Blogs and social networks “are our version of consciousness-raising groups,” says Shelby Knox, 25. “Places where we realize we are not crazy and not alone.” She was a famous feminist before she was out of her teens. Born in Lubbock, Texas, the child of Evangelicals, she became the subject of a documentary called The Education of Shelby Knox after she lobbied against the abstinence-only movement in high school. She moved to New York—living in Gloria Steinem’s apartment—just as the online boom began to crest. “You know, when I was in Lubbock being kicked out of my church, I thought I was alone,” she says. “I thought feminism had died in the seventies, or maybe that it was something that was just in New York or L.A. Personally speaking, I started tweeting to speak to women in flyover country.”
Knox is as aware as anyone that there’s an unformed quality to her writing online, naïve moments preserved forever. “I almost got offline when I heard that a professor was using my posts as examples of young feminism. They extend back to when I was 17. But I realized we’re the reality-TV culture. We live publicly. And if someone like Snooki can show us her discovery of her own alcoholism and her attraction to abusive men, why not show the formation of a young feminist?”
Then again, feminist solidarity has never been a simple matter. And days after SlutWalk, a debate explodes over a photo of a young white woman carrying a sign scrawled with the John Lennon and Yoko Ono song title “Women Is the Nigger of the World.” The sickening shot goes viral, inspiring a webwide debate that is classical in its dimensions, with echoes of schisms that go back to the days of the suffragettes: black revulsion, white defensiveness, and a spiraling conversation about institutional privilege. “In August when I first wrote about SlutWalk, I was ambivalent,” writes Akiba Solomon on Colorlines.com. “This sign has pushed me that much closer to ‘hell no’ territory.”
The discussion goes deep: Back to the era of slavery, black women have been treated as chattel—human garbage, by definition unrapeable. Many don’t identify with the word slut or with sexual rebellion as liberation. And historically, the tactics of the civil-rights movement were the opposite of SlutWalk: Protesters dressed formally, struggling to be seen as fully human. Over on Racialicious, Latoya Peterson pastes a truly exasperating thread from Facebook in which the white teenager who was holding the sign complains that the debate has made her cry, and on the Crunk Feminist Collective, “Crunktastic” links drily to the Ace of Base song “(I Saw) The Sign.”
There are other responses to SlutWalk as well, some praising its humor and joy, others comparing it to Occupy Wall Street. Falling down the rabbit hole of links, I find poignant personal accounts, including one that begins, “July 31 marks the one-year anniversary of the night I was raped,” and describes the writer’s panicked, painful journey through the feminist web, her search for “the most beautiful three words you have ever heard, ‘I believe you,’ ” and the strength she felt as she prepared to attend her first SlutWalk.
Five weeks later, the roar has only gotten louder. I read about marches in Winnipeg (in jackets and jeans—it’s cold up there) and in Tampa. In Bristol, U.K., the “Slut” in “SlutWalk” is crossed out. In Northampton, Massachusetts, they’re calling it “Stomp and Holler.” There’s a Singapore SlutWalk scheduled for December, and the ripples of New York’s racial imbroglio are spreading, inspiring fresh debates about how to make the movement speak for everyone, about the limits, maybe the impossibility, of unity, even among those who share goals.
And yet somehow even the most rancorous threads strike me as inspiring, a sign of how alive the conversation is. It reminds me of a manifesto I read many months ago, “Can’t Be Tamed,” dedicated to Kathleen Hanna, Kim Deal, and Kim Gordon, rocker heroines of the Riot Grrrl era. In it, writer Molly Lambert offered tactical advice on “being the only girl in the boys’ club”—a situation, she noted, that still applied to much of the world. “Don’t pretend like fucked-up things never get said because you are afraid of getting exiled from the kingdom of being Angie Dickinson in the Rat Pack,” she wrote, studding her advice with references to Mad Men and the comedy scene. (“Ferrell isn’t threatened by Fey because game recognize game.”)
But the most memorable part of Lambert’s advice struck me as universal, applying not just to office politics but to the global conversation: the echo a blunt voice can have if it reaches far enough. “Some conversations are uncomfortable but also necessary. They are so uncomfortable because they are so necessary. Discomfort is not death.” If you’re excluded, Lambert adds cheerfully, if you’re cut from the club for talking straight, there’s another way through. “Start your own fucking club. I’ll come! I’ll bring a lovely bottle of orange soda.”