Saying the F-Word
Looking For Feminism In Baltimore
It's a Tuesday evening in April, and ChristieLyn Diller is baking tofu for the vegan potluck dinner she's hosting in her basement apartment in Medfield. It's a regular thing she does with Erin Boguski, Jill Weaverling, and Christina Murray. These four twentysomething women met at Towson University's women's studies graduate program, and today all of them are feminist activists and educators. Diller works in community relations for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, Boguski is a coordinator/trainer at Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, Weaverling works in development at Chase Brexton Health Services, and Murray works in the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Once everyone has added her contribution, dinner consists of baked tofu, beans and rice, broccoli, fruit salad, and bread. It might seem predictable--all we need is some granola and a tie-dyed tablecloth and we've got ourselves a feminist ashram circa 1968--but there is a twist: The beer in the fridge is Blue Moon, a Coors product. Coors pretty much hates women. (An October 2004 Salon.com article about CEO Pete Coors' bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate pointed out that Coors-run foundations "have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Independent Women's Forum--a group of conservative women whose role is to undermine legal protections for their own gender. So extreme is the IWF that its leaders opposed the landmark Violence Against Women Act, complaining that such federal protections encourage women to `distrust' men.")
Boguski brought the beer, and Diller, Weaverling, and Murray all exclaim, "See! We told you!"
Boguski doesn't take it lying down. "Hoegaarden is too expensive," she protests without apologizing. That's one of the things I'll come to respect about the twentysomething feminist: She never offers a coerced apology, even if she has to mount a defense based on tin-pot logic.
Over dinner, these women weigh in about everything from Roe v. Wade, to marriage and stay-at-home motherhood, to porn, to lesbianism. That's why they hold these monthly get-togethers, to talk about such issues, so they have no problem articulating their opinions. Each of them believes that the "conscience clause" (medical professionals refusing to perform certain procedures or fill certain prescriptions based on their personal moral code) is bullshit because going into a profession in order to limit the public's access to legal health care is unethical. (Consider a scenario wherein a person who does not believe in modern medical intervention becomes a doctor who, in good faith, prescribes only vitamins, exercise, and petitioning the divine. Furthermore, consider the consequences if this person is the doctor on-call the night your appendix ruptures.) None of them expects to take her spouse's last name if she gets married, although some of them like the idea of morphing their last names into something entirely new. (Ms. Smith and Mr. Jones become Mr. and Ms. Smones or Ms. and Mr. Jith.)
They feel there is a clear line between pornography and erotica: Pornography is about domination and male pleasure at a woman's expense; erotica is about mutual pleasure and respect, but they advocate education, not censorship. And they don't see the Supreme Court's April decision about intact dilation and extraction (known in the vernacular as partial-birth abortion) as a broad threat in and of itself, but they are very concerned about the shift in focus from the woman's well-being to her dependent fetus', as evidenced by the lack of a "health of the mother" exception.
None of these women is shy about identifying herself as a feminist. They are well aware that, since the end of the 1970s, the word's connotations are not always flattering. The list includes, but is not limited to: angry, whiney, physically unattractive, troublemaking, hostile, blasphemous, overly-sensitive, man-hating, child-hating, and, of course, hairy butch lesbian. But they're fine with all that--the challenge is to reclaim the word, to define it themselves, and they're up for it.
It's a familiar agenda. American feminists have been fighting for women to have physical, emotional, economic, and political control of their lives for more than a hundred years now. Sisterhood has survived Victorian "doctors" who told us sickliness was as close to womanliness as cleanliness was to godliness, the June Cleaver Valium Years, the Sexual Revolution, and at least one massive conservative backlash that began with the ascendance of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. But toward what end? In the vast gulf between Hillary Clinton's viable presidential candidacy and Britney Spears' disturbing version of a working mother, what kinds of strides are we making? And who are "we"? Is contemporary feminism composed of nothing more than a few true believers preaching to the converted, while the average American woman lives her life, mostly content with her options and opportunities?
Mary P. Ryan, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, weighs in via e-mail on the "f" word and the once widespread movement it describes: "It seems to me the aversion to the word `feminist' derives both from the way the feminism of the second wave was misinterpreted and maligned by the media since the 1980s and the many ways that the situation of women itself has changed over the last generation."
But more important than quibbles over a word, Ryan says, is what the word represents going forward. "Maybe rather than a third wave [that is] just mimicking the second and carrying the same banners of ERA and abortion--daughters following in the footsteps of their mothers," she writes, "we need to reinvent a movement for gender justice that speaks to the conditions of the 21st century. How does feminism re-adapt, for example, when more women than men graduate from college, and when many young women worry not about being consigned to the home but about the difficulty of finding the time and money and support with which to start a family?"
And how does feminism re-adapt when there isn't a mainstream movement to speak of? In times of backlash and latency, it's feminism's more radical arm that persists. But women who are sympathetic to the broader, more practical agenda--equal pay for equal work (women still earn about 73 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to a study released in April 2007 by the University of West Florida), better legal protections against domestic abusers, mandatory family leave and child-care options, access to safe abortions in the first trimester--are often uncomfortable with the additions their more radicalized sisters make to that list. Even the more radical groups often work in parallel rather than in tandem and may or may not be aware of each other.
"If you define feminism as I do (and as American `feminists' have since the early 20th century) as a movement to change the status of women and the relations between the sexes in the interest of equity for all," Ryan continues, "then we need feminism as much as ever."
But where is feminism in Baltimore, other than having some tofu?
"You know who you should really talk to if you want to see what's up with feminism in Baltimore?" Diller says, rummaging through her paper recycling bin. "These people." She holds up a flier picturing what looks like a young Asian woman in Mary Janes and a jumper. At the top it announces, ladyfest baltimore, spring 2008.
The first Ladyfest took place in August 2000 in Olympia, Wash.; Washington, D.C., hosted one in the summer of 2002. According to Wikipedia, which, inexplicably, is more up to date than Ladyfest.org, Ladyfest is "a community-based, not-for-profit global music and arts festival for female artists, which features bands, musical groups, performance artists, authors, spoken word and visual artists, workshops, and is organized by volunteers. The origins of Ladyfest developed from the DIY-ethic Riot grrrl movement from Olympia, Washington combined with inclusive feminist philosophy." Each festival is organized independently, so it's difficult to determine exactly how many have been held worldwide since the first one, but it's safe to say the number is well over 100.
One might assume that a Ladyfest event indicates pre-existing, organized feminist activity in the host city, but that does not seem to be the case. Amy Hirsh, one of the original organizers of the 2003 Ladyfest Philadelphia, told Philadelphia Weekly on the day before the festival began, "In Philadelphia a young feminist community was nonexistent, and we had to find each other first and get to know each other, and then, on top of it, plan a festival." Hirsh's experience seems typical. Ladyfest celebrations are often the result of a very small group of determined organizers who are willing to stand up and holler out, like voices in the wilderness, "Does anyone else around here care about what it means to be a woman?" The response, which has come back in cities across the world, is, "Yes. We do."
Ladyfest Baltimore's MySpace page declares: "Ladyfest Baltimore is a grassroots community-based movement created by and for women to present, celebrate, and encourage women's artistic, entrepreneurial, and cultural achievements," and forecasts a bevy of "skill shares, workshops, speakers, music, visual/performance art, film, writings, and other forms of self-expression," with all proceeds donated to "various women-empowering organizations in Baltimore." Ladyfest Baltimore's volunteer organizers have forged loose partnerships with the anarchist bookstore/coffeehouse Red Emma's, the Charm City Roller Girls, the Baltimore Women's Film Festival, and the Charm City Kitty Club, among others. The festival is scheduled for April 2008.
This past April, with exactly a year until festival weekend, the Ladyfesters organized a fundraiser for the group featuring a screening of a documentary film about the 2003 Ladyfest Philadelphia.
The movie night is held in the large back room at St. John's Church on St. Paul Street. A cross-shaped banner hangs on the wall with the word god intersected vertically by the word cool. There's a man there with his ex-girlfriend, but otherwise the room is filled with women, about 30 of them, mostly in their mid-20s. Despite some outward evidence of urban cool, they're a warm, approachable group.
The film starts, and the montage of interviews and scenes from workshops and performances offers more an impression than a definition: Ladyfest organizers and participants reclaiming art that is typically female--art that's more often called craft--because the line between "high art" and "domestic art" is artificial and sexist; Ladyfest organizers resisting any sort of power structure or hierarchy, making decisions based on consensus, protecting the inherently equal value of each person and opinion because real communication can only occur between equals.
A woman admits to the camera, "I used to be funny before Ladyfest." A man wears a T-shirt that reads feminist chicks dig me.
Then the audio and video go completely out of sync and stay that way for about 30 minutes; we are listening to an entirely different part of the movie than we are watching. The hosts abandon their efforts to fix it after the first few minutes. No one has any idea what to do, so a "wait and see" approach is adopted by default. With barely a murmur, the crowd relaxes into the snafu.
The metaphor is almost too easy. A message distorted by an untested medium. For people navigating the time between campus life and the first big disappointments of adulthood, time hasn't yet revealed how absurd the whole thing really is. But the untested vessel does have an important advantage: Before you face down that terrible disappointment, each battle feels as simple as life and death, with you lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, fighting for Team Life.
So the audience stays--all of them, with the exception of one couple who has to get up early and would have left anyway. These young feminists are not here for cinematic perfection. They're here to get energized: If Philly can do it, Baltimore can, too.
Several months of planning later, five of the Ladyfest Baltimore organizers gather at One World Café to talk about how things are going. Santina Gutierrez, 29, a soft-spoken, sinewy Chicana, is there with her camcorder, filming the evolution and fruition of Ladyfest Baltimore. Harriet Smith, 24, makes the strongest first impression. She's rail thin, outspoken; her body language speaks of tightly wound confidence. A friend once commented that when Smith rides her bike in a sleeveless shirt, her unshorn armpit hair flows behind her in the wind. Smith loves this image.
"Can I make a request?" Smith asks in response to my first question about how the group got started. "Will you not call us `guys'?" An awkward pause follows. Then a brief discussion of words: Who likes "woman"? Who hates "lady"? What about "girl"? "Chick"? Who thinks "queer" is still derogatory? Who thinks objecting to "wife-beater" as the name for a T-shirt is too PC?
Finally, Kristal Lukacs, 26, the woman who had the original vision, begins to share the genesis of Ladyfest Baltimore. "When I first moved to Baltimore a few years ago," she says, "I got the message that there really wasn't a serious feminist movement here." Lukacs had participated in some nascent efforts to foster feminist events here, but people moved away, or became occupied by more pressing personal matters, and the efforts never got beyond the planning stages. Lukacs herself worked long hours back in those days waiting tables. When she started a job that allowed her more free time, the dearth of feminist activity started to bother her again. She had attended Ladyfest Philadelphia and wanted to gauge local interest in putting on a festival here. "I decided to post something on MySpace: `Come to this meeting if you're interested,'" she recalls. "Four women came. That was late January." They've been holding planning meetings frequently ever since.
With respect to feminism in general, these young women hope to define this wave as inclusively as possible.
"It's frustrating," Lukacs says. "Feminism is supposed to be opening doors, and we're still assuming that women who decide to get married and raise kids are naive and unintelligent, that they've failed as women, that they didn't make a conscious choice."
"I struggle with that," says Sara Steigman, 26, quiet and covered with colorful tattoos. "I do want to get married with every fabric of my being. Sometimes I wonder if I can still call myself a feminist if I do that."
Smith questions automatically characterizing women who are out of the work force with children as women who have made a "choice." "What are you choosing from?" she asks. "We need to make sure that real choices are available. Context is everything."
None of these women finds the word "feminist" problematic--at least not problematic enough to warrant its retirement.
"My mom thinks feminism is what I do because I went to college," Lukacs says. "We thought of [using] `woman-centered' or `sisterhood' or `empowering women.' But at some point, I just started using the word `feminist.' No one has said they feel uncomfortable, but we did worry about not being accessible."
"The other words felt sort of wishy-washy," says Irene Muņiz, 24. She likes the word "feminist," and she likes the group's current policy to include feminist men in a few months as volunteers, but not right now, and not as organizers. "This is my group of women, organized by women and for women, and I wanted to keep it that way," she says. "I'm going to be selfish. This is my first time in a woman-only group. I want all of us to take ownership and be like, `We did that.'"
"I didn't want to be here if we didn't call ourselves feminists," Smith says. "Some people said that the connotation was that you're hairy and angry and hate men. Well, anger and hair have been taken away from women. Other people were saying we shouldn't call ourselves feminists because poor black women are not going to identify. That's a large assumption about a huge group of people that no one in the room really knew much about."
"It's comical to blame the word `feminism' and not the fact that we organize our meetings online and meet in living rooms and that most of us are young and white," Lukacs says. "We thought the word feminism was the problem."
Ah, the issue of the feminist of color. It's not a mystery why mainstream feminism has not always resonated with many African-American women: American feminism, born around the turn of the last century with the push for women's suffrage, was not established on a racially egalitarian foundation. The struggle was defined mostly by well-to-do white women who were unsure of if and how to integrate women of color and women of lesser means into the cause. (Although both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought to end slavery before they fought for their own right to vote.) Today, the tendency is still for white women to raise the barn and then invite women of color to help them paint the walls and decorate the interior.
Jarrette Buford knows something about this. She's a counselor at Whole Women's Health on Belair Road. She's a twentysomething like the Ladyfesters. She's also black and identifies as a feminist. "When I attend a feminist activity, I assume I'm going to be the only black," she says. "That's OK with me--I grew up around a lot of white people. But in feminist circles, I'm not a woman who's black--I'm a black woman."
Still, Buford believes deeply in feminist causes. "We all have the same issues," she says when asked about the term and the movement. "We just experience them differently." While she notes that "you can't speak on my behalf if you don't know me," she believes the issues at stake are more important than what you call the movement to address them, or whom constitutes it: "We can keep the word, or lose the word and retain the history, but we just have to stop splintering among ourselves."
While the Ladyfesters acknowledge that the issue of diversity (specifically the lack thereof) is important, their next step is to begin deciding which performances and workshops will define the 2008 Ladyfest Baltimore. With those decisions come decisions about the group's parameters--who they want to reach and how to do that.
"If a conservative women who identified as feminist showed up and wanted to do a workshop on how to find God in a patriarchal system, that would be amazing," Smith says.
"None of us is a parent, but we want to [find someone to] do a feminist parenting workshop," Lukacs adds. "But even though we've stepped out of our own boxes a little bit, I think we'd be setting ourselves up for disappointment and failure if we thought that we were going to appeal to everyone."
So, this thing is really going to happen? Next spring there will be a potentially galvanizing feminist festival in Baltimore with female bands and performance artists and feminist workshops ("See Your Cervix," where every attendant receives her own speculum, is on the wish list) and panel discussions? Really?
The Ladyfesters say they already raising funds, mostly via individuals making small donations. "People are buying into it," Lukacs contends. "It's going to happen." But the notoriety, the power even, of building a city festival from the ground up isn't the major motivator for this group. "I love that Ladyfest is becoming a word that we use to describe women coming together," Lukacs says. "It's bigger than just this weekend."
If there's a misconception about the aging feminist, it's that her youthful rage has ossified into bitterness--that she's no fun. In truth, it seems that Baltimore's 30, 40, and 50-something feminists want two things. In addition to real equality for every person, of course. They want to laugh out loud and have great sex. Case in point: Sugar.
Sugar is the new sex-toy store in Hampden, and this isn't your father's sex shop. Sugar is, according to its mission statement, "lesbian owned, women and trans operated." The statement continues: "By providing education and toys in a shame free, sex positive, fun environment, we help people of all genders and orientations experience their own unique sexuality with shameless joy and passion."
The two women behind the counter on a Wednesday afternoon appear genuinely unaware of how potentially unnerving their stock is, especially for American women raised to regard their sexuality as dangerous. Tables full of dildos and vibrators and lube and harnesses fill the exposed-stone room. In fact, as co-owner Jacq Jones points out, the store holds classes to help people get more comfortable with their bodies, and the store's wares, and the classes aren't just for women. Boldly declaring that men should admit their uncertainty and take the initiative to educate themselves on the complex female sexual response, "Sex Tips for Straight Men" will be held on Nov. 13. Just in time for Christmas, "Anal Sex 101" is scheduled for Dec. 11. (Sugar staffers bill the ass as "the most overlooked erogenous zone on the human body," for both men and women.) These women will even take on your desire to dominate and be dominated in a class on S&M. (Is it still feminist sex if a woman isn't holding the whip?)
Jodie Zisow occasionally works at Sugar, and she's also a member of the Charm City Kitty Club. While the Kitties are well known in Baltimore for their queer performance-art shows, and they're generally associated with the GLBT community, their number includes some of the more perceptive, historically informed feminist thinkers in Baltimore.
The decades-old connection between feminism and gay activism is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg mystery. It's unclear whether second-wave feminists were proactive, embracing and defending lesbianism from the inception of the movement, or whether feminism's defense of the queer lifestyle evolved as feminists, both gay and straight, were increasingly accused of being man-hating dykes. In a 1983 essay called "Life Between the Lines," Gloria Steinem wrote: "[The] example of `any rebellious woman is a lesbian' turned out to be a useful lesson. Women who hadn't seen lesbianism as a feminist issue before . . . now understood that all women could be stopped or divided by this accusation until we all succeeded in taking the sting out of it by making lesbianism an honorable choice."
Jody Andrade (aka Lucky Baltimore) is one of the original Kitties. She was also a tail-end-of-the-second-wave women's studies major, and she loves to parse these issues. As she enters the Club Charles to do just that, she explains that she was delayed because, as she was walking from where she parked her bike, a woman she didn't know stopped her on the street and asked if the long-lived Station North stalwart was a lesbian bar. (Andrade replied that no, it wasn't, but that there were a lot of lesbians in there.)
Zisow, 30, is already there. A member of the Charm City Roller Girls roller derby league as well as the Kitties, she played Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island once in a Kitty show, and she does look like an edgier, urbanized version of the nicest girl on the island. She describes herself like this: "I like the word `byke' for myself because I'm bi, I'm a dyke, I'm queer, and I like bicycles. I get crushes on bikes as part of my sexual identity."
Liz Downing, meanwhile, is just about to turn 50 and is raising two kids with her partner (a woman). She's an Alabama native, charming as the sugar in sweet tea. Or so it seems. "One of my jobs is to teach medical students how to do a proper pelvic examination," Downing says. "I teach from the table. I'm subject and teacher. It's so empowering." She is also the artist who created the giant stylized art-deco vagina that guards the entrance to Kitty Club shows; all attendees must enter through it.
The Kitties, like the Ladyfesters, resist hierarchical systems. Kitty organizers don't conduct auditions when they're planning a show. Instead, their booking policy reflects their larger philosophy by extending a tremendous amount of trust to the performers.
"The shows are curated, but they're not judged before they're presented," Andrade says. "We pick based on creating a balance, a tossed salad. We want some easy stuff and some stuff that makes you stretch."
It was a leap of faith to run the shows in a manner consistent with their inclusive queer/feminist values, but after years of planning shows this way, the diversity of every audience's taste has validated their approach. "There's never been a show that I've loved every performer," Andrade says. "There's always an act that I'm like, `Oh my God, I want this off the stage right now.' But then I'll talk to someone the next week who loved the very act I was backstage going"--she bows her head: "Ugh."
The women agree that the performances are an event where disparate progressives of all persuasions (mainstream lesbians, queer straight people, alternative queer/GLBT folk, polyamorous collectives) gather comfortably, but they stop short of claiming to have created a feminist coalition.
"There's no `movement' to speak of," Zisow says of feminism in Baltimore, echoing Kristal Lukacs' sentiment.
Andrade agrees that any sort of coalition committed to championing the rights of the disenfranchised is precarious at best. She is among the queer "freaks" who are not fighting for marriage or acceptance in any corrupted mainstream system--the same queer freaks who become the keepers of the feminist faith during periods of cultural apathy. But she's frustrated by the double standard she feels from people who have a liberal bent (including self-identified feminists) in both the straight and gay communities. She doesn't question the movement to demand marriage rights and more equal corporate and political power, but she does wonder, "When is that going to come back to me? When is the mainstream going to say: `That girl over there who wants to tattoo her entire body and live in a communal household and who wants free health care for everybody, we support her rights.' I don't see that happening."
In spite of her irritation with being socially bullied by her sisters, and brothers, in the status quo, Andrade sees a natural partnership between mainstream and queer progressives. "You need Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul. The suffragettes made arguments and asked so politely [for the vote]. Alice Paul was tired of asking, so she chained herself to the White House fence. You need an Alice Paul to make the moderates look acceptable. While we are rabble-rousing, we're making the moderates, the same people who dis us, look good. The establishment won't deal with us. So they'll talk to them."
So there's room in contemporary feminism for someone who paints her toenails and shaves and likes pretty shoes and has a husband?
Zisow: "It's feminist to be who you are."
Downing: "Nobody's a purist."
Andrade: "Purity is so uninteresting. Seriously."
"Feminism is having the power to determine your own destiny," Downing says. "It's a personal thing. It's not being held down for being a woman but being empowered. And that's not a queer thing or a straight thing, that's just a real thing."
Andrade likes the roller-derby model: "They're using their bodies the way they want to, on an equal playing field, being rough and tumble, being treated like serious athletes, and being able to use their sexuality in any way they define it, in any way they want. That's feminism. The term has been problematic from the very beginning."
"More than the big movements, the movement today is the nonmovement," Downing says. "People are out to their families. That changes the way the family looks, and that helps to care for everyone. It just has a ripple effect."
"The whole notion of identity is more malleable," Andrade says. "The personal really is political."
So we're back to the yawning chasm between Hillary and Britney. First-wave feminists hijacked the vote and second-wave feminists stormed the castle of economic opportunity. It's up to third-wave feminists to redefine the battle yet again: update the rhetoric, make it personal, and take it to the streets.
It's a Sunday evening in September. It's been five months since Erin Boguski, ChristieLyn Diller, Christina Murray, and Jill Weaverling last gathered for one of their feminist potlucks--the summer was a busy one. But each has experienced career successes in the past few months, and it's time to celebrate.
For these women, the personal certainly is political. "We each have our specific areas that we're interested in," Murray says. "I support women who are working for wage equity, but that's not really what I'm interested in."
So in this era of personal politics and hyperlocalized movements, how is the message supposed to spread? How do these women hope to make the work they're doing matter?
"It's going to come down to education," Murray says. "Feminism will have an effect on the mainstream when people realize that in every area you can think of--health, politics, crime and violence, everything--there's a [bias]. It has to affect people personally."
Maybe. Maybe someday the inequities that put women in harm's way--medically, politically, legally, emotionally--will be even more apparent, common knowledge not only to the men who have access to the change agents, but to the women who are yet to be mobilized in their own defense. Maybe these realizations of the personal consequences will become the meaningful politics we say we want.
But tonight, over potatoes and seitan, it's clear that these women do not judge the worth of their ventures based on the breadth of their impact. They know that plenty of people are skeptical. They know that at some point they must face Ryan's challenge to adapt the familiar agenda to a new century that is still lopsided in terms of gender equity--in new ways and old. But they also contend that if they were the only women who believed these issues were worth fighting for, they would still fight. Call it what you want: a contrary personality, a penchant for pointing out the problems, a put-upon disposition. Whatever it is, it is personal--so personal that asking these women why they do what they do is almost like asking them what they hope to accomplish by breathing.
Oh, and I brought the Hoegaarden tonight. Damn. It is expensive.
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