In some ways, Nona Willis Aronowitz didn't get to know her mother until after she lost her to lung cancer in late 2006.
Ellen Willis was one of the first female rock critics, and notably the first pop critic of either gender at the New Yorker. Her influence on the form was substantial, but she was at least as well known as a radical feminist—she cofounded the "women's lib" group Redstockings with Shulamith Firestone in 1969 and No More Nice Girls, a street theater group that protested for abortion rights, in the 80s. As a political and feminist essayist, she famously argued against banning pornography and advocated a "pro-sex feminism."
At the time of her death, she was running the cultural reporting and criticism department she'd founded within the journalism program at New York University. Aronowitz was about a year out of Wesleyan, waiting tables, temping, and living in a closet-size room in a friend's rent-controlled New York apartment.
"When she died, her friends became really interested in telling me all about her, and I hadn't known her as that," says Aronowitz, now 25. "When I was with her, she was doing general political stuff, not so known for feminism, not writing for Rolling Stone or the New Yorker. She was a professor and out of the spotlight. I knew what she was all about, but I didn't know about the scope of her influence until all these people who had been her students and been edited by her started writing obituaries, blog posts, and e-mails. A lot of it was about feminism, and it just felt like . . . that legacy was being erased.
"I knew about feminism, I had learned about it like I had the civil rights movement in school—but after she died, it was like a crash course in feminism. I read all the stuff of hers—her books I had been too lazy to read before, her friends' stuff. People knew her through her writing, not her personality, and she represented feminism to a lot of people. I was wondering if we could do that, if we could get behind a movement, like that. Things now are fractured, more localized."
Meanwhile in Chicago, Aronowitz's childhood friend Emma Bee Bernstein, a photographer, was about to graduate from the U. of C. She was eager to hit the road, see the rest of the country. Aronowitz volunteered to copilot, and suggested they use the trip as a way to work on a project that they had been discussing.
"It started out by talking about my mom and feminism, and then what feminism had meant to either of us," explains Aronowitz. "We were wondering, did feminism matter to anyone else? We read feminist blogs, we knew who the young feminists were who put themselves in the spotlight, but we didn't know what other young women were doing or thinking, and what was important to them. So we thought, let's do a road trip."
With the help of Aronowitz's dad, Stanley—a professor, activist, and author who ran for governor of New York on the Green Party ticket in 2002—they pitched the idea to agent Meredith Kaffel as a book. But Kaffel informed them that no one was going to give a book deal to a couple of 22-year-olds who wanted to drive around the country talking to strangers about feminism. She suggested they start a blog. "She told us "Bite the bullet, save money and go do it, get a following on the blog," says Aronowitz. So they did, and they did. The blog, at girl-drive.com, spotlights the work of feminists across the country and comments on news and pop culture related to young women's lives. And the resulting book, Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, has just been published by Seal Press.
Bernstein persuaded Aronowitz that she needed to move to Chicago to make Girldrive happen—it was so much cheaper than New York that they could work less and still have time for their own endeavors. (The opening pages of the book feature recollections and photos from their meetings at the California Clipper.) They saved money—Aronowitz by waiting tables again, Bernstein as an art teacher and a barista—for six months, and by October 2007 they determined that they had enough to take off for two months. They posted their planned route on the fledgling blog, and almost immediately "we started getting comments, people inviting us to their city, demanding we crash with them," says Aronowitz. "Those were some of the best things in the book. Jessica in Baton Rouge, who invited 20 feminist women to her house and had a party for us all, the plus-size burlesque troupe in Austin—they found us."
They headed west in Aronowitz's Chevy Cavalier, emblazoned with an eve was framed bumper sticker. "It was often a 14-hour day or more," says Aronowitz. "We would get up super-early, around 7 AM, and hit the road to our next destination, where we'd probably have a breakfast or lunch appointment. We usually had three or four interviews a day, and then two hours of being in a Wi-Fi cafe updating the blog or answering e-mails. Then we'd try to do something fun at night, but sometimes we were so exhausted that we'd just smoke a joint and watch a movie on the computer."
They quickly found that the question they'd intended to ask, "What does feminism mean to you?" more often got a blank stare than an answer. "It was a moot point for a lot of the women we talked to," says Aronowitz. "'Feminism' was our framework we were bringing in. So we'd ask about what are the things they worry about, or do they ever think about how things are in their life because they are a woman? And they would say 'Yeah, I think about that, but is that feminism?'"
Girldrive's ostensibly about redefinition, but the real story that emerged may be repudiation—the repudiation of capital-F feminism While most of the 127 women interviewed in the final product are effusive about the work of second-wave feminists, they stop short of calling themselves feminists because they have negative associations with the word. Many women of color suggest that feminism is for white college girls, and that for them issues of race and class come before gender. Few say they identify feminism as a movement; many regard it as something that's passed.
"I discovered it doesn't make sense to just call it one thing, to try and have one umbrella, or to call it a movement—it doesn't make any sense," Aronowitz says. "There are so many regional differences and issues—Lake Andes, South Dakota, women do not have same concerns as [feminist academics] in San Francisco. Feminism, for me, is women owning up to realities of sexism—but feminism as identity is less important than realizing those things and having gendered consciousness.
"It had become obvious to me that I had been raised in a bubble, at least since high school—New York leftist liberal Jewish is a specific and mythologized type of bubble. Some of the most badass feminists we met were raised in conservative families or oppressive communities. I couldn't believe the urgency of women working in Fargo and Louisiana, the Bible Belt and Austin—they were way more passionate than a lot of women in big cities with big feminist communities."
These subjects—clinic defenders, Chicana activists, community organizers, and other women helping women on the ground—inspired Aronowitz and Bernstein to change their tack. The book's initial outline had been somewhat autobiographical, but as they put more miles between them and Chicago, they realized the stories that needed to be told weren't necessarily their own. "These women don't have a chance to be heard," says Aronowitz. "It started to feel urgent to let them speak for themselves."
After five months of on-off road tripping and talking to everyone from Erica Jong ("We wrote her fan letters, begging her to let us interview her") to Katharine, a Forest Park 23-year-old intent on becoming a nun, Bernstein and Aronowitz began the massive task of figuring out which of the 250 women were going in the book. "We kept going on and on, we wanted to fill every geographic gap, every demographic gap," Aronowitz says. "We wanted to include older women to prevent erasure of history. We had to just stop and start figuring it out, how to use these thousands of photographs, how to put it together. It was so labor-intensive to put all these journeys we had been on into one narrative."
Aronowitz says that during this time Bernstein was struggling with anxiety and depression. While they were still editing, she left Chicago for an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, where she took her own life on December 20, 2008.
Speculating on her friend's state of mind, Aronowitz chooses her words carefully. "She was depressed but she never stopped to let her mind rest. She couldn't focus on Girldrive as much as she wanted. She had so much on her plate. She was constantly taken over by self-destructive demons. The last few months were scary. I couldn't imagine what was in her head. She was so unhappy. We barely worked."
Still, her suicide came as a shock, Aronowitz says. "I always thought Emma's drive to live her life her so fully would prevail over her depression."
Aronowitz, who now works as a staff writer for Triblocal on the North Shore and is editing an anthology of her mother's rock criticism, decided to finish the book by herself. "People keep saying, 'You're so strong,' but it's just that something was galvanized in me with each of their deaths—with my mom it was feminism, with Emma it was continuing to give women a voice. People assumed I would stop, and they would say, 'It's OK if you don't finish,' but I thought, 'Are you kidding me? I am not going to let these 200 women down because of one tragedy.' The purpose of the book is not to be a tribute to both of them, it's to show that life goes on, and there are amazing things going on."