As its title suggests, Kate Hattemer’s third novel, The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, is the story of a loud and proud feminist. But as Jemina is finishing her senior year, she has to grapple with internalized misogyny and racism she never imagined she had, help plan prom (talk about a sexist, heteronormative institution), and figure out how a nerd like her is hooking up with the golden boy class president. Hattemer spoke with PW about teenage energy, the ways the patriarchy shapes us all, and realizing that she needed to interrogate her own feminism.

How does this book relate to others you’ve written?

I’m a high school teacher, and I have seven younger siblings, so I spend a lot of time around teenagers, and I love the energy they have. I think a lot of times they think they’re cynical, and they kind of want to be cynical, but they have this naiveté, this inability to be jaded. Whatever they’re doing, it’s passionate, whether that’s being passionately bored in class, or fighting for women’s rights. I love that energy, and I think that’s been a common thread throughout my books.

And lately there’s a lot of energy for change among teenagers, whether that’s Parkland students and Greta Thunberg or the students at my school who’ve advocated for having tampons and pads in all the girls’ bathrooms. They see problems and want to fix them. On the other hand, all these problems, especially social justice problems, are complicated, and another thing that teenagers tend to do is see things as more black-and-white than they are. They can come in thinking that they’re the best feminist in the world and they’re entirely committed to these ideals without realizing that they have a lot of internalized misogyny, quite understandably, since that’s the water they’re swimming in.

Jemima is smart and thoughtful and definitely thinks her feminism is shaping how she lives her life. But at the same time, there’s a lot she isn’t seeing, and she has some sharp takes on girls she thinks are overly engaged with being pretty. What blinds her to her internalized misogyny?

We all grow up in the patriarchy and systems of white supremacy. As a girl, you’re inundated with messages about how girls are inferior, and even as you have a knee-jerk reaction against them, they get in. Jemima sees herself as an outsider, as bookish and nerdy, and she has that very adolescent desire to fit in and the desire to make herself feel like she’s okay, and some of that comes at the price of thinking that other girls aren’t okay, because then that means that she is. When it comes down to it, I think that very few girls think of themselves as the pretty ones or the cool ones. Most of them, and probably most boys, too, do feel like outsiders in some way, but with girls in particular, it’s this cultural sense that there’s probably something wrong with you. No matter how you’re doing it, whether you’re pretty, whether you’re smart, whether you’re trying to be both, whichever niche you’re trying to fit into, there’s something wrong with it. And I think that’s a very patriarchal idea and that might be what’s affecting these girls, who grow up thinking that they can’t possibly be doing this act of being a girl or a woman right.

As Jemina becomes sexually active, she starts thinking that sex is a spectrum, not something binary that you’re either doing or not doing. What interests her about this, and do you think it’s related to the ways sex and sexism are connected?

When I started writing this, I wanted to write about sexism and about sex and teenaged girls. I wanted to write about someone going through the bases, as they used to be called, for the first time. In seventh grade sex ed, you’re taught that you can do all these things, but don’t have sex, and if you have sex you’ll probably get pregnant and get chlamydia, and it’s presented as a binary. Socially, there are girls who have sex and girls who don’t; there are virgins, and, well, sluts. It’s another example of the way that girls are forced into a binary. Jemina’s whole concept of her school is that you can be smart or pretty, but you can’t be both. And now she’s realizing that wait a minute, there is no distinction, it’s a giant gradient, and it’s not even all that well-defined within the gradient. It maps onto that idea of binaries: you don’t have to create your identity from these choices or have your identity foisted on you.

In your acknowledgements, you talk about having had to “scrape off my cruddy crust of white feminism and internalized misogyny.” What made you realize you needed to do this and how did you go about it?

I started writing the book in 2014, and I had a draft of about 50,000 words when I put it aside. When I came back to it in 2017, I realized that a lot of Jemima’s misogyny, a lot of her judgment of other girls, was just straight on the page; it wasn’t something I was commenting on. I was probably reflecting things that I had thought and seen, but I wasn’t necessarily making a point out of it. It shocked me to come back to the manuscript and see that some of this was really bad and I really didn’t know. And by then, with Trump’s election and #MeToo, the language in the greater culture had changed a lot and there was a lot more in the news and online about feminism in a deeper sense than I think I understood it back then. And what also helped me think about it differently has been reading as widely as I can and listening to other women and women of color, trying to seek out different voices instead of feeding into my own voice.

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid by Kate Hattemer. Knopf, $17.99 Feb. 18 ISBN 978-1-9848-4912-0