Conversation with Courtney Martin
Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women, a Senior Correspondent at The American Prospect, and an Editor at Feministing.com. She enjoys traveling the country and speaking on these issues with her intergenerational panel, WomenGirlsLadies. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.
INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL (5/22/09)
Marianne Schnall: How old are you now?
Courtney Martin: I’m 29.
MS: I have been thinking about the interviews I have been doing, and I realized that they are mostly women of older generations, and that it is important for me to start interviewing younger women. You have been doing such great work these past few years, as a woman speaking out on behalf of the younger generation - which is funny now that you are 29 - but you are still inspiring younger generations.
CM: It is a funny age – I am starting to [laughs] age out of the young woman category – it’s kind of interesting. But yeah I do still feel like I certainly am in touch with sort of what the newest generation of feminists are thinking are feeling.
MS: I can remember when we first launched Feminist.com in 1995, we were all a bunch of twenty-somethings, and Amy had just started Third Wave – we were the younger generation forging ahead into this new emerging technology of the Internet. And now, I’m turning 42 this year, and I still sort of feel that same way – but every once in a while I realize, “Wow – I’m really not the younger generation anymore [laughs] – how’d that happen?"
CM:Yeah, I’m really close friends with Deborah Siegel who just turned forty and I always feel like she’s my age. And I think she feel like she’s my age – although now, she’s pregnant with twins.
MS: I know Deborah too – she’s great. So speaking of intergenerational relationships - what attracted you to participating in Omega Institute’s Women & Power conference, given the theme of Connecting Across the Generations? You are one of the speakers and Feministing is one of the media partners – Feminist.com is as well.
CM: Well, it’s funny – the long story is that I actually went to one of the Women & Power conferences years ago with my mom, and had a totally intergenerational experience, but it wasn’t a conference based on intergenerational issues. I can’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was the one with Jane Fonda, Sally Field, and Eve Ensler and it was in a hotel in New York. And I was so moved by that experience, for a lot of reasons, that I’ve always kind of kept in touch with what Omega was doing around these annual conferences. I wasn’t always able to afford going, or it didn’t always work with my schedule, but I was always really interested. And then last year I had the opportunity to go and co-present with Rachel Simmons, who wrote Odd Girl Out, and was just re-introduced into the fold of that great feeling I had so many years ago.
And when I heard that this year’s theme was intergenerational dialogue, I was pretty much over the moon, because it was something I have thought about so much in the last few years and it’s just so dear to my heart, so it kind of felt like one of those wonderful moments where the world conspires to kind of give you experiences that you’re craving. And so, I sort of brought Feministing, for example - and we’re just one blog of a bazillion of them - is as high as Ms. Magazine’s subscription’s list at its highest.
So I think that a lot of the problem is just knowing where to look for young feminists – certainly a lot of young women are afraid of the feminist label, but that’s actually been true since the beginning of feminism – I mean, there have always been women afraid of the feminist label. And also, of course, a lot of women reject the feminist label for really valid reasons, to do with race and class issues. So that’s the first one.
The second one is I think there’s this very common idea that young women are just trying to reinvent the wheel, that we’re kind of talking about all the same issues, and there’s some frustration sometimes on older women’s part of like, “Why are you talking about this? We already solved this back in 1975!” [laughs] Particularly around sexual politics or some things that just kind of feel like old news to a lot of older women who have been doing this work for so long. And I really try to talk about the idea that number one, each of us has to really own and internalize our feminist consciousness through our own experience and epiphanies, right? We can’t just hand down kind of the feminist manifesto and expect young women to own it if they haven’t gotten to kind of come to their own wisdom about it. So I think that’s a little disingenuous to expect young women not to talk about the same old issues.
And the second thing is that I feel like – I always think about sort of like the philosopher ethics, like people like Peter Singer or like all those big wigs at Princeton – it’s not like anyone ever says to them, “why are you talking about this again? Plato and Aristotle already did this whole thing.” [laughs] It’s almost like degrading how complex and important these feminist questions are to think that we would solve them and then we wouldn’t still be talking about sex and work and gender identity and shared parenting and all these things that are just going to be kind of eternal, and really complicated and wonderful. I don’t think there’s ever going to be an end to feminism, so why would there be an end to these kind of explorations? So that’s another one that I hear a lot.
The other one is the perception that young women don’t want relationships with older women, which I just find is totally not true. Every young woman I know is craving the kind of grounded energy and wisdom that comes from being friends and having mentor relationships with older women, and I think sometimes they just don’t know where to find them. They don’t know how to initiate them, and there’s just so much generational segregation in our society in general that I think it creates a situation which is kind of difficult for those relationships.
And then the one that really bugs me a ton, is the idea that young women don’t actually do anything. There’s sort of this perception that all we do is talk and write and blog – which is another one of the misconceptions, that we think that feminism is just all about the “Girls Gone Wild” feminism that Ariel Levy talks about, the female chauvinist pig’s version. Which is not my experience at all – I think younger women are really trained to think intersectionally, and all these incredible women’s studies across the country has totally produced this generation who is deeply invested in talking about race and class and gender and these intersections – and they certainly do not think feminism is flashing their boobs at Mardi Gras or whatever as is often portrayed.
And I know that young women are doing a lot – first of all, I think that blogging is doing something, which is a much larger conversation, but I know young women who are social workers, and teachers, and veterans who are testifying in front of Congress about their sexual assault experiences, and straight up protest activists who still believe in holding 24-hour vigils on the White House lawn – I mean, there are a lot of young women really out there being active. But for some reason it feels like it’s very difficult for a lot of older women to see them. I don’t know exactly what that’s about, but I think it’s really frustrating for the young women who are deeply invested in feminist activism because they really invisibilized by that idea that all young women are just sitting around blogging about their sex lives.
MS: So how do you think we go about building those bridges through the generations, aside from cultivating safe spaces, like this conference, for that to occur?
CW: I think the conference is a fantastic start, and my hope, and I am sure Omega’s hope, is that it forges relationships that are sustainable and ongoing – not just this kind of once a year parachute-in, parachute-out experience. So I think what I find most successful in own life, is creating relationships that cross all these generational boundaries. And sometimes I think it involves being pretty deliberate about it, in a way we might not be as deliberate in other parts of our lives. So I have literally said to people like, “Will you mentor me?” Which I think some young women think is kind of cheesy, or is a little too direct, but I think we live in a time where people are so busy that I think sometimes that if we don’t kind of really clarify people’s expectations, and bring an intentionality to creating those relationships, that they just won’t happen. And most often I have found older women are totally flattered, that it’s not seen as this big burden. And now that I’m kind of, as we were talking about, sort of aging out of the youth demographic, I have a ton of younger women, like in their twenties or early twenties, who are just graduating college and in high school who have deliberately created a relationship with me, and I am so honored and invigorated by it.
So I think it’s not a matter of there not being the want there, I think it’s just a matter of sometimes we forget to be really intentional about it. And I also think that we all have to have a sort of generous approach toward the way that we kind of see one another, and by that I mean I’ve seen a lot of younger women that I was sort of friends with, who would pick someone out, as, “Oh, this woman is my mentor, my hero, my model.” And then the second that something happened with that woman that contradicted what this person thought was moral or good or ethical or effective or whatever, she’s kind of like, “oh, I can no longer idolize this person.” And so I think there’s a sort of throwing the baby out with the bath water thing, I think a lot of young women are just kind of expecting too much, and kind of being too perfectionist. Which I think makes sense – I wrote a book all about how I think this generation is highly perfectionist, so I think sometimes the same kind of hyper-critical eye that we have brought to our own life, we bring to older women and kind of expect them to be everything to us, when in fact I think you need lots of mentors who model different parts of life for you. And some of my most gratifying relationships with older women are not with older women who I think are perfect by any means - there are parts of them that really frustrate me – but they are self-aware, and they have a sense of humor about themselves, and they are striving to be good people, which is kind of the whole point.
And I am sure the reverse works – that older women have to be generous about their own judgments with younger women. Because I haven’t felt that quite enough to talk to it at this point, but I have had moments with some of the younger women that I’m friends with where I felt like I had to give them some feedback that maybe was a little tough, and had to figure out how to do that lovingly, and that kind of thing.
So I think it just requires all of us to kind of turn down the judgment a little.
MS: What does the younger generation have to teach the older generation, aside from as you said, debunking the stereotypes about younger women, and you talked about blogging – what can the younger generations offer to the older generations?
CM: Well, I think the most basic, obvious, is just energy. Like you meet younger women who have just discovered feminism and it is like this total caffeine-times-a-thousand jolt of excitement and vitality – like I just feel so amazed when I go to speak on college campuses and meet a young woman who’s in that wide-eyes state of discovering feminism and the effect it has on me – it just really kind of revives me. So I think there’s certainly that piece. I think in terms of the intersectional approach that young women have – I think that particularly American young women, young privileged feminists, have a lot of ideas about global feminism, how to kind of interact with people who are doing amazing work throughout the world in a less, kind of “we’re the western feminists who have a lot to teach you” way. I think there’s just like a lot of complex thinking among this generation about creating non-hierarchal relationships with people throughout the world who are doing this kind of work, and I think that that’s really special and kind of critical.
And then I do think just kind of the methods of how we are having these conversations – the blogging and the social networking. And when I talk to older women who don’t know anything about blogging or about Feministing and explain what’s going on there, they are just so amazed. And I feel like it makes me really sad, because a lot of them have been walking around all day thinking there are no young feminists, and they’re not having these conversations, and so to be able to say, go to this url and just browse a little bit of the comments section - I think to be able to not only kind of show that to older women, but also to get older women interacting with younger women in the blogosophere could be really, really special.
MS: Your site is called Feministing, our site is called Feminist.com, so we’re both intrinsically tied into the feminist label. Sometimes it’s really hard since that word comes with so many misconceptions - it feels like until we have another word, we’re kind of stuck with it. And yet you’re right, it does sometimes alienate people – but it’s all often just a matter of linguistics. So how do you feel about the pros and cons regarding using the “feminist” term, and the fact that it comes apparently with so much baggage? Do we avoid using the term, do we reclaim the term? I feel like we lose a lot of people just by that word, but when you explain to them what feminism means, they all define themselves that way, so it’s a catch-22.
CM: Right, yeah, it’s funny – we all come down differently on this at Feministing – because Jessica feels strongly about – she wants to put her energy into getting young women to own that label. I am kind of in-between because - I actually had great Q&A with a young woman who started a blog called Damsel, who just asked me this question. The way she phrased it was amazing – she said she thought that women who had feminist values but would not identify with the feminist label were "ingrates" [laughs] – she was so angry about it. I thought, wow, first of all I love your enthusiasm – that’s awesome. I’m finding it because I just wanted to make sure…[checks the article] She said, “I’m not going to lie: It really pisses me off when women who subscribe to feminist beliefs (and reap the benefits of the movement) refuse to call themselves feminists. Frankly, I think they’re ingrates. You, on the other hand, have said you 'don’t actually care much' whether people wear the label. And you write for Feministing.com! Help me understand your reasoning...” I thought that was great – I love when younger women are really invested in feminism.
But as I explained to her, I really love when women want to identify with the label because I do think language is powerful, and the idea of kind of gathering around this movement and having a short-hand way of identifying who your allies are out in the world, is really special. And I certainly try to talk about how I am a feminist as often as possible, because I know for me, getting to see Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards come speak at my college and say they’re feminists - I’m going, well they’re young and beautiful and smart – and that’s all the things I want to be. Even though it was in some ways a very shallow, kind of aesthetic identification, it was really important to me, kind of developing a feminist consciousness and a feminist identity. Because I couldn’t necessarily locate that with my own mom, who was feminist, but it felt like, you know I have to rebel against everything that my own mom is – and that that’s like about book groups, and shoulder pads, and all these things that were like not cool.
So I am very invested in owning that label as often as possible – particularly when I’m around younger women. But I also understand that for a lot of people there are these race and class critiques about sort of the history of feminism being very white and very privileged, and so it makes a lot of sense that for some women it doesn’t feel like the right label, and I wouldn’t want to not to be able to collaborate or have dialogue with those women because we felt like this word separated us from doing great gender justice work alongside one another. So I’m always a little torn – I always feel like I have so much that I want to put my energy into changing about the world, and so to put too much energy into trying to get certain people to identify with the label, is just not for me where I want to put my time. But I will continue to try to live as a feminist, a very out and proud feminist, and so I hope that my example will just influence people to use the label.
MS: What does feminism mean to you? I think part of the problem with using the label is that it’s very possible that even though I call myself a feminist that somebody has a version of feminism that I don’t agree with. It is one of those subjective things. What is your own personal definition of feminism or is that too hard to answer?
CM: Yeah, I actually get asked this question a lot by younger women so I do have a little answer which is that I think of it, not necessarily with a dictionary definition of feminism, because that feels a little limited to me, but I think of it as... let’s see what do I say… I say genuine equality - so that means not just “on the books” equality – but actually making sure that people – something like legacy in college admissions I think is not genuine equality, right? And I know one of them is authenticity, which is something that I think is a real, in some ways, unique critique of this generation. And for me it’s like authenticity both for women and men – like I want my boyfriend to be able to call the guys out at poker night about the “fag” jokes, in the same ways that I can wear high heels if I feel like it or wear no makeup if that’s the mood I’m in. So it’s something that I see, particularly necessary for the young men I know – that a lot of work that we have to do is around young men getting to be more authentic. And educated choice – so the idea that choice is important, but unless people have the education for it, so that they actually know what kind of choices they’re making, then for me it feels a little bit shallow. So yeah, genuine equality, educated choice and authenticity were my kind of three elements of my feminism.
MS: I love that multi-pronged definition - that is very much in line with how I think about feminism too. When you talk about educated choice – one of the things I was going to say about the fact that this conference is taken place at Omega, that it is not just having the education to know all the information out there, but also the understanding your own self – so you can make choices that really are in line with who you really are. And the conference being at Omega, which is known for its emphasis, for lack of a better word, on spiritual growth, self knowledge and inner understanding. Do you see that as connected to women’s empowerment, the connection between knowing who you are and having the courage to embrace that, and make choices that are free from all the outside influences and cultural stereotypes that are always thrown at us?
CM: Yeah, I think that’s huge. And I think that’s where that authenticity piece comes in, this idea of having self awareness. And being able to not only critique the culture – I think that’s a lot of where Perfect Girls came from too, is my feeling that the culture is really screwed up, but there is also something going on internally with young women where although we are incredibly empowered and educated, we still haven’t been able to kind of know ourselves and love ourselves in a very like deep, psycho-spiritual level. And so I am really interested in how do we continue to produce these awesome, super-ambitious, dynamic amazing women, but at the same time I’m just as deeply invested in how do we make sure that those women know that they don’t have to be everything to all people, and there is kind of this intrinsic nature each of us have that is really beautiful and needs to be honored, and that might mean not being great at everything. And it might not mean achieving at a level that you had once expected yourself to achieve at – and kind of throwing out that superwoman model, which I think is so damaging.
So there is for me a deeply psychological and spiritual level of all of it. Which I think it’s harder to talk about because it’s so complex and so personal, but I do try to.
MS: And also on another level about feminism, it’s also the feminine – feminine qualities in both men and women, and sort of trusting in our feminine wisdom, and the feminine energy in the world that needs to get out. I think a lot of time women think to get ahead they have to become more “masculine” – but the world needs the ying and the yang – we need more of the feminine. It's connected to how these conferences are always called Women and Power, which is about redefining what power means, from a more feminine perspective, a new paradigm.
CM: Yeah. And it’s funny, because one of the places that I think this generation, and I personally start to cringe is around these kind of conversations about the feminine and the masculine, and the Goddess culture, and a lot of things which as I’m getting older, I am feeling more and more capable of processing in a mature, non kind of adolescent rebellion way – but I think that one of the things that has pushed me away from some of those conversations is how often I’ve seen – particularly older feminists, but feminists in general, talk about the feminine as only located in women. And so it becomes this kind of glorification of women’s leadership and women’s innate nature – and I think that for a lot of young women, who don’t even actually agree on like a gender binary – you know, like there are young women who identify as gender queer and don’t see gender as one or the other – for them, that is so distancing. And I think I’m always resistant to any kind of rhetoric around like, women will be more peaceful leaders, for example. Do I hope women will be more peaceful leaders? Absolutely. But I don’t necessarily think that just because you have a vagina you’re not going to wage a war.
And so I wish more often we could talk about the feminine and masculine located in both women and men. I think too often we end up just sort of just glorifying the feminine in women, in a way that for me feels kind of regressive.
MS: Yeah, I think that’s actually one of the most damaging stereotypes about feminism that’s out there is that’s anti-male movement – I completely agree with you. I think that does have to change, and I think that the feminist movement does have to include men. I know even at Feminist.com, we’re getting increasing e-mails from men, we’ve gotten donations from men, we have a column called Men's Voices, Men as Allies - there’s a real increasing interest from men in being involved. So I think about that a lot. How can we better include men? How can we help men see that feminism is not just about helping women, it’s also about freeing men from their own gender stereotypes that are so damaging and destructive to their own lives?
CM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I feel like, Michael Kimmel wrote about this really well in Guyland, but there’s such a split among a lot of the young men I know, where on the one hand they are like these super-evolved, deeply feminist, vulnerable, emotional creatures. And then on the other hand, there is still – particularly in sort of group cultures - deeply limiting, toxic masculinity that goes on. And so I think a lot of the work of feminism in the future for me is around men and is around freeing them from this divided life, because I think that it creates such addictions, and shame, and just like a lack of joy for them. When they can’t fully express how they want to be present fathers or they can’t talk about their own sexuality in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s really tied up in pornographic culture – there’s just so many ways, in which I think, as you were saying, like men are just very limited but old, stereotypical roles.
The hopeful thing is that I do see this divided self – so most of the young men I know are really straining to integrate what they know about what didn’t work for their fathers or their grandfathers with their own lives, but in a world that’s still so kind of half-changed, I think a lot of them just find it really difficult to make that leap, and I don’t think women are always the best at supporting them either. Debbie and I have had some great conversations about – we want men to cry, to be sensitive or whatever – but up to a certain point, and then it gets weird [laughs] where they’re no longer attractive or whatever. I think women – even feminist women, often don’t do men many favors in getting to really move into an authentic place. Which doesn’t mean getting rid of the masculine, obviously, as we were talking about. But I have just seen very few men in general, even young men, who’ve been able to kind of find an authentic place for themselves in a culture that’s still so unchanged for them.
MS: But that has to be a part of feminist work – I always think even with something considered a "women's issue" like violence against women, it’s so easy to cast out whoever perpetrated the abuse or the rape as the "bad guy" but oftentimes without looking at: why are men behaving this way? What happened to that person – what’s the culture that produced it? Like even take the Congo as an example, what’s going on over there with men that is making the incidence of rape such an epidemic? It’s almost like without dealing with both, you will never get anywhere.
CM:Exactly. I have had really interesting conversations – I have tons of really close guy friends. And said to them, so you know, you realize that given that most statistics indicate that one out of six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, that means that potentially one out of six of the guys that you know could have sexually assaulted someone. And it’s like flipping it in that way, it’s like they’re totally in denial. They’re just like, "no – not the guys I know. This cannot happen." It’s like, well, you know, certainly some of these guys are repeat offenders, so it’s not technically one out of six men walking the streets today has sexually assaulted someone, but this is real, and it’s going on, and you guys need to start talking about it. It’s just so interesting how they can kind of hear the statistic about women and be horrified, and acknowledge to a certain extent that that could be true, but when it comes to looking at their own guy friends and brothers as the ones who potentially are perpetrating some of this violence – it’s just like they can’t even deal with it. It just feels so terrible. And I think that’s for me an indication of all the work needs to be done around guys feeling like they can have these conversations.
MS: You recently wrote a piece that really got me thinking for American Prospect called The End of the Women’s Movement – it evokes some themes from our conversation around terms like "feminist" and "the women’s movement" – but do you think we can even have a visible, organized and defined women’s movement with a specific shared agenda, or is it that we’re too diverse a community to have something like that? And to me it gets kind of confusing because if we don’t have a defined movement, can we still get the messages we need to get across and fight effectively for women’s causes without one? What were you most hoping to get across in that piece?
CM: I think the most painful thing for me – and this is a very intergenerational issue – is watching people spend energy, particularly women that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, who are my mom’s age or older, who have so much to give and don’t have a ton of time left on Earth, so it’s like I want to get as much as we can from these women – spending a lot of energy on trying to figure out what is this unilateral message that feminists can project out to the world, or what’s like the one cause that we can all get behind. And for me the world today is just too fragmented, in a negative way, but also just sort of complex and intersectional, to just choose one thing to get behind. And in fact yeah, I just don’t think it’s really possible. So for me, a lot of those conversations just feel like wasted energy – I would rather see us focusing on how can we build structures that make sure that the grass roots activism is going on pretty local levels – it’s really meeting the needs of women in communities, where women are working on their own behalf to meet their own needs. How can we make sure that – whether it’s money, or resources or skills or media attention – or whatever resources we have that need to get down to those women, how can we create those systems?
So the Women’s Funding Network just launched this big thing, Women Moving Millions – that to me is a really interesting model, of OK, here are all these women who have a tremendous amount of wealth. They don’t know the women who are like on the ground in Detroit and Cincinatti and New Orleans and L.A. doing really interesting, grassroots activism – so get them to funnel their money into women’s funds which actually are in touch with those non-profits, even at a very new level. Because a lot of non-profit and activist organizers, they don’t even have time to look for grants or make these connections or brand themselves or get the attention of these older, wealthier women. So how do we get that money into these funds who then make those connections and fund these grassroots movements. To me, that is such a worthwhile use of our energy, to figure out how to do that.
But to get all of those women to like somehow communicate about what’s the one message we want to project out - it just doesn’t make sense to me, doesn’t feel like a good use of our energy. And I hear that kind of rhetoric and that kind of searching so often at meetings, when there are intergenerational women, but particularly women of kind of the age who got to experience the seventies feminism, it seems like there must have been a time then when you really could have a kind of unilateral message and all get behind one thing. And I just don’t think that time exists anymore.
MS: I think you’re right, because there is a diversity - and there is this necessity, as we were talking about, of including men – I think also the other thing that I think needs to be reinforced, and I think this dialogue is starting to emerge, is how the status of women is so interconnected with all these other issues, whether it’s poverty, or education or the environment, overpopulation – how everything is so interconnected that all these movements need to come together and work with each other, because there’s such synergy between a lot of the problems that the world faces.
CM:Yeah, absolutely, exactly.
MS: So I think we need to help people better understand the interconnection of all of these movements and see where the overlap is - that there isn’t anything that’s really just a “women’s issue”, the situations and impact women wind up impacting everybody. I mean, there are some things that are considered “women’s issues” but as an example, if you are going to talk about the environment, I remember that in both my interviews with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, they both talked about Al Gore’s documentary The Inconvenient Truth, how the one thing he left out in talking about problems like overpopulation is how it’s tied into issues like educating and empowering women and girls – these things are all interconnected. And hopefully if people make more of those connections, then it also changes the understanding of the scope of the "women’s movement" – it becomes the movement to just improve the status of all human beings and the world. [laughs]
CM:[laughs] Exactly – which is a very difficult sound bite to get like anyone to pick up.
MS: [laughs] But hopefully that’s where we’re all going, because we all want the same things. You write for probably the most popular feminist blog at Feministing. What do you think has been the role and influence of the Internet, as this new form of media and community? Has it been good for feminism? How do you think it has helped?
CM: I think it’s been amazing for feminism. I mean, I am so heartened by the e-mails we get, from young women particularly, but women from all over the world who stumble upon feminism because of the structure of the Internet, and that was something that may have happened once in a blue moon once in the 1970’s, but it was really difficult to bring in women who weren’t intentionally seeking out some kind of feminist identity or feminist movement. And now we have women who have told us they were googling Jessica Simpson and they found a post we’d written about how creepy Jessica Simpson’s Dad is and what that has to do with feminism and all of a sudden they were like, “Oh, this is feminism? This is really cool.”
MS: The same thing happens to us at Feminist.com with people finding our content and making those type of connectionsthrough the search engines - it’s so interesting.
CM: And I feel so grateful for that, because I think it’s just such an incredible way to kind of bring women into the movement and also change the public perception about what feminism is, without even putting – I mean, obviously the energy of writing those posts, but we’re not doing much outreach beyond just doing what we do, which is just incredible. So that piece I think is awesome. The comments section of our blog and the community site where people can post their own ideas and thoughts and analysis to me are just this incredible example of kind of consciousness-raising 2.0 and the ways in which we can do crowd sourcing with a feminist lens, where I’ll post something about “I’m trying to figure out with Afghanistan, I never like military escalation, but on the other hand I’ve heard women from Afghanistan say they want our soldiers there – is anyone else feeling confused and what do you think..?” And all of a sudden we have forty comments from women across the world who have had some thought about this and want to share it – I just think, what an incredible gift. And then in the community blog to give young women of all ages – and young men – a chance to use out voices in a public space and really start to practice being part of public debate and having their ideas honored – that to me is an incredible fertile home for the next generation of feminism.
Sometimes I do feel like the downside of all this Internet feminism is that it can be passive. I sometimes do worry, are we really making links between the work we’re doing and all of these incredible grassroots activist organizations throughout the world and particularly throughout the U.S.? I am not sure we always do a great job of that, and we’re always trying to figure out even better ways to do it. So I do worry about the passivity. I do worry about the digital divide. Although it seems, most statistics make me feel like it’s not a huge issue because it seems like most people have access to at least some kind of Internet. And it seems like particularly in the Third World the cell phone usage has made the Internet pretty accessible. So there’s that issue. There’s certainly drawbacks involved – I am not like an evangelist of online feminism, but I do feel like it’s such an incredible space that I am so grateful for.
MS: Yeah, I agree. And it’s amazing for us, having launched Feminist.com when we were one of very few women's sites back in 1995, and to see what’s out there now is amazing. And I agree that one of the great benefits of being able to stumble on feminism – I wrote this piece with Amy Richards, Cyberfeminism: Networking on the Net it was in Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood is Forever – even back then we were making the same observation, by using the search engines – people type in something whether it’s "unequal pay" or "custody" – whatever, and they wind up at Feminist.com or another feminist site, not having to first to go through whatever would put them off about that term, and realizing how feminism is something directly related to issues that are in their life. So it helps make important connections.
I have two daughters, eight and eleven. And so I was very interested in your book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters – as I am always on the outlook for body issues. My oldest daughter has had some friends that are already bordering on eating disorders – which to me at 11 is just scary. What made you decide to write the book - what were some of your discoveries and what was the main point that you were trying to get across?
CM:I wrote the book because I just felt – let’s see, how do I say this concisely. Basically I wanted nothing to do these issues when I graduated from Barnard College because I’ve been so surrounded by them throughout high school and college – I never had a textbook eating disorder myself but I felt like I was more or less healthy at different moments and I had definitely been surrounded by the most beautiful, incredible, educated women who has diagnosable eating disorders from the time I was about thirteen on. And so when I left college, I just wanted nothing to do with it and I wanted to like live with guys and get rid of mirrors – I was really feeling like I never want to talk about this stuff again. I felt like the world was kind of conspiring to get me to talk about it. I was mentoring a young woman, who said she and her friends had a pact against bagels, they wouldn’t eat them because they were the devil… And one of my best friends who had been one of the only women I knew who didn’t have a eating disorder and told me she was bulimic - and just all of these things kept coming up, and I felt like it was like sort of the world saying to me, you can’t forget about this stuff because you’ve passed through the most difficult time.
And I also just wrote from a real place of outrage – I just felt so young and so angry that all my friends were struggling in way that felt like – you know, it’s one of those issues that people talk about all the time without really talking about it on a deep level, you know we’re constantly talking about calories and the media’s portrayal of women, but I feel like we rarely really get into the depths of how epidemic this issue is, and how completely unacceptable it is. You know, I would ask older women, “All of my friends feel like they’re worried about their bodies and it’s become this big issue.” And a lot of them would say, “Oh, you know women - this is what we do, we obsess about our bodies.” Or my mom’s older friends would say, “Oh, I’m sixty I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m just doing my own thing.” And I would be like, well, why shouldn’t twenty-five-year-olds feel that way? Like why do we continue to accept that this is how it’s always going to be?
And so I wrote it from a real place of outrage and a place of wanting to kind of trace how it happened and also create a voice of someone who the next time a nineteen-year-old was wondering like, “Is this normal? Is this OK? What do I do about this?” - there would be this voice out there that was like – no – number one, it’s not normal. It may be average for you among your friends, but we don’t have to accept this. And there’s nothing inherent about women that we walk around hating our bodies all day. This is not only unacceptable but it’s just unnatural in a lot of ways. And we’ve become this society where we kind of paint it as this natural part of being female. So it kind of came from all of those places.
MS: Do you think it’s improving? How can we help free women and girls from being so caught in their external appearance and keep trying to emulate these unrealistic images of beauty? We talk about inner power – how can we harness our true potential whenour preoccupation with how we look is such a big drain, and with all the media and all the cultural pressure that women feel? It’s hard to break that spell.
CM: Yeah, It’s funny – I mean, in some ways I feel unqualified to answer the question, because after writing a book like this, sometimes I realize what I did was I wrote myself into a little utopia because all of my friends are afraid to mention this stuff in front of me. I was with one of my mentors actually recently actually, we were eating ice cream, and she was looking down at her ice cream and she was like, “I can’t believe I ate that.” And then she like slowly looked up and was like, “I forgot I was with you!” [laughs]
MS: Like you are now the body image police. [laughs]
CM: Yeah – it just made me realize that people generally don’t say those kind of comments around me anymore. So in my world, things are getting better, which is really funny. [laughs] But in all seriousness, I actually do think things are getting better and I’m hopeful because I’ve thought a lot about this issue generationally, and I think like for my grandmother’s generation, this was kind of not on the radar really in the same way, and it also wasn’t epidemic in the same way. And then for my mom’s generation, she basically was given pretty hazardous body image conditioning and ideas from my own grandmother. But the feminist movement kind of gave her this idea about that her body was beautiful, and being a woman was amazing, and all these things. So I think that she was able to teach me that stuff - she had been socialized with it in her twenties and thirties - but she wasn’t able to quite internalize it. And I think that’s true of a lot of the mothers that my generation had – is that they were giving us tons of empowering messages, but they weren’t quite able to internalize it.
So my hope is that my generation is kind of dealing with our shit earlier and internalizing some of it in a way that – maybe naively – but I have this idea that maybe we will both be able to teach it, and that we will have kids at a moment where we’re more capable of internalizing it. I don’t know if that’s how you feel it, because at your age that’s a really interesting bridge place between those two kind of times, but I feel like - and partly because of writing the book and having this journey, but I feel really healthy about my relationship with my own body. And it’s obviously a struggle, just like it is for any human being to live in this world with Wendy’s and McDonalds and the computer keeping you from going outside and moving your body and all these other things. But I feel like on the kind of feminist level, I am deeply comfortable with my body in a way that my Mom didn’t get to be because she didn’t get to work with this stuff.
MS: I think that’s true. When I was growing up when I was a teenager, all of my friends had eating disorders, and I had an eating disorder, I also dyed my hair blonde and blew it straight every day for like hours. In fact I even changed my name temporarily to Chris for a short period of time. [laughs] I wrote a whole piece on this called Hair Manifesto. So for me, I only feel like I’m coming into my own now, in terms of self acceptance, and maybe that’s why I am so on the lookout with both my girls in terms of saying, “You are beautiful just the way you are – you don’t have to be anything other than who you are.” But now as I flip through women’s magazines aimed at my demographic it’s all about anti-aging creams and Botox and plastic surgery – now I have to worry about that, where all of a sudden you see all these air-brushed older women – that’s the new thing that’s happening in our generation.
I still remember when I interviewed Jane Fonda and she said how hard it was to keep true to her pact not to have plastic surgery when she is so in the public eye. Now for older women there’s all this pressure that we can’t even age in a natural way. So I think body image is an ongoing issue for women and it’s a personal one, but I think you’re right, I do think it’s improving, and I do think you will have incorporated your experiences, the way I have, into how you parent.
CM: And it’s how you move through the world. That’s what I’m always trying to say to moms because I get a lot of like really freaked out moms saying, “What can I say? What can I say?” and I say, “I know you may not want to hear this, it’s so much less about what you say then about what you model for your daughter. If you go home today and say, ‘Mom’s taking a nap.’ And that’s the end of the story. ‘And you have needs and I respect them, but they will be catered to in an hour.’” That alone is like this huge lesson for young women about what it means to do self care. And I think so few of us got that modeling.
MS: You’re right, and I think being honest about all of these things – like even with my daughter, not denying that these pressures exist, so she can talk to me about it, with this healthy distance, recognizing that it's not normal and not healthy. What would be the one piece of advice you would most want to offer young women and girls? If you could instill one message in them?
CM: I think it would be: trust your own outrage. I think that my parents did a really incredible job of making me know that my emotional reactions to the world or to ideas or to other people were valid and valuable. They’re not particularly angry people and anger certainly wasn’t like a big, emotional, kind of hallmark in my family, but I think there was respect for the idea that when your gut tells you something is wrong, that you trust that and that it’s not just for you, it’s for other people who might not be able to be in touch with their gut in the same way, or speak as loudly or as clearly as you might be able to, but that part of your responsibility as just a person who cares about people, is to trust your own outrage and speak out about it.
MS: I know you have been working on another book – what’s it about?
CM: It’s a collection of profiles of ten people under thirty-five doing really cool social justice work.
MS: Sometimes people very overwhelmed by all the problems in the world – what’s your advice to people on finding your cause and making a difference? Is it, as you were just saying, to trust your own outrage?
CM: Trust your outrage definitely works for that too. But I am definitely getting this sense – I’m still kind of mid-book, but that so many different things bring people to the work that they do, and there are so many ways and levels and methods of going about it. But that on the deepest level, just doing something. Like that there’s so much to do that you will be paralyzed if you sit around thinking, “What’s the best thing I can do? Or the most effective or who would be neediest – like these are questions that actually don’t serve us. What serves us is to just pay attention to where we feel really called. And there’s actually a great quote, but I’m blanking on exactly who said it, about sort of your – that we all need to seek out the place where our calling, our gift, whatever we are good at – matches with the world’s deepest needs. So it’s like for me, that’s writing. And for another person that might seem very passive and uninteresting, inactive – whatever. But for me that’s where I know my gift can fulfill some of the world’s deepest needs for another person. You know, if focusing on environmental issues because they are an amazing networker and community organizer and educator and they can talk about the intersection between racism and environmentalism or whatever. So I think it’s less about kind of figuring out what’s the best thing to do, or who’s the most needy, and it’s really about who are you, what’s the resources you bring and how can you match that with what the world needs.
MS: One of the issues women struggle with is prioritizing ourselves and our own needs, taking care of ourselves – sometimes we are last on our own list. How do you personally take care of yourself and stay centered and create balance in your life, which seems to be a big issue these days for women?
CM: Yes. Well, it’s interesting, the book really helps, because the thing I am most afraid of in the world is being a hypocrite [laughs] so I’m very aware of you know, I wrote this book about respecting your body and all this stuff, so that actually is a big motivator for me. But I also have a partner, actually, my boyfriend who I live with, he’s like got this super-Buddha nature – he’s this incredible influence for me of being creative without sort of a product to produce and snuggling and enjoying art and enjoying just relaxing. So I think for me one of the best ways to do self care is to surround myself with people who are real models of it, and also who are really motivated to inspire me to do it. So that’s been a really cool relationship for me in my life.
And I also just think really paying attention to my own body – and that again was kind of a gift of the Perfect Girls journey, was that I really am one of those people who gets up from the computer when my eyes are going blurry and my back’s hurting, and I just have really tried to work on own relationship with the idea of being productive and what that means, and honoring kind of my need to go on a walk outside in the park – I live a block away from the park, which really helps. And doing yoga almost every day, because I find that that’s something that really feeds me. And just having like a lot of joy, and kind of fun in my life. I think that’s a gift of also being young is people assume that you’ll do that, so I go to dance parties on the weekends – and I just hope to retain some of that kind of fun stuff in my life as I get older.
MS: When you look out at the world, are you optimistic?
CM: Absolutely! Yeah.
MS: What would be your one wish or prayer for the children of the future?
CM: [sighs] That’s a big one. The children of the future…I guess I just wish that each child felt seen. I think Eve Ensler said something once about "know what you know, say what you say, see what you see" or something like that. And for me there’s just such a deep need on all of our parts to really be seen. And that could be on the most basic level, like "See me, I’m hungry, I need food, I live in a country where that doesn’t happen." Or "See me, I’m like this totally privileged white girl who looks like she has everything but I don’t feel like you authentically know who I am, or I’m in a family where I get unconditional love." So I think for me that works on all these different levels that I would need it to if I was to make just one wish. Because I could be here all day with things. [laughs]
For more information:
Courtney E. Martin's Official site
Note: Portions of this interview appeared in the article Women Connecting Across the Generational Divide: From Gloria Steinem to Courtney Martin which appeared at Huffington Post.
Feminist.com's Archive of Features from the
Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference
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Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
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Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.