How Meeting 45 Young Feminists Helped Me Regain My Confidence As A Feminist Writer
I'm a hybrid journalist-feminist. I never know which label to put first, honestly. "Journalist" is more professional, and when it comes to my presence on LinkedIn or a résumé, I don't want "card-carrying, pro-choice feminist" to be the first thing people see before they know that I have a degree in journalism and reporting skills. I've always subscribed to the idea that I was a storyteller with the purpose to elevate other peoples' voices. But the stories I choose to tell tend to focus on feminist issues: reproductive rights, domestic violence, gender identity. In these instances, I become less of a journalistic chameleon, and my vibrant feminist colors bleed into the story. After graduating journalism school, this tendency led to a bit of an identity crisis.
Once upon a journalism school memory, someone told me that the stories I pitched skirted the lines of "pushing a feminist agenda." I was completely offended, up in arms against this accusation. I was angry instead of rational, which probably furthered this person's opinion of feminists. But, I soon learned, I wasn't angry with the person who had accused me of my supposed "agenda." I was concerned that it was, well, true.
Had I carved myself so far into this niche that there was no way out? Was I able to see things objectively anymore, or was I just so angry about hot-topic issues such as campus rape that my opinions overshadowed the stories I wanted to tell? I was worried that I had become more activist than journalist, and I didn't know how to fix that. Graduation came in December, and as I walked across the stage, mortar board bobbing around my head, I had no idea if I had a voice worth listening to. I was headed to New York City to be a journalist, and I didn't even know if that's who I wanted to — or could — be anymore.
Worst of all, I was concerned that if I joined legions of feminists in the already rampant online dialogue, my voice wouldn't make a difference. I would become just one more chatterbox in the space of the feminist Internet, and I would lose my ability to use my feminist perspective to share others' stories. I would get too caught up in the feminist ether of back-and-fourth dialogue and forget my roots as a reporter. As an intern at The Nation magazine, I worked for prominent and respected writers who had managed to be both respected journalists and activists. I just wasn't sure how easily I could don the two hats.
So, when my friend, feminist blogger Julie Zeilinger, asked me if I wanted to give a workshop about feminist blogging at Barnard College's summer pre-college program, I wanted to tell her that she had the wrong woman for the job. I didn't have it together. But I made a few quick slides about recent news stories, slapped together a few well-done pieces from Cosmopolitan.com, Feministing, and yes, Bustle. I prepared to keep a cool facade so these girls wouldn't figure out that I really had nothing figured out. They were smart girls. They would be able to sniff out my lack of confidence in seconds.
Except they didn't. As the 16 and 17-year-old girls, gathered at the New York City-based women's college from all corners of the U.S., filed into the lecture hall, I could hear their chatter of ideas. I could see their brains churning; they weren't even concerned with the shaking 23-year-old faux adult at the front of the room. I took a ragged, anxious breath, and as I fidgeted with the projector, I introduced an ice breaker, more for me than them, really.
"Let's go around the room and say what woman inspires us," I said. I started, naming screenwriter and director Nora Ephron and badass journalist Ann Friedman (pictured above). As my audience began to share, I figured I would get some modern answers, like Taylor Swift or Ruby Rose. And yes, those names were there, but I also heard Angela Davis and Alice Walker's names make the rounds. These girls knew their history, and they were writers. Real writers.
We talked news pegs, from the recent Charleston shootings to the Rachel Dolezal story, and we analyzed them from a feminist perspective. "How does that make you feel as a feminist? Now write about it," I heard myself instruct these teenage intellectuals. At the same time, my inner dialogue raced. That's all I have ever been doing as a writer — asking myself how something made me feel as a feminist, and then finding the way to say it. How could I have ever been ashamed of that?
After a free-write session, I had some of the girls volunteer their pieces. They read aloud their thoughts on sexism in school, the prevalence of gun violence in this country. And in one heart-stoppingly adorable moment, one girl raised her hand to brag on her peer's piece. "It's really good, " she said. "She needs to read it!" After some urging from the crowd, the young writer read a short paragraph about growing up in the South, how she felt about the Confederate flag, and her disappointment in the racism she saw in her state. When she finished, she looked up at me and sort of shrugged. "Wow," I said. "That was perfect. You're a really good writer."
"I'm a writer?" she asked. "That's all I've ever wanted to be."
"Well, you already are," I assured her.
But later, as I rode the train home and reflected, I realized I still look up in disbelief when I express my opinions and someone likes them. It's like being both a journalist and a feminist is some new revolution. When someone says, "This is really good," I still react with the same kind of wide-eyed befuddlement.
But after I met a room full of eager young pre-college feminists, those unconfident days have become more and more infrequent. And when I do feel low and I'm not sure who I want to be, I think about those girls, and I know that if I just keep putting my opinions down on paper, more young minds will join the conversation with me. And the labels — journalist, feminist, etc. — won't matter so much anymore, as long as the stories keep coming and women are telling them.
Images: Hilary Weaver (5)