It would seem Emily McCombs isn’t afraid of anything. Not only can you see her work in some fantastic publications (BUST, Marie Claire, Elle), but she spends her days at xoJane talking openly and honestly about her sobriety, body image and the importance of therapy, among other pressing issues. She shares things other people are too afraid to talk about without so much as batting an eye, and for that, she’s a feminist hero.
How do you define feminism?
I’m pretty old school — I just define feminism as political, economic, cultural and social equality between the sexes.
When did you realize you were a feminist?
I was raised an evangelical Christian in the Oklahoma Bible Belt, so I grew up thinking the word “feminist” was almost a slur. Growing up in a society that disparages women’s culture, I tried to distance myself from that culture and align myself with men as sort of a survival strategy. But at the same time I was internalizing sexism, I was really frustrated by how voiceless I felt in this closeminded, myopic, racist, homophobic, judgmental community where everyone was intensely religious and Republican. Then it was music that first gave voice to my frustration — Bikini Kill, Liz Phair, Hole, Ani Difranco, L7, Sleater Kinney, PJ Harvey and the whole Riot Grrrl culture, which I was several years too late to really be a part of but it inspired me anyway. I was lucky to have the girl music and the Internet, which gave me a glimpse into places where things were different. I learned a lot about feminism from Internet forums, zines and BUST Magazine, which I could get at the local Barnes and Noble.
What do you think about women who are reluctant to identify as a feminist because of the potential negative connotation?
Probably my biggest political message is to hate the game, not the player. I don’t like to tear down women just for being affected by the sexism that surrounds them. Some women feel uncomfortable identifying as feminists because we live in a sexist society that vilifies the word and the concept. It’s that system that’s the real problem, not the individual women who are just trying to get by within it. At the very least, I think we should start asking male actors if they identify as feminists and then raking them over the coals if they say no.
As Executive Editor of xoJane, do you feel like you have an opportunity to educate people about feminism? If so, what has been one of your favorite articles or moments of feminist success?
Being Executive Editor of xoJane has allowed me to give a platform to women so they can share their stories. All kinds of women — not just professional writers, not just women from the coasts, or women in their 20s or even women who would call themselves feminists. I think it’s invaluable to feminism to listen to what other women have to say and learn from each other. Sometimes we have to compare notes to see that something we thought was a personal issue is really a political one.
One of the things that is personally very gratifying to me is sharing my experience of sexual assault and having it help others better understand their own experiences. A lot of women think that if their story doesn’t fit into this particular box (e.g., the rapist was a stranger who attacked with a weapon), then what happened was their own fault and they weren’t raped. So it’s important to show all the ways that rape really happens, and how many of us felt that we didn’t scream hard enough, or that we brought it upon ourselves because we were drunk or because we liked the guy or even because we had an involuntary orgasm.
There have been other times when we were able to exact real world change, like when Boston University changed its headline policy after we ran an It Happened to Me called “I Was Raped at Boston University and the Student Newspaper Made a Joke out of It.”
How can we improve equality? What do you find is lacking most?
Intersectionality is really the big issue of modern feminism. All feminists have to consider racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. in addition to sexism. We also have to educate men as well as women about feminist issues and stop holding women responsible for everything from avoiding sexual assault to somehow resisting the near-continual messages we’re pounded with about thinness and beauty. Blame the rapists, blame the coporations that profit from programming women to hate themselves, blame the patriarchy. Infighting and judging each other’s choices is a red herring that distracts us from the real work of achieving equality.
What can women do to be more supportive of one another?
Remember that someone else’s gain is not your loss. Society is constantly trying to pit women against each other. At xoJane it was always part of our mission statement not to put down other women’s sites or blogs. Before we even launched, people in the media were trying to get us to snark on Jezebel and other so-called “competitors.” We think Jezebel is great, and besides, women are capable of reading and enjoying more than one website!
What women inspire you?
Obviously Jane Pratt inspires me immensely. I’ve learned such an incredible amount from her in the 3 and a half years we’ve been working together. She does this very rare thing in publishing, which is to create a space for women to write in their own voices. She has incredible vision and great instincts is incredibly generous. I also want to be just like Nora Ephron when I grow up.
What books or media have had an impact on your life?
Bikini Kill taught me how to get angry, and Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton taught me not to take any shit from men. Caroline Knapp helped get me sober with Drinking: A Love Story. “Roseanne” was a feminist icon for me at a young age, and her home and her family looks like mine. More currently, I’m obsessed with Samantha Irby’s new book Meaty. She has one of the most incredible writing voices I’ve ever heard.
What’s your favorite thing about yourself?
I got sober from drugs and alcohol a little over 5 years ago and I am really proud of that, as well as the work that I continue to do on myself. I still have a lot of issues and I make a lot of mistakes, but I do my best to look at myself and make improvements slowly but surely, in therapy and programs of recovery. I am proud that I can own up and apologize when I do something wrong and try to do better next time.
Image Credit: Olivia Hall