'You Are the NOW of Now!' The Future of (Online) Feminism
In late February of this year, Lamar Outdoor Advertising unveiled a billboard on Sixth Ave and Watts in SoHo, not coincidentally right around the corner from a Planned Parenthood, featuring the picture of a young black girl and the words, “The most dangerous place for African Americans is in the Womb.” The ad was sponsored by the Texas anti-choice group Life Always. An editor at Feministing posted about the billboard on February 24, featuring an excerpt from an inspired statement by SisterSong and the Trust Black Women Partnership, along with the contact information for Lamar. Readers expressed their outrage, and the billboard was taken down the very same day.
Despite countless examples like these, among a number of feminists, a false perception lingers that online feminist work is, at worst, navel-gazing and, at best, “slactivism.” In fact, feminist organizations that primarily take action online—ranging from blogs like Feministing, Racialicious, and the very young F-Bomb, to advocacy organizations like MomsRising and Hollaback—are thriving hubs of contemporary feminist action. The belief that online activism isn’t “real” or deserving of financial support isn’t just an insult to entrepreneurial bloggers and organizers; it’s creating a crisis in the feminist movement. “Online innovation begs us to push the envelope for how to even think about what feminist work is,” explains Deborah Tolman, author and professor at Hunter College, “and the criteria by which we might demonstrate the kinds of impact that online feminism is having.”
While many online-native businesses, particularly sites providing media content, struggle to monetize, the models that do work are difficult to replicate on sites devoted to online feminist organizing. To the extent that advertising is a viable source of revenue for feminist sites, we’re not focused on amassing page views the way most news sites are; we’re focused on changing the world. Bloggers and online organizers cover and use the news, sure, but we do it with an eye always on social impact and a desire to inspire real action. Think of online feminism as the love child of MoveOn.org and Jezebel; though we do news analysis, we collectively hope to send people away from our sites rather than trapping them there. Other content providers have recently made strides in charging for content; the public service mission of feminist blogging and organizing sites would be undermined if we created barriers to access. Not-for-profit content providers solicit foundation support; this often requires the services and skills of a grant-writer, the kind of institutional staffing a scrappy start-up site doesn’t have. And if a grant-writer were to seek out foundation funding, “Foundations and donors that historically and primarily give to media tend to be stuck in the old paradigm of ‘objective media’ and shy away from advocacy journalism,” says Jo Ellen Kaiser, executive director of the Media Consortium.
Blogs like Feministing, of which I am an editor emeritus, have operated without any formal structure for years. Third-party advertising networks, like Google Adwords, provide the majority of our revenue, but most often there is no money left over—after tech and hosting fees—to pay any of our eleven bloggers. We’ve been caught in a seven-year chicken-or-egg-cycle; at annual retreats, we discuss next steps for formalizing our structure and focusing on becoming financially sustainable, and then our full-time jobs (largely as communications consultants at feminist nonprofits and freelance journalists) crowd out any time to follow up. We’re too busy trying to make ends meet to figure out how to make ends meet.
Other blogs have suffered the same fate. Like Feministing, Racialicious, a destination for online readers interested in racial justice, spends its revenue—which comes from intermittent fundraising drives and limited ads—on tech and hosting fees and other basic maintenance. “Strains have been starting to show and most of them are financial in nature,” explains editor Latoya Peterson. “Simply put, a good blog takes a lot of time. It's really easy to spend so much time on Racialicious and then realize you haven't pulled in any paid work for that week, so rent is going to be rough next month. A lot of people get so burned out in the process of producing, creating and engaging, that the emotional tolls are super high.” Despite running a popular and well-respected site that draws about a quarter of a million readers per month, Peterson loses money every year as she doesn’t get paid and is, in her words, “on the hook” for the expenses.
This leads us to the biggest misperception of all—this one even held by many bloggers and online organizers themselves: that online feminism is free. It’s not. Many feminists innovated remarkably early on in the Internet’s existence, founding blogs and online communities, but we’ve largely stalled in progress over the last few years because we are under-resourced and overwhelmed. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the executive editor of Feministing.com, explains, “Blogging has become the third shift. You do your activist work, then you have a job to make money and then you blog on top of that. It’s completely unsupported.”
In her new book Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “The struggle for recognition is the nexus of human identity and national identity, where much of the most important of work of politics occurs.” Online feminism is operating at this critical political intersection: amplifying the voices of the unheard, mobilizing funding and energy towards the underserved, and publicizing legislation developments and actions to those who are more likely to be working in school libraries or ordinary office buildings than on Capitol Hill. It can be—and it already is—the conduit between those fully devoting themselves to professional feminism and those who care deeply and want to be engaged citizens, but don’t have the luxury of working within the movement. One veteran feminist, upon hearing about the kind of work Feministing has been doing exclaimed, “You are the NOW of now!” Yet we have nothing comparable in terms of resources.
Currently, most online feminist organizations are structured as nonprofits—obliging them to fundraise from private donors and foundations that still generally don’t understand the ways in which the internet are being used to make social change. Emily May, founder and director of Hollaback, which is building an international movement against street harassment using mobile technology, online advocacy and on-the-ground organizing, says, “We’ve had to hustle really hard for every dollar, in part because most foundations just don’t have a portfolio that we can fit into.” Their budget last year was $81,256 cash and $114,113 in in-kind services, according to May, and most of it came from unusual sources, like the Instructional Telecommunications Foundation and an older male donor who admitted to “hating the internet,” but loved the idea of women in solidarity, fighting back against violence in public spaces. Their struggle is especially poignant given that Hollaback! has become something of a media darling—garnering coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Time.com, among other publications, in recent years. “It’s not for lack of exposure [or outcomes],” May explains, “but a lack of funding structures.”
Not quite direct service, not quite social enterprise, not quick online media—Hollaback is left struggling in the margins, as are so many of the most innovative feminists working today. SPARK, a burgeoning movement empowering girls to fight back against early sexualization on their own terms using blogs, Tumblr and Twitter, currently accepts donations through a fiscal sponsor but has hesitated to adopt a nonprofit structure, both because of the organizational demands that would put on the small staff and because they worry that funders with a traditional mindset won’t understand the organization’s work. The new executive director, Dana Edell, explains, “Our ambitious mission to push past a cultural tipping point when the sexualization of girls is totally unacceptable is pretty difficult to quantify and evaluate on grant reports.”
Even the leaders in the field have found fundraising difficult. MomsRising, which mobilizes moms who want to increase family economic security and women’s equality, spent $1,057,646 in 2009, up 56 percent from the year before. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director, explains that they’ve taken on a hybrid structure—501c3 and c4—in order to pursue opportunities to monetize their work as well, such as a store that sells merchandise. “While we're receiving much-appreciated foundation funding for specific issue areas,” Rowe-Finkbeiner explains, “few foundations are set up to fund overall movement building.” The problem isn’t exposure or effectiveness; last year alone, MomsRising's more than one million members took over a million actions were covered in the media over 1,000 times.
Tiger Beatdown’s Sady Doyle solicited donations from readers when she was in danger of losing her apartment. As Doyle has made a name for herself with smart, outspoken feminist analysis, the “real pay,” as she puts it, has come from freelance writing and speaking opportunities. Today, she pays contributors to Tiger Beatdown a modest stipend out of her own pocket, but recognizes the need for more systemic support: “If specifically feminist media is going to be marginalized by media as a whole (and it really has been), we have an obligation as a community to do what we can to ensure that there are spaces where it is provided, and that the role of the public intellectual is financially supported outside of the academy.”
These financial struggles reveal a fundamental problem for the future of feminism. Online organizing has infused new energy—not to mention drawn thousands of newly minted feminists—into the feminist movement, and yet the movement’s financial backers haven’t caught up to the new reality. Despite the high-profile rise of women’s-focused philanthropy in the past few years, including initiatives like Women Moving Millions, only a few foundations or individual donors publicly purport to be focused on supporting online movement building. The Media Consortium’s Jo Ellen Kaiser acknowledges that “a handful of foundations and donors--especially the smaller foundations--that may previously have given mainly to advocacy movements, are beginning to understand that they need to give to media as well in order to support online movement building.”
The online organizations that have had an easier time fundraising often fall under specific program areas of foundations. Jodi Jacobson, editor in chief of RH Reality Check, a publication focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights, has been pounding the pavement for funding since RH Reality Check became a 501c3 last summer. She’s found that foundations that fund reproductive justice issues have been receptive, but some are still behind the curve on the importance of online work. “This is a sea change in the way that people get information and the way they engage in politics,” she says.
RH Reality Check—whose annual budget last year was only $400,000—was able to get their coverage of the murder of Dr. George Tiller to the top of Google Search, knocking off the anti-choice analysis by LifeSiteNews which initially enjoyed top ranking. “We have to win the war on information,” Jacobson explains. “So much of the reproductive health community is focused on traditional lobbying tactics, which are important but not sufficient. We have to go after long term, big picture, popular opinion.”
RH Reality Check was founded in 2006 under the umbrella of the United Nations Foundation, but as of January 1, it will officially be on its own. Part of the reason why Jacobson was brought into leadership is that she had fundraising experience. She hopes to avoid putting ads on the site, even as she recognizes that will be a challenge.
Shelby Knox, the director of the Women’s Rights Organizing division of Change.org, an online petition platform that is projected to earn over $5 million this year, explains, “I took the job at Change.org—my first 'real' job and the only paycheck I've ever received outside the feminist movement—because its mission is based on financing online organizing as a primary means of empowering people to take action on the issues important to them.”
Change.org is not a nonprofit, as the name suggests, but a B-corporation, earning revenue via 250 nonprofit partners who pay to have their causes featured and to get access to users’ e-mail addresses. Knox went on: “We, as feminist organizers, have to give up the martyr complex and start building financially stable and even profitable activist enterprises on our terms, infused with our values.”
The Change.org model is essentially a vehicle—find an issue, plug it in—and not a movement, which requires a big-picture assessment of what issues are most urgent and coalition-building around those actions. Sure, a network of women’s organizations can get the “Ana-Rexia” Halloween costume pulled from the shelves of Ricky’s—and this is a notable one-off success—but it takes an organization like SPARK to develop a larger, proactive strategy to tackle the early sexualization of girls, and this takes real time, labor and resources.
Here’s the bottom line: with support, feminist blogs and online advocacy organizations can develop the next generation of feminist leaders, rapidly mobilize readers to hold corporations accountable, put pressure on lawmakers and spur local coalition-building—at an unprecedented scale. But without a supported feminist web, we will continue to be primarily reactive, increasingly myopic, and elite (who else can afford to blog unpaid?).
The entrepreneurial way in which feminists have utilized the Internet has completely transformed the nature and reach of social justice organizing. For years, bloggers and online organizers were just testing the waters and seeing what worked. Now, the proof of concept phase has long past. It’s time to mature into the second stage—in which online feminism is funded, forward-thinking and just as fierce. It’s time for all of us—bloggers, organizers, philanthropists and business experts alike—to put our heads together and figure out how to create a robust, sustainable online space that can serve as the “women’s center in the sky” (as Gloria Steinem recently put it to me) for the next generation.