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The Feministing Five: Elsa S. Henry

Elsa S. Henry, Photo by Angela Gaul of Milestone Images​

Elsa S. Henry (Photo by Angela Gaul of Milestone Images​)

Elsa S. Henry is the creator of the fantastic blog “Feminist Sonar,” a feminist scholar, disability rights activist, and burlesque historian. Her writing is sharp and personable as she shares her views on disabled feminism, gaming culture, and beyond. If you haven’t already, bookmark her blog!

And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Elsa!

Suzanna Bobadilla:  How did “Feminist Sonar” come to be? What have been some of your favorite posts?

Elsa S. Henry: When I finished graduate school, I wanted to continue writing about feminism and feminist thought but from the perspective of my own experience. We read about Latina feminism, black feminism, white feminism, LBGT feminism, but I never came across anything about disabled feminism for me to study and explore, and I felt like that was something which really needed to be discussed.

My body and my experience often weren’t a part of the dialogue, and I experienced ableism through the speech of my peers during graduate school. It wasn’t just frustrating as a disabled scholar looking to further my own understanding of feminism, but it also showed me that the voice of disabled feminism hadn’t been focused on, and merited consideration and understanding.

Feminist Sonar is about talking about feminism from a disabled perspective, but also giving a space for women who identify as disabled and feminist to speak about their experiences as women. I don’t often publish guest posts, but when I do they’re incredibly important to me because I am giving a space for women to talk about their experiences. My favorite things about running Feminist Sonar have been hearing back from other people with disabilities. From the comments on the “Pro Choice Should Not Mean Ableist” post in which many people thanked me for addressing their personhood, to writing my piece responding to Gamer Gate and having male members of the community say “Yes, thank you,” comments that give me things to think about, or which tell me I’m reaching people where they need to be heard, are my favorite part of being on the internet as a public voice.

SB: Who are some of your feminist heroines?

ESH: Judith Butler, because of her amazing gender theory which has given me much to think about. I deeply admire Elsa Barkley Brown because she has written about the way we write history with such beauty. I got to take a Coursera course by her on black women and the civil rights movement and it was revelatory. On a more personal note, Kate Bornstein is an actual family friend and has taught me so much about what it means to be an inclusive and gender aware feminist than anyone else and I am deeply grateful for her contributions to my education.

SB: Your blog frequently discusses the ways disabled feminists are marginalized by able-bodied feminists, from pro-choice ableist rhetoric to persistent exclusion in understandings of intersectional feminism. What are some ways feminism can become much more inclusive?

ESH: I’d really love to see more feminists examine why ableism is acceptable. Why aren’t disabled women being brought into the dialogue on rape and domestic abuse? When I wrote about the fact that women with disabilities are among the highest risk groups for assault in the United States I was shocked — not only because I was upset that I didn’t already know this — but because as someone who had participated in Take Back the Night at three separate academic institutions, I feel that the situation of disabled survivors of abuse needs to be highlighted so that we feel included.

Women with disabilities still suffer under the history of eugenics in this country. That history has not entirely left our consciousness, whether or not we recognize it — people with disabilities included. Pro-choice rhetoric often punishes disabled voices, as well. During the HR2 debates in Texas last July, Rep. Senfronia Thompson stated that abortion is necessary because people don’t want to have disabled babies, and the pro-choice movement paints those of us with disabilities as counter to the cause, because we struggle with hearing about how our lives don’t matter. I am pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean that I believe a large reason abortion should exist is so that disabled fetuses can be aborted. I believe abortion should be legal because pregnant people have the right to make choices about their bodies. Isn’t that enough?

Feminism and feminists in the mainstream can help disabled feminists by simply lifting our voices up and by listening to us. We have things to say, and we want to be a part of the dialogue. Don’t shut us out because you’re afraid your feelings will get hurt.

SB: Can you describe your project “Blind Lady Versus”?

ESH: I started Blind Lady Versus last year to highlight the fact that blind people do in fact love video games. I hadn’t found a resource for people who live with low vision and blindness to say what worked and what didn’t with video games. I decided that was a resource which needed to exist for people like me so they can read playthroughs and decide what they wanted to play, and also as a resource for gaming industry professionals to see what it’s like to be a low-vision gamer and play the products which are currently out. Hopefully as people read my reviews and my experience is seen as a valuable resource, the games industry will begin to address some of the issues low-vision players experience. I know Borderlands 2 and Borderlands the Pre-Sequel added colorblindness choices (though not on my suggestion). I’d love to see a low-vision mod for games that are extremely dark (like Dishonored) that bring higher contrast to dark areas.

SB: You have been formally trained as a historian with a focus on burlesque. What do you love about your work?

ESH: I love that I get to share stories of women who consider themselves feminists, giving them the space and the forum to speak. I love getting to talk to women like Toni Elling (for whom Satin Doll was written by Duke Ellington) and listen to them talk about what it was like to be a burlesque performer in the golden age of the art form. I love getting to talk to modern performers in the neo-burlesque movement about why they’ve chosen to reconnect with what I see as a very American art form, because in the end they’re performing gender. They’re asking audiences to look at and participate in the reconstruction and challenge of gender expectations.

It is so exciting both as a scholar and as a performer to be able to participate in an art form that, to me, embodies much of the feminist theory that I believe in. It embodies the gender theory of Judith Butler, and the concepts of gaze theorists such as Laura Mulvey. It asks us to question what art is, and what feminist art is, and it is a privilege to be a part of that dialogue as a scholar, performer, and producer.

SB: You’re on a desert island and you can take a food, a drink, and a feminist. What do you choose?

ESH: Grilled cheese sandwiches, scotch, and Judith Butler.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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