Frisky Q&A: Shannon Drury Of The Radical Housewife On Motherhood, Modern Feminism & Reproductive Justice

The phrase “family values” tends to conjure up images old white dudes with traditional nuclear families imploring us to “think of the children” despite actively ignoring the plight of thousands of American kids growing up in poverty or with a poor shot at education – essentially, people who are not concerned with the wellbeing of families or children at all. In her new book The Radical Housewife, Shannon Drury reclaims the real meaning of “family values” as she advocates for a world and a government that actually puts children first. Through her experiences as president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for Women, her wildly popular blog of the same name, and contributions to various other publications (including Avital Norman Nathman’s The Good Mother Myth), she’s waded through topics like abortion rights, classism, depression, and raising thoughtful kids  – all with an equal dose of urgency and humor.

Drury’s self-awareness is what makes her such a fascinating read. She has in-depth knowledge to share on heavy topics, but she does so in such a relatable way, never afraid to reveal her own personal struggles and changes of heart in the process. Her clear explanations of the endless ways the system is stacked against the many millions of Americans who are not rich white men is the long-awaited answer for anyone who’s ever wondered why we still need feminism (spoiler alert: we need it, and bad). After the jump, Shannon’s chat with me about her new book, fostering modern feminism, and parenting in today’s not-so-equal world:

The Frisky: First off, what inspired you to write the book?

Shannon Drury: Well, as I describe in the book, my teenage goal was to write the Great American Novel. When my son was in preschool I actually finished the first bloated draft of a novel that was American, but by no means great. Plans to write another were derailed by the birth of my daughter and the hard truth that parenting two kids is more than twice the work! When I returned to writing again it was in the form of a MySpace blog that two friends talked me into creating. I found that short essays about parenting and activism suited me. At some point my husband suggested building a memoir around my blog posts, and since he’s the smartest person I know, I took him up on it.

How did you first come up with the nickname “the radical housewife”? What’s your definition of radical?

My friend Erin Matson went to college in the D.C. area and had seen performances by the activist group the Radical Cheerleaders. We loved the idea of reappropriating stereotypes for attention-grabbing feminist action, and wondered if we could dream up something like it for our work in Minnesota NOW. I think I joked that I could lead an army of Radical Housewives in aprons and dish gloves demanding equal pay reparations. When I started my MySpace blog, the name seemed perfect.

I realize that I am using “radical” in a much different context than, say, Angela Davis or members of the Occupy movement. While I share the opinion that capitalist patriarchy is killing us all slowly, I am working within the system to affect change. I suppose that makes me a “liberal” housewife, but that doesn’t sound nearly as funny.

I was really moved by your experiences with postpartum depression. While I don’t have kids, I really identified with your longing for the other women in the weekly moms’ group to be more honest about how emotionally difficult parenting is, because it seems really damaging when women feel pressure to hide under the “life is perfect” lens that so many of us resort to. What can we do to make the world more hospitable to the reality that many, many mothers cope with depression and anxiety?

If I knew that I’d be smiling at you from the cover of Oprah magazine as a hero to every mom in America! In truth I really can’t stand the Oprah-fueled advice-industrial complex that promises to fix all of your problems with the right book, the right diet, the right baby stroller, the right brand of makeup. It’s bullshit.

I believe in the transformative power of a personal story. I think we are all in the process of “coming out” as our true selves in a world that sorts us into either/or binaries: good/bad, black/white, happy/sad, etc. The more women tell the true, non-Oprahfied version of their experiences the saner we’ll all feel.

Do you think growing up with a working class background impacted the way you view activism?

I grew up with a grandmother who preached the gospel of the New Deal and told us how programs like the WPA saved her young family from starvation. To my mind, “big government” has the power to shape a more just, equal, and sane society. But that can’t happen if average people are silent and let the one percent dictate policy.

I also think it’s easier for a garbageman’s daughter to see the way that classism intersects with feminism and other social justice movements. For example, I’m very open about much I disagree with the label “pro-choice,” because millions of American women don’t have the options that women of economic privilege (who, let’s face it, are overrepresented in positions of feminist leadership) take for granted. Discrimination against poor women is codified into law by the Hyde Amendment, which forbids covering abortion services under Medicaid. How is that okay? How can I have different rights from women in my own community?

You mention in the book that the feminist movement has a lot of divisive attitudes that give way to bickering and can give off a vibe that feminism is only for a very specific “type” of woman. How do we go about making the movement more diverse?

Again, if I knew that, I’d be the President of National NOW—or not because the job really ought to be held by a young woman of color! And then there’s the argument that today’s feminist movement is no longer in need of larger, membership-driven organizations of its kind, that social media is remaking what feminist activism looks like and can achieve. Personally, I think there space for and the need for both. I love how so-called “hashtag activism” is amplifying the voices of people who didn’t usually get a seat at the table. The trick is to get those at the table, which in this case is political leadership and the mainstream media, to stop clarifying online activism with quotation marks (see above!) and treat it like the genuine work it is.

Is there anything feminists should keep their eyes open for or be especially conscious of when choosing who to vote for in next month’s midterm elections?

It’s not enough to check party affiliation anymore—feminist voters need to do their homework to find out where candidates stand on a wide range of feminist issues. Where does the legislator stand on the Affordable Care Act? Do they support companies like Hobby Lobby getting involved in the private health matters of their employees? Where do they stand on pay equity? Fully funding the federal Violence Against Women Act? And don’t forget to look down the ticket, as well. Mayoral and city council candidates have a lot of power to enact living wage legislation and to support programs that award contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses. My own city, Minneapolis, recently celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 12 and is considering an ordinance that would mandate more gender-neutral bathrooms. Candidates for school board should voice support for science-based sexual education for students.

Now, researching all of this can be a lot of work. If you’re short of time, I find that putting out a call for advice on Facebook is a nice shortcut—though I run in heavily activist circles. I tend not to do this on Twitter because I get campaign bots coming after me.

There’s something of an epidemic of female celebrities rejecting being called feminists. Do you have any advice or insight for young women who shy away from the word “feminist” or don’t like to identify as one?

I do wonder about the current media atmosphere that is pushing celebrity women to identify themselves as feminists—I wonder if it isn’t in some way driven by editors seizing on a new way to make young celebrities look foolish.

Anyway, the backlash against feminism did, and does, a better job of defining what feminism is and isn’t than the movement itself. I try to talk about feminism as one part of a larger movement for social justice, including gender justice, economic justice, racial justice, et cetera. On a personal level, I talk about feminism as creating space for people to live authentic, safe lives, where women are as free to walk down the street as men are to cry in public.

I used to be more annoyed by women who refuse to identify as feminist while obviously reaping feminism’s benefits, but it doesn’t seem to rattle me as much anymore. Perhaps I’m mellowing with age.

You mentioned in the book that 10 years ago, gay marriage seemed as likely as you “appearing on the cover of Vogue.” Do you think that in ten years, we might see that same kind of unbelievable progress with reproductive rights and gender equality?

We could if the reproductive justice movement adopted some of the tactics of the LGBT rights movement, starting with the need for women to “come out” about their abortion experiences, especially their completely uninteresting ones. It’s estimated that one in three American women will have the procedure in her lifetime, but we rarely hear about it—and when we do, we only hear stories like the ones shared recently by Wendy Davis, stories that are clarified by the pregnancy being life-threatening or similarly physically dangerous in some way. We don’t hear the average story, which comes from a woman who has an abortion because she is not ready, willing, or able to be a parent.

I am also waiting for the reproductive justice movement to be reframed as a movement that affects the health and well-being of families, as the marriage equality movement did so skillfully. Studies have shown that children of same-sex couples are often better adjusted and happier than other kids, and the reason to me seems glaringly obvious: every one of those kids is PLANNED PARENTHOOD in action!

Frank discussions about reproductive health are tainted by this country’s fear of sexuality—a fear that the marriage equality movement was able to redirect. Can it work for women’s rights, too? I hope so, for my nine-year-old daughter’s sake.

What’s the easiest thing a parent can do on an individual level to help further the feminist movement?

Talking to your kids and the kids in your life! Kids are already absorbing tremendous amounts of information about the world as they walk in it and parents have many opportunities to bring up gender disparities in ways that kids understand. In the book I talk about how I pointed out to my son that pink Legos were ridiculous, because Legos (like all toys, really) are for everyone. Today, both my son and my daughter have very sharp gendered BS detectors. And as fierce a feminist as Beyonce is, I do have to point out to my kids that it’s weird that there are much different expectations for her performance clothing than for her husband Jay-Z.

I would like to mention that I am beating the drum for abortion rights so heavily in this interview because I am currently rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale ahead of visiting a 12th grade literature class at my son’s high school. The instructor was thrilled to discover that a professional feminist was in the school community and asked me to share my perspective on how near we are to a Republic of Gilead today. The book is fantastic of course, but it has me seeing red handmaid outfits everywhere. Margaret Atwood wasn’t paranoid; she was prescient.

The Radical Housewife is available now. For more of Shannon’s writing and insight, head over to the Radical Housewife blog.