Itinerant Feminist: A Conversation with Jennifer Baumgardner

Starting as an intern at Ms. magazine in 1993, Jennifer Baumgardner became the youngest editor in the magazine's history in 1997. She left in 1998, working since as a prolific activist, filmmaker, public speaker, writer, and apologist for intergenerational feminism. With Amy Richards, Baumgardner has co-authored Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (FSG, 2000) and its companion field guide, Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism (FSG, 2005). She has also authored Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics (FSG, 2007), Abortion & Life (Akashic, 2008), and the collection of essays and interviews, F 'em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls (Seal 2011); cofounded the feminist lecture bureau, Soapbox; and created documentary films about abortion and rape. From 2008 to 2012, she was Writer-in-Residence at The New School, where she taught nonfiction.

In 2013, Baumgardner was appointed Executive Director and Publisher of Feminist Press. She left that position in June of 2017. Our conversation took place in Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery in Greenwich Village on July 9, 2017.


You started your career as an intern at Ms. What led you there?

If you lived in Fargo in the 1980s, Ms. was the feminist thing. It wasn't like there were a million iterations of feminism around. Ms. is what you used to label yourself a feminist. My mom and the few of her friends who were feminist all read Ms. I thought of it as a really important brand, a way to "brand" myself. I really connected to it as an institution.

When I got that internship and met Marcia Gillespie, Robin Morgan, Barbara Findlen, and Gayle Kirshenbaum, they had just been names on a masthead to me. They were stars. I couldn't believe that they were real people who I took messages for and saw every day. It felt like having the Rolling Stones as your employers.

Why did you leave Ms.?

I find that I have an amount of time that I'm supposed to be somewhere. When I'm behind a project, I get really intense about it. But when it's over, I start to get irritated and oppressed by it. I hit that point with Ms. I'd grown as much as I could therenot that I couldn't be promoted, but that I'd started to chafe.

Part of me thought that Ms. was better than everything that was mainstream. But there was also fear that maybe it was less good, and maybe I could only exist in this worldthis teeny, Eden-built-by-Eves world. I wanted to see if I could write in any place I set my mind to. It was important for my self-esteem and identity to find out that I could be comfortable in more radical leftist places like Dissent and The Nation magazine and also at mainstream fashion magazines, like Vogue.

They say you're always reenacting your biography in different ways. I think the thing I'm always reenacting is the desire to be comfortable in different spaces. I want to have my foot in urban life, but I'm also still very connected to North Dakota. I would never want to lose that part of my identity. The same with being a mom and also being a working person, and having had an abortion but also having had children. I need to feel like I can be okay wherever I'm sitting.

In Manifesta (2000), you describe taking on the "dutiful daughter complex" that women born into a world of feminist advances often feel toward the previous generation of women. In what ways do you consider yourself a dutiful daughter?

Second-Wave feminism gave me language for so many things in my life. But I also felt like I would be rewarded only if I replicated what had come before. For instance, some felt that my I Had an Abortion project needed to have a certain point of view. Like, "I had an abortion, and it's the best thing I've ever done." But when I was interviewing people, I heard something equally revolutionary, that points of view had shifted over time based on what was going on in the lives of women who had had abortions. That was something some Second-Wave feminists had anxiety about, because they felt I was giving credence to people who say abortion is a tragedy. I wasn't. I was carving out a spacewhich I think is very feministfor women to have a full range of human emotions about their experiences and to tell the truth about what has happened to them: not to have a party line, but to tell the truth, to get in touch with their experiences and to be able to articulate those experiences. And to be able to hear someone else's experience, too, and to validate that. That's the form of feminist work I became most interested in doing.

The 10th-anniversary edition of Manifesta is a photo of a worn, dog-eared copy of the first edition. Is the story that that image tells true? Has Manifesta lived that active of a life? Has it shaped the work of the younger generation?

Manifesta gave young women the permission to call themselves feminists even though they hadn't, like, had an illegal abortion.

I started writing that book when I was twenty-seven. Now I'm forty-seven. Now I'm old and oppressing young women with my viewpoints. There's a movement right nowat least I'm perceiving it as such and am in favor of itof not just deconstructing but also affirmatively critiquing Third-Wave work. For instance, Caroline R. McFadden's essays about "Critical White Feminism" blend critical race studies and feminism and are very critical of Manifesta, and of my work in general. But it's not a teardown; it's correcting for things I just didn't know to do, didn't have the capacity for.

Do you think that the critique of Manifesta in The Nation is "affirmative"? That review claims that Manifesta produces a "longing for a militant, argumentative feminismone that would abandon the personal essay ... and get on with elaborating a political program," but accuses Manifesta's "historical sensibility" of being "a call for a return to some imagined white, homogeneous Second Wave feminism." 

I love that Nation review. It is a serious one that interacts meaningfully with the text. That said, Amy and I made the point several times in the book that there was no bucolic feminist pastthere was never a time when everyone had the same agenda or got along or believed that there was one way to practice feminism. I don't believe it was a call to return to the past; it was a call to see feminism not as "of the past" but something we make daily.

On the whiteness stuff, that is definitely a blind spot in the book. We were drawing from our lives and it came with some hampering limitations of scope. The book had a lot of impact for many years and remains in print, so I believe we achieved our goal of engaging people in feminist history and philosophy and letting them know that they could be themselves and feminist at the same time.

Feminist Press and Ms. are both Second-Wave institutions. How did working at Feminist Press compare with working at Ms.?

Feminist Press had all the negatives and positives of Ms. It had all this emotional energyMs. was an extremely emotional placewhich was gratifying and also kind of, you know, unprofessional. People wanted to work for Feminist Press because they saw it as a mission, not because it was good for their career. I loved that energy but wanted to see if it could have some of the functionality of non-mission-driven spaces. For instance, could it be in the black? efficient? Could it be successful in ways that I think would be good for the self-esteem of a feminist institution? And my staff was really good at being both mission- and business-driven. They're Millennials; they've embraced that idea that you can be both good at the business side of something and visionary.

Has the mission of Feminist Press been absorbed into mainstream culture?

Yes. When she started the press, Florence Howe created books for the classroom. No one was doing that in 1970. Mainstream presses are doing that work now. I've published six feminist books, none of them with Feminist Press. People make feminist books for the classroom now because of Feminist Press.

There was a moment when Feminist Press would have gone away based on the fact that other entities were publishing feminist work. But too many people, including Florence, saw Feminist Press as too valuable. They didn't want to see it go way. Florence didn't really see it as temporary. Though it's true that a lot of presses are now doing what at one time only Feminist Press was doing, Feminist Press remains distinct because it's more radical than other presses. It still serves a purpose.

But in her memoir, A Life in Motion (2011), Howe says a number of times that Feminist Press was a "temporary 'movement' organization" that would be eventually "taken over by commercial or even academic publishing."

Feminists always say they want to put themselves out of business, but it's really hard to actually do that. Feminist Press is a living thing to Florence. It's terrifying to her that it'll go away. And so, while she can say that [letting it go] is partly her plan, another part of her is like, "This is my baby; I want it to exist way beyond me." I felt that from her, and I felt the energy of what it meant to be the shepherd of this thing she created. It's a big responsibility, to quell the anxieties of the person who made the institution, to make her feel that it's going to have a life beyond her.

One of the legacies of Feminist Press is that it helped create a network of resources for Women's and Gender Studies programs. What was your experience with WGS at Lawrence University?

Lawrence started its Gender Studies program in the year I started there as an undergrad: 1988. It was cool to be there at the beginning; the program caused ripples of excitement and discontent that I loved. I had grown up with Ms. magazine on the coffee table. My mom identified as a feminist, and she had three daughters, so I had some language of the feminist movement already, some of the tenants were part of my life. It spoke to me to have feminism codified in the way that WGS programs do. That said, I wasn't part of the Gender Studies program at Lawrence. I didn't take Gender Studies classes.

What are you most proud of about your time at Feminist Press?

 I brought back children's lit, with the series Ordinary Terrible Things and the reissuing of the Tatterhood collection. The next book that's coming out is going to be huge: How Mamas Love Their Babies. I won't be there for its actual launch, but I acquired the book and saw it through its production. It's the first picture book I know of to feature a person who's a dancera stripperas one of the parents. It's a totally amazing book. I love it, I love the way it looks, and I think it's going to be huge for Feminist Press.

I also developed a successful queer imprint, called Amethyst Editions, with Michelle Tea. Michelle is another itinerant feminist speaker who makes her money, in addition to writing, through being this person who's creating things all the time and curating things. We related in so many ways; she's been instrumental to Feminist Press the past two years in terms of making things financially strong. Aside from the money, though, the work is important. Books like these need to make it to their rightful readers so that they can have an impact.

What do you hope will be your legacy at Feminist Press?

Sticking to a production schedule. It's boring but true. I applied my experience selling books and touring toward an approach that ended up doubling and tripling sales per year.

People bitch about Millennials, but the ones I hired were very comfortable with cracking a whip and staying on schedule. We got to a point where we were so far ahead in terms of owing our distributor information or covers that there was never that moment of panic. We took the guesswork and anxiety out of production, which you need to do because there's still a whole set of snags that you can't plan for, like if you find a typo in a book after you've printed five thousand copies. If you get your schedule together, you're introducing fewer errors and more opportunity to catch an error before it's too late.

So the two things I began to see that were really important in publishing were production schedules and being realistic about how it's not just about liking a bookit's about figuring out how you are going to get units to their rightful readers.

How radical can a press be when its priorities are production schedules and sales?

Very. I think you can be very radical. Most very radical books have an audience that's huge and that's not being spoken to yet. How Mamas Love Their Babies is going to be controversial, extremely radical. But it's also going to capture a huge population of parents who've been sex workers or who currently are sex workers, maybe even people who are eager to expand their knowledge or make sure that their kids are exposed to the idea that there are different forms of laborreaders who want to quell the lie that sex workers don't love their children.

How Mamas is a very emotional book, because it makes you realize how automatic it is within our culture to assume that if you're a sex worker and have kids, you're a terrible parent. It's emotional to have that reality come into play. And it's very emotional to tell the children of sex workers, or sex workers themselves, that their reality deserves to be in a book. You can be very radical and still be thinking on a business level.