Tweeting feminists exploring feminism and social media

After three months of extensive research and interviews, this is the final installment of my Ryerson University School of Journalism final year project exploring feminism and social media.

The online estrogen revolution

Sitting in her backyard in Tampa, FL., Angie Jackson is filming a YouTube video on her laptop. Looking directly into her webcam, she says, “I am having an abortion – right now.” Already the mother of a seven-year-old boy, Jackson’s first pregnancy was extremely difficult – she almost died during delivery. When Jackson, 27, found out she was pregnant in February, she automatically knew she wanted an abortion; her method of choice was an RU-486 pill which induces a miscarriage. An avid user of social media websites such as YouTube, Blogger and Twitter, which connect you with people virtually, it felt natural to want to share her abortion experience.

“I’m live Tweeting my abortion on Twitter. Not for some publicity stunt or attention or to justify this with myself, I am at peace with my decision,” continues Jackson. “I’m doing this to demystify abortion so that other women know, hey, it’s not nearly as terrifying as I had myself worked up thinking it was.” To date, the video has had over 149, 371 views on YouTube, a video-sharing website.

Jackson’s use of Twitter really caught mass attention, both positive and negative. Twitter is a website that lets you send 140-typed-character messages known as “Tweets” to people who subscribe to your profile. Jackson started the hashtag #livetweetingabortion which allows users to search and follow all messages mentioning the tag. Within two days of starting her live-Tweets, Jackson had 110 new followers and currently has 2,630. After posting messages such as “Cramping a bit. Feels more squirmy than painful if that makes sense. #livetweetingabortion #notsoscary” Jackson received numerous death threats from people who oppose abortion. She has also gotten an overwhelming amount of support and admiration. “I’ve had women e-mail who have never told anyone about having an abortion before and they literally had them 20 or 30 years ago. They’re not sorry it’s just not safe to talk about socially,” she says. For Jackson, knowing that her online abortion documentation is making positive effects on women makes it all worth while.

Like Jackson, all across Canada and the U.S. feminists are using social media to forge online-connections with other women, making a rapidly growing online feminist community. According to a 2008 study by comScore Media Metrix, community-based women’s websites were one of the fastest growing websites that year. Some have dubbed this the “online estrogen revolution.”

Hailing from New York City, Jill Filipovic, is a young lawyer who writes for Feministe, the oldest feminist blog, between the wee hours of one and four a.m. Filipovic is infamous in the blogosphere for her witty approach to news and pop culture. Harbouring the U.S. Midwest is Gina Crosley-Corcoran, a law student, mother and feminist blogger. Based in Chicago, she runs the Feminist Breeder, a blog dedicated to feminist moms, where she tackles issues like the right to breastfeed in public and the injustices of having forced C-sections. Down south in California is Feminist Fatale a pop culture blog by Santa Monica College women’s studies professor Melanie Klein. Jetting north to Toronto is Broadsides, a feminist blog by Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias who has a knack for news analysis and calling out politicians on their blatant sexism.

These are just a few of the women in the quickly-growing cyberfeminist pack. But these women aren’t just blogging about every day mundane things; they’re using social media as activist tools and are forging a new form of feminism that is distinctly different from past generations.

“When I was younger it was very difficult to find people who were like minded unless they were in your immediate circle. So there was a sense of being limited by the impact you can make,” says Klein. “But now we have a forum where we can publish our own voices, we can organize, we can protest, we can within minutes circulate flyers and newsletters and letter writing campaigns and that’s incredible. I think it’s really opened up the world of activism and community.”  

Entering the femisphere

What we know as feminism today was originally popularized in the late 1800s when women known as suffragettes fought to get the vote, with the movement ending in the 1920s. A resurgence happened in the late 1960s as the second wave of feminism was in full force with a focus on wage equity, equal access to jobs and reproductive rights. In the 1980s, feminism saw a focus on diversity and anti-racism work. This third wave had more creative types of activism with the inclusion of a punk-rock aesthetic through women identifying as riot grrrls.

Now, feminism is in a grey area. There is no single cause to rally under but by the click of a button and a simple Google search of “feminism,” you get the golden ticket into the “femisphere” where there are feminist blogs about everything from queer rights, to anti-racism, to disability activism, to pop culture criticism and more. I was first introduced to the femisphere from my work with McClung’s, a feminist magazine based out of Ryerson University where I am currently the co-Editor-in-Chief. As a young feminist, I found comfort in knowing that there are many of other like-minded women that I could have political debates with; something I don’t have in my off-line life. For Canice Leung, a former editor of McClung’s who also pens “Fourth Wave” a column for Metro where she is the web editor, feminist blogs are making the politics more accessible.
“When people say things like, ‘blogs are so apathetic and what are they really doing?’ that’s such a close minded view because the world is changing in the way we get our information. Everyone has to start somewhere whether it’s political activism or wanting to be a journalist – it all starts with one tiny thing,” Leung says.

The internet is changing feminism

Similar to the consciousness raising groups of feminism’s second wave where women would get together and talk about political issues and plan actions, feminist blogs act as a gateway for people not familiar with the movement. Most feminist blogs are written in everyday language making chalked-up theoretical rhetoric understandable for everyone. The concept of virtual feminist communities, however, is not a recent phenomena. The term “cyberfeminist” was coined by Australian art collective VNS Matrix in 1991 before the popularity of the internet grew like wildfire. Similarly, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, riot grrrls took to the web and created e-zines – websites like online magazines with more of an emphasis on artistic than professional. E-zines such as – which published from 1996 to 2008 – featured sarcastic imagery of the 1950s housewife archetype and had diary-like written entries, sex advice, pictures of friends and more.

Feminists have been using the web for political purposes for over a decade now but it is only recently with the blogging explosion that this once relatively small niche has quickly expanded. In 2008, BlogHer – the largest female blogging community publishing 2,500 blogs by women – reported that every week, 36.2 million American women partake in the blogosphere. Up north, in 2005 Statistics Canada found that 68 per cent of Canadian women were using the internet.
For Judy Rebick, a pioneer Canadian feminist and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, social media has changed traditional methods of activism.

“In the past, [we] had to rely on the mainstream media, and the filter of the mainstream media, to get to people. Or we put out our own newspapers which got to a very tiny group of people. So social media gets to way more people than any social movement’s ever been able to get to,” Rebick says. “If you put something up on Twitter or Facebook, it can go viral and get to way more people than you could’ve ever reached in old ways.”

In an attempt to show the cross-section of old-style feminism and social media, the first-ever conference about feminism and social media, Fem 2.0, was held in Washington, D.C. in 2009. For conference organizer Katie Stanton, this was a chance to show different feminists their similarities and how to work together.

“I think that organizations like NOW (National Organization of Women) and organizations like Feminist Majority have to understand that if they’re not online, the people they’re trying to reach out to are,” says Stanton. “They need to make an effort to connect with those people. There are millions of women who are online and who are talking and care about these issues.”

Some of the ways feminists are fostering online connections are by linking to each other’s blogs, having guest bloggers, leaving comments and hosting blog carnivals, which is when multiple blogs write about the same issue on a specified date, creating an online buzz and helps them share traffic. But the easiest way of creating an online connection is through Twitter.
“The most powerful thing on Twitter is a re-Tweet,” says Stanton. “When you post something interesting, you are posting it to your network. When someone in your network finds that interesting and re-Tweets it, they post it to their network. That’s potentially hundreds of people with a single re-Tweet. So that’s a very valuable tool in terms of spreading your message and getting people to be engaged in the conversation and then they’ll come back to you for more.”

Although social media has helped raise awareness about feminism and women’s issues, there’s still the concern of creating an echo chamber, says Nona Willis Aronowitz, author of Girl Drive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. For an entire year, Aronowitz and her co-author Emma Bee Bernstein hit the roads of America and interviewed over 127 women asking them how they think and feel about feminism. The end result is over 200 pages of distinctly different voices trying to grapple with what feminism is. Along the way, they started the blog and although the blog helped them garner attention and meet new interviewees, Aronowitz recognizes that social media isn’t necessarily the best way to have an intergenerational conversation about feminism or with conservative women.

Can re-Tweets beat protesting on the street?

“You can shut your laptop if you don’t want to hear this stuff,” she says. “You can never Google the word feminism or never read a feminist blog. I think social media, social networking is key to saving feminism but it can’t be the only way that feminists interact and have these discussions.”

Even Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the executive editor of Feministing, arguably the most popular feminist blog, recognizes the limitations of online feminism. Noting that not everyone has access to the web, she suggests that all feminists join campaigns for universal broadband. “Right now there’s so much internet legislation that’s so new, it’s a key time to voice your opinions,” she says.

For most online feminists, forging a connection between their online and offline work is important, as it is for Stanton. After the Fem 2.0 conference, their conversations continued on the blog and they recently wrapped up a campaign about women and work issues. They invited several different community workers to get a diverse collective of voices on hot topics like sick leaves and job accessibility. Even though the campaign was a success, online activism needs to be combined with on-the-ground initiatives.

“Being online and new media is about creating relationships with people and it’s a great opportunity to take the time and do it,” Stanton says. “We tend to forget the women who aren’t online – there is a digital divide – and I think that part of the feminist movement should be focused on reaching out to people face-to-face doing community work, doing international work,” she says.  “A lot of people are online but not everybody, not by a long shot.”

Cross-posted with permission from Tweeting Feminists by Ronak Ghorbani. Find her on Twitter.

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