Ms. Quote | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Ms. Quote 

What do young women think? Just ask Paula Kamen

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Unemployed? College educated? Good for a quote? Perhaps you should consider becoming a spokesperson for your generation. You won't earn much, but everyone will want to know your opinion. You'll get to see your name in print a lot too.

Just ask Paula Kamen. Recognize the name? Maybe you saw it on the front page of the Living Arts section of the New York Times recently. In a story on the pitfalls of modern romance, Kamen, a 24-year-old Hyde Park resident, was quoted as saying, "People today are much more cautious about making a commitment, perhaps so cautious they just can't sit back and let romance take over. There are too many things that can go wrong and maybe destroy your whole future or kill you." Then there was the Washington Post Style section article about whether young married women believe in taking their husbands' names. "The one way isn't the right way," Kamen told the Post. And an Associated Press article on the future of feminist politics: "People can't just be on their own little island," Kamen said.

When I talked to Kamen, she had just finished speaking to a reporter from Time magazine who wanted to know what she thought of Susan Faludi's book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Kamen's own book about American women with its own sprawling title--Feminist Fatale: Voices From the "Twentysomething" Generation Explore the Future of the "Women's Movement"--was published last fall. Since then Kamen has discovered that while not everyone cares what she wrote, plenty of people are interested in what she says. So Kamen, whose book criticizes the media for ignoring young women, now finds herself becoming the expert source of choice about what young women think.

"I don't even have a publicist," she says. "All this is happening haphazardly. I'm sitting here leading the most unglamorous life, with the radiator banging away in my apartment, and then I get a call from Time. It's very incongruous to my present life." Her jobs in the past few months have included part-time copy editing, typing, free-lancing, and waitressing. "But it's a good joke among my friends: Paula, the national sex expert. It's pretty amusing. Really, it's the last thing I'd be quoted on." The modesty, even from someone whose book has been reviewed in the Post, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and Ms., among other publications, is genuine. Kamen says she still hasn't looked at the LA Times story, even though her father read her the quotes over the phone. "I get very nervous. I'm always afraid to read the stuff when it first comes out. It will probably take me a couple of weeks."

Kamen, an energetic native of south-suburban Flossmoor with a tendency toward self-deprecating humor (promoting her book, she says, makes her feel "like a used-car salesman"), never wanted to be the spokesperson for her generation. "I just hoped no one would sue me and I wouldn't mess up." As a University of Illinois graduate with a journalism degree but no job, Kamen was riding a train back from a young feminists' conference in 1989 when she got the idea to write a book about feminism that would "provide a bridge between the activists and everyone else." At U. of I. Kamen had helped Norman Solomon with research for his book Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media, and Solomon introduced Kamen to a literary agent, who located a publisher, who gave Kamen six months to complete her research and writing.

Kamen made her deadline--two days before the lease ran out on her apartment in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she had taken and then resigned a reporting job at the local newspaper. She says she taught herself how to write her book as she went along, researching women's issues in the library, traveling the country to interview more than 200 young men and women, and giving herself a strict working schedule that allowed breaks only for meals and, sometimes, All My Children. "It was the most crazy, hellish, Kafka-esque experience. I was like a madwoman, running on adrenaline."

The book that resulted is a combination handbook of feminist theory, critique of the women's movement, chronicle of feminists' achievements, and action plan. In it Kamen preaches a "kinder, gentler feminism" that she hopes will soften the image of feminists as "bra-burning, hairy-legged, amazon, castrating, militant-almost-antifeminine, communist, Marxist, separatist, female skinheads"--terms straight from the mouths of the peers she interviewed. She urges her generation to unite around shared political values such as equal pay, reproductive rights, and child care, and to not be divided by disputes over whether to say "manhole cover" or "personhole cover."

"Feminists have to speak in a language people can understand," she says. "We can't talk at people, we have to talk to people."

A penchant for quick, quotable one-liners has no doubt helped make Kamen a sought-after source (she says the advice of her father, a marketing professor, echoed in her head as she wrote). And she had good timing: her book was released the same week as Faludi's, inspiring several trend stories about the future of the women's movement. Plus, as Kamen points out in her book, the dearth of prominent young feminists left the spotlight wide open for a fresh, articulate voice--even if she hadn't planned to fill it herself.

"In the book I really just wanted to shine the light on what other people were doing," she says. But she got the attention, along with a crash course in media that her college journalism classes didn't cover. Without a publicity agent to coach her, she didn't know the caller from the Home show was auditioning her on the phone. (She didn't get a callback.) And there was the Ms. book reviewer-- "Kamen does not seem to have come upon much of the young feminist activism already afoot"--who apparently failed to read Kamen's chapter on young feminist activism. And then there was the call from the New York Times reporter. "He was going off, telling me how he thinks young women are so sexually frustrated and they're putting all their energies into their careers. It was good to be able to add my point of view." Women who wait to have sex may be waiting for respect, she told him. "That's the sexual revolution of this generation in their 20's: quality relationships instead of quantity," she said.

Kamen admits she's far from an expert on such topics. "It's always a little disturbing to read quotes like this. I qualify everything I say, but the reporters make it seem like I think all women are a certain way. It makes me shudder a little, but I also see some good coming out of it." The good, she said, includes the prospect of people reading her book, joining the women's movement, and hearing the voices of successful young women. It also includes her upcoming, self-orchestrated campus speaking tour, where she'll be able to opine in sentences that aren't necessarily sound bites.

And then? Well, spokesperson for a generation may look good on a resume, but Kamen says she'd prefer studying English in graduate school. "I think that's less stressful than being a reporter. And I need something less stressful."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories