J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the national bestseller Commencement, a novel that follows four freshman year roommates through college and out into the real world. She is also the co-editor, with our own Courtney, Courtney E. Martin, of Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists, to which Jessica and Miriam contributed essays. Commencement was Sullivan’s first novel, but she’s also written for New York Magazine, Glamour, Men’s Vogue, Elle and the New York Times, where she works in the editorial department.
Commencement, which just came out in paperback, was partially the inspiration for Click. Sullivan was trying to write a click moment for one of her characters – that moment when you realize that this world has problems and feminism is part of the solution – and she appealed to her favorite young feminists for help, asking them what their click moments had been. The result was a long, inspiring email chain and the beginnings of an anthology of stories from twenty-eight women and one man. My personal favorite is the essay by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, who as a little girl growing up in rural Tennessee, was determined to prove that she could hunt deer just as well as her brothers, only to find that killing broke her heart. The story gets to one of the central but most challenging truths of feminism: Just because you can do something just as well as a man doesn’t mean you want to, or have to.
If you’d like a taste of the book, don’t miss Courtney Martin’s essay, which recently ran in The American Prospect.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with J. Courtney Sullivan.
Chloe Angyal: What led you to put together this anthology about click moments?
J. Courtney Sullivan: I was working on revisions of my novel, Commencement, and there was a character in the book who comes to college already a fully-formed and very vocal feminist. And she befriends a young woman who knows nothing about feminism and is probably not a prime candidate for feminism in her own mind, but they become friends and over time, this second character Sally does become a feminist and comes to understand why it’s important. So I was writing Sally’s click moment, and I was wondering how most college women now come to feminism? Is it something very specific, like taking a Women’s Studies course? Are there two or three very common themes? So I sent out an email to ten or fifteen of my young feminist friends, saying that I was working on this chapter and that I didn’t really know how to do this, and asking them to tell me when they became feminists, when they decided to use that particular word. I emailed Courtney Martin and Jessica Valenti, and friends from high school and college who were all over the country, so all people who didn’t really know each other. And I think somebody hit “reply all,” I’m not sure whether it was accidentally or on purpose. Then everybody started hitting “reply all.” And it was really cool because it turned out that everyone’s click was really different, and they weren’t the genetic things you might expect: One person talked about reading The Great Gatsby, and Jessica talked about going to a pro-choice rally in DC with her mom, who was a feminist, and not being sure as a rebellious teenager if she wanted to take on this label that she associated with her mother. All of us grew up with this word in the air – whether we grew up with mothers who considered themselves feminists, or mothers who didn’t like the word, it was there. We’re really the first generation of feminists in that position. And at some point, as this conversation over email got so interesting, Courtney said, “You know, this would make a really great anthology.” That’s how it all started.
There was this great essay by Jane O’Reilly called The Housewife’s Moment of Truth. It was published in the very first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1971. The Housewife’s Moment of Truth is this very time-appropriate essay about Jane O’Reilly being at this consciousness-raising meeting and about all these women around her having what she described as these “clicks.” Suddenly, it dawned on them that they were experiencing this sexual inequality every single day. And that’s where the idea of the click originated. And our goal was to define the click for a new generation.
I grew up with a mother who embodied everything that it meant to be a feminist. She was very strong, she was an amazing career woman, she was very independent, and yet she always balked at that term. So for me, I really grew up without the understanding of the underpinnings of feminism, until I got to feminism and had a teacher who really believed in the word and who taught me what it meant. She gave me all the appropriate literature and everything. So I think it was those two women who got me there. And today my mom does call herself a feminist, which is a major victory.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
JCS: I grew up loving Anne of Green Gables and Jo from Little Women. In real life, my mom would probably be number one. When I was in high school I had a Gloria Steinem poster on my bedroom wall, and one of the amazing things about coming to New York and becoming a writer was meeting this woman and interviewing her and spending a little time with her, because she’s such an incredible force. It’s really amazing to sit in a room with her. And I know I’m in the minority of young people with this, but I absolutely love Hillary Clinton. When I was working at the New York Times, I got to meet her, which was a huge honor. There was something during the election that really spoke to young people about Barack Obama, but Hillary really just dazzled me with how incredibly smart she was. And Rachel Lloyd, who runs GEMS. She is amazing, and her organization is starting to get the attention it really deserves, so I’d love to give her a shout-out. She’s done so much good in her field, which is women and children involved in trafficking and prostitution. She’s this ray of light in a very dark part of the world.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
JCS: People keep mentioning this Newsweek article about older feminists saying that younger feminists don’t care about abortion access. Which I find really odd because the older feminists I’ve worked with have been extremely welcoming and extremely excited that their message is still very much alive and still very much in the hearts and minds of so many young women. We wouldn’t even have the word “feminism” if it weren’t for them, so we certainly owe a great debt to them. And though of course there are some times when we don’t understand each other or don’t feel as if the other generation is on the right path, I wonder if this whole generational rift is another one of these “young women don’t want to call themselves feminists” stories. You know, like “you’re more likely to get killed by a terrorist than get married.” It’s this constant need to have something in the air that’s just statistically wrong and not helpful. I think there’s a need to continue this narrative that activism isn’t alive or feminism isn’t alive, when obviously they are. I think that once you get women in a room together, that stuff falls away, but it seems like a dialogue that keeps coming up.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
JCS: There’s a generation of women who really fought for this movement to exist, and now we have it. And for a lot of us, we came to it as individuals: Maybe we were brought in by one amazing book or teacher or blog or whatever it is. And then we have this sense of relief to be part of this great community of understanding, of likeminded people, but what you then realize is that we’re not always likeminded. We don’t always agree. There are no Ten Commandments of feminism; it’s very fluid. There are some issues that feminists cannot quite figure out how to agree upon and never will. To me the most important things in what I consider feminism to be, the thing that keeps me up at night, is sex trafficking, and the ways that connects to strip clubs and pornography and the entire sex industry. And I read so many young women’s opinions on that on Feministing and in other places, and you always have to brace yourself when you get to the comments section, because you know that people think wildly different things about it. And if you’re working really hard on an issue and suddenly realize that a lot of the other people in your movement feel very differently about it, you sort of feel like you’re swimming upstream. I think we all face that in different ways, whether it’s intergenerational issues, or trafficking or any issue. And that can make feminism hard to be a part of sometimes.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
JCS: Guacamole, Sauvignon Blanc, and my friend Karin from college. She’s a lawyer who’s done amazing things for women and she’s the most vocal feminist I know. I could talk to her about any feminist issue for days and days