Elevate Difference

Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism

Fifty years before writer Nona Willis Aronowitz and photographer Emma Bee Bernstein set out on a months-long journey to hear what young U.S. women had to say about feminism, gender, and social inequities, Jack Kerouac’ iconic road trip narrative, On The Road, hit the shelves. “Girldrive stands in defiance of this boys’ club model of all-night chatter and roadside prostitution,” Bernstein wrote in the book’s Postscript. True enough. But while Girldrive blurs the line between romantic travel journal and ardent sociological exploration, the end result is disappointing. Rather than redefining feminism, as the book’s subtitle claims, Girldrive offers 127 vague snippets from conversations with diverse women who are living, working, and studying in small cities and towns across the country.

Studs Terkel they’re not. Instead of being an in-depth exploration of each speaker’s heart and mind, the interviews seem rushed and the only conclusion one can reach is that feminism means different things to different people. Most of the women interviewed are under thirty, and while they are forthcoming about their views, their attitudes range from the shocking to the expected.

There’s Liana, who “sees being a wife and mother as the ultimate chance to be a role model for young women,” and Kuma, who doesn’t want to be considered a feminist because “men are a great asset” in her life. For her, feminism and man hating are synonymous. Anti-abortion Katherine sees the push for women’s equality as defying God’s law. “The male is the giver and the woman is the receiver,” she explains.

Of course, not every interviewee is hostile to the women’s movement. Shelby, the authors write, “has long considered herself a feminist, which to her means, among other things, being sexually empowered.” Ann has a broader view: “Any woman, if she believes in herself, is a feminist.”

Most of Aronowitz and Bernstein’s subjects hold a middle ground, hating gender discrimination, but not defining it as a central issue in their lives. Jennifer, a poet and professor with cerebral palsy, believes health trumps other concerns. “Disabled woman [are] off the feminist radar,” she says. Violeta puts race front-and-center: “I think my being black usually comes before my being a woman…Feminism has been presented as a white thing.” Similarly, Siman, a Muslim born in Somalia, argues that “gender equality is not a priority when your entire culture is under attack.”

It’s hard to know how the authors feel about this range of responses. The only real clue comes from Aronowitz’ Afterword. “We wanted to be involved in conversations that would in themselves function like grassroots activism—prompting women to talk about the way they understand their experience as women in this country—socially, politically, and economically,” she reports.

Readers can speculate about the likelihood of this happening. But did it? What we do know is that Bernstein and Aronowitz’ dialogue ended with Bernstein’s suicide in December 2008; Girldrive is dedicated to the pair’s short-lived collaboration.

How Aronowitz finished Girldrive given these circumstances is anyone’s guess, but she is certainly to be lauded for opening a window into the disparate views of women trying to make sense of early twenty-first century America. In the end, despite Girldrive's superficiality, it manages to touch on scores of interesting subjects. While the result leaves many blanks to be filled, it is likely that the book will inspire others to hit the road and dig for answers.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, November 25th 2009