Q&A: Amy Brenneman on Defining—and Devoting Herself to—Feminism

Amy Brenneman is an actor, writer, producer and activist. She is best-known for creating and starring in the CBS drama Judging Amy, which won her a Golden Globe, as well as lead roles in Private Practice and NYPD Blue. Brenneman currently stars as Laurie Garvey in The Leftovers. Brenneman has also appeared in various films, including Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and The Jane Austen Book Club.

Brenneman is also one of the feminist celebrities and movement leaders celebrating the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 30th Anniversary next week in Los Angeles. The FMF, which publishes Ms., is ringing in three decades of proudly using the “F” word—feminism—and being at the forefront of major victories for women’s rights. Brenneman’s appearance there is a perfect match—she’s an activist in her own right who tackles issues of abortion rights and access, peace and gun law reform in her spare time. In 2006, she signed on the the Ms. “We Had Abortions” petition alongside 5,000 women declaring they were “unashamed” to have made their choice.

We connected with Brenneman before the event for a quick chat on what the “F” word means to her and how this movement has shaped her life.

Susan Sheridan Photography

When did you first start using the “F” word? Did you have a feminist “click moment?”

I think until recently I used “feminist” interchangeable with “humanist.” It was a way of identifying myself as a person who defends the rights of humans to be self-determining and respected. I never didn’t like the word, but I never celebrated it either. But recently, as a person who is interested in archetype, I connected “feminist” to the Divine Feminine, which exists in every gender, and is best epitomized by the earth itself.

How would you define feminism, and what does it mean to you?

Being a feminist means protecting those that have quieter voices, or are marginalized, or cannot speak in words, like the earth. What is going on right now politically has helped me to understand the concept of intersectionality, and how being a feminist means working on behalf of anyone who is treated unjustly—often women and girls are at the top of that list. It does not mean working on behalf of women’s issues to the exclusion of other things. Calling myself a feminist says to the world that my life’s work is to speak for all those whose voices are drowned out.

The FMF is celebrating thirty years of fighting for feminist progress. What victories for women’s rights from your lifetime made the biggest impression on you?

For me personally, I think of what I’ve experienced working with FMF. Ellie, Kathy and Duvergne helped me to use all of myself—to not just spout opinions but to actually put my body in the service of the work—things like getting on planes and campaigning in Ohio with Ellie, or being part of the amicus brief for Whole Women vs. Hellerstedt, which led me to the steps of the Supreme Court last March and meeting people like Willie Parker and Nancy Northrup.

Probably that win, one year ago, meant the most to me—because I had skin in the game, and participated in democracy. I was at home in Encino with the news on the radio, getting breakfast for my kids, when it was reported that Whole Women’s had won. I literally fell to my knees and wept—out of relief, and out of the experience of using my story in the service of abortion rights.

I never had flexed that muscle so literally, and it is a muscle that I’ve flexed many times since November 9th!

Also I think of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Cecile Richardson and recently Sally Yates as they testify before predominantly white males in congress, not a friendly room. I have learned so much from their professionalism, intelligence and grace under fire. I hold those women closely, sisters in arms.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms., Managing Editor of Argot Magazine and a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s also the co-host of THE BOSSY SHOW. Previously, she was the Community Director and Feminism Editor for Autostraddle, a Contributor at Mic, Blog Editor at WIYL and a SPARK blogger; her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, MEL, BITCH and Feministing. She stays very zen in L.A. traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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