In New Essay, President Bilger Makes the Case for Public Writing

The piece appears in ‘Public Feminisms,’ an open-access book published in April by Lever Press.

By Rebecca Jacobson | June 14, 2023

In a new essay, President Audrey Bilger makes the case that feminist scholars have a responsibility to expand their writing beyond academic venues and engage with the public in accessible ways. “Writing for general audiences and presenting feminist theory in accessible terms,” she writes, “is an important part of the broader project of contributing to social justice transformation.”

Titled “Love and Marriage and the World’s Best Editor,” the peer-reviewed essay appears in Public Feminisms, an open-access book published in April by Lever Press. In it, Bilger recounts her trajectory as a public writer and the fruitful intersections of her scholarly pursuits with her work for a popular audience. She recalls the thrill of traveling to London in 1997 for a Paris Review interview with novelist Jeanette Winterson and the novelty of meeting a stranger at a party who recognized her name from a think piece she’d written for Bitch, the recently shuttered, Portland-based magazine whose tagline described it as a “feminist response to pop culture.” 

Bilger, who holds a PhD in English and whose work centers on 18th-century literature, comic theory, and gender studies, has blended traditional scholarship and popular writing since the early days of her career. “Writing for the public is not about dumbing down or watering down,” she told Reed Magazine for a cover story in 2019. “It’s about finding a way to make the ideas live outside the specialized realm so they can circulate more widely.”  

Much of the new essay focuses on the relationship with Michele Kort, who became Bilger’s editor at Ms. in 2010. By this point, Bilger’s writing had taken a personal turn, and many of the 70-plus pieces she went on to pen for the Ms. blog and magazine focused on marriage equality. Bilger describes how Kort helped her imagine a wider audience for her work, noting how Kort understood public writing “as an act of translation, from jargon to more legible prose.” Being edited by Kort was “a gift,” Bilger says, describing how Kort “could cut, rework, ask probing questions, and offer encouragement with ease and solidarity.” The two became co-editors of Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage, which was published in 2012 and was a finalist for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award.

The essay also serves as a heartfelt remembrance for Kort, who died of ovarian cancer in 2015, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. At the end of the essay, Bilger emphasizes the value of having a supportive editor like Kort on one’s side. “The internet can be an ugly place, and comment threads are not for the faint of heart,” she writes. “Within academia, those who engage in public writing face risks in terms of exposure to trolls and also when it comes time for professional evaluations. Keep your friends close—and your editors closer.”

For more, read the full essay.

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