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The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto

At the time, Marcotte was living in Austin, Texas, working as a financial-aid officer. She’d been influenced by the punk-inflected nineties Riot Grrrl movement and the feminist music ’zines it inspired, but had no special ambitions for her own blog: It was a hobby, not a career. Then, in 2005, she jumped onboard the political site Pandagon, when, she recalls, then-blogger Jesse Taylor asked three women to fill in during his vacation. Marcotte started linking to other female writers, steering traffic their way. “I saw my mission in life as to make that debate about ‘Why don’t women blog?’ never happen again. I was not going to be a token.”

The voices that surrounded Marcotte were spilling over the edges of conventional categories. There was punditry and there was satire; there were flame-wars and support groups. Sites like Live Journal swelled with hard-to-categorize storytelling, a huge pro- portion of it written by young women, and while mainstream political bloggers bristled when such diaristic posts were lumped in with their own, Facebook and Twitter only accelerated the trend. Then, during the 2008 presidential campaign, the Net exploded with debate about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama. At the time, the website Jezebel—the flamboyant “Girlie Gawker” founded by Anna Holmes—got the biggest numbers it had seen since its launch.

As the volume of posts increased, subjects recurred from early feminism, including outrage at sexual violence. But there were also striking differences: While seventies feminists had little truck with matrimony, feminist bloggers lobbied for gay marriage. There were deconstructions of modern media sexism, including skeptical responses to the “concern-trolling” of older women who made a living denouncing the “hookup epidemic.” There was new terminology: “slut-shaming,” “body-snarking,” “cisgender.” And there were other cultural shifts as well: an acceptance (and sometimes a celebration) of porn, an interest in fashion, and the rise of the transgendered-rights movement, once seen as a threat, now viewed as a crucial part of sexual diversity.

Perhaps most strikingly, there was a freewheeling fascination with celebrity culture and ­reality ­television, even on the most radical sites. Instead of viewing pop culture as toxic propaganda, bloggers embraced it as a shared language, a complex code to be solved together, and not coincidentally, something fun. In an age of search engines, it was a powerful magnet: Again and again, bloggers described pop-­culture posts to me as a “gateway drug” for young women—an isolated teenager in rural Mississippi would Google “Beyoncé” or “Real Housewives,” then get drawn into threads about abortion. Some of the best memes out there are the least categorizable, like Feminist Ryan Gosling, a blog that features the adorable star of Drive “citing” poststructuralist philosopher ­Judith Butler. Is it a joke? A turn-on? A sly carrier for theory? It doesn’t really matter, because it’s the perfect viral pass-around.

Perhaps more important, these sites inspired an even sharper cadre of commenters, who bonded and argued, sometimes didactically, sometimes cruelly, but just as often pushing one another to hone their ideas—all this from a generation of women written off in the media as uninterested in any form of gender analysis, let alone the label “feminist.” Freed from the boundaries of print, writers could blur the lines between formal and casual writing; between a call to arms, a confession, and a stand-up routine—and this new looseness of form in turn emboldened readers to join in, to take risks in the safety of the shared spotlight.

Like feminism itself, it would be a mistake to peg the lady-centered blogosphere as just one thing (“lady” being the term of choice for many online writers, an ironized alternative to the earnest “woman” or problematic “girl”). Some posters consider themselves primarily activists, some journalists, some artists. Many sites operate less as magazines and more as collectives, in which like-minded thinkers burn out or are snatched up to high-profile gigs. Among ambitious writers, this game of musical chairs goes on each day: When I meet with Jezebel blogger Irin Carmon, she describes her decision to take a job at Salon, replacing Rebecca Traister, who is now writing for the Times—which means Carmon’s job will be taken by “MorningGloria,” a Jezebel commenter who left her finance job to take the gig and who now writes under her full name, Erin Gloria Ryan.

But for most members of these online communities, none of this is a bid for a media career. Back in the seventies, feminists touted the slogan “the personal is political,” arguing that women had been trained to dismiss their own struggles as personal matters with no greater meaning. If women could share stories, they would find patterns. They could be allies instead of rivals.