The Future of Online Feminism

Feminism is not dead.  The future of feminism is happening online and a launch on Monday night at New York’s Barnard College will serve as the jumping off point for the next wave of the women’s movement.  "#FemFuture: Online Revolution" is a research paper put together by Feministing co-founder Vanessa Valenti and Editor Emeritus Courtney Martin with collaboration of influential voices of online feminism, with the purpose of strategizing how to make the next phase of feminism sustainable.

In the report, Valenti and Martin lay out the successes of the online feminist movement, including forcing the Komen foundation to restore funding to Planned Parenthood as well as the boycott of Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors after he attacked Sandra Fluke, while also specifying the drawbacks online activists face as the movement evolves. 

Martin begins the report by saying, “Online feminism has transformed the way advocacy and action function within the feminist movement.  And yet, this amazing innovation in movement organizing is unsustainable. Bloggers and online organizers largely suffer from a psychology of deprivation—a sense that their work will never be rewarded as it deserves to be, that they are in direct competition with one another for the scraps that come from third-party ad companies or other inadequate attempts to bring in revenue. As a result, they are vulnerable, less effective, and risk burn out. Under these conditions, online feminism isn’t being sufficiently linked to larger organizational and movement efforts and/or leveraged for the greatest impact at this critical moment.”

Online activism is often referred to as “slactivism” and in many ways this idea that online petitions and tweets are all that online feminists are doing is misguided.  Online feminists are transforming cultural norms and the way many Americans think about gender related issues.  For example, the harmful impacts of rape culture don’t reach the mainstream but for the persistence of online feminist spaces breaking into the mainstream conversation.

That conversation, about women and gender inequality, was traditionally dominated by straight White and privileged women.  Online feminist spaces have changed that dynamic, and while not eliminating the Black-White feminist divide, blogs and spaces launched and controlled by women of color, trans women of color, and other members of the LGBT community, are among the most influential and popular sites on the web. 

“Online feminism gave me the tools to tell my story like never before, not just for me but for the women that came before me.  It helped me find my voice in a sea of supporters (and dissenters).  And it confirmed I was not unusual or alone.  Online feminism taught me when and where to preach to the choir and when to reach beyond.  It gave me a community that continues to support me and bring my online feminist chops to other arenas be it dating or the corporate environment,” Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Feministing told EBONY.

And while online spaces have opened the door for an evolution in the conversations that are had by and about women, there are substantial pitfalls due to lack of infrastructure and funding that would allow for sustainability.  In the paper, Martin and Valenti write, “[t]o avoid these pitfalls and embrace the opportunities ahead, the online community will have to be strategic and partner with a range of their feminist allies—advocacy and nonprofit organizations, philanthropists and entrepreneurs, corporate leadership with a feminist sensibility, educators, community organizers, artists, and youth—among so many others. It is time to strengthen the connective tissue between those who are most savvy and connected online, and those pushing feminist agendas in our courtrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, and beyond. The results could be profound.”

No movement can sustain itself if there is no funding and nothing to support the most loyal and active who too often burn out and leave the movement when life gets in the way.  Online feminists shouldn’t have to be unpaid martyrs for the cause;  Other aspects of the women’s and progressive movement are backed up by sponsors so that their efforts can be long lasting.  In the past decade, feminists haven’t been in hiding, they’ve been online and on social media, telling stories, supporting each other’s experiences, debating, and shaping both public opinion and public policy.  It’s time for a little recognition and funding to keep this momentum going.

Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and soon-to-be attorney.  You can follow her on Twitter @ZerlinaMaxwell.