27-year-old native New Yorker and lifelong feminist Jessica Valenti has parlayed her interest in feminism into a blogging and writing career focused on women's issues. With a Masters degree in Women's and Gender Studies from Rutgers, Valenti has brought feminism to the blogosphere in the form of Feministing, the popular group blog that tackles reproductive rights, workplace issues, popular culture, male superheroes, a "bear-foot and pregnant" teddy bear, and other news of the day. Valenti's also one of the founders of the Real Hot 100, a list of "young women from around the country who are breaking barriers, fighting stereotypes, and making a difference in their communities or the nation." Valenti has also written for Alternet, Salon, and NARAL's Pro-Choice America blog and is at work on her first book, aimed at younger women. At Feministing, she's covered everything from pay equity to abstinence to designer vaginas to female filmmakers. Here, she talks to Gothamist about the trouble with defining feminism, feminist fridge magnets, the movement's "waves," myths about man-hating, and why she doesn't sleep with Republicans.
When did you first become a feminist and what is your definition of feminism?
I suppose I’ve always been a feminist—I think being an outspoken opinionated girl kind of leads you to feminism naturally. It was the one thing that really validated my personality! Plus my parents were pretty political. I probably didn’t call myself a feminist until I was in college, though. I think a lot of women are feminists but they don’t really know what the term means or they’re so inundated with the bullshit stereotypes that they’d rather just skip the label. Which is unfortunate. I don’t know that I have a hard and fast rule for what feminism is for me. It’s a fluid thing; it’s changed a lot for me over the last few years. Plus, whenever you try to define feminism it inevitably sounds hokey or contrived. If I’m talking to someone about it, I think I can “explain” feminism better than “define” it.
When and why did you start Feministing? How has the site evolved since you first started it?
I started Feministing about two years ago when I was working at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. At the time I felt like the mainstream women’s movement wasn’t really giving young women their due and was feeling generally frustrated with media coverage with young women’s issues. There would be these articles on some problem affecting young women, and no young women would be quoted, or it would be someone else talking on behalf of young women. It made me nuts. My friend Bill Scher had a blog, LiberalOasis, and he really introduced me to the whole blog world and encouraged me to start one. So he’s like the Daddy of Feministing. Or at least the sperm donor. I think he may have just been tired of hearing me bitch. Now I can bitch all I want!
Feministing has an active comments section, which can often get very heated. Which kinds of posts generate the most chatter, and are your comments moderated at all?
I’ve been pretty amazed at the amount of anger that our posts have incited—there’s just something about feminism that gets guys’ panties in a bunch. Actually, for the most part we get really supportive and smart comments from both men and women. But outspoken women, especially feminists, tend to draw out the loonies. We have a loyal group of trolls who call themselves “men’s rights activists” that blame feminism for everything from their inability to get dates to increasing crime rates. It’s pretty out there. We really only ban comments when they’re super nasty personal attacks, which unfortunately happens from time to time. It’s a lot of, “stop spreading your legs you baby killers” or that the men we date (cause they assume we’re all straight) must be big pussies. My favorite weird comment was some woman who said we must all have daddy issues and that we “should stop and smell the roses, not the penises you wish you had.” I was like, wow, someone just told me to stop smelling the penises.
One of the funny thing about the posts that get the most play in terms of comments and links is that they’re generally the least “hard” feminist ones. One that got a whole lot of attention was a post, 10 Reasons Why Liberal Men are Better in Bed , in response to this GQ piece on Republicans being better lovers. We’ll cover all these serious news stories and talk about race and class issues or the sexual violence in Darfur and no one gives a shit. We write a post about cock and all of a sudden DailyKos is linking to us. I’m just saying . . .
Some conservative anti-feminists started a fake Feministing site recently. How did you respond to that and what's the status of that site now?
Those are our men’s rights trolls! Too funny. I always wondered how they have time to maintain it with all of their “activism” on behalf of men. What’s totally weird about this site is that the men who run it made up faux feminist personas for themselves and write posts how they think feminists would write and actually talk to each other in the comments section how they think feminists would. Stuff like, “You go grrrl” and other dumb shit. It’s like they’re in online drag or something. It’s totally bizarre. I can’t believe that they’re still posting, actually. You have to give them credit for persistence. I suppose it’s flattering.
When we found out about the parody site, we just put up a two sentence post that said: “Looks like someone has a little crush on us. You know boys, you just could have sent flowers.” Then a shitstorm of comments ensued—they were pissed that we made fun of them.
No one really reads the parody site so we’re not too worried about it. Besides, via some sleuthing we found out that the guy behind the parody is all worried that his girlfriend will find out that he does it. Which is just fucking priceless. So if they ever do something seriously fucked up I’ll just clue in the little lady. I’m mean like that.
Some have posited that, largely due to the Internet, our generation is more apathetic and less politically active. How are blogging and activism intertwined for you?
Blogging is my activism. I mean, I certainly do “real world” activism as well, but there’s something really satisfying about doing Feministing. I think about it as a blog that has the potential to inform women’s activism. I think that feminism and blogs just make sense together. I mean, the whole feminist mantra of “the personal is political” is played out in a really amazing way through blogging.
Though blogs and women’s organizations really should be collaborating more. I always think back to how when the Bureau of Labor Statistics said they were going to stop reporting on women’s wages (they’ve since reinstated the reporting), Feministing posted on it almost immediately. They tried to bury it with a two sentence little release in this obscure place on their website. Several months later I got an “urgent action alert” about it from a women’s organization. If the immediacy of blogs could be combined with the grassroots organizing power of women’s organizations . . . I think it could be really something.
2 of the 4 Feministing editors have or are pursuing graduate degrees in Women's or Gender Studies. How are academic feminism and the work you do different? Does feminism in the classroom and from large organizations speak to a different group of people than you're trying to reach?
I enjoyed grad school on one level, but I was glad to stop at my Masters. Feminist theory is really interesting, but incredibly dense. It’s totally geared towards academics which I always thought went against the idea of feminism as being for everybody—not just the uber-educated.
One of the big reasons I got into feminism was because of my mother, who didn’t go to college. When I started coming home with stuff that I couldn’t speak about with her, I knew that academic feminism wasn’t for me. If I can’t speak about Foucault with my mom and relate to her activism and feminism, then it’s not really that useful to me. That’s what I like about blogging—it’s accessible in a way that academic feminism isn’t.
I also think that there’s something to be said about blogs’ ability to reach out to a broader audience than organizations tend to. Women who get involved with NOW or NARAL generally are already political and consider themselves feminists. But a lot of Feministing’s readers came to us totally by accident. Some girl will do a Google search on Jessica Simpson and end up on our site because we wrote a post about her creepy dad. Which is kind of a cool subversive way to get young women to a feminist site who otherwise would never think to. We get a lot of emails from girls like this who stuck around to read some more of Feministing. They’ll say they had no idea what feminism was about, that it could be this fun, cool thing. They seriously have this cartoonish stereotype in mind of a hairy bra-burning woman who castrates men and shit. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
You're able to make a living off your freelance writing and running the blog. Did you expect to be able to do that when you started the blog, and what's been the secret to your financial success as a blogger?
Well, I wouldn’t call it “living!” I don’t really make much money from Feministing—really just enough to keep it up and running and to fund a trip to a conference every now and then. I have a blogging gig with NARAL Pro-Choice America that makes my life a little easier, but I’m hoping that someday soon Feministing will be self-sustaining. Before I was blogging and writing full-time, I was with an international women’s organization that did work with the UN, WEDO. Feministing started to gain momentum and I just made a decision to take a chance, so I quit my full time job. It was difficult financially, but worth it in other ways. Feministing’s traffic is better than ever now that I have more time to devote to it, I’m getting more writing jobs, and I got a book deal with a feminist press. So I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out. So I don’t know if I have any secrets to financial success, but to job satisfaction—definitely!
Your logo is a sexy mudflap girl presumably raising her middle finger. What kind of statement are you trying to make with that image? Have you gotten any flak for it?
We’ve gotten a lot of shit for the logo. Women are like—how can you use this sexist image?! I’m like—it’s irony, bitch. Just kidding. It’s just frustrating sometimes because feminists are their own worst critics—we’re really hard on each other. It can be depressing sometimes.
In a way, the logo is a fuck you to the beauty standard that the mudflap girl represents, in another way it’s reclaiming it and making it our own. I think it’s pretty bad ass. And I’m sorry, but if I see one more fucking women’s symbol with a fist in it . . .
You also have Feministing fridge magnets bearing words such as "empower," "independent," "sexy," "eradicate," "love" "bad-ass" and "liberate," which you tout as a great way to spread the word. What's the best sentence that's been made on your fridge with the magnets?
Ha! The two that are on my fridge right now that make any sense are, “We is into the pro-choice thing,” and “We reclaim intelligence with lovely revolution.”
What's the biggest misconception about feminists floating around out there, and how do you counter it?
There are so many, I don’t know if there can be a biggest! The whole feminists are big hairy manhaters thing is the most common, I guess. When I was a bit younger I thought it was super important to bust that myth. I would be like, “Look at me, I’m cute and young! I have a big burly boyfriend and I’m a feminist!” But the thing is, that’s bullshit. It’s giving credence to the idea that I have to justify my politics, and that the only way that my feminism is valuable is if I somehow fit into the narrow mold of what an appropriate “woman” is supposed to be. So now I play with that idea as much as I can, and try to subvert it.
The man-hating thing was the one that always baffled me—especially when trolls will accuse Feministing of it. Basically if we write a story about a woman getting raped, it’s like—stop accusing “all” men of being rapists. Or recently we wrote a post making fun of Mr. Manly-Man Harvey Mansfield. Because come on, he’s funny. A couple of guys said we were attacking “straight male culture.” Once I got all upset that someone had called me man-hating on the site so I did a search of the terms “man” and “men” on Feministing, and tried so see what was going on. Then I realized what the problem was. We really don’t talk about men ever. We just talk about women and political and social issues that affect them. I think that men are so used to seeing women-run magazines or sites writing about men (dating, marriage, how to look hot for your man) that the mere absence of men from the site made me a man-hater in some folks’ eyes. Or maybe they’re just assholes.
How do you feel about the "wave" terminology as it relates to feminism (with the first wave being the suffragist movement, the second wave the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, and the third wave what's commonly referred to as "Generation X."). Are these helpful distinctions and do women's issues break down along generational/age lines?
It’s so ubiquitous in the feminist movement I almost can’t imagine them not being there. But there is a sense, at least in my mind, that it’s ceased to be useful. There’s definitely some generational tension, and the labels just add to that. It also makes me wonder what wave I’m a part of. I mean, some “third wavers” are ten or fifteen years older than me . . . is there a fourth wave? Maybe the fact that no ones has named a “fourth wave” indicates the slow death of the “wave” thing.
You have a lively comments section, and have told me that you often field emails of the "you're not really a feminist" variety. What's the biggest challenge to running a site like Feministing, and how do you encourage open dialogue and discussion without it devolving into petty arguing?
The biggest challenge actually are those kind of comments. Like I said, feminists are really hard on each other. Dealing with anti-feminist trolls is easy because most of them are nuts and I could give a shit what they think. But when other feminists accuse you of not being feminist enough, or doubt your commitment, it’s pretty discouraging. A lot of that comes up with issues like sex work or the logo. A lot of that tends to be generational too, I think. We try to encourage open dialogue, but debating on blogs is really different from debating in real life, and it does tend to end up just being arguing about dumb shit. All it takes is one person to disrupt the flow of the thread. But of course we have some great people commenting on the site, really funny smart folks that make it worthwhile.
At a recent Feministing party, there seemed to be equal numbers of guys and girls. Is your generation less divided along gender lines? Are men in their 20s more likely to be feminists/support feminist causes than men in their 20s and 40s? How is being a feminist different from simply being pro-woman?
You know, I’d like to say that younger men are more supportive of feminism—but I just don’t know. I’m certainly lucky to have feminist men in my life, but I think in general there is still a sense of disdain when it comes to feminism. Or at least a kind of confusion as to why feminism is still relevant. Even in the progressive circles I run in, there still is this disconnect. Either that or a bit of condescension. Like, “aw isn’t that cute, she’s a feminist . . . now onto the ‘real’ politics.” But then again, we have a great group of male supporters on Feministing, and I have really supportive men in my personal life.
You recently signed a deal with Seal Press to write a book (with the tentative title, as reported in Publishers Marketplace, of Feminists Do It Better) which "aims to convince young women to give feminism a second look." Why do you think feminism has gotten such a bad rap, and what do you see as the key to reach out toward younger women?
Well, feminism has gotten a bad rap by virtue of being feminism—just the fact that we’re talking about women’s issues makes it undesirable. But beyond that, obviously feminism has a huge image problem. People still associate it with the hackneyed bra burning thing, or they’ll say feminism is dead. But all of those negative stereotypes—they serve a really specific, strategic purpose. If feminism is only for dorky ugly uncool girls, then what young girl would want to identify with it? When you’re a girl, and you’re taught that everything is about how you look, the last thing you want is to be associated with something that’s thought of as “ugly.” The easiest way to keep women away from feminism is to threaten them with the ugly stick.
But I also think that as feminists we’ve been remiss in our outreach efforts. I feel like there’s this whole group of women we’ve just given up on. So many women come to feminism through women’s studies classes or an already-fostered interest in politics. So what happens is that we just end up talking to ourselves. I think it’s really important that we target young women who you would never think would be interested in feminism. And to talk to them with respect. A lot of feminism out there right now tends to be a bit dismissive and condescending to young women who aren’t “feminist enough.” Young women who are all into that Girls Gone Wild shit, or girls who think the idea of being in Playboy is really hot—they really don’t need someone telling them that they take their rights for granted, that they’re being taken advantage and that they’re dumb. A lot of feminists tend to be so critical of these women (again, we’re our own worst enemies), and just do a lot of finger-wagging. I think all women have the potential to be feminist, but if all they associate feminism with is folks telling them they’re making bad decisions then why would they want any part of that?
Speaking of Bush, you once wrote a post called "why I don't fuck republicans." Does one have to be a Democrat to be a feminist? How else has your feminist politics affected your personal and dating life?
I have a shirt that has that slogan, too. Though I would probably have to put another message on the back of it that says: “ . . . anymore.” I’ve been Republican free for years though, so I figure I’m good. Kind of like a second-virginity thing. I guess anyone can call themselves a feminist. But I’m pretty far left and I find most Republicans scummy. Sorry, I just do. And I think that if you believe in certain things—like being pro-choice for example—you just can’t date someone who believes in an ideology that creates legislation that effectively says your body belongs to the state. So yeah, my feminism has definitely affected my personal life! It’s not something I can separate myself from at the end of the work day—it’s always with me.
My sister and I used to joke that the best way to get a guy to stop bothering you at a bar was tell him you were doing your Masters thesis on post-colonial feminist theory. It totally works. Whenever I used to meet a guy and tell him that I was basically a professional feminist, the initial reaction was usually uncomfortable laughter. Or “you don’t look like a feminist!” Some guys find the idea of dating a feminist kind of a novelty thing, though. Then after a couple of months they’re like, “Seriously—where’s my dinner?”
My boyfriend now was kind of intrigued by the feminist thing. We actually met the night before I had Feministing’s first fundraiser; he showed up at the party the next day out of curiosity. Since then I’ve converted him—he calls himself a feminist. It’s really nice to date someone who likes you because of your feminism, not in spite of it.
You're about to be a bingo caller at a pro-choice fundraiser. Do you have anything special planned for that all-important role?
You know, I don’t. I’ve never been a bingo caller so I’m just going to have to wing it. I’m thinking if I wear something kinda slutty people won’t notice . . . just kidding. Maybe.
You're a native New Yorker who attended Stuyvesant High School (with Gothamist's own Jake Dobkin). Were you politically active at that time, and what sorts of issues have changed/stayed the same as you've entered the working world?
Nah, I was too boy-obsessed to be super-political. But I think my experiences in high school definitely politicized me and prepared me for feminism. There was a whole teacher-student sex harassment controversy while I was there. It was really eye-opening to see how Stuy officials reacted to it (or didn’t). And on a personal level it affected me. A lot of my girl friends in Stuyvesant came from super-educated families and lived on the Upper West Side; my parents didn’t go to college and lived in LIC. I remember a friend coming to visit me and remarking that my mom’s accent was really cute and sounded “so uneducated!” It made me acutely aware of class issues, that’s for sure.
You currently lives in Williamsburg, for the time being, before your building goes condo. How do you think growing up in New York affected your relationship with feminism? Are New York women more accepting of gender equality as a given?
Yeah, I think I’m going to move back to my old neighborhood—LIC. From one gentrifying neighborhood to the next, I guess.
New York is an amazing place to be for any kind of activist. I used to think that New York wasn’t any more accepting than another place would be of women’s issues and feminism. But then I went to Ohio. Not so into feminists there. So yeah, I’ll probably never leave New York!
Visit Feministing.com to see what Jessica Valenti's blogging about today. Valenti will be calling bingo numbers at a fundraising party for pro-choice efforts in South Dakota and Mississippi on Saturday, May 20th from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Pete's Candy Store, 709 Lorimer Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, $7 suggested donation.