Women Who Are Changing the World with Words: An Interview with Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner

by Laura on 07/18/2009 · 7 comments

It’s always amazing when I have the chance to connect with and interview remarkable people I’ve admired and followed for years, particularly those who have truly impacted major social change.

Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner are two of those people – women whose words have changed the world’s culture in brilliant ways. Separately, their accomplishments are stunning and collectively, they’ve powerfully come together to give women a voice.

In addition to their own individual books, Jennifer and Amy co-authored Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism. Manifesta was highly endorsed by Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler and Naomi Wolf, as well as thousands of young female and male readers; Jennifer and Amy recently completed the 10th anniversary edition.

Amy and Jennifer are also involved in numerous projects and regularly contribute to various magazine publications. They also co-founded Soapbox Inc: Speakers Who Speak Out, which is where I first connected with them.

4 Questions for Amy and Jennifer
I could write pages (and have, in my graduate women’s studies work) about Jennifer and Amy, their careers, writing, and impact on my own life. But I’d encourage you to read more on the Soapbox Inc. site, which includes Jennifer’s and Amy’s biographies.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Amy and Jennifer, get their perspectives on how their work and writing has evolved as well as their advice to other writers looking to get their message heard.

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Laura: I’ve followed both of your careers closely over the years – you’ve done such an amazing job getting critical messages out to the world through your writing and activism. In terms of your writing, what do you find most rewarding? The most challenging?

Amy and Jennifer: Moments after we finished writing Manifesta, the copy editor on the book e-mailed us and thanked us for making her realize that she was a feminist. The one story makes up for most of the negative feedback we have ever received. But more so, it showed why our writing is important: to help people have a better context for their lives.

Whether it’s one’s relationship to feminism, one’s guilt about an abortion or one’s hatred of their family, we often need other people’s stories (mostly conveyed via books) to make us realize that we aren’t alone.

And perhaps the best “reward” is when someone actually uses the book. For instance, they read our writing and then they are inspired to write themselves or they read about someone starting a feminist class in their high school and they start their own.

The biggest challenge of being a writer is that you can’t control how others interpret your work. We each have a unique set of experiences and emotions and while we love having people bring those to bear on our own writing, sometimes it is misdirected or unearned.

Laura: You’ve co-authored two books together. In your experience, how is the process of writing on your own different from writing with someone else?

Amy and Jennifer: We wrote two books together and then we wrote books separately and now we are writing another book together. Many people have said that our book reads like a conversation — that’s because it was written in conversation. It’s harder to do that when you are writing alone.

When writing alone, you often have to work out your points in isolation rather than in community – and that’s certainly rewarding, but perhaps your inability to resolve an issue is that you need perspective beyond what you can individually give it. And there is certainly ego involved in writing – but we have both come to appreciate (at least with the types of books we are writing) that we are often writing for the message more than the attention.

We have also learned how much we have learned from each other. Before Manifesta, Jennifer considered herself a writer first and an activist second; for Amy it was the opposite — writing was simply another means to be an activist. Now we each see more of ourselves in the other, and thus more complete.

Laura: When you began your careers, did either of you ever imagine that your work would have such a marked impact on the world?

Amy and Jennifer: We have just completed the 10th anniversary edition of Manifesta, which will be out in March 2010. We don’t think we could have predicted this. Much popular opinion says there is no market in feminist books, but luckily we were mostly able to look beyond that.

We weren’t writing for a mass market anyway. We were writing because people were reaching out to us constantly with questions about the current state of feminism. Once we came to trust that audience, it makes sense that the book would still be around; people are still asking the same questions.

We also never imagined the book would have had such an academic life. We aren’t academics, but we are so happy that professors have taken a chance on us and ensured that their students have a contemporary view of feminism not just a historical one.

Laura: Given your collective experience, what advice would you give to aspiring writers or even just individuals who want their message to be heard?

Amy and Jennifer: Sometimes a book is the best venue to get your message out there – other times it might be the radio, a blog or a diary entry. You have to find the medium that is best suited for your message.

And when it comes to books, you can’t be beholden to conventional wisdom – i.e. it must be reviewed in The New York Times – but find your own way to your rightful audience.

Many thanks to both Amy and Jennifer for taking the time to share their thoughts.

Are there writers or people that have inspired you to pursue your passion or become active in your community? We’d love to hear your comments and thoughts.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dawn Maria July 19, 2009 at 11:01 AM

Even amid our current climate of change, there are still many areas concerning women's lives that are being forgotten, marginalized and more deeply regulated while we're busy looking at other things.

For myself, I've been so focused parenting my two sons, that I've not paid much attention to most of those issues. I've often wondered if I would have been as lax if I had a daughter. Really, it shouldn't make a difference.

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Marnie July 19, 2009 at 3:33 PM

Hi Laura – I just found you through Shewrites. This is an amazing interview and I have read alot of the stuff Amy and Jennifer have written. So glad to have found this site and keep it up. I signed up for your updates.

- Marnie

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Laura | The Journal of Cultural Conversation July 19, 2009 at 10:19 PM

@Dawn Maria – well-said. At times, even though I've been consistently passionate about these topics, I often have found myself caught up in my day-to-day and am thankful for connecting with people like Amy and Jennifer to help remind me of the importance of focusing back on the topics that have been so important to me. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment!

@Marnie – so glad you found TJCC! Welcome to the community and look forward to your participation!

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