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How Can We Make Online Feminism Better?

Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three part series answering the question, “How should Jewish feminism change in 2014 to be more effective?”

This past year was an extraordinary one for digital feminism. Debates and ideas that originated on the feminist Web became national news, as the generation of activists weaned on blogs and social media began to ascend into the mainstream ranks in media and activist organizations. Thousands of voices joined together in online campaigns, both planned and spontaneous, and sometimes quite radical. (A black feminist critique of white feminism! A Texas filibuster in favor of abortion rights!) Today, nakedly feminist content appears everywhere from The Huffington Post to The New Republic, and mainstream websites don’t relegate that content to a single beat writer or to a feminist subsection.

The question going into 2014 is, what do feminist activists do with this power? My hope is that digital feminism can leverage its newfound mainstream visibility to provoke even deeper and more nuanced conversations, and that we can transcend the Web’s tendency to force us into opposing camps. I hope it’s the year we take online feminism’s spirited debates and expand them to create dialogue that leads to common ground and to action. Our work is needed more than ever. We face persistent problems: a war on the working poor that affects mostly women, a continual erosion of reproductive rights and sexist messages from the media.

Jewish feminists have very much been in the mix this year, using platforms like The Sisterhood, Tablet, Kveller and Lilith to debate everything from Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”; to racism within the feminist movement; to dramatic showdowns over abortion in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere; to Miley Cyrus’s performance on the MTV Video Music Awards. In all these moments, Twitter has been a tremendous boon for activism, propelling Texas State Senator Wendy Davis to stardom and bringing the experiences of women of color into the center of a conversation about a white pop star’s clueless routine. “Twitter is the form of media where disenfranchised voices get an equal space,” freelance writer Avital Norman Nathman said. “It’s not like mainstream media or even popular feminist media has been super-accommodating. Twitter becomes this great equalizer.”

But even as these vitally important conversations take place, equally impassioned debates heat up about less important things, like “problematic” phrasing in a single blog post, for instance, or whether an event’s organizers excluded someone, or the meaning of a line in a song. And because of the culture of Twitter, sometimes these debates feel as all-encompassing as the big ones, with immense pressure to join in along with big feminist names. On the feminist Internet, which is a vocal subset of contentious Internet culture writ large, the tone of an argument around a mistake by a single blogger can quickly reach the same level of urgency as the tone about a major instance of racism, for example, or a terrible policy change. “The Internet can produce a superfast and intense culture of ‘No, you’re wrong, and how could you even think that?’” said Emily Shire, who blogs for The Sisterhood and elsewhere, describing what happens when you venture an unpopular opinion in a feminist space. “Eventually, the rapid-fire pace is too much to keep up with, and I often check out of the discussion.”

Internet outrage sometimes encourages a “choose your team” mentality that’s as much about the personalities involved as it is about the issue. “Conversations become rarefied and obscure, and there is a certain out-of-touchness about it,” said Collier Meyerson, a producer at MSNBC who created the viral Tumblr Carefree White Girl, which dissects images of flower-child-esque white women in advertising and media. She notes that online conversation risks devolving into “in-crowd feminism,” dominated by a group of prominent and mostly privileged voices. This shifts the conversation away from, say, how a new law or even a new TV show affects women across the country in favor of a more cloistered debate about defining the proper “feminist” response.

I hope that in 2014, digital feminism enters a phase where we can sift through our outrage and create harmony between perspectives that may not be as oppositional as we think. Take two issues that bookended the debate in 2013: “Lean In” and Beyonce’s relevance to feminism. “Lean In” resonated with many feminists pursuing careers, myself included, particularly Sandberg’s provocative message, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” But simultaneously, on a movement level, many felt that this message did a disservice to the struggle for a larger vision of equality, because it favored a corporate culture of relentless ambition, work ethic and capitalism. Could we offer something in between unqualified praise and a complete condemnation? Similarly, when the self-titled Beyonce album came out in the last weeks of 2013, people began to parse just how feminist the artist and album were. The argument over “Beyonce” was one of degree and nuance, but it was still treated as though people were on diametrically opposite sides: team Beyonce-is-the-greatest-thing-to-ever-happen-to-feminism vs. team-Beyonce-is-only-kind-of-feminist.

I’ve been guilty of “getting into it” with critics on Twitter, and I know the rush of the back and forth, trying to score ideological points. I know that an outraged tweet gets twice the attention as a thoughtful one, and I cherish anger as the fuel that leads to activism. But I do think we need to become comfortable dwelling in the spaces between denouncing and accepting in order to keep our movement healthy. My wish for 2014 is that we explore the gray areas: the areas between our differing opinions, and also the areas among curiosity, critique and full-blown furor. I’d also like us to further lift up the voices of the most marginalized people — the poor, immigrants and transgender individuals — without berating other feminists in order to gain street cred. And above all, for us to stay open to learning from each other and to teaching each other with patience, when we can. A feminist debate online “always make me think,” Sisterhood contributor Chanel Dubofsky said. “It has definitely made me better at feminism. At the same time, I feel like it’s important to be able to mess up, and there isn’t always space to do that on the Internet.”

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist and fiction writer. She tweets at @sarahmseltzer

Photo credit Thinkstock


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