On the Rise of the Feminist Internet

"This magazine is about speaking up. Will that make us bitchy? Yeah."

The Revolution will be posted. At the height of the backlash against feminism in 1989, an Australian woman who thought American teen magazines were all “preserved in aspic,” started a new magazine, Sassy. Sassy aimed at the hip girls who “felt like they were outsiders, but who could still pass for normal in the high school cafeteria.”

New York private high school girls Andi Eisler and Lisa Jervis interned at Sassy when it was at its insurgent high point in the early 1990s. A few years later, Zeisler and Jervis were in Oakland, California, living from hand to mouth and working in sexist workplaces for little money. They watched in horror as the right-wing religious group Focus on the Family started a boycott of Sassy for encouraging teen sexuality (as if), advertisers pulled out, and Sassy got sold for the second time in 1994. The new owners fired the founding editor and the entire staff and turned Sassy into what Zeisler calls “Bizarre Sassy,” the very opposite of its irreverent self. And Zeisler and Jervis saw the reliably feminist Glamour remade by 2000 as another Cosmo by the new editor Bonnie Fuller, another celebrity-mag alumnus. Now where could uppity girls looking for cool content go?

Avid consumers of popular culture, they knew there was an alternative—the little handmade paper missives, adorably called zines, xeroxed and sent via US Mail to a list of like-minded consumers. As luck would have it, when Zeisler was interning at Sassy, the offices were in the same building in lower Manhattan as Ms. magazine. Zeisler was always popping into the offices two floors up from Sassy, and she had noticed something. In its early years Ms. was very much a magazine about pop culture, with stories about getting Hollywood stars on board for the Equal Rights Amendment, say, and it often carried pop culture figures on the covers. But, she says, by 1995 Ms. had stopped engaging with pop culture and connecting with young feminists. (“I had nothing against it,” Slate editor in chief and one of the founders of Slate’s women’s-issues section, Double, Jacob Weisberg, says of the original feminist publication. “It was a monthly, right? Just no one read it. It was old. Magazines have a life span and theirs was over.”) Zeisler decided to start something that mixed Sassy and Ms. “We really loved pop culture,” she remembers, “but where was the feminist content?” She could bitch, she decided, or start Bitch, a zine on feminism and popular culture.

In the first issue, Jervis included an editor’s note: “This magazine is about thinking critically about every message the mass media sends; it’s about loudly articulating what’s wrong and what’s right with what we see. This magazine is about speaking up. Will that make us bitchy? Yeah.” And so they did. And were. The premiere issue included “Sassy: Then and Now: How the Most Original Voice in Teen Girl Mags Got Stifled by a Big Bad Corporation”; “Kids and Sex: The Mixed Messages of Larry Clark’s Film”; “Amazon Women in the Moon: A Look Back at the Early Days of MTV”; “Magazines We Hate: Esquire’s Women We Love Issue Is, Predictably, a Gagfest”; and “Subversion on a Massive Level: Gender as Constructed Spectacle in the Little-Seen film Sleep with Me.”

“They’re going to hate us anyway, so why don’t we just say what we think?”

Almost immediately, Jervis and Zeisler got feedback: readers wanted them to bitch about what’s wrong, but also to talk about what was right with respect to women. And so, Bitch started making recommendations—for an underground filmmaker, and for Suzie Bright and her Sexual State of the Union; for comedian Margaret Cho. Bitch launched its first website in 1998, partnering with the digital arm of Wired magazine, Hotwired, and by 2003 Bitch was in the internet with both feet. So now an internet-savvy reader could go to Bitch May 2003 and see a review of Toys “R” Us as gender hell, or an interview with feminist philosopher of the body Susan Bordo. Or read a longform piece about race in the film Bringing Down the House, starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. By 2016 the print quarterly had a circulation of 80,000 and the online readership was nearly 5 million unique visitors each year. Bitch Media employed thirteen full- and part-time staff and numerous freelancers.

*

Feminism on the internet, what a good idea, twentysomething Jessica Valenti said to herself as she labored to keep feminism’s heartbeat going in 2004 at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. Bill Scher, her boss at the fund, who ran a liberal blog, advised her to start a blog of her own. “I was always complaining,” she admits, “that there was a lot of feminism happening among my young friends, and we weren’t getting any credit. There were some feminists blogging online, but they were more like keeping a journal. I gathered my sister and a couple of my friends to do it.” Sassy was hugely formative when Valenti was young, and Sassy was what Valenti had in mind for her new Feministing. The first post on Feministing, cofounded by Jessica and Vanessa Valenti, went up on April 12, 2004. By 2004, others—Feministe, Pandagon—were already visible in the blogosphere. Valenti’s group did not expect Feministing to take off like it did. One day they saw that “Katha Pollitt” had commented on the site, and they set off trying to find out if it was the “real” Katha Pollitt, the legendary feminist columnist from the Nation magazine (it was).

Web technology made them fast. One day the Labor Department in the Bush administration announced it was going to stop keeping track of women’s wages. Feministing had a protest up the same day. Weeks later, NOW issued its press release protesting the move. The technology made them connected. Women out in the boonies with no feminist anything in their town found Feministing online, just like the legions of gay and lesbian youth connected over the internet from their isolated outposts. They googled “feminism” or came upon Feministing through a random online inquiry. Once connected, women commented. The commentary section became a place where new feminist writers emerged. When a woman from Toronto wrote a post in Feministing’s open community blog, the Toronto Star called to ask her for an op-ed. Another community blogger wound up on NPR.

The legacy feminist organizations were so sensitive to the way the backlash had portrayed women as angry and sexually promiscuous they tried hard to avoid feeding the backlash beast. But Valenti’s bloggers figured, “They’re going to hate us anyway, so why don’t we just say what we think?” By 2007 Feministing had half a million readers a month. That would be six million a year.

Almost from the beginning, Feministing focused on sex discrimination in the realm of sex. “We watched the church groups,” Valenti said. “They were obsessed with female sexuality. They said it was us hypersexualizing everything, but they were really the ones who were talking about it all the time. We had a message: women have sex and women like sex, and that’s normal.” That insight came, Valenti reflects, because “it was my story. I was being called promiscuous in high school and college, and my male friends were high-fiving each other and I had a bad reputation. They thought certain girls were dirty, and I was thinking, well, you’re the one who put your penis in them, why would that make them dirty?” It was lonely for Jessica, feeling like she was the only one who saw through the illogical and bigoted treatment of women’s sexuality.

And then she took a women’s studies class in college. For the first time, someone told her she was not the problem; it was society that was the problem. In every movement that reshuffles the relationships of power, that realization is powerful.

And so, Jessica Valenti unknowingly reenacted the process Catharine MacKinnon had gone through twenty years earlier, focusing like a laser on workplace sexual harassment as just another way of keeping women down. Society is the problem. Franklin Kameny, one of the founders of the modern gay rights movement, had had a similar epiphany in 1957 when he understood that it was unconstitutional to fire him from his government job because he was gay. You’re not the problem, it’s society that’s the problem.

The realization came slowly to one of Salon’s Broadsheet founding editors Rebecca Traister. Her story is emblematic. Traister didn’t come from nowhere. Her mother, an English professor, had long earned more than her father, a rare-books librarian. Being the only (half) Jewish kid in her grammar school, Traister says, “We didn’t observe anything religious, not a thing, and still I was so exotic.” As one of only a handful of Democratic families at the polling place in her hometown every election, she was clear about her outsider status. When she went to the pro-abortion March for Women’s Lives in DC in 1989, at the tender age of fifteen, she sensed that she was in the middle of a gathering of people whose politics were the same as hers.

Despite feminism being part of her upbringing, Traister didn’t emerge from childhood with her politics fully formed. “Katie Roiphe made me a feminist,” she confesses laughingly. Traister was a college freshman in 1993 when date-rape denialist Katie Roiphe turned her two New York Times pieces into a book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism. Traister was living in the only all-girl floor of a dorm smack in the middle of a ring of frat houses with nonstop partying at heavily Greek-oriented Northwestern University. Drunken men, she says, would stream through the area all night long. Not only had she had been pressured for sex in what would now be recognized as perilously close to rape, but the girls she knew had similar experiences all along the spectrum. None of them reported it, because they were being told it was just bad sex. Traister remembers seeing Roiphe’s book around the fraternity houses that year.

After Northwestern, Rebecca came to New York, and in her mid-twenties had become an entry-level journalist. Even at her first journalism job at the New York Observer, writing about movies, she included some stories about women in film. Armed with all the “data points” of abortion marches, bad sex, and unequal treatment at work, she still didn’t make the crucial step to feminist politics. Because what did feminism offer in 1997? The third wave. “The third wave was the first stage of feminism coming back from the backlash years,” she says. “I never responded to the third wave. It seemed so futile, it did not inspire you, you had no sense it was catching any kind of wave.” As we saw in Susan Faludi’s Backlash, the culture kept pushing the accommodating third wave when it was weak, framing it as so uncool. “And,” Traister observed, “they kept weakening themselves more and more in a futile effort to accommodate. The sex-positive manifestos of the third wave might have been truly radical,” Traister speculates, but they weren’t. “Instead they were all about women’s freedom to wear high-heeled shoes.”

As usual, activists of color came to the insight early. They were, Traister says, “doing that work before us in places that had been invisible to me.”

Traister moved to the new web technology in 2003, taking a job at Salon, working with female editors Lori Leibovich and editor in chief Joan Walsh. With the explosive online appearance of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, young people in Dean’s campaign were finally using the internet for political activism. In an echo of the birth of second-wave feminism out of the often wildly chauvinistic student movements of the 1960s, the women of the left started noticing that their lefty male colleagues online were engaging in oblivious sexism. Jiggle ads for Gilligan’s Island on the liberal websites?

Over at Salon, a robust woman-centered conversation was already on the rise. At the outset called, unexpectedly, Mothers Who Think, two women, married to the founders of Salon, had started a feature whose smarts belied its retrograde origins and (ironic?) name. Leibovich’s and Traister’s women-oriented online writings in Salon were attracting attention. They tried to make feminism appealing, by diluting the politics with pop culture, but the conversation was broadening out to politics. The liberal men on the internet probably spurred it, just like making the coffee at the Students for a Democratic Society radicalized the women in the 1960s.

Following the uptick in interest, Traister, Walsh, and Leibovitch decided to pitch the feminist feature at a conference call. “We were always encouraged at Salon to come up with new features,” Traister remembers fondly. Traister was inspired to suggest naming the site “Know Your Misogyny,” but after a chilling moment of silence from the mostly male editors the deed was done: Broadsheet. Five years later, the prestigious web publication Slate opened DoubleX, which its founders later described as having a focus on womanhood. Like Traister’s abortive suggestion, Slate almost called it…Moxie.

Like Feministing, Broadsheet was a team effort. At first, they tried assigning each woman a day of the week to post all day. “There were days when you had nothing,” Traister remembers. Journalists were not reporting stories of rape, for instance, and so there was not yet any of the “mutually reinforcing indignation that later surfaced.”

As usual, activists of color came to the insight early. They were, Traister says, “doing that work before us in places that had been invisible to me.” Traister now views her journey at Salon as one “from a white world, unnoticed and unexamined, but gradually enlightened by challenges from women of color, readers at Salon, and especially Melissa Harris-Perry, Tami Winfrey-Harris, Pam Spaulding, Pamela Merritt, and Patricia Williams.”

Pam Spaulding, black, gay, and activist out of Durham, North Carolina, had started the now iconic Pam’s House Blend in 2004. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Missouri, Pamela Merritt was working at the local LGBTQ newspaper the Vital Voice.

Merritt was more than something of a phenom. Placed by her parents in St. Louis into a mostly white school district, because they had fought so hard to get school integration, she endured a nightmare of racial abuse throughout her younger years. But Merritt knew where the road out lay. She channeled her anger and her sadness into a life-altering impressive record of grades and scores. At sixteen, she entered Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an “early college” for highly motivated students. It was the first place she really felt good. Graduating, after transfer, from Brandeis, she went to work in the ad business in Dallas. “It was Mad Men,” she reported. Talk about intersectionality of oppressions; one day at a party, a white boss pulled her and another black woman, a client, no less, onto his lap and announced he’d always wanted to have sex with a black woman. And both women looked at each other and both knew they would get away and they would say nothing.

When 9/11 happened, she had asked herself what her life would mean if she died, and she decided to do something more meaningful than selling TV ads in Texas. She settled in to her old hometown and went to work. One of her best friends, also her boss, was a blogger. They had breakfast every day, and she would go off on whatever was on the morning news. And one day he said, you need to blog. She had a lot of feminist opinions—she had joined a woman’s group to meet friends and they volunteered at a woman’s shelter for women who have just given birth or were pregnant.

He set her up, and they gave it a name, Angry Black Bitch. Starting February 10, 2005, Merritt began by just saying whatever she thought each morning, two cups of coffee and a cigarette in hand. She thought she was just talking to herself and maybe some local friends. She never looked at the statistics, but one day Michel Martin called from NPR to ask to interview the St. Louis blogger. After Merritt posted about the movie King Kong, she woke up and saw four hundred comments, and she realized someone was reading her besides her friends. She started contributing to Feministing, in addition to her own blog.

She concluded in her public role that you need to be unapologetically who you are. She was a black woman, a fusion, not an intersection. On the one hand, black bloggers criticizing her for writing for Feministing deprived her entirely of agency. “And I shall not be used…or schooled on a history I live every fucking day and know all too well,” she blogged, “or judged to be a sell out by people who don’t even have the decency to call me by name.” On the other, she found herself deeply alienated by white feminist Gloria Steinem’s op-ed supporting Hillary Clinton against the rising threat from Barack Obama, and she was an early voice of black women pushing back: “After reading Steinem’s Op-Ed I felt invisible…as if black and woman can’t exist in the same body. I felt undocumented…as if the history of blacks and the history of women have nothing to do with the history of black women.”

But she thinks she contributed to the expectation that black women are necessary for feminism and that it is possible and critical to center black women in feminism. Having the ability to publish without an editor gave unfiltered access for her voice, the single most powerful experience of her life. A black woman, the descendant of slaves, being able to say what she wanted. She built a career, got a job at Planned Parenthood, and got writing assignments, because she could write and publish freely.

When things came up, like the Duke lacrosse case or Hurricane Katrina, mainstream feminist bloggers were focused on the classic feminist issues, and black women bloggers could see things the white bloggers could not. She saw Hurricane Katrina as a black women’s reproductive issue, and she focused on the fate of the black neighborhoods. At the end, she was proudest of the range of topics she covered. She wanted to cast a feminist web over all her writing, regardless of subject matter and to encourage every diverse black female voice to come in, even when she disagreed with them. At that specific time, 2003–10, it was, Merritt thinks, like “Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle. It was an amazing time to be alive.”

Also, she finally got to feel and say how angry she was about having to gag down the white guys’ fantasy of sex with a black woman.

Laboring away at the now looks-and-sex-obsessed Glamour magazine in 2002, twentysomething Anna Holmes also remembered Sassy. Holmes was an unusual combination—a political idealist who understood the value of earning an income. Her white mother, working in New York for a gender and racial activist, and her African American father met at a party of civil rights workers in a Southern town in the 1960s. They moved to Davis, California, hoping a liberal college town would be more welcoming. There were copies of the New Yorker, Ebony, and Jet lying around Holmes’s house, and her mother took her to Take Back the Night marches and abortion rights rallies in San Francisco. In the evenings, her parents would watch TV and yell at the news. Although she found it painful to witness their anger, the message somehow sank in.

Holmes got that she was different. Her schoolmates were well-off white children, and she felt keenly her parents’ anxiety about money. As she describes it, her parents saw to it that she and her sister always had enough to wear and eat and even an occasional road trip vacation. But at Davis High School, there were BMWs in the school parking lot while her parents agonized over whether their ancient Chevy would last another minute, and how they were going to send their daughters to college at all. Her mother, possessed of two graduate degrees, spent much of her life teaching snotty high school kids how to type to support her family. So Holmes conceived the idea that she would grow up and make a lot of money. Nursing the ancient Chevy, Anna’s father dreamed California dreams of having a big Chevrolet Suburban and, she says, “I was going to grow up and buy him a Suburban.”

Holmes left California as soon as she could to go to college at New York University. At NYU, Holmes’s frustration with her female colleagues boiled over into a first venture into feminist writing, an article in Manhattan South, the NYU journalism magazine. Where had she seen writing about feminism at NYU? On the wall of a college bathroom.

Despite her feminism and her fond memories of Sassy, and although she dreamed of writing serious nonfiction, Holmes couldn’t afford to take the jobs reserved for the East Coast elite, unpaid internships and the like. So she went to work for Entertainment Weekly and at women’s magazines, ultimately at Bonnie Fuller’s Glamour. Anna, tall and blessed with beautiful olive skin, nonetheless dressed in jeans and sneakers as a silent rebellion against the Devil Wears Prada skinny dressed-up environment at Condé Nast. And she got really pissed off at the state of women’s media, comparing the current Glamour to the old, politically relevant Glamour she remembered and listening to her friends’ reports of feminism from the middle of the third wave. Holmes eventually landed at another women’s magazine, In Style. In Style was okay; it was materialistic and shallow, but it didn’t tell women how to act.

When she left it was because she got an offer to launch a blog for up-and-coming Gawker media—Jezebel (“Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing”). She thought it would be perilous to categorize what she was about to do as compared to the not-for-profit and openly political Feministing. Jezebel was going to be commercial, and Holmes was going to be properly paid. Celebrity magazines were at their height and there was a real focus on celebrity and consumerism. Well, she thought, if that’s what they want to read about, that’s fine.

“If we were going to be addressing a wide swath of feminism we had to use the words and not use euphemisms.”

But still Anna Holmes had an agenda. She was pissed off at the women’s magazines, with their disempowering messages for women. She would transform Jezebel, the commercial website she’d been asked to run, into a Trojan horse, she thought. Each of the Gawker sites had their eyes trained on the mainstream businesses in its wheelhouse. The sports site was constantly going after ESPN, and Gizmodo, the tech site, was all over Apple. It just made sense that the women’s site would go after women’s media, the regressive other outlets responsible for sending harmful messages to women. And that’s what Anna Holmes set out to do.

The first thing Jezebel, the site without airbrushing, took on was, as announced, the airbrushing. In July 2007 Jezebel ran the “before” cover photo of Faith Hill from Redbook before the magazine airbrushed pounds from her neck, shoulder, back, and arm, and took her eyes where the crows don’t fly. Redbook had transformed the thirty-nine-year-old mother of three into an anorectic twenty-five-year-old. Whew, in a couple of days the brand-new site had 11,500 Google hits. The story, ABC News reported, “will make you gasp.”

Feministing, for one, gave its commercial sister a shout-out.

Anna Holmes was going to talk about things that had not been discussed openly. “Abortion. Sexual assault up to and including rape. Saying you were a feminist was a dirty word. If we were going to be addressing a wide swath of feminism we had to use the words and not use euphemisms. Sexual assault has been a fact of life for most women in some point in their life.” Jezebel was going to address those issues without airbrushing and with a certain amount of anger too. Holmes was angry about living in a culture that was backtracking about women’s roles in the culture. She was angry at consumerism and at her participation in it at Glamour. But, being Anna Holmes, she also wanted to talk joyfully about superficial things. There was an article about designer Marc Jacobs and whether the covered-up dresses in his current show were actually “polygamist fashion,” as in the breakaway branches of the Mormon church. Complete with luscious pictures of the garb.

Within two months, the site had attracted a spontaneous follow-in of women, who called themselves Jezzies, or Jezebelles, a vibrant ecosystem of commentary. Four months after the site launched, Holmes began to push to do electoral coverage, and the readers wrote in to say they loved it, especially the coverage of the 2008 female candidate for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. Turns out, there was a need. After a decade or more of “I’m not a feminist,” “lipstick feminism,” “do-me feminism,” and sex parties intended to equalize the female gaze, attracting the very creepiest men, the need Holmes had felt to call out retrograde attitudes toward women was everywhere. In those days, the site updated once every five or ten minutes, so people kept refreshing it all day. It created a brand.

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Feminism Reborn: Online, On Campus is excerpted from Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment © 2019 by Linda Hirshman. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Linda Hirshman
Linda Hirshman
Linda Hirshman is the author of the New York Times and Washington Post best-selling book Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World. She is also the lawyer and political pundit who wrote the first history of the gay revolution since everything changed: Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. She has written about social movements for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Slate.com, and The Daily Beast. She has appeared on NPR (all day August 31, 2015, at launch of Sisters in Law), Freakonomics Radio, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, and above all, on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. She lives in Arizona and New York.





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