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.


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Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

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