Is It Fair to Compare Feminist Fighting to Mean Girls? Q&A With Jo Freeman

Photo: Courtesy of the Wilson Center

When blogger Meghan Murphy’s “The Trouble with Twitter Feminism” ignited a heated debate about #TwitterFeminism (read more about the battle here), a 1976 Ms. Magazine article made the rounds. Jo Freeman’s “Trashing” detailed the social aggression tearing young feminists apart — and how it drove the influential “Bitch Manifesto” author to leave the movement entirely. Talking by phone from Brooklyn, where she is working on a memoir about the Civil Rights movement in sixties Birmingham, Freeman chatted with the Cut about mean girls, Gloria Steinem, and her latest run-in with the feminists who trashed her.

Tell me about the genesis of “Trashing.”

Trashing was endemic to the younger branch of the women’s movement from day one, but it took us a while to realize it was going on. There was a group of us that I used to talk to, when I visited New York from Chicago, who had all been trashed. We called ourselves “the feminist refugees.” Even though we were well aware of the phenomenon, we didn’t want to talk about it, because we didn’t want to air our dirty linen in public.

What were you afraid of?

That other people would use it to delegitimize the feminist movement. We didn’t want to give ammunition to the enemy.

Makes sense.

I got to know the Ms. Magazine people after they published an article I wrote called “Tyranny of Structurelessness” in 1973. I talked to them a little bit about trashing as a phenomenon, and they wanted me to write about it, but I was reluctant. But they kept nudging me to do it, largely because Gloria [Steinem] was being trashed, and they wanted someone to expose the practice.

The response from the readers — well, they got more letters to the editor in response to that article than anything they had published to date. Ms. was in its fourth year at that point.

Today, we have a tendency to talk about social aggression in terms of adolescence: bullying, mean girls, “so high school.” It was refreshing to read about female social dynamics in adult terms.

Actually, my thoughts on this have evolved on this in the last 40 years. “Trashing” started coming up again about fifteen years ago, when people became newly interested in social fighting between girls. I don’t know if you’ve read Odd Girl Out?

Yes, one of many studying the “mean girls” phenomenon.

The author interviewed hundreds of teen and preteen girls to understand how they deal with social conflict. Whereas boys fight physically, girls fight socially and psychologically. If you look at statistics put out by the criminal justice system — and I was a prosecutor at one time, so I did — violent crimes are heavily concentrated among men between the ages of 15 and 25. There’s a phrase in the system: aging out. When they get older, they commit fewer violent crimes.

I now think the reason I observed so much trashing in the younger, twentysomething branch of the movement was precisely because they were twentysomethings. They had not yet “aged out” of conflict. When the movement brought twentysomething girls together, they fought in the way they had grown up fighting. They never questioned it or analyzed it, even though we would sit around analyzing each other’s behaviors and attitudes ad nauseam in consciousness-raising groups, trying to get to the base of sexism.

We’re more aware of trashing today, and I think one reason is social media. The female style of fighting was long underground because you couldn’t see it. You can see boys fight. You can see bruises and broken bones. But you can’t see verbal attacks — unless they’re written down. Now people write what they used to say, and it can be seen by the rest of the world.

So you now think trashing was a characteristic of the “structureless” feminists simply because they were younger? I was so persuaded by your arguments about establishing social order in a leaderless movement. (Which reminded me a bit of Twitter activism.)

I don’t think my original perspective was wrong, it was just incomplete. It’s still true that if an organization has mechanisms for engaging and resolving conflict, it is less likely to have trashing. Structure and structurelessness are components for channeling conflict. But I’m inclined to think that the primary cause of trashing is this youthful impulse to fight.

Are trashing and bullying the same thing?

You might say they’re two sides of a coin. A lot of what I’m calling trashing is now called bullying, but whereas bullying is something you do directly — the bully does it to the bullied, one on one — trashing is third-party. Of course, the trashee hears about it eventually. Word gets out.

After writing “Trashing,” were you ever trashed again?

I’m going to say yes, but one consequence for me of being trashed was that I did not get myself deeply involved in feminist organizations after that. I simply stayed on the edge. There was a group of us that met a year ago after the Shulie Firestone memorial. We’d all been trashed, although I will also tell you, there were some trashers in the room. I knew who they were. We talking about the women’s movement 30 years later, and I remember saying, “Well, I dropped out of the movement three times. ‘69, ‘79, and ‘89.” My dropping out in ‘69 was clearly because I was trashed. In ‘79 and ‘89, I just sensed something was going on, and by then I was super sensitive to the whole thing, so I just said, I don’t need this. I see what’s coming. Good-bye.

There is no ‘99 or ‘09 because I have not been active in a feminist group since then. My attempts to resume activism were not, shall we say, extraordinarily successful. By way of contrast, in ‘85, I joined my local Democratic party club. I was very active there, and I didn’t get trashed.

Is It Fair to Compare Feminists to Mean Girls?