Jennifer Williams is a writer, musician and community organizer living in Oakland, California and has self-published two workbooks titled The Process of Letting Yourself Have a Creative Process and The Better Feminism Workbook. We chatted with Jennifer about The Better Feminism Workbook, finding strength in the era of Trump, and more.
What was the impetus or germ for The Better Feminism Workbook? How did the idea arise and what were your intentions for the workbook? And have they changed over time?
The Better Feminism Workbook came to me as I was processing a breakup and mulling over many of the conversations I had had with my partner during our relationship. I often feel like my male partners use me as a therapist for the ways in which they mistreat me, or for their internalized misogyny. While I think these are important conversations to have, it is exhausting work and I don’t always want to be doing it, especially for my romantic partners. I learned how to say, “I’m not the person you should be talking to about this” because it was traumatic for me to hear certain things. I realized the questions that I was asking my partner could be useful to others, and I started to make a list.
It also made me realize that many men I had been with called themselves feminist, but their work seemed to start and end around consent and sex–what about emotional labor, what about how you form friendships, what about your own femininity? Good consent is amazing and I’m so glad it’s widely talked about now, but there’s a lot more work to do, and if you stop there, you run the risk of treating feminism as a means to an end, instead of working to raise up others beyond their sexual capacity in relationship to you.
Who would benefit from using the workbook? Did you have an intended audience as you made it?
The questions are based on my personal experiences in heterosexual relationships with cisgendered men, however I hope that people of all identities and orientations can benefit from the self reflection the questions offer. I’m a straight white cisgendered woman and I know I too have my own internalized misogyny thanks to the way I was raised and the society I live in, and so I know I have questions to ask myself and work to do, likely forever. I’m personally working on embracing my femininity still, and treating my friendships with equal importance as romantic relationships, among other things.
I love that it’s structured as a workbook, rather than an instructional text—it allows people to explore their own thoughts and feelings, and perhaps more easily let their guard down, rather than guiding or telling someone what to think. Was that the intention? What kind of feedback have you gotten on that? Does it seem to be working?
The first workbook I made was for an artist residency with Have Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the one requirement was that I lead a workshop for the community there. I went to Michigan to work on my writing, but I didn’t want to lead a writing class. I think creativity requires a certain work ethic and uncensoring which I don’t think I can teach in one sitting. I wanted instead to have a conversation to examine our creativity. I suppose it’s because I don’t want to be telling people what is right or best, but I just want to offer the time to stop and think about what we are doing.
The creative process workshops have gone really well, and so I wanted to format the Better Feminism Workbook the same way. Plus, these are all questions I ask myself and others in my head, so maybe it’s just the form I tend to take–constantly asking, knowing there isn’t necessarily a specific answer, but maybe a better direction at least.
It seems like an interesting and potentially powerful way to address some of these internalized and often invisiblized sexist thought patterns. It’s inspired me to try and take this approach with this and other institutionalized inequalities (racism, homophobia, etc.) as a teacher. To really ask questions that force students to examine themselves more thoroughly, rather than just “explaining” how these forces function. What are responses you find to the format?
I think questions can open up conversation in a way that telling can’t always do. A question acknowledges that the other person has a different experience, and therefore a different way to answer. And I think questions can easily be worded to be inviting. A lot of men I know have told me they feel ashamed of being men, and I fear that if the conversation isn’t open in a certain way, people might feel powerless to change, or like this is the way they will always be, and unable to separate what society has told them versus who they truly are.
Do you have a favorite question (or series of questions) in the book? Or one that others seem to respond to most?
Right now, the questions about how you express your femininity and masculinity, and what traits are beyond that binary. I think those questions come from people telling me I’m masculine, when what they are really commenting on his that I am independent, can be pretty quiet, and I ask for what I want. Why do those traits have to be associated with men, or the masculine? I’m just interested in stripping away those associations. I would rather people just see me as the person I am, instead of a woman who has these traits that women don’t normally have. Those kinds of comments feel hurtful to me, and can be hurtful to women in general. I’ve been seeing memes recently which touch on this, and call out how shitty it is when guys say “you aren’t like other girls.” First, it lumps all women into one category, and then insults them all.
In this age of Trump and Pence, of blatant sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and racism being (re)legitimized and normalized on the public and political stage, what do you think are some of the most important things that intersectional feminists and people committed to equality can and should be doing?
Since I come from a place of significant privilege, I think getting used to a level of discomfort which comes from relinquishing some of our daily luxuries. I’ve been asking myself, what can I give every week or every day to try to make a difference? Should I swap out band practice every now and then for a city council meeting? Swap out a night of reading a book in the bath for a community reading group on race? In what ways do I need to step out of my comfort zone and my relatively easy live?
And along with embracing that discomfort, learning how to be called out gracefully. It takes so much work to tell someone they messed up, and it can be really scary, too. I try to do the work on my own time to try to understand how to approach certain issues and give space for others to speak, organize, show their work, etc., but if someone informs me I could have done better or I hurt someone’s feelings, I say, “thank you for letting me know” and I don’t disagree with them or try to explain my intentions, because good intentions sometimes aren’t enough, and explaining it away only belittles the fact that these power dynamics are still playing out.
What are you doing personally? How are you coping? Have you felt more or less inspired/motivated to do the work?
It was a really wild end of the year for me and a lot of my friends. My grandma, who was like my mother, died on November 4th, then the election November 9th, and then the Ghost Ship fire on December 2nd took 36 of Oakland’s community members, the kind of people who helped organize events, inspired everyone around them and who would be so important to make things happen in the Bay Area during Trump’s presidency. Although it’s all been painful, I can feel there is a lot of love and energy in Oakland now to be a stronger community, to show up to meetings and to throw benefit shows. There is this intense intimacy and constant gratitude in the air now, like we are so glad we have each other, and we aren’t going to let this magical city go. I’ve definitely been going out more and strengthening my friendships and finding ways in which I personally can give back to the community, like offering free creative process workshops regularly, which brings a variety of different artists together in deep conversation.
What do you think is the most (or one of the most) damaging elements of the upcoming administration? Any thoughts on how to combat it?
I don’t even know where to begin. I do know that since the election, many of my friends have been harassed, and then the guy ends his tirade by yelling Trump’s name, so now all this real racism and homophobia and misogyny is validated and happening more often on a daily basis. I’m worried about Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act losing funding and countless people who rely on that healthcare being left unable to access the medical support they need. I studied abroad in Denmark, and I know that country is so much smaller and has a different history, but my host family’s grandmother asked me at dinner once why we don’t care about each other in the United States, why when we see our neighbors we see them as threatening or lazy or inherently bad. It’s sad that that’s how our country is known, and in some ways that’s what it was built on, and I’m scared a Trump presidency will only strengthen fear of “the other” in some people.
Now that the book is finished, do you find more questions coming up for you? Any plans to do another volume or to tackle another topic?
Actually, sometime this week I plan to print my third workbook The Actual Feeling. Since the election and the Ghost Ship fire, I felt like the creative process workshop alone wasn’t addressing what was clearly on everyone’s minds. Instead of burnout from hustling our artwork, it was burnout from grief. I started slowly tacking on extra questions to my creative process workshop until I realized I had enough to make a new zine dedicated entirely to working with difficult emotions, as well as defining what certain words like “grounded” and “presence” mean to each person specifically, like what does that physically feel like? How do you know you are “present”? Because those words are being used a lot nowadays, and it can be hard to access certain feelings when they are abstract, in my experience.
What else are you up to? Any other projects going on?
I’m in a couple book clubs, experimenting with some found film, playing guitar, making honey wine and kombucha, applying for an herbal apprenticeship and to go back to school to become a therapist, working on some freewriting that might become another story. Overall, a lot of my energy is going towards reading and writing and printing this new workbook, and finding ways to show up for my community in Oakland.
Where is the BFW being sold—how can we get our hands on a copy?
Jennifer Williams is a writer, musician and community organizer living in Oakland, California. She received her MFA in Fiction from Mills College, where her thesis won the Ardella Mills Prize. She has recently finished her first novel, The Roof on Sunday, and her recent album with her band Gossimer, Close the Circle, Lay the Stones, was chosen by the East Bay Express as a top local release in 2016. She has self-published two workbooks titled The Process of Letting Yourself Have a Creative Process and The Better Feminism Workbook.