Girl, Empowered

At 33, Jessica Valenti is helping to spearhead a new, online-oriented, ass-kicking brand of modern feminism

Last July, renowned feminist author Erica Jong penned a New York Times op-ed titled "Is Sex Passé?" Sex sells, but the essay was less an exploration of sex than of attitudes about gender equality and feminisim.

"How far will we go in destroying women's equality before a new generation of feminists wakes up?" Jong wrote. "This time we hope those feminists will be of both genders and that men will understand how much equality benefits them."

The backlash was heated and immediate.

"It's not okay to make vast generalizations about entire generations based on your own daughter and four of your literary friends," fired back a writer for, a website targeted toward young women interested in feminist causes. "There are actually counter-examples here, there and everywhere—young women taking up space, advocating for a full spectrum of sexual desires and experiences, asking tough questions about monogamy, essentially taking the 'free love' movement that Jong seems so nostalgic for and analyzing it with a truly 21st-century lens."

Jessica Valenti, author of such books as The Purity Myth and He's a Stud, She's a Slut, can attest to that. At 33, Valenti is already one of the most influential feminists in the country. In 2004, Valenti and her sister founded Feministing, which has become a cornerstone of the online-oriented, participatory style of feminist engagement that is transforming the movement.

On Sept. 22, Valenti will be in Santa Fe to give a talk titled "Sexuality, Feminism & Activism: How we can battle back against the 'war on women.'" Here, SFR chats with Valenti about feminism, sex and the internet as a game-changer. For details and to buy tickets to Valenti's talk, visit
—Alexa Schirtzinger

SFR: Tell me a little about yourself. Having founded Feministing with your sister, you must have come from a family with serious feminist tendencies.

JV: I grew up in Long Island City, Queens [New York]. My family was pretty political. My parents were kind of old hippies—my mom was a feminist and my dad was a feminist, so we certainly grew up with feminist values. At least for me, I didn't start to call myself a feminist until I got to college and took my first women's and gender studies class. But the first kind of thing I went to was when I was 12 years old, I went to a pro-choice march in [Washington] DC with my mom, and it definitely had a huge impact on me.

What catalyzed that into action—starting a blog, becoming a public feminist?

I went to grad school for feminism; I started working for a feminist organization; and I think I was looking at the feminist world with rose-colored glasses—I thought it was going to be amazing. And then, when I got into this world, I found out that though younger women were given a lot of lip service, it didn't seem like the mainstream feminist scene was very interested in hearing what younger women had to say. And it felt like there was no real space where young women were writing about themselves and writing about their own issues instead of other people talking on their behalf. So, really, I just wanted to create a space where young women could do that, and where we could write about feminism from a younger point of view and kind of let people know what feminism was about, outside of all of the kind of ridiculous media stereotypes.

What are big differences you see between older generations of feminists and modern feminists?

I don't necessarily know that it's age-related as much as it is paradigm-related. I think that we're working on the internet in a much different way. I think there's a democratization of feminism happening—or at least that's what we're trying to do online.

Thirty years ago—or even like 10, 12 years ago, before the internet—there's no way that a girl from Queens with no connections in the feminist movement could end up writing a book. [My ability to do so] was purely because of blogging and the internet and the ability to build your own audience. Feminism for a long time was very much—and still is, but it's something that's slowly being dismantled—about an elite New York/DC set of people who all knew each other, who all ran in the same circles. So when blogging started to be able to have a voice in this movement, one of the first feminist blogs, Feministe, was founded by a young woman who was a teenage mom in Indiana. The fact that that can happen now, I think, is really telling and amazing.

You've faced criticism from other feminists at times. Do you think that indicates an occasional rift among feminists, among women?

I think it's two things. One is, if you're going to write publicly, you have to kind of be prepared to take some flak, and especially in the feminist movement. Feminists have kind of a history of eating their own—[like] if someone gets too much attention, it's not OK. Unfortunately, when that stuff tends to happen, it gets framed as some sort of feminist catfight, and it becomes harder to distinguish between what is substantive and real and important criticism—which is something that we should have—and what is just random hating.

I also think, though, that sometimes what happens is when you don't have a lot of systemic power, when you don't have a lot of structural power, being a feminist can feel really disempowering—because it is; you don't have the power to change huge things. But you do have the power to kind of call out another feminist and try to make them change. So I think that's a way to kind of regain control over an uncontrollable situation.

Your talk is titled "Sexuality, Feminism & Activism: How we can battle back against the 'war on women.'" How do you define the "war on women," and how can we battle back?

Um…that's really hard. America? I don't know.

The war on women is a really catchy media catchphrase, but the truth is that this is not a new phenomenon. Misogyny is as old as time itself, and certainly the US has a longstanding tradition of sexism, both politically and culturally. I think that what's changed, again, is the internet. It used to be that Republicans and conservatives could say stuff like, 'Put an aspirin between your knees,' and no one really noticed, outside of a few feminists. But now that blogs are everywhere and that you have Twitter and social media and the speed at which information is flowing, you can't say something like that and not have people find out, and not have people react. So it's kind of wonderful, actually.

I don't think the war on women is new. I think that the way in which it's being battled back is new.

But by the same token, doesn't the freer flow of information also feed the anti-feminists—a parallel arming of both sides?

Yeah, I do. I do think that happens, too.

So how do you deal with that?

That is the question that I'm still trying to figure out. You know, what's exciting to me about what's going on now—and you saw this happen when the [Susan G] Komen/Planned Parenthood thing that went down—is that a lot of the activism that is happening is really self-directed; it's not organizationally driven. So it's not like National Organization for Women sending out an email blast and saying, 'Hey, do something about this'; it's like a couple of people on Twitter starting something up, and it organically gaining momentum. And I think that that's where the most power really comes from. I'm very optimistic [that], if we keep doing what we're doing, we're on the right path.

In 2009, you told the New York Times' Deborah Solomon: "My informal writing style is a political choice, because I want feminism to be more accessible." Three years later, do you think that's changing? Is online media creating a new type of feminism?

Definitely. It used to be that if someone was in a feminist group, it was because they were already interested or they took a women's studies class [in] college. What we're seeing now is that people are coming across feminism accidentally because they're doing a Google search. There are girls who found Feministing because they did a Google search on Jessica Simpson, and we wrote about Jessica Simpson and her deranged father. The fact that people are coming to feminism in this new, sort of subversive way means that we're reaching all of these people who wouldn't necessarily be feminists otherwise. And the fact that all these people are starting blogs and writing about feminism who are not professional writers, who are not professional feminists says a lot. And they're writing about it in a way that appeals to a lot more people; they're not just preaching to the choir.

What does the addition of Paul Ryan to the Republican ticket mean for women? I'm surprised it's still acceptable to nominate someone who has opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

I think it's amazing. It reveals a lot about the misogyny in our society—and how far women still have to go—that he can be Mitt Romney's running mate. The fact that people still say this stuff or think this stuff is proof enough that feminism is still needed.

You've been following feminism for a while. Some anti-feminist sentiments seem more radical than ever. Do you think we're seeing a regression to sexism?

I don't think it's a regression. I think that people are—especially because they're online—saying stuff under the guise of anonymity that they would never say in real life, to your face. They would never say this stuff at work; they would never say it at the dinner table; but they'll say it online. So I think we're actually just kind of pulling back the covers and seeing the boil of misogyny for what it really is.

On some level, it's incredible that women's health becomes such a huge wedge issue in politics. Why can't we leave it alone, especially given the economic situation?

Yeah, I wish I had the answer to that. I think it's just very revealing about what conservatives actually care about, what's important to them, what they find controllable and reasonable. At the end of the day—especially when you look at the hoopla that happened with birth control: not just abortion, but birth control—this isn't about protecting babies or the unborn or children. Because if you look at their programs for children who are actually here, they're nonexistent or they're cutting them. What it's really about is this very kind of traditional view of gender roles and what women are supposed to be doing and how women are supposed to have sex. Generally, they're supposed to be straight, married and procreative. And if it doesn't fit into those three categories, it's evil and wrong, and you're a slut.

Last week, you blogged about a job posting for the editor of The Atlantic's new web channel, "The Sexes," which lists the following areas of coverage: "work-life balance, parenting, gender issues and family economics—with a special focus on how women are navigating their careers as they juggle roles of mother, daughter and wife." I'd love to hear your thoughts on why women are the ones stuck doing all that juggling.

That's what I found really frustrating. When Anne Marie Slaughter's piece ["Why Women Still Can't Have it All"] first came out [in The Atlantic in July]—and I think she's really brilliant and brought up a lot of good points, and this is not a dig on her article—but in part, one of [my] criticisms [of] the piece was that the framework suggested that this is just women's problem. Men were almost completely absent from the conversation. And some of the pushback against that criticism was, 'Hey, this is just one article in this much broader conversation.'

And here, The Atlantic, this huge publication, has a chance to have this large conversation—and they're deliberately creating a space to have this conversation—and then, what do you know? They say, 'Only girls allowed.' That's really what they're saying. They are framing the conversation so that, again, this is just women's issue and women's problem. It's totally obscene and ridiculous, and it doesn't really go along with what the real world looks like and what the real world is doing.

I also felt like the article didn't deliver in terms of offering real solutions, aside from longer maternity leave. What should we be doing in the meantime?

I think you need forward movement on both the cultural and political fronts. Moms have a ton of political power. Look at all the mom-blogs that are out there, and how quickly they can bring a corporation [to its] knees. Imagine if you were using that energy and that power to fight for mandated, paid maternity leave. I think that's a totally reasonable and doable thing if people got behind it, if people used their resources toward that. But again, you also need the cultural exchange. We need to be having these conversations. We need to not click on links that suggest that this [is] only a women's issue. We need to call out parenting publications when they're just geared toward moms. There's all sorts of things that we can do.

I read about how your husband calls himself a feminist.

He says this a lot: 'People assume I'm a feminist because I married her, but what they don't understand is that I married her because I'm a feminist.' I have no idea how he started to call himself a feminist, but I know it was long before he met me.

Your new book is titled Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness. Talk a little about that, and why you decided to have a child.

Why Have Kids? essentially looks at the disconnect between the reality of parenting and the ideal that's set out before us as the must-have option—and the different ways that that disconnect is making us miserable, both personally and societally. I look at things like parenting trends [and] the breastfeeding debate, but I also look at the stigma attached to women who don't want to have children, and why that generally is only attached to women and not men. I think what I'm most interested in is starting a conversation that hopefully goes somewhere and doesn't end at the end of an article.

Part of the book description touches on how while nearly 90 percent of parents have children for "the joy of having children," many of them become less happy after having kids.

I think it's because you're setting yourself up for unhappiness when you assume that your kid is supposed to bring you happiness. The idea of parental joy as the main reason to have kids is a relatively new and modern phenomenon. People used to have kids for more kind of citizenship/society ideals, like to help out on the farm, and we parented to bring up successful and productive citizens. But now, I think it kind of goes along with the trend of American individualism and the decline of groups—I read Bowling Alone a lot while I was writing the book—and this idea that kids are there for us, to make us happy, and we're there to make them successful. The kind of 'it takes a village' stuff is gone with the wind.

Recently, new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer caused an uproar by saying she would only take three weeks of maternity leave. Is there really anything wrong with that?

I think she's going to be fine no matter how much maternity leave she takes. She and her child will do just fine. I think, at the end of the day, we need to be asking ourselves, 'Why are we so concerned about her maternity leave and not the lack of everyone else's?'

How do we extend feminism to those people—the people who don't have high-powered jobs and don't choose how much maternity leave they get?

I'm wary of a frame that suggests that they're not already doing feminism in their own lives, and I think that they probably are. There are a lot of people who are on Twitter and are working three jobs and still taking part [in] the feminist conversation. I think there's always going to be kind of a lack of access in certain ways: Not everyone can be online; not everyone has time to take part in these conversations. Your relative privilege to take part in these conversations can be determined by a lot of different things.

I think the most important thing we can do is make sure that the feminist groups that are out there and the feminists who are doing this work—that those voices are front and center, and that we're not using Marissa Mayer as the standard by which to do all of our activism.

What do you think Feministing has achieved in its eight years?

I left Feministing a little over a year ago, so it's in other hands—very capable hands—right now. But that said, I think the thing I'm most proud of with Feministing is we've built such a great diverse team of writers, and that it did do what it set out to do, which was to create platform for younger feminist voices that wouldn't necessarily be heard if it wasn't for the site. And it's done that. And I guess I'm most proud that I felt comfortable walking away. That's what you want, right? You want to be able to walk away and have other people continue the work, and I feel good about that.

Where do you see your future going? Are you going to get involved in politics? Run for president?

Oh my god, no! No. Hopefully keep writing; I'm blogging at The Nation right now, so I'm focusing on that, and I'll have to deal with this book when it comes out. That's plenty of work for me for now.  

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