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The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto

Come for the Lady Gaga, stay for the empowerment.


Photographs by Andreas Laszlo Konrath

It’s the first day of October and I’m at SlutWalk NYC, a rally in Union Square. Nearly 1,000 women surround me, jubilant, most in their twenties. Some wear bras or corsets, but most are in T-shirts, a few with marker scrawled on their arms: WHORE; PUTA; CAN’T TOUCH THIS. A few feet away, a woman in jeans stands frozen, arms by her sides. A circle of bystanders raise their cell phones to collect images of the signs taped to her in front and back, which read, “What my best friend was wearing / When she was raped.”

SlutWalk launched in April, sparked by the outrage of Canadian activists after a cop told female students to “avoid dressing like sluts” in order not to be victimized. The idea was to take the sting out of the insult with a Spartacus-like display of solidarity, to put blame back on the attackers. Since April, there have been marches all over the world, including in Mexico, Germany, and South Africa, but this Manhattan march feels fired up with local frustration, the climax of a year of scandals, from the acquittal of the “rape cops” to the DSK case to a series of unsolved assaults in Brooklyn’s South Slope—just the day before, there was a news report of a policeman warning women that skirts might suggest “easy access.” Every one of these cases had returned obsessively to the enraging fantasy of the “perfect victim,” that ideal woman who is sober and chaste and white and middle class, whose testimony would be believed.

We march down University Place, chanting all the old familiar “hey, ho” alternatives, plus some new ones like “Rapists! Go fuck yourselves.” (Marchers lock eyes and grin; it’s so percussive and playful.) In college in the eighties, I’d gone to my share of rallies, but this reminds me more of ones I’ve read about: the 1970 sit-in at Ladies’ Home Journal; the Atlantic City “zap” at the Miss America Pageant, when activists crowned a sheep; and my personal favorite, the 1968 “hex” cast on Wall Street by the collective WITCH—Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell—when women in pointy hats spooked the brokers so badly they reportedly made the Dow drop.

These events weren’t polite demands for legislative change; they were raw and sloppy theatrical displays, ecstatic bonding experiences that managed to be at once satirical and celebratory, alienating and illuminating. Not coincidentally, they were also the kind of protest that was hard to ignore, since they were designed to capture the camera’s (and the media’s, a.k.a. my) eye. And SlutWalk is more public still: Even as we march, it is being tweeted and filmed and Tumblr’d, a way of alerting the press and a way of bypassing the press. I am surrounded by the same bloggers I’ve been reading for weeks. And though bystanders cheer us on (two gray-haired women dance topless in a window), this is very much a march for young women, that demographic that has been chastised throughout history for seeking attention—and ever more so in recent years, as if publicity itself were a venereal disease, one made more resistant by technology.

But then again, who is going to hear your voice if you can’t get their attention?

Ms. magazine was a crucial publication, and I read every issue of it up until 1994, when its out-of-touch porn-debate issue irritated me sufficiently that I put it down forever. But as many women as Ms. spoke to and for, it rarely featured the kind of swashbuckling manifestos that supercharged so much of seventies feminism—the sort that were published in The Village Voice (Jill Johnston) and in small-press journals (Audre Lorde) and in slightly bananas but also kind of brilliant books like Shu­la­mith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and in writing I disagreed with entirely but found spellbinding. (Say what you will about Valerie Solanas, she was never boring.)

It’s the stuff that for many years you could find only in the file drawers of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, rarely in mainstream magazines, and certainly not in women’s magazines, which over time became blandly liberal-feminist by default, but never wild, let alone capable of pushing an argument so hard that everyone had to talk about it. For too long, it was the anti-feminists who owned that brand: Katie Roiphe, Camille Paglia, Caitlin Flanagan.

And this bold style might have been lost forever, if it weren’t for the web. Lacking editors (whose intolerance for insanity tends to sand off pointy edges), lacking balance (as any self-publishing platform tends to), laced with humor and fury (emotions intensified by the web’s spontaneity), the blogosphere has transformed feminist conversation, reviving in the process an older style of activism among young women. It’s a renaissance that began around 2004, when feminist blogs were rare. Left-wing blogging was on the rise, a phenomenon that was strikingly male. As writer Amanda Marcotte says, laughing in recollection, “We had a running joke about how every three months, another guy would publish a post about ‘Why don’t women blog?’ And we would all comment, ‘We’re out here; fuck you!’ ”


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