten and we moved forward.


Talk about irony: the same week that Rock Center with Brian Williams aired a story about a growing “concussion crisis” in girls’ soccer, I also got the curriculum for my 11-year-old daughter Maya’s soccer practice: “Heading (attacking and defensive situations, being brave).”

I definitely watched the Rock Center story with concern. Research shows that girls report twice as many concussions as boys in sports they both play.

The report aired Wednesday, and Maya practiced heading on Thursday. On Sunday we sat on the sidelines watching Maya’s team face off against a northern New Jersey opponent. The girls fought to control the ball, with neither team clearly dominating.

Then, as if in slow motion, I watched the ball sail through the air toward Maya at midfield. She stepped into the ball, leaned forward, and headed it toward the goal. Of course, she was fine. I’m sure she felt pleased with herself for putting the new technique into play in a game situation. To be honest, I was pleased myself, although anxious at the same time.

And here are the questions I’ve been turning over since the game: is this “crisis” one that should change the game of youth soccer for girls? Should heading be banned? One expert in the Rock Center story, Bob Cantu, the director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, MA suggests that it should, because “girls as a group have far weaker necks.”

Naturally I take concussions seriously and would not want to do anything that could jeopardize Maya’s health. But I’m not sure I buy this so-called crisis.  For one thing, the research draws on data from high school athletes.  How much can we generalize from that population to the nearly 1.5 million girls who play youth soccer in the US every year?

What’s more, is this thinking about girls’ weakness that much different from earlier arguments suggesting women shouldn’t be educated because our brains are smaller than men’s? Or that women shouldn’t walk alone at night because we face the threat of rape?

It seems to me that ideas about “protection” are often a guise for social constraints on women and girls.  What athletic opportunities would we curtail in the name of “safety” for girls?

For now, at least, I want Maya to practice “being brave,” and if that means heading the ball, I’ll be cheering her on.

But GWP readers, what do you think? How do you think about “risk” and “safety” for your daughters or sons?

Next weekend I have a unique opportunity to reflect on how I’ve grown since my graduation from Muskingum College—now University—in 1991. My husband Nikhil Deogun and I will be delivering the undergraduate commencement address.

Needless to say, it’s an honor and a privilege, but also a big responsibility. After all, we want to impart wisdom, right?

We’ve had fun thinking back on the people we were 21 years ago, and the unexpected paths we’ve followed. We want to give the graduates advice about how to navigate those unexpected turns themselves, about how to find love, follow their professional dreams, and make a difference.

For me, the question of making a difference has also come from some unexpected places. Here’s a sneak peak at some of my thoughts for the Class of 2012:

I’ve learned that through mothering I can make my mark on the world as much as—and maybe more than—at work. Let me be clear: I love my work at the National Women’s Studies Association and find it meaningful. Highlights of my working life include planning a yearly national conference that features cutting-edge feminist scholarship. I’m also a leader in conversations about women’s issues outside of higher education: in 2010, I organized a meeting at the invitation of the White House Council on Women and Girls to discuss how feminist academics could help shape policy initiatives, and I recently attended a Department of Education-sponsored discussion about applying classroom learning in community settings.

Yet I’ve discovered that motherhood can sometimes be richer ground for expressing my feminist values, and for cultivating parts of myself, than the workplace. Our children, Maya—who’s 11—and Sameer, who’s 9—really want to make the world a better place. More important, they take action to make a difference. For example, Maya teamed up with friends to sell hot chocolate at our local sledding hill to raise money for a neighborhood soup kitchen. Sameer has spent time serving meals in a Newark homeless shelter. Of course, they’re normal kids who sometimes spend too much time watching Teen Nick and absorbed in their iPods. But when they notice inequality they ask questions and they want to do something about it.

Here’s the lesson I’ve learned: while you’re busy building your career, don’t forget about opportunities at home, whether those come in the form of parenting or other non-work pursuits. It really is true what you’ve probably heard from faculty already: you want to be a well-rounded person.

Now GWP readers, what advice do you have for the class of 2012? What unexpected discoveries have you made looking back on your life over five, ten, or 20 years?

What Would Simone de Beauvoir Say? Bringing Up Bébé by former Wall Street Journal reporter Pamela Druckerman is the latest addition to books that highlight our cultural obsession with motherhood, or the failings of American mothers.  Even if you haven’t read the memoir you probably know the gist of the story given the raft of media coverage: after some time spent living in France where she gave birth to two children, Druckerman concludes that French women are superior mothers because they have time for themselves and their children are better behaved compared with her American counterparts.

Plenty of critics have taken aim at Druckerman’s argument but few have spent much time discussing the differences between French (read “extensive and nationalized”) and and American (read “few and individualized”) social supports for mothers and families aside from a quick mention before they move on to tackle other aspects of her narrative.

Surely it’s not so easy to dismiss these massive differences and the social conditions they create for mothers in their respective countries.  As a feminist, I want to focus on these structural problems and solutions, not toss them into a “by the way” paragraph.  I agree with my fellow GWPenner, Deborah Siegel, who argues here that we still need to demand some form of national childcare and better work-life options.

Work v. Motherhood Again New research in Gender and Society finds that most moms would work even if they didn’t have to.  According to Karen Christopher’s findings, mothers said they found more fulfillment in paid work than in parenting, and most women (regardless of class, race/ethnicity, or marital status), said they would work even if they didn’t have to.

Mother-readers, does this ring true to you?  Don’t get me wrong: I love my work at the National Women’s Studies Association.  At the same time, I don’t want to have to rank-order work over my role as a mother.  To me this sounds like an either/or choice that we should refuse.

Feminist Ryan Gosling Okay, this isn’t about motherhood, but Feminist Ryan Gosling falls squarely into the “and Feminism” portion of my roundup.  I love Danielle Henderson’s take on “feminist flash cards.”  I also love that Danielle is a graduate student in Gender and Women’s Studies.  I think you’ll love her work and her sense of humor, too!  Check it out and then post a comment here.

“Mom, I think I’d like to be a photographer,” my 10-year-old daughter, Maya, said recently.

“That would be very cool.”  Inside, I found myself thinking: I hope you can earn a living doing that.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a believer in the arts.  I sang in a high school show choir before Glee made that seem cool.  I worked backstage on all of my high school’s plays and minored in theatre at Muskingum College just because I loved it.

In fact, maybe because I know I have a bias toward the arts and humanities, I worry about how to correct for that.  I also know very well the barriers women face in entering the male-dominated—and lucrative—STEM fields.  I love sharing blog space with Science Grrl, Veronica Arreola, and I definitely gain insights from her posts.  I want to try to expose Maya to those potential career paths, too.

But the National Women’s Studies Association’s annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia last week gave me a new way to think about the transformative potential of the arts.

I listed to Lisa Yun Lee, the director of the Jane Addams Hull House museum, talk about why she makes efforts to support the arts with her programs.  She explained that her immigrant mother—who she knew as an accountant—had wanted to be a poet, a calling she gave up when she came to the United States.

I attended Ashley Lucas’s moving one-woman show, Doin’ Time Through the Visiting Glass, which examines the impact of incarceration on families.  Before the performance I admit I had given little thought to how prison shapes and binds those on the outside.

Lee’s remarks about her mother and Lucas’s performance reminded me that I want Maya to pursue her passions, wherever they take her.  I want her to be the photographer—or the poet—who can realize her vision and possibly make art that makes change.

The National Women’s Studies Association 2011 conference will take place in Atlanta, Georgia this year, where Governor Nathan Deal recently signed into law HB 87, an anti-immigrant bill.

NWSA leaders and conference organizers believe that the new legislation will undoubtedly limit immigrants’ rights to social justice as well as basic human rights; we view this law as one that conflicts with our feminist values and commitments.  We also believe that oppressive measures like HB 87 can be addressed through education and action, and we plan to address the issues driving HB 87 and the struggle against it at our conference.

Our conference theme, “Feminist Transformations,” speaks directly to the potential of feminist organizing to challenge anti-immigrant and xenophobic legislation reflected in HB 87 and similar measures nationally.

NWSA has planned special conference events, activities, and collaborations with local organizers to highlight our opposition to HB 87.  Stay tuned for more updates!

I started talking with my 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter about sexuality as soon as they started to ask questions like, “How are babies made?”  From my point of view, books have all the answers, and I turned to It’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley as a starting point.

But recent news has me wondering how and when to initiate other, more difficult conversations about sexuality and power.

For example, my neighbor and I were talking over our 10-year-old daughters’ heads at the bus stop on Monday morning about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund who has been arrested and charged with sexually attacking a maid.

Our conversation went like this:

Neighbor: “Did you see the news about Dominique Strauss-Kahn?”

Me: “Yes, it really does show that incidents like that are about power.”

Neighbor: “That’s for sure.”

My daughter Maya hovered nearby, sensing that we were discussing something juicy, but not entirely understanding.  She interrupted us with a question about school, and we changed the subject.

And then yesterday the news broke that Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child with one of his household employees.

I admit to turning the paper facedown on the kitchen table.  I would have found a way to talk about the Schwarzenegger story, of course, but I wasn’t eager to have the conversation.

As someone who jumped in early with the “sex talk,” I wonder why I’m shying away from talking about sexuality and power.  Maybe I want to protect my children from linking sexuality and violence when they still want to believe the best about people’s intentions.  After reading Veronica Arreola’s great post, “Can We Whistle Stereotypes Away?” I think I might be doing a better service to my kids if I’m honest in acknowledging that some men abuse power over women.

GWP readers, what do you think?  Is there a right time for the other sex talk?  Do you have advice about how to navigate this topic?

Women’s history month has led to the predictable school project in my home: interview a woman you admire.  I’ve reflected cynically about the value of such work in the past, but this year I’m taking a different view by thinking about women’s history on a smaller scale, within the course of a generation.

My mother, Louise Kimmich, is a retired teacher.  She stayed home with me, my brother, and sister until my sister entered kindergarten, and then she returned to work.  I remember her telling me many times about her limited professional options—teacher, nurse, and secretary—as a way of encouraging me to have big dreams about my own career choices.

But my mother modeled those ambitions, too.  She returned to graduate school while working full time and taking care of her family, earning Master’s degrees in early childhood and special education.  She took a page from the feminist activists’ playbook and went on strike at home, effectively engaging me and my siblings in taking care of some household tasks.

So here’s my own women’s history month project, an interview with a woman I admire.  My mom, Louise Kimmich, helped pave the way for me and all the daughters of feminism.  Her reflections illustrate how much feminism has achieved in a generation; they also point to some shortcomings that I’ll address in future columns.

Meanwhile, GWP readers, how do you take stock of feminists’ achievements and its unfinished business?

AK: Tell me about some of obstacles you faced as a woman.

LK: It was really the dark ages of womanhood if you were growing up in the 1950s!  You had a certain stereotypical set of occupations you could enter: teacher, nurse, and secretary.  You really weren’t encouraged to do anything else.  If I had it to do over again I don’t know if I would enter education.  I would probably choose something less stereotypical.

AK: How did feminism affect you?

LK: During the civil rights movement, I saw that people had the opportunity to participate, and make a difference.  It was an awakening.  I also remember Title IX.  I was a wife and mother by then, but I realized what had been missing for me in terms of high school sports.

AK: Tell me about a woman you admire.

LK: I admire all the young women of today, pursuing their dreams due to the feminist movement.  I also admire Hillary Clinton, who is my age, for rising to Secretary of State.

AK: What is an accomplishment of which you’re proud?

LK: My proudest accomplishment is being the mother of three wonderful adult children who are educated, responsible, kind, and caring adults.

Before I’m accused of self-serving pandering by including our last exchange (and really, she said that without  prompting from me!), I would argue that my mother’s reflections on the value of motherhood highlight an area where feminism has dropped the ball.  But more on that in the future.

I often write here about the girl in my life, my daughter, Maya.

Today I want to focus on girls nationally. The National Women’s Studies Association convened several girl-serving organizations at its 2010 conference, and learned, among other things, that the organizations wanted to broaden the audience for disseminating research and information about their programs.

To that end, NWSA created a research roundup. Some highlights:

  • 90% of Girls For A Change participants know they can create change in their communities, they can and will use those skills to create change in their own lives
  • The Girl Scout Leadership Experience curriculum is designed so that girls learn to advocate for themselves and others, locally and globally
  • Hardy Girls Healthy Women offers a strength-based approach to working with girls and is grounded in a review and critique of resilience literature for its over-emphasis on the individual and lack of attention to relationships and environments
  • Smart-Girl is a program that works with 8th grade girls in Denver, Colorado; a program evaluation shows that participants had increases in science grades and overall GPA

Even this brief overview points to some effective strategies for serving girls: we can teach girls to take leadership and translate their ideas into action.  We can create sustaining, respectful spaces for girls to engage and learn.  GWP readers, what has worked for you?  What other girl-serving organizations do you know?

You’ll also find highlights from girl-centered presentations at last year’s NWSA conference, with topics ranging from public education to food and sexualization.

This promises to be a growing area in NWSA.  The conference proposal submission deadline has been extended until February 21, 2011. Plan to come and find out the latest in the world of girls and girls’ studies!

My daughter Maya turns 10 today.  You may not remember what it feels like to hit double digits, but take it from me: this is a big deal.  Maya might say that hitting 10 means that she is definitely ready for a cell phone (not that she has one, however).

Now that I can talk about motherhood in terms of decades (well, at least a decade) instead of just years, it feels like a big deal for me, too.

In fact, motherhood has been getting a lot of media play these days.  If recent coverage is any indication, we’re either too harsh or too self-involved.  Consider the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s Why Chinese Mother’s are Superior excerpt in The Wall Street Journal and Judith Warner’s roundup of recent memoirs in The New York Times. Warner claims that in contrast with their own feminist moms, today’s mothers are turning inward and embracing home and family with a “deep desire for rules and regularity”

Neither the overbearing mother nor the self-involved ones hunkering down at home sound especially new to me (Freud, anyone, or Cinderella?).  But I am wondering where I fit into these public accounts of motherhood and how to define my own mothering.

For example, learning to ski would certainly have been low on my list of life pursuits before parenting despite growing up in the Northeast Ohio snowbelt.  Now as a steward of my kids’ (I have a 7-year-old son as well) health, I try to cultivate an active lifestyle and exercise habits that can serve them throughout their lives.  Thus the skiing lessons, which I have found that I love, and which allow me and my kids to learn something together.

And while I have given a lot of thought to teaching students about social constraints and feminist responses to them, I have also discovered that it’s altogether different teaching my children how to be change agents.  For one thing, I have my children for more than a semester, so if I get things wrong we can always try again!

Last year Maya ran for class representative and found herself in a runoff, which she lost, much to her disappointment.  Talking at home later she explained that she voted for a classmate in the first round because she “wanted to give someone else a chance.”

Although her generosity of spirit is one of her admirable qualities, I explained that it is sometimes fine and even important to pursue what you want.  That is, if you want to be class representative, vote for yourself.

This year, I’m happy to report that Maya was elected class representative.  But before you congratulate me for offering a successful lesson on assertiveness, I should add that Maya explained that she did not vote for herself in the first round of balloting: she voted for a friend, and the friend voted for her.

That same friend and Maya spent their Martin Luther King Day “on” by selling “Cocoa for a Cause” at our local sledding hill and donating the proceeds to an area soup kitchen.  They raised $47.

Sometimes working together is the best way to make a difference.  That’s not a bad vision for either of us to have as we enter double digits as mother and daughter.

And GWP readers, what’s your take on the latest mommy wars? Do you have favorite accounts of motherhood to share, and what does feminist mothering look like?