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How Do We Define Online Feminism? #FemFuture Ignites Debate.

The future of online feminism graphic

How do you make money from online content? In the past two decades, this financial dilemma has plagued everything from newspapers to political-action organizations to social-media behemoths like Facebook. 

This week, feminist researchers released a report on the necessity of finding a way to sustainably fund online feminist work, from writing to organizing to resource sharing. The Barnard Center for Research on Women report "#FemFuture: Online Feminism" argues that the most vibrant feminist activist space right now is the Internet, with momentum and conversation possible in a powerful new way thanks to online tools—but that feminists who have devoted themselves to making change online are in danger of burning out if their work remains unfunded. 

The publication of the paper Monday night sparked a flurry of discussion, with criticism of the paper centering on how painting a portrait of feminism and its future inevitably leaves many people and groups out of the picture. 

As FemFuture co-author Courtney Martin sums up, after sifting through days of pushback to the paper, "This is unknown, incredibly messy territory." 

Martin and co-author Vanessa Valenti struggled for years to build a funding model for Feministing, the site Valenti co-founded and they both edited. After Martin left her official position at the blog in 2011, the pair founded a media consultancy company and began thinking about a way to address the power of online feminist work and the perpetual problems funding such work in a way that would "help the whole ecosystem" of feminist blogs and social media. FemFuture is the result of a year of research into feminist impact, burnout, needs, and funding ideas.  

The heart of the paper was drafted when the two convened a meeting of 21 feminists in New York City last year, at an event sponsored by Barnard College, Martin's alma mater. The location and list of hand-picked participants gave rise to criticism this week of the paper being just a particular, regionally specific and exclusive take on feminism.  

"It's absolutely true that it was a geographically narrow group of people," says Martin. "As someone who grew up in Colorado Springs, I'm really excited about feminism not going on in New York. I know this may be unpopular, but it was really important to me to have a meeting in a room face to face." With seed money from donors, the group was able bring a small handful of out-of-state participants to the convening, but didn't want to expand the invitation to people who would have to pay their own way. They asked people to weigh in on the topic via Twitter but decided not to have people virtually attend the meet-up because it would be difficult to include video conversation with the face-to-face talk. 

"We honestly hope that this is the beginning of a much larger conversation and other meetings and papers that contradict us," says Martin. "We're not trying to create a monopoly on communication about this issue. It would be awesome if people organize their own meetings about this across the country."

Numerous bloggers and Twitter users have commented on the FemFuture since it went live Monday night (read other commentary on Shakesville, PolicyMic, Red Light Politics and Feminaust and, if you've got a while, the whole Twitter timeline for #femfuture). There is clearly a hunger for more discussion on the issues here and 140 characters can be a bit limiting, so Bitch reached out to several feminist writers not involved in the project to write longer reactions to the paper—and to elucidate what the feminist future looks like from where they sit.

Bitch Media is mentioned in the report but was not involved in the project—the list of collaborators is available here.

LISA FACTORA-BORCHERS of MyEcdysis.com:

The FemFuture report centralized and compressed the work of a group of feminist identified activists, bloggers, writers and agitators to prophesy the future of online feminism.  What seems to be a blind spot is clarifying the difference between supporting social justice movements and establishing an effort to institutionalize a portion of feminist action.  Namely, the online movement for US identified, English speaking, tech-savvy feminists.

Online feminism is one extension and brand of feminism with its own issues of silencing and kyriarchal ideologies.  Given this reality, if FemFuture truly aspires to bridge the online and offline world, it needs to be as transparent as hell about not only its goals but also its limitations.  No where in the report was there a declaration of understanding power, privilege, and the limitations of holding a meeting among friends and similar ideological activists to a one day brainstorming session in New York City and then publishing it English as the future of online feminism.  That's a problem.  And it's insulting.

The deepest suggestion and critique I have for mainstream, mainstream-practicing feminists, and #FemFuture is to be utterly transparent and aware of voice and specificity. This is a US-centric, western culture dominated conversation with a targeted constituency.  You can't throw an invite only party and then claim it's an open house.  Just say what it is, who the party is for because, clearly, it can't and shouldn't be for everyone and not everyone who comes to your party wants everyone at the party anyway, dig?  It's still a party, and you should do your thing.  Just be transparent and real about it.

JESSICA LUTHER of Flyover Feminism:

I appreciate the effort of #femfuture to bring validity and gravitas to the online feminist activist work that so many people do every day all over the world.

Martin and Valenti state up front that the convening of voices in New York City was colored by the location. As a co-creator and co-editor of Flyover Feminism, I was, of course, interested and concerned about the centralization of the experience of people who live and work in that singular geographical space as standing in for a broad discussion of "online feminism."

I wonder, what would #femfuture look like if it was written by people who live in Oklahoma City? Or perhaps, rural Oklahoma? Idaho? Mexico City? Cairo? Johannesburg? Or what if it was primarily a group of queer activists, trans activists, and/ or disability activists? How would "online feminism" be defined? What would they pinpoint as "the least sustained entities within online feminism"? What strategies would they bring to the table as how to create sustainability for the movement and as how to practice self-care?

I sincerely hope this is the beginning of a larger conversation about these issues and that adequate space is created to allow many voices to participate. And that those voices are all held up as legitimate and necessary even if they do not have the time or resources to create their own white paper, build a website, or have a launch to publicize them.

TF CHARLTON of Are Women Human?:

"Who are you? What do you need? How can we help?"

In her intro to the FemFuture report, Courtney Martin expresses the hope that it will answer these questions for "feminist organizers, writers, philanthropists, and institutional leaders" who are asking the above questions of "online feminists." These are important questions to ask. It's also important who's doing the asking, how these questions are answered, and who's part of answering them.

One of my concerns about femfuture is these questions are addressed in one direction only – describing who "online feminists" are, in the authors' assessment, for the benefit of people whose influence can be leveraged. How would these questions be answered by the many feminists (some of whom don't identify as "online feminists") whose work was profiled in the report without their knowledge? It's become clear that several of them would describe who they are, what they need, and how their work can be supported very differently than the authors.

This is one of the limitations with the concept of "inclusion"; we need to ask who is doing the including, and to what end. We can't expect people to be content, much less honored, to be included whether or not their actual needs and identities are meaningfully represented.

 

As a conversation-starter, this paper has definitely succeeded in getting feminists talking about the pros and cons of building feminist infrastructure. It's important to recognize that it's a snapshot of the shape of feminist activism in a specific time and place, among a specific group of people.

"We wanted to start to historicize what has happened over the past 20 and 30 years," says Martin. "I would rather that people get pissed off and write their own version of history than to not have it written at all."

 

What's your take? Please share your thoughts below. Also, read our previous coverage of the FemFuture paper and the peruse report itself here

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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

FemFuture is a good starting

FemFuture is a good starting point. I hope that those critical of the process taken by the NY bunch will respond with their own FemFuture papers, articles, and the like. It sure has inspired me to hold a gathering where i live and join in on the conversation!

I agree with Lara's comment.

I agree with Lara's comment. I think it's a great intro, particularly for folks who are new to conference discussions. I feel as though Valenti is trying to bridge a gap between the colloquial online and stuffy academia, but wasn't anticipating how large the project would be.
As someone said at the conference, an inclusion of cell phone and sms users is a good step - a welcome addition among many.
While I have many problems with the paper, I think that in feminist theory we too often find criticisms and, instead of building on the work, disregard it.

Feminism

I went to the FemFuture website and read quite a bit. It talks a lot about organizing and "justice", but there are no measurable objectives. What is the goal of feminism? How will you know when the objectives have been accomplished?

As a young adult in the 1960's, I haven't seen much progress. In fact, more women and children live in poverty today than half a century ago. More children are failing literacy tests. More women are depending upon government and more women are seeking and unable to find husbands. Women's health and well-being seem to be losing ground.

If higher standards of living, life satisfaction, health and well-being are the key metrics, it looks like we're backsliding. More women are entering professional arenas, but successful professionals are always a small minority of society. Has the health and well-being of the majority of average women been sacrificed so an elite few can prosper?

What are the goals and how will we know when they have been met?

Best regards,
Gail S

What I don't get is why a

What I don't get is why a discussion about online feminism has to be face to face. If it's about stuff happening online, why can't the discussion itself happen online. It would certainly make it much easier to include a variety of voices.

Fem for the win

I completely agree!
My own blog (www.talkingaboutmeh.blogspot.com.au) really focuses on social commentary and the plight of women from dating expectations (why women can't order a steak and have to stick to salad) to toileting disadvantages. I try to give a voice to feminism in a satirical way and to educate both men and women to question these inequalities we assume as status quo. This is how i am attempting to empower women!