Two twenty-something, upper class, educated, Jewish girls traipse around the United States looking for the feminism of a new generation, and once they find it, one of them kills herself. That’s not exactly what the back cover of Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism reads, but that’s one version of what happened. Best friends since 1997, Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein decided to take a road trip and talk to a cross section of young women about the F-word. They met 127 women — including a sex shop clerk, a Bible college student, a witch, a future nun, a former Air Force worker, a 28-year-old mother of six, and an anarchist — to find out why some woman love feminism with a fierceness and why others don’t relate to it at all.
Emma and Nona went on the excursion without a guarantee of a publisher or knowing if anyone beyond the blogosphere would ever read their work, but words of an agent made them throw caution to the wind and take the risk. “We were told that we needed to just go on the trip and have a blog’s worth of work before we could even dream of getting a publisher since we were two unknown 22-year-old girls,” says Nona. “I was a waitress, and at one point had a summer job at the Board of Education. Emma was a barista and an art teacher. We were sort of in purgatory and knew that if we didn’t go now, eventually our careers or families or whatever else would get in the way. It was a perfect time to go on an adventure because we had nothing to lose.”
They got in touch with the women they visited by sending a call out via email asking to hear from cool, opinionated, motivated, smart, twenty-something women who had a story to tell. They weren’t specifically asking for feminists, but that’s what they had in mind. When they only heard back from white liberal college students, they sought out women to speak to from a broader spectrum, but not as broad as they would have liked. Nona explains, “Trying to include everyone was a very daunting task. I regret not talking to more rural women, and I wish we’d talked with more women in traditionally male jobs, like firefighters and construction workers. But that would have required a lot more money and time than we had, so we mostly focused on cities.”
The pair hit the road in Chicago, drove northwest to the Dakotas, jumped over to Seattle and Portland, down the length of California, through Las Vegas to the Midwest, back around to Texas, across the South, and ended up in NYC. As they stopped in city after city, Emma and Nona chatted informally with the women they met in various states of sobriety and inebriation, but taping the conversations throughout. They used the interviews to construct a narrative written filtered their own feminist perspective that traces the pair’s experiences and revelations while traveling through places — literal and metaphorical — they had never been. Instead of focusing on thematic analysis, Girldrive is an interwoven collection of stories: “We didn’t want to be feminist evangelists. We wanted to actually listen and allow these women to speak for themselves.”
But they couldn’t include everything. “It was hard to narrow it down,” Nona says. “There was a lot of repetition in our interviews, and we showed some of that to illustrate themes, but we tried to include women whose opinions aren’t part of the mainstream narrative of feminism. There were a lot of educated white girls we talked to who don’t appear in the book because we didn’t want to give disproportionate weight to their voices. Obviously, we didn’t take them out altogether.”
With a desire to mitigate a feminism that is well-worn and cliché and bring new knowledge about the relevancy of feminism for young women today, Girldrive ultimately positions feminism as “less as a movement and more of a sensibility.” When we asked Nona if that was another way of saying the feminist movement is dead, she laughs and responds, “I think feminism as a ‘movement’ may be dead, but that’s not a bad thing. Feminism exists as a lens, as a codeword to start conversation about the fact that our ‘choices’ are influenced by gender roles and societal expectations and bring an awareness of gender into women’s lives. Once women — or anyone really — start to see the world through that lens, it inevitably affects politics.”
Despite a movement not existing on a societal level, Girldrive is proof that sisterhood exists between women in smaller ways; Emma’s and Nona’s friendship is evidence of that. In the months after Emma took her own life after losing her battle with major depression, Nona pushed on to finish the project she began with her friend — a tribute to the person she calls her “intellectual soulmate.”
Now the book will take on a life of its own. “Girldrive opens up a whole rich history and tradition that people should learn about,” Nona says. “Beyond that, if a woman needs to put a qualifier before ‘feminist’ (i.e., queer black radical feminist) or choose a different word like ‘womanist,’ I don’t care so long as they’re educated about what feminism is all about and they have gender consciousness.”
Watch a trailer for the book below, and learn more on the Girldrive website.