Jennifer Baumgardner Talks Feminism and "Bisexual Politics"

By Alex Dueben

September 24, 2021



Photo credit: Pexels/Artem Beliaikin

For nearly three decades, Jennifer Baumgardner has been a writer, editor, activist, and one of the voices who defined Third Wave Feminism. The author of many books, including Manifesta (2000) and Grassroots: A Fieldguide for Feminist Activism (2005), both written with Amy Richards, Abortion and Life (2008), and F‘em!: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls (2011). She has directed the films I Had an Abortion (2005), and It Was Rape (2013). Baumgardner is also the author of the 2007 book Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics.

The former Executive Director and Publisher of The Feminist Press, Baumgardner is currently the Publisher of Dottir Press and the Editor in Chief of The Women’s Review of Books. She was kind enough to talk to us about her work, define feminism, and what her book does and does not say about bisexuality.

Portrait of Jennifer, she has a collared shirt and is calmly smiling.
Image/Wellesley Centers for Women

ALEX DUEBEN: It’s been interesting to see you running Dottir Press and, before that, the Feminist Press. The books you published, and the people you published are very much an extension of your writing and the work you’ve done elsewhere.

JB: Totally. There’s a through-line to everything I’ve ever done.

How would you describe Dottir Press?

JB: Our mission statement is “Dottir Press takes a feminist approach to publishing and artistic production, working to fill the absences in both our history and present culture through storytelling in all forms and for all ages.”

That’s a mouthful, so our tagline is: "Books by feminists, for everyone." Dottir’s associate publisher, Larissa — who is a lot younger than I am and more up-to-date with language — has said that she sees Dottir as liberationist more than feminist. She hears feminist and thinks white middle-class feminism, which wouldn’t be an inappropriate way to describe me, but it might be an inappropriate way to describe the project of Dottir Press. I like that term, too, but I’ve identified with the label feminism for a long time. The term is flexible and evolving for me.

All of Dottir’s authors are feminists, but that might not necessarily be their first identifier. The books are for everyone. I mean, every publisher thinks their books deserve a wide audience, but I’m drawn to books about common experiences that are nonetheless neglected by most publishers, especially in children’s books. There is still so much space in that genre to reflect the reality of childhood. This idea is that kids can’t be exposed to books about gun violence, or sexuality, or death. They live in the present tense of this world in the same way that you do, and they’re exposed to the same problems.

I’m willing to bet that Anastasia Higginbotham’s books are not what people think when they think of picture books, but they’re brilliant.

JB: Thank you. I agree. There is a bit of a barrier to entry for a lot of people — again, because of denial. Divorce is the worst? No, we told our kids divorce was for the best! Death is stupid? No, don’t express hard feelings — and don’t say “stupid". Anastasia supports the point of view of the child and, in doing so, also helps adults heal their own denial, guilt, and compartmentalization.

I’ve adored Anastasia since we were interns at Ms. magazine in 1993. She was making comics back then, and I always thought her illustrated writings were really powerful. For years, I had pitched her books — well, they weren’t books yet, but drawings and ideas — to editors and publishers I had worked with or knew, and no one bit. They would take a meeting with her but mainly to say she needed to go back to the drawing board or dis her illustration style. It was weird. We needed to find a true believer who had the authority to pick books.

In 2013, I took the job as head of the Feminist Press. Suddenly, I had the power to publish her books. There was some resistance from the board and the staff because they had long ago decided to no longer publish kids’ books, and conventional wisdom is not to casually wade into new genres. Actually, even though I was the boss, I felt scared to push her books at FP. What if they failed? I felt vulnerable to charges of bad judgment and nepotism since a basic google search would reveal how well we know each other.

But the Ordinary Terrible Things books had such an effect on me; I had to publish them. There was always a moment during the development of each title where a page would make me cry, and that’s when I knew the book had its special magic.

While some people find her approach controversial or even inappropriate for kids, the books are beloved by librarians, teachers, and kids. Family therapists order them in bulk; adults often order Death Is Stupid to process their own grieving. Anastasia refers to them as books about childhood rather than children’s books. I think that’s true. The child’s perspective is what matters, and it is the child’s point of view we connect with. That inner child we’ve smushed down or that memory or just actually learning from kids and listening to them — as opposed to thinking that because you are grown up, you have to yammer on with authority even if we don’t have the answers.

I’ve read a few of them, and the death book made me think of how Sesame Street handled Mr. Hooper’s death — centering the child’s perspective and answering questions, and guiding them.

JB: That’s the perfect reference. Mr. Rogers, too. When I was a kid, I thought his show was boring, but now I appreciate its power. He was able to talk about feelings people were scared of, and he did it in a way that was reasonable but still honest. He helped children air out feelings they had been told were unacceptable.

I love Anastasia’s work, and I see her work in this continuum of artists and styles, but I’m sure that some people dislike the handmade aesthetic. Kids’ books don’t usually look like this.

JB: Many of those editors I sent her to remarked on her “unappealing” illustration style. In fact, back at FP, I worried that my attraction to the work visually was just my quirk. As I was marinating in indecision, Drew (my art director since 2013) looked at Anastasia’s originals and said, “They’re exquisite.”

Her unique style is a barrier to entry for some people, but it also distinguishes these books. Each page is individually created by hand from materials on their way to recycling or garbage. It takes hundreds of hours, but the materials themselves are totally accessible. Readers recognize them as materials they worked with as kids and ask for scraps that have the potential to be a beautiful whole. The artistic approach models the philosophy of the books: You already have the tools to make something valuable and to tell your truth.

Dottir publishes a range of ideas, and you mentioned your tagline, but is a lot of it what obsesses you and interests you?

JB: Yes. At its core, the books reflect what I’m interested in and not much beyond that. If other people are interested, they’ll let me know by buying books. I describe my job as being a passionate advocate for these authors. I can’t really respond to trends, and the books that most align with my quirks have been the biggest sellers.

I’m interested in common but suppressed experiences. Twenty years ago, for instance, I was curious about real people’s personal experience of abortion, the narrative rather than the political views. People are loud and proud of their political views but don’t often link them to themselves. More than a million women get abortions in the US each year, but openly acknowledging that you had an abortion is still pretty rare.

Jennifer listening very intently to someone off camera during a conference.

Common but not talked about describes a lot of your work, and that’s a good segue to your 2007 book Look Both Ways. I’m thinking about the subtitle, “Bisexual Politics.”

JB: Let me ask you, what do you think the subtitle meant?

Honestly? I wasn’t sure, really.

JB: It’s a bad subtitle. I was riffing on Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics but it’s nothing like it. That was her Ph.D. thesis and literary analysis. I love punning and creating titles; sometimes I’m good, and sometimes I’m off, and this was off. I don’t think it was a “political” book, so that’s why I wish I hadn’t used that term. The original subtitle was too jokey and would have sold the book wrong in another way: “When Straight Girls Date Girls.” I really was writing to a particular point of view and experience: not growing up thinking I think “I’m gay” and having that first experience of dating women feel like I was a straight girl with a girlfriend. 

That’s how many bisexual people are perceived — as encroaching. Not really being there for the hard times or whatever. I thought “When Straight Girls Date Girls” was funnier and sexier, but I worried that was too Girls Gone Wild or something. I worried about a lot of things with this book!

It’s not a political book, and it’s personal, but it’s not a memoir.

JB: Right. It’s a story about someone not unlike me. [Laughs] It frames the bisexual experiences of people — and in my generation, there’s a pretty enormous cohort of women, but it could be men as well — who may have married or are in some kind of heterosexual relationship right now, but a significant portion of their love life has been queer.

We don’t want to see bisexual identity in this culture. So, if you’re bisexual and unseen, what’s lost for you as an individual, what is lost for our thinking of sexuality, and what parts of yourself do you suppress? Feminism has done a good job framing for women how much self is shut down so one can perform femininity correctly. So, how much of yourself is shut down, so you don’t freak anybody out by mentioning your girlfriend to your mother-in-law? 

What I found was, like abortion, many people had bisexual relationships but felt like their husband couldn’t hear it — or their parents would freak out, or their kids would be confused — if they acknowledged being in a relationship for four or five years with a woman.

It’s very much about a certain kind of experience, and it’s very much about that time and what it meant to grow up and live a few years or decades ago.

JB: I don’t want to say that it was Gen-X-specific, but maybe it was. Even though I interviewed a lot of Second Wave women about their experiences, the way that they were identifying being bisexual felt different in some qualities from what I was trying to describe. The “woman-identified women” had a really strong critique of male behavior and didn’t want to consort with men, in addition to desiring women. It was almost like women are better people, so if you can choose them, you should.

Meanwhile, those of us who became Third Wave feminists were raised with feminism in the water, as Amy Richards and I wrote in Manifesta. We assumed liberation, but there were still so many gaps between rhetoric and reality. For me, for instance, I had all these unspoken and manipulative ideas about who I was supposed to be in a relationship and how to get someone to choose me. Anastasia and Amy were people I admired, but I didn’t think I had to pretend to be someone else or be mean to them or play hard to get in order to attract them — and being real was a big breakthrough for me. I learned that you could be friends with your lovers and how much more intimate that was, sexually and otherwise.

In the book, you made the point that this happened, in part, because of the rise of queer culture and that connection and how the norms had shifted.

JB: When I tell my kids that when I was a teenager, no one was out, they are like, “that’s insane." It was unheard of to be out in Fargo in the 1980s; by the 2000s, there were gay-straight alliances at my high school. When I wrote Look Both Ways, the feminist movement was not ascendant, but gay rights were. And understanding bisexuality was crucial to both movements.

The main concept of my book is that bisexual people are always told that they’re, in fact, either gay or straight. It’s the only sexual identity that changes based on who you’re dating. It reminded me of the way in which women used to be perceived as appendages to men. The resistance to “seeing” bisexuality intersects with our general sexism. Every guy who has ever said he was bisexual is believed to be “really” gay. Every woman who says she’s bisexual is believed to be actually straight. The implication: the penis is so powerful, engaging with it whatsoever confers sexual identity.

Like so much of your work like I Had an Abortion and It Was Rape, there is power in not just naming an experience but sharing that experience.

JB: I think so. It’s much more common now to have storytelling projects, but it was less so in the nineties. The more common thing was to sign a petition or have a bumper sticker. Slogans are polarizing and blunt, whereas a story is an opportunity for the listener to connect and relate. They’re associative rather than dissociative. When you’re talking about trauma, there often is dissociation and isolation because you feel like no one wants to hear about your, for example, assault. I’m drawn to projects that integrate experiences that have been exiled and connect to them. Bisexuality is in that category.

Bisexuality is complicated because, as you wrote, it’s so often defined by the person you’re with. People were bi, and then in the eyes of many people, they "choose a side."

JB: I’m married to a straight cis man. Many of his ex-girlfriends have had love affairs with women, which is pretty common for our generation, and he was totally at ease with my sexuality. Our kids know I’m bi and that Anastasia was once my girlfriend. For anyone who’s important in my life, I’m open. I’ve written about it.

I wrote a piece on bisexuality for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall for The Daily Beast. When it ran, there was this millisecond where I got into this headspace, "Is this going to make someone feel weird? Is my bisexuality, in fact, not something you bring up in polite society?" It’s like, you can say I’m pro-choice, but if you say, "I had an abortion," it’s a “who farted?” kind of moment. There’s a gap between what we say we value and yell about and our ability to link our actual lives to it.

That idea of storytelling and choice and the freedom to choose is so important to how you define feminism. The sharing of stories around that is key to how you think about life.

JB: It is. We still need to make space for the stories that are squashed and yet be able to distinguish between being silenced and taking up space with stories that are well-known already. A recent thing where I think people have some pent-up stories is that now more white people are talking about racism and whiteness. There’s sometimes this instinct to say, at my child’s school, this teacher called one black girl by another black girl’s name, and they’ll start sharing these stories about racist instances or what they perceive as racist instances that they’ve observed. Or even things that have harmed them, like what their parents or grandparents used to say.

I see why they share them and what to get that out. It’s something you want out of your body, and it feels bad to have experienced it, but that’s not what I mean by a story you need to share because it has been silenced. But I think there are distinctions. It’s not all stories. It is specific.

So often, these are stories that define us. It’s not just a storytelling exercise.

JB: Yes. That’s what I felt like I learned from the abortion interview experience. In many cases, it had been one of the defining moments of their lives. One of the biggest traumas was the unplanned pregnancy. The drama of figuring out what to do and the drama of getting that procedure and then the immediate aftermath and then the life after that. What was able to unfold because of that. That was one of the most key moments in that person’s life. They thought about it that way. And in many cases, they never told anyone about it.

Did you read the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler? It’s about adoption in the postwar years pre-Roe. Women were often coerced into surrendering their babies, and it’s unbelievable. Can you imagine being sixteen and pregnant, and in most cases, the babies were taken away at birth? You gave birth and weren’t allowed to tell anyone and then go back for your senior year. And when people asked where you were, you said you went to live with your aunt because she had cancer. The layers of that is a story that changes your life. And changes so many other people’s lives. I’m really interested in those moments because they’re so emotionally packed. It’s life and death and trauma and lies.

Telling those stories is so important. And sharing the stories that make us who we are.

It invites understanding in the listener but also in the person telling it. To be able to unburden that part of yourself you were socialized to deem as so gross it cannot see the light of day, and nobody needs to know about it. Can you tell I’ve had therapy? But it’s worked for me. I’m assuming we all have these parts of ourselves. It’s funny because my impression of the way feminism is being popularly expressed right now is very political again. Not that it lacks nuance, but it’s less about the connecting to self and others that I’ve advocated.

A portrait of Jennifer wearing framed glasses. The style is with no sharp lines and wavy lines.
Jennifer Baumgardner by Ashley Seil Smith


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