09: Amy Aronson
women's journalism professor
Amy Aronson is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Fordham University. She holds a BA from Princeton University and a PhD from Columbia University, and is the editor of the international quarterly, Media History. A former editor at Working Woman and Ms., her work has also appeared in such publications as Business Week, Global Journalist, Working Mother, and the Boston Globe. She studies media history with a focus on American magazines and periodical literature. Within that frame, her primary research interest is gender, including both femininity and masculinity studies. A scholar-practitioner, Dr. Aronson has published both scholarly and journalistic work on issues of gender, diversity, journalism history and American culture.
Emily Kimura is a student at Barnard College and a violinist at the Manhattan School of Music.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on October 7, 2016, in Amy's Brooklyn home. Emily Kimura photographed, and Assistant Editor Nicole Blackwood witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
AMY: I was raised in a family of women. My parents divorced when I was five years old, in a time when divorce was really still a scandal. This was in the late 1960s and women divorcees were looked upon rather like prostitutes. "An unattached woman," you know? Things have changed a lot in a comparatively short time on that. I had one sibling, an older sister. She's passed away now, and she was disabled at a very young age. So we had a very kind of “three-women-against-the-world” mentality. My mother really cultivated that mentality in our household —that not only were we three people against some tough circumstances, but three women people with particular obstacles to face as women.
Moreover, my mother had been a gym teacher, and in the days when she was a young married woman, you couldn't be a married woman and keep your job as a teacher. So she had to leave her work once she became pregnant, and once she divorced my father, she couldn't go back to work because she had a disabled child, and then a second very young child, me. The only place that would hire her was the National Organization for Women, which was then a very small startup organization. They were the only ones who understood that she was a single woman with two small children, one of them handicapped, but would see that she had abilities and was willing to hire her.
Because of my sister's disability and my mother's response to that, I was the man of the house. I was the able-bodied one. I was the one who could have a job after school and earn my own money. So I was on my own a lot, and was the one who managed the household. Even as an eight, nine, ten year old, I would figure out how to arrange for the repairman to come, and those kinds of things.
I certainly remember not having an easy time with the other girls at school [because] I didn't do "girl stuff." I wasn't interested in Barbies, I wasn't interested in the kinds of things that many of the girls around me in suburban Boston in the 1970s were interested in. I was kind of a "go-getter," and a very independent-minded, self-sufficient young girl. I guess that made me a better feminist as an older woman, but also made me sort of fall out of girl-culture as a youth.
SOPHIA: How conscious were you of the unique position you occupied in girl-culture throughout your childhood?
AMY: I think I would have been helped, and been a happier child if I had more consciousness of what was happening to me, and the ways in which I did and did not fit in with girl-culture. At the time I just felt like I didn't belong. I was not a happy kid. I had a hard time making friends and feeling like a part of a community of girls, and I didn't really know why except to think that there was just something wrong with me. I was just not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough —which I think is an unfortunately rather typical feminine response that we often end up feeling— that it's our fault, even though it may very well be the world, the culture, or others who are at least equally involved in what might be troubling us. Understanding the ways in which my experience was different would've helped me either to cope with being on my own more and not having close girlfriends, or to adjust to it, and perhaps figure out ways to overcome it and become more connected with some of the other girls.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about your experience of falling in love with women's magazines?
AMY: Growing up, we didn't have a lot of money. As was unfortunately often the case in the first-wave of couples getting divorced in the 60s and 70s, my parents never found a way to come together for the sake of the kids. They fought and were angry at each other for their whole lives. My dad did was not very good about paying child-support, or keeping up with the mortgage…so to me, a magazine was a big treat, and a big splurge. A subscription was a lot [of money], and the library in my town subscribed to just a few of them. But they had Seventeen, so could read it there. I later came to critique this of course, but at the time it was this lush-girl-world of girl companionship, images of girls, girl-talk, as well as makeup and clothes and things that I couldn't necessarily afford, but was given access to [through magazines]. I mean, we weren't poor, I didn't starve. I went to a good public school and I didn't live in a ghetto by any means, but we didn't have a lot to spare. So [women’s magazines] created a very rich world that offered a lot of things that I wanted and needed and certainly didn't feel like I had.
When I went off to Princeton, of course the library owned everything, so I was able to read a lot more, but by that point I was already developing a critical consciousness about it. I was understanding myself as a feminist, so I began to critique the makeup and beauty tips, and the ways that femininity is strongly constructed in women's magazines. But at the same time, I also noticed the complications to that discourse. By college, I was familiar with the critique that came out of The Feminine Mystique —that these are all enforced femininities that undermine women's agency, success, independence, and identities. There were certainly ways that I could see those discourses in magazines, but I also saw a lot of countervailing discourses. There was stuff about women's autonomy. There were debates about love and romance that didn't actually seem to me like the critique that Friedan and others after her propounded —that it was all about "catching a man" and submerging your identity into romance. I actually found discourses about falling in love about matching wits with somebody —finding a mate in a way that seemed more constructive than I thought that critique suggested.
SOPHIA: In some of your writing you talk about this supposed division between the "elite reader" and the “average reader,” as though some women have sufficient critical abilities [to successfully analyze magazine content], and the normal woman does not. You teach this at a college level; have you found that this critical capacity must be taught?
AMY: I believe that we all have the critical capacity to navigate our way through texts by the time we're old enough to choose to read them. I have always resented the assumption that if a reader does not have a PhD like I have, particularly a woman reader who does not have a PhD like I have, that she is somehow completely victimized by the texts that she chooses to engage with. First of all, we don't make the same assumptions about male readers. Men who read GQ or Esquire or Popular Mechanics for that matter —things that aren't necessarily gendered, but have predominately male readers— that somehow they are being demeaned by the very material that they enjoy reading. We assume that they're the masters of their own fate, they can make choices and assess that content, and enjoy it for their own reasons. Somehow, with women, we just assume that women don't know any better, and they just kind of blindly swallow this content that is presumed to be damaging to them. And studies do not show this. Studies show that women are very agentic readers. Regular women who don't have PhDs, who read romance novels, for example, maybe with college degrees, maybe without, are perfectly able to of take out of texts what they want and what they need!
I believe in women readers. I think that one of the problems that feminist critics had is to accept that some women want to read about makeup. They're interested in that for their own reasons, for their own sake, and my feminism is not about having every woman choose the life that I have, or have the exact same politics that I have. I really believe that feminism should ultimately be about giving women every choice about how they want to live their lives. Period. That's it. If they can openly and freely and fairly choose, then feminism has achieved its goals. If some readers don't read as critically as I do, or don't adopt the same critique that I might have about fashion or beauty or consumerism, it doesn't mean that they're being duped, or even that they're necessarily being harmed. I would hope that they would get true satisfaction that belongs to them out of the reading experience.
SOPHIA: You have a really beautiful relationship with text. I have something similar to it, and I don't usually hear that articulated, so that was very beautiful.
AMY: We need to talk more!
SOPHIA: Oh! Oh my god, thank you! In "Everything Old is New Again," you wrote that the refigured Ladies' Home Journal actually reconnects us with the original vision of the woman's magazine in America, which, in my fairly elementary knowledge, has this energy of being sort of scrapped together (in a great way), and is localized —which is perhaps the most important thing to me, because to create a magazine in that time, women had to be physically together in space. What do you think were the benefits of that type of media production, and how do you believe that those possibilities have changed with the dramatic shift in our media landscape over the last couple decades?
AMY: One thing that's important to remember about the early American magazine, is that only a limited subset of women had access to each other and the printing press at the same time. They were elite women who had the leisure to read and write in this way, and the money to be involved. That meant they had at least enough education, and almost certainly meant that they were white. While I still believe in the importance of the magazine as the first democratic opportunity for women to speak in a public forum, work collaboratively, and speak in public, it's important to remember what a limited democracy it was. In the contemporary era, with the opportunities for connection across a wider, global space that will go out to enormous audiences quickly and easily, we could take the democratic spirit that I believe is embedded in the magazine format and spread it quite widely, in the case of women's magazines, within a women's community.
Of course I do worry that in fact, the democratic potential of the internet, like the democratic potential of the magazine before it, is not turning out to be all that was hoped. So the possibilities of that kind of free democratic discourse in a new public square seem to me already in question or under siege, and something media producers and consumers are going to have to defend, and work hard to develop an ethics, practices, and conventions that will hold onto that democratic capacity. Otherwise we will see a narrowing of the range of opportunities for real exchange and interaction that's culturally valuable as well as individually valuable for participants in those communities.
SOPHIA: Could you speak about how the competing gender discourses you mention in “Still Reading Women’s Magazines” made you rethink or shape the kind of woman you imagined yourself as being, especially in those early years?
AMY: Because of the circumstances that we talked about, I was raised with a more independent, you might say more masculine kind of outlook or sense of myself. Women's magazines allowed me to contemplate marriage. And helped me to understand that…feminists are allowed to fall in love. It's not demeaning; it doesn't mean that you become victimized or have fallen prey to some kind of patriarchal ideology if you're heterosexual and you fall in love with a man. For me, that changed everything. My husband is the best friend I have ever had, and ever could have imagined. My mom was pretty anti-marriage after her divorce, and even a little bit man-hating sometimes. Part of my ability to let myself fall in love came from reading these kinds of magazines, women’s novels, and other things. It wasn't just that; I don't wanna sound like "Oh women's magazines saved my life and let me marry my husband,” because that's not the case. But it was exposure to the more traditionally feminine discourses about love and marriage that, in combination with more feminist-leaning ideas, allowed me to see that the two can reside together under one roof or in one story, including my own.
OPHIA: Because you had a father that was, from a very reductive point of view, kind of the inverse the husband that you currently have…
SOPHIA: In that he didn’t do much in terms of supporting your family, when I know that your husband is one of the most premiere figures in masculinity studies, and you have a very egalitarian sort of dynamic. Can you talk about the mental journey of deciding that marriage was something you want for yourself, and then defining what it was that you wanted?
AMY: I don't know how intellectual a process it was for me when I actually met him...
AMY: It sounds like a romance novel, but that's how it was. When I met him I just knew. And quickly. But I guess there was a certain intellectual process up to that point. Dating in graduate school, and when I was beginning to search for a partner and get serious about it, I definitely had to stop and think about what was going wrong. I found dating to be a very trying process in many ways, and I had trouble connecting [to men] a lot of the time. I often felt like I had to play a certain role, a certain "girls role," and I didn't want to. I didn't know how. I don't really understand that role, and in any case, it's not really me. I finally realized that I'm looking for a friend that I can trust and can talk to. On my very first date with my husband, we closed down a restaurant, because we just...[mimics chatter] I never once thought "Oh my god, am I being girly enough?" or "How do I look?" "Am I being too strong? Am I being too ______? Am I making him feel ______” All the things that used to go through my head. We were just talking. There was such a euphoria in the experience of seeing that hope that I had come to intellectually, fulfilled. This person could be my friend. This person is someone I can be friends with. It feels like it's no time at all, and it feels like I've known him my whole life. Like I can't even remember my life before him. But I still believe that that's what it takes. Of course there are other aspects to it, but…someone that you want to talk to every day. You need to be very best friends, I think, to be happy in your marriage. I really do.
SOPHIA: Your husband is one of the best known figures of masculinity studies, and one of the pioneers of male feminism.
AMY: Yep! He's a pro-feminist man.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about the experience of "talking feminism" with your husband, and how you think gender discussions are most optimally figured into romantic relationships?
AMY: It was such a relief, and so stimulating to have so many fundamental premises in common. That we both understood that gender is an organizing axis in social life and in our own lives, and that there is a systematic bias that disadvantages women. Like, I didn't have to prove that. I didn't have to start from below ground and get up to that point so then we could talk about what its implications were for a particular topic. It was a gigantic relief, and I use the word consciously, it liberated me to talk with him about so many other things. I didn't have to climb out of a hole to get to a place where I might be able to start saying what I think! I could just say what I think right from the start. Interestingly, I think that in some ways, my husband's feminism is...I don't want to say stronger than mine, but he has more of a philosophical foundation to it than I do. I can see more ways in which women might also be responsible for some of the ways that they feel subjected, that he either doesn't see or doesn't feel comfortable saying. And he might be right. Maybe he shouldn't say that as a male feminist. So it’s been interesting, that in some ways his feminism is more assertive than mine.
We have a seventeen year old son, and we wanted him to think of women as equals. He's helped by your generation [because] things are very very different. There's lots of data about the fact that there are more cross-sex friendships, for instance, among people of your generation than ever before. You're friends with someone who's your peer, who's your equal. So that's a sign that we’ve grown in that respect. We wanted to make sure that we raised our child not only as a fair, decent man, but really as a pro-feminist man. So we took active steps to do that, and discussed them as a real integral part of our parenting. For example, we made sure to have always coed birthday parties. The boys in our son's class would have parties where they would go to the batting cages, or they would have like a sports party and only invite boys, and we never wanted to do that. We wanted our son to grow up knowing that girls are friends. We really tried to throw parties that would be absolutely gender-equal and where they could work on teams together. Different, like all humans are different from each other, but equal.
It played a big role in our decision-making processes, too. We've always been egalitarian about budget and stuff like that. In a few other ways, we've done some things that might seem to be more traditionally gendered, but they're all based on what we liked to do more.
SOPHIA: Can you speak to any particular triumphs or struggles that you’ve faced while trying to parent with this type of gender consciousness?
AMY: I think this is more our son's struggle, but we share in this struggle. My husband wrote a book called Guyland about young men and "guy culture," and our son has confronted that. He lives in that world and will continue to, which can be really hard and painful at times. He has not been willing to go along with the easy sexism of the way that guys text each other, talk about the girls in their class, and things like that. He not only won't participate, but has called out the other guys, and has gotten involved in trying to change that [behavior] and be an activist about it. And it's cost him a lot. He's really had to, in some cases, take a lot of painful exclusion and exile from the guys, which has sometimes carried over for us in terms of our relationships with the parents of those guys. Sometimes the parents are angry at us or give us the cold shoulder. Our son has had a few experiences in which he would stand up for one of the girls in his class against some really sexist ugly language, and then the girls would side with the guys rather than defending him. Or then that same girl would have a ski party at her family's ski house and invite all those guys. Everyone but him! And say to him, "Well, I just didn't want any conflict." It's hard to stand up for your principles and find your way. He's trying to learn how to do it rather than trying to get pissed off or walk away. So that's something that as parents, we've thought through a lot with him, and in our later teen parenting, it has been a real dominant theme.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
AMY: Call it old fashioned if you will, but I think that we need solidarity with each other. It seems to me that in our country, within political communities, at least on the left, that we feel you're either with us or against us. There's just no tolerance, or very little tolerance for any real debate and discussion within our ranks. If another feminist speaks up against you or sees something quite differently, then they're out. They're your enemy. There's too fragile of a sense that even if we disagree, we can be stronger for it, and we can still be for one another. And I worry about the silencing effect of that. I don't think that we can really have solidarity if we can't be honest with each other and talk to each other.
If you ask me six months from now and things are resolved in our presidential elections…I find myself quite worried. Just very very distressed by what's been happening in this campaign. It seems to me that we are just eating each other alive. We just don't have any honest, constructive public conversations, political conversations going on. As women we need to do better, and we can do better to offer a model [of how to engage with each other], and to also engage with what is a wider, I think very destructive, very vituperative, really ugly level of public discourse that seems to be prevailing now. I would like us all to be able to disagree, know that it's ok, and talk it out! Don't drop it, don't forget it, don't erase it, but to take ourselves seriously enough to say "You know what, let's debate this, let's talk it out. If we're individuals and we're strong people, we're allowed to have points of view. We're allowed to have different points of view, and we can handle talking it through. And in fact, we have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to do that.”
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