Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Morgan Kail-Ackerman and Meg Harris of They Call Us, a feminist literary magazine that was founded by students from DePaul University in Chicago — a publication that is, in my view, extremely timely and extremely necessary. Though much progress has been made in this country over the years, it is also arguable that there is still quite a lot that needs to be discussed, and quite a lot more that needs to be done, in order for our society to become a truly just and truly equitable one. Read on to see what Meg and Morgan had to say about how the magazine came about, how they decide on a particular topic for each of their editions, their ongoing “Coven Congresses,” the importance of inclusivity and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere: Needless to say, these are some rather unusual times — in terms of the ongoing pandemic, of course, but also politically. So, I feel as though your magazine is particularly necessary these days, and I’m just so happy to have the opportunity to share your work with our readers. I think that many of the issues you address are so relevant.
Morgan Kail-Ackerman: Yeah. We’re finding it interesting because we are currently working on our edition about women in leadership in the workplace. It will be coming out in January, and it is wild to think that what is going to happen with the presidency — that a decision is going to be made before our next edition comes out and how much that will change it.
DeCanniere: To begin at the beginning, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the magazine and how it began.
Kail-Ackerman: I would say that They Call Us started because I was catcalled three times in a row in the course of two or three days. It got to the point where I was just frustrated and unhappy with how I was treated, and I wanted to do something about it. I love Tomi Adeyemi, who wrote Children of Blood and Bone, always says she wrote her book because it was her way to fight against police brutality, and that the only way she could fight was using her voice.
After hearing that, and being catcalled, it was the catalyst for me being like ‘Well, I’m a writer. I want to use my voice, and I need to do something about it.’ So, I went to my friend Arran Bowen, who is our Art Director, and was like ‘I need to do something about this. I want to write. Are you down to design?’ and she said ‘Yes. One-hundred percent. I’m in.’ We’ve worked on projects previously, but they didn’t really come to fruition until we approached our other friend, who is a writer. Then we realized we needed someone who knew a lot about feminism and how to run social media. That’s how Meg joined us. It’s been the four of us since then, kind of trying to figure out what we want to do.
Now that we’re on our fourth edition, we feel like we know what we’re doing and we keep moving forward, and we’re getting a new community of followers.
DeCanniere: The concept feels like a truly interesting and much-needed one because I think that too many people somehow mistakenly think that as time marches on, progress is inevitable, that things evolve and become more equal and all of that. Unfortunately, I think that the last four years have shown us that’s not true. True progress doesn’t just occur with the passage of time. Things don’t just automatically get more equitable. There still are some real issues that still have not been truly resolved — whether it’s gender equality or racial equality or what have you. If anything, I think that this country has taken a few steps back where gender equality and racial equality are concerned over these last four years. I feel like we are less free and less equal than we were under the Obama administration. It seems like we were heading in the right direction, and then in the last four years, we have been headed backwards a bit. I’m not saying everything was great for everyone. Certainly not, but it felt like we were making progress as a country, and that kind of all stopped for a time. Hopefully that’s changing, and hopefully 2021 will mark a new beginning — a time when we can once again progress toward a truly equal society and, of course, get a handle on the virus.
Kail-Ackerman: We’re trying. We’re trying to move forward as well as possible and we try to be timely. We try to make a difference. I think that’s one of our biggest goals.
DeCanniere: I think it’s wonderful that there are people who do stop to consider the issues as you are, and who try to bring these issues out into the light and to have a discussion about them — which, arguably, is the first step to affecting any real change.
Harris: And I think that one thing the edition does really well is that we try and let our publication be an outlet for all voices. So, we offer something called “Coven Congresses” that we do before each edition. So, you don’t need to be a writer or an artist to have your voice heard in our editions.
Kail-Ackerman: Also, in terms of getting other voices, we try to get as many other writers and artists as possible. With this edition, we’ve had the most submissions we’ve ever gotten. We’re at something like forty or forty-five — which is super exciting. It feels awesome that we’re able to have our own voice and speak out about the things we’re passionate about, but also to be a platform for other people to speak as well. I think that’s very big on our mission statement and everything.
Harris: When Morgan mentioned this edition, she’s specifically referring to They Call Us Bossy, which is about female leadership and will come out in January.
DeCanniere: I actually just had the chance to look over the edition that is coming out now, They Call Us Witches, but also your older issues as well. So, I was wondering how you decide what theme to go with or what topics to tackle.
Harris: A lot of it is discussion based. As Morgan mentioned, our origin story had a lot to do with catcalling and objectification, so our first edition focused on that and how women are overly sexualized, and how that often leads to not only violence but a dissipation of your own confidence. Our next edition led into that, because we wanted to focus on the second part of that as well — just how much our appearance defines us. They Call Us Flawed focused specifically on beauty standards and how they influence our lives. Women really took it in different directions in terms of how they defined it, which was really cool — whether it was their beauty journey or what they felt was hindering that.
This edition was timed for Halloween — it was actually a suggestion from a friend. We’ve been calling this edition a pamphlet, as it’s a little shorter and we kept all of it in-house. We also added research to They Call Us Witches. As the research expanded, we kind of learned about the history of witches and the cultural connotations of them in our society. Our edition in January, They Call Us Bossy, will open the publication back up to submissions. That one is not in-house.
DeCanniere: And that also seems to be particularly timely, with so much focus on government, politics and, hopefully, the beginning of a new administration.
Harris: We try and make our editions as timely as possible. They Call Us Flawed was the first edition we released during quarantine — during COVID — and so, at the beginning of the edition, we wanted to acknowledge what was happening in the world at the time that we wrote it. So, Black Lives Matter and the resurgence of those protests and our experience in quarantine.
DeCanniere: Speaking of which, I think it’s a great thing to see people becoming more and more plugged into what is going on. Obviously, it’s not as though none of this existed previously, in at least one form or another. These issues have been around for some time. But it is wonderful to see people becoming more socially and politically aware.
Harris: Definitely. And, building off of that, we try and incorporate as much intersectionality as we can into our editions, because was another thing we felt was sometimes lacking from female magazines.
DeCanniere: And being as all-encompassing and as inclusive as your publication seems to be is such an important thing.
Kail-Ackerman: When we were coming together and discussing our mission statement, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do. I think that what was really important is that you can’t talk about sexism without also discussing racism. You can’t talk about it without including LGBTQ issues, nationality, and sexuality. I think that, moving forward, as we choose our other editions, we really are just trying to be as diverse as possible. You can’t talk about so many of these issues without talking about all of these other issues. I think that what consistently comes up is capitalism as the root of everything in sexism and racism and all of that — which is really intriguing. It’s hard to talk about one thing without the other. So, being able to talk about everything is very important to us.
Harris: Building off of the question you asked earlier, about how we decide editions, a lot of it comes out of a discussion. We sit down as a team and talk about it. So, for example, we’ve talked about wanting to do an edition about motherhood — which brought up sexuality, family structure, and periods, and it just kind of ballooned from there, because all of these things are so interconnected. Obviously, we’d have a novel instead of a magazine if we tried to include it all in one edition. So, when coming up with edition topics, we will usually break them down as best we can, so that we can then put them in subcategories and make those the edition heads while still trying to create a string to connect them all.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. I can definitely imagine how one thing leads to another and how, as you say, it would be all too easy to have quite the substantial novel instead of a magazine if you didn’t sort of try and address these smaller pieces separately, in their own editions. Not that one needs to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak — I’m certainly not saying that it’s the root of all evil — but, speaking of capitalism, even when it comes to your referencing standards of beauty and all of that sort of thing that’s put out there in the public domain, I think that’s a good example tying it back in as well.
Obviously, there are a lot of corporations putting these ideas of what is beautiful out there, in order to sell their wares — whatever they may be — and a lot of the determination as to what is beautiful also happen to be male. Or at least have historically been male. Thankfully, I think that there are more female executives now than ever, so at least that’s changing. However, historically, what is beautiful had been determined largely — if not solely — by men.
Harris: Definitely. During our first “Coven Congress,” we were talking about sexual harassment and beauty standards, and we kind of paused mid-discussion and realized we had been having this discussion for three hours and no one had mentioned men. We heard about all of these pressures that were coming from family or society or commercials. That tied into a lot of the racial implications of when we makeup advertisements that only include white women, or we see hair products that are only catering towards straight hair, and how that influences other women in terms of their own self-reflection.
DeCanniere: Fortunately, I think that things are changing. I think that you see that reflected more and more in media — whether it’s in the media or in advertising, and in pop culture in general. I would hope that a lot of that is changing. Obviously, things don’t change on their own and without some pressure — without people taking on these topics.
Kail-Ackerman: I think Meg can talk a lot about this, but that was one of the reasons we decided to do a lot of what we do on social media, because it is so important in our society. I feel like the world kind of revolves around social media. Also, we only have digital editions so that it is free for everybody and everybody can access it. Meg runs our social media, so she can talk more about that, but I think it’s very important why we do that and to use these platforms — which can be used for evil — for good.
Harris: Our artist, Arran Bowen, does an amazing job. If people look at our covers or a lot of our designs, where she will draw a woman, she tries her best to make the skin tone as ambiguous as possible or as inclusive as possible — which is just an amazing, subtle detail to put in. I don’t think that people recognize that it has the powerful impact that it does. That is just one thing that we have taken on to try and change that image.
Kail-Ackerman: Not to speak for our art director, but she has turned down art that is very white, feminine based. We don’t want too much of that in our edition. You know, we don’t want to promote the idea that androgyny is not beautiful, or to promote the idea that a person of color is not beautiful, so we really try our hardest to diversify the art, in addition to the other content.
DeCanniere: Which I think makes a lot of sense. For example, I do think that, historically, our society has narrowly defined what it means to be male or female. There have also been very similarly narrow definitions of what is beautiful, or what it means to be a person of color. So, I think it’s good to finally be addressing some of those issues and to, hopefully, be moving forward and moving beyond that.
Kail-Ackerman: During one of our first Coven Congresses, I feel like we spent a lot of it just trying to define these words, and we realized that we cannot define them. ‘Female’ and ‘male’ and anywhere in-between was so different to each one of us — even though, technically, our pronouns were she/her/hers. We all took the definition differently, and we couldn’t figure out what the definition was, which I think was very interesting and which led to more discussion.
Harris: We also kind of chose to reflect that in our mission statement, and in our bio on social media, we are very mindful to say ‘gendered issues,’ to say ‘womxn.’ We want to recognize these things are not always all women-based. A lot of men experience very traumatic beauty standards that they cannot always measure up to. A lot of trans people see absolutely no representation for themselves in magazines. Part of being that change is allowing for gender fluidity and encouraging it. We use the term ‘gender minority’ and ‘womxn’ a lot to try and include those voices.
DeCanniere: Which I think is also so important. In the information about the magazine, you do define the publication as a ‘feminist literary magazine.’ While it is inexplicable to me, I feel like there has been this sort of pushback against feminism — sometimes more so, sometimes less so at various points in history. Personally, I am male and I consider myself a feminist. I think that either men or women can be, and there are men and women who are.
At the same time, there are men who distinctly are not feminists by any means, and there even are women who, for whatever reason, push back against feminism or being called a ‘feminist’ as if it’s something that is undesirable. All of this said, the very idea that some people would see feminism as a negative, and even push back against it, has never made any sense to me whatsoever.
Kail-Ackerman: I definitely would agree. I know we were slightly hesitant to use the word ‘feminist’ in the beginning of the magazine, and I think we are all unabashedly for using the word ‘feminist’ now. At its core, being a ‘feminist’ means believing in equality. I think that, even if there is backlash for us using that term, I think it is everything we stand for and we are very much about bringing back our word. I think our newest edition, Witches, is all about owning the word ‘witches’ and not seeing it as something negative. So, I feel like it’s the same with the word ‘feminist.’
Harris: And while our goal for They Call Us is to be as inclusive as possible, and to make sure that races and gender minorities also feel represented, a part of that is leaving room for opinions that we do not agree with — not in a way that is discriminatory or offensive. However, for example, if we have an edition in the future that is about motherhood, whether we believe in abortion or not, we want to leave room — in a very constructive and inoffensive way — for people to voice their opinions. We recognize that there are women who are going to feel differently than we do. As long as its respectful and communicative, we want to make sure that’s also represented.
Kail-Ackerman: I think that is why our Coven Congresses are so important. Recently, we sat down and tried to figure out what goals we wanted. One was to make our Coven Congress into a feminist convention — a whole week long with keynote speakers. We’ll work on that, but what I think is so important about our Coven Congress is that it is a gathering of gender minorities speaking their opinion. We all disagree on things. That’s okay. The point is that we’re having this discussion and that we’re open to opinions and that we create a space where people can give their opinion. I think that is one of the most important things that we do.
Harris: We, as a group, don’t always agree on everything, but that’s the importance of working within a diverse collaborative. So, that’s what we strive to create in our Coven Congresses.
DeCanniere: Wow. Agreeing to disagree, and yet still managing to respectfully express one’s opinion — or at least hearing people out. Are you sure you don’t want to speak in front of actual Congress? Because it seems to me those are the very things that they are having more and more trouble with, which is precisely what is causing more and more of the gridlock in DC.
Seriously, it feels almost as if there is some kind of contest as to which politician can become the most hyper-partisan. It feels as though any spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation that existed at one time has been lost. Consequently, at the end of the day, absolutely nothing gets accomplished. You just end up with a lot of gridlock and nothing else.
Harris: You do. I think a big part of that is that we want to overcome that. The more division you can create within a group, the less progress that group will make. In the context of feminism, the more people can try and press the issue that women are different, and that if you feel differently about wedge issues like abortion or gay marriage or whatever, then you just should have nothing to do with the other side. It separates us from female allies, and we recognize that as long as it’s constructive and not offensive, conservative women are women. They’re also who we are fighting for. In the Washington Post there was a quote that one of the reporters put in that was based on the women’s march — every time you open an account, its because of women who marched. With the suffrage movement, there were women who disagreed that women should have the vote, but the women who marched then were also marching for the women who disagreed with them. So, we also write for women who disagree with us.
DeCanniere: I feel like that is so much more mature and civilized than the way in which Washington DC has been approaching things for the past several decades now. There was a time in which they knew how to work together, but it seems that has not been the case for some time now — and we seem to move further away from that time with every passing year.
Kail-Ackerman: What’s also good is that I have hope because we are all in our early twenties. We all started this in our senior year at DePaul University, here in Chicago, and to have so many people back us up and believe in what we’re doing. To have other writers our age really gives me hope for the next generation. In ten years, we’re going to be the ones who are in charge, or who are trying to get up to the higher positions of power. We kind of feel like the next wave and the next movement. There have been so many people rallying on TikTok for politics. It’s really good to know that if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to really make a difference in the world.
DeCanniere: I really hope there are more and more women in government — at all levels of government — because it has, historically, been such an underrepresented group and it has been men making so many of the decisions that have a disproportionate impact on women. So, I really do hope that there are many more women who are in the Senate or in the House and, of course, in the White House. It would be wonderful if we finally had a woman for president. Of course, what is the most important is that they are the right person for the job — not whether they are male or female, or anything else of that sort — but there really are so many women out there who would be right for the job. Anyhow, it’s definitely a good start to be having all of these important conversations that you seem to be having, first and foremost. I think that’s where change starts.
Kail-Ackerman: At the front of every edition, we always put ‘Our voice is our weapon.’ I think that’s one of the biggest parts about us. We are using our voice. Historically, women’s voices have been considered not credible, and have not been considered as strong. Although we protest and we do other things, I think that the most important thing we have is our voice. And we’re going to keep doing that and keep fighting, and keep using that to make a difference.
Harris: I think another thing — and a big part of Witches — is that in a lot of our research, there was a huge coincidence. Actually, there was no coincidence between the women who were chosen to be burned in the Salem Witch Trials or who were called a witch in the past and those who were intelligent or seen as economic competitors. One of the aspects we wanted to touch on as part of empowering women is to not be afraid of what people will call us. Not being afraid of being called a ‘witch’ or ‘nasty’ or ‘ugly’ or a ‘slut.’ We can disarm those words — especially because they are usually thrown out of fear of actual progress. So, I think a big part of a future feminist movement will be making ourselves bulletproof in the way of how people can hurt us, and taking that power away.
DeCanniere: Right. Again, not to have Donald Trump take center stage but, as we speak, we are on the verge of an election, and I feel like he is the perfect example of that. And when Trump uses terms like ‘nasty,’ it is very clearly used against women in particular — especially women in politics or in other positions of power.
Kail-Ackerman: And I think that as much as Trump is hard to deal with — or hard to comprehend — I think what we really try to focus on, and I noticed this in the 2016 election, is that we focus on talking about the men and how bad they are instead of bringing up the women. We were talking more about Trump and how much we hated him, than we were talking about the good things that Hillary has done. Not that we don’t talk about the bad things and rape culture and the patriarchy — because we do — but we focus on bringing up us. So, instead of talking about how men are feared — fear of women created women to be witches — instead we are going to talk about how we can use witches as a good thing, to be seen as powerful women. If you’re afraid of me and call me a witch, I’m going to take that as a compliment. That’s awesome. So, we try to shift the focus.
Harris: The magazine has caused us to do a lot of self-reflection on how we were raised as women in this society. How many times do we say ‘sorry’ just for speaking? How many times do we apologize for our presence? How many times do we apologize for being late? Or for having an idea? Or for feeling really passionately about something and talking about it for a long time? So, even breaking it down to the very minute and farther extremes than words like ‘slut’ and ‘witch’ and ‘evil.’ Just someone calling us ‘bossy’ or calling us ‘too ambitious’ or ‘too pushy.’
All of these words are also used to silence women from speaking their opinions, and I think we’re trying to use that to redefine a space, where we can feel confident in what we are saying and in expressing our opinion. We try and bring that not only to our readers, but to our writers as well.
Kail-Ackerman: I love what Meg said. She really brought up the point that I was a feminist before all of this started, but I feel as though I’ve grown as a feminist so much — being in this space, being open-minded. Even if you’re a feminist, that doesn’t mean that you are open-minded and open to everything. I feel like I can speak for the whole team when I say that we have grown as feminists, and we are continuing to grow and are just learning about ourselves and our society, and our gender — and we’re changing our point of view, which I think is very important.
Harris: A big part of that, too, has been being open and willing to say when we were wrong. Soon after our first edition launched, or we launched our mission statement on social media, we were confronted with how our language could be perceived as restricting, in terms of how we were defining women and how we were defining gender. That’s why we changed the language in our mission statement and our Instagram bio. So, we not only want to create a product for people, but we want this organization to be malleable and to move with the times.
DeCanniere: Well, as I said, I’m just so glad to have had the opportunity to chat with the both of you, because I really do feel that these are all such important things to consider. I hope that the conversation continues — and progress continues to be made — and I look forward to checking out all of your future editions as well.
Kail-Ackerman: We’re definitely really excited for Witches to come out. Like we said, it’s more research based, and it’s a pamphlet, which we’re really excited about. We haven’t done that before, and we’re going to continue to do it. Then we have our newest edition, Bossy, coming out in January. We don’t know what we’re doing for the rest of the year, but it will be decided very soon. Our one year since the publication was founded is coming in December, so we’re excited to celebrate as much as we can from afar. We’re just going to keep moving forward and we’re going to keep talking.
Harris: Also a fun little tidbit that we learned recently is that there’s a feature on the source we use for our website that shows where we’re getting readers from, and we found out that many of our readers are actually quite international. We have received submissions from people in India and all around the world. We were so pleased to see that people from all around the world were looking at our website and looking at our magazine — which is the beauty of globalization and social media and the internet, but also just speaks to the quality and relatability of our content.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. I feel as though so many of these issues truly are universal issues. They’re very relevant the world over.
Kail-Ackerman: And it brings people together, in a way. We all have these experiences. This is half the population, and even though we are from different countries and have different values and cultures, I feel everyone can still relate to this — or we’re open to have the conversation on how it doesn’t. I feel our Coven Congresses and our magazine — and the more we keep growing and changing — we will be able to use all of those voices and grow, so that we’re one big community.
DeCanniere: Definitely. The more people talk and get to know one another as people, the more you realize you have in common. There aren’t nearly as many differences as one might think. I think there’s a lot of common ground.