Illustration by Hana Shafi

Illustration by Hana Shafi

In this episode, we take a look at feminism’s identity crisis. The movement has finally broken into the mainstream, but at what cost? Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and editorial director of Bitch Media, weighs in. Contemporary manifestations of violence against women are emerging online, forcing social media platforms to re-evaluate their role in the face of gender-trolling. Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women's Media Centre Speech Project, shares her thoughts after.

“Feminism is still an unfinished project,” says Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and creative director of Bitch Media, a non-profit feminist media organization based in Portland, Ore.

In her new book, We Were Feminists Once, the founder of one of America’s largest feminist magazines chronicles the “buying and selling of a political movement,” as the book’s subtitle aptly states.

 Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch Media. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch Media. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

“There’s this corporate, commercialized, consumerist brand of feminism that is being pitched by celebrities and advertisers which is pulling focus from the idea of feminism as an ideology,” she says.

This year marks Bitch Media’s 20-year anniversary. Zeisler believes that, without the Internet, the general level of awareness related to feminist issues over the last two decades would have been much lower. “[Activism] is not just happening in the streets in marches, and it’s not just happening in academic classrooms,” she says, applauding the immersive and inspiring nature of hashtags in particular.

"But this doesn't mean we can afford to be complacent about feminism's future."

Zeisler often wonders if the career she’s carved for herself is genuinely helping advance feminist discourse, especially when there are more immediate, on-the-ground problems that need attention. While she acknowledges that feminism today is much more diverse, intersectional and wide-ranging than it’s ever been, this has also made it overwhelming to be a feminist, particularly for young people. 

Despite this concern, she remains fiercely committed to reader-supported media free from “deep-pocketed donors who steer our editorial choices,” she wrote in an editor’s letter. In the letter, Zeisler recounts when the first print issue of the magazine was distributed out of the back of a Toyota Corona in 1996.

“Feminist media can’t be funded by the corporations who produce and control most of what pop culture has to offer,” she says.

“Once you let your guard down, you’re in danger of seeing this movement coopted. It’s already happening.”

You can read a condensed and edited version of our interview here.


A lot of people think feminists want to censor the Internet, and nothing could be farther from the truth.
 Soraya Chemaly, feminist writer and director of the Women's Media Centre Speech Project. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Soraya Chemaly, feminist writer and director of the Women's Media Centre Speech Project. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

“I think a lot of people still pay a pretty high personal penalty for claiming to be feminists online,” says Soraya Chemaly, the director of the Women’s Media Centre (WMC) Speech Project, which raises public and media awareness about online harassment.

“I have a feeling that for many people, the disembodiment that they experience online enables them to express themselves in ways they may not in their own homes or in their workplaces.”

The feminist writer and activist says teenage girls regularly come up to her to talk about feminist issues, far from their families where they fear a discussion like this will take away their Internet privileges.     

The WMC Speech Project is a division of The Women’s Media Center, a non-profit women’s media organization founded by high-profile American feminists Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem.

Named one of Elle magazine's 25 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter last year, Chemaly has been a force of change on the continuing challenge of social media accountability.  She says the use of gendered harassment and insults is a silencing technique, and those who use these methods do so with the intention of driving women out of online communities and off the internet altogether. She believes that they are part of the tradition of not allowing women to participate in the public sphere.  

“The very qualities that make the internet a revolutionary space also enable powerful variations on old themes: violence against women and the cultural policing of girls and women,” reads the WMC Speech Project’s website.

“Women take online harassment more seriously not because we are hysterics, but because we reasonably have to,” she wrote in Time magazine.

“It has a long history and cannot be isolated from actual violence that we adapt to avoiding every day. The fact that violence has always suppressed women’s free speech is only now becoming too obvious to ignore.”

In 2013, Chemaly, Jaclyn Friedman of Women, Action, and the Media, and Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism launched a social media campaign demanding that Facebook recognize the graphic and violent content being shared on the platform violated guidelines. In a savvy move, they targeted companies that advertised on Facebook, tweeting screenshots of the offensive content displayed alongside their advertisements.  As soon as companies began pulling their advertising money, Facebook sat up and listened. In a public letter co-signed by 160 organizations and corporations, they told Facebook that the removal of content was not hampering free speech, but that the content itself was contributing to a culture of violence against women.  

“A lot of people think feminists want to censor the Internet, and nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Chemaly.

“We’re actively engaged in trying to liberate spaces online. This space is not a virtual disconnected space; [online and offline spaces] are seamlessly related spaces.”

I spoke to Soraya about the importance of creating gender-neutral spaces online in the ongoing crisis of cyber-misogyny.

You can read a condensed and edited version of our interview here