What Does Peripheral Feminism Mean to You?

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

As a way of exploring my own complex thoughts on the subject, I sent through my various email networks an open call for answers to the question “What does peripheral feminism mean to you?” By “peripheral,” we mean “outside the textbook” – what you know about feminism from people and experiences. From your own life. Excerpts from the responses, written by friends and strangers, follow below. To read the interview in full—complete, plus answers from Ashley Weger, Samuel A. Love, Ellen Placey Wadey, Gretchen Kalwinski, Robbie Q. Telfer, Rachel Herman, Charles Vinz, Ling Ma, and David ScottMairead Case

Ace is already out hawkin’ beer, two for five. “Hey,” he says, “I’ll give you a free one if you get some ice.” He hands me a dollar. I walk up the hilly dirt road in my bare feet, put down my money, and hold out my arms for Dude to pile all four bags on. He grins at me like I’m not gonna make it. I amble back up the road, straining as the ice numbs my outstretched arms. Some chick in a patchwork skirt shouts, “You need to get your man to do that for you.” “I don’t need no man,” I say. My arms are frozen but I keep that ice straight all the way back to camp, dump it down, get my beer, sit down next to the fire. I sure as hell don’t need no dude to help me drink it, either.—Helen Kiernan

I once knew some young men that had some ugly things done to them by people that they trusted. Done to them by people paid by the state. Done to them by family members. Done to them by friends. These young men didn’t have words to express what had happened to them. These young men didn’t have people in their lives that could understand and help them deal with what had happened.

As they got older, some of these young men started doing ugly things to other young people. And they didn’t have a lot of people in their lives that could talk to them about what they were doing. Most people told them that what they were doing was right, something young men were supposed to do.

I tried to talk to them about how hurting other people wasn’t going to make their pain go away. I tried to talk to them about consent, respect, and safety. But I’m still not sure that I did enough. —Frank Edwards

There are few roles we play that are both heralded and condemned in all positions at any given moment. The role of mother is queen of this predicament. Everyone has an opinion on what a mother’s position should be, and each take contradicts the other. If we are front and center, there will be someone who says we are smothering or not preparing the kids for an independent life. If we position ourselves in the background, there are studies that say we are not supportive. Rest assured, whatever position a mother chooses will be wrong to someone and at some point, it may even be the wrong position to the child.

As the child dances in his parade of life, he/she will push or pull the mother into whatever position fits the moment, and it will be the wrong position to someone. The question then becomes: is the mother ever not on the edge? —Donna Kiser

A spunky young gallery I generally admire here in Chicago is showing a male photographer’s group of female portraits in September which confidently announces in its press release that, “the subjects, the women presented are without any power, without any right, without any value, so much so that they are better referred to as objects….The images make no attempt to either assert or subvert any gaze, having either would compromise the work’s objectivity.” Oh, how deliciously brutal and scandalous.

Cool—I like Egon Schiele well enough. And I have no desire to censor this lame post-everything nihilism—what’s the point, right? Heck, it’s not as if there aren’t any feminist photographers problematizing “the gaze.” But in a way, that’s not even an opposing force to this photographer’s void of party-dude pathos. It’s an entirely necessary prequel.

A big beautiful bronze statue honoring single mothers could possibly cost less than buying a thousand high-end digital cameras for brooding solipsistic art students, and I think it would do a lot more for the world. My mom raised me in the face of abandonment and illness, overcoming herself on my behalf in a way I want very much to begin somehow to emulate. And millions upon millions of mothers are asserting the autonomy of feminine power in the real world, denying rather than merely provoking the post-patriarchal ressentiment that often stinks forth from the sewer of open-ended humanist expression. And, sooner or later, this female strength will command sufficient technology to leave behind our culture of casual sadistic gratification. —Bert Stabler

Thought You Knew Us (thoughtyouknew.us) started out as a Sunday morning chat with a fellow bike chick, Kim Cappriotti. The conversation turned to our frustration with being perceived as either hot but helpless bicycle girls or capable but asexual cyclists. The next thing I knew, we’d laid out a plan to create a visual onslaught showcasing exactly how tough but sexy us ladies could be.

The 2009 TyK calendar represents messengers, commuters, bike shop workers, as well as casual “just getting into it” cyclists. Bringing everyone into the photo studio was an amazing experience as well. Watching women transform out of their winter bike garb and into glamorous pinup fantasies was incredible. The decision for the calendar to benefit Chicago Women’s Health Center was one of the best I could have made. CWHC is an amazing group, providing affordable health care to many of the cyclists that were in last year’s calendar. —Alexis Finch

The following is a list entitled “POWER! For book nerds,” compiled for me by my boyfriend, Emerson Dameron, on the occasion of my boss sending himself an email with the cryptic subject: “NellMachiavelli.” Apparently, it was a reminder to loan me a copy of The Prince because of my discomfort with practicing anything that felt like manipulation, attention seeking, promotion, or sales. I laughed it off but was later surprised that not only did my boyfriend think it was worthwhile reading, he had a whole slew of other books he thought I should catch up on. The interesting thing is that I never thought of my hangups as being particularly feminine until I was presented with a prescription that on its surface was almost a caricature of masculinity. It made me think a lot about how power is learned and how it’s taught, because it’s not like you can only check these books out of the men’s room.

“The foundations: The PrinceThe Art of War. What informed my entire professional life): Confessions of an Advertising Man. The best condensation: The 48 Laws of Power. Influence as a series of fun science projects: InfluenceThe Psychology of Persuasion. Influence as a weird occult art: Personality Selling: Using NLP and the Enneagram to Understand People and How They Are Influenced. If all of this creeps you out–and it will–here’s the antidote: Coercion: Why We Listen to What ‘They’ Say. The guy who perfected grassroots propaganda: Rules for Radicals.” —Nell Taylor

We are and must continue to insist upon leaving a “trace.” But it’s more than a mere thread, it’s the common sense notion that I want to know who has come before me: her struggles, her success, her failures, even the way she may have parted her hair or seen a sunrise. There are so many voices left out of our learning and our experience of the world, that I’m invested in poetry and feminism because I enjoy a good chorus as much or more than a verse. I want to be startled and give others the ability to be startled, now and in the future, by the differences and similarities of our wild inheritance.

Melissa Severin

I have this tattoo on my left shoulder: pirate girl wielding a sword, fronting a pirate ship. It’s from the treasure map that closes Kathy Acker’s last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. What appeals to me about the tattoo, which I now wish I’d gotten much larger, but it was my first and I was scared, is that it’s outlaw culture, representing outlaw literature, a challenge to both traditional literature and the world it attempts to represent. Acker’s pirate girl is a radical, in contempt of traditional gender roles, in contempt of capitalism, in contempt of the canon, in contempt of rules and roles and limits upon her.

This is empowering.

I note this because I have distrusted the discourse of empowerment that pervades much “standard” feminism. Acker gets it both ways. She is interested in presenting the ways in which women have less power, especially sexually and economically—she links the two—and in how these power hierarchies are deployed discursively. But even as her characters are being shoved in the shit, even as they’re willingly diving into it, they possess untold dignity. —Megan Milks

I consider myself a supporter of feminist and Queer activism and, in particular, I strive to support feminist and Queer work that prioritizes the intersections of sexuality and gender with race and class, by claiming criminal justice, labor rights, welfare policy, etc. as critical issues affecting women and Queers. I’ve long struggled to reconcile my radical acceptance of so-called “deviant” sexual behaviors and identities with feminist activism against sexual violence. Generally, I agree with the “sex-positive” feminist position that consent of all involved parties is what differentiates fetish from abuse. But I think consent gets muddy in marginalized communities wracked by psychic trauma. I’m not certain consent can be definitively given or recognized in all situations, and us sex radical-ish folks are often loathe to confront this muddiness.

I’ve spent the past seven years in a cross-generational relationship, a variety of relationship many assume is inherently exploitative. One school of thought holds age differences create automatic hierarchies in which the older party exerts undue influence. Yet my experience has not always corresponded with these assumptions. As a result, I’ve always believed we should deconstruct the terms that control and marginalize us. “Pedophile,” for instance, needs to be taken apart. What do we mean when we say it? What’s its relationship to this thing called “consent”?

One of my favorite writers, Dennis Cooper, picks apart not only ideas, but also, quite literally, the bodies of his characters. His frank and often horrific descriptions of sexual violence have raised controversy, and he’s even received death threats from Queer activists. But I think it’s important for feminist & Queer activists to confront the questions he poses. Consent, in Cooper’s world, is never a straight-forward negotiation. His characters long to protect and love, but also destroy and dismember, the bodies of the people they desire. A quote from Cooper’s Closer exemplifies the dilemma: “He couldn’t decide if he wanted to draw [him], fuck him, beat him up, or fall in love with him.”

Desire is sometimes scary, and does not always correspond neatly to the rhetoric of social justice activists. How, as persons who support social justice, should we react to our desires (or the desires of others in our communities) to annihilate or be annihilated? Tim Jones-Yelvington

Why do I care? Because Russell’s seven year-old nephew called Lady Gaga a “Slutty Barbie.” Because people reading the news on TV think that the punishment is wearing the hijab, not the part where they can’t walk around by themselves in public. Because Libby’s boss gave her shit for not wearing makeup to the sales meeting. Because when I said “doctor,” you thought “guy.” Because when I said “mechanic,” you still thought “guy.” Because she still thinks my problems will end if I get married. When will I stop? When Beth Ditto is the president. Why did I start? Because Dad beat her up, then came for me. —Anonymous

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