Feminist Conversations is a weekly column at Feminists For Choice. We interview feminist activists from across the interwebs to find out what feminism means to them. Today we’re talking to Dr. Paige Schilt. Paige is an activist, teacher, writer, dyke mama, and “low-femme” nerd. She is a Contributing Writer at The Bilerico Project and is working on a book of personal essays about a gay, transgender rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South.
Paige serves on the Board of Directors at Girls Rock Austin. She is the former Director of National Media for Soulforce and is currently an editorial advisory board member at The Bilerico Project. From 2007 to 2009, she taught LGBT film and feminist studies courses at Southwestern University.
1. When did you first call yourself a feminist, and what contributed to your decision?
That’s a great question. Both of my parents were liberal feminists. They always encouraged me to study successful women leaders—people like Sandra Day O’Connor. And yet, as a teenager, I don’t think I identified with feminism or even had a sense of myself as a person with rights. A couple of times I had high school teachers who said very inappropriate things, and it never once occurred to me that I could complain. I thought I was to blame, really, because I wore sexy clothes and was sexually active.
My first feminist awakening happened in college, when I read Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat. That book was very intense for me, because she describes how it feels to be regarded as an object. Her writing flayed my defenses. It brought to the surface all this anger that I had been pushing down. I was an incredibly angsty young person, and all of a sudden I had both an analysis of the source of my feelings and an outlet.
It was a great time to be a young feminist, because there was this flowering of WAC and riot grrl and all kinds of third wave activity.
2. What does feminism mean to you?
To me, feminism is less of an ideology and more of a set of tools for analyzing and changing situations. This summer at Girls Rock Austin, I made a “Feminist Critical Thinking Toolkit” for a workshop that I taught about Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video. The toolkit is just a series of questions: Who is in the room? Who is missing? Who speaks? Who is silent? Who has the power to make decisions? Who looks? Who is looked at? Who gets associated with bodies and sexuality? Who gets associated with mind and intellect?
For me, feminism is also about inheriting a legacy of critical thinking and struggle. It’s about striving to be more inclusive and to stretch our boundaries. It’s about being comfortable with being uncomfortable. And it’s about this amazing tradition of art and music that can, sometimes, sustain us through more difficult work.
3. Why did you get involved with Girls’ Rock Camp?
I was completely enthralled when I attended my first Girls Rock Camp Austin music showcase. It’s really powerful to see 12-year-old girls swaggering and owning the stage and feeling confident enough to take real creative risks. The stuff that they come up with at camp can be as weird and innovative as anything you hear from indie legends like Flaming Lips. I’m constantly amazed by the creative freedom that camp engenders.
I came to Girls Rock Austin out of a history of riot grrl inspired grassroots activism. In the late nineties, I co-founded and helped organize an annual day of workshops and skill-sharing for girls in Austin. We cleared out a donated warehouse and found women to teach everything from bike repair to sexual health. It was really empowering to work with other women and girls in an all-female environment. Similarly, one of the most rewarding things about working at Girls Rock Camp Austin is connecting with a community of women musicians and activists. And I’m happy to say that Girls Rock Austin is welcoming and affirming of transwomen and girls. As a cisgender feminist, I feel really strongly about being an ally to transwomen and creating safe, inclusive spaces for all women.
I think music can be a particularly good medium for building relationships and coalitions. At Girls Rock Austin, we have worked closely with other music organizations that support underserved youth. We have a diverse group of volunteers who come from a variety of cultures and musical traditions. This past summer, for example, we were lucky to work with Girl in a Coma from San Antonio and Las Krudas, a feminist hip-hop duo from Cuba.
4. You often write about parenting. Why do you feel that parenting is a feminist issue?
Parenting is a feminist issue because so much of the labor of parenting is naturalized as “women’s work.” It’s a feminist issue because families are prime places where gendered norms and inequalities get reproduced.
Hanging out with my son on the playground and the little league field, I still hear a lot of received wisdom about gender differences. Sociologist Michael Messner has this great article about observing youth soccer leagues and noticing how much parents love to comment on perceived gender differences but tend to ignore similarities in girls’ and boys’ behaviors. It drives me crazy, especially when parents are reinforcing the idea that boys are naturally better at math and I’m teaching young college women who tell me how much they are still discouraged from going into math and science fields. I feel like the proliferation of studies about gender and the brain has provided ample fodder for folks who want to naturalize gender inequalities, and I’m glad for the new generation of books (Pink Brain, Blue Brain; Delusions of Gender) that debunk some of those convenient conclusions.
Because I’m trained as a feminist scholar and my partner is a genderqueer psychotherapist, we’ve been hyperaware of the gendered assumptions that we convey to our son in our words and actions. A lot of parenting resources just won’t work for our family, and I’ve written about heterosexism in children’s sex ed resources and in parenting advice literature.
Like lots of parents before us, my partner and I are engaged in this exciting experiment of raising a son who can think critically about inequality. Those questions that I mentioned above are really helpful. Recently, my son and I were reading a mystery novel that touched on the Salem witch trials. I mentioned that many innocent women were accused, and he was immediately curious about whether any men were accused and why the witch trials targeted women. I realized that those questions about who is present, who is speaking, who makes decisions, etc., have become second nature to him. It’s never too soon to start thinking like a feminist!
Susan Raffo had this great article on The Bilerico Project recently about using a similar set of questions to help white kids think critically about white privilege. I highly recommend it.