Chicago-based author Nona Willis Aronowitz says that her mom, Ellen Willis, “raised me feminist,” and “I grew up thinking that I could do anything.” It wasn’t, though, until after her mom – who was a feminist, journalist with The Village Voice and cultural critic in New York – died on November 9, 2006, that Nona was inspired to go road-tripping with friend Emma Bee Bernstein across the country.
While road-tripping they set out to interview women about feminism, their goals and worries and then turn their experiences into a book. After couch-surfing and photographing and interviewing more than 200 women, the pair wrote “Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism.” The resulting book is a 220-page book full of colorful photos and lively interviews with 127 women of various generations and a wide mix of class backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, professions and social groups.
After Willis died, many of her friends and fans reached out to Nona to let her know how awesome her mom was, and that helped motivate Nona to learn more about her and what all she did writing-wise in her life. “I realized her influence, particularly on women,” Nona, 25, says over iced chai tea lattes at the Iguana Cafe in Chicago, a relaxed place with exposed brick walls and light dance music. At the cafe, men in suits play backgammon, hipsters chat over lunch and other folks read and work on laptops.
Nona has long, curly hair, and is wearing a black sweater and jeans. She says that her mom’s death was “a big wakeup call” in terms of where feminism is going. Or, as she writes in the book, “Every lazy, indeterminate goal I had to be both a writer and a feminist suddenly came alive.”
She and Emma met as children at camp in Massachusetts when Emma was 11 and Nona was 12. “We bonded when we were both sick in the infirmary,” Nona says. Also, she says they were “mischievous” and gossipy girls. Both grew up in New York City and grew to know each better in high school, even though they didn’t go to the same school.
“We were never everyday friends until [we started working on] the book,” Nona says.
They worked to save up money for their road trips, which lasted about four months total. After graduation from Wesleyan University, Nona waited tables, did internships and worked as a communications director of a nonprofit educational group in New York, while Emma finished up school at the University of Chicago and worked as an art teacher and a barista. Nona says she avoided getting a permanent job before the trip because she says she knew she wouldn’t be able to take off to go road-tripping for a long period of time if she did.
After saving up enough money to take off for two months, Emma and Nona covered a lot of the country, and then they took a break and later went on catch-up trips to cover more parts of the country.
“A typical day was extremely long,” Nona says. She says they’d drive five or six hours “and that was a short period,” and then they would interview three or four people back to back. Emma took most of the photos, and Nona handled most of the writing. In big cities, though, sometimes they interviewed as many as five or six people in a day.
Although “we definitely got lost,” Nona says, “We never felt in danger.” They used an atlas and a BlackBerry to navigate their way around the country. Throughout their travels, they posted photos and interviews on their web site, www.girl-drive.com, to generate interest in their project before they were able to score a book deal.
At times interviews and writing flowed smoothly, but Nona says, “We wanted to have fun” without recording at times, too, but they didn’t want to slack on the blog, so sometimes it was “hard to decompress.” Sometimes, though, they took “vacation days” to enjoy the cities they visited. They also find time to drop acid, smoke joints and drink wine. They write in the book, though, that Girldrive is definitely not Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” and that’s because, they say, the female characters in that book are mostly prostitutes and treated in a misogynistic way.
Before they began their trip, they emailed hundreds of people they knew from personal, scholastic and professional settings, asking not for young feminists but “smart, motivated young women of all kinds, ages 19 to 28, approximately.” Pretty soon they were contacting people four degrees away from their original list. Then, when they looked at their lists of women for each city, they determined gaps in the project and actively sought out others to make sure there was a diversity of voices.
They make their road-tripping sound like a fun, thought-provoking time, whether they are interviewing women they’ve just met, driving or writing up their interviews at Wi-Fi-friendly cafes. The pair interviewed friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends and women who connected with them through their web site/blog. They mostly crashed at other people’s homes. “We barely ever stayed at hotels,” Nona says. “People were happy to help us.” Nine times out of ten they stayed with friends, but sometimes they stayed with complete strangers.
Staying with people they interviewed also was a good bonding experience, she says. “The lines between formal interviews and chill sessions blurred but in a good way,” Nona says.
From traveling and interviewing people, Nona says, “What we learned is that there’s no feminism movement, but that’s not a bad thing.” Also, she says they learned that people are shaped by where they live and what experiences they’ve had. And just talking to someone face-to-face helped her to better relate with and understand other women rather than make assumptions about their lives.
At a time when women’s abortion rights is being heavily debated, it’s refreshing that Emma and Nona share the perspectives of both pro-life and pro-choice women rather than just one side of the debate. Also, it’s their passion to meet so many different women and their open-mindedness that shines through their interviews that help to keep the book a quick page-turner.
In the book some women identify themselves as feminists, but many didn’t and had negative associations with the word. Also, some women identify themselves with their race first and feminist second. Nona says they weren’t surprised that many women didn’t identify themselves as feminists, but “we were surprised by their reasons.”
Other revelations pop up along the trip: “Since Tulsa, we’ve been noticing that being a feminist seems to mean a lot more to women from worlds where feminism is a foreign concept,” Nona writes, adding that they realize in making their way through those towns that feminist activism “largely rests in the hands of radical community organizers in red states.” However, places like New York and San Francisco “will always be useful networks and essential allies for young women working in conservative and poor areas.”
Women interviewed include plus-size burlesque performers in Austin; a tight-knit group of more than 20 women in Baton Rouge, who throw a feminist dinner party for Nona and Emma; a 23-year-old pro-life virgin in Nashville, who wants to bring power back to women; abortion clinic defenders; Venus Zine founder Amy Schroeder; singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna, an early Riot Grrrl upstarter and Emma’s personal “she-ro”; and a 23-year-old woman in suburban Chicago, who has resolved to either fall in love with a man and devote herself to a family or become a nun and devote herself to God and those who need help.
You don’t have to be clued-up about the history of feminism or define yourself as a feminist to enjoy Girldrive. However, Nona and Emma are knowledgeable about it and do talk about the first, second and third wave of feminism. When they talk about past and current movers and shakers, though, they keep it real and never bore. They talk about how their moms were products of the second wave of feminism, and they keep the interviews short, interesting and tightly written. By the end of the book, though, you’ll definitely want to learn more about the history of feminism and want some extra reading recommendations, and Nona does offer reading suggestions—including Truthout.org—at the back of Girldrive.
Nona says they “tried to avoid repetitiveness” in the book and wanted to make sure that people who had been marginalized in other ways in society were included. They left out many educated, white, liberal women, for instance.
Through interviewing a mix of women, Nona says she realizes, “You can still hold up different ideas while still uplift women.”
Both during and after the road-tripping, Emma suffered from “severe depression and anxiety, and it precipitated after the trip,” Nona says. Emma committed suicide, dying in December 2008 while in Venice, Italy, where she was interning at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. “She was unfocused and unhappy” the last six months.
“When she died, it was, like, ‘Wow, I can’t let all these women not be heard,'” Nona says. Talking about finishing the book, she says, “It seemed a lot more urgent.” Although “making decisions without her was hard and really sucky,” Nona says that in a way, “It was very cathartic.”
Even though the book is done, www.girl-drive.com is still very much alive. Nona continues the conversation of young feminism and activism in “Girldrive,” and she features other women on the web site. She also encourages people to check out the two-minute trailer on the web site. Talking about the trailer, which has actual footage from the trip, she says, “It’s so many faces and places.”
Nona Willis Aronowitz will be doing readings from “Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism” around the country soon, and dates will be posted on www.girl-drive.com.