The third wave - at a computer near you
Feminist blogs are booming. But are they globalising emancipation - or just playthings for the rich and well educated? By Kira Cochrane
Friday March 31, 2006
Young women are apathetic. They're not feminists. They don't call themselves feminists. They don't know what feminism is all about.
"That," says Jessica Valenti, "was all we ever seemed to hear - from colleagues, from the media. And we just thought, who are they talking about? I know young women all over the place who do feminist work. We wanted to show that young feminists aren't crazy or mean, but cool. A lot of feminism has this academic basis that can be very off-putting. And so we thought, let's put something out there that's not dry and academic, but lively and fun."
So Valenti became one of the founders of Feministing.com, a highly popular blog website that attracts 100,000 visitors a month. Each day it features between five and 10 women's stories, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. An article on incoming Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, for example, is followed by a wisecrack on a dubious skin-tightening product called Virgin Cream.
And it's not alone. In the two years since feministing started, there has been an explosion of feminist blogs, including many that have a highly professional edge, and a large, loyal readership. The feminist movement has always produced plenty of meaty writing and lively debate: witness Sylvia Pankhurst's newspaper, the Woman's Dreadnought, in the 1910s, through the pamphleteering of the 1970s second-wave, and the vibrant 'zine culture of the 1990s' "riot grrrl" movement. Prior to the blogosphere though, distribution remained local for all but a few major publications, such as Spare Rib, Ms, or, latterly, Bust and Bitch magazines.
Now though, the third wave (a movement often dismissed as a myth) has gone online. At feminist blogs you can find women writing on a bewildering range of topics, be it the perilously high caesarean rate in India, the dearth of abortion clinics in South Dakota, or the human rights record of the Philippines' president, Gloria Arroyo.
Some of the most popular blogs include Bitch PhD, the F-word, Pandagon, AngryBlackBitch, MindtheGapCardiff and Gendergeek. A recent estimate put the number of feminist blogs at 240,000, but, given that this posited the number of "active" worldwide blogs at 4m (some figures put it as high as 27.2m), and the proportion of women who are self-described feminists at 10% (a British survey this month produced a figure of 29%) the true figure could be much higher.
Comparative levels of computer literacy and interest mean that younger women do dominate. As Valenti says, "There's always been this sense among second-wave feminists that young women just aren't interested. That's never been true though: they just didn't know how to reach us."
There has also typically been a suspicion that if younger women are interested in feminism it's of a specific variety: what's sometimes called "girlie" feminism. The mainstream media tends to highlight young feminists whose outlook is "sexy". Those, for instance, who frame pole dancing as a feminist act.
Go online, though, and you are immediately struck by the huge variety of outlook and opinions. This is most evident at the twice-monthly Carnival of Feminists, set up by British blogger Natalie Bennett, who also runs Philobiblion, a women's history blog. Each carnival (usually on the first and third Wednesday of the month) is hosted by a different blogger, who invites people to contribute articles on current events or a general theme: "radical feminism", for instance, or "1970s feminism and what it means today". The host then chooses the best pieces, putting links to between 50 to 100 articles up on their site and providing a short commentary on each. This effectively creates a major new anthology of feminist thought every two weeks.
"People are always saying the feminist movement is dead, but I've never believed that," says Rebecca Traister, a feature writer for Salon.com, and one of the founders of Salon's own women's blog, Broadsheet, which launched last year. "What I think is that it's taking a modern, technological form, and that, from now on, feminism will be about a multiplicity of voices, growing louder and louder online."
But is it all just sound and fury? The blogs reflect second-wave ideas of consciousness raising and the personal as political (many women write about their experiences of rape and sexual assault), but there's a question mark over how this feeds into grass-roots activism.
Nina Wakeford, a sociologist at the University of Surrey, is cautious about blogging's influence. "I think the way blogs can provoke debate is useful," she concedes, "but it isn't clear how much they feed into activism. In the past, there was a clear role for women's organisations as regards representations to government, but I'm not sure whether women can affect public policy through blogging. Just who are they representing?"
This last question is interesting. As with second-wave feminism, this online movement is open to the accusation that it simply represents privileged white women. "Blogging is still somewhat limited, of course," says Georgia Gaden, a postgraduate researcher who has studied feminist blogs, "because although we take our access for granted, many women, globally, don't have that luxury."
That said, these blogs do redress the balance by highlighting global stories. And the Carnival of Feminists is trying to reach as many women as possible, with the most recent carnival held on the Indian blog, Indianwriting. "That was our fourth continent," says Bennett, "and I'm looking for an African blogger, so that we can reach our fifth."
The links between feminist blogs and activism are nascent - in January there was a "blog for choice" on abortion, and earlier this month saw mass blogs on street harassment and sexism - but they look set to grow. And for now, the sites provide both an insight into the strength of feeling among young feminists, and a much-needed alternative to mainstream women's magazines. If a young woman asked her about feminism, says Gaden, a blogosphere is the first place she'd direct her to. Traister agrees. "There are so many authentic voices out there that it's really invigorating. It just goes to prove that the internet isn't just for accessing porn!"
In their own words: The best of feminist blogs
Later this month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is inducting Blondie. This makes Debbie Harry - only the 43rd woman out of nearly 500 people total - to be honoured by the rock hall since it opened in 1983. Hmm. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame claims you don't have to have a penis to get in ...
March 14, Ann, Feministing
The Mexican government is taking a stand against the objectification of women by running commercials that star blow-up sex dolls ... Interesting. So do I not like the ads because: 1) President Vicente Fox trivialises the murders of over 400 women in Ciudad Juarez, as well as recently referring to women as "washing machines with two legs", or 2) inflatable sex dolls scare the bejesus out of me?
March 10, Vanessa, Feministing
We should be under no illusion that the sexist attitudes that underpin (gender-based) violence are as deeply entrenched as ever. The radical notion that men should get consent before having sex has elicited a bizarrely hysterical response over at the Daily Mail, a newspaper that has the audacity to accuse feminists of being hypersensitive.
March 8, Emma, Gendergeek
Time magazine reports that colleges across the country are now offering more classes on pornography ... Whether we like it or not, porn is everywhere, so why shouldn't it be probed and questioned and studied? Maybe porn can be just as fun and educational as it is degrading. And by dissecting it in a thoughtful way, we can take back its power.
March 28, Sarah Elizabeth Richards, Broadsheet
Social conservatives are pretty damn wishful ... they are also ethnocentric and culturally homogeneous in their thinking. To assume that having a parent stay at home is universally beneficial is intellectually lazy ... my mother stayed at home. She was also a demented individual.
March 22, AngryBlackBitch