In When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams writes about Nushu, a secret script used by women in the rural villages of Jiangyong in Hunan Provice of China. Developed as a way to communicate “outside the language of men,” Nushu allowed women a private means to share the minutia of their lives with one another. The writings were folded into safe places — handkerchiefs, fans, and on the inside of slippers.
The strategies have changed, but women are still finding protected places for self-expression. This week Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner launched Lenny Letter, a newsletter for women, with the goal, in part, to "create a space where new voices were safe to speak loudly about issues they care about ... a snark-free place for feminists to get information: on how to vote, eat, dress, fuck, and live better.” Dunham's also spoken recently about her experiences elsewhere online: In an interview for Re/Code Radio, she said she no longer even checks her own Twitter feed because of the death threats, misogyny, and body shaming she encountered. “I still like the format as just a way to express ideas and I really appreciate that anybody follows me at all," she said. "But it really, truly wasn’t a safe space for me.”
A 2005 Pew Research Study found that while men and women engage online in equal numbers, women receive the worst of what the internet has to offer. It's a problem a number of prominent female writers have described: Amanda Hess, writing for Pacific Standard, shared a harrowing account of trying to report abuse and death threats received over Twitter; Lindy West confronted her worst internet troll on an episode of This American Life. At the same time, online life is unavoidable, and it can also be a valuable source of support for women who might otherwise be isolated — so where can they seek community? For some, the answer is your inbox.
Newsletters are nothing new — but one service, TinyLetter (owned by MailChimp), has streamlined the process and helped provide a platform for women to share writing and stories without wading through a commenter cesspool. In 2014, TinyLetter had 126,117 total users; they say the number is quickly rising, and while they don't collect gender information, communications specialist Brooke Hatfield confirms that many of the new users are women. “TinyLetter feels like a safe space," says Kate Kiefer Lee, content manager for MailChimp. "You know who’s on your list, and you don't have to post your newsletters publicly.”
“The act of sitting down each Sunday to collect my thoughts and share them with my subscribers, who I consider a community, is grounding,” Sarah Galo recently wrote for the Guardian. She writes a TinyLetter that’s a collection of her everyday experiences, titled “Things I Tell Myself (and You)”. “While not handwritten or personally addressed to each individual, it feels like a throwback to letter-writing,” Galo added. In an interview, Galo explained that she turned to TinyLetter initially because she found blogging too intimidating, and Tumblr wasn’t the right format for the conversations she wanted to have. The newsletter format offered intimacy and personal connection.
Hayley Krischer used to have a blog about feminism and motherhood, but she shut it down when the comments got out of control. “I spent so much time blocking nasty people saying nasty things, it just wasn’t worth it,” Krischer told me. “Part of me felt like I needed to be fair, so I tried to moderate and respond, but it took up so much time and emotional energy. Then I wrote one post about the movie Maleficent and a rape scene and the negative response was so overwhelming, I just thought, ‘Fuck this, I don’t need this.’”
Krischer shut down her site and started a TinyLetter she calls So Very.
For Amanda Nelson — the managing editor for Book Riot, who also runs the motherhood newsletter Madame Ovary — this was exactly what drew her to TinyLetter. “I definitely wanted a more intimate setting for writing about my kids,” she explained via email. “The parenting blogosphere is notoriously strife-ridden, and writing about your kids and parenting choices on larger platforms really opens you up to some heavy criticism I didn't feel like dealing with. It's a style and a niche that almost demands an intimate setting. And of course, I'm more comfortable writing about my kids on a smaller platform because it feels safer, even if that's a false feeling.”
Rachel Verona Cote, a writer who runs a TinyLetter about her feelings, echoes this sentiment. "Art doesn't always need to be public," she added, in an email.
None of the writers mentioned above believe their subscriber counts are very large. Those who did share the stats numbered their followers somewhere between 90 and 400. But they insist that they like keeping their readership small: “That’s the appeal,” said Galo.
Other women are using TinyLetter to discuss their bodies and sex lives in a way that’s both revealing and protected. Charlotte Shane (not her real name) is a writer and sex worker; she says that her TinyLetter Prostitute Laundry has a subscriber count somewhere around 4,000. In January 2015, she told Meredith Haggarty of the TLDR podcast, “When I had my blog I — particularly from men — got a lot of emails that were really, really presumptuous and sort of acted like we had a relationship because they had read what I wrote.” But writing a newsletter has been different. Shane explained in an email, “The feedback is overwhelmingly sensitive and undemanding and mercifully somewhat rare, too. Which is probably the greatest compliment of all — people just keep reading with just a few encouraging and grateful words here and there but without trying to strike up extended one-on-one correspondence about it.”
Shane does not have her TinyLetter archives available to the public. “I love the ephemeral nature of it,” she said on the TLDR podcast; Haggerty called Shane’s newsletter “like SnapChat but for feelings." (That transitory quality again evokes Nushu: When a woman who wrote in Nushu died, those closest to her would burn her writings.) And perhaps this, too, is part of the safety of TinyLetter — archives don't have to be made public.
When I began to write my own TinyLetter, it was in part to find a safe place to talk about faith without being attacked and corrected. In it, I’ve written about a flood, and my brother, who has Down syndrome. I’m finding, as Helene Cixous wrote, that I "must learn to speak the language women speak when there is no one there to correct us." That language and the community created by them has been invaluable. Newsletters, perhaps, are just the latest iteration of a long tradition.