Jessica Valenti—Why We Need Feminism More Than Ever

The pandemic has exposed some ugly truths about American life. Here’s how feminism can help.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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By Christina Pan

First, some tips for those who do not consider themselves feminists:

Do not be like the large number of people who spent International Women’s Day googling what day of the year is International Men’s Day.

Do not idolize your political heroes. There is a likely chance that they are purveyors of sexual assault.

Do not call a movie “feminist” if two women talk to each other (about something besides a man).

Beyond those tips, it is a good idea to keep a conscious mind on what exactly about feminism troubles you. Yes, you may support “women’s rights.” You may be all for equality, and you might believe that rape is bad and bodily autonomy is good. You also might find yourself starting sentences with the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Perhaps it is something about dropping the “F-bomb” that alienates you. I come with answers.

This month, I had the opportunity to speak with Stuyvesant alumnus Jessica Valenti (’96). Valenti is a feminist, long-time blogger, and author of numerous titles aimed at general readership—entry-level, everyday feminism—that together, have helped shape the online feminist movement. Those unfamiliar with Valenti’s work may be shocked (or enthralled) by her candor. Valenti writes as a friend: without airs, without condescension, communicating directly and colloquially with someone they care about. The result is an engrossing, provocative, and remarkably genuine experience that makes a powerful case for why we need feminism—and why it may be particularly crucial now.

Women have lost over 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic. Working mothers have it particularly hard, balancing long hours with familial duties. And it isn’t particularly comforting that by 2021’s Women’s History Month, a certain New York governor still feels entitled to women’s bodies.

The pandemic has exposed some ugly truths about American life. Here’s how feminism can help.

CP: Why do you think so many people still reject the feminist label?

JV: We still live in a world with a lot of stereotypes about feminism. But when you look at feminism and its ideals, they’re pretty run of the mill. We don’t like violence [toward] women. We think women should have control of their own bodies [and] equal pay for equal work. I know when I was younger, I was almost afraid that if I identified as a feminist, it would mean this constant stream of trolling and pushback. Women are always having to justify their intelligence or prove their intelligence or prove something. And when you're already dealing with diminishment or harassment as a young person, who wants to deal with that? There also was just this fear of being caught as an imposter or trying on a political identity that I didn't know enough about. I thought, “There's so many kinds of feminism. Do I really know what I'm talking about?” The other part of it is this fraught history in feminism, where mainstream feminism hasn’t reached out to everyone, and that’s sort of a more understandable argument to have about the word feminism.

CP: When people critique feminism, the conversation seldom touches on what the movement does for women but rather veers towards men. Why do you think that is?

JV: A long time ago, when I was on Feministing, I got a really obnoxious e-mail from a guy who was like, “You’re always bashing men.” I found that I rarely wrote about men at all. And that's what pissed him off. Whether it's movies or any kind of pop culture, it's women talking about men. And when we’re not talking about men, it means that we hate them. What’s interesting is that if feminists or women wanted to hate men, we would have lots of reasons to. Rape is a literal epidemic. Violence is an epidemic. The laws that [...] keep women from controlling their own bodies and futures, [for] all of that, the perpetrators are men. Yet we still work with men; we love men; we marry men. And if we did hate men, we wouldn't have enough power for it to systemically impact them anyway. It’s really a red herring; a way to distract from the conversation. But the difficult hurdle is making men see what they can gain from feminism. Men do have it bad in a lot of ways, but that's not because of feminism. That’s because of patriarchy, and if they could come to understand that, it would be so much more beneficial.

This is one way where women have an edge. If you don't like the dominant culture on what it means to be a woman, you have feminism. Feminism is this very strong cultural, political movement that you can look to for answers. When men have these important questions about their masculinity, they don't have an equivalent [movement] to go to. Instead of going to a place to think deeply and interrogate what these structures do to them as a person, it’s just: “don’t be a [EXPLETIVE]. Don’t be a [EXPLETIVE]. Don’t be a woman.” So really, the very idea of American masculinity is built on hatred for women. And that is a simple, seductive answer. If we want to do right by young men, we need to start to think, what does an alternative culture look like? Or how can we draw them to feminism?

CP: Why call it feminism, as opposed to a general term like “humanism?”

JV: Because no matter what we call it, if it means making it better for women, people will find a way to hate it. It doesn't matter what the word is. You can label it; you can name it however you want. But at the end of the day, if it’s making it better for women, people are going to be unhappy about it. So it doesn’t make sense to me. Let’s focus on the issues; let’s focus on getting things done. Then what’s interesting, too, is that a lot of people have feminist values, but they stay away from the word. And you know what? If they don't want to use that word, it's okay. I don’t think feminism needs all those people to use the term. But people need feminism more than they think. Because even if you believe in those things, if you’re staying away from the word feminism, you’re closing off a whole world to yourself. Once you identify as a feminist or you get interested in it, and you start reading books or blogs or start getting into conversations about it, your life changes for the better. You get support that you wouldn't otherwise get. You get access to language to talk about the issues that you care about in a way [...] you didn't before. I was at a restaurant a few years ago, and I heard this woman talking about an ad that’d been super sexist. You could see her struggling to find a way to say: that is very sexist, [and] this is not okay. If she had been exposed to feminism or feminist communities, she would have a way of talking about that. In that way, using the word feminism is much more beneficial to individual people who care about those issues than it is to the movement more broadly.

CP: What’s your take on “benevolent” sexism, the type that we like to write off as “tradition?”

The opening doors and paying for women, that kind of “benevolence?” It’s infantilizing. It’s meant to make women seem like children and not grown adults. We can all do kind things for each other. Women don’t need special things done for them. There's so much of that stuff in our culture that we don’t think about. These are traditions we’re used to, like dads walking their daughters down the aisle, asking for permission to get married, women changing their last names, or children taking their dad’s last names. That stuff is really insidious, and it’s everywhere. And those are the hardest things to argue against. It’s easy to argue against rape. It’s not always easy, but it’s understandable to argue for abortion rights or equal pay. But when you’re asking people to make changes in their individual lives, that’s when it gets harder. And this [is] something I've been thinking about over the pandemic. Millions of women have lost their jobs, and that’s mainly because they’re the ones doing child care. A lot of these husbands or men who consider themselves progressives would vote for equal pay, childcare benefits, or maternity leave. But when push came to shove, they wouldn't take care of their kids in their house. I don’t think that a lot of men are willing to do the work necessary to sort of unpack their own privilege and unpack their own sexism. They want to believe that “I'm a good guy. I believe in the right things. Therefore, everything I say and do is correct.” And that’s it. It's very easy to vote for something, but it's much harder to live it.

CP: Why do you think so many education systems choose not to address issues like rape and sexual abuse? Why do you think they’re swept under the radar?

JV: This happens especially in elite institutions, where there are reputations to uphold and protect. There was a huge scandal when I was at Stuyvesant with teachers harassing [and] sleeping with students. And there was just, “We're gonna have a quick assembly about this, and then we’re gonna move on.” There was no interest in interrogating the bigger issues. When teachers are tenured and around for a long time, they tend to get protected. And when you go to Stuy, we think we’re very sophisticated and adult. I remember teachers hitting on [and] being with students when I was in high school and us playing it off. We thought we were so mature, and they can do all of this sort of stuff. And it didn’t really occur to us that this [was] incredibly messed up. This [was] a horrible misuse of power. But we didn’t see it that way. We saw ourselves a little bit higher up than the average 15 or 16-year-old. And there’s no conversation to prepare you for that. There's no assembly when you're a freshman: what if a teacher tells you they’ll give you a 99 if you give them a hug? We don't teach girls how to navigate things, whether it's from teachers or from other students. And it's a real disservice that we're doing to young people. It means that those things happen, and schools are more interested in protecting institutions than they are people.

CP: With this new presidency, I feel like there’s going to be a strong reactionary movement. What’s your take on feminism in this new era, moving forward?

JV: There is already a reactionary movement. We’ve seen it online and at the Capitol. I think they’re getting stronger because we’re not doing a good enough job of reaching, frankly, young white men who are being radicalized online. I wrote about it in The New York Times a couple of years ago. It’s essentially misogynist terrorism. I think we're going to continue to see that unless we make a real cultural shift because, yes, the old guard is moving out. But there’s also a very powerful movement in feminism. One of the more exciting things about doing this work right now is that you’re surrounded by people who are smarter than you. And that’s kind of the best place to be. In a way, that’s what I liked about Stuyvesant. You’re surrounded by smart people, and you can have smart conversations [with them], for all of their faults. But there’s still a lot of basic stuff I would like to see get done. I would like to see abortion rights codified into state laws. I would like to see an Equal Rights Amendment. I would like to see paid maternity and paternity leave. And feminism isn’t just about one issue. It impacts every political issue that you can talk about, from the environment [and] economics [to] reproductive rights. So there's a lot to be done. But most of all, for the last four years, we've been in such a defensive crouch trying to protect things that instead of just saying,“okay, we can relax now,” I would really love for us to push really hard for all of the things that we need now, while we still can.