I want to thank Shaker masculine_lady, who was the conference organizer, and her incredible Haven and Haven-adjacent team of women—Kathryn, Leah, and Ellen—for inviting me and being awesome. I love those women.
I also want to thank my co-panelists on the closing plenary—Heather Corinna, Ashon Crawley, and Alex Goddard—and the panelists on the opening plenary—Jessica Luther, Kristie Dotson, and Emi Koyama—and the keynote speaker, Lauren Chief Elk, who are all so brilliant and so full of creative, loving energy. I love these people, and I learned so much from them, personally and professionally.
As for everything else, more to come. And for now, this will suffice:
If I hadn't already written The Terrible Bargain, I would be writing it right now.— Melissa McEwan (@Shakestweetz) August 12, 2013
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One of the things we were asked to talk about today is who is left out of the conversation. And I’m going to start by doing what I realize is a totally annoying thing, and advocate for moving away from a model that imagines there is only one conversation in the first place.
Which is not to suggest we pretend that there isn’t a conversation that takes up most of the oxygen, that gets the most media attention, that is treated as representative of feminism, and that serves in many ways to entrench privilege within the feminist and womanist movement, or movements.
We all know that conversation exists, and that there are a lot of people left out of it, and that those people are having conversations of their/our own, so I want to start from a place that broadens our idea of what constitutes inclusivity—a place where we exchange the idea of inviting people to the dominant conversation for the idea of dismantling the concept of a singular conversation and speaking instead about many conversations reflecting many feminisms.
There are, I also want to acknowledge plainly, people who don’t even want to be part of the existing dominant conversation. There are people who hate that fucking conversation and wish that conversation would be put into a cannon and fired into the sun. There are people who feel the conversation is intractably compromised by the kyriarchal privileges of its loudest voices and don’t feel that adding people to the conversation is enough to meaningfully change it.
What I mean to observe is that there are people who are left out who don’t even want to be in it, and we need an approach that accommodates them/us, too.
To quote Flavia Dzodan, and I am quoting her here with her permission, “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” So the question for me becomes: How do I work in service to amplifying conversations that both complement and critique what we understand as the dominant conversation?
I think that starts with acknowledging that, right now, we have a mainstream feminism with privileged gatekeepers who pretend there’s no gate.
But, of course, there is a gate. There’s a gate that serves to keep people out, and serves to protect the privileges that grant the gatekeepers access to opportunities that are perceived to be limited.
I say “perceived” because I strongly suspect that if mainstream feminism wasn’t thought to be a hivemind and its most visible representatives weren’t almost exclusively straight, white, thin, conventionally attractive, cis women who live in urban media centers, there might be more opportunities for feminist or womanist identified women and men to participate in media. Why do we need more space to speak, if we’re all going to say roughly the same thing on a limited range of “women’s issues”—a category that tends to exclude topics like the economy or immigration reform or foreign policy or disability rights, subjects on which there are passionate and informed feminist and womanist experts, with explicitly feminist approaches, not that you’d know it from watching the news.
We aren’t regarded as a collective force with our own experts who should be invited to the table. We are assumed only to be experts on “women’s issues,” like reproductive health or equal pay, and we are assumed to have universal positions on those subjects, rather than being a vast, diverse philosophical and political movement that just happens to lack comprehensive representation in mainstream media discourse.
This oversight is mostly the fault of our lazy, complacent, exploitative, conservative, corporate, for-profit media. But it’s also a failure of the gatekeepers, the visible feminists with media access and presence, who tend to entrench the idea of a singular movement largely in agreement, for which they are the designated spokespeople, rather than enthusiastically promote the idea of a vibrant, diverse, messy, cacophonous, extraordinary, flawed, and permanently unreconciled movement of individual people.
Instead, what we see, over and over, is the myth of solidarity, acting in service to privilege, so that the gatekeepers who see no gate can retain their status as mouthpieces for a movement, the best ideas from which get distilled and repackaged as their own. Ideas they assert to convey on behalf of the movement. It isn’t plagiarism, or appropriation, when it’s representing the movement.
And anyone who protests, anyone who contests their work being filtered into privileged ownership detached from its source, is discredited as a troublemaker. Jealous. Vindictive. Ungrateful.
Because there is only one conversation. And the gatekeepers lead it.
Which brings me to the second part of what we were asked to address today, and that’s our reactions to the #FemFuture report written by Vanessa Valenti and Courtney Martin.
I want to start by repeating three things that prefaced my written reaction to the report: 1. I recognize and acknowledge that Vanessa Valenti and Courtney Martin put a lot of work and time into this report. I also want to acknowledge the work that the feminist online activists who shared their time and ideas contributed to the report. I further want to acknowledge the time and effort that both supporters and critics of the report have dedicated to reading it and discussing their personal perspectives.
2. I have met and corresponded with Vanessa Valenti, and I like her. I don't know Courtney Martin. What criticisms I have are not motivated by personal animus. Which I feel obliged to say not because I believe other critics were motivated by personal animus, but because, as always, criticism, especially criticism levied by women of color, was dismissed out of hand in some places with accusations of personal animus. And, well, I’ve noticed that I’m granted good faith by some people who don’t grant the same good faith to women of color saying similar things. I want to acknowledge that is a function of my privilege, and invite people who engage in that particular double-standard to consider why it is that I am treated as a good faith critic when many women of color are not.
And 3. I am going to be talking about my personal reaction to the report, which was centered around regionalism, because that was less-discussed than other concerns at the time of the report’s release. There was a lot of great discussion, particularly on Twitter, about accessibility, representation of participants, and inclusion, and I want to recommend to you to some of the women, particularly women of color, who shared their own perspectives, so that they might speak directly to you for themselves on their own personal reactions: @amaditalks, @redlightvoices, @thetrudz, @graceishuman, @feministgriote, @theangryfangirl, @spectraspeaks, @veronicaeye, @alisonrose711, @scATX. That is not a comprehensive list.
So, let me start my reaction to the #FemFuture report by observing that I exist in a weird space. Shakesville is frequently cited as one of the Big White Feminist blogs, for reasons I totally understand: Content; US-centrism; racial composition of contributors, though we have had for years multiple contributors and mods of color on staff whose work I do not want to invisibilize; a disproportionately white commentariat; and, most importantly, that I am white—the privilege conferred by which is deeply and inextricably embedded in the visibility of Shakesville in ways I can't even fully know.
Shakesville is, however, fundamentally different from the other Big White Feminist blogs in that it is run out of exurban Indiana. None of our contributors are in the major media centers of NYC or DC. I am not in academia; I don't have an advanced degree; I have never worked for a feminist organization. None of my volunteer work has been for an explicitly feminist organization. I am terrible at networking—like, to a hilarious degree—and, even were I so inclined and had that particular skill, there is no feminist network where I live, not the kind that can gather by taking the train across town for brunch, anyway.
I always joke that Shakesville is run from the middle of a cornfield, which is really only half a joke.
All of which is preface to this: Ostensibly, Shakesville is a Big White Feminist blog, and I am a Big White Feminist blogger who should appreciate what #FemFuture has to say. But it doesn't resonate with me. It doesn't speak to my needs, or to my experience.
Its authors didn't inquire what my needs and experience are.
By which I don't mean me, personally (although, for the sake of disclosure, I was not invited to participate), but online feminist activists who are outside major media centers, we Flyover Feminists.
There is a thing that happens in lots of progressive organizing, whereby privileged members of a group located in a major media center universalize their needs and experiences, presuming that someone in another part of the country (or other countries) needs and experiences the same things—and if only they get what they need, they can pass it along. But trickle-down feminism (coined by Tressie McMillan Cottom, @tressiemcphd) doesn't work, for precisely the reason that the external presumptions about a universal feminism, even among privileged members of the group, don't work. Because other shit matters, too, like whether you live in Brooklyn or next to an endless soybean field.
It's not just that I'm not connected in the same way: I have an entirely different perception of online feminist activism.
I have had to do things differently; I have had to be innovative and self-reliant in ways I wouldn't if I were tapped-in the way I am frequently presumed to be. I have been turned down for writing jobs because of editors who presume I can't know shit about shit if I don't live in NYC or DC. I have had producers realize I'm too far away from a studio to appear as a guest. These things have colored my perception, broadened and diversified my online connections, given me natural allies forged in shared experience irrespective of identity, challenged my creativity, limited my opportunities, and shaped me in innumerable other ways.
Listen, I'm not moaning. I'm incredibly fortunate to have had the success I've had, and to have the help and support of so many extraordinary people—most of whom are as removed from major media centers as I am. I'm just trying to convey that this isn't exclusively an issue of failing to speak to people marginalized within movement feminism. I am regarded as a Big White Feminist, and I have many of the privileges of Big White Feminism. And #FemFuture failed to speak to me, too.
#FemFuture isn't about me. Which is fine. It doesn't have to be. But it needs to be more cognizant of that fact, and more straightforward about for whom it's really meant.
The future envisioned by #FemFuture will not be mine. I would like to not be disappeared as a presence in online feminist activism just because both my present and my future look very different from where I'm sitting.
It’s a funny thing how I am considered a Big White Feminist in some ways, but in the way that the type of online feminism that I practice differs meaningfully from other Big White Feminists, I don’t count.
Multiple conversations. Gatekeepers who pretend there isn’t a gate.
My activism is very different in some fundamental ways to what was presented in the paper.
As one example—and in part to address the overarching topic of using new media to do online feminism in new and different ways—writing content for Shakesville, and to a lesser extent modding comments, is the part of my job that gets seen, but responding to email takes up an enormous amount of my time every day, because it can easily take an hour or more to, for example, locate a specific social service in another part of the country (or in another country altogether) for someone in need, who has nowhere else to turn for help.
When we talk about the importance of new media in feminism activism, especially here, at a conference in which we are addressing gendered violence as a social justice issue, there are fewer more relevant examples I can share than having been contacted by women in other parts of the country seeking help locating services to assist them in leaving violent relationships.
Being a de facto social worker is a huge part of my job and my activism.
That's not glamorous, and it doesn't pay (directly), and it doesn't get recognition as Important Online Feminist Activism. But it's important work, to me and to the people for whom I do it.
And, with regard to the emphasis in #FemFuture on seeking compensation for feminist work, no one's going to fund that kind of work but the community for whom it's provided.
When online feminist activism is defined locally—and narrowly—in a way that elides other types of online activism, which are adjunct to awareness-raising, not only are a lot of people and/or parts of their work being left out of the vision of future feminist activism; that work is being devalued (even if unintentionally).
I spend a hell of a lot of my time engaged in one-on-one activism (whether it's social service work or mentoring other bloggers or even providing free design services to other online feminists) that doesn't necessarily advance "movement feminism" nor would it provide any kind of "return on investment" to an external funder.
I can't embrace a model that devalues (again, even if unintentionally) a huge portion of my activism.
#FemFuture isn’t about me, or the professional space I inhabit.
I was speaking to Flavia Dzodan the other day about the personal cost of doing this kind of work, and burn-out, and having to fight the same fights over and over, and I said to her that I started blogging with the belief that maybe I could help change the world, and now, nine years later, I blog with the thought that I'm giving people a place and the tools to process living in a world that is hostile and doesn't feel very changeable a lot of the time. And that feels like an okay goal.
In fact, it feels like a valuable and worthy goal. And a crucial piece of feminist activism. But I don’t think it’s of much interest to corporate sponsors.
Anyway. These are ideas I might have brought to the table, had I been invited to it. But this was, as became a central piece of criticism of the #FemFuture meeting that informed the report, a confab of local activists only.
When people raised the question why it was that the tools of new media hadn’t been used to make the meeting more inclusive, the response was that face-to-face meetings have special value.
Now, the thing is, I think face-to-face meetings do have special value: Being in a room full of like-minded activists is an extremely powerful and validating experience. Hi, everyone!
But it's because I agree that I find super objectionable failing to find ways to include people who aren't local.
I don't know if Valenti & Martin considered, or truly understand, how alienating it is to be a feminist activist doing hir work in physical isolation, and how rough it is to hear that that very isolation is a reason for one's lack of inclusion.
When I read about all the NYC-based activists getting together—or feminist meet-ups in SF, or Chicago, or Austin—I am envious. I wish I had regular access to an in-person community like that.
But I am also extremely lucky that I can build my own community using new media.
I don't think Shakesville is particularly unique among lots of feminist collectives run from flyover country, in the sense that Shakesville's contributors and mods have never been together in the same room. I haven't even met all of Shakesville's contributors and mods in person, some of whom I've known for years and consider dear friends.
I have never met Elle, PhD in person. I have never met Aphra_Behn in person. I have never met aforalpha, Ana, Mustang Bobby, Scott Madin. These people have been part of Shakesville and part of my life for years.
And most of the contributors I've met in person have not been in group settings: I've met them one-on-one, or, on rare occasions, a couple of us manage to get together at the same time.
That is a vastly different dynamic, for all of us, than a collective centered in an urban space in which most or all of the contributors live.
Which means that reading about how totes awesome and valuable and special it was for a bunch of local activists to get together to discuss the future of a singular online feminism has an extra sort of sting to it. Not only is my feminist activism and perspective being excluded, but I am personally excluded on the basis that I live in a place that makes me feel disconnected, isolated, and marginalized on a regular basis already.
Which, you know, isn’t about my delicate fee-fees but about the fact that feminism arising from outside urban media centers is important. I was very excited about this conference being in the Midwest, in Detroit, because flyover social justice activism is something in which I have a lot of interest. On day five of my blog, started back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and Al Gore had just invented the internet, I wrote a piece called “Notes from a Red State” about progressive coastal elitism; inclusion—and marginalization along the axis of regionalism—has always been important to me because of where I live.
Holla Jessica Luther, with whom I co-launched Flyover Feminism!
Many of our issues are different in flyover country, and thus our feminism looks different. Regionalist exclusion highlights areas of fracture among ostensible allies, as we are constantly obliged to combat sneering disdain for our homes from progressives in coastal urban centers.
Regionalist differences also, however, expose new lines along which natural alliances can be built. I have found so much commonality among women of different races, classes, religious beliefs, sexualities, abilities, shapes, who work and live in red states and/or outside major media centers. Which has served as a bridge to create connections with women who work and live in major media centers but aren’t among the gatekeepers for reasons of marginalized identities or ideas.
I have a whole different picture of feminist activism outside the tightly guarded boundaries of the dominant conversation.
And although I’m talking about myself here because, well, I don’t like talking for anyone else, I want to make it clear that I am advocating for listening to the experiences of all sorts of feminists and womanists who aren’t part of the conversation, whether by choice or circumstance.
I mean, how can we deny the critical importance of participation by people whose voices can only be heard via new media? Disconnection breeds an entirely different perspective than immersion. Marginalized eyes see the world differently than privileged ones do. Would that the future of feminism be leveraging new media to always be bringing people in, rather than shutting them out.
Which brings me to how we can best use new media in feminist activism moving forward.
I’m going to do another super annoying thing—I’m sorry!—and say that I feel like there are as many ways to use new media in feminist activism as there are feminists and womanists and allies doing that kind of work. I don’t want to pretend, at all, that I could even begin to envision all the ways in which new media can be used to do feminism.
So let me just say that I look forward to all the ways in which new media—and newer media, yet to come—will be used to amazing affect by all kinds of feminist activists.
As for how I envision using new media myself, I feel like I can’t underline strongly enough how crucial new media is for organizing—I imagine we are all keenly aware of how crucial social media has been in organizing protests in Texas and North Carolina, as recent examples. Organizing in real life, organizing to come to the defense of a fellow activist under attack, organizing a boycott or some kind of media action—all of these things are and will continue to be important.
Social media in particular has been an indispensable tool for me in finding and building new natural alliances, in connecting me to people beyond my default community, and in building a professional support network. I don’t just mean a network of like-minded activists who help amplify each other’s voices—although that, too!—but also a network of people who understand what it means to do this work every day.
I was recently interviewed for a piece that hasn’t yet been published about women who have been the focus of sustained, organized attacks online—women like Zerlina Maxwell, Kathy Sierra, Adria Richards, and Anita Sarkeesian. Women like me. One of the things that the interviewer asked me was how I get through the day, with this constant hum of rape and death threats vibrating in the background of my work.
And I told her that it wasn’t easy—it’s not the kind of thing that friends and family who aren’t activists easily understand, and many of them aren’t comfortable talking about how unsafe feminist activism can be, so it can be really alienating, unless you’ve got a good network of support among your colleagues online. My fellow contributors and mods at Shakesville, the friends I’ve made via social media like Jessica Luther—they are my oxygen. They help me keep breathing when I don’t think I can take another breath.
New media will, in many ways, sustain the movement, the multiple conversations. But it will also sustain us, the people having those conversations. At least, I hope so.