A friendship that started at summer camp, a strong sense of feminism, and curiosity led two young women on a road trip to learn what their peers across the country think about feminism today.
The result is a new book, "Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism," by journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz and the late photographer Emma Bee Bernstein. Aronowitz will read from the book at A Room of One's Own book store today at 2 p.m.
In October 2007, the duo set out in a Chevy Cavalier for four months on the road. Aronowitz and Bernstein, (23 and 22, respectively, at the time) interviewed over 250 women - including a sex shop clerk, a bible college student, a witch, a future nun, a former Air Force worker and an anarchist - about how individual women define feminism, and how feminism is connected to their goals and ambitions.
"We had wanderlust," said Aronowitz. "Emma and I wanted to get out of the New York, liberal bubble and see what everyone else thought about feminism and how it relates to their ambitions."
The published book features 127 of these women, including 30 veteran feminists, in a diary entry and profile format that reveals women's struggles, successes and insights in gender equality. Three of the women in the book are from Madison, including Jackie Simpson, a 2008 UW-Madison graduate, Katherine Anderson, a UW-Madison master's student and Flora Berklein, a student at West High School.
Each featured woman is also accompanied by a vivid photograph taken by Bernstein, who Aronowitz described as the dreamer of the twosome.
Once out of New York City, the girls were surprised by some of the passionate women they met - and where they were found.
"We naively thought that the most dramatic feminists were going to be in big liberal cities," said Aronowitz. "They are passionate, but the pervading sense is not as urgent compared to more conservative areas. The future of feminism rests on the shoulders of red states."
Aronowitz and Bernstein found the women they interviewed by e-mailing everyone in their contact lists and receiving suggestions from friends on who had something to add to the feminist conversation. Some of the women they talked to had at least four degrees of separation between them, said Aronowitz.
The November 2006 death of Aronowitz's mother, feminist writer and New York University professor Ellen Willis, initially inspired the girls to write the book. Willis' students approached Nona and told her how much her mother had influenced them not only through her writing, but her feminism.
The goal of the book was not to push young women in any one direction, but a chance to socialize and hear all opinions.
"We just wanted to know what was on the minds of women today," said Aronowitz. "We wanted to get a finger on the pulse on where our generation is heading.
"We wanted this to be a social document of young women that allows them to be seen and heard," she said. "It led to peer-to-peer conversations. We were not feminine evangelists; we were there to just listen."
The 30 veterans of the feminist movement featured in the book were some of the duo's own idols. They wrote letters to the women in hopes of hearing their perspective on the current generation, said Aronowitz.
There is a sad postscript to this story. According to news reports and a personal story written by Aronowitz in the New York Post, Bernstein committed suicide in December 2008. Aronowitz ended up finishing the book herself.
"Emma interpreted her feminism through her art. That was her contribution," she said.
Aronowitz graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006 and is a reporter and editor for Triblocal, the Chicago Tribune's hyperlocal news site. Bernstein graduated from the University of Chicago in 2007.
The feminist network started by Aronowitz and Bernstein in 2007 continues on their blog (Girl-drive.com) initially started to chronicle their adventures, but now serving as a spotlight for grassroots feminist movements across the country.
"It tracks the countless things women are doing within their communities," the blog reads. "It reveals the myriad ways our generation defines feminism."
IF YOU GO
What: A reading of "Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism"
When: Today at 2 p.m.
Where: A Room of One's Own, 307 W. Johnson St.