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Nona Willis Aronowitz on Writing About Feminism, Her Mother Ellen Willis, and Catcalling

In the fall of 2007, journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz and photographer Emma Bee Bernstein, friends from their New York City childhoods, packed a Chevy Cavalier and took off on a cross-country road trip. The mission was to take the temperature of twentysomething women around the country, specifically, to learn about their relationship to feminism and the word “feminist.” They butted heads with strangers, had some wild times in bars, and met many of their feminist idols, including the original riot grrl, Kathleen Hanna, who will read tonight at KGB in celebration of the publication of Girldrive: Crisscrossing America, Redefining Feminism. Willis Aronowitz spoke with Vulture about her Thelma & Louise–like adventure, and the book it inspired.

Is there a difference between feminism in New York and in the rest of the country?
Yes, very much so. New York feminism is awesome but the actual label doesn’t seem as important as it does in places where it’s conservative or economically struggling. In those places, it seems like a much stronger word in context to women who bump up against anti-feminist attitudes a lot.

Don’t you meet opposition in NYC?
Oh, of course. But it’s not the same as people screaming “baby killer” at you when you go to an abortion clinic elsewhere. In New York, people are more hesitant to be sexist in public. Except of course if you’re walking down the street, in which case, anything goes. I think in New York I’ve experienced the most catcalling I’ve ever experienced in my life.

Did the discussions ever get heated with any of the girls you talked to?
Well, it was harder to actually get into real debates with most conservative women we talked to, because it was kind of like, where do we even start? In the same way, we felt a lot more comfortable taking to task, for instance, this woman Lynn in New Orleans who is in the sex industry. She worked in a strip club and also worked in a sex-toy shop. We totally had a serious debate about sexuality and how it should play into feminism. I actually almost lost my interviewer cool.

You grew up with a visible feminist mom, Ellen Willis. How much of your feminism came from your mom and how much comes from your own life?
It comes from my mom, but not even because of her writing. She always let me know I could do whatever I wanted, and it was fine to take on some feminine or sexy qualities as long as I was self-aware.

The female road trip has a long history in the movies.
We always kind of played on Thelma & Louise, like, “ha-ha, who’s Thelma, who’s Louise?” And we were Thelma and Louise for Halloween. But we kind of wanted to revise this whole tragic-female thing going on. Never once did we get ourselves in a shitty situation in which we felt vulnerable as females.

Your trip wasn’t entirely without tragedy. You write in the book about your mom passing away. And I heard about Emma’s suicide not long after you returned to Chicago from the road trip. Can you talk about that at all?
It’s strange. In a way, the publication of Girldrive is bookended by two deaths, and two deaths of feminists. Emma and I decided to do this road trip over brunch, at which she and I met for the first time since my mom died. As for Emma, she had been suffering from serious depression for a long time. In some ways, she had always both reveled in and fought against the idea of the “tragic female” and I think feminism had saved her life many times in the past. But no “-ism” can save someone from major depression.

Photo: Courtesy the author's website