Reflecting on the Rag: A Feminist Herstory of Pandora’s Rag on the U of I Campus

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In the spring of 1998, a handful of women’s studies students decided to start a feminist publication for distribution on campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community. Pandora’s Rag was a feminist zine (self-published, small circulation publication) that aimed to generate conversations about feminism, gender, and justice. They met weekly at the Women’s Studies House and produced a zine full of articles, rants, poetry, critiques, and editorials that ignited conversations about sex, liberation, and gender. Pandora’s Rag offered roughly 2 editions each semester for about 5 years, before the last edition came hot off the press.

This spring, students in the National Organization for Women UIUC-Chapter noticed the yellowed pages of the old Pandora’s Rag editions resting on the Women’s Resources Center library shelves and concocted the idea of reviving the zine. A few weeks later, they hosted an event at the Illini Union Bookstore’s Author’s Corner where excerpts from a myriad of editions were read by current U of I students and a call for submissions was launched for a Pandora’s Rag Revival Edition to be distributed this May.

Two members of Pandora’s Rag, Ross Wantland and Janelle Skaloud, tell the story of what it was like to be “on the Rag:”

Why did you join Pandora’s Rag?

Ross:  I had heard about Pandora’s Rag (P-Rag) from a few of my Women’s Studies classes/classmates, but I wasn’t really involved in any on-campus organizations. I ran into someone passing out flyers and came to an informational session. I have some vague recollection I was the only guy there, and I was really mindful/worried. I asked one of the leaders if it was okay if I was involved – I didn’t want to seem like I was pushing myself into a space I didn’t belong. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but it became a way to say some of the stuff that was on my mind: about rape, about male privilege, about all that crap. Plus, it was community. I had my classes, and I had volunteering at the rape crisis center. But this was community in a different way.

Janelle:  I had labeled myself a feminist since I was in high school.  In my experience, it was fairly obvious that women were treated as inferior to men in a variety of ways.  IMO, people who didn’t see that either thought it was right, or wanted to pretend it wasn’t that way. At the U of I, I was drawn to what was then called the Women’s Studies program. It was there that I heard of a student who wanted to start a feminist magazine. I immediately thought — I want to do that. I want to give voice to women’s experiences.  For me, feminism is about many things, but primarily it is about supporting and empowering women.

What did you see as the mission of Pandora’s Rag?

Ross:  I think for me, it showed me that there were some particular things to articulate out about how feminism was part of our everyday lives. I think it is how I would describe the call to write/author that it inspired in me.

Janelle:  We were really were trying to figure out what it all meant.  And we did that by talking about our experiences, our ideas, our outrage, our goals, and about feminist theories. I think that by doing that, you move the conversation forward, and that’s how you make change.

Ross: When I look back on it, our articles were about love, sex, pop culture, politics, more sex, more pop culture, and trying to figure out where the hell we fit.

Janelle:  A lot about sex! Women need/ed to particularly be empowered about that.

Ross:  Yeah, you’re right. And I think (about sex) we were articulating a counter narrative to Maxim and Cosmo. Remember our motto, “good girls read Cosmo, bad girls read Pandora’s Rag!”

Janelle:  Yeah, it wasn’t perfect, but it never needed to be. It was, above, all, a learning and growing experience—for us and for our readers. There was no one else doing anything like it, on a campus as big as the U of I. And now more than ever, when I feel like the “feminist” label is even more maligned in pop culture, I just can’t imagine there isn’t still a lot to say, and people who want to hear it, and people who need to hear it.

Ross: College was one of the places where we were figuring this stuff out. Perhaps that’s why we were so adamant, because it was our unfolding reality.

What did Pandora’s Rag bring to the U of I campus?

Ross:  P-Rag articulated a counter to some of the mainstream ideas about how men and women (and men and men, and women and women) should relate to each other. And it also voiced a political articulation calling out the ways women were treated in society and locally on campus. Basically, we shook shit up.

Janelle:  We told it as we saw it. I think people needed to hear what we had to say.  Some people loved it, some people hated it. It made people think, for sure.

Ross:   I think we also saw our role as people who would piss others off—happily sometimes. We were provocative, spouting off about clitoral orgasms and equal pay.

Janelle:  Oh my, yeah. You can’t play it safe. You have to grab people’s attention. Listen, feminism gets such a bad rap, people are afraid to embrace the label. But there are a ton of feminists out there, they just don’t know it yet. It’s our job to show them.

Tell me about your favorite memory from Pandora’s Rag.

Ross: I have so many fond memories of working with the wonderful people of Pandora’s Rag. One of my favorite things we did was the “Men Who Bake” Sale fundraiser (which was maybe slightly false advertising, but it was challenging stereotypes). At the bake sale, we would have people draw “identities,” such as Black female, Latino male, white man, and would ask them to pay a percent on the dollar for what that group makes compared to white men. We had so many angry dads on school visit days, and it was so much fun doing that subversive education!

Janelle:  Honestly, I have to be a little general and say it was the feeling of community.  I was so frustrated before I found P-Rag—like I was the only one who felt that there was some serious injustice going on in the world. I drew strength from joining voices to write about it, and draw about it, and laugh about it. There is strength in numbers, and it’s hard to have a movement of one.

Ross and Janelle were both original members of Pandora’s Rag in the late 1990s. Ross is a father, partner, and social justice educator living in Champaign. Janelle is an attorney and mother living in Chicago.

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