Last week, readers across the internet heaved a heavy sigh upon reading "rich white lady" Hanna Rosin's latest overtly provocative piece at Slate. As the linkbait frenzy began to cool, Rosin predictably rekindled the fire, writing of the writers who critiqued her muddled pseudo-social science, "In the real world it’s hard to find a young woman who spends her time scanning for sexist insults. But on the Web it’s a steady job."
She's not wrong. It is a job. In fact, it's my job. As the feminist editor at an online media company, I can tell you that the internet isn't the root cause of continued rage-against-the-patriarchy. (If I had to guess what the cause really is, it's probably the patriarchy.) Despite what you may have read about the centrality of the web in fourth-wave feminism, the internet is not the end-all, be-all of activism today.
I should know. While I spend most of my days online now, I didn't learn about feminism from virtual rallies, women's media sites, Change.org petitions, or Tumblr. Even in the brave new world of Facebook and Google Scholar, I found feminism in print. At my hometown library and in my hometown bookstore, I read my way into feminism.
As a bored 14-year-old in Flagstaff, Arizona, there wasn't much else to do. I discovered feminism through a production of The Vagina Monologues put on by students from Northern Arizona University. (My mother took me to it so I could see women who were comfortable talking about their sexuality other than her.)
I was entranced by the young women on stage in miniskirts and combat boots. They seemed so cool and confident, as they crusaded to reclaim the c-word: "C. C. Ca, ca. Cavern, cackle, clit, cute, come-closer." I felt everything they felt: the outrage, the joy, the frustration over what I deemed to be unfair. During the monologues on rape, violence, and assault, my mom held my hand, and both of our eyes filled with tears. After the show, my mom bought me some merch to benefit the Victim Witness services at Coconino County. The front of my new T-shirt read "The Vagina Monologues"; the back: "Give your lips a voice."
Later that week, my father pointed me to the Women and Gender Studies section of the used bookstore where he worked. I, a frequenter of the YA room, had never visited it before.
Bookmans' selection was eclectic, to say the least. The store catered to Northern Arizona University students looking to buy books for their classes on the cheap, and literary offerings varied in conjunction with course schedules. Needless to say, most of the books were academic or pseudo-academic in nature.
They were the stuff that educated women like to read, as Rosin might put it.
Classics like Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) and The Feminine Mystique (1963) sat next to Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richard's Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000) and This Bridge Called My Back (1981). I don't remember which one I picked up first, but I do remember that my first copy of The Vagina Monologues was black, with a picture of Ensler at a microphone gracing the cover.
I hadn't had a way to articulate my anger before Eve Ensler. As my mother put it, "I took you to The Vagina Monologues, and then you started reading, and then … you complained."
Stuck in Flagstaff, I had nowhere to go and nothing to do with my newfound insight. I read book after book, but all the action seemed to be over already. Suffragettes got the vote, second-wavers had won Roe v. Wade (though they'd lost the E.R.A.), and the third wave dove into the murky, shark-infested waters of culture and identity, emerging with a multitude of stories. Sitting in the giant comfy chair in the Bookmans cafe with books piled around me, I had only just discovered the historical arc of the past 40 years, an arc which seemed to dead-end somewhere in the recent past. One of the books I picked up, Backlash by Susan Faludi, detailed the world in which my mother had come of age, echoing the expired utility of feminism, sentiments I had heard from her as well. It was published only two years after my birth, in 1989. Had the tide of feminism gone out before I could wade in?
After plowing through all the books Bookmans had and then advancing to the women's studies section at my local library, I suspected that feminism wasn't over yet. I knew gender-based discrimination certainly wasn't. And my adventures into history had taught me that the death knell of feminism has always been and will always be nigh, Hanna Rosin or no Hanna Rosin.
Still, feminism wasn't happening where I was, either. Even in my group of liberal friends, I was the "token feminist," asked to comment whenever something even remotely sexist happened. (One male friend, asked about what I was like as a high school feminist, remembered it this way: "You yelled at me a lot.") Senior year in my government class, I wrote the longest paper I had ever written — a whopping 20 pages — on The Second Sex. No one else in my class had heard of the book, let alone read it. Feminist theory spanned across space and time to reach me, the isolated reader, but praxis required a community.
What I didn't know at the time was that while I maintained my dreamy far-off look (and my nose stuck in a book), other women my age had turned to the internet.
Today, the internet and the specific actions it facilitates are touted as the future of feminism. In the eyes of some, the rise of internet feminism means the deliberate destruction of ivory-tower feminism, rendering the books I read obsolete and replacing them with an accessible, easy, ubiquitous, social media-focused form of online theorizing and organizing open to everyone with a laptop and a wireless connection. (Which, it's worth remembering, 20% of Americans still don't have, not to mention millions more around the world.)
But in 2004, when I was a freshman, blogs weren't that accessible. Feministing had only just been founded and the mighty lady-content-aggregator Jezebel didn't yet exist. Despite being on the cusp of the digital native generation, I didn't have a Facebook account until my senior year of school. The feminist internet contemporaneous to me seemed as removed from my life as Lilith's Manifesto from 1969.
It took me until college to learn about the "lady blogosphere" — and to find other feminists. At the end of my freshman year, I sat in the basement of the Harvard College Women's Center facing the woman bearing a name I knew only from her books: Susan Faludi, the feminist journalist who graduated from Harvard in 1981. Over Thai food, Faludi explained her current research project, which explored "mother-daughter" generations in feminism. I remember being disappointed to hear that she, like so many others, didn't see young women standing up to bear the mantle of feminism. I had travelled thousands of miles to find other feminists, and yet my existence seemed to be invisible to the scholar looking to find me. I had scoured pages for proof that the movement still existed, and yet the woman who wrote some of those pages seemed as removed from the new generation of feminists as I had been, isolated not just by space and time but by age, location, viewpoint, or understanding.
If even a well-respected journalist couldn't find young feminists, how could I?
My time at Harvard gave me all kinds of new knowledge about previously unknown strains of feminism: queer theory, trans feminism, womanism, and so on. When I volunteered to read a few lines for a group monologue in the university's production of The Vagina Monologues, I learned from my fellow cast members that many feminists after Ensler had critiqued the play that brought me to feminism in the first place. I didn't know from reading my old, tattered copy of Ensler's play that she had later added new, equally controversial monologues about trans women. I hadn't heard the outrage about one monologue which excuses "good rape." Nor was I worldly enough until college to understand what a "colonial narrative" was or how it factored into Ensler's writing on sexual assault and the African continent.
In Arizona, books and magazines were all I had to learn from. At Harvard, conversations with other young feminists taught me as much as about the feminist movement as access to JSTOR and the endless library stacks. Back at home, I had never dreamt that these people and this space existed at all. In college, I began to see that there were too many spaces and too many people to form a homogenous whole. At home, I had dreamed a life for myself; in college, this life went beyond what I could have imagined, let alone understood or anticipated.
My junior year, I had the chance to organize and moderate a panel with the Radcliffe Union of Students on feminist activism online, featuring writers from sites like Jezebel, Racialicious, Feministing, and Tiger Beatdown. All the amazing bloggers and activists sitting at the table with me were folks I had never heard about before coming to college. Susan Faludi, a woman born 40 years before I was, was more familiar to me than Lori Adelman, who graduated from Harvard just four years before I did.
As a teenager, my way into feminism was through its history. The books I could find were ones that even a local used bookstore in Flagstaff, Arizona, would carry, books that many would describe as jargon-heavy, overly academic, or even impenetrable. (To be honest, some of them were, especially for a ninth grader.) They didn't describe the entirety of the feminist movement. They didn't connect me to a feminist community. They surely didn't make me a perfect feminist. They gave me knowledge, and that was all.
When authors like Rosin attack well-educated middle class white women like me for depending on things they've read to understand the world around them, I have to ask what she knows that I don't, and how she came by that knowledge. What I learned from The End Of Men is that broadstroke cultural commentary is easily conflated with rigorous social science. And what I learned from Rosin's recent Slate pieces is that she, too, is knee-deep in the feminist internet, unable or unwilling to remember a time when she wasn't battling it out against "the Fempire."
As a fellow writer on the inside looking out, it can be hard to remember that a full-time job sniffing out misogyny is still a pretty rare opportunity. If you had told me in high school that I would wind up opining on the internet and getting paid for it, I would have laughed you out of the room. I know full well that even when feminism is arguably more accessible than ever before, the way in depends on who, where, and when you are. (People like Mikki Kendall and Flavia Dzodan who critique the gate-keepers of the feminist internet know this better than I.)
I don't believe the hype over America's new "knowledge economy." No communicative technology can provide literal unlimited access to feminist ideologies, histories, and communities. Isolation will continue to exist, even in an age of hyper-connection. We will never all see the "big picture" through a singular lens.
Just look at me. If I hadn't been fortunate enough to leave Arizona and meet young feminists online and IRL, today I might not be doing my part to change the conversation here on the world wide web; I might be at home re-reading The Vagina Monologues by myself. And though it's now my job to track it, the 24/7 news cycle tires me. Today's outrage is yesterday's news; the ideas I see expressed online today have their roots in texts I read as a teenager, written before I was born. To see looking to the past for clues to understand the present as "outdated" betrays a media culture focused on what is new, trending, and going viral. It's a media culture devoid of cultural context.
Even in the internet age, my interests haven't changed: I like to talk to people face-to-face about ideas I've engaged with on my own, and learn things from them that I didn't know. How's that for a critical eye, Hanna Rosin?
And do you know what trained them, back in Flagstaff, Arizona?
Reading books did.