Guest post: #femfuture: Learning in pursuit of sustainability

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Editors Emeriti Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti on their thoughts and learnings since the release of their paper #femfuture: Online Revolution.

the future of online feminismWe’re nearly 2 months out from the release of #femfuture: Online Revolution, a paper we wrote on the impact and sustainability of online feminism, hosted by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and in collaboration with 19 other online activists we engaged at a convening in New York last June. (You can get deets about the paper here, and read FAQs here.)

Our goals of the paper varied, but primarily we wanted to engage online and offline feminist communities, philanthropic movements and the larger public about the impact of online feminist activism, and the solutions needed to make it more sustainable and effective. We believe that this paper is part of a conversation, not some sort of proclamation. We’re also not claiming to be the authorities of online feminism, but simply players in this movement who had some ideas (and the ideas of other incredible people doing this work) that we wanted to share.

Since then, it’s been invigorating and overwhelming to see other folks responding with impassioned engagement about the paper, and the online feminist movement. There’s been much celebration and support of the paper. There’s also been a ton of important and necessary critique that we’ve been learning from, which we’ll largely address in this post. Unfortunately, there have also been glaring inaccuracies made about us and the paper.

Ultimately, we believe in the transformative potential of conflict. We believe in having tough conversations with people who are coming from a constructive, even if angry or oppositional, place. We believe in learning in public, and value it deeply as feminists. But we don’t consider being misquoted, personally attacked, having our work blatantly mischaracterized, or having our friends and colleagues invisibilized, critiques. (Ann’s Disapproval Matrix has been a life-saver in this regard.)

 We could get into details, but it’s really not productive for us to dwell on our own bruises. We’ve breathed and cried and and got support from truth-talkin’ friends and depersonalized. And we’re continuing to pursue interesting leads on next steps that we think will lead to widely accessible healing, resources, and cross-cutting relationships. (We’ll keep you posted on all of that as it unfolds.)

As we’re in the process of putting together some concrete steps to move the conversation forward with productivity and transparency, part of that is sharing some of our thoughts and learnings along the way. Here’s what we’ve been thinking about:

Even in the Internet age, the local is still critical.

Despite all of the talk about “netizen” culture and a new interconnected, borderless world, people’s lives–access to power, capacity to build community etc.–is hugely influenced by where they live. This is true even in the United States, where we think of ourselves as being essentially one (in the scheme of the whole planet) quite privileged nation. One of the most dominant critiques of the paper was focused on the geographical homogeneity of those we gathered and we heard it loud and clear.

The implications of this for feminism at this moment are really important. Though online feminism meets a lot of critical needs for those interested in being a part of the movement or gaining a feminist lens, it doesn’t provide the visceral experience of in person feminist gathering and protest etc. We believe that part of the intensity of the critique on these grounds speaks to a real hunger out there that people have to gather in person and create off line community.

We’re currently in talks with some midwestern collaborators about creating further opportunities for conversation in other parts of the country. We’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, we’d be thrilled if folks want to take this on independently and share their learnings.

Inclusion is a complex art.

Inclusion turns out to be a very complex art, not a science. Much of the critique we got was around who we included or excluded from the meeting and/or the paper.

The seeds of our desire for this project were planted at Feministing, but as noted, we decided that we aspired to help a wide range of people, not just our own legacy publication, in this endeavour. The paper’s goal was to explore a wide range of solutions for sustainability that could benefit anyone who wanted to learn about them and/or experiment with them. As we continue our work moving forward, it is still centrally focused on creating opportunities and potential infrastructure that anyone could take advantage of who is seeking more sustainability in their work–whether known or unknown to us personally, whether in New York City or Delhi or Phoenix. It’s not easy, but it continues to be our dearly held desire.

At baseline, we recognize that we made ourselves vulnerable to the critique of exclusion simply by deciding to include anyone in the convening. Once you decide to open up the brainstorming, writing, feedback process to anyone, you are leaving someone out. Even so, it was really important to us to have an in-person opportunity to learn from people representing a wide range of strategic and demographic backgrounds–if not geographic–within the movement. The reality of group dynamics and our project budget made about twenty seem like the best number for this gathering.

One of our strategies for making it more inclusive, beyond those that we convened, was to write about a wide range of amazing work in the paper. For some, this felt like a gift–a way to discover new voices and blogs and get such long overdue attention. For a few, it felt exploitative, as explored below. So attempts at inclusion don’t feel the same to everybody and it’s difficult to predict.

We are at a transition moment regarding ethical practices around papers like this and people have a wide variety of ideas about what’s right, necessary, and possible.

As a journalist, Courtney knows that anything that is already part of the public commons–i.e. online in blogs, tweeted out etc.–is fair to include in any published reporting. Academics, we understand, use copious footnotes to site these kinds of things, though they don’t call it reporting. Bloggers…well, we’re not sure what the hell bloggers do, other than hyperlink to the individuals, projects, and sites that they are reporting on, and make sure people have access to those source materials.

In this paper, we were adopting and adapting all of these practices and that came under some scrutiny. It’s clear that some people think that a person or project shouldn’t be mentioned in a paper like this without their direct verbal permission and/or a formal interview. We opted on the side of including as many people as we could, hoping that it would pique readers’ interest and lead them to learn more about those references, rather than doing deep dives on specific case studies. For some, this felt exploitative. (Note, we have been in touch with the three individuals who expressed uneasiness about their inclusion in the paper and revised according to their wishes.)

In part, the confusion was our own and we take responsibility for that. We also think the larger network that we’re a part of has some confusion about this as well, as different people–depending on their professional background, especially–had widely varying takes on what is ethical and/or feminist when writing a paper like this.

This history needs to be written by a village.

The focus of our paper was not to write the history of online feminism. We did have one small section on the origins, as we wanted newbie readers to understand that online feminism wasn’t invented yesterday. Veronica Arreola and Heather Corinna, in particular, disagreed with our framing of the history and their role in it, and we revised the paper to better reflect their experiences, but it got us thinking about this sacred and critical act of historicization.

Again, it wasn’t our goal in this paper, but we really hope more women like Veronica, like Heather, like Jessica Marie Johnson, will take the time to write their versions of what happened in those early days when the Internet and feminism collided. No one has the “right” or “perfect” version, so we need a collage of them, and we need them quickly.

It also left us with questions: How do we paint an accurate picture when so many are a part of the history, and have different lived experiences of it? What about the history of marginalization within off- and online feminisms? Some great suggestions have already been brought forward, like creating a Wiki page so everyone has the opportunity to share their versions of history.

Global divides need crossing.

As the majority of the people who were involved in #femfuture were from and focus on the U.S., that naturally translated into the U.S.-centrism of the paper. There were a number of examples of global feminist work included, but it emerged as a gap nonetheless.

We think the domestic focus of the majority of our conversation and paper are representative of a larger gap in the feminist movement that continues to inhibit global understanding and collaborations. Of course there are some people doing incredible work in bridging these divides, but too often, the conversation about feminism in this country is de facto about U.S. feminisms.

We would love to be part of the effort to reverse that trend, creating more friendships, knowledge exchange, organizing, and rabble rousing that transcends national borders. Please point us to your favorite projects, in this regard, in the comments section or on twitter with the hashtag #femfuture.

The feminist movement is pretty damn vulnerable right now.

So many of the issues that have come up around the paper are movement-wide. The feminist movement(s) is full of love, it’s messy and beautiful as hell, but the overall lack of support and connection, the rampant sense of marginalization and invisibilization, the old wounds and new riffs and calling out and tearing down, are causing a lot of pain for people.

Difficult conversations must happen. People must get support–financial, moral, and otherwise. Healing must begin. But it’s going to take courage. We’re proud of ourselves for standing in the firestorm that this paper ignited and staying engaged and apologizing where necessary and creating meaning and new connections where we could and continuing the hard work of figuring out how to build structures that could benefit everyone. We’re still listening. We’re still working. We’ll keep sharing what we learn along the way.

In the meantime, this recent post by adrienne maree brown resonated with us deeply, and we thought it might for some of you, too:

In my heart I feel there are a thousand paths towards justice and liberation. Yes to all of those things, all of that work, all of those strategies. All of these issues need to evolve – which means they each need people who are most passionate about them, people who feel powerful in moving the work forward, who are healthy enough to do the work well, who are creating solutions.


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