Lessons from Our SEXY FEMINISM Panel

Last night, I had the honor of moderating a panel filled with some of my favorite feminist ladies discussing the big issues of the day (that’s Lean In and gay marriage to you) at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn to promote Sexy Feminism. We had four spectacular women from different parts of the femi-sphere: Rachel Kramer Bussel, the lady to go to for great sex writing and erotica anthologies; Britt Gambino, Sexy Feminist’s gay-lady contributor (as she likes to call herself); Julie Gerstein, an editor at The Frisky; and Jamia Wilson, a media activist. You never really know how panels full of people who have never met will go, especially on such hot topics. But I was blown away by the level of discourse — yes, it was so smart that it was discourse! — as well as the fact that the discussion was entertaining and engaging without being any sort of fight. I wish I’d recorded the entire thing so everyone could see how amazing it was, but instead I’ll give you a few highlights of what I learned:

It doesn’t matter whether the young feminist movement online gets the acknowledgement it deserves from older generations of feminists. Second-Wave women fought hard and fought bravely for so many of the rights we now take for granted: We are no longer our husbands’ property. We no longer need husbands. We have access to jobs they could never dream of, and we have laws and support systems in place to handle domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination. They got us all that by taking to the streets, demonstrating, and agitating. We don’t have quite the same sort of massive, critical issues to rally around, but we do have the Internet. And since a ton of our activism now takes place online, many of the older women involved in the movement bemoan the fact that feminism is dead — they literally don’t see us, despite major “wins” like taking the Susan G. Komen Foundation to task for pulling its Planned Parenthood funding and shaming that weird wave of “rape-friendly” political candidates last year. We talked a lot about this last night, and the fact that older activists are often asking us why we aren’t “in the streets” demanding change. It’s largely because we’re on Twitter demanding change, but this is often not acknowledged by our foremothers as real activism — and it was barely mentioned in PBS’ otherwise exhaustive and spectacular MAKERS documentary about feminist history. But the group basically came to the conclusion that we need to stop acting like daughters desperate for their mothers’ approval and instead, as Jamia suggested, make our own documentary of our own piece of the movement. For the record, I’m so into this idea.

There are feminist yoga retreats, y’all! Because it’s important for feminist activists to take care of themselves so they can give the world all they’ve got. Jamia went to one, and it sounded amazing. To me, it also sounds like a great way to get inspired, bond with like-minded women, and probably come up with a bunch of fantastic new ideas. We need to make these happen all the time.

“Leaning In” definitely has its issues. Julie made the great point that all of these attention-getting books and articles about women in the workplace are, as she said, “asking the wrong question.” It’s not about whether women can “have it all,” or learn new skills from Sheryl Sandberg to climb the corporate ladder. The problem is much bigger and more systemic: We all are making less money for more work, forcing most families to need two incomes and overtime just to survive. That’s why no one, male or female, can have it all. Rachel mentioned the many women now running their own small businesses — you don’t have to lean in if you make yourself the CEO. (I know tons of women doing this right now: My sister runs her own boudoir photography business, my friend just launched a wedding-deals site.) And Jamia, one of the few people I’ve encountered who actually read Lean In instead of just talking about it, gave the best critique I’ve heard so far: She told us about her paternal grandmother, a black woman who raised eight children as a single mother in the south, providing for them by cleaning other people’s houses and taking care of other people’s (white) children. The problem with Lean In, she said, is that it doesn’t take into account the less fortunate people you have to “lean on” to get to the corporate suite.

None of us know what the hell to make of marriage anymore. Obviously, we all think gay people should be able to get legally married. Jamia is engaged, but the rest of us were still wishy-washy on the idea. Britt, for one, isn’t sure about getting involved in the whole marriage machine as straight people have built it. (Can’t say I blame her.) When New York legalized gay marriage last year, she experienced sudden resistance to the pressure to conform to straight-marriage traditions.

It’s good to go hang out with smart feminist women sometimes. I loved just talking all this stuff out with others who care about it as much as I do. I need more feminist bonding in my future.

Sexy Feminist: Mindy Kaling

In a way, Mindy Kaling is the anti-Zooey Deschanel, the anti-Lena Dunham. Whereas Deschanel and Dunham seem to stoke intense ire just by existing (congratulations, Anne Hathaway, you just joined this elite club, too!), Kaling inspires intense love in her fans. Young women, in particular, hang on her every word on Twitter, made her book a bestseller, and now worship at the weekly altar of her terrific Fox sitcom, The Mindy Project.

In a way, this makes Kaling the new Tina Fey. Her fame comes from this sense of deep affection that she cultivates just by being smart and funny and feminist. She writes and stars in her own sitcom. And like Fey, she has created a persona that makes fun of the pressures single career women face while not making fun of those single career women themselves. Kaling’s sitcom alter ego, Mindy Lahiri, is not exactly a feminist icon herself. Like Fey’s Liz Lemon, she’s flawed and unique to the point of bordering on bizarre (in the best way). She’s a kick-ass gynecologist who loves Beyonce and sparkly dresses and boys and romantic comedies. She talks in a baby-ish voice but can banter with the best of them. She refers to herself as “chubby” but has the sexual self-confidence of Sasha Fierce. The fact that she’s a gynecologist also allows for regular lessons in sex ed and women’s health to sneak into primetime.

This all makes her a true Sexy Feminist — and a force that will have us soon admiring some new starlet as “the new Mindy Kaling.”

Links for Sexy Feminists: Marriage Equality, lessons from Steubenville, and more …

Marriage Equality: The Supreme Court has now heard two cases, each of which could lead to a redefinition of marriage. There is also a chance that the court could refuse to redefine marriage, instead giving the issue more time to develop. But to refuse to broaden the definition of marriage would put them on the wrong side of history, Stephanie Coontz argued following Obama’s public endorsement last May: Straight people have already changed the definition of marriage. BeyondMarriage, meanwhile, makes a case for reframing marriage, family, and healthcare rather than focusing on marriage equality.

Pink Equality: On the lighter side, Facebook users are doubtless aware of the campaign to change all profile pictures to a pink and red equals sign. If you’d like to show your solidarity in a more quirky way, HuffPo has gathered some alternative examples.

Moving Past Steubenville: One high school teacher’s heartwarming narrative of talking to her ninth graders about consent.

Was Feminism Hijacked? A thought-provoking piece in Al-Jazeera argues that whether women are told to “lean in” or to “have it all,”  the feminist icons delivering the message are undercutting the movement.

Dating While Feminist: A great piece on how to negotiate that oh-so-tricky part of life.

Women in Prison: Oklahoma explores rehabilitating nonviolent female criminals.

Retro Housewives: Meanwhile, New York magazine unleashed a furor with a purposely controversial piece on the “retro wife.” When reached for interview by the Atlantic, Kelly Makino, the woman profiled in that piece, points out that systemic societal biases against women contributed to her decision and that she doesn’t consider herself a traditional housewife.

Cleaning House: Exercise your right to not be judged for a messy house!


I Didn’t Get Married, But I Changed My Name

During a certain period of my life, the realizations that I could not marry this person came at me so often that I took to ignoring them. Among them was the time my fiancé seemed shocked that I wouldn’t be taking his name upon wedding him the following fall. Why on earth, I asked him, would I do anything of the sort? I had been a professional writer for about ten years at that point. I had amassed hundreds of bylines as “Jennifer Armstrong.” Not that I was some massively famous writer — most of those bylines were in local newspapers like The Daily Pilot and The Daily Southtown, or in the home décor trade magazines I’d spent a particularly odd year editing, Residential Lighting and Accessory Merchandising.

But by this point I was also an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly, a national magazine, and I had written several feature stories there. I had no intention of disappearing into his identity and starting anew as a journalist so that no one who had ever known me in my previous 30 years on earth would think, upon encountering my byline on an article about Jessica Simpson, “Hmm, I wonder if that’s the Jennifer Armstrong I knew in college …” or whatever. I wanted that moment, even if I’d never know about it. Plus Facebook was happening, so it was only a matter of time before I more often than not did know about it.

And so it was that “changing my name” went on our list of unresolved issues along with “having babies soon” and “moving farther into New Jersey” and, for that matter, “committing to each other for life.” Those issues were eventually resolved by the cancellation of our wedding and my move to a studio apartment in New York’s East Village.


But my attachment to my name went beyond my lack of desire to commit to this one man, or to any man, at that time. I had, perhaps, put more thought into my name than I had into my mate, in a way. I’d gone along with my college sweetheart onto the marriage track with no resistance, figuring this was just what people did. I followed him to Southern California after college with nary a shrug.

I did, however, take the time to agonize over my name: As I began my journalism career, I made a commitment. I would no longer be Jenny Armstrong, as I was in childhood. I would not be Jen Armstrong, as I was in college. I would be Jennifer Armstrong. This was my best shot at retaining my identity but becoming a new, grownup version of the Jenny we once knew.

Clearly I hadn’t paid as much attention to my relationship, even though I stayed in it for another eight years past graduation. Once I left my engagement, I finally grew into the Jennifer Armstrong I’d hoped to be: independent, dating, making like-minded literary friends, concentrating on my career.

I swore, for entirely different reasons now, that I would never, ever change my name. It was a good name! A strong name. My name. The name with which I earned enough money to pay for my own apartment and furnish it alone. I completely agreed with all the reasons Jill Filipovic gave for sticking with her (admittedly difficult) given name in a recent Guardian piece that reignited the age-old debate. In fact, I still do agree, to a certain extent: There’s still nothing feminist about 90 percent of married women taking their husbands’ names. But I’ve recently stumbled upon the joy of being able to change the identity you present to the public, a “joy” that patriarchy all but forces on married women and denies all men.

Why would I ever want to change my strong, simple, Anglo name?

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Sexy Feminism Excerpt: Plastic Surgery — Can You?

Leading up to the publication of our book, Sexy Feminism, on March 12, we’ll be sharing some short excerpts of it with you, the readers who helped make this book possible! Here, a portion of our chapter, “Plastic Surgery: Can You?” 

In May 2011, a young mother sat down for a TV interview to defend giving her eight-year-old daughter regular Botox injections. She said it was the edge her girl needed on the ultra-competitive beauty-pageant circuit. Those mussy lines on her face just wouldn’t do. According to her mom, this eight-year-old’s lips were too weak as well, so she added Restylane injections to the child’s regular beauty routine, which also included spray tanning, teeth whitening, and virgin waxing—waxing the child’s body (legs, arms, armpits, labia) to permanently prevent hair growth. (See chapter 2 for more on that.) In June of the same year, the mother of a seven-year-old embarked on her own media tour to defend a gift she’d recently given her daughter: an IOU for breast implants.

Weird plastic-surgery stories are nothing new. For decades, there have been tales of “cat women,” women so addicted to plastic surgery that they’ve erased the humanity from their features. But at least these are grown women making choices—choices that have feminist consequences, and we’ll get to those in a bit. But little girls don’t know their faces have lines, that body hair is ugly, or that their breasts will be inadequate unless someone  feeds them this message. What have we done to women that their idea of beautiful is so twisted it  causes them to subject their children to needles and scalpels? Alas, dads are doing it too. In a 2011 episode of the talk show Anderson, a male plastic surgeon defended giving his teenage daughter breast implants and a nose job. Sigh.

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Links for Sexy Feminists: Life After Steubenville, Hillary for Gay Marriage, Leaning In, and more

After Steubenville: Mainstream media coverage of the trial outcome focused on the repercussions for the perpetrators, even though they are not the victims here. One independent commentator points out that the two had different reactions at sentencing, with Ma’Lik seeming more redeemable. Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous points out that punishing the boys by sending them to juvie will “just break them harder.”

Jane Doe Recovers: The then-unconscious girl faces a tough recovery in a small town where everyone knows, but at least her mother has been supportive.

Women are People: Well-meaning commentators who ask “What if this happened to your sister?” are missing the point, because women are individuals in our own right. The New Statesman says that this is rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment.

Hillary Watch: Embracing the freedom of having completed her term as Secretary of State, Ms. Clinton announced her support for gay marriage.

Malala Emerging: The Pakistani teen and world feminist icon started boarding school England, but the cause she fought for remains unfulfilled.

Leaning In: Sheryl Sandberg is creating quite a stir with her book, but improving policies to mandate that women have access to part-time leave could actually foster subtle job discrimination, preventing other women from reaching the very top. Meanwhile, workplace gender segregation has broad implications for how men and women see each other. And at least one career woman wonders if the sacrifice was worth it.

Random Lessons In Feminist History: Miss America (Really)

In our new book, Sexy Feminism, we share ways to add feminism to every day activities. Your beauty routine, for example, can totally be a feminist act.

But there are some institutions that are the oil to feminism’s water: The two just don’t mix. And Miss America is about as oily as it gets. It was the site, after all, of one of the best-known feminist protests. In 1968, leaders of the fast-growing second wave feminist movement chose that year’s Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City as the place to stage a dramatic protest (and gain the world’s media focus while doing it). The activists used pageant contestants as examples of how women were being devalued in society—that is, for their looks, not their intellect. Into the “freedom trash can” went instruments of oppression—high heels, makeup, bras (no, they were not burned), women’s magazines, and girdles. The event sparked the discussion on standards of female beauty that continues to this day.

Only 17 years earlier, a woman named Yolande Betbeze was fighting for similar progress from within the pageant. She was crowned Miss America in 1951 but was very vocal about her feelings about the swimsuit competition (summary: eye roll). After she was crowned, she refused to pose in underwear-like garments of any kind. Her protest provoked the swimsuit company, Catalina, to pull its sponsorship of the pageant. The Miss America Organization itself says Betbeze’s actions led to a new focus on scholarships, rather than female beauty.

Yes, Miss America’s feminist flaws remain today and, lord, those swimsuits are hardly even clothing anymore. But this one woman’s staunch defense of her morals and advocation of her value is proof that any of us can make real change in the world to help women for generations.

Sexy Feminism Excerpt: Lessons Learned from Dieting

To celebrate the publication of our book, Sexy Feminism, we’ll be sharing some short excerpts of it with you, the readers who helped make this book possible! 

My dieting history is totally cliché and utterly unfeminist. I was a teenage dancer-cum-anorexic. I tried half a dozen fad diets and as many cleanses, and I regularly embarked on extreme workout regimens to prep for things like the beginning of a school year or a wedding. I actually can’t remember a time after adolescence when I wasn’t on some form of diet or weight-loss mission. I know; this all sucks for my feminist cred. So I was shocked when the one event in my life that I expected would throw my body image into disarray turned out to be the thing that made me chill out and stop dieting altogether. I got pregnant, gained forty pounds, and stopped obsessing.

To be truthful, it took some time and serious hard work to get my mental health in check. When I first stopped fitting in my regular clothes, I freaked out. I knew that was coming, but it happened at around four months, when I didn’t really have a baby bump yet; I was just a little bigger everywhere. I remember envying women clearly in their third trimesters—it’s impossible not to look adorable with a baby bump, no matter what you wear. I wanted that key accessory instead of just bigger thighs and boobs. When my bump finally came, I embraced it. I wore form-fitting dresses, leggings with slender tunics, and bikinis. I felt beautiful, mostly because I was so proud of the little life, now clearly showcased, causing all these changes. And dieting? Obviously: no. Not just because it’s unhealthy to restrict your food intake too much while pregnant (deadly, even), but also because I wanted to eat better than I ever had before—healthy, wholesome, delicious food—and as much of it as I needed.

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Female Condoms: Sexy and Empowering or ‘Ew’?

Dr. Donna Espeut takes on the female condom debate in this guest post.

For some of us, male condoms are the go-to, dual-protection method, even though there are other options in our cache of safer sex tools. Female condoms, on the other hand, get little or no love. A recent piece on Jezebel.com suggests that this case of unrequited love is justified. (Tracie Egan Morrissey writes, “female condoms are just ew.”) However, here are four reasons why we should stop giving the female condom the cold shoulder:


1. It adds a dash of empowerment to our safer-sex pursuits.

Of all the methods designed to prevent both pregnancy and STIs, only the female condom bears the distinction of being completely woman-initiated and woman-controlled. A lubricated and soft hypoallergenic sheath with a flexible ring on each end, it fits in with our diverse sexual repertoire. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when used correctly, a female condom’s effectiveness in preventing pregnancy is 95 percent, compared with 98 percent for male condoms. Female condoms also cover more of the external genitalia than male condoms, offering better protection against herpes and other STIs. Those of us who have grown weary of negotiating male condom use every time we have sex might therefore find a welcomed bedfellow in the female condom.

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The Sexy Feminist Polls: The Most Important Issue Facing Feminism, Your Feminist Role Models, and More

With more than 500 voters logging responses to our recent Sexy Feminist polls, we thought it would be fun to break down some of the results. According to Sexy Feminist readers …

The most important issue facing feminism today is sexual and domestic violence. This makes sense, of course: Freedom from violence and fear is the most basic human right, and many women lack that specifically because of their gender. We can’t progress on much else if we don’t combat this one. The Violence Against Women Act was a good start, but we have a long way to go. For statistics, resources, and help, visit the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Your favorite feminist role models are Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey. This combination says it all for 2013 feminism: a badass politician who’s already a frontrunner for the next presidential election, and who has done tireless work for women all over the world; and a prominent, funny, beloved woman who’s broken open comedy’s boys’ club and is on yet another upward trajectory in her career toward movie stardom — as a mom in her 40s. Ellen DeGeneres and Gloria Steinem also inspired a lot of you, and we can’t blame you for that, either.

The sexiest feminist thing a man can do is actively champion women’s rights to others. Can’t argue with that. There’s nothing better than a man who realizes feminism matters as much to men as it does to women. You all wouldn’t mind if he picked up his share of the domestic load, too.

Almost half of you became feminists because you believe in equal rights for all.  

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