The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto

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!’ ”

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.

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 “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.”

The Lady Blogosphere
(an abridged list)

Founded 2004 by Jessica Valenti.
Logo: “Mudflap Silhouette” giving the finger.

Founded 2004. Currently edited by Latoya Peterson.
Slogan: “The intersection of race and pop culture.”

Founded 2007. Currently edited by Jessica Coen.
Notable: Satirized by 30 Rock as “Joan of Snark” (“Perhaps Correct. Definitely Exhausting”).

Founded 2001 by Lauren Bruce.
Slogan: “in defense of the sanctimonious women’s studies set.”

Founded 2010 by Edith Zimmerman.
Slogan: “Ladies First.”

Founded 2008 by Sady Doyle.
Slogan: “Kumbaya Motherf*cker Central.”

Founded 2010 “for hip hop generation feminists of color.”
Slogan: “Where Crunk Meets Conscious and Feminism Meets Cool.”

Founded 2004 by “Twisty Faster.”
Slogan: “Intended for Advanced Patriarchy-Blamers.”

Founded 2004 by Melissa McEwan.
Catchphrase: “I’m not offended; I’m contemptuous.”

Founded 2009.
Slogan: “The ins and outs and ups and downs of direct service in the field of abortion care.”

Founded 2005 by Pamela Merritt, a.k.a. Shark-Fu.
Slogan: “Practicing the Fine Art of Bitchitude.”

Founded 2001 by “Jenn Reappropriate.”
Slogan: “Writings of an Asian-American Feminist.”

Founded 2005.
Slogan: “An international movement to end street harassment.”

Founded 2009.
Slogan: “All young feminists who are just a little bit pissed off and very outspoken are more than welcome here.”

Sample Video: “Chocolate: more important to women than air.”

Founded 2011 by 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson.
Sample post: “Getting Over Girl Hate.”

See Also:
An Oral History of
Ms. Magazine

The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto