Ask any feminist woman of a certain age and she’ll almost certainly have a story about at least one period of her life when she was completely obsessed with Ani DiFranco.
The prolific singer-songwriter has been releasing her staccato, lyrics-driven style of punk-folk music ― and incidentally providing an introductory course on feminism to young women and some men coming of age ― since her first album, released in 1990 on her own record label, Righteous Babe Records.
From her high-profile status in the ’90s, when she appeared on magazine covers and was applauded for her independent business model, to her current life as a 48-year-old working musician and mother of two, DiFranco’s output has been achingly personal and defiantly female, covering topics such as abortion, menstruation, bisexuality and sexual harassment and assault.
Now DiFranco delves into many of the same topics in her new memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream,” which details her early career and personal life up through 2001. HuffPost sat down with DiFranco to talk about her book, as well as the dangers inherent in being a woman, speaking truth to power in a hostile political climate and what the words “me too” have meant to her career.
You’ve obviously been autobiographical throughout your whole music career, and now you’ve written a memoir. What value do you find in sharing your personal experience with the world?
Well, now that I wrote this book, and then even recorded the audiobook version where I personally speak all these incredibly intimate things, I never want to share anything else ever again. I feel like I’m done. I hit the wall of oversharing and I’m done. [laughs] Really, I tried to just do what I do in all my other offerings ― write from the spleen, don’t think about it too much and hope that maybe it can do some of the work the songs have done in the world.
I work mostly with personal essay and memoir at my job, and I often see it treated as superficial or kind of devalued ― and I think that’s mostly because it’s associated with women. Have you experienced that in your career?
I sort of tried to speak to it for a moment in the book when I talk about growing up knowing I’m never gonna be Bob Dylan. It doesn’t matter how good a song I write. I’m not trying to compare myself, I’m just trying to say that as a woman in patriarchy, you know that you will never be considered as serious or as important as the guy next to you. No matter what line of work you’re in.
I hope that this experience will feel a little antiquated to some younger women. “Oh, I can’t be Bob Dylan? What do you mean? Of course I can!” Because I think that with every generation there’s more of a sense of possibility and inclusion for women. It was interesting putting down my impression of moving through the world that I came into and looking at it and going, “Hmm, maybe young women don’t feel this way anymore.” And I’m happy to be an antique in this way. As empowered as you feel in this moment, just don’t forget how hard and how long we’ve all taken to get here and how quickly we can backslide.
What has it been like for you to see feminism become almost mainstream? Over 10 years ago I wrote for Bust magazine and they would ask everybody who was on the cover if they were a feminist, and many, many people wouldn’t say that they were. And now we’ve got “FEMINIST” appearing in big letters behind Beyonce.
Thank Goddess. When “FEMINIST” appeared behind Beyonce, a lot of people were like, “So what do you think about that?” I’m like, “Fucking great!” Why don’t we use this word? Women who absolutely want to be self-determined and included and considered and equal but can’t say the word that means that. Let’s look at that. Why is that a dirty word? Who told us it was? That’s a good indicator. There are [other indicators], like Me Too. As complex and difficult as this Me Too transition period is, what an indicator that women’s lives suddenly matter. This situation that has existed since time immortal ― suddenly we have to notice it and we have to care? Unbelievable. Just really, really hopeful.
Were you insulated from a lot of that Me Too-type behavior in the music business by being independent?
Another thing that I noticed when I looked at my own book was how most of it is about survival. And it made me notice that about the songs. I recorded sort of a mixtape of some of the songs that come up in the book, just revisiting them, and it was like, “Whoa, I never really noticed that a lot of the stories I told as a young woman were about being prey in a world of predators.” I didn’t notice that about myself and my work until it was all just kind of there in a big pile.
You were so young when you started, too. How did you navigate that... I guess “danger” is the word ―
Danger! Life of constant danger. Facing danger every day.
I feel like whatever industry, you’re in the world as a woman and you have to dedicate a lot of energy to protecting yourself or navigating dangers. Not only is it fearing for your life and the safety and health of your body, but just all of those ways that women are psychologically sabotaged. Why does somebody turning a camera on me make me feel so reduced? Because the gaze coming through that camera is reducing me, and I feel it, and it affects me and my sense of myself. The gaze that is trained on us affects how we see ourselves so deeply.
You write in the book about how even the most woke feminist still has those patriarchal values instilled in them. Do you think that is something that gets better? Does age help?
You know what helps is women allies. It’s funny just even saying the words “me too,” because I have heard those words my whole life. From the first time I wrote a song, chicks have come straight to my face and said those exact words. “Thank you. Me too.” And each of those moments is what has liberated me.
Are there common misconceptions that people have about you?
Oh yeah. It’s funny showing up to every town for decades having dudes at every venue go, “I thought you’d be taller.” Like, “I thought you’d be scary and evil, and look at you.” That overarching misconception pretty much was my daily row to hoe for a long time, and I hope that I’ve outlived a lot of it. I’m still me. How’s your idea of me going?
For those that don’t experience where the outrage comes from ― for women and people of color and queer people ― it’s hard to not be put off, scared, resistant to hearing it, to taking it in, to accepting it as legitimate. So, lots of misconceptions along the way from the “other,” and also from my tribe. It’s part of the gig.
You also talked about the role of men in moving feminism forward. How do you think we get there?
I guess I wanted to speak to something that I just don’t hear very much, which is, to be a male ally or to be a male feminist, a lot of it is going to involve doing “women’s work.” Because in order for women to do “men’s work” ― women can’t do it all, all the time. As a mother, I’ve been in that position. Yeah, you can knock yourself out, and that’s exactly what you’ll do if you have to do both [women’s work and men’s work]. And men just can’t conceive of also doing both. It’s just a necessary ingredient of women being able to devote their time and energy to other things.
The book ends before my motherhood, but it’s been really hard and I know I’m not alone. It’s been hard for my partner to hold down the fort in this world that doesn’t respect or value that, on the level that it needs to make that fucking hard work seem OK. So there’s anger and resentment and then as a woman you’re completely caught in the middle of it all perpetually. So, I just wanted to put in a vote for men who are out there parenting full-time ― bless your soul, because feminism needs you.
Did motherhood change your feminism?
I think so. I feel like I didn’t understand the importance of childbirth. And women have completely lost ownership in the way that we are still fighting for ownership of our bodies, and that very fundamentally includes childbirth. Childbirth for so many women is this seismic moment that is so crucial for women’s becoming, because it’s this moment when you realize you can do the impossible and you are stronger than you ever knew you were. I feel like my will to be part of a feminist awakening deepened a lot when I had kids. It deepened when I had abortions and it deepened when I carried some kids to term and gave birth.
One of the most powerful moments in the book for me was when you talked about writing and performing songs about abortion in the ’90s, and then having people point laser pointers at you in an attempt to frighten you into thinking you might be shot. Were there times when you really were in fear for your life because you were speaking about these things?
Yeah. I get a lot of mail. A lot of it is beautiful and loving and grateful, and some of it is not. The antichoice crusaders were really hot and heavy in Buffalo through my formative years. They were on the streets in droves and shooting doctors in their houses. It was very scary and still is.
Like the bombing of a clinic in Birmingham. When I wrote that song “Hello Birmingham,” I met those women with shrapnel in their legs and walking with canes. Now one of the things we do when I’m on tour is call up the women’s clinics in every town and say, “Want 10 free tickets? Anybody want a night out?” Supporting the front-lines people is just so important.
You were very politically active during the George W. Bush regime. How does this current political climate compare to that?
I just thank Goddess that it’s out in the open now. Because as far as I’m concerned, there’s not a huge difference between a George W. and a Donald Trump, except for the polish, the spit-shine and the effectiveness of the regime behind them. I’m glad that the outrage is finally at an appropriate level for all of this. I’m glad that the cellphone cameras have brought the outrage over racial injustice to a level that’s approaching appropriate. We need to have this shit in our faces in order to respond, I guess. I never felt more of a willingness around me to engage in discussion about patriarchy, and that’s so good to feel.
So, I feel super hopeful. I feel that this current administration is the shadow side of an awakening that I hope will have a way more profound effect than the damage that’s being done in the meantime. I mean, look at the influx of women into politics. There is a wave that is absolutely a palpable response to who’s in the White House, and hopefully the wave is bigger than them.