Transcript: Live Chat on the Future of Feminist Activism
On July 5, 2012, TheNation.com hosted a live chat on the future of feminist activism with Nation blogger Jessica Valenti, Jezebel.com founding editor Anna Holmes and reproductive justice activist Aimee Thorne-Thomsen. Readers submitted over one hundred questions and comments on topics ranging from mainstream feminist organizations to intersectionality to the "personhood" movement. An edited transcript of the chat is available below. You can also read a replay of the chat here.
Sarah Arnold: Hi everyone, this is Sarah, your moderator. Welcome to our chat! We’ll get started in five minutes. In the meantime, readers, you can begin to submit your questions. I’ll start pulling them in about fifteen minutes into the chat. Anna and Jessica, once you're here, pop in and introduce yourselves.
Anna Holmes: Hi, this is Anna. Happy to be here—thanks for the invitation.
Jessica Valenti: Hey everyone—thanks for joining! Jessica here, feminist writer/online activist.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: Hello everyone, this is Aimee. Excited to be here!
Sarah Arnold: Great, thanks everyone! Could you each just say a word or two about your most recent work and what brings you to this conversation?
Jessica Valenti: For sure. In the past, my work was largely focused on trying to make feminism more accessible to younger women, through Feministing and my books, especially. What I’m interested in right now, though, is how we can use some of the lessons we’ve learned doing online organizing and outreach to create a more forward-thinking, proactive, intersectional feminist movement.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: My work has mostly focused on working with young people, particularly young people of color on reproductive health, rights and justice issues. Currently I work at Advocates for Youth, a national sexual and reproductive health organization as the VP for Strategic Partnerships.
Anna Holmes: I'm a writer and editor (freelance). Former editor/founder of Jezebel. My background is more in media than grassroots feminist activism. As a writer and editor, I like to focus on the intersection of politics and pop culture, and I'm especially interested in using critiques of culture to highlight issues of gender politics and to use culture as a "gateway drug" of sorts to getting younger women more interested in feminism.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: As for why I am excited about this conversation, I think there is a lot of overlap between the work of the feminist movements and that of the reproductive health, rights and justice movements that I think we should be in more conversation with each other.
Jessica Valenti: Yay for feminist gateway drugs!
Sarah Arnold: Thanks everyone! To get us started, what are some of the more exciting examples of feminist activism that you’ve seen lately, whether in terms of pushing for political or cultural changes?
Jessica Valenti: I think the activism happening online has been really exciting—whether you're talking more broadly about blogs starting to democratize who gets to speak for feminism, or the more specific wins like what happened with Komen. So I'm really interested in how we can harness some of that energy (and the mainstream media attention) for more lasting and sustainable change. But I also think we need to think about some of the gaps in the activism that catches mainstream media attention. The transvaginal ultrasound stuff, for example, was great but we still have ultrasound laws that make abortions difficult or impossible to get for people who can't afford the extra money. So we have wins, but they're not total wins.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: What pops up first for me is the amazing work that young women did who fought to keep birth control as part of the ACA. And while I appreciate the work and courage of Sandra Fluke, there are many young people around the country who led events and discussions on their campuses to fight for birth control. We collected over 1000 images from young activists around the country that we were able to deliver to Representative Pelosi that elevated the voices of young people around birth control.
Jessica Valenti: Yes to what Aimee said. :)
Anna Holmes: I'm very excited by the (ongoing) growth and depth of feminism activism in the form of "mainstream" women's websites that have an unapologetically feminist point of view and that direct readers to the work of smaller and often more articulate and considered examinations of gender politics.
Sarah Arnold: Thanks, everyone. I'm going to bring in a few questions from the comment threads. First of all, one reader asked about Julia Bluhm, the eighth grader who, using a petition on Change.org, was able to gather close to 50,000 signatures to deliver to Seventeen magazine asking them to include one non-altered image each week. They’ve finally responded by promising to not alter the body size or face shape of women in their magazine and to make a commitment to featuring diverse body styles. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think this could take off and lead to more pressure on magazines geared toward women?
Jessica Valenti: What Julia did was awesome, and I think there's definitely a trend of people being sick of photoshopped images (thanks in part to the work Anna did at Jezebel!) But I also am pretty doubtful that these kinds of magazines are ever going to be completely girl-friendly.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: I think this is a perfect example of how young—in this case a 14-year-old girl—people ARE working to make change, using social media tools and other forms of organizing and advocacy. And I agree with Jessica that I am skeptical of its long-term impact. I think the jury is still out on that.
Jessica Valenti: Exactly, young people are out there creating change already. I think what other folks need to figure out is how we can best support them.
Anna Holmes: I think it's great. But I hope that the dialogue about representations of women can move beyond just the aesthetic issues and touch on the diversity of our economic realities, experiences, etc. That may be a lot to ask of a magazine like Seventeen (or teen girls) but I hope it's a starting point.
I like to say that I feel lucky that I wasn't a teen when Facebook—or really, the internet—was around, but I imagine that for all the downsides to new technology, the upside is that young women like Julia are able to seek out, find, and get support from like-minded people, particularly their peers.
Jessica Valenti: Yeah, maybe no more quizzes on "does he like your breasts?" ;)
Sarah Arnold: Ha, indeed. To pivot a little bit, a few of the commenters mentioned or alluded to the recent Anne-Marie Slaughter piece in The Atlantic and discussions of women in the workplace. Where would you like to see those conversations going? Also, what kind of organizing do you see happening and what kind of organizing would you like to see happening regarding women and the balance between our professional and personal lives?
Jessica Valenti: It seems to me that conversations about work/life balance and the needs of parents probably shouldn't focus on just the elite. I understand what Slaughter is doing and I think talking about what powerful women do is important, for sure. But the major things that would help all parents are more basic than flex schedules.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: Where do I start? The piece itself doesn't lend anything new to the conversation between work-life balance, except that it re-starts it for people who haven't had it before. That said, I think a lot of people struggle with a professional-personal life balance, thinking that there is a "perfect" balance to reach.
Jessica Valenti: Like, I find it so interesting that the internet blows up over this cover of a white baby in a briefcase, but there's very little movement on something as essential as mandated paid parental leave.
Anna Holmes: I would like discussions of women in the workplace, particularly working mothers, to stop focusing so much on the one percent. Is AMS a member of the one percent? I don't know what her annual income is, but what I do know is that she spoke from a perch and of an experience that doesn't seem to resonate or reflect the experiences of most American women in its particulars.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: I also think that one of the places we need to have these conversation is within feminist organizations and feminist-aligned organizations. Those organizations don't promote a good work-life balance, often times, even though they are purportedly working on these issues.
Jessica Valenti: YES Aimee! I was actually doing some sleuthing to see what the leave policies were for feminist orgs...
Anna Holmes: I'd also like to see more discussion of how *men* fit into these conversations.It really sells them short to leave them out of this conversation.
Jessica Valenti: Men aren't real parents, didn't you know? *sigh*
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: And as a non-parent, I would also like to have organizations respect my definition of family, when it comes to work-life balance.
Jessica Valenti: Quick link related to what Aimee just said: http://www.forbes.com/sites/brianreid/2012/06/25/why-young-single-men-are-the-solution-to-the-having-it-all-problem/
Sarah Arnold: We're getting a lot of reader questions, so I'm going to start bringing them in. We'll try to get to as many as possible. Here's one on traditional feminist organizations from Katherine M:
Katherine M.: My question for Ms. Valenti, Ms. Holmes and Ms. Thorne-Thomsen is about traditional feminist organizations. How do they see the future of feminist activism through organizations such as NOW and Feminist Majority? Will these powerful feminist organizations still be relevant for feminist activism in years to come?
Jessica Valenti: Katherine, I have SO much to say about this. Will do my best to be brief. It feels like mainstream feminist organizations are catching on that there’s change in the air. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is stepping down to create room for younger leadership. And over the weekend, Erin Matson, VP at NOW made a speech at their conference that made some of the membership bristle. She said, “a great organization must evolve to champion young women leading the women's movement forward without its tutelage...[and] must evolve to celebrate young women leading the women's movement forward without its direct instruction.”
So folks are recognizing that there’s a lot of self-directed and youthful engagement happening. I guess I just wonder how we can support that best, and how big organizations can support it as well. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that big organizations dissipate or older feminists simply retire. There has to be a way for folks who have established power and stability to use it in different ways that support new activism/younger feminists.
Anna Holmes: Katherine: They will remain relevant for feminist activism if they make concerted efforts to reach out to women of all ages, all colors, all economic situations. That's the shorter version of what Jessica just said, I guess.
Jessica Valenti: Ha, per usual Anna is more succinct than I am. :) What she said.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: Thanks Katherine. My first thought is that until feminist organizations truly reflect the diversity of feminists, their relevance will not be as strong as it could be. There is more and more activity taking place around the country that doesn't come out of an established organization like NOW or FMF. It speaks to the needs of young people that those organizations are not fulfilling.
Jessica Valenti: To add to what Aimee said, I think that's in part why you see so many younger fems doing their own thing or even starting their own organizations.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen: Jessica, absolutely. And why you see so many younger people focusing their activism in other areas.