In 2017, a group of feminists in Brooklyn formed Persisticon, a female-led activist group dedicated to getting Democratic women elected to public office.
With several members with backgrounds in comedy and music, Persisticon’s main efforts have centered on stand-up comedy events — featuring mostly women performers — to benefit EMILY’s List. Persisticon’s next event is Sunday May 5 in Brooklyn. (Full details at bottom.)
I sat down with some of Persisticon’s founders — Diana Kane, Theo Kogan, Leslie King, and Christina Clare — to talk about the group, its activities, and the current state of play in the USA. (Another founder, Lynn Harris, weighed in via email from overseas.)
THE KING’S NECKTIE: For folks who don’t know, how did Persisticon get started? What was the origin?
DIANA: Our origin story? (laughter) The idea behind Persisticon is to take the things that we‘re passionate about, that we love, and employ them to further equality in elected office. That’s the ultimate mission, and the idea is to do it through promoting female performers and bringing our community together.
THEO: When 45 won — I can’t say his name — I just felt so incredibly hopeless. And I thought, “OK, this is the time. I’m so upset and angry, I have to do something aside from signing every petition online.” So Diana and I were talking about it, and she said, “You have to meet my friend Lynn,” and I said, “You have to meet my friend Leslie,” (laughter) and it just snowballed from there.
LESLIE: And then Christina came along and helped us organize everything, to project manage, and make it all happen.
DIANA: Theo and I kept talking about wanting to do something that we could actually do, because we are not lawyers, and we cannot run down to the airport and save somebody’s life with our laptops. But what we’re good at is throwing parties, and creating a community, and having fun. It seemed to us that if there were more people in policy-making places who genuinely represented us and all the things that matter the most to us — like clean air, and water, and education, and racial justice — that’s where we could put our energy to have the greatest effect. Civic engagement doesn’t always have to look like marching in the streets.
TKN: And what are your events like?
CHRISTINA: In the past we’ve had comedians and musicians like Bridget Everett, Janeane Garofalo, Murray Hill, Aparna Nancherla, Michelle Buteau, Abbi Crutchfield, Jon Glaser, Tiger Bay & Fancy Feast, Jo Firestone, Negin Farsad, Kendra Cunningham, DJ Tikka Masala, DJ Swoon, Ashley Nicole Black, Tammy Faye Starlight, and of course Theo, who’s the lead singer of the Lunachicks and Theo & the Skyscrapers. And we also have people outside the entertainment industry, like Emily’s List CEO Emily Cain, Evelyn McDonnell, editor of the new book Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, and contributors Caryn Rose, and Jana Martin….
THEO: It’s a whole event. You come into the venue and there are vendors selling things, and photographers, and drinks with funny names, and you can drunk shop, which is always fun. And then the show itself is comedian after comedian after comedian, and maybe there’s a singer, maybe there’s an activist or writer who speaks…..it’s a huge array of different types of humans — mostly women — from all different backgrounds and skintones and points of view. And it’s really fun — I always leave crying and laughing. And we raise all this money to get women elected, and raise awareness, and bring people together in the community. Just getting people feeling hopeful is a huge part of it.
LESLIE: it’s a way of activating the community, and making people feel less alone, and finding ways for them to find a voice. People leave and they start doing things themselves, which is ultimately what we want to happen. So people feel they have a voice and can use their talents, whatever they are, to make a change.
DIANA: And the thing about Persisticon promoting female performers is that, in so many shows I’ve gone to in my life, the lineup has been 80–90% male. And I never really questioned it. And it just struck me at some point that this was so imbalanced, and there are so many spectacular performers out there who need a stage, and if you bring them together you get out of the area of being token. There’s a whole panoply of spectacular women performers, and we get to experience them.
CHRISTINA: We do have men on the lineup too. David Cross will be doing our next show….
TKN: Yeah, men can do comedy too, I heard….
CHRISTINA: (laughs) Yeah, men can do comedy….
DIANA: But are they funny?
TKN: So what’s the next event?
DIANA: The next event is Persisticon III: There Is No Planet B, which has an environmental focus. Because we’re in between elections at the moment, we thought we’d concentrate on issues that need to be on the forefront of people’s minds going into that next election cycle. The world is burning down, and it’s just so clear — and it has been for some time — that whoever we’re voting for needs to be paying careful attention to that. And because it’s springtime, it seems like a good time to bring everybody’s awareness to that. That’s on May 5th at the Bell House in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.
TKN: And where does the money go?
DIANA: For these larger events, EMILY’s List is the organization that most strongly aligns with our values, which is to get pro-choice Democratic women into office. For some smaller events we’ve given to some smaller, more local organizations, but EMILY’s List has the structure to train candidates and support them throughout the entirety of the campaign process.
TKN: I’m loath to give “45” credit for anything — I don’t even want to give him the number 45 — but the one thing I might backhandedly give him credit for is inspiring this kind of activism, as its target of course.
THEO: That was the thing I thought when “It” got elected: that it was gonna invigorate some art and people were gonna fight. I feel like we’ve been pummeled with shit by him and this whole situation, and I was just feeling like: (groans). Just rundown. And things like Persisticon just help me to believe, “Yeah — we’re gonna keep fighting.”
LYNN: But I will say this about this presidency — quoting one of my early mentors, Patricia Ireland: WE COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT IT. Given that it happened, yes, thank GOD it sparked activism, not just complacency and doom. But I don’t think it’s a silver lining. I think it’s an imperative. And I do think we would have had record numbers of female candidates and a rise in activism and determination even without it. We just would have had a different fuel: not rage, but hope. Imagine where we’d be right now if we’d been spending this time building our democracy, not trying to save it from the fire!
TKN: Yeah, I do feel like there is some hopefulness in the country, despite it all, precisely because of this kind of activism. Is that a sense you get?
DIANA: I was telling somebody in Congressman Nadler’s office about Persisticon, and she was lovely, and the thing she said that most inspired me was that she’d heard of other things like Persisticon…..not precisely like us, but little pockets and bubbles all over the country. And that gave me hope. There are organizations that have sprung up like Indivisible, or Solidarity Sundays, or #GetOrganizedBK, that have really picked up the mantle. Everybody’s doing the thing that works for them — some people show up at Chuck Schumer’s office every single week. So I do think there is hope.
But it’s exhausting. We’re two years into this, and people are getting tired. So I also think that things like Persisticon are rejuvenating, because you come back together and remember that you’re not alone and there is still hope and things we can do.
I look at things like the fight for civil rights. We’re not getting beaten by policemen. We’re still in easy activism, in large part. There’s a long way to go. Our bodies aren’t on the line in the same way that the bodies of people in some communities are. I look at the beatings that John Lewis took and I think, “OK, this is exhausting and hard, but it’s not that.” There’s a long way to go.
TKN: I always think of that quote from Rev. William Barber II where he says, this is bad but this is not the worst thing we’ve ever faced. Not to minimize it, but just saying that if people made it through slavery, and the Depression, Jim Crow, we can make it through this and in fact use it to for positive change.
LESLIE: I think we’re in a very privileged position. We’re not living under that same sort of attack and oppression. So we have the duty to use our privilege to take action and try to activate change.
DIANA: One of the places where we do have power is that we are regular people in our community. There’s nothing special about us, there’s no massive history of activism or study in that area. So if we can do it, anybody can do it. It’s just taking the things that you’re passionate about and putting them to service.
MISOGYNY (est. 50,000 B.C.E.)
TKN: I don’t wanna go back and relive 2016, but it seemed to me that misogyny was — if not the driving factor — certainly one of the driving factors in what happened. And I don’t feel like that’s changed.
DIANA: No. It’s funny, I work for myself. I own a boutique, and most of my customers are women, and even with all that exposure I feel like I was blind to a lot of it for a long, long time. It was really in the run-up to the 2016 election, like a solid year before, that I started to understand how deeply, deeply rooted misogyny is in this country, and in the world. It’s just shocking. It’s been a shock and an eye-opening experience, and it just continues to be revelatory. I lived in a privileged little bubble, and I didn’t realize how hateful the world has always been towards women, and continues to be.
LESLIE: Don’t you feel like Persisticon was born out that? After the election, all my women friends and I kind of held on to each other and kept talking about ways to support each other, and this felt like a way to do it on a much bigger scale. Bringing women together in a public space — performers, designers, activists — all in one room, celebrating women. And inviting men into that room as well, but women were the first ones to show up, which was powerful and exciting.
CHRISTINA: One of the amazing things about Persisticon is that, since 45 has been in office, I’ve wanted to be involved more politically, but I can’t stand hearing his voice, I can’t stand seeing him. The fact that we’re able to bring together these comedians who can talk about the issues and not talk specifically about him — that’s a beautiful space to be a part of. The idea that we can be politically active, but not talk about the people like him that are so enraging. I love the fact that Persisticon is not about 45, it’s about change. And I love being part of that.
DIANA: He’s the ultimate example of the misogyny that’s in this country, and beyond, for so long, that for me he’s sort of beside the point in a lot of ways. He just exemplifies the worst of it, but it’s so much bigger than him.
TKN: Right — he’s the symptom, not the cause. That was made clear recently with his hostility toward AOC, and the hostility of the whole right wing toward her, and other female politicians. I mean, where does that come from? Can you guys explain that to me?
DIANA: I wish. He hates women. They hate women. They hate anyone who’s different from them, and challenges them, or challenges the power structure, and they capitalize on it. I really think it’s that simple.
LESLIE: Just look at who he gathers together in a room when he makes any sort of “decision”: it’s all old white men. Consistently. If there is a woman, she’s in the background, or by the door, or getting coffee, or used as a token.
DIANA: I place my own awakening around those crazy incel guys, that shooting in Santa Barbara. People who just openly hate women, and come out with guns blazing. I just wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t ready for that in my bones, until some of those hashtags showed up. The #yesallwomen hasthag was incredibly powerful for me. Because a lot of women thought they were alone, and because that kind of behavior has been normalized in such a mass way, all these experiences that all these women have had forever were treated like, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”
I think #metoo, all of that, is deeply important. We set what’s normal. Our culture sets that. And if we don’t want that to be normal anymore, we need to lay that down. And I think that’s part of what this is too, and it speaks to the growing awareness of what 45 represents.
TKN: Which raises the question of 2020. When I look at the presidential field, there are numerous strong female candidates. Do you think the Democratic Party is definitely going to — or needs to — nominate a woman?
THEO: No idea. I hope so.
LESLIE: I dunno. It’s so early….
DIANA: It’s too soon.
THEO: I’m hoping some of the “repeat” people will back down….not mentioning any names.
LESLIE: I think it’s definitely a time when we can have new voices, and I don’t know exactly who that is, but I think people are ready for a fresh voice.
LYNN: Personally, I think the number of white men who should be running for president this time around is zero. Especially the young ones. I like those fellas well enough, but it is NOT YOUR TURN, BRUH. Sit down for a minute and throw your resources behind a woman. Jeez.
LESLIE: There are certain people who are running that I would definitely rather not vote for, but whoever is our candidate is going to be better than what we have right now.
DIANA: Yeah, our strategy is to continue supporting all the women candidates that we possibly can. I think that was the turning point for me, really. When I realized that Congress was made up of 80% men, I was like, “Whaaaat???? How can that be? How can that be? What’s going on that we’re stifling those voices?”
But the 116th Congress is a spectacular thing — it really is. It’s remarkable and exciting and we feel like we helped contribute to that, and even if some of that contribuiton is just a backlash against what’s-his-face, we’ll just keep on going. Because there’s still so far to go. That’s part of why it’s called “Persisticon.” And in some way that’s super exciting. There’s so much room for improvement that anything you do is welcome. You don’t even have to try that hard — just showing up helps! Just the awareness of the problem is a huge step.
LESLIE: It has a ripple effect. People come to the shows, and then they talk to their friends, and that grows the conversation, and that’s ultimately what we want.
TKN: It does feel like it’s way bigger than just one horrible guy or one issue; it’s this consciousness that’s been raised.
THEO: It’s just so crazy, the dichotomy. All this is happening, this awakening, all these people are being called out in #MeToo, and then we have this horrible aggressor that’s still there. I dealt with so much, being in the music business, and the amount of sexism — all kinds of stories from that time. The music business allows a certain type of woman to succeed, and not the others ones that are maybe stronger and more “threatening,” and scary to them. We saw that a million times in the Lunachicks. We were like, “But we’re funny! And we’re good musicians!” And we went very far, but it was always there. And it’s still there. A lot of things have changed and there’s been progress, but it’s still there. Even just our right to choose…..a fetus is a person that can file a lawsuit? It’s insane. It’s completely horrifying, and unbelievable to me.
LESLIE: Yet not surprising at the same time.
PAGING AL GREEN
TKN: It seems clear that this movement — Third Wave Feminism or whatever you want to call it, I don’t want to put a label on it — is threatening to the patriarchy. That’s why they’re lashing out. But how do you keep the movement together? How do you keep it from fracturing?
DIANA: I think that’s kind of the wrong question. Because it’s not really about that. Every single person is living in their own body and has their own experiences that they’re drawing on to make their own choices, and that’s a powerful thing. But it also means we’re not seeing everything through the same lens all the time. And I think the attention spent on how much division is in the women’s movement feels like a distraction, and we should all be vigilant and keep our eyes on the prize.
Look: we’re a diverse group of people with lots of different priorities, but for the most part, we’re all headed in the same direction together. So that kind of thinking is just a red herring, a way to get us off our game.
It’s like looking at the Democratic presidential field, where some people want to tear each other apart. But there’s over 90% agreement among every candidate on all the issues, so any one of those Democrats is going to be a good answer. Any one of them. So that divisiveness feels like it’s been inseminated — and I use that word on purpose. It’s intentional, to get us fighting with each other. And it works.
TKN: Right. I’m thinking specifically of the Women’s March. The first one was so inspiring: Ferne and I were out of town in a hotel, and I have a picture of our daughter watching it live on a laptop, and she was mesmerized. She was six.
But of course — and I don’t think it was a coincidence — there was controversy around the second march, which I’m sure was spurred by people who were looking to split the resistance. So how do you stop that?
DIANA: It was a moment — a spectacular moment. But I think marching in general is not always the answer. The answer is finding ways to go forward and keep progressing.
LESLIE: I think things change even in activism. We’re not going to have a women’s march like we did the first time. Things evolve and change. People want to recreate that moment again, but it’s not possible. It has to change. We can’t hold on to the past. It has to keep moving forward.
We’re about results-driven activism rather than ego-driven activism. That’s where people get really hung up. It becomes more about being right than about the endgame. And people on the other side know that and they feed it, and that’s where things get stunted.
CHRISTINA: There are no easy answers to a lot of these issues, and we’re still struggling to figure out the best way to consolidate our fight, and seeing that we have to find ways to bring groups together. And that’s going to be a constant issue that we’re fighting against, to make sure we have a united front. And it’s exciting to be a part of that.
LYNN: No matter what, we ALL need to stay at the table. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
TKN: Well, it does feel like people are aware of that — of the deliberate attempt to split us, and the need for us to stay together and focused. Because there are always opponents who are going to want to attack the movement and break it apart, and those differences are pressure points they go for: racial differences, economic differences, political differences. But to take an almost absurdly extreme example, the only way we could beat Hitler was by making a deal with Stalin. So we can work with people who have different points of view, to say the least.
DIANA: In order to get where we want to go, we need all voices. So there’s no reason to stifle anyone, even if you don’t agree with them 100%. The truth is, like I was saying, you’re gonna agree with them like 90%! (laughter) So I do think that as much as possible you need to keep including all voices, even if they contradict yours.
LESLIE: And those conversations are also very important, because you’re gonna wrestle with different ideas and you may learn something. We all do, in some way. But if you squash anybody who doesn’t agree with you on every single point, then we’re done.
Many women and oppressed communities are finding that we are more alike than we are different. So with the women’s march, we’re realizing that we need all voices to make change. It’s not just about women, or the black community, or immigrants: we’re all connected.
DIANA: One of the things that I most admired about the organizers of the Women’s March — particularly early on, and I don’t know where they’re at now — was their willingness to listen and adjust and make the changes that are called for. In the beginning it was like, “Wow, you’re too white, you need to listen to other voices.” And they did. And I really admired that. The evolution of that organization — at least initially — was pretty fantastic.
LESLIE: It’s something all women are unlearning that was reinforced in us, deliberately. People keep pushing that narrative that women are bitchy and are gonna fight. So there are a lot of things that women are breaking free of. We can do things together, we can work together in so many ways: in our activism, in our personal lives, in our professional lives. There’s more than just one spot for one woman; there are many spots for many women.
DIANA: For me it comes down to women’s bodily autonomy. Period. If you don’t have control over your reproductive rights — and I hate that it has to be framed by abortion, because it’s that, but it’s also bigger than that — but If you don’t have control over your choice, your destiny, and your body, then we’re sunk. Everything else is adjacent to being able to choose whether or not to have a child. And to have some man dictating whether or not you can do that is absolutely not OK. That affects every single woman, no matter what color or where you are in your life. And that’s where women come together: protecting your rights to your body.
TKN: And that issue is in the hands of five Catholic men. Which is grim….but they’re up against this groundswell that Persisticon and other groups like it represent.
DIANA: The way our country is set up, childbearing and childrearing falls mostly on women, still. There are pockets, and in this room right now we are all lucky to have partners who are fantastic, but in general, women’s economic health takes such a huge hit — a massive hit — and it all comes down to how we equalize opportunity for women. And a lot of that is in bodily autonomy.
LESLIE: It is grim. And if you are a person of color, your body is thought of as “different,” as far as women’s health, mortality rates, and so forth. It’s a real crisis, to even recognize a person of color as a full human being.
MANSPLAINING FOR BEGINNERS
TKN: I want to thank you all again for speaking with me. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to add?
THEO: Can I flip the script and just ask, why do you think men hate women so much?
TKN: I wish I knew. But I don’t. I feel like you all felt: I was shocked by how much hatred came out in 2016. I feel stupid in a way. Here I am, over fifty years old, and suddenly I was like, “Wow — there’s a lot of misogyny in the world.”
People really hate women. Even women hate women! There are plenty of conservative women out there who are as misogynistic as any man. And I always say “misogyny” not sexism because it went so far beyond what I think of as garden variety chauvinism or sexism. It was hatred. And I’ve had this argument with a bazillion conservatives: the hatred toward Hillary was so out of proportion to anything she did. It was irrational in its extremity, and it stands for the hatred toward all women.
And it’s changed a little bit, but it hasn’t really changed. There’s a pushback now, and that’s the best thing that’s come out of this, as we were saying before. But the hatred hasn’t changed or gone away, and I don’t know how to make it go away, because I don’t know where it comes from in the first place.
So I don’t begin to know how to answer that question.
LESLIE: One of the big changes is that now there are men asking “Why?” That’s a big first step. “Why is this happening and how am I contributing to it?” And they’re questioning the sort of community they live in, and the system they live in, and I think that is a huge step, that men are becoming part of the conversation and it’s not just women screaming from the sidelines.
The 45s of the world have this attitude toward women like, “Oh, they don’t know their place.” But I feel like men are recognizing that women don’t have to remember their “place” and stay in it.
DIANA: That whole glass ceiling thing is so apt. Even the guys on your side are only good up to a point. When you want true equality, when you actually want to run the company, they’re not so excited about that. And that’s been eye-opening too. I’m always like, “Wait — I thought you were one of the good ones! I thought we were in this together.” It’s startling.
TKN: It’s so ingrained. I’m conditioned, you’re conditioned, we’re all conditioned, and that doesn’t change overnight. Even if intellectually I understand it, sometimes I catch myself in a retrograde way of thinking. And sometimes I don’t catch myself. And it seems to me — you’d have to ask a sociologist, but it seems to me — that that takes a long time to change. A couple of generations at least. So let’s start.
LESLIE: If more people are asking why, and catching themselves in moments, that’s everyone. Really questioning the norms and asking, “How am I part of the problem?” That’s a huge step toward change. And that’s a big part of the battle, just having some self-awareness.
THEO: And can I say, for the next election, if the person you like isn’t the Democratic candidate, can you please just vote for whoever is running against 45, even if you don’t really like them? How about that?
Poster by Johanna Goodman
Sunday May 5, 2019
149 7th St, Brooklyn NY 11215
(between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Gowanus)
Where COMEDY, ART and electing FEMINISTS collide. Laugh, listen and party and help raise cash for EMILY’s List: committed to electing progressive pro-choice women and equalizing the representation of all genders in government.
Click link below for tickets:
Bar Opens 5:30pm, Doors 6:30pm, Show 7:00pm (over 21 only)
With emcee Ophira Eisenberg of NPR’s “Ask Me Another”
Featuring (list subject to change): Alex Borstein, Michelle Buteau, Bunny Buxom, Carolyn Castligia, Kerry Coddett, David Cross, Ana Fabrega, Aparna Nancherla, Model Majority, Amber Tamblyn, and special guest rabblerouser Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of Uprose, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, dedicated to environmental and social justice.
DIANA KANE ENGLISH is a retailer, designer, and activist. She is the owner of Diana Kane, a Brooklyn boutique highlighting the work of emerging and established independent, sustainable designers. She’s the creator of the viral FeministGold t-shirt and a passionate feminist, jewelry designer, and community organizer.
CHRISTINA CLARE is a comedy and social justice activist and founder of TheMicHub, an online comedy concierge and aggregator promoting inclusivity through a diverse comedy database. She has worked as a project manager in the translations industry for years and is passionate about music, comedy and all the restorative mediums that entertain, teach, and heal “by accident.”
MARTHA CORCORAN is the curator of The Art of Resistance, a feed that celebrates social justice art and creative resistance. She is a photo editor and researcher for book publishing, digital media, and documentary film, and has worked on projects for Hearst, Abrams, PBS, Barnes & Noble, Nat Geo, and Time Inc.
LYNN HARRIS is founder of GOLD Comedy, which aims to give girls/women/”others” the comedy skills to take over the world. She is an award-winning journalist, retired comedian, and former Tonya Harding lookalike (long story).
LESLIE KING is a Brooklyn-based designer and owner of the sustainable handbag company LK. She is also actively working with local and citywide groups committed to addressing and dismantling segregation in New York City public schools.
THEO KOGAN is best known as the singer of Lunachicks. She was a model, actress, and honorary drag queen, a DJ, party promoter and creator/CEO of Armour Beauty lip gloss. Theo grew up in Brooklyn and is currently a pro makeup artist and mom.
SASADI ODUNSI got her roots in protesting at a young age, speaking out to protect the land and mountains where she grew up in Colorado. Since then, she’s been an active supporter of many causes. She is a mother of four who has worn many hats, but mostly chases after kids and beads earrings these days when she’s not posting stories for Persisticon.
FERNE PEARLSTEIN is a prize-winning director/cinematographer who is one of a handful of women featured in Kodak’s “On Film” ad campaign. Her latest film, THE LAST LAUGH, about taboos in humor, features Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and many others, and continues to screen around the world since its premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
ANDREW E. WAGNER is an Emmy Award-winning producer with over 25 years of experience developing and managing creative projects of every size and shape imaginable. He has a soft spot for people who want to make the world a better place.
Previous King’s Necktie essays on feminism, sexism, and misogyny:
Bette and Joan and Mary and Offred (and Hillary) — May 23, 2017
A Spark Is Lit: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 2) — February 15, 2018
“Blessed Be the Fruit” — Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court — August 13, 2018
Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen — February 11, 2019