Five Minutes With
Think you’re not a feminist? Think again. Writer and activist Jessica Valenti has spent years getting out her message: Feminism is not dead! Valenti’s hip, bold, and passionate writing helps young people see that not only are they feminists, but that feminism is cool.
Valenti is the founder and executive editor of Feministing.com, a platform for young women to interact and speak about issues that affect their lives. At the age of 30, Valenti already boasts an impressive resume. She received a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies from Rutgers University. She has worked with feminist organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications including Ms. Magazine, Salon, Bitch, and The Scholar & Feminist. She is the author of two books, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters and He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut... and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. Her third book, PurityMyth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, is due out this spring.
Campus Progress spoke with Valenti about her outlook on feminism, the purity myth, and how young feminists can take action.
Campus Progress: What does feminism mean to you? How does feminism shape your life on a daily basis?
Jessica Valenti: That’s a huge question. I don’t even know that I could put it into words because it means everything to me. It’s entwined into my life so much that I think it affects everything I do. I use feminism as a lens by which to view the world that I think makes you see the world in a more truthful light that is not necessarily always flattering. You begin to…really look at the world in a critical way, not just through seeing sexism, but seeing racism and classism. When you see the world through a feminist lens you recognize that this is fucked up and that it needs to change and that it can change and you know you should be one of those people who are changing it. I think it kind of lights a fire under your ass.
CP: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book? What motivated you to write it?
JV: The purity myth is about the ridiculous sexual double standard, the virgin-whore double standard, which still exists. It’s become modernized and used as a tool in the conservative movement to hold back women’s rights across the board. Conservatives are using it as tool…through abstinence-only education, virginity pledges, or purity balls to enforce gender norms and limit women’s rights. For example, when the FDA was dragging its feet on approving Plan B over the counter, one of the excuses it used was, “Oh we can’t do that because girls will go crazy. They’ll go slutty.” What kind of girl is going to go crazy on a morning after pill? They used the scare tactic of teen sex…and this salacious kind of stuff to withhold a perfectly safe contraceptive.
CP: For years, the mainstream feminist movement has been accused of excluding or not fully representing all women. How can feminism become a more inclusive movement in which women of various socioeconomic and political backgrounds can work together?
JV: Feminism already is a very diverse movement. This idea that young women or women of color or queer women or low income women haven’t been doing feminist work is a myth. They have been doing feminist work. They just don’t get media attention, they don’t get funding, their blogs don’t get read. So I don’t think that necessarily it’s how do we make feminism more inclusive, it’s how do we recognize the important work that’s already being done and let it inform the work that all of us are doing. It’s a matter of visibility. There’s no feminist authority. There’s no one feminist platform.
CP: What women’s issues do you believe the Obama administration must make an immediate priority?
JV: Issues of poverty are extremely important because women are much more likely to be poor than men. Some of the issues that come along with poverty [are] health and reproductive health, so that’s kind of on the top of my list. The Bush administration was so effective over the last eight years in rolling back so many of the gains that we had gotten. We’ve already seen some headway on that with Obama overturning the global gag rule. There [are] so many. I just want them to fix it. Just fix it, please. Fix everything. We need it. We need some help!
CP: Many of my well-educated, progressive friends who are college students—both female and male—vehemently refuse to be labeled as feminists. The word feminism has in many circles become taboo. For years people have mocked me for labeling myself as a feminist. How can we prove to young men and women that feminism is cool?
JV: It shows you how effective the conservative movement has been. What other social justice movement has such a stigma attached to it? If someone says I’m working for gay rights or I’m working against racial injustice, no one is like, “Ewww, you must have hairy legs.” So it’s this bizarre disconnect. Conservatives have been really, really effective at making sure feminism is a dirty word.
I think just telling the truth about what feminism is, identifying yourself as a feminist to your friends, explaining to them why, and telling them why they’re a feminist, too. Don’t let them hide behind the “I’m not a feminist” nonsense.
When I talk to young women I tell them these stereotypes exist for a reason. These stereotypes exist to keep you away from questioning things, from feminism because feminism is a powerful thing. What better way to keep young women away from feminism than by saying, “ [Feminism is] for ugly people or it’s for man haters.” They are trying to fuck with your head. And I think that’s effective.
[In response,] say, “You know, someone is trying to put one over on you, but look at what feminism is. Look at what feminism is doing. Obviously it does not fit into these stereotypes. So why do these stereotypes exist? These stereotypes exist to make sure you stay in your place.”
CP: What advice do you have for young people who are looking to become more active in the feminist movement?
JV: Just do it. Just start something up. You don’t have to go stand on a picket line and do all that stuff to make feminism a part of your life. You can read blogs and read feminist publications and books and have that in your life or if you want to be more active [you can] start up a group. If you live in a small town where the pharmacy is denying women emergency contraception, do something around that. Do something around the issues that are affecting your life or your community or what’s important to you. I think there’s a ton of different ways to go about it. I think it’s always a good idea to start close to home.
I get questions a lot from young women who want to work in this business, they want a job. I would say work for small organizations. I really do believe that the most cutting edge activism, the most interesting work, is being done on the local level, the grassroots level. I think you get a lot more out of the experience working with a feminist organization if you’re working with a small organization where you have more responsibility rather than working with a large organization where you are just going to be doing photocopying. Not that there is anything wrong with doing photocopying and paying your dues and all that, but work for an organization where you know you can get your hands dirty in some activism.
Sarah Karlin is an editorial intern at Campus Progress.
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