Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of marginalised women, such as those who are of colour, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these.
In the lead-up to publication, Rivqa Rafael talks to her co-editor Nicolette Barischoff about disability, autonomy and community, and how they relate to feminism. Futurefire.net Publishing is fundraising for the project until 14 February.
Rivqa: The intersection you seem to focus on the most is that of disability and sex positivity. How do you think your experiences in that space will inform your editing of Problem Daughters?
Nicolette: I think I have always gravitated toward stories in which female protagonists have a strong sense of ownership of their bodies and their sexuality. Because sex positivity isn’t just about overturning the old gendered double standards. It’s about true bodily autonomy. It’s about recognizing the personhood of the person who’s having sex.
I have a disabled body. Disabled bodies have historically been treated as responsibilities (or, worse still, liabilities) of society. A disabled person is often unconsciously thought of as a special ward of society, whether they are legally a ward of the state or not. If they aren’t staunch protectors of their own independence, the able-bodied around them will (often unconsciously) begin to make their decisions for them. Their bodily autonomy is often overridden for the sake of expediency, or out of some vague, unchallenged notion that they are somehow less adult than the other adults in the room. And if disabled adults make decisions that others find inconvenient or alarming or strange, it’s quite easy for an able-bodied person to convince themselves they have both a right and a duty to step in. This happens often enough with people that a disabled person knows and trusts, but it is equally likely to happen with utter strangers.
Like children, disabled people are often not thought to really belong to themselves. And so, like children, they are not thought to really be able to consent to sex.
But I also have a female body. And female bodies historically have been treated as commodities. Awarded to men who behave well, kept from men who behave badly, traded as a way of cementing friendships. Guarded in the same way that food or livestock is, from other tribes and other developing societies that might want to make similar use of her. Historically, a society’s need to control the exchange of sex and the birth of babies has meant that the bodily autonomy of women has been judged as an extravagance. A woman’s body belongs to society, in a sense, because it is seen as too valuable to belong to herself.
This can be a difficult mentality to shake, even for an avowed feminist living in a society with birth control, and universal citizenship and 50-50 marriage. Slut-shaming and body shaming come about usually because someone (of any gender, of any political affiliation) sees a woman doing something with her body that might bring down its “street value” (being naked in public, having sex too willingly or too often, not having sex often enough, not caring enough whether her body is judged to be physically attractive.) Behind almost every judgement of a woman’s body, or a woman’s sexual choices, there lies the ancient paranoia that if she’s not compelled to behave in a certain way, the whole exchange rate of sex will break down.
So… there it is in a very overstuffed nutshell, my own relationship to my intersectionality. I believe (I hope) it will aid me in my search for good and important stories.
Is there anything in particular that you’re looking for in the submissions to the anthology?
I’d love to see stories set in non-Western societies, and societies with different family structures, cultures in which the understood role of women is very different than that of middle-class America or middle-class Western Europe. I’d also like to see stories of women who hold unusual or specialized roles in their society: holy women, courtesans, market queens, first wives, hunters, poets, spies, revolutionaries…. I want stories that speak to the choices that women – women who have lived very different lives than mine – must make.
It’s a speculative anthology, so of course I also want stories that bring me new, original theories of magic, and new ways of imagining the future. Though in my experience, the two tend to go hand in hand. The greater the variety of voices, the richer and stranger and more beautiful those mythic tales and far-flung futures tend to be.
And yes, I’d specifically like to get at least a couple submissions from authors who have experience in sex work.
Speculative fiction fandom likes to think of itself as a place for misfits, but often ends up excluding the very people who would most benefit from that type of space. How does this happen, and how can Problem Daughters help?
I think any time you attempt to set yourselves as a group over and against a great, big nebulous group of “others”, there’s a danger of becoming a sort of hot-house movement… you spend a lot of time defining yourselves as a counter-culture, with your own mythos, and your own narratives. We are Nerds. We love these things, we do not love those things. We believe these things, we do not believe those things. We all share these same experiences, and share the same understanding of these experiences. It comes from a natural desire to find your tribe, to claim space for People Like You.
But it’s never been a good idea to think of spec fic that way. Speculative fiction is not a club house. It’s not a walled Bedlam where society dumps all its weirdos. It’s not the secret realm where like-minded Nerds Like Us can finally work their will… If it was, then every secondary world, or far-future civilization, or alternate history would look much the same. I think we can agree that’s not the case.
It’s far wiser and more accurate, I think, to view it as a kind of platonic thought-space. A great, big lovely void where we are all free to imagine the world as a very different place. A space where all our preconceived notions may be challenged. Where biology or physics, or government, or marriage, or love, or bravery, or family might take shapes we have never seen before.
I think Problem Daughters will add just a few more possible worlds to our lovely void. It will lay down its own challenges to our notions of what a feminist looks like, what a woman looks like, what roles in society a feminist woman may inhabit, and what choices exist for her to make.
If you could put this anthology in one public figure’s hands (with a guarantee that they’d read it), who would you choose?
Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kate Winslet, and every other of the marvelously privileged women who attached their names to that open letter to Amnesty International. Without knowing anything at all about the lives of women practicing sex work (legally or otherwise) these notable mainstream feminists assumed they were entitled to have a say in these women’s sexual choices. I don’t think this was an entirely conscious assumption on any of their parts (most assumptions aren’t) but it demonstrates just how deeply ingrained our ideas about the commodity of women’s bodies truly are. That so many of our society’s most admired women could sign away the bodily autonomy of other women without much thought, and even less information. Even as feminists, they defaulted to a mode of thinking that limited a woman’s personal freedoms to That Which is Good for Society.
But that’s what I think makes them all such brilliant candidates to receive this book. Privilege causes most of us to make decisions thoughtlessly and automatically. What truly defines us as people is how we react when presented with new information. I believe most of these women truly wish to be thoughtful, and to promote freedom and equality, but have had too limited a spectrum of experience to understand that not every woman shares their same ideals of what freedom looks like. Each of them could sorely use a glimpse into the daily lives of some of the women whose personhood they wish to curtail.
Nicolette Barischoff was born with spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. Her fiction has appeared in Long Hidden, Accessing the Future, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Podcastle, and Angels of the Meanwhile. She regularly writes about disability, feminism, sex- and body-positivity, and how all these fit together. She’s been on the front page of CBS New York, where they called her activism public pornography and suggested her face was a Public Order Crime.