DENVER AND NEW YORK VIA SKYPE—When mutual friends introduced Elissa Auther and Gillian Silverman in 2002, it was an obvious meeting of minds. They quickly discovered they had a lot in common; their academic backgrounds were in the liberal arts and they both taught gender studies courses in the University of Colorado system. That meeting and countless subsequent discussions over a number of years led to a collaborative project, Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics, a program held annually at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver that uses film screenings, creative performances, lectures and discussions to investigate issues relating to women and gender.
Although they love teaching, they wanted to do more to promote productive conversations about gender outside of the university setting. “Both of us loved our experience in the classroom,” said Ms. Silverman, an English professor and director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Denver, in a recent Skype conversation with she-files, “but [we] were also looking for a way to extend these kinds of conversations to the public realm.”
Ms. Auther, a curator at the Museum of Arts and Design and a visiting professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, added that when they formed Feminism & Co. in 2007 the timing was right. They “had noticed a slight uptick in events that put issues of women, gender, and sexuality on the front burner” such as Hillary Clinton’s first presidential bid and a high profile exhibition about the feminist art movement at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles called Wack!. Their instincts were sound because a decade later Feminism & Co. is thriving and those issues are even more prominent.
This past May, the same month that Feminism & Co. celebrated its 10th birthday, Slate published an article that Ms. Silverman and Ms. Auther co-penned that expresses their belief that the personal is political, and, in Ms. Auther’s words, “cultural forms of feminist practice” are important. It’s an opinion piece that shares insights about lifestyle feminism gained from many years of scholarship, teaching, and co-directing Feminism & Co. Lifestyle feminism gets a bad rap, from critiques of pink pussy hats to the backlash against Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement on Instagram, but Ms. Auther and Ms. Silverman are convinced it’s a gateway to activism. EXCERPTS
KIRSCH FELDKAMP: Why did you start Feminism & Co.?
AUTHER: In a nutshell Feminism & Co. focuses on issues of women and gender through the lens of creative practice instead of an academic lecture or something that you might find on a college campus or even the typical sort of artist lecture you might find at a museum. What we’re hoping to do with the program is really jump start a conversation that’s accessible to a broad audience but puts creative practitioners—artists, filmmakers, dancers, writers—at the center of that conversation about feminist art and politics and ideas in general.
SILVERMAN: One of our first program was all about girl culture. It was called “Girls, Girls, Girls” and we had a psychologist who talked about bullying, we had a music historian who talked about the riot grrrl movement, and we had a bunch of girls themselves with their parents who talked about dolls and princess culture and other aspects of young girl life.
What have you learned over the last decade since its founding?
SILVERMAN: When we began the program 10 years ago it was a really big deal to call it Feminism and Co.; to even use the word feminism it was a hard sell.
AUTHER: I never expected to see in my lifetime the turnaround or the reappropriation of the term as something that connoted a positive politics or an affirmation of the way someone wants to live. But now it’s quite common for both of us to encounter students who openly refer to themselves as feminists not to mention celebrities, and writers, and artists.
What is lifestyle feminism to you?
AUTHER: I think it’s a way in which feminists live. Their politics doesn’t stop with voting or street-level protests or signing petitions. It’s something that extends into the way that you live your life and the clothes that you’re going to wear and all kinds of decisions. What will your hair look like? What kind of makeup or not? What kind of music are you going to listen to? Do you support women’s bookstores? Are you involved in the feminist poetry movement? The list just goes on and on–[even] the television shows that you’re interested in watching. All of those things are an extension of your politics even down to the relationship that you’ll have with a partner or the way you’re going to interact with your children, or your professor, or your doctor. It’s all an extension of feminist politics it seems to me.
SILVERMAN: It has always been an extension of it. Feminism really from the beginning was founded on this idea not simply involving women’s political emancipation but also involving clothes and style and leisure time. Some women have increasingly now in the United States an enormous amount of leisure time and for many of them they’re interested in expressing or spending that leisure time [in a way] that also speaks to their political convictions.
Do you think lifestyle feminism gets a bad rap?
AUTHER: Well, it’s never been considered a real form of politics even within feminist circles– dismissing things as not political by referring to them as cultural.
SILVERMAN: So, part of the problem with how cultural feminism is perceived is it’s perceived apoliticism. And then there’s the problem of the extent to which it’s imbricated in corporate culture. For lifestyle feminism, [the problem] is that it’s so easily co-opted and then used to make a profit. Elissa and I both recognize the problem with that and the extent to which that can then water down politics or make it a kind of convenient platform for corporate interests. We understand the problems with its complicity with corporate capitalism but also don’t want to dismiss it for that reason completely because more than anything else it feels like it’s a really important point of access, a way in which young women especially get introduced to feminism.
Where do you see feminism in 10 years?
SILVERMAN: The danger is that when feminism becomes as popular is it is now that it becomes toothless. It doesn’t have the same purchase that it used to have because everyone is calling themselves a feminist. The danger is then that it allows for the kinds of milk toasty affirmations that we’ve been talking about without pushing for any real transformational change and of course we need that now more than ever. It’s a moment where feminism is more popular than it’s ever been but when women’s rights are more in crisis than they’ve ever been at the same time.
AUTHER: In that sense, it feels like it is at a crossroads. There’s huge momentum for it, now’s the time for our elected leaders to take it up and actually do something real with that excitement and take it in a productive direction. It would be a terrible missed opportunity if there is not someone out there willing to channel this momentum in progressive political direction.
Featured Image: Gillian Silverman (left) and Elissa Auther (right) on the radio in Guadalajara, Mexico on International Women’s Day 2017.