Skepticism

Interview with Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com

Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com is the author of Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. As soon as I opened this book, I knew it was going to be different than anything about feminism I’d read before. Most of the feminist books in my library are by older women, many of whom were academics or movers and shakers from the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, when I was growing up.

This, as they say, is not your mother’s feminism. Valenti is informal, irreverent, and almost anti-serious, but at the same time frank and open about her opinions. I like opinionated, irreverent writers, as well as those who are more potty-mouthed than I am, and enjoyed reading this book, laughing at the author’s style and panache, and chuckling at the t-shirt mottos that dress up the beginning of each chapter. The text is easy to read and callouts emphasize key points. There’s a handy “Get To It” chapter at the end of the book, with quick bulleted lists that provide suggestions of you each of us can work to make a difference in the areas that concern us most. These sections of books are never long enough for me — after 235 pages of discussing the problems, there are only 12 pages of suggested solutions. But it’s a place to start.

Full Frontal Feminism is not perfect, there’s a fair bit of repetition, and sometimes the language seems almost too informal for the subject matter, especially when discussing disturbing trends in society. (Yes, I’m the Skepchick that Rebecca needs to remind not to take myself too seriously!) I don’t agree with all of Valenti’s ideas, but that’s not a problem for me. I try to read books that stimulate me to think in new directions and to examine differing viewpoints on issues, and this book certainly gave me an insight into at least one younger woman’s view of feminism.

My interview with Jessica Valenti is below the fold.


Skepchick: Jessica, thank you for agreeing to talk to Skepchick readers about your book, Full Frontal Feminism. We’ve been reading it this month and it has spurred some wildly interesting (as well as wildly off topic) discussions. The first thing that came up when I posted a blurb about the book is a stream of comments that said, you guessed it, “I’m not a feminist, but…” Your answer to this in chapter 1 is “You’re a hardcore feminist. I swear.” How can you be so sure about that?

Valenti: Well, because most young women believe in feminist values. They want equal pay for equal work; they want to put an end to violence against women; they want access to birth control and reproductive health care – it’s really just the word ‘feminist’ that seems to stop women dead in their tracks. I just think it’s high time we admitted to ourselves, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…


Skepchick: One of the reasons we had such a lively discussion is that we couldn’t agree on just what a feminist is. What is your working definition of “feminist” and how did you come up with it?

Valenti: As I wrote in the book, I really just use the dictionary definition — which is someone who believes in social, economic and political equality for women. Which is really pretty simple and hard to argue with!


Skepchick: When I first started writing for Skepchick a few years ago, Rebecca asked me if I’d write an article about abortion. I said “yes,” but haven’t been able to do so yet because the topic gets me so pissed off. You cover this topic in chapter 5, “If These Uterine Walls Could Talk.” Between abstinence only education, purity balls, the “partial-birth” abortion ban, pregnancy crisis centers popping up all over the place, and the rise of teen pregnancy in the US, it seems like the religious right has been very successful about spreading fear and false information about safe sex and pregnancy prevention. What do you think is the worst bit of misinformation that’s circulating in the US lately and what can we do to combat it?

Valenti: Oh wow, that’s a tough one because there’s really so much misinformation out there. The one that bothers me most, concerning abortion, is the idea that women who end their pregnancies are ‘selfish’ or doing it out of convenience or something. Most studies show that women who have abortions do it out of concern for existing children, or for their families. I just resent the notion that women are out getting abortions willy nilly.


Skepchick: When I grew up during the 1970s, I thought that to be a feminist, I had to dress in boy’s clothes, take a boy’s name, and basically become a tomboy. A lot of women today seem to think that you can’t be a feminist if you want to be attractive — that high heels, red lipstick, or stylish clothes are off limits to feminists. On the other hand, young women are constantly bombarded with media images that tell them they are too fat, too short, too tall, too dark, too pale, too flabby, too weak. The pressure to conform to an artificial beauty ideal is all around us. What’s a girl to do? And how important is this issue, which may seem trivial when compared to so many other issues?

Valenti: I think when it comes to beauty trappings, we have to individually do the best we can. I obviously think that women are feminists no matter what they look like – when we start judging a woman’s politics because of the way she looks, we’re no better than most sexists. In terms of importance, I’m loathe to create a hierarchy of “appropriate” feminist issues. It’s such an individual thing. Naturally there’s a big difference between unrealistic beauty standards and issues like rape or poverty – but so many of them come back to sexism that it’s hard to separate them out and decide which is more “important.”


Skepchick: Skepchick is all about empowering women through knowledge. We want to see more women involved in science, as well as in skeptical organizations. Because of this, I view skepchickism is a flavor of feminism. But there are a lot of feminists who seem to put down science as “a man’s way of knowing” and claim that “women’s ways of knowing,” usually intuition combined with some forms of superstition, are better. I cringe every time I see a website about feminism that has information on healing crystals or casting spells or worshipping the goddess. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Valenti: Well, if someone needs crystals I’m not going to fault them for it, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. I’m not really into the difference feminism stuff, it’s just a bit too hokey for me.


Skepchick: I love the irreverent and informal style you chose for your book and I enjoyed reading a book about feminism that wasn’t stuffy or academic. As you may have noticed on Skepchick, we love to have fun and we do our best to be snarky and have at least one good laugh every day. What kind of response have you had to the book content and style? Do you think the style was a help or a hindrance to reaching your intended audience?

Valenti: Thanks! The response has been really great from younger women – I think the tone spoke to them in the way that I hoped it would. I definitely got some flak from some folks who thought the book was too informal, which is fine. But I felt like there was so much academic feminism out there, I didn’t want to write another book like that. I wanted to write something that any woman — no matter what her level of political engagement, no matter what her education level — could pick up and read and enjoy. That’s what was most important to me. So I’ve been really happy with the feedback!


Skepchick: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Valenti: I think that’s about it, but thank you so much for reading the book and taking the time to talk to me!

Skepchick: Thanks again for visiting our site and answering questions about your book.


OK, I know there are several of you who were waiting for this review and at least one person who has a rant to post, so let’s hear it!

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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24 Comments

  1. Thanks for the interview. I'm a 39 year old dude who considers himself a femminst (old skool deffinition of wanting equality for women). Of course the older books are must reads (Fem Mystic, the Hite report), but in recent times the only book(s) on femminism that I have read are "Are Men Necessary and books that are science based like "Sexual Strageties." Is it because the word femminism has become a "bad" word, much like the word liberal ("Liberals don't support freedom.") and that contributes to a lack of popular culture support-I don't know. It seems that in the ninties books like Backlash and The Beauty Myth were very popular in our culture and getting great exposure. I don't know what happened, but I do know that (personally) I haven't had very many/as many books on femminism.

    I work in a cafe next to a college and it seems that not too many women (18-25) consider themselves femminist. I think that they think it's something that their moms did or like you said, that they can't be attractive and still be a femminsit (as you said, the tomboy decision). Thanks to your interview and this site I have something to talk about with them. For sure I'll put FFF on my to read list. Thank you once again.

    Lates Kriss

  2. Hi,

    I too would consider myself a feminist, on the basis that I believe Women and Men to be politically equal, deserving of equal pay, equal rights, control over their own bodies yadayada. I guess I'm not crazy about the word, it sounds like a political belief that only women should have. The reality is that really we should all be feminists, so much so that we only need the word sexist to describe the rest of society. But perhaps we aren't there yet.

    I also agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says the number 1 way to improve the lot of a society is with the empowerment / emancipation of women. Contraception including the right to have an abortion are important parts of the empowerment of women.

    But to raise something else for discussion. It wasn't until I read The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker that I heard about the bizarre belief of Gender Feminism. This I would totally distance myself from. My understanding of Gender Feminism is that this is the belief that baby boys and girls aren't just born politically equal (I believe this) but that they are born in all respects equal and on average the same. A girl grows up differently to the boy only because she is labelled a girl by her society, dressed as a girl, brought up to be a girl, and her once blank slate is etched onto with all the things society expects of girls. Clearly the same is implied as occuring for boys in opposite.

    There is a great deal of evidence that shows us this is absolute rubbish. Girls are different to Boys. There are innate differences in how the brain works, and in toy preference for example. Boys who had operations at birth to make them into girls (it used to happen for example if the genitalia were ambiguous) share prediliction for soldiers and cars even when brought up as girls with dolls. And the differences just get greater as they head into puberty.

    This is of course exactly what we expect, the best strategy for males from an evolutionary point of view is quite different to females and we clever humans have not cast away our evolutionary legacy.

    We should not be ashamed or try to cover up the differences between the sexes. That women on average tend to have more empathy and understand emotions better is a wonderful thing. That men on average tend to be a little better visuospatially and at mathematics is also wonderful. And of course different averages imply overlapping bell curves, so we could never rationally pigeon hole one woman as worse at maths than one man a priori. Furthermore aesthetically I would not like a world where everyone was like a man, and I wouldn't like it if my partner was like a man (she isn't). Neither I think would most women really, like the world to be like everyone was a women, or in fact if everyone was like something in between. We should embrace the differences between genders, not hide them under the carpet as if embarassed by them.

    So anyway the point of all this. I am proud to say I am an Asexist, or slightly more reluctantly an equity feminist. But would strongly distance myself from the ridiculous and in my opinion impoverished view of gender feminism, a view we would be wise to be skeptical of. (I thought bringing up the difference for discussion was relevant on a website that seems to bring together skepticism and empowerment of women.)

  3. Thanks for the interview with Jessica. I've been reading Feministing for about a year or so, and it's good to see these two sites crossing paths.

    I'm not all the familiar with Gender Feminism ( just had a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry) so can't comment specifically about it, but the questioning of gender roles is an important exercise. Just how much of our behaviour, as male or female, is innate and how much is socially constructed? It's still very much an open question.

    We've got to be careful of engaging in gender essentialism. That, in our society, boys prefer to play with soldiers and that girls prefer to play with dolls is what we should expect is a form of gender essentialism that encourages the male/warrior-female/mother dichotomy. I don't think this is behaviour we would at all expect if it weren't for the fact that boys are encouraged to play with 'boy toys' and girls are encouraged to play with 'girl toys'.

    That intersex children raised as girls but who identify as boys want to play with soldiers does not demonstrate that boys playing with soldiers is an innate aspect of boyhood (maleness). All it demonstrates is that such an individual identifies as a member of the opposite sex to which he is being raised, and chooses behaviour that is considered male to assert that identity.

    Yes, there is sexual dimorphism, from an evolutionary perspective there may be different strategies employed by females and males of _H. sapiens_, and there may be on average better performances in some, different, bahaviours and abilities between the sexes, but that is a far cry from advocating gender essentialism.

  4. Stephen,

    I had to look up essentialism to doublecheck I knew the correct meaning. Wikipedia also

    "In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must have. This view is contrasted with non-essentialism which states that for any given kind of entity there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must have"

    You have made a strawman of my argument, the nature/nurture argument is a false dichotomy. To the extent that a gender essentialist might claim that ALL differences between men and women are due to innate characteristics immutable by society and upbringing I would have to agree with you. That sort of a statement is plainly ridiculous. Using the wikipedia definition, you are implying that my argument was that ALL boys love soldiers and must do so if they are a boy.

    There are however very strong innate differences between males and females. They are consistent (universal) between cultures – this is quite strong evidence that they probably aren't infinitely variable depending on societal or environmental pressures.

    In terms of my brief description of baby boys brought up as girls, my description was too brief. The differences in toy preference come about far before the child has a good idea about maleness or femaleness or can play very cooperatively with other children. It really doesn't make sense to say that they want to be a boy so they are observing what other boys do and doing that. The second point to this story though, which you implicitly agree with, is the fact that the boy retains maleness despite being brought up as a female, implying that maleness is innate not taught to him.

    The evidence for innate differences between male and female humans is actually quite strong. I would recommend The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker, it's well written and references a heap of relevant research in the area. I toyed with the idea of listing 12 key pieces of evidence Pinker cites but I think I should leave it at that. Another book that was reasonable on this subject was Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley.

    One of the big reasons that people shy away from the evidence for real innate differences between men and women is that they worry it might legitimise sexism. Feminists should believe men and women should have equal rights for philosophical/idealistic reasons. It is very dangerous to base that belief on a belief that men and women differ only because of societal restriction, because then when evidence comes in (as it has) that there are innate differences, the foundation for feminism is eroded. It should be seen as self evident that men and women are equal. Knowledge about sexual dimorphism including psychological differences should only enrich our understanding of the human condition and the differences between its two most common varieties.

    Innate differences there certainly are, essentialism by its strict definition there is not.

  5. I always think the best comparison to male/femal differences is racial differences.

    Now, obviously, black and white people aren't actually different races, we're all pretty much the human race. But the differences between a black and a white person are more than just the skin pigmentation. There's quite some physical differences that, like skin colour, are the result of having a subsection of the species evolving in a specific location and developing traits that give them an advantage.

    It would simply be ignorant to believe the difference between men and women is more than just reproductive organs. And clearly, the physical aspects alone have some impact on someone's abilities, and what kinds of jobs they might be able to perform.

    But considering the different hormones alone that govern what happens in our bodies, it would be surprising to find there are no behavioral differences as a result between men and women. We are essentially one gender or the other because of chemical differences during gestation, and we experience a radically different chemical cocktail during our lives, so that's bound to leave it's mark.

    But the most important part about the three paragraphs I just wrote is that none of this in any way quantifies the difference, or at least it doesn't imply any kind of "better" or "worse", just "different". And that's what feminism is basically about: assuming we're the same until proven otherwise. So far, very little, if not anything, has been proven, so the inequality is based on nothing except tradition and habit.

  6. And that’s what feminism is basically about: assuming we’re the same until proven otherwise.

    The logical position would seem to be to recognise that assumptions of innate or developmental group difference or similarity on some measurable criteria are generally not relevant when looking at a small number of individuals.

    When looking at groups, a priori assumptions of sameness or of any particular amount of difference are both potentially problematic.

    One problem with any assumptions that people might tend to invest emotions in is that they may well be rather resistant to proof otherwise, or even suggestions otherwise, or see any genuine attempt at a different analysis as some cloaked challenge to wider views linked to (but not actually dependent on) the assumptions.

  7. Quite.

    At the level of an individual, innate or other group differences or similarities are generally not relevant, just what the individual can do or has done.

    The tricky part is when it comes to assessing whether groups are being treated equally, or how unequally they may be being treated. Even in the unlikely event a society was actually being perfectly fair, in the face of some innate differences, possibly magnified by a difference-amplifying culture, proving fairness could be impossible.

  8. Generalising from the issue of feminists and clothing, one impression of some aspects of feminism (possibly an unrepresentative one culled from a few more vocal minorities) is that there do seem to be some groups in feminism who are convinced theirs is the only true way, and that women who disagree are traitors ("Marriage is legalised prostitution", "Women should/shouldn't wear X", "all men are bastards/sexists/whatever")

    It may well be that some people were merely being deliberately overly radical in order to get noticed (or get their books bought), and that the noisier and more opinionated groups are small, and deep down they do share the same basic ideas as the mainstream, and only disagree over details, but the downside is that the disagreements can easily mask (and/or be manipulated to mask) the core issues of equality and fairness, not least by making it appear by strongly arguing for things that seem nonsensical or irrelevant that there's nothing more important to worry about.

    Also, the sisterhood idea (as in "other women should agree with me and my friends") itself reinforces the idea of fundamental difference between men and women, and when that's being done by people who also don't generally seem the sharpest of humans, doesn't seem to do women in general a service.

    If someone's saying something daft and also claiming other women think the same, it's looks like a great excuse for a sexist to carry on as before with a cleaner conscience.

    As far as beauty ideals are concerned, how is beauty distinguished from fashion, and who's supposed to be assessing/defining what counts as beautiful?

    I'm not sure that male preferences change greatly or quickly over time, or are desperately specific or consensus-based.

  9. …one impression of some aspects of feminism (possibly an unrepresentative one culled from a few more vocal minorities) is that there do seem to be some groups in feminism who are convinced theirs is the only true way, and that women who disagree are traitors…

    Sounds strangely like Christians.

  10. Great interview! Thanks!

    BenAlbert: You seem quite certain that the differences you describe are in fact innate. As the nature vs. nurture discussion has been ongoing and largely unsolved in the scientific community, perhaps you should publish your work and revolutionize the field. I'm sure they'd love to have the question settled once and for all. I for one am highly interested to see if your data proving that men are innately better at math (on average) still holds up after the next few generations of girls grow up – you know, the generations of girls that everyone is freaking out about because they're doing far better in school than the boys (on average).

    Also, I think you underestimate infants' abilities to absorb social information – there have been many studies probing this that you should look into.

    PH: I think that the phrase "beauty standards" is used because "fashion" tends to evoke "trendiness"; the beauty standards women are held to do involve fashion, but also transcend mere trendiness. For instance, the type and style of high heels that are fashionable may change from season to season, but the high heel has been a staple of standard/expected female attractiveness for a long time. Just to give one example.

  11. It's still only a subset of women who habitually wear heels, especially the highest ones.

    If there were some event where most women wore rather high heels and a few equally attractive women wore lower and more comfortable ones, I wonder who would notice or comment the most – the men or the women? Who is holding women to the standards?

  12. My only question vis a vis the idea of innate vs. socially acquired traits is one of practicality: If, as kellbelle1020 says (and I have no reason to distrust her just yet), infants absorb social information so easily that even people attempting NOT to influence them manage to do so…then does it really matter whether these "differences" are innate or not? By way of analogy, if my soda bottle isn't actually resting on this table (being repelled on the atomic level), it is close enough to doing so that for all intents and purposes I can act as if it is.

    If it, legitimately, is THAT easy to influence gender roles/toy preferences/whatever other behaviors baby scientists are looking at, can we really expect parents/society to keep the "blank slate" working and not impose SOME role? At what point can we say, "Well, this isn't ACTUALLY innate, but it's close enough that we can treat it like it is?" And, then, is it fair to assume that some part of the human brain has EVOLVED to pick up on cues implying these societally-determined roles?

    I personally do not know the answers to these questions, but these are the sort of thoughts the discussion thusfar has conjured up in my mind.

  13. In a society with numerous roles, there seems to be a definite benefit in some part of the upbringing of humans actually magnifying prior differences of desire or talent. After all, that's effectively what allowing specialisation in education does.

    I guess the trick is to allow for that magnification whilst also trying to make sure people's horizons aren't artificially limited and there are paths open to allow people to step outside of perceived group roles.

    Additionally, on the nurture side of things, it does also seem that between certain ages, children tend to play in single-sex groups, which can provide another serious amplification mechanism for group difference, and one which it is extremely hard for any blank-slate parent to nullify however hard they try, unless they're living somewhere so isolated that children have to play in mixed groups.

  14. Expatria: That is EXACTLY why it is so hard to untangle nature vs. nurture. And why I don't think that question will be answered definitively any time soon. But I'm always immediately suspicious of people who just *assume* innateness without even considering the highly social nature of humans combined with their (our? that just sounds weird – I'm not an alien, I promise) intelligence. PH's point deserves repeating here: society is a very powerful force, with an arguably greater influence than the parents; even IF gendered traits are 100% the result of nurture, we can't ethically remove infants from society and experiment on them to find out.

    On a tangential but related note, I've noticed that people get irrationally angry when infants are dressed in clothing atypical of their gender. A girl infant in a blue onesie (sp?) with, say, a dog on it will get called a he; when you correct that person, they will (in my experience) lecture you about dressing her "correctly" so they can immediately tell gender on sight. Theoretically, an infant's gender shouldn't be important in how you treat it – but the socialization process a) really does start that early and b) is different for boys and girls; it's a huge taboo to switch that up.

    As to the importance of what you call it if it is effectively innate… People who assume innateness make me suspicious because in my experience, innateness is usually argued in a prescriptive rather descriptive manner, i.e. women are innately worse at math (on average), so women shouldn't go into fields requiring it; blacks innately have lower IQs (on average), so programs to encourage them to get an education are pointless; etc. etc. These arguments are ridiculous even if those traits ARE innate. Ideally everyone in society would agree with that. But most people don't make the very fine distinction between "innate" and "universal", especially when they have an ulterior motive (racism, sexism) to justify. And since we DON'T really know if these traits are in fact innate, why go there when it sows so much confusion & social discord? The table doesn't really care about the nuance of interaction with the bottle; nuance in these types of arguments involving people is vital.

    PH: Yes, I know; the high heels thing was just one example off the top of my head. My point was that these ideals on the one hand are very arbitrary, but on the other, they're deeper and more far-reaching than the term "fashion" seems to imply. Women DO police each other on beauty standards, though. Much smarter people than I have addressed this, but I think the bottom line is that women do this as a defense mechanism both to justify their own participation in the game and to defend against their own fears of failing to acheive these standards (you know, kind of like how they say a bully is just insecure). Incidentally, that's a big part of how the idea of sisterhood you brought up came about – a movement to stop that kind of needless competition. That some people turned it into an opportunity to just enforce a different kind of conformity is simply testament to the failings of humans in general in my opinion – that kind of thing happens often, and not just with women.

  15. A few interesting details concerning gender-typification for children under the age of, say, 6, is the fact that things that are "typically for girls" or "typically for boys" change over time too.

    Initially, blue was a colour more typically used for girls, and pink for boys. I'm not exactly sure when or how that really changed.

    Also, if you look at some really old photographs, you will sometimes see boys of about three or younger, wearing dresses. It makes sense if you think about it, because giving a child that young pants just means they'll grow out of them in a matter of months, which is a waste of good fabric.

    There are other societal "gender identifiers" which have chaged over time. In the fifties, guys with long hair were simply an oddity. Or girls with short hair (really short hair) for that matter.

    Yet a few hundred years ago, it wasn't abnormal for a guy to have long hair (hairdressers were probably considered a luxury expense, and it takes regular work to keep a short haircut looking OK).

  16. The tricky thing with society acting as a difference amplifier is that in many ways, the difference amplification is a very useful thing, and a society could do that whilst also being entirely gender-blind.

    Difference amplification could and possibly should be looked at as being quite distinct from 'nurture' as it is often portrayed (in the sense of people being effectively pushed into or excluded from roles on the basis of gender).

  17. I'll make this my last post in this topic, because clearly I've sidetracked the interview much more than I intended.

    I was actually a little suprised by the reaction to denouncing gender feminism as from my own reading it seems to be a philosophical idea that is quite at odds with scientific observation.

    In practice does it make a difference to the approach to the empowerment of women whether men and women have innate differences or are born 'entirely identical' (within the normal variation between all humans). It probably should.

    In either case men and women should be equal in the eyes of the law and the rights they have, payment for work etc. But if the bulk of gender differences are due to society, then the possibility of engineering society to mold men and women differently is up for consideration . Should society bring girls and boys up exactly the same for example. In contrast if the bulk of differences are innate, the focus should be on loving the differences, rather than trying to change them, and making sure that a society made up of both men and women despite those differences is still an equal one.

    Does it make a difference to how you should treat a woman or a man you meet on the street, or whether you employ a man or a woman etc – no of course not. From this perspective it is irrelevant.

    Kellebelle:

    As the tone of your post implied I am not a scientist reseaching the origin of gender differences. So no, I don't have a lifetime of research just waiting to publish and change the world.

    I'm not sure if you suggested I just assumed that all differences were innate. I didn't. Like most people who watch too much T.V, I always assumed society and your parents moulded pretty much all aspects of personality until I began reading around the topic a little more.

    If you are interested in some of the evidence for innate differences between men and women and infact the degree of personality that is currently estimated to be innate, you can't go past The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker as a first read.

    Anyway I'll leave it there

    Ben (An equity feminist)

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