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Feminism Spotlight: Jennifer Baumgardner

 

If there is anything that has ever been a staple of how we operate here at Her Campus, it is that we are all about strong women. When it comes to role models, this woman takes first place in the fabulous department. Having worked with some A-List names such as Oprah Winfrey (gasp!) and Margaret Cho, and even having a career in the oh-so glamorous fashion magazine industry (double gasp!), activist and author Jennifer Baumgardner absolutely knows how to inspire a generation to embrace gender equality and fight for what they believe in. Her Campus JMU got the chance to sit down with Baumgardner and pick her brain on feminism, the magazine industry, loving yourself and more. Read on collegiettes, you might just be inspired to go out there and make some changes!

HC: Could you please provide a brief bio of how you got to where you are now?

I was raised in Fargo, N.D., (where I mainly did theater and dreamed of leaving) and went to college in Appleton, Wis. (where I majored in English, co-founded an alternative ’zine, and became an ardent feminist).

I came to New York City in early 1993 to take an internship with Ms. Magazine. From there, I was hired and worked my way up the ranks to editor. In 1997, I left and began writing full time for magazines such as Glamour, Elle, The Nation, and Real Simple. In 1998, I got my first book deal and began writing “Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future” … with Amy Richards. The book came out in 2000 and was a big success. Amy and I began touring to college campuses and have been doing that for the last 14 years.

Additionally, I have co-written one other book with Amy, written three books on my own, made two films (“It Was Rape” and “I Had an Abortion”), and I’ve taught college … and co-founded a feminist company called Soapbox. Whew. I also have two sons … a husband … and a cat. I feel lucky to get paid to talk about feminism.

HC: When did you first come to realize you were a feminist? 

I think I was pretty young. I was raised in the early-’70s when there was a lot of talk of feminism and Ms. Magazine was on many coffee tables, even in more conservative or remote spots like Fargo, N.D. I was always told I could be what I wanted to be. In college, I began reading books like “Backlash” (Susan Faludi), “Talking Back” and “Sister Outsider” (Audre Lorde) and identifying more  as a feminist. My life didn’t make sense without feminism and I’m grateful to have the philosophy and the movements to turn to.

 

HC: Why do you think so many young women are adamantly “not feminists,” and what do you think are the implications of this for our generation?

Each person comes to feminism through personal experience, which begets consciousness. You can’t talk someone into calling themselves a feminist.

Your generation very likely uses the term more than earlier generations — it’s just that now we have older feminists asking, “Why don’t you say you’re a feminist?” You get the question more. I find that when I talk to women or men about their lives, they are often living feminist lives whether or not they label it such. 

 

HC: What is your personal definition of feminism? 

 For me, feminism is the philosophy and political movement that makes it possible for people to bring all parts of ourselves and our experiences into the room with us — and into society. It creates space to tell the truth about what has happened to us (be it rape, abortion, miscarriage, drug addiction, abuse or complexity around gender and sexuality) and to get support, resources and respect.

 

HC: You have a strong background in the magazine industry; how has that shaped your experience? 

I loved magazines as a kid … so I’m really happy that I spent more than a decade writing for them regularly. Pre-Internet, women used to get a majority of their health information from women’s magazines, so I think they are significant. I am happy I’ve had the chance to write to so many different kinds of and sizes of audience because of the wide variety of magazines that have hired me. I think I’m pretty savvy about the media, because I both consume the media, create the media and am of the media. I’m still critical, but I understand why Glamour runs the stories it does, for instance, and I don’t expect them to be Atlantic Monthly or BUST. 

 

HC: What do you think about the media’s impact on young women? How can the media help to empower women?

I tend to think media impact is overstated because it’s an easy thing to blame. When it comes to body image, for example, it’s true that the media perpetuate an ideal of a woman that is quite narrow. On the other hand, it’s show business and I think the under-told story is how we compare our bodies to one another and how hard it is to begin practicing the self-love we feminists claim to believe.

So, if (to paraphrase Eve Ensler) I wake up each day and say, “I love my body!” —even if I’m not totally telling the truth — I’m doing something radical that very few women do. I actually make it a point to say to say I love my body every day, and you know what? I think I love my body much more because of it. Fake it ’til you make it!

HC: What strides can students on campus make now to combat some of our most important issues such as sexual assault? 

For sexual assault: You can revise your campus sexual assault policy using the guidelines put forth by SAFER (www.safercampus.org); you can hold “slut walks” and Take Back the Night events; and you can fully face rape by telling the truth about your experiences and enabling others to do the same. We all know people who’ve been raped, and we all know people who have raped. Getting over our denial … is the hardest part. In general, I follow the ideas of “See it, Tell it, Change it” (a Third Wave Foundation idea). Observe an injustice? Well, speak out about it and try to change the conditions that allowed the injustice.

 

HC: What is your biggest piece of advice for women of our age?

Hmm. I would benefit from getting advice from you and your peers. But, some advice from me is to realize what a valuable perspective you already have right now, even at the very beginning of adulthood. Younger people tend to be more idealistic and more brave, and I love to be reminded of my own potential to be idealistic and brave by my relationships with college students. Also, wake up each day and say, “I love my body!”

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