The Ms. Q&A: Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards on the 20th Anniversary of “Manifesta”

The Ms. Q&A: Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards on the 20th Anniversary of "Manifesta"

Picador has just released a revised 20th anniversary edition of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’s classic Third Wave feminist text, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future.

Twenty years ago, I was at the Rockgrl conference in Seattle with a colleague to work on our book, Girls Rock! Fifty Years of Women Making Music.

Two young feminists were there promoting their brand-new book. We struck up a conversation in the hallway, and soon I invited Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards to come and speak at my university.

The friendship has lasted—and so has their book.

When Manifesta was first released in 2000, it was a groundbreaking account of feminist struggles at the turn of the millennium. Now it’s an essential feminist text.

In recognition of the new edition, I talked to Jennifer and Amy about their lives, Manifesta and feminism across the past twenty years.

Susan Shaw: You were 30 when you wrote Manifesta. Now you’re 50. How have your lives changed since then?

Amy Richards: I think in the political sense, they haven’t changed that much. We’re both doing feminist activism in the same way.

Our personal lives have changed. We have families and kids and responsibilities.

I think it’s more, how has the world around us changed in 20 years. There are a lot of people who have come to feminism in the last five years who don’t necessarily know that there’s this history, and some of us who’ve been doing this longer should be the scribes of what came before—shifting from being the young women and following, to saying “This is where feminism should go,” leading the way a little bit more.

Jennifer Baumgardner: Thinking about how much Third Wave feminism contributes to the current moment. It’s a more polarized moment, I think, more like I heard about the 70s. It was a youth-led movement and became briefly the pop culture of the time. Third Wave operated at a time when it wasn’t part of pop culture. So we felt like we were having to break through people’s emotional barriers, not wanting to call themselves feminist or even seeing feminism as a good thing.

The Ms. Q&A: Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards on the 20th Anniversary of "Manifesta"
ManifestA: young women, feminism, and the future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. (DePop)

SS: Looking back, what do you think of the book now? What do you think its impact has been?

AR: The most surprising thing is how little feminism has changed—meaning the issues feminists prioritize and work on, and with this edition we felt there were things that were a little cringing for us, like overstating Britney Spears’s importance in our lives. But the upside is there always will be another Britney Spears. Now you have the Kardashians.

The biggest shift is looking at the text: Because we live in such a visual culture now with social media, you can state things so much more simply than you once had to. To describe Lilith Fair, we had to take five pages. Now we can just say #LilithFair, and it would be enough. 

JB: Maybe it was wordy even then—but we felt this responsibility to put in so much history because we knew we had not had access to it, and we were trying to provide that, and, for the longest time, that’s what Manifesta did.

But it’s true that nowadays you could just Google any of these things and learn a lot about it. For that book we weren’t doing internet research. We were reading books and articles and doing interviews. Books are still on a different level. I’m doing research for an encyclopedia entry . . . and the stuff on the internet is just repeating, and you realize how much is not new. . .

Manifesta is still filling this need for actual interviews and first degree levels of research in a popular book.

AR: The research was crazy, thinking about the volumes of research articles and newspapers and going to the library to get books that we did with Manifesta. You just wouldn’t write that way anymore. You’d just go to Google. 

SS: Your book was THE manifesta for Third Wave feminism. How do you assess where Third Wave is now? Are there other waves?

JB: Sometimes we talk about other waves, not in terms of “Are you Gen X or Millennial?” or “Were you raised as a digital native?” but I don’t know how well they really hold up.

But when I think about Third Wave, I think about it as a series of attitudes that could be in a lot of different age groups and an approach that has a lot of culture and isn’t putting all of the eggs in the basket of electoral change or political things or organizations but integrating personal narratives. Those things strike me as Third Wave.

If there’s some new wave going on right now, it looks to me sort of Second Wave. There’s a polarized protest movement like #MeToo but without a lot of what would change look like, what’s the transformation?

AR: We say this in Manifesta: A true Third Wave would be actually enacting this in our lives, and I’m not sure we’re there yet. I still think we live differently politically than we do personally. A true manifestation of Third Wave feminism would be when those two things coalesced more. 

SS: How do you think the feminist movement has changed since you wrote Manifesta?

JB: I think Third Wave ideas have had a big impact. I think Third Wave popularized within organized feminism non-binary and trans voices in a way that was a big deal and continues to be and has these ancillary repercussions because non-binary and trans feminism adds another layer of complexity.

AR: I think in general how feminism has shifted is that it has more tentacles. It historically has been defined mostly around legal or legislative change.

I think as a consequence of this you’ve had this really robust non-profit sector that was holding the government accountable—and now change is happening everywhere. It’s in tech companies; it’s in big media companies; it’s sort of all over. I think this change is still evolving, but historically, the women we celebrated as achieving feminism’s goals were extreme in some ways, extreme in their power, extreme in their success … and I think we’re finally in the place where the feminists who are enacting feminist change are more mundane. There just are more people who are out in the world in all different ways doing it, and that, I think, is really positive.

SS: What would your 50-year-old selves say to your 30-year-old selves?

AR: Your relationships and doing good work and earning the reputation is so crucial. Don’t focus on the end game. Focus on being a good, responsible, respectful person in the moment—because that’s going to be what’s going to carry you through.

And it’s amazing to see that relationships I made as my 30-year-old self where they have gone in positive directions. Make good relationships and keep at them.

SS: How have you maintained your energy and enthusiasm for feminist work?

JB: I’ve always felt that it was inherently meaningful and fortunate that it came into my life at an early age and that I have a role in some way in perpetuating it.

So it’s easy for me to remain excited because it always feels meaningful, and meaningful work is so different than when you’re doing something that you feel is not meaningful. And it’s so relentlessly, philosophically interesting. It has so many different threads and ways to analyze things that that also keeps me energized. 

AR: What keeps me energized is I’m so lucky to be in constant community with mostly younger people—and I wouldn’t say it’s an age thing, just new people I’ve not known who are doing amazing work. Frequently I’ll say, “I can’t believe we haven’t met sooner” because there are so many people doing like-minded work. And that totally energizes me, knowing there are more people out there working in parallel tracks.

SS: What do you think are today’s pressing issues for feminists?

JB: Well, it seems like they’re always kind of the same, having to do with bodily autonomy and the ability to make decisions about whether, when, or not to have children and how to raise them. They seem like they’re the same; they just keep getting reframed.

We were saying what makes us energized, but that sometimes makes me depressed, because I feel surprised sometimes that we haven’t made more progress.

But I think that’s like that thing Amy was saying: That we have a lot of political progress that hasn’t quite been enacted in a personal way.

AR: That was one of the sad things about updating Manifesta that the rates of sexual assault, that the rates of domestic violence haven’t changed much. And so the issues feminists are working on are still so hyper-present. I think that the larger thing feminism struggled with is getting its issues taken seriously, and I think that similarly remains unchanged. I think that was what was the big surprise about #MeToo is that for the first time women’s voices and experiences were being legitimized, but I think it was relative short-lived. That de-legitimizing of women’s experiences continues to happen. 

JB: Things seem so backwards in a way because I would definitely have thought that we’d have a female president by now, years ago. Now it seems we’re moving far in the other direction—not that that’s the only arbiter for has feminism succeeded. But there are some things where it’s sort of confusing. 

AR: There’s something living in the time of Corona[virus], there’s some real positives I hope can come out of this, including, you’re sitting in the state of Oregon where they do 100 percent mail-in ballots, and you have one of the highest turnouts. Why haven’t we done that sooner? 

JB: And I think what’s becoming really clear with Coronavirus, what a patchwork we have and how that’s hurting us right now. And we have to solve the big issues that affect women directly too. Like every state has different rape laws. Every state has different laws around abortions rights. We think within each state the way we do things is best, and we really hold onto that, and this Coronavirus might be shaking that.

SS: Is there anything you’d like to say to young feminists who may be new to Manifesta?

AR: The point of Manifesta is that it’s meant to inspire you to turn around and look in your community and find the ways you personally can enact feminism. That’s true when we wrote, it and that remains true today.

It’s not up to any one person or organization or government to tell you what feminism should look like. It’s up to you to take the example that others have given you and apply it to yourself.

JB: Be yourself as a part of feminism, and one of the things I think Manifesta might provide still is that history, even if it doesn’t go up right to the present; it gives you that history, and in that history and philosophy and all of these entry points so you can see yourself as feminist and what you can do.

SS: What’s been most surprising, wonderful, or exciting on this journey with Manifesta?

JB: There were all of these years where we got to tour around and meet all these different people are were invited into all these different towns with what got to be like 14 straight years of touring. To me that was most surprising. I’m not sure I knew what to think when we were writing it in our late 20s, but then we were getting older, and we’d be like your cool big sister when we were talking to college students, and then by the last few visits, we’re the parents.

And when we wrote it, Third Wave as an academic feminism didn’t exist. And now there are all these Third Wave scholars. It was really cool to see that mature.

AR: Meeting people.

We sort of knew it to be true when we were writing Manifesta that feminism is everywhere, but when we really got out there on the road, and it was interesting coming out of the 2016 election, where a lot of people tried to divide the country, like New York and California, East Coast and West Coast, and we really had to remind people that feminism is everywhere.

Don’t buy into that “it’s a coastal” thing: We found that the most conservative communities, in fact, had the most vibrant feminism. For me, who grew up on the East Coast, it’s shocking how much I know about America because of Manifesta.

JB: I totally agree with that. People will ask if I travel a lot, and they mean internationally, but I totally don’t, but I’ll be like, you know, I’ve been to every state in the union multiple times, and random small towns, and that was a gift of Manifesta.

SS: Anything else?

AR: I just want to add one thing, very specific to the fact that we’re talking to you: I also think one of the reasons Manifesta has had such a wonderful life is because of all the amazing women studies programs and the growth in them that has paralleled Manifesta being out there.

What enabled us to travel so much was the invitations from the universities recognizing the importance of extending their curriculum beyond the academy. We didn’t set out the write an academic book, but it ended up having a really nice home in academic settings, and we’re very appreciative of that. 

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.