The revolution will not be televised: Ruminations on #femfuture and what it all means

There’s been a lot of bitching on the feminist interwebs about this whole #FemFuture: Online Revolution, proposed by Valenti Martin Media, aka Feministing co-creators Jessica Vanessa Valenti and Courtney Martin at a launch event at Barnard College on Monday. At its core, the #FemFuture project seeks to unify a disparate online feminist landscape and help the success of feminist social justice campaigns by bringing in monetary backers to end the cycle of “unpaid martyrs,” as Zerlina Maxwell called it in an Ebony article on the launch.

She went on to say:

Online activism is often referred to as “slactivism” and in many ways this idea that online petitions and tweets are all that online feminists are doing is misguided. Online feminists are transforming cultural norms and the way many Americans think about gender related issues. For example, the harmful impacts of rape culture don’t reach the mainstream but for the persistence of online feminist spaces breaking into the mainstream conversation.

No movement can sustain itself if there is no funding and nothing to support the most loyal and active who too often burn out and leave the movement when life gets in the way. Online feminists shouldn’t have to be unpaid martyrs for the cause; Other aspects of the women’s and progressive movement are backed up by sponsors so that their efforts can be long lasting. In the past decade, feminists haven’t been in hiding, they’ve been online and on social media, telling stories, supporting each other’s experiences, debating, and shaping both public opinion and public policy. It’s time for a little recognition and funding to keep this momentum going.

Before I go any further, I feel like we need to unpack all this. There’s a lot to chew on in these paragraphs and in what Valenti Martin Media is proposing with #FemFuture.

Many know Valenti as the creator of Feministing, an online feminist blog and activist space. As online media changes and grows, Feministing has remained a beacon of how to do it well. Indeed, I launched The Sin City Siren six years ago because I loved Feministing so much. And while I have yet to realize my dream of multiple authors for the site, I am happy to have built this feminist outpost in the land of the lost (feminists). Las Vegas is a uniquely American city with an unparalleled contribution to misogyny and rape culture. To be a feminist in Las Vegas takes guts. And it doesn’t hurt to be a little crazy. But what has kept me sane has been this touchstone to so many other feminists, both here and elsewhere. The community we’ve built together at SCS has made Las Vegas a tolerable place. It gives me hope. So, I feel a great debt to Feministing, in a fundamental sense. I owe them an acknowledgement for a road paved.

Here’s the scoop from the #FemFuture executive summary:

Young women have used online tools to successfully pressure Facebook to take down pro-rape pages, to get Seventeen Magazine to stop photoshopping girls’ bodies in their pages, and to reverse the Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s decision to remove funding from Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Beyond these more measurable impacts, countless young people, many of them feeling isolated and/or misunderstood in their own towns, discover feminism online and are transformed by it; conversations on blogs and tumblrs are often called “consciousness raising for the 21st century.” Online feminism is arguably the largest and most effective innovation in feminism in the last 50 years.

The online feminist ecosystem primarily consists of blogs, organizations that run online campaigns, online petition platforms, and individual thought leaders who leverage Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other socialmedia platforms.What makes this ecosystem distinct is that it is decentralized and accessible, unapologetically intersectional, community-oriented, catalyzes rapid, large-scale action, and is very often youth-led. In this way, it is a powerful pipeline for the next generation of feminist leadership.

But for all the progress that online feminism has made, it is unquestionably hindered by being largely unsupported and uncoordinated. Most young feminists leveraging online tools are doing so as a “third shift”— after their paid job, and their on-the-ground, unpaid activism. Most online feminist entities—whether blogs or more formal organizations—are operating on profoundly inadequate budgets, pieced together from individual donors, third party ad revenue, or some combination. No philanthropic institution yet exists that has funding specifically available for online feminist innovation.

This is unhealthy for individual feminists who are overworked, often uninsured, and burned out, but it’s also dangerously unhealthy for the movement as a whole. Online feminism has mostly been exercised in ad-hoc and reactive ways. The longer it remains unsupported, the more it will become a province of the already privileged, who can afford to donate unpaid labor to their favorite cause, and the more that anti-feminist forces will use the tools we’ve invented to push progress back.

But there is hope.We believe that forging partnerships between feminists—online and off, young and wise, poor and wealthy, organizing at the grassroots and strategizing at the treetops—will have far-reaching consequences.

It will foster the formation of new connections between grassroots advocacy and service organizations, educational institutions, coalitions, unions, convenings, conferences, legacy media, policy makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, etc. Online feminism has the capacity to be like the nervous system of this modern day feminist body politic.

I can’t say I disagree with much of this. Despite getting syndicated two years ago, for the majority of the six years I’ve been doing SCS, it has been an unpaid passion project. Indeed even now with syndication, I do not always break even each quarter. In truth, even though I work SCS like a day job, I take on other work as a consultant and freelance journalist to actually pay my bills. It is also the reason why my toddler only goes to dayschool part-time and stays home with me the rest of the time. I simply can’t afford to pay for child care to do work that is largely unpaid. To say that SCS is my “third shift,” would be a huge understatement. For me, the writing and activism I do through SCS is like my first-through-third shifts. Even though I know that Valenti and Martin are using “third shift” as an allusion to the storied “second shift” that women work doing the majority of housework after a first shift of their paid work, The Sin City Siren often subsumes any time I would have for housework or even sleep. (You do not want to know how often I must wait until everyone else is in bed before I write my posts.)

Do I wish that my writing and activism through The Sin City Siren were monetarily rewarded the same way my husband’s work is at his job? Abso-fucking-lutely! But I also accept that the kind of work I do is often not rewarded in a monetized way. Perhaps it is my background in journalism that has prepared me for this. When I worked full-time in journalism, I never once — NOT ONE TIME — got paid overtime (or holiday pay). And I worked every holiday except Christmas. I worked 50+ hours a week, standard. So, I guess I just come with the built-in understanding that the market does not value my talents and skills. In fact, now more than ever because of the evolution of online media and entertainment, the audience expects content to be free and they do not care if the people who are providing it are getting paid.

And then there’s the issue of what getting paid means. If I take ad money, am I beholden to advertisers? If I align my blog with an organization, do they get some control over content?

Okay, so maybe it sounds like I’m saying that I’m not down with what the #FemFuture project is trying to do. Not at all. And while I can’t speak for the people having conversations I’ve been seeing (and having) on twitter, I can see where there are some issues. #FemFuture proposes an annual conference, bootcamps, a kind of feminist Craigslist and more. Sure. Yes. Why not? What I keep wondering is, who is paying for all this? And how will this change anything?

As far as I can tell, it’s an outline of the model we are all already working with. If I want to go to a conference, I have to pay out of my own pocket. If I need skills or services, I have to seek them out and work out trades or payment. But there are already conferences and bootcamps that are designed to help feminist blogging. I don’t go to them because they are all, generally speaking, on the East Coast and thus cost- and time-prohibitive. To me, what this structure outlines is just another exasperating instance of “that’s not really for me.” If I can’t afford to access it, it might as well not exist. And let me tell you, the sparse feminist community in places like Nevada, Wyoming, Alaska, and other outlier Western states could really use some stuff like this!

And no doubt, there are many other communities who feel blocked to access the kind of online feminist utopia #FemFuture is offering. You can’t participate in online activism, after all, if you can’t get online. Libraries are closing. And you can’t worry about online activism if you lack access to stable housing, a safe environment to work, or even have the time to dedicate to such work. As always, feminist leaders in the movement have to be careful to not isolate or alienate the many splendored thing that is the feminist community. LGBT individuals, women of color, differently abled people, homeless people, and more — we are here, even if we are sometimes excluded from the dominant memes. And we will not be excluded even if the dominant discussions — from within and without feminist circles — continue to be relegated to the middle-class delusion of “having it all” or “opting out.”

But I don’t want to dismiss #FemFuture out of hand. I think that’s a disservice to what is being offered. There is something valuable to what Valenti and Martin are exploring. There’s a discussion to be engaged. And there’s a chance to learn from, rather than deny, our feminist roots and the work of previous generations and waves.

As a coincidence of fate, I happen to have started reading Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus. While I can’t say I ever formally affiliated myself with the Riot Grrrl movement, I am of that age and generation. And no doubt, my feminist outrage was stoked by the punk music I listened to, which was in-turn influenced by Riot Grrrls demanding parity in music and society. More than the movement itself, I identify with the immediacy that the Riot Grrrl movement allowed.

Rather than feel that we were all “suddenly” onto the global secret of misogyny and rape culture, I look at it now and see that every new generation is “suddenly” onto the global secret of misogyny and rape culture. In the same way that teenagers and young adults are always discovering the ways of the world and (hopefully) looking at them through a intersectional-feminist lense. What Riot Grrrl did do was allow for an immediate reaction to what I was seeing and feeling in ways that had not been done before. Yes, I had a zine. (More than one.) I got a job at my university’s women’s center. I organized my first rallies and protests. I look on my punk-fueled, radical-feminist, college years with the kind of nostalgia that is probably not that unlike the Baby Boomers who wistfully remember the 60s. Because being a punk-feminist in the age of Riot Grrrls meant that there were a whole lot of us. We were visible. And in the pre-internet age, we managed to find ways to connect — sometimes across great distances.

Me and my best friend Josh, circa 1995.

As Marcus writes (and forgive me as I transcribe this from the book):

These girls weren’t all punk, they didn’t all have bands, and while they were the coolest girls I’d ever met, they were cool in a way that drew me closer instead of shutting me out. They were courageous, profane, and powerful. They would have socked that fitting-room attendant [who menaced me with the threat of sexual attack] in the face. They would have redone the NOW club’s bulletin board [from ‘Feminism: It’s about choices’] to read ‘Maybe I wouldn’t have to be a feminist if you weren’t such an asshole.’ … [The] severity [of being a teenage girl] and the specific tone of its miseries were political, which meant they were mutable. I felt powerless not because I was weak but because I lived in a society that drained girls of power. Boys harassed me not because I invited it but because they were taught it was acceptable and saw that no one intervened. These things weren’t my fault, and we could fight them all together.

And really, I see blogging and the online activism I do as a direct out-growth of my earlier pre-internet Riot Grrrl-era days. What was a hand-pasted zine in those days looks like blogs and tumblr now. The punk-influenced idea of using our bodies and clothing as a direct confrontation to political and societal oppression — such as writing on our bodies with sharpies or wearing combat boots everywhere — is now captured in vignettes on instagram and pinterest. The personal is still political.

As much as things die of irrelevancy, they grow and evolve and crop up again in new forms in new eras.

What we have to be careful of now is that in the #FemFuture that we’re all writing and recording, is that we don’t just say the same things over and over again. That in our haste to blaze new trails, that we are not repeating the same mistakes of the past. There is a reason that many people of color and LGBT people disdain the feminist movement, and those reasons are rooted in real issues. We have left them out. Time and time again. The forms change, but the mistakes remain.

So, as I look at #FemFuture, what I hope is that this is a new beginning that is actually new. That we are actually going somewhere together. Because I like to think Marcus’ memories of the Riot Grrrl movement — of finding a home in a community — is something we can still do today. But better. And without the cheesy name.

2 thoughts on “The revolution will not be televised: Ruminations on #femfuture and what it all means

  1. Pingback: On #femfuture | Speaker's Corner in the ATX (scATX)

  2. the personal is political has always been cliche but true. I think a significant and hard to quantify impact of online activism is the subtle shifting of norms through social media. I know as a father I think much more about how i am raising my daughter in regards to rape culture because of the daily posts and tweets I read highlighting what rape culture is and looks like. This shifts my thinking, my behavior and most importantly the opportunities I provide or barriers I eliminate for my daughter to grow up to realize her full potential unfettered by limitations based on her gender. That seems to be the promise of the feminist movement artfully and personally achieved.

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