Interview with Astrid Henry, author of “Waves” chapter

Last month, both Astrid Henry, Chair of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at Grinnell College and author of “Waves” in RWGS, and Catherine Orr, co-editor of RWGS, were interviewed by a reporter from USA Today about  Women’s and Gender Studies.  It seems that this article would be a follow-up to a previous piece about NOW’s 45th anniversary.  And while the reporter didn’t seem to be cooking up a piece with a negative spin or some sort of exposé, there was a definite disconnect between the reporter’s assumptions about what we were going to talk about and what we actually said (or tried to get across).  This echoed the very ideas that Astrid wrote about in her chapter: certain metaphors about the discipline “stick” even when they are shown to be inadequate.

Astrid Henry

Catherine Orr: So, Astrid, can you talk a bit about the interview with Sharon Jayson, the USA Today reporter?  What kinds of questions did she ask? What kinds of assumptions did she have about Women’s and Gender Studies?

Astrid Henry: She was primarily interested in trying to understand the concept of intersectionality and the idea that feminism today is no longer “just” a movement for women’s rights and gender equality. Much of our interview was spent discussing how and why the feminist movement now has a broader set of concerns beyond exclusively women’s rights.  For Sharon Jayson (the reporter), it was feminism’s “mono-focus” on women and gender equality (by which I think she meant women’s equality) that made second wave feminism so successful.  I would say that most of our conversation circled around this idea; for Jayson, something has been lost in our move to a broader, less cohesive form of feminism and feminist activism, and she was interested in hearing whether or not I also thought of this as a loss–which I don’t.

I think she was much less interested in hearing about feminism or WGS as it is studied and understood in an academic institution and much more interested in what the average American thinks about feminism today.

CO: Right, that’s the impression I got as well. It’s like the complexity of intersectionality was frustrating to her, and she really wanted us to get to something that would work better as a soundbite– “it’s about equality.”  Which brings me to your ideas in the “Waves” chapter in RWGS:  There you make a similar point when you talk about metaphors that “remain entrenched within feminism’s lexicon” (102).  Can you talk a bit about why metaphors like “waves” (or “equality”) are so appealing, even when they are so problematic?

AH: I think that terms and metaphors, like “waves,” help us to bracket and cordon off complex things, whether a broad span of history with a lot going on in it, competing ideas, disagreements in political strategy, etc.  In my Intro class, for example, even though we’ve spent most of our semester discussing a very wide range of feminist theories and theorists (plural) from what could be described, historically speaking, as the “second wave” period, when we get to third wave writing about the second wave, a flattened-out caricature of the second wave sometimes seems to take hold–even though students actually know much better having just studied “second wave” theory and history.

In a college or university class, of course, we can keep questioning these terms, even as we might end up using them as a form of shorthand.  What’s more difficult, I think, is knowing how to get this critique of waves (or any other simple category) out into the mainstream media, which takes me back to our interview with USA Today.  As you note, reporters often want a good “sound bite,” and using the waves metaphor makes for an easy sound bite, a quick way to sum up a certain kind of generational divide.

CMO: I think you’re putting your finger on a tension that seems to affect WGS as a discipline (perhaps more than others?): the intellectual/theoretical/historical project of WGS versus its pedagogical dissemination.  Is it our students’ individualism and sense of self-invention combined with their identification with “third wave” authors?  Or are we somehow un/intentionally structuring our courses as supercessionist narratives (as Wendy Kolmar talks about in her chapter)? Or do students come in kind of “hard wired” to read just about any historical narrative we introduce that way?  Interesting stuff!

Okay, but now I’ve got to ask you to your current projects, especially the one about feminist memoirs, since I think it fits right into how we theorize the past.  So what’s on the horizon in terms of your current research and writing?

AH: I’m currently working on several projects which, in various ways, are connected to my interest in feminist generations and how we theorize and “use” the past.  The first is a book-length project on feminist memoirs focused primarily on memoirs published in the 1990s and 2000s.  A central concept in this work is Audre Lorde‘s idea of “biomythography,” or the notion that memoirs and autobiographies always involve myth making and self invention. A central question that I’m exploring is what version of the feminist past do memoirists wish to put forward and why?

I’m also working on two articles on television series: one on AMC’s “Mad Men” and one on CBS’s now cancelled “Cold Case.”  In both pieces, I’m looking at how feminist and queer history is represented on television and the use of progress narratives in televisual texts, particularly as related to women’s and LGBTQ rights.  As with my work on memoirs, I’m interested in why particular moments in the past become representable, in this case on TV, and what the use of this “history” says about the present and our relationship to that past.

Finally, I’m at the last stages of finishing an essay I’ve been working on for several years that explores a number of “new feminism” texts published in Scandinavia in the early 2000s.  I’m comparing this Scandinavian “new” or “youth” feminisms with third-wave writing in the U.S. This project has involved a lot of translation (from Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish), which is a new scholarly endeavor for me.

ASTRID HENRY is the author of Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism (2004) and has chapters in a number of anthologies including Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women’s Movement (2005) and Catching A Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century (2003). She serves on the Executive Council of the National Women’s Studies Association. Her recent publications include an essay with a former student, Erica Hougland, in And Finally We Meet: Intersections & Intersectionality among Feminist Activists, Academics, and Students  and  an essay coming out this year in new collection on fashion, edited by Shira Tarrant and Marjorie Jolles, entitled Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style.

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