Interview: Deborah Siegel
The first thing to know about Deborah Siegel is that she’s everywhere.
At your local bookshop? Check. Along with co-editing Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing up Solo, Siegel is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, which hits stores today. Already, it’s receiving top-notch reviews.
Online? She’s there too. Siegel is the co-founder of The Scholar and the Feminist, a multimedia magazine devoted to feminist theoryand activism. As well, she blogs at Girl With Pen, a space she hopes will be a connecting point for writers, readers, and researchers. She’s also written for The Huffington Post and Mothers Movement Online.
In the news media? Natch. Siegel has contributed to Psychology Today and The Progressive, and has been the subject of articles in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, among others.
In Siegel’s spare time, she’s a consultant and conference presenter for a slew of organizations that fuse research on women and girls to media and policy. In 2001, she received her doctorate in English and
American literature from the Unviersity of Wisconsin-Madison.
In her new book, Sisterhood, Interrupted, Siegel traces the trajectory of feminist history, recasting generational misunderstandings in light of today’s reinvention of a powerful movement that is, in fact, true to its roots.
And here’s Deborah:
So, first off, tell us about yourself. Where do you come from? How did you personally come to engage with feminism? With writing?
I’m a Chicago girl, Midwestern at heart. I went to college and graduate school in the Midwest, then hightailed it to New York City, where I’ve lived ever since. I came to feminism through my high school English teacher, “Ms.” Medwin, who helped me write my first big term paper, on Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich. But connection came from the heart, not just my head. As a child, I used to tell everyone in my suburban enclave that I was a latch-key kid because my mother went back to school for advanced training in her field (social work) and worked, but really I was incredibly proud of her and what she achieved. My father taught me tikkun olam—the Jewish philosophy of repairing the world—and he also taught me how to needlepoint. They were both models for making change on a very personal level. And that obsession with women’s literature, by the way, never went away. I ended up with a PhD in the subject.
What got you passionate enough to write a book like Sisterhood, Interrupted? What does it mean for you to fuse your identities as a writer and a feminist?
For me, feminism and writing have always been fused. At first, I was moved by women novelists and poets—particularly women of color—who wrote their truth in a world that didn’t want to hear it. Nowadays, I’m fixated on nonfiction, because that’s the form that provides entré into the world of public debate—which seriously lacks a sensitive discussion of the complex forces shaping women’s lives. Far too often, important work by women scholars stays locked in the ivory tower, or drowns in advocacy-speak. So in addition to writing feminist books, I now consult for women’s research and policy organizations, helping them reach wider audiences through various kinds of prose—op-eds, blogging, articles for popular magazines, books for trade.
What exactly does “sisterhood, interrupted” mean to you? And who are the “radical women” and “grrls gone wild” in your title?
The radical women are the radical feminists who appear in the early chapters of the book—the ones who came of age in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements and the New Left, grew tired of pouring coffee and licking stamps for the male heavies, formed a movement of their own, and gave voice to that transformative slogan, “The Personal Is Political.” Grrl is the young feminist appropriation of “girl” first voiced by the Riot Grrls—punk girls who grew tired of playing sexual side dish to the drummer and started creating their own scene, which included all-girl bands. This is just one example, but there are continuities here that I think are lost on women from both these generations. Sometimes older women today think the boob-flashing on the video series Girls Gone Wild is all there is to a younger generation’s so-called feminism, when really there’s so much else going on.
There’s a dearth of writing by feminists being published today…in fact, women in general are hugely underrepresented. Why do you think that is? And what women writers do you think deserve more attention?
I find it beyond frustrating that at certain mainstream news, magazine, and online outlets we’re often allowed only one or maybe, if we’re lucky, two or three female voices—and still fewer, male or female, who cover what’s traditionally known as women’s issues in really smart ways. It’s because in most cases, women still aren’t running those places, issues affecting women and families are considered “soft news,” and there’s a conventional hierarchy around who gets heard. But sometimes, women also prematurely take themselves out of the game. Women don’t submit op-eds in nearly the same numbers as men do, for example. Perhaps in the current political climate, the more progressive among us already feel defeated, so we don’t even try. But when it comes to feminist books being published, young feminism is again getting hot. In the past year alone, my agent (Tracy Brown) has sold a number by younger feminists, and I know through my work with the Woodhull Institute that there are tons more out there with something important to say. I can’t wait to see them all in print.
More and more, I see women forming their own networks—creating new “old girls clubs,” as it were—and bringing media attention to eachother. I see this happening through WAM! (the annual Women, Action, and the Media conference sponsored by CNW), through popular blogs like Feministing, and through online/offline ventures like MotherTalk. The women writers who I think deserve more attention are the ones who are writing nonfiction about hot-button “women’s” issues in nuanced ways, but don’t always manage to do it in a way that sells. I’d like to see more attention paid to books by writers like sociologist Pamela Stone, who wrote a great book about opting out and opting in. I’d also like to see more attention paid to women writers of nonfiction on a wider range of subjects—not just books about women. I’m part of a mostly-female authors group, for instance, where members are producing serious nonfiction on topics ranging from language evolution, to the relationship between neuroscience and psychology, to the gifted kids industry. In terms of fiction, I’m personally entertained by chick lit, but I also wish there was a wider range of fiction being published by women these days.
In the press material for Sisterhood, Interrupted, feminism is referred to as “one of the most contentious social movements of our time.” I’ll say! Why do you think the simple idea of gender equality is so controversial?
Gender equality is threatening, of course, to those who have the most to lose, i.e. rich, white men. The reasons feminism is contentious among women, however, are complicated—and actually far more interesting. For the answer to that one, though, you’ll have to read the book!
I will say though that I think it’s telling how the word “postfeminist” was first uttered in 1919—just a few decades after the coining of the word “feminist”—by a group of female literary radicals in Greenwich Village who rejected the feminism of their mothers, one year before women won the right to vote. The word was resurrected in the backlash 1980s to describe an era in which feminism was, once again, deemed unnecessary and uncool. History has a knack for repeating itself, and the story of women’s progress has been a constant tale of two steps forward, one step back.
Your book is something of a primer on feminist history, certainly a history full of challenges…including race tensions in the women’s movement. How have those tensions shaped where we are today, and how can we build a new movement that is inclusive and diverse?
What younger women from Rebecca Walker on down have dubbed “third-wave feminism” is, in many ways, a response to the perceived racism, or lack of inclusiveness, of their predecessors’ movement. I write about this in depth in the chapter of the book called “Rebels with a Cause.” Increasingly, a salient difference among women is that of generation. If you were born in 1949, you’re going to have a different entry point and relationship to feminism than if you were born in 1989. But remarkably, we’re still asking ourselves the same questions about what needs to change in order for women—and men—to live full and healthy lives. People don’t recognize this. Instead, age is fast becoming an unnecessary divider. If women who support gender parity in this country can’t talk to each other, then feminism’s grandchildren are going to pay the ultimate price.
Who do you think particularly needs to get their hands on Sisterhood, Interrupted?
Younger women who think the 1970s women’s movement was all woman symbols and Birkenstocks. Older women who can’t understand why, for many younger women, short skirts and high heels make them feel kick ass. Sartorial preferences aside, and in all honesty, all those—young or old, male or female—who care about the future of feminism, and also its past. In the back of Sisterhood, Interrupted, there’s a discussion guide, which I included with the hope that those of different generations might read and discuss the book together. I want veterans and young upstarts to understand how they are more alike than they are different. And how the passion and ideas of feminism remain even though the language may have changed.
What is most at stake for women today, and what can we do about it?
In the book, I write about how confusing it can sometimes be to be a daughter of feminism in a culture half-transformed. My generation (Gen X) and those younger than me are caught between the hope for a world that no longer degrades women and the reality of a culture that is still degrading. So I think it’s important to really know the facts about where women today stand (take the quiz on my blog) and know how to get involved in current organizations and campaigns. In the back of my book, there’s an online resource guide that offers a gateway.
You co-founded the online magazine The Scholar and the Feminist and also maintain the blog, Girl with Pen. What role does online writing play in the larger movement?
For so many younger women, blogs are the new CR (consciousness raising). It’s where the most lively debates about women’s lives are currently taking place. Recent elections have proved that the Internet is providing a forum for a new kind of citizen activism—and if women’s organizations and other progressive causes don’t take note, they face the danger of becoming irrelevant to younger generations. There’s a real opportunity for younger women to mentor older women about the new technologies here.
Also, online writing has this potential to bridge realms that usually stay separate. On Girl with Pen, the tagline is “connecting readers, writers, and researchers across generations on all things women and girl.” I encourage people who do research on women, men, and contemporary families to guest post and use the space as a venue for garnering media visibility for their work. I’m invested in bridging research and media, and online writing has become key to that charge.
Anything else you’d like to add?
In the fall, I’ll be touring campuses and elsewhere as part of an intergenerational panel, with Courtney Martin (author of Perfect
Girls, Starving Daughters), Kristal Brent Zook (author of Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Pain and Power), and Gloria Feldt (author of The War on Choice and former president of Planned Parenthood). It’s time that women of all ages talked and listened to one another instead of rehashing the same cliquish complaints in isolation. We want to reopen the dialogue about women’s lives, power, entitlement, and the future of feminism, but this time, with a cross-generational understanding.
I’ve also started offering women scholars and researchers—which is the world I come from— workshops on blogging, and online courses on writing book proposals for trade. I want to help those producing real knowledge about trends in modern women’s lives reach broader audiences, and understand the role that new technologies are playing in shaping the public debate.
A final note about Sisterhood, Interrupted, why I wrote it: You know, sisterhood may be interrupted, but feminism is alive and well. It doesn’t look like it once did, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We need guides and bridges across the generations, and my greatest hope is that readers find that in my book.