Jacinta Bunnell's Blog

The Poem and Coloring Books That Inspired the Gender Subversion Poster

By Jacinta Bunnell
Queerbook Committee

In 2004, I toured the United States for the first time. I packed carefully for the nine weeks on the road, trying my best to bring clothing that wouldn’t show dirt as washing machines would be infrequent along the way. I would be staying at punk houses and campgrounds across a large portion of the United States, much of which I would be seeing for the first time. On the day of our departure, I piled into a van affectionately dubbed “Brown Town” with Paul Heath and Michael Wilcock, who were the two-person band The Kiss Ups, and Eric Ayotte, who curates the traveling film series Gadabout Film Festival. I brought along my queer feminist coloring zines, which I had been distributing through zine distros and fests, independent and feminist bookstores, and social justice catalogs. This was before lots of people had websites, so folks ordered my zines by sending an email to colormegenderless@facehugger.com or sticking some cash in an envelope and mailing it to my P.O. box. 

As we pulled into our first stop and set up for an evening of performances, I noticed a poster based on my work hanging in the bathroom. As each town rolled by on our tour, it swiftly became apparent that nearly every punk house and infoshop across America had this same poster hanging up somewhere. This is the story of how it came to be.

In the introduction to our large format coloring zine Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be…Coloring Book (2001), Irit Reinheimer and I wrote a fictional story about children liberating their neighborhood from restrictive gender socialization. Our friend Jon Ellis, who worked at a copy shop, graciously comped us the first fifty copies of the zine. When we had given away or sold those initial fifty copies, we began working with the offset printer Canaltown Press, who also happened to be my landlord, to print the zine in batches of 200 because orders kept coming in. Whatever we made in sales went right back into printing the next batch. The zine was black and white, but we added a bit of pizzazz by printing the cover on different colored cardstock. Irit and I designed our cover image by combining two illustrations by Laura Ann Newburn (one punk person wearing a dress, the other wearing pants) which she had created for Bamboo Girl Zine (1995)by Margarita Alcantara

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The children in the introductory story of this zine danced, wore spangles, dug ditches and built stages. Gender was not a restrictive force in our characters’ definitions of who they could be and what they were capable of. Irit and I had spent months researching children’s books and academic writings about gender for this zine. One of our inspiring finds was the poem For Every Woman(1973)by Nancy R. Smith which we had found tucked in a corner of a zine somewhere. This felt like a buried treasure from the 1970s.

“For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.

For every woman who is tired of acting dumb, there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of “knowing everything.”

For every woman who is tired of being called “an emotional female,” there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle.

For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes, there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.

For every woman who is tired of being a sex object, there is a man who must worry about his potency.

For every woman who feels “tied down” by her children, there is a man who is denied the full pleasures of shared parenthood.

For every woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay, there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.

For every woman who was not taught the intricacies of an automobile, there is a man who was not taught the satisfactions of cooking.

For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier.”

— For Every Woman (1973) by Nancy R. Smith

For Every Woman had such a fantastic way of calling out the gender binary for pigeon-holing us all into very gendered expectations of who we were supposed to be. There was not a culturally unified language for talking about gender fluidity at this point, so much of how we spoke of gender was still either/or. 

Irit and I wrote an adaptation of Smith’s poem to include in the introduction of our coloring zine, accompanied by a footnote which read “based on a poem by Nancy R. Smith,” assuming that this was an honest way of acknowledging her work.

Here is our adaptation of Smith’s poem:

For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.

For every boy who is burdened with the constant expectation of knowing everything, there is a girl tired of people not trusting her intelligence.

For every girl who is tired of being called over-sensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep.

For every boy for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity, there is a girl who is called unfeminine when she competes.

For every girl who throws out her E-Z-Bake oven, there is a boy who wishes to find one.

For every boy struggling not to let advertising dictate his desires, there is a girl facing the ad industry’s attacks on her self esteem.

For every girl who takes a step toward her liberation, there is a boy who finds the way to freedom a little easier.

As you can see, some of the words are altogether changed, some are near direct quotes, and others are our own interpretations of Smith’s original message. We had not thought of contacting Smith, since we were so immersed in a zine ethos which did not seem to concern itself with copyright issues and utilized the photocopier as a means of democratizing information. We also never expected our zine to end up in the hands of more than a few hundred people. 

When someone at CrimethInc. found a copy of our zine, they asked our permission to print posters which would feature the words of our adapted poem along with our zine’s cover image. We agreed, not thinking anything of it. Zinesters have always photocopied, borrowed, culture jammed, and collaborated on art, ideas, and writing.

In a staggering feat of mass information dispersal, CrimethInc. ended up circulating hundreds of thousands of these posters. We did not ask for or receive any compensation. They are still available today on CrimethInc.’s website where you can purchase a bundle of posters called a “Gender Subversion Kit”. The back of the poster contains images and text from our coloring zine, redrawn to be one uniform illustration style, and questions about gender, which were taken directly and with our permission from our zine. 

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These posters have made their way around the world, into classrooms, libraries, clinics, guidance counselor’s offices, pride marches, dorm rooms, shelters, punk houses, teenage bedrooms, and colleges. I recently saw a meme that featured the poster along with the text “if she doesn’t know who this is, she’s too young for you bro” (@infinity_quiche on Instagram). I regularly receive texts from friends who spot this poster in all manner of places, sometimes even on a wall in a tv show. Recently, my friend Neko Case sent me a photo of the poster from the green room of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Syracuse Cultural Workers, a publisher and distributor of social justice materials, who was a substantial early distributor of our coloring zine, wanted to create their own version of the poster so that this message could reach even more people. Syracuse Cultural Workers had an audience of educators and activists not typically reached by CrimethInc. We granted permission and suggested they also contact Nancy R. Smith and Laura Ann Newburn. Making some minor aesthetic changes, they enlarged the poster and created postcards in English and Spanish. 

In 2004, Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be… became a book published by Soft Skull Press and we sought out some of our favorite illustrators to bring the messages more to life since the illustrations in the original zine were images that we had borrowed and satirized. This book also contained the adapted poem, crediting Smith as the inspiration. 

All versions of the poster, postcards, and book have always given this credit to Smith. In 2005, she approached us with a potential copyright infringement lawsuit. We had no intention of offending the writer of this iconic poem, so Irit and I sent an apology letter detailing the history of the zines, books, and posters, suggesting Smith contact CrimethInc. and Syracuse Cultural Workers since the printing of the posters was not under our auspices. We let Syracuse Cultural Workers and CrimethInc. know about Nancy’s concerns and trusted that they would handle things from there. No lawsuit was ever filed.

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This book eventually went out of print because Counterpoint Press dropped this title when they absorbed Soft Skull Press. When I reissued Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be…Coloring Book in 2018 with PM Press, I omitted the poem and wrote an entirely new introduction to the book that did not include any lines from Smith’s poem or our adaptation of the poem. 

Since 2001, I have continued to publish queer feminist coloring books (including Girls Are Not Chicks, and Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon). My second publication Girls Are Not Chicks (2003) was a self-published zine for several years. I did all the distribution myself, but it eventually became taxing to pester bookstores for consignment money when dealing with thousands of copies. At this time, bookstores were swiftly sinking underwater and could barely pay rent on their buildings, let alone pay independent authors. At some point, I submitted the manuscript to AK Press in an attempt to relieve myself of that burden, but it was rejected. When Ramsey Kanaan left AK Press to start PM Press, he reached out to me and asked if I would like Girls Are Not Chicks Coloring Book to be one of their first titles. I jumped at the chance and have gone on to publish a total of five coloring books with PM Press/Reach & Teach.

CrimethInc. and Syracuse Cultural Workers still distribute the Gender Subversion posters. On their websites, all copies of the poster and postcard state “adapted from a poem by Nancy R. Smith”. I get asked about this poster all the time and am grateful to fully explain the complex origin story here. I have regrets that we did not reach out to Smith in the beginning, before things snowballed into something so huge. As astounding and inspiring as it is to see this message of liberation reach so many people who are moved by it, I feel bad that we had a hand in upsetting another writer.

Since that first tour, I have had several other opportunities to travel the U.S. and Canada, one time in an old brown diesel Mercedes converted to run on used vegetable oil which we had to pump from grease dumpsters each day, staying in co-ops where the residents called meetings with conch shells in order to vote on whether we would be allowed to stay overnight. Another time I toured with a multi-media overhead projector show featuring pages from my coloring books with Neko Case, the whole crew heading to a theater on Easter Sunday to see Blades of Glory together. I’ve learned that each part of the country has its own unique pace and style, met people who have become friends for life and seen things I never dreamed of seeing. These days I tend to derive more pleasure from staying in, building a fire in the woodstove and watching the logs slowly burn rather than indulging in the long drives of a country-wide tour, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it. You might even find your work hanging in a punk house bathroom someplace.

I owe a huge thanks to Jen Doll, Rebecca Mir Grady, Michael Wilcock, and Billy McCall for thoughtful editing advice on this piece.

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Las niñas pueden ser reyes: Libro para colorear
The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book
Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be… Coloring Book
Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon Coloring Book
Girls Are Not Chicks Coloring Book

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