I’m a writer focused on feminism, politics, philanthropy, and culture. I've written for The Atlantic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, The American Prospect, Salon, and many more places. I've lamented the decline of American Girl Dolls, fought with Alan Dershowitz over free speech on college campuses, broken a story about the eviction of an artist collective in Bushwick, and documented the ongoing meme-ification of Hillary Clinton. My work has been picked up by The New York Times, New York Magazine, Jezebel, The Hairpin, and Buzzfeed, among others.
I am currently developing two book-length projects, one on the disconnect between feminism as a brand versus feminism as a political movement, the other on the influence of philanthropy on the division between public and private financing of the social good. The latter topic is the focus of my graduate research towards a Ph.D. in political science.
Alongside my academic and journalism careers, I have eight years of experience as a major gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer. I’ve also done extensive copywriting for fundraising and marketing purposes. Additionally, creating Hey Girl Happy Hannukah (the Jewish-holiday-themed Ryan Gosling photoblog) is among my proudest accomplishments to date.
You can find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter (@justaschill) or email me at amybessschiller [at] gmail [dot] com.
from “Ode to a Beautiful Nude”
Snapshot 1, 1995: A headstrong eleven-year-old, who sleeps covered in a blanket that reads “Book Woman,” grabs a tome off her mother’s bedroom shelf. She starts reading these short essays, about the magic of fireflies, and schoolteacher nuns. She reads more, about what it’s like to have young children and go to work, and the concept of a tuning fork, a frequency that people put into the world when they are anxious about life’s meandering directions.
Somewhere deep down, our young heroine realizes that she is getting some clues to understanding her mother.
Then she reads the next book by this author, this time getting an education in Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, encroaching limits to abortion access, the Central Park jogger - all the tumult that had been swirling around what it meant to be female and a citizen while she was learning her colors in preschool.
And then the girl thinks, wow. This Anna Quindlen person knows how to take everything I think, or my parents think, and make it sound like the only reasonable position in the world. That’s about the coolest thing someone can do for a living.
Snapshot 2, 2002: First year at Brandeis University. Now an admirer of Madeline Albright and Kate Chopin, girl is proud to proclaim her feminist leanings. She is equally committed to not working in the dining hall as her on-campus job. She submits a long-shot application to be a research assistant for a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center - and is hired largely on the strength of her essay about Anna Quindlen’s influence on her life.
She goes on to help edit a book, write a curriculum, and facilitate informal teen groups, all revolving around becoming a confident Jewish woman. Her name appears in book’s credits for the first time.
Snapshot 3, 2007: In a long story best told in another meandering entry, this now-22-year-old-woman gets a tremendous hiring offer from New York City: a consultant with the top nonprofit fundraising firm in the country. It’s the job of her dreams.
Well, some dreams. She loves the world of power and capital, particularly when it’s channeled to causes that improve the world. She loves learning the landscape of influence within this center of the universe. She learns to wear good suits and make clean Powerpoint decks. Her friends envy her for making a good living, in a position that combines generous autonomy with unparalleled mentorship. Oh yeah, and helps nonprofits succeed on a highly strategic level.
She begins to describe her career with two role models, representing two trajectories: Ruth Messinger as the nonprofit and political powerhouse, and Anna Quindlen as the influential feminist and intellectual.
And then after 5 years of pretty great practice at becoming a fundraising expert - she decides it’s time to return to the Anna ambition. Before it’s too late. Before she has to support a family, before her position at the firm only gets harder to leave.
Snapshot 4, 2012: February 1, 2012. Our woman pitches an idea to an acquaintance at The Nation, a clarion call in response to Susan G. Komen ceasing their funding of Planned Parenthood. The pitch is accepted about 12 hours before she has to get on a plane to Florida to visit her grandparents.
"Why the Komen-Planned Parenthood Split Was Good for Feminism" was written in under 24 hours, on a plane and at her grandparents’ kitchen table. It was the most-emailed article on the site for the four days, with thousands of Facebook shares and Tweets.
It was this woman’s first major success as a political writer - an Anna Quindlen.
Snapshot 5, 2013: At lunch with one her former supervisors, both on a second glass of Sancerre, supervisor asks, “can you do a pro bono project for me?” And our now-cynical heroine demurrs.
"It’s for Planned Parenthood." "Oh, well of course, then."
Drafts and revisions and conference calls ensue over the course of 6 weeks, where our heroine is tasked with articulating the case for raising an enormous sum of money for Planned Parenthood’s centennial. None other than Cecile Richards, the charismatic and deeply respected President, calls her draft an “excellent piece of work.”
Then our heroine looks at the attendees for the upcoming committee meeting. And who do you think she sees?
Which brings us to today. Snapshot #6. September 26, 2013.
Otherwise known as, the day I sat next to Anna Quindlen, Development Chair of Planned Parenthood, told her what she meant to me, and heard her lavishly (but discerningly) compliment a piece of my writing.
In front of those old colleagues who had made lots of other dreams come true.
A mere hour in a stark midtown office, and yet it was a moment where every age I have been, every seemingly divergent path in this eclectic and blessed life of mine - flowed together.
Nothing more can be said. Except gratitude for every person - every mentor, my parents and brother and grandparents and family - and God, who sustained me, nurtured me, and without my realizing, guided me to reach this moment.
What’s hotter than Eva Marie Saint sassily purring at Cary Grant as they cling for their lives to Mount Rushmore?
Regarding the Giving of Others
I’ll say this for the Buffetts: they really know their way around a third rail.
In August 2011, Warren Buffett published an op-ed in the Times entitled “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” Buffett makes a straightforward case for raising taxes on households with more than $1 million in income, and additional increase for those making $10 million of more, noting that due to tax credits and loopholes applicable only to individuals with very high incomes, he paid proportionately lower taxes than his secretary.
The Buffett paterfamilias is plainspoken enough to require no paraphrasing, a trait not shared by his son Peter, who penned an op-ed last Sunday entitled “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” Granted, the younger Buffett has a way more complex case to make than “I should pay a higher tax rate than my secretary,” one that will take me 5+ years and a doctoral dissertation to get into a coherent body of work.
P. Buffett acutely places a lot of dots of a full-fledged critique but in 800 words simply doesn’t have (or find) the space to connect them:
- Hubris and blinkered optimism on the part of philanthropist, who misguidedly attempt to “solve” major multifaceted problems and (unwittingly) place their egos at the center of those charitable effort
- Silence around philanthropists’ complicity in exacerbating the very inequality whose effects they now want to mitigate
- Charity as a fig leaf for economic exploitation
- Paternalism about giving resources like food/water/education to beneficiaries without considering what it might mean to allow them power and authority over how to spend philanthropic capital
- (And another thing!) The vanity of techno-optimism
Credit where it’s due: P. Buffett is taking his dad’s example of self-critique and puncturing our reverence for wealth. He tries to pivot into a more complex argument, one that only makes sense if you look at philanthropy not as an unprompted act of goodwill but as a point in the cycle of wealth creation and distribution.
(If Zizek is your jam, check out this snappy illustrated talk of his on this exact subject - he uses the same “make money with the left hand, give it away with the right” framing.)
But here’s the radical question that Buffett fails to pose: does philanthropy promote a political agenda in which private individuals - not democratic governments - assume control of the social good?
Philanthropy has always been a form of PR and “conscience laundering” for the wealthy, whose gains have almost always come at the exploitative expense of labor and the environment. What’s new is that this generation of philanthropists are also a generation of capitalists who have been able to limit the role of central government more than any in recent history, and to frame the role of government as the enabler of commerce rather than the protector of labor.
The central concern of both Buffett op-eds is the social contract. Maybe the strongest op-ed would be co-authored by father and son, making a case for private wealth to stand down, pay taxes, support a strong social safety net in the countries where its holders reside, and stop co-opting the role of government for their own whimsical, egotistical desires.
Preamble: Why Blogging About A Chautauqua Lecture Series Is Kind of Futile But I’m Doing It Anyway
I’ll be posting my thoughts from this week’s lectures at the Chautauqua Institution regarding Markets, Morals, and the Social Contract. I figured I’d start with a preamble, mostly because I started writing and realized if anyone was going to read anything it would have to be broken up into sections.
A rather obvious lesson learned: you can’t have your lakeside resort cake and eat your leftist political theory too.
It is, admittedly, a tall order for the Chautauqua Institution to represent a rigorously critical view of markets, (really anything beyond the thesis that “everyone benefits financially and morally when we all follow our better angels.”) First of all, the population consists of people with the means to spend nearly $2,000 on a program pass alone (to say nothing of rent, transportation, and food) for their summer vacation. Second, the whole gestalt of the place is a combination of old-fashioned Main Line virtues and a Norman Rockwell nostalgia-fest. The result is the exactly the kind of benevolent status-quo ism that you would imagine from a group of Episcopalian burghers who enjoy the ballet.
Nearly every lecture I’ve seen in 20-some years – some enlightening, some pleasant if not penetrating, and many entirely derivative – has concluded with the convenient resolution that we need more civil conversation of the type that takes place at Chautauqua. Last year’s tepid lectures on Radicalism led me and my brother to term Chautauqua’s version of controversy “rocking-chair radicalism.”
Therefore, despite my cultish devotion to the place, I readily acknowledge that Chautauqua’s intellectual ambitions often outstrip its capacity for truly penetrating critique. Credit where it’s due, this is changing, as more people are vocal about the lack of racial and class diversity on the grounds, more pointed in their lecture questions. I had my hopes up slightly for a week on “Markets, Morals, and the Social Contract,” thinking that perhaps Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy (aka “Criticizing Neoliberalism for Not Dummies, Exactly, But Moderately Educated People,”) would challenge our deference to the market and indulgent hand-wringing as though it were a disobedient child with so much potential.
And another thing: Speaking of morals and markets, the high-profile lineup was secured with the sponsorship of Wilmington Bank, in a move that puts the market value of ticket sales and institutional luster over a free discourse. Given that fact, it’s a wonder we’ve had any criticism of markets at all.
In Which A Flaneuse Visits Istanbul and Greenwich Village
I had forgotten that it’s possible to feel the same untethered, buoyant quality that I had wandering the cobblestones of San Telmo, New Orleans’ French Quarter and, yes, the alleyways of Istanbul, right here in my city of residence, New York.
But, blessed with a set of circumstances no more complex than having nowhere to be after 8:30 PM and a pitch-perfect breeze during the witching hour, I rambled around the West Village, zigging up Cornelia, zagging down Christopher and Gay, latticing over West 10th.
Modern recreations though they may be, the wooden window casements, iron scrollwork, brass townhouse addresses - these things soothe me with their permanence, the enduring preservation of their elegance. I felt the same wonderment that stirred whenever I stumbled upon a cozy nargilah house or a tiny tavern brimming with gypsy swing music. I’m far from the first person to note that walking around with nowhere in particular to go is the best way to find back entrances to your favorite restaurants or gardens tucked away with only seductive whiffs alerting you to their existence.
Nor am I the first person to cherish that special feeling you get in New York, of complete freedom cradled in a tapestry of civilians. But what was most precious was the magnetic connection I felt between the history of this tiny, now posh neighborhood and the courage of the citizens of Istanbul, a place I came to adore after only five days (really, within five minutes on the walk to my hotel, past the Sultanahmet.)
After all, the historic character of New York’s neighborhoods - co-opted as they may have become, inflated though the real estate prices may be - the fact that the humble brick buildings with their little garrets are still jammed together in tiny winding roads is the produce of fights, from Jane Jacobs and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation to the community board’s opposition to NYU expansion plans. Stonewall, too, belongs here. These battles are about pride of place, the right to the ground on which you stand.
And thank God, for the time being those efforts in Manhattan haven’t required bodies to be put on the line the way the battle for Taksim and Gezi Park has. (In fact, who knows what such direct protest might have done to the plans to expand Columbia in Harlem, or the construction of the Barclays Center). But our relatively civilized resistances to homogenization are very much bound up in the outrage of Istanbul’s protesters.
Fernando Coronil reminds us that “land-ground rent” is the third leg of the capitalist stool, alongside wages and profit. Control over land sets the parameters for all other negotiations for capital and authority. Therefore any conflict over land - for Istanbul, this means green space, open space, ancient structures that cannot be bought and destroyed - these are essential obligations for our collective dignity and history. The right to live on the ground beneath our feet, so that one day, our great-grandchildren might walk it on some magical early summer evening in peace.
"A place on the map is also a place in history." - Adrienne Rich
"I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.” - Roque Dalton
Yoga on the Red Rocks.