What Killed the Feminist Internet?

(Nothing. It lives on).

There are two pieces making the rounds about feminist blogging: This one in the New York Times about Feministing shuttering, and this one about the complicated history of the feminist blogosphere.

I started a feminist blog in (I think) 2003. I was a journalism student at NYU working as a summer intern at the NYU School of Law Magazine. I was bored, and one of my fellow columnists at the NYU student newspaper (Washington Square News 4 Eva <3) had a right-wing blog that I would read and comment on. Eventually, he told me I should just start my own.

And so I did. I had never read a feminist blog at that point; blogs themselves were pretty new things, and it all felt very freewheeling. The tone was snarky and snappy, borne out of frustration with the mainstream media’s marginalization of so-called “women’s issues,” which at the time were largely relegated to the Style section. There were feminist columnists I read and admired — Katha Pollitt, Patricia Williams, Molly Ivans — but I was essentially creating the kind of feminist opinion writing I wanted to read (whether anyone else would read it was a different question). I wasn’t a personal essayist, and frankly I would have preferred to be a reporter (I was certainly annoyed at the self-styled “citizen journalists” of the right-wing blogosphere). Instead, I was more or less a very frequent, very unpopular and and very self-published op/ed columnist.

I pretty quickly discovered I wasn’t the only feminist blogger around, and there was a growing list of feminist and progressive blogs spouting up across the Wild West of the internet. A year or two after I started my little Blogspot blog, Lauren Bruce, the founder of the much more robust Feministe, asked me if I wanted to join and blog with her. I said yes. (The Jezebel article says Lauren “hired” me, which is true in spirit if not according to the literal definition of “hired,” which implies pay — neither of us were making any money).

Blogs were unruly spaces. There were internecine fights. There were so many times when I saw my own little, narrow worldview challenged and sometimes exploded (that often felt very bad, even as it was very necessary). There were so, so many times when I made absolutely wretched and humiliating public mistakes. There were so many different claims to feminism, so many ways in which traditional hierarchies of race and place and class were replicated despite good intentions, in part out of ignorance, in part out of neglect, in part out of hubris. There was harassment, usually but not always from men, some of which follows me to this day, some of which I carry with me in lasting damage to my mental health, very little of which was ever resolved. There was also community in a way that simply hasn’t been replicated by Twitter or by feminist writing on more mainstream websites. That meant solidarity, and it meant pushback. It meant lightbulb moments and it meant conflict.

I won’t try to tell the history of feminist blogs because I am an unreliable narrator; I was too close to it, and my truth is not the same as others who were just as close, but looking in from a different angle.

What I will say is this: The feminist internet is not dead. To the extent that feminist blogging is dead, well, look at blogging generally — feminist blogs aren’t particularly unique in their increasing irrelevance. Some mainstream publications started their own women’s verticals, many of which are now also defunct. What’s happened, instead, is that feminist voices are both more ubiquitous and more readily folded-in to politics writing generally. There is not a major newspaper that doesn’t feature feminist writers, including opinion columnists, and that doesn’t report on the very issues feminist bloggers were raising hell about. The kinds of things that felt radical as a feminist blogger a decade ago are now so normalized they come out of the mouths of candidates for the presidency.

I’ve always looked at this as a net gain. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t losses. What felt radical to me as a young white woman at an elite educational institution was not actually the most boundary-pushing stuff. Those same hierarchies of race and place and class replay themselves in who gets the plum media gigs, whose issues are “women’s issues” writ large and whose are marginalized. That robust, loud community aspect of blogging is gone, at least as far as I can tell, replaced by the less intimate, shallower and more rancorous Twitter. Some of the most compelling bloggers are not the feminists you’re reading in the New York Times.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that. But I think it’s important, too, to look at what was always a divide between those of us who saw blogging as an extension of our careers as journalists, and those who saw blogging as a tool for activism and movement-building (and there was of course some overlap between the two). I never saw myself as a feminist activist or someone who was building a movement. I saw myself as a writer, a burgeoning journalist, someone who studied journalism and worked at the student newspaper and interned in newsrooms and hoped to write for a living. I was (and am) also a feminist, and believed it was important — crucial — to bring a feminist perspective to my work, but I always felt uncomfortable when I was positioned as an activist, because that didn’t quite feel true. For a lot of other folks, the work of blogging was itself the work of movement-building and activism. I didn’t think twice about going on to paying writing gigs (many of them feminist-minded, many of them not specifically feminist). I think some folks who saw feminist blogging as primarily about movement-building viewed that decision — one made not just by me, but by several former feminist bloggers — as selling out the movement for personal gain. I obviously did not (and still don’t). And if I’m being totally honest I am troubled by the aspersions cast on women who make money or see feminism as totally compatible with a writing career, and the implication that writing about feminist politics for pay — or as a career itself — is selfish (maybe some people are getting extremely rich via feminist-minded journalism, but I don’t know any of ‘em). But of course I can also understand the frustration, disappointment and even anger of dedicating years of your life to building something that felt radical and important only to see it fade away, as a lucky minority then enjoys the spoils of what it evolved into — and seemed to never look back.

There is also the simple fact that most blogs are gone, or have morphed into something else. And while a handful of feminist writers managed to get on the pages of very storied newspapers, many of the young men who came up blogging alongside us have done just as well, if not better — or made media empires. At the same time the feminist blogosphere was booming, so was the blogosphere generally. Among the most popular writers: Ezra Klein. Matt Yglesias. Brian Beutler. Gene Demby. Jamelle Bouie. Kevin Drum. Markos “Daily Kos” Moulitsas. Josh Marshall of TPM. There are many, many more that I’m not remembering off the top of my head.

That is just to say that the trajectory of feminist blogs — the way many writers were sucked up into bigger mainstream sites, the way many feminist blogs petered out — isn’t all that unique compared to the trajectory of blogs generally. What is complicated is how the politics of privilege played out within that little feminist microcosm (the Jezebel piece pokes at that, but ultimately oversimplifies it, excluding a bunch of information that complicates the narrative).

I am probably the last person anyone should ask for insights on the history of feminist blogs. But I feel very confident in saying that the feminist internet thrives, even if the feminist blogs of the aughts do not, and even if the feminist internet looks a lot different now than it did 15 years ago. I also feel confident in this: Many of the people who did the work of building this new feminist internet, of laying the intellectual and political groundwork, have never gotten their due. It is time to write this history, and critique it, and pull it apart, and write it again. Kind of like blogging.

xx Jill