Jessica Bennett | Journalist and Author, Feminist Fight Club
We had the honor of interviewing one of our favorite writers, Jessica Bennett. Author of Feminist Fight Club as well as contributing writer for The New York Times, Bennett has time and again fought for the rights of those who may feel like their voice is silenced or may not know how to use it. Read below to learn more about the inspiration behind her book, how she feels about the word feminism, and what gets her really juiced.
LFC: You have quite an impressive background! Besides being one of our favorite authors, you’re a contributor to The New York Times and authored a profile on Monica Lewinsky. Let’s say everyone here is starting with a blank slate.... How would you want to introduce yourself?
Jessica Bennett: I guess I'd say that beginning in the eight grade when I helped stage a walk-out at my middle school called "Skirtfest" -- because one of my best guy friends was kicked out of school for wearing a skirt -- I have always strived to push boundaries, question authority, fight for equality, and do so with a sense of humor. I'm a journalist first -- so I try to accomplish this through my writing. But I also find that there is incredible power in using humor as a way to encourage people to talk about uncomfortable issues. Which isn't to say that I only write about super serious issues. I have a column called Command Z that tackles all of the absurd ways that modern technology has changed the way we communicate. But I'm also in a real-life feminist fight club.
LFC: Now that we’ve gotten the formalities out of the way, we’d love to discuss one of your most recent works, Feminist Fight Club. Throughout FFC, you explore the idea behind how FFC came to be; you and a group of ladies were frustrated and disheartened, but motivated and passionate. You needed a place to bounce ideas off of each other, discuss the pros and cons of your office spaces, a zone where you could cut out all of the bullshit and really get to the root of a lot of current issues in the workplace – sexism. Talk us through your process of forming your real-world feminist fight club and your Feminist Fight Club that you shared with the rest of the world.
JB: My IRL fight club began about a decade ago, when I was a junior reporter at Newsweek. I didn't form it; in fact, it was a mentor of mine -- one of the women who in the 1970s sued Newsweek for gender discrimination, and whose story I had written about (it's now the subject of the Amazon series, the Good Girls Revolt) -- who introduced me to the group, which her daughter was a member of. Most of us were in our early 20s, working in creative roles: writing, television, film, producing, comedy, journalism, etc, and most of us were very low level at that time, struggling to rise up. We'd meet every couple of months -- and we still do -- to share advice, support, and tricks of the trade from our respective very white-male-dominated jobs. Things have ebbed and flowed over the years, but it's been very cool to see the members rise up and come into their own -- and bring other women along with them. The one thing that's remained constant is that we continue to meet, we continue to have each other's backs, and we continue to vow to help other women along the way. I wrote Feminist Fight Club because I wanted to share that ethos -- one of the very first rules of the fight club was that we fought patriarchy not each other -- but also because, as a journalist, I was tired of writing and hearing about all of the problems, and wanted to be able to provide some solutions, some ways of fighting back against the bullshit. I swear I'm not just saying this, but Feminist Fight Club is the book I wish I'd had when I started my career. It's a tool kit for any woman who will ever work (and probably some who aren't even working yet), as well as the men who support us, full of cutting edge social science research on how to combat daily sexism, but delivered in a way that (I hope) is fun to read and easy to understand.
LFC: We feel so lucky we have it now. It's our founder's favorite book and helped her a lot with the development of LFC! Before you wrote FFC, you did a profile on Monica Lewinsky. In your profile, you included the quote “I believe in equality. But I think I’m drawn to the issues more than the movement” from Ms. Lewinsky, when responding to whether or not she was a feminist. There has been a lot of discussion around the word feminist, as there typically is with any group that holds any sort of popularity or attention in the spotlight. Some have argued that we don’t need that word anymore; that it just represents a bunch of angry women who believe women should be treated better than men. What are your thoughts on the word feminist?
JB: The definition of a feminist is somebody who believes in equality between the sexes, not that women are better than men, simply equal. If you believe that, then you are a feminist, whether you want to identify by that word or not. Look, I get it: the feminist movement has not been perfect. It certainly didn't support Monica Lewinsky at the time that she was living out a nightmare in the press, and I think the mainstream women's movement has a long history of not adequately taking into account the very real intersections of race and class and gender identity. So there is certainly room for improvement within the movement, and I think what we're seeing of late is a much more intersectional approach to feminism, which is encouraging. I do call myself a feminist proudly, and I hope that others will to, but my feeling is that what's important at the end of the day is the action that comes along with the word -- so, believing in equality, and fighting for it.
LFC: We couldn't agree more. At LFC, we strive to push the message that feminism does not mean you hate men; it just means you believe in equality between the genders, no matter what gender you identify with. However, a lot of people struggle to stand up for what they believe in because of the negative environment we’ve created (as you mentioned briefly while discussing Monica Lewinsky). We see plenty of cyberbullying, ranging from anything like slut shaming to racial slurs that we hoped were left long in the past. We also see it when people try and peacefully protest. You spent a lot of your piece with Monica Lewinsky exploring the idea that she, for a very long period of time, no longer felt like she owned her own identity. She was worried about her every move because of the reactions she might cause from others. As someone who has spoken so vocally on issues pertaining to gender, sexism, racism, and culture, what advice would you share with our readers who may feel hesitant to explore his or her believes due to backlash?
JB: To trust your gut. I spent so long trying to fit in, worrying what other people thought of me, being hesitant to speak my mind or say what I really believed because I wasn't sure it was right, or smart, or good enough, or was worried about being criticized, or not being perfect enough, and on and on. And you know what? Almost all of the things I was afraid to say, I still believe them. So what I would say is: listen to your inner voice, try not to succumb to self-doubt, and stand up for what you believe in. Now more than ever, silence can be interpreted as complacency, and we need to speak up for what we believe is right and just.
LFC: You’re an icon to so many women and men. Who are some of your role models that helped shape you into the person you are today?
JB: Honestly, the women of my fight club. They're the ones who make me laugh and help me remember the bigger picture when things are shitty. I couldn't have written this book without them, and I couldn't have reached the place in my career where I was ready to write a book without them. I'd also say that I have a huge amount of respect for the feminist fighters who came before me. I spent a ton of time digging through old manifestos and writings from the 1970s women's movement as I was researching my book, and discovering all of these "feminist fight clubs" of different eras who never made it into the history books but should. Groups who, while they may not have publicly recognizable names, truly paved the way. Those like the women of W.I.T.C.H. -- the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (that name!!!) -- who staged protests all throughout New York in the 1970s; the Sojourner Truth Disciples, who tried to improve prison conditions for women; or the Lesbian Avengers, whose hallmark was eating fire, aiming to draw attention to LGBT issues before we were talking about them. There are also modern-day versions of these groups, which I profile throughout the book (and in our new newsletter! please sign up!) like the Brujas, a Latina skate crew in the Bronx; the Hijas de Violencia, a group of women in Mexico City who chase down street harassers and shoot graffiti guns in their faces. So many of these groups fight patriarchy by being playful, and I love that.
LFC: W.I.T.C.H. - that's a mouthful and also an amazing name. So now that we know where you drew your inspiration from, who do you hope draws inspiration from your book? Who is your book for?
JB: Any woman who will ever have a job, and any man who supports them. So in effect: everyone. (Though perhaps it is not for those people who may be offended by an occasional F-bomb or references to my #restingbitchface).
LFC: No qualms with the F-bomb here. What is your favorite tip in the book that you either use the most, or, that other women or men can gain the most from?
JB: Two things:
1) Rule #3 of the fight club is we fight PATRIARCHY not each other. I think sometimes we have to remind ourselves as women that other women are our allies, not the competition.
2) Find yourself a Boast Bitch. She’s like your female hype-man. She boasts for you, you boast for her. It makes you look great because you're getting credit for whatever awesome thing you've done -- without being perceived as bragging about yourself -- and your boast bitch (which can be any gender, by the way) ends up looking like a great colleague. I find this hack to be incredibly useful, in particular because women often struggle to self-promote, and are perceived by colleagues or classmates as "braggy" when then do.
LFC: And to end on an LFC note, we’ve coined the term “entrefemmeur” to celebrate and honor women who have fought hard for themselves and their rights in and out of the workplace. What does being an entrefemmeur mean to you?
JB: It means treating other women as your allies, and knowing that we are more powerful together. The only thing more powerful than a self-confident woman is an army of them.