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Jessica Valenti Talks Feminism, Politics and Personal Relationships

April 20, 2017

'If you prioritize the voices of the people who are most impacted, you can never go wrong'

You might have heard Gayle McCormick’s story when it went viral in February. The California retiree told Reuters she had separated from her husband of 22 years after he said he would vote for Donald Trump. For McCormick, who said she felt “betrayed,” her husband’s stance was a “deal breaker.”

“I get it,” says feminist writer Jessica Valenti, author of the 2016 memoir Sex Object. “I don’t think anyone can really afford to be silent right now.”

As the resistance has caught fire across the U.S. in response to Trump’s victory last November, his comments about sexual assault and his policy proposals on women’s reproductive health, women like McCormick have flipped the feminist maxim on its head: the political has become personal. Though McCormick’s example may be an anomaly, the conversations that surround Trump and what he means for women have thrown many relationships off balance.

Valenti, a columnist for The Guardian and co-founder of the website Feministing, is a leading voice in contemporary feminism — and has been vocal about challenging gender stereotypes within her own marriage. Motto spoke with her about feminism, politics and relationships.

How can you talk about the issues facing women without inducing feelings of guilt or blame?

That’s difficult, because you can’t be responsible for someone else’s feelings. You need to talk about the issues that impact your life in the way that is most honest and truthful to you. If that results in feelings of defensiveness in someone else, I don’t know that that’s your responsibility. It’s up to people who are doing the listening to do that with the best intentions and to try to understand where their partner is coming from.

On the flip side, do you have advice for men on how to constructively respond in those conversations?

I don’t think that you always need to respond. Sometimes folks just want to be heard. You can always ask, “Are you looking for feedback? Are you looking for me to just listen? Are you looking for me to support you in some way?” If you prioritize the voices of the people who are most impacted, you can never go wrong.

Do you think it’s essential for men to identify as feminists?

There are a lot of reasons men wouldn’t want to call themselves feminists. I’ve met men who don’t want to call themselves feminists because they don’t want to feel like they are taking ownership of a movement that isn’t theirs. They call themselves feminist allies, and that’s really wonderful. Some men, just like some women, may not call themselves feminists even though they have feminist beliefs and feminist ideals. At the end of the day, it’s more about the work than the word.

How do you think Trump’s decisions have impacted intimate relationships?

I’ve spoken to a lot of women who were very impacted by the lead-up to the election and all of the talk about sexual assault. It brought up a lot of stuff for people who had not even necessarily been assaulted but understand and have been privy to that level of male entitlement to their bodies. That was a difficult thing to process, when that person became the president.

What would you say to women who feel the way you described, but are in relationships with people who voted for him or support his politics?

I’d say leave. I understand that may sound harsh, but I think that anyone who voted for Donald Trump obviously doesn’t respect women as full people or people of color as full people and is not worth spending time with.

Dealing with these issues has brought the topic of gender roles in relationships to the surface. How can we push back against those expectations?

Traditional gender roles are really hard to break out of, even if you’re a feminist. You can slide into those as the default pretty easily because our society makes it so that is the most effective and easiest thing for you to do. If you want to avoid conforming to gender roles, you have to be proactive about taking that on. You have to make challenging those roles a constantly moving and active thing between you and your partner. I try to communicate openly with my husband, and we try to be as aware as we can about how these issues impact our relationship and what we want to model for our daughter.

Do you have any other nuggets of advice for women?

Take care of yourself. I’ve been sick on and off since the election, and I’ve spoken to a lot of women and activists who have just been having the hardest time. You’re working and thinking about this stuff constantly, and there’s very little time to take care of yourself or the people you love. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to make sure you have the energy to go on and fight another day.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.