The Origins of Online Feminism…For Reals This Time
Who Are Online Feminists?
The Feminist Reward Card
The Future is making coffee
The Origins of Online Feminism…For Reals This Time
Little did the engineers who created the Internet know what they were unleashing. In an attempt to ease sharing of scientific and military work, they created an international organizing tool. It took little time for activists to realize the power that a computer connected to a phone line (kids, back then, we needed wires to be connected) had to their organizing lives.
When I opened an account on Geocities (RIP) in the mid-1990s, I never imagined how much it would change my life. At the same time I knew that the revolution would include online communications and wanted to contribute what I could. My entry into online feminism was my invitation to a listserv for Women Leaders Online (WLO), a totally virtual organization focused on feminism and politics. A weekly newsletter was sent to update members as to what Newt Gingrich and the GOP were attempting to do to the USA. There was also a vibrant discussion on the listserv as to tactics to thwart Speaker Gingrich, how to work across the country and how we could be feminist while supporting the Clinton administration despite its anti-feminist policies such as so-called welfare reform. I should note that MoveOn was born during this era. WLO also launched the first online women’s voter guide.
None of this was an accident.
The initial release of the “Fem Future” report/call to action misrepresented the origins of online feminism. This history takes up less than half of a page, but it was used to frame how active today’s online feminism is. As a pioneer of online feminism, in fact my work is cited as one of three early efforts, and someone who continues to use online tools to push a feminist agenda, I took personal offense to the framing of online feminism as a happy accident. It ignored the work feminist activists did to pair handmade zines with online zine distributions, the hand-coding to make that table look just right and trying to decipher if behind a handle was a feminist or a creep. What we are doing today from Feministing to UltraViolet is not the result of someone leaving cheese out to mold. Rather it is a culmination of years of hard work combined with the evolution of online engagement tools (YouTube and online petitions) and the online population boom. Before RSS feeds we had to check in on blogs every day to see if there was something new or wait for the asterisk to pop up in your blogroll. In an effort to connect feminists, I created the Pro-Choice web-ring. A web-ring was a piece of html code that we put on our websites and proto-blogs that allowed visitors and ourselves to click “next” to visit the next pro-choice site. It literally connected us.
As feminists, we know all too well that “history is written by the victors.” It could be the fault of feminism 1.0 participants that we have not fully documented our history in any form. But as feminists, we know that one should ask. It is not like we are all dead. Heck, Jennifer Pozner, who was at the convening of #FemFuture and in WLO (as well as one of my best friends) could had been consulted as to our collective history. After bringing this discrepancy to light, “Fem Future” authors, Valenti & Martin, have corrected the document and struck the language that frames the creation of online feminism as “accidental."
Now that history has been corrected…the document itself.
Who Are Online Feminists?
Before the future of feminism can even be debated and planned, we need to recognize that feminism is a diverse community. While we all share a basic goal of improving the status of women, we disagree on the means to achieve this goal. This is where much of the critique is centered.
#FemFuture is calling on the community to:
• Identify how to sustain our work, yet it fails to define sustainability. I presume they mean money as the next call to action point is;
• To develop an infrastructure to support the online feminist community. Of course the idea of a grand infrastructure scares people and honestly, it should. The feminist community is too diverse to be housed under one roof or within one structure. But I am not convinced this is exactly what Valenti & Martin are suggesting. More later.
The difficulty in discussing or planning out big-F Feminist ideas is that we are far too much of a motley crew for the biggest F to have enough room to breath, much less, plan the next step in the revolution. Part of me wants to call for us to label our feminism. Are we liberal feminists, as I believe I embody, working to dismantle the master’s house with his tools? I often feel that I have the heart of a radical, but act in a very liberal manner. Or are we more radical feminists who eschew those tools for ones we create ourselves? And then there are our conservative sisters, who are rarely discussed except to tell them they aren’t feminist enough (I admit to doing that on occasion). Is this in reality the #LiberalFemFuture report?
Most of the critique of #FemFuture, that I have seen, falls under difference in what individuals view as feminism and what tactics should be used to get to the finish line.
The Feminist Reward Card
My first critique of the report itself is the assumption that we do not receive rewards. Again, a lack of definition is central. For me, online feminism has rewarded me over and over again. I feel that online feminism gives me as much, if not more, than I give it. This also does not account for the exponential number of feminist friends I have enriching my life. WLO introduced me to, my best friend and sister-in-so-many-ways, Jennifer Pozner and other friends I won’t name-drop here. When I was struggling to figure out what to do with my life after college and expressed an interest in “becoming a writer,” Katha Pollitt (also a member of WLO) said, then write. And that’s exactly what I did. I have blogged my way to becoming a leading feminist pundit. It has given me opportunities to not only voice my opinion on feminist politics, but also a platform to raise the issue of women in science and engineering to new audiences. I have merged the life of an academic with an online activist, not seamlessly, but pretty close.
And yes, that means I fall into the category that Martin & Valenti discuss as someone who works full-time to pay the bills and goes home to blog. I am lucky in that my “paying the bills” job is a feminist job. Yet, blogging today comes after my doctoral studies and my family. For me, blogging is the fourth or fifth shift. I was so lucky to have this report incorporated into one of my class papers, thus I can count this as homework. Do I wish I could be paid to blog all day, every day? Yes. Do I think that a foundation is going to give me a grant to do that? No.
#FemFuture’s funding plan is unachievable. Perhaps that means I have little vision. I prefer to think it reflects my ten years of grant seeking success and failure. They call on foundations and other funders to disregard grant deadlines and operating costs. Deadlines operate not to control grantees, but rather to organize foundations. With my experience with the philanthropic world, including being married to a foundation officer, and having run a mini-grant program myself, without budgeting of funds, you will run out of money before the fiscal year is over. This would put the feminist community at the whim of the calendar versus planning dates. Pick your poison. I also know far too well that foundations prefer to support programming versus operating costs and far more than political advocacy. Even women’s foundations prioritize services over advocacy, even if it is a determent to the overall feminist movement. Those who can give want to see tangible results such as women finding shelter after deciding to leave abusers or see increases in women plumbers through job training programs. They want results and I doubt telling them what we want to do with their money will work.
I do agree that women's foundations should have a plan to engage with their communities using online tools and not just by tweeting out news pieces. I have had this discussion with a few others in the Chicago women's philanthropic community. And if we want to have it again, let me know. Let's grab coffee.
I see courting an angel funder is far more reasonable, although this will most likely to benefit those of us in large urban areas such as NYC, DC, Chicago and LA. That is unless Warren Buffet decides to send out random $100,000 checks to online feminist entities. An angel funder should be looking at sites like The Broad Side (and not just because I do contribute there) as the venue to have women discuss politics and push the agenda forward. This is why legacy women’s organizations depend on membership fees or publications on subscriptions. This is why we see (at least those of us who have seen the backroom antics of the feminist community) turf wars over names and mailing lists. That is currency. This is where Martin & Valenti are correct is saying that it is time for us to “stand confidently…and ask for the resources…that will create fundamental change (p 29).”
I see the for-profit model the “best” answer to making money. Online feminist entities could produce apps, as suggested in the report, that would build on all of the boycott shopping lists. Do I buy this shirt or this one? Pull out your smart phone, open the “FeministBuy” app (don’t steal that, talk to me) and check to see if that company deserves your hard earned money. Yes, this idea ignores the larger economic forces of shopping, but this is a discussion about how feminists are trying to make money and I suspect big money. $1.99 here and there and you have a revenue stream.
And if online feminism wants to look at ad revenue and corporate sponsorship, they need to hook up with some of the kick ass mom bloggers who are not rolling in the dough, but making enough. Valenti & Martin also call for professional development. This sounds a lot like the 2012 Top Blogueras Retreat I was invited to attend. While their mini-MBA style retreat did not seem to fit my goals for my blog, a lot of Latinas who do want to make money from their blogs were excited. We had access to some of the biggest companies who are eager to connect to Latina pocketbooks. As I have said over the years, feminists shop, buy make-up, take vacations and clean their homes as much as the mom blogger. If a feminist blogger is up for partnering with Brand X, go for it. But seriously, give the LATISM folks a call; they know how to roll with the corporate sponsors. But if feminists are ready for that move, they better be ready for their funders to get pissed at what we write about or worse, wake up to find our biggest sponsor has a new CEO who sexually harasses the women in their office. As for ad revenue, we might end up like Jezebel, writing link bait SEO-awesome blog posts, that ultimately does little for the feminist revolution.
We can also contract out as consultants to political campaigns, corporations and others interested in knowing what feminists are thinking. They send us press releases all the time asking us to promote this latest finding or that Senator WhatsHisName will be introducing this bill. Pay us for the advertising and marketing of your work. Just because our interests align does not mean we should do it for free.
Hell, I'm even open to being compensated with a media pass to big fundraisers; which I have received from at least one Chicago organization. I will blog & tweet up an event, live tweet it and then post my blurry photos to Flickr for a ticket. I believe the amount of work I do is worth, at the very least, basic membership to certain magazines and organizations. My currency is my network. But the level of requests to “share this information” from far better funded organizations without even credit to their online store is shameful.
I do want to acknowledge that this underfunding and unsustainable model that Martin & Valenti use as the center of this work is how most progressive organizing have maintained themselves and continues to operate under. The revolution may have karaoke, but few of us will get rich or even make a living wage. This is a sad reality that Martin & Valenti are working to flip, but their framing borders on entitlement of the online feminist community over those providing services in the community who are taking out loans to cover payroll because our states (Howdy, Illinois) are broke and take months to pay for the services they are contracting for. We are all struggling to make ends meet, whether we are telling stories or creating history.
The bottom line is that if we are going to make money, big money, we will have to have some hard discussions about our values and how they do not usually align with money-getting-mechanisms.
The Future is making coffee
As an aging-young feminist; ok middle-aged feminist (I’m 38), I completely agree that a flaw in how some legacy organizations operate is by seeking to connect with young feminists, yet ignore or dismiss the suggestions of their young (staff) members. When I served on a national feminist organization’s board in my late 20s, a suggestion was made to invite a pop artist, who had espoused feminist ideas in interviews, to the annual conference. This idea was dismissed, as her image was too sexy. The level of media attention that year’s conference could have received would have been huge, if the pop star had said yes. The hierarchy in any organization will often find younger and less experienced voices silenced. Ask anyone in any entry-level position. This is the great victory of online feminism. Voices can be amplified regardless of age.
But...it took me until my 30s to realize the value of "making the coffee" jobs and learning under great leaders. What this document suggests to me is that we have a ton of young leaders with great ideas, but without all the skills needed to implement.
Ultimately, Martin & Valenti are concerned about the future existence of online feminism. A harsh view of this concern is that it will never die. Specific organizations may come and go, but as someone who has been following online feminism since 1995, from the ashes of a Ms. Musings will rise a Feministing. Some are still mourning the loss of The White House Project, but other candidate training organizations are popping up.
That said, Martin & Valenti are also (more?) concerned about the lack of long-term planning and our inability to do this without a structure to communicate and collaborate. As they say early on, if online feminists are to be proactive rather than reactive, we need a battle plan. What policy do we want to see enacted before the end of the Obama administration? I suggest crafting a big tent goal such as economic security which would then allow for those of us who prioritize increasing education and training programs along with those seeking real equal pay legislation as well as those working for affordable childcare so women can take advantage of increased pay and educational opportunities.
Martin and Valenti are spot on when they highlight the emotional labor of feminist organizing. We draw our strength from that emotional labor; at the same time it is most likely killing us through late nights and stress. But as La Mala said, some of us have a heavier burden to carry. And that is why the erasure of early online feminist activities hit the radical women/feminists of color community hard. I would say we, but I’m mainstream enough I get a fair share of attention…They are often overlooked or plain ignored when it comes to conversations to feminism itself, much less what is happening online. We don’t need to forget our past in order to built a vibrant future. We can do both; we must do both. Otherwise we will repeat our mistakes…again and again.
This brings me to the convening.
Yes, the feminists at the table were diverse in ethnic background and sexuality. But from what I understand, the report was written by Valenti & Martin. This means they are the face of the report. This is just how we process things. Because there are some great ideas in this call to action, I wish Valenti & Martin had co-authored with a woman of color. If the masthead is not diverse, some will not accept the document as diverse.
There is also the issue of Valenti & Martin’s assertion that their convening was historic. This suggests that it was the first time a gathering of online activists sat down to discuss “next steps.” Rather this has been happening at conferences, including the 2009 Fem.20 conference. The call to have annual #FemFuture meetings would continue where Fem2.0 left off. Wow…can’t believe it’s been four years already.
So who will lead this #FemFuture? For me, this call to action read to me as a young feminist document. Just because young women are the power users of social media does not mean they are driving the online feminist community. A quick peek at the data reveals that overall 13% of women of all ages think it is very important to use social media to keep up with political news. Add in another 24% who think it is important. Age wise...
29yrs and under 12%_____30%___42%
60yrs and up____08%_____17%___26%
I do want to point out there is a 90yo woman who says "very important." If you are reading this, can you ping me, so I can follow you?
There are plenty of amazing young feminists online, don't get me wrong. But the young feminist bias plays into the stereotype that no one over 30 is online. The cross-tabulations I just shared reveal that we're pretty even when it comes to simply getting political information. I will do more stats work on this, but that will come later. Who knows, maybe when it gets to being more active, the whippersnappers will eek us old ladies out?
Those of us over 30 set the groundwork for Rookie and the f-bomb and we love them! We are also those who have been in the waiting area of leadership of the legacy organizations. We might not be “young feminists” anymore, but we’re not ready to retire either. I’m not saying we’re going to fight for leadership, rather, don’t ignore our expertise and the work we have done. A diverse movement includes those of us who rocked “Grrrl Power” shirts and not because a Spice Girl told us to (but I will admit to dancing to them). We will continue to lead our parts of the movement and welcome the new ideas from the generations behind us.
In the legacy of Buffy Summers, there is no singular chosen one. We are the chosen ones.
This report will stand as a historical record in our collective movement. This is why I asked for the correction. Not for my work, but for all of us who toiled hand coding our online space before...hell, I don't even know when the tipping point it. This is why I robbed myself of sleep to respond. One of my mentors from undergraduate (even though I just talked to her a few weeks ago) had a mantra - "Don't throw it out!" She knew all the brochures, buttons, minutes and notes we use to have in physical form is history. The same applies online. The worst part of this call to action is that it continued a practice of erasure that continues to push some of our most brilliant minds away from this space we call "online feminism." No one document can reverse that trend, but small things like asking, including and acknowledging people's work can go a long way. Some can and will dismiss #FemFuture due to who wrote it, but it will live on. This is why our responses are important - whether we are liberal feminists, like me, invested in the mainstream structure or radical women of color who will discard this report as they have the label "feminist."
I know it took me so long to write this because I had a lot in my head. I'm sure I've missed things I wanted to say and all that. I know there will be those who think I am too hard on this report and some who will think I haven’t gone far enough. I welcome constructive comments.
Other #FemFuture responses to read:
Jessica Luther's Storify of her live-tweeting her reading
Blackamazon: Loveletters to MamitaMala thank you for my #femfuture
#FemFuture, History & Loving Each Other Harder , which also has a list of recommended readings including illegal plum pudding
Footnote: Yes, I alternated between Valenti & Martin and Martin & Valenti. Just trying to share the citation.