A bright spot in this dark year is Problem Daughters, an anthology of intersectional feminist SFF stories that’s now being crowdfunded. Over the past two weeks I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Nicolette Barischoff, who will edit the project along with Rivqa Rafael, about intersectional feminism, religion, and agency. What began as wanting to support a great anthology now feels almost uncanny in its timing—uncanny and urgent. Now more than ever we need the voices that Problem Daughters hopes to publish.
The Indiegogo page describes Problem Daughters as “amplify[ing] the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these.” What is intersectional feminism, and how does it create a space for the voices you describe?
Academically, intersectionality (and thus intersectional feminism) is simply the idea that issues of race, class, ability, sexuality, gender, etc. cannot be teased apart from each other. So a feminism based solely on binary gender in a vacuum cannot really exist. By behaving as though it can, you create a movement that is only beneficial to a narrow band of women. Trying to establish a “one size fits all” model of feminism based on the needs of one very specific intersection can be quite dismissive and even outright harmful to those who don’t fit the model. Feminisms that refuse to address the non-theoretical realities of another woman’s situation are doomed to fail outside of the (typically white Western middle-class) context in which they were created.
For our purposes, we intend to look at intersectionality from a storytelling point of view. We’re less interested in adhering to any existing model or theory of feminism than we are in hearing as many voices as possible. We’re after the specific issues and lived experiences of women who don’t fit the model. We’re not looking for a debate, but we are looking for a challenge. We’re looking for perspectives that expand our ideas of feminism and women. We want, specifically, to create a space for those who feel ignored or harmed by mainstream feminisms. It’s all about agency for us. Agency and empowerment, in all its varied and messy forms. We want to see the expressions of agency that are uncomfortable to mainstream feminism. Sex work, religiosity, community-focused activism rather than individualism (I imagine we’ll be talking about womanism quite a lot), these are all valid expressions of agency, and often regarded with hostility by the mainstream. We hope to create a space for women who make their own feminism, and look at specific contexts that render a single uniform model of feminism so woefully inadequate.
I suppose what I mean to say is that we don’t want to provide our own model, to set our own terms of what is or is not a feminist narrative. That is where, we hope, our writers will come in. We want them to surprise us, mess with us a little. Shatter our own unconscious frameworks.
I just have to interject here that this is my greatest frustration with speculative fiction—that we need to make these specific invitations, these calls, to participate in a field that by its nature should be a welcoming space for such stories. Speculative fiction has always been where I go to be challenged, to be pushed out of my comfort zone and presented with visions of the world and human experience that I might never otherwise encounter. And while we’re making progress as a field, with presses, editors, and themed projects all inviting a greater range of voices, what excited me about Problem Daughters is that it has the potential to not only provide a space for the ignored voices you describe, but to really push feminists into the kind of self-examination needed to move forward. To take one part of your description as an example, I’m wondering if you can expand further on what you mean by religiosity? It’s unusual to see that in a call for submissions; it’s even more unusual to see it called for in an anthology focusing on women’s agency.
Yes, it is unusual to see. There are a lot of reasons why that is, but I think much of the cause lies in unchallenged assumption.
Middle-class Western feminism—particularly middle-class American feminism—is fiercely individualistic and tends to view expressions of religion as forced participation in a community, or a subjugation of the will. Why should I, an intelligent, free-thinking person, alter my style of dress, my life-goals, my hobbies, my sexual practices, to comply with the standards set by some arbitrary authority? My life belongs to me, I think for myself.
This individualism and preoccupation with personal goals is so central to mainstream American feminism that we have a difficult time imagining a model of feminism existing without it. Couple that with the fact that Western feminism has not always had a peaceable relationship to the major religions in its own sphere of influence, and well… many of us are pretty ready to believe that religion is an enemy of female agency, that any woman demonstrating religious belief has somehow had her agency taken away from her (especially if it’s a religious practice we’re less familiar with). But unrelenting individualism is not the same thing as agency or free will.
The religious women I’ve spoken with do not regard their religion as destroying or diminishing their agency (I know a universalist Muslim feminist who’d trip you with her cane for even suggesting it). Rather, they regard their religious beliefs as an ultimate manifestation of their agency, positive proof that they are free-thinking moral beings whose decisions always matter.
The first step in being a true advocate for women’s agency is recognizing that not every woman chooses to express her agency in the same way. We are useless as advocates if we assume that any woman making a decision we don’t personally understand is under some sort of male influence (my co-editor Rivqa Rafael has an anecdote about this in her interview with Stephanie Saulter).
So to bring this back around to the anthology, it seems that one way of describing Problem Daughters is that it will acknowledge the agency of these women by creating a space for their stories—stories that explicitly document aspects of their experience and show them as actors in their world(s). Now I will confess that, as a writer, when I first heard about this project, I immediately flagged it as something to try and write for, but upon reflection I’m not sure that I should. I have other publication opportunities available to me, and to have a story accepted here—that, to me, seems like another encroachment on the agency of these women. This is not to say that I believe writers should only write characters who are Like Them; far from it! But for this specific project, I feel that if I truly espouse the anthology’s goals then my role here is to support and promote, not participate. What advice might you give me, and others like me who might be wrestling with the same dilemma?
In general, what I would say is this: Knowing when it’s not your turn to speak is a valuable and commendable trait. However, it is in the very DNA of this project that feminist anthologies must have diversity in order to function properly as feminist anthologies. The only way to achieve the diverse collection we’re striving for is if as many different types of women submit as many different types of stories as possible. Every writer must write the stories she is drawn to, the stories she feels qualified to write. Not every valuable experience comes to us firsthand. Empathy is a mixture of intelligent research, and emotional speculation. Although we intend to place special emphasis on women writers who are speaking (perhaps for the first time) on subjects of which they have personal knowledge and experience, they won’t always be speaking solely of their own experience. After all, there’s potentially just as much value in a story about a woman who might have lived and died decades before they were even born. Every woman has stories of value to tell. Every one. We may not be able to print them all, but we want to hear them all. Ultimately, I would encourage anyone who’s thinking of submitting to have faith in the validity of her experiences, both first and second-hand. You take nothing away from anyone by adding your stories to our pile. You only give us more to choose from.
That is beautifully put, and I thank you for that. You say above that feminist anthologies must have diversity in order to function. I’m wondering if you might take that a step further and describe what, for you, would be a functioning feminism. While many can produce a list of ways feminism has failed, far fewer can articulate a vision of a feminism that succeeds. What might a functioning feminism look like?
It’s funny, between the three of us, we’ve done a million interviews since this began, and I think you’re the first person to directly ask this. And it’s such an essential question! Though a very difficult one, to be sure.
I suppose I would start by saying that any functioning model of feminism does not regard itself as the functioning model. The reason that I and my co-editor have been so careful in referring to feminisms rather than a singular Feminism is that, in practice, there are as many feminist movements as there are cultures and subcultures, and they each have strikingly different concerns. And that’s as it should be. “Women’s issues” are not a fixed set of priorities as dictated by an oligarchy of great female minds. “Women’s issues” encompass an entire planet full of (often messy, often conflicting) lived realities. The first thing any model of feminism needs to do to be functional is to recognize its own cultural biases, its own cultural specificity.
But even that seems like avoiding the question. I said earlier that it’s all about agency. I think the only way a broad, all-encompassing feminism can work at all is by putting agency at the forefront. Any functioning feminism must respect, if not always celebrate, female agency in whatever form it takes. This is a tricky one, and one I would argue that most movements are still feeling their way toward. But it is not the role of feminist movements to steer women to specific moral choices. Rather, working feminist movements should strive to protect a woman’s status as a fully sentient, fully moral being, who understands the consequences of her own actions, and is capable of earning a valued place in her society.
Lastly, and I think most importantly, a functional model of feminism must be flexible. There are times when a feminism’s more rigid culturally specific ideals can prevent a real woman’s needs from being met. I once read a case study in which a Spanish-speaking woman was turned away from a shelter because there was no one on staff at the shelter who spoke Spanish, and the shelter’s policies forbade her English-speaking son from speaking on her behalf. The shelter’s insistence that the woman “speak for herself” actually prevented her from speaking for herself, with dire consequences. On a personal level, whenever I visit a women’s clinic, no matter what I have to say on the matter, my partner and caregiver is usually not permitted beyond the waiting room. Now, I have spastic cerebral palsy, which varies wildly from person to person, and can be something of a grab bag of assorted issues. I have massive mobility limitations, and so I’m usually left to seek the physical help of whatever physician’s assistant happens to be on hand. I’m not great with time, and I need help to manage a schedule. Without such help, I end up feeling (and I assume appearing) overwhelmed and uncertain. And so the clinic, in its unflagging determination to protect my privacy and autonomy, cannot recognize the means by which I have privacy and autonomy. Thus I am robbed of both, and left considerably more helpless than I am used to being. It’s that sort of blindness that makes even the most well-intentioned model in the world fall apart.
And there you have it, in a very long nutshell. A functional model of feminism must respect the lived experiences, concerns, and choices of actual women over any predetermined set of culturally specific ideals, and it must always acknowledge its own limitations.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Problem Daughters?
Just that we’re still raising money so that we can include as many voices as possible. Every dollar, every retweet and share, helps. More than that, we’d like our call for submissions to reach as many marginalized writers as possible. So, please spread the word!
Call For Submissions: http://press.futurefire.net/p/problem-daughters.html
Nicolette Barischoff was born with spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. Her fiction has appeared in Long Hidden, Accessing the Future, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Podcastle, and Angels of the Meanwhile. She regularly writes about disability, feminism, sex- and body-positivity, and how all these fit together. She’s been on the front page of CBS New York, where they called her activism public pornography and suggested her face was a Public Order Crime.