The Feministing Five: Lori Adelman

ff32.jpgRegular readers will have noticed that in recent months, Feministing has brought in a number of new contributors: Ariel, Jos, Lori, Rose and myself. No doubt you’re getting to know them by reading their posts and engaging with their ideas in the comments section, but I also suspect that you might want to know a little more about these wonderful women (I know I do!). Over the last few weeks, I’ve been interviewing my fellow new contributors so that you and I can get to know them a little better. This week I interviewed Lori Adelman.
Lori grew up in New Jersey and went to Harvard, where she graduated in 2008 with a degree in Social Studies. In college, she was active in student government and in the Association of Black College Women’s political branch. She got her start in feminist work in the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch and at the Abortion Access Project. Now, she works at the International Women’s Health Coalition in the communications department, where she blogs for IWHC’s blog Akimbo. Lori lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their dog, Wordsworth, who she describes as a dog of the “presidential variety”: an adorable, brilliant, accomplished mutt.


Chloe Angyal: How did you come to be involved in feminist activism and writing, and with Feministing specifically?
Lori Adelman: I feel a lot of pressure here to have an answer that’s very relatable to people, because I’m always looking for ways to have my personal experience and my own story be informed by and be contributing to “the movement” in some way, but I’m just offering a disclaimer that I’m going to resist the urge to do that here. My story is my story; people will take from it what they can.
So basically, I got involved with feminist activism as a means of survival. I think that for me to survive as the person I am, to remain whole and in tact and uncompromising, it was a natural progression for me to advocate for equality and to advocate for women to be taken seriously and respected on a regular basis, which is basically, for me, what the feminist movement is about.
So it started out on this very personal level. I grew up watching the casino lights across the bay that separated my town and Atlantic City, and even worked in casinos for a time in high school as a lifeguard/spa attendant, and then as a hostess in an upscale restaurant that was once featured on Sex and the City. That feels like so long ago. So basically I grew up being surrounded by this casino industry’s great promise of glitz and glimmer, and, at the same time, by the black community living in the same city, in abject poverty, populating the waitstaff of the casinos and just being totally shut out from that promise of wealth. And I took that observation and those experiences with me, when I left New Jerz for college. And so initially I was all about the Black community in college, and feminism came second, if at all. It was part of my politics, but it wasn’t a priority. And then, when I was in my junior year of college, I started interning at the Abortion Access Project, and that was something that I didn’t think I would necessarily be caught up in: I wasn’t involved or even really particularly interested in the abortion debate when I started working there. I mostly did it because it was really close to campus and I was really interested in women’s health, but after I started working there, I was fascinated by the workteam and I started learning about how comprehensive the attacks on women’s autonomy were. And it scared me, and it opened my eyes to the amount of opposition that women are facing on this issue.
Then I got an internship in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, and my eyes were opened even more to how thethe reallytruly comprehensive and linked nature of these attacks. , and I saw what was happening not just in America but all over the world. And I saw that it wasn’t just about abortion, or motherhood, or even women, but it was about freedom and autonomy and justice, which were the same things that I was fighting for in my work with the Black community, and that tied it all together for me. So I was just hooked after that.
And so then after college, I moved to New York and kind of struggled for awhile, to find a feminist job that would pay me a living wage and speak to my interests and skillset, and so I was just dead broke for awhile while I figured that out. And I can’t lie, because that was a rough time, and it really made me reevaluate myself, my feminism, and my values. But it was totally worth it, because during that time I found out about this amazing organization called the International Women’s Health Coalition, which is where I’m working now, and I couldn’t possibly love my job more.
And regarding Feministing, I was totally a reader before I started contributing. I was obsessed with the site, and it really helped me form some of the feminist values that I hold to this day.
CA: Who are your favorite fictional heroines?
LA: I have to go with an amalgamation of several different characters. One of them would be JD Salinger’s Franny, because her spiritual dilemma resonates with me. Another would have to be my favorite childhood figure, Anastasia Krupnik. I totally love her. And from film, the Oracle, in The Matrix. Was she bad ass or what? I don’t know about you, but I am really hoping those internet rumors about a black woman having written The Matrix are true.
CA: Who are your heroines in real life?
LA: I have so, so many heroines in real life. I’d say that most of the women I’ve met in my life have been heroines to me, or to someone they know, in some way or another. But I would say primarily the people I work with – my colleagues at the International Women’s Health Coalition. They are amazing. The writers at Feministing are truly heroines, and I won’t go into detail on that because I think that everyone reading the site can speak to that. My friends that I grew up with in high school, my roommates from college, obviously my mother and grandmother. They’ve been really brave and strong, and they taught me how to be who I am, and to be proud of it. Also, I find honest female authors to be really heroic: women like Rebecca Walker and Mary Gaitskill, and even nonfiction writers like Naomi Klein and Michelle Goldberg, are women who put their truth out there for the world, persuasively and unabashedly, and that really speaks to me, and inspires me to be more emotionally honest in my own life and in my own feminism.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
LA: Do I have to pick just one? Part of my job is to do media coverage, so every day there’s a moment of banging my head against the desk while I compile the day’s news about women’s health from around the world. The obvious one is the Stupak Amendment to the healthcare bill. It was infuriating, and it was a slap in the face to American women.
A less obvious one, perhaps, is the sort of condescending nature of a lot of the coverage of the movie Precious, and in general surrounding a lot of Black art and news stories. From the death of Michel Jackson to the Skip Gates incident to the feminization of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, in general, a lot of the coverage misses the mark for me, and reflects a bigger problem with the way the world views people of color, and women of color in particular.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge facing feminism today?
LA: In my opinion, the biggest general challenge facing feminism today is that elitism, in the broadest sense of the word, is institutionalized. It’s institutionalized in the movement, and it’s institutionalized in greater society. And when I say that, I mean that privileged cultural groups, like old boys’ groups, are the main means of organizational activity right now. My experiences at Harvard really opened my eyes to this fact. Nepotism and cultural snobbery and institutionalized -ism’s- racism, classicism, sexism – they are alive and well, I promise you. Just by attending Harvard, this bastion of elitism, I’ve benefited in countless ways. I grew up modestly, but now I can speak this language I couldn’t speak before, and I fit in places I wouldn’t have before, and that’s part of my own privilege that I’m still trying to work out how best to use or lose. So But anyway, this elitism is a great challenge for feminism because I think when the most powerful forces are being formed in this kind of secretive and elitist and non-transparent way, that translates into a less inclusive movement, not to mention a crisis in leadership and a crisis in collective identity regarding who makes up this movement and what its true goals are. So I think we could really use less elite and more grassroots leaders for our movement, and I think that will come from people – tomorrow’s feminist leaders, specifically – seeing their problems and seeing their individual experiences and struggles – women, men, everyone – as social and structural and as related to the movement. And I think that’s our biggest challenge.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
LA: Dark chocolate, with some kind of yummy thing in it, like almonds or cherries. Or both! My drink would be red wine. And my feminist, hands down, my partner Rafiq wins that contest. So basically, I’m going to be chilling on a desert island that looks and feels a lot like my living room on any given weekday.

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5 Comments

  1. kayfem
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Lori, in honestly answering the way in which you arrived at feminism instead of trying to concoct a “relatable” answer, I actually found you incredibly…well, relatable. Cheers to that!
    It’s interesting to me, because, as a white feminist, I feel that my path to feminism and anti-racism resembles yours in reverse. I found feminism, and realized that I needed feminism to “survive”, as you say (actually, it started with my abortion). Once I reached that point, I was suddenly, ahem, mind-f***ed and overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. etc. etc. My experience as a woman led me to feminism, which subsequently transformed my reality as a person embedded in an oppression-ridden society. When I began this journey, I wasn’t all that interested in the concerns of other marginalized populations. Now, I’m constantly trying to find ways to acknowledge the privileges I reap from this system of oppressions, and, to the best of my ability (it’s a process, indeed), fight those inequalities. Talk about a shift in ontology.
    Anyway, this isn’t about me. I just feel like I relate to your journey in some unexpected ways :-)

  2. Comrade Kevin
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Elitism is certainly alive and well, but certainly not just in feminist circles. I think much of it stems from a deep seeded sense of simply “not belonging” that every intelligent person feels. I certainly have that chip on my shoulder myself and it’s a by product of the fact that most people are of average intelligence and only a relative few have above-average intellectual capacities. While there are many anti-intellectual strains in American culture, we feed and almost reinforce these contrary views by not honestly addressing the valid criticisms made. It makes matters far worse when we build our own group and our own language and then proceed to lock out those who we deem at face value to not be worthy of our attention.
    We are then acting exactly like the people who scorned us. We are just as judgmental as those who judged us. The other side of it is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with championing those who are blessed with the intellectual ability to develop the theories and ideas that drive movements; indeed the insecurity which exists among intellectuals is massive. But the crucial element is finding a way to speak to the average person. One cannot expect a person to read War and Peace when he or she doesn’t even know what A, B, and C mean.
    Most people I have come in contact with who do not have formal education possess a combination of class envy, sour grapes, and hero worship of the educated and we can’t act as though they’re not good enough to be part of our secret club because they went to a community college or a state school. I often have a lot more respect for the autodidact than for the Ivy League educated. Sometimes the jargon gets in the way. Just because you don’t know what “male privilege” means or you haven’t been exposed to it in conversation doesn’t mean you can’t articulate it in your own words. Vocabulary is often useful, but it can be a barrier rather than a help. It’s a tool, pure and simple, but it’s not a religion.

  3. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Kevin,
    A lot of folks didn’t go to college at all, you know (a majority of the US adult population – and the vast majority of the world’s population – to be exact), so it’s not just about including folks that “went to a community college or a state school”
    And “intelligent” and “educated” are not synonyms – how far you went in school is often more about privilege, luck and being in the right place at the right time rather than intellect.

  4. Comrade Kevin
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Regarding the comment I made about community college and state schools, I agree with you. What I meant to say (and did a not very good job of it) is that using all institutes of higher learning to disseminate a message rather than concentrating them all in elite institution is what we need to aim for. Certainly the majority of people in this country who have no college education need to be aware of what we advance as well through different channels that have never been established, even in theory.
    And, I do agree with you that intelligence and education are not synonymous and again I must not have done a good job of delineating what I mean. So following what you have written, I believe that luck and privilege will not suffice if we are to make the world into that which would be more fair. Otherwise, we’ll have lots of examples of that which oppresses and is intolerant, and we’ll still be talking about them years from now.

  5. Mariella
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    I would have clicked “liked” except for this whole sentence:
    “Most people I have come in contact with who do not have formal education possess a combination of class envy, sour grapes, and hero worship of the educated and we can’t act as though they’re not good enough to be part of our secret club because they went to a community college or a state school.”
    And Lori, you seem rad. I’ve pretty much left the feministing community but you seem like the type of contributor who could draw me back.

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