The 511: Digital Feminist Politics

#FemFuture: Online Revolution, like all good apocalyptic narratives, describes a fragile world of deprivation, struggle, and impending catastrophe. The protagonists are “online feminists” building virtual communities and producing content that is prized for its authenticity. The antagonists are “traditional feminist organizations” who hoard limited resources and control the tools that amplify voices which create influence, a highly sought after form of power.

Linda Wallace, Living Tomorrow (2005)
Linda Wallace, Living Tomorrow (2005)

The report, written by Courtney E. Martin and Vanessa Valenti of Feministing.com, published by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and funded by a number of family foundations and individual donors, is a provocative call to reflect and assess a critical moment in time. They rightly point out the positive impact of employing today’s online tools and strategic social media strategies used within an intentional feminist practice. “Online feminism has the capacity to be like the nervous system of this modern day feminist body politic.” The capacity for connection through building community and the speed to mobilize formerly isolated individuals has changed the way business is done; there is no debate about that.

Except there has been a lot of debate and whole lot more critique. I recommend reading #FemFuture, History & Loving Each Other Harder for one of the most comprehensive and balanced critiques of the report. Jessica Marie Johnson echoes valid sentiment that communities of color’s voices are sanitized and appropriated into a history that itself isn’t new. “There is nothing new about bloggers attempting to create digital media and activate online networks to challenge interlocking oppressions while agitating on the ground for social change.” Neither are the numerous efforts, mostly failed, to build bridges to predominately white women-led feminist organizations.

It is precisely this attempt to originate and center this new-ish revolution within a milquetoast framework of unchecked privilege and access to power that made the proposed “solutions” so disappointing. Johnson lays it down in full view with the following:

This power, at play in the space, conveners, and even among the participants, is precisely what allows the long history of black feminist and WOC online activity to be erased. We are not all in this together. Some feminists are able to write the story down, tell it, and have it be seen as the gospel truth. Power and privilege are invisible and insidious and difficult to face, but only power and privilege explain why such a well-documented past (and thriving present!) is not explored. As a historian of slavery, I’m well familiar with what happens when certain stories are told and others are dismissed. It was never the case slaves weren’t telling their own stories or philosophizing their own experiences. But it was always the case that the means through which they spoke–from the languages they used to the technology they chose–were seen as illegitimate.

I also agree that “differentiating the labor of creating ‘citizen-produced media’ from the labor of organizing online and on the ground (re)creates unnecessary fault lines, privileges certain kinds of organizing over others, certain kinds of knowledge over others, and further gnarls issues of compensation, attribution, citation, and recognition that are the heart of black feminist and rwoc [radical women of color] critique of the report.”

The recommendation for women’s funding organizations and networks to financially support feminist infrastructures that can effectively coordinate and set agendas is important to state. It’s also equally important that feminists – all of us who claim that identity – be vigilant about setting agendas that don’t reinforce hierarchies or power dynamics. The common ground is recognizing that strategic and proactive use of social media tools to change culture, if only for that news cycle, demonstrates a power of collective action.

It’s within these opportunities, moments that more often than not are meticulously planned and not randomly spontaneously generated, where feminists across the spectrum can reflect an authentic reality of systemic problem(s) and intersectional solutions. Those are the first steps in the implementation of a revolution and a fully realized feminist politic.

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original publish date: May 29, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)

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