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Where are the Young Feminist Leaders? For Now, Right Here Online

Infographic showing women's use of online media

A new report released tonight by the Barnard Center for Research on Women paints a powerful picture of the future of feminist activism. The #FemFuture: Online Revolution report, put together by Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti with 21 other collaborators, argues that blogs and social media are the central landscape for the future of feminism.

This isn't just a bunch of online chatter; feminist movements online are legitimate, powerful, and diverse. But what they sorely need is funding.

This doesn't sound like groundbreaking news to anyone remotely familiar with feminist blogs, but in the broader world of political science, it is a big deal. We largely still look to traditional institutions—conferences, universities, protests, legislatures, newspapers—for signs of political influence and activism. Instead, the most vibrant feminist activism is happening outside those spaces (and their funding models) by existing on social media, blogs, and other websites. 

The main point the research hammers home here is that the conversations we have about feminist issues online are definitely powerful. While women occupy only 22 percent of leadership positions in mainstream media forums, the report notes, the internet offers anyone with an internet connection, opinions, and time the chance to broadcast her voice around the world.  

Social media lowers the barriers to becoming politically active have lowered—you no longer have organize a rally or show up at obscure meeting to register your political protest, you can just start a Twitter account, an online petition, or a Facebook page. Sure, online organizing definitely lacks the face-to-face value of old-school political meetups, but it can have a profound impact both on the individuals participating and groups we target for change. Online-only feminist actions have forced Facebook to remove rapey pages, funded the creation of lots of feminist media, and forced major companies to rethink sexist marketing. 

There's a tendency to dismiss online activism and make Twitter the butt of jokes about kids these days, but the fact is that people large and small listen to feminist voices online.

What #FemFuture argues is this current effective and powerful online world of feminism can't last long. Without better funding sources and infrastructure, young feminist leaders will burn out and the online resources will fade away.  

The world of online feminism is "decentralized and accessible, unapologetically intersectional, community-oriented" is full of politically active young people and can create rapid change. "In this way, it is a powerful pipeline for the next generation of feminist leadership," reads the report. But feminist work online is woefully underfunded—most people writing about feminism online are doing so for free or on miniscule budgets. 

That's a big problem for three reasons. One, working long hours for no pay will lead to burn out among activists. But also, argues the report, "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 then more that anti-feminist forces will use the tolls we've invented to push back."

The paper calls for developing infrastructures for online feminism the way other political movements have built themselves ways to bring in funding and make real-life connections. Among the ideas: Starting an annual online feminism conference, launching an online feminist boot camp, and creating a Craigslist-like skill share site for feminist websites. 

Creating infrastructure for feminist activism is complicated, because the "feminist movement" isn't a monolithic wave but a bunch of intersecting perspectives and political causes—all pushing toward greater global equality, but all from different directions. That's a strength. The key will be finding a ways to create stable funding and structures for a group that's profoundly diverse.  

Image from #FemFuture report infographic

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