10 From Theory to Content: Feminist Publishing Makes Women’s Studies Powerful

By Carmen Rios, American University, alumna

Illustration of author Carmen Rios wearing a pink shirt that says "Pink is my power color." The shirt is tucked into something pink, and she is holding a pink purse that says "FEMINIST AS FUCK" in all caps, with her hand that has pink finger nails and a pink ring, which matches her pink lipstick.
Carmen Rios by Nicole Carter

I made some of my earliest feminist declarations online—the same year I began my journey in Women’s Studies.

I was 16 when Hillary Clinton announced she was running for president, living at home in New Jersey with my single mother and near my aunt and my grandmother. 2007 was the year I finally got my own computer, and when the clamor of the Clinton/Obama race became too painful, I sought solace in my dedicated Internet connection. I scoured the nascent Facebook for groups of Clinton supporters and embedded myself in them, sharing and collecting links about Clinton’s policies or history in an attempt to make my way through the misinformation and sexist myths that were alive in the mainstream media coverage of her campaign. I published impassioned letters and essays in the void of a community blog run by the Democratic party.

That urge—to connect, to share, and to be in community with other people who felt as strongly as I did about the misogyny I saw during that election cycle—was what led me to my first Women’s Studies course that same year, at the community college where students from my high school took their final year of classes. I voraciously read for the class, sometimes folding pages to mark academic evidence I could use for my online arguments. I asked questions about the election openly in class, finally feeling safe to do so in physical space, and began grappling with the depth and nuances of the situation that were often lost in digital space.

Within a decade’s time, I would publish a series with the digital magazine Autostraddle, the world’s most popular website for queer and trans women, on women’s history and feminist theory, translating theory into popular language; I would also walk feminists from theory to praxis as a contributor at Everyday Feminism; and I would land in the same world as feminist scholars once again as managing digital editor at Ms., where we set out to mainstream women’s studies concepts through the popular press.

Mine is a modern version of a tale as old as this discipline: Feminist media has long sought to make the concepts explored by feminist scholars more salient, and feminist scholarship has often shaped conversations in the feminist press. In this essay, I will trace the interconnected histories of feminist scholarship and feminist publishing—and examine how modern technology has helped disseminate Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies (GWSS).

Since Women’s Studies founding as a discipline, there has always been a powerful relationship between scholarship and feminist/social-justice oriented media platforms. In her book When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women’s Studies in America, Marilyn Boxer identifies feminist publishing as one of two “institutions through which Women’s Studies exists outside the campus” (1998, 176)—the other being the network of national women’s organizations who agitated to bring the concepts recorded by scholars into political conversations.

GWSS in the classroom examined and explained the concepts women/minoritized writers explored in the pages of magazines like Ms. through personal essays and reporting; today, feminist scholars, bloggers, and scholar-writers have leveraged the feminist press to, for better or worse, mainstream concepts like “privilege,” (McIntosh 1988) “intersectionality,” (Crenshaw 1989) and “misogynoir ” (Bailey & Trudy 2018).

In 1970, when San Diego State University established the first Women’s Studies program, it opened the doors for feminist publishing. Academic journals devoted to the discipline, Boxer observes, provided a powerful blueprint for feminist knowledge production: Feminist Studies, founded in 1972, was the earliest model, followed in 1975 by Signs and Frontiers (1998, 176), and then in 1983 SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women (James et. al. xiv) hosted by the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College, and nearly two decades later Meridians. The publishing efforts of feminist scholars paved the way for a popular press that amplified their perspectives and translated their concepts, ultimately integrating GWSS discourse into larger conversations happening across the country.

Feminists also began building their own popular press in 1970 with the launch of Off our backs, once the longest-surviving feminist newspaper in the US; and Ms., which launched in 1971 as a special New York magazine insert and in earnest as a full magazine in 1972. Before the end of the decade, in 1976, Sinister Wisdom was launched by its two founding editors in North Carolina, providing a distinctly lesbian voice in pursuit of similar aims. Endeavors like these explicitly set out to make feminist perspectives and voices louder, and both set a standard for embracing academic principles from Women’s Studies in print.

The relationship between popular feminist media and academic feminist publishing was intertwined from the start: some of Sinister Wisdom’s editors were GWSS faculty and feminist scholars, including one of its cofounders and its current editor; Ms. worked regularly with feminist scholars and, in 2001, even created the Ms. Committee of Scholars to advise on the magazine’s content and strategy—including Carrie Baker, author in this collection; Off our backs was intent on discussing topics which appeared in academic journals like Feminist Studies, just as Feminist Studies sought to keep its content legible to readers outside of the academy.

Academic and popular feminist publishing may have been divided in discourse, approach, and audience, but they shared a singular mission to make feminist thought viable in spaces where knowledge production had been almost exclusively white, masculine, and heteropatriarchal. Journals like Feminist Studies, Signs, Frontiers, Sage, and Meridians, legitimized the academic examination of women’s, femme’s, and queer lives and experiences, including communities of color, and transnational women/femmes. These journals also explored the ways in which institutions and power structures had disadvantaged and harmed their communities, in all senses of the word. Ms., Off our backs, Sinister Wisdom and the countless big and small print endeavors they inspired in the ensuing decades—like Bitch and Bust and the feminist zine movement of the nineties (Piepmeier and Zeisler, 2009)—mainstreamed their observations, mobilized everyday women and their allies in order to address them, and made feminist perspectives popular in broader cultural conversations.

Collectively, these efforts in feminist publishing made the concepts in Women’s Studies tangible, applicable and of popular interest—in the classroom and beyond it. Along the way, they also extended the mission of GWSS to not just reinforce academic structures, but to challenge them, and to break down the walls, sometimes literally “paywalls,” that academics had built around knowledge.

Feministe, which calls itself the first feminist blog, was launched in 2001 as a personal blog and was re-launched in 2005 by its founder, Lauren, with a growing slate of co-bloggers. One year before, in 2004, Feministing.com was founded by sisters Jessica and Vanessa Valenti. Like their foremothers before them, feminist blogs like these tied academia to activism—and brought feminist theory to praxis. Feministe prided itself as publishing “in defense of the sanctimonious women’s studies set,” and Feministing sought to offer “sharp, uncompromising feminist analysis of everything from pop culture to politics and inspiring young people to make real-world feminist change.”

They also kicked off a movement of digital feminist publishing that has, in the nearly two decades since, become a powerful vehicle for cultural transformation—and made more room for intersectional feminist thought in public. In 2010, a group of black feminists whose “academic day jobs were lacking in conversations they actually wanted to have—relevant, real conversations about how race and gender politics intersect with pop culture and current events” began publishing a blog called The Crunk Feminist Collective. In December 2011, blogger Mia McKenzie launched Black Girl Dangerous “to, in as many ways as possible, amplify the voices, experiences and expressions of queer and trans people of color.” Today, many feminist blogs have been redesigned and re-envisioned as full-scale online magazines, like Autostraddle (founded in 2009), For Harriet (founded in 2010) and Jezebel (founded in 2007). Others have since stopped publishing or continued in less formal structures. But altogether, the feminist blog boom of the 00’s and 2010’s made feminist thought pervasive.

No longer did feminists need to rely on a friend to hand them an issue of Ms., and feminist publishing was no longer solely reliant on costly physical presences on newsstands to spread the good word. The feminist blogosphere, in some ways, helped fulfill that founding mission of Women’s Studies—it made concepts in feminist theory and feminist organizing more accessible than ever, often with few, if any, financial barriers to accessing content or geographical limits on who could create content and participate in conversations. Due to major differences in the time, energy, and expense of content production online and in print, in fact, digital publishing made feminist perspectives available at what felt like light-speed.

Digital publishing also helped empower individual voices, and further removed control over feminist discourse from publishing gatekeepers. Feministing had a slate of regular contributors and editors, but also allowed members to log on and publish their own pieces to a community portal. Because digital publishing was nascent and often seen as a “passion project,” feminist writers did not need to have the same formal credentials—academic or professional—to become citizen journalists online. This was a double-edged sword, of course—because uncompensated labor will often be done by those with the most economic privilege—but it also opened the door to content creation steered by the feminist movement at-large, instead of its de facto leaders. Many of the writers shaping websites like Feministe, Feministing, Jezebel and Autostraddle, as well as the dozens of partner efforts taking shape across digital space, would later become acclaimed feminist voices, but when they first started blogging, many were articulating perspectives rooted in personal experience, without an organizational agenda and beyond academic constrictions on their language and subjects.

The Internet also expanded the possibilities for feminist content creation and served as a space for “supplemental” media production by the major journals and magazines that were the Feminist Internet’s predecessors. Ms. publishes quarterly in print but nearly 10 times a day online; Bitch and Bust would go on to launch a series of podcasts in the digital age.

GWSS itself also began seeing the digital space as rife for expansion. About a quarter of all GWSS departments offer fully online courses (and this was prior to COVID-19) and have at least one faculty member who specializes in digital humanities (AAA&S 2017, 7). Similarly, digital content—articles, videos, podcasts, online zines, and more—have become popular in syllabi across the country. Additionally, digital space (like this book) facilitates feminist teaching beyond the classroom, allowing informal exploration of the same issues with fewer barriers to entry, and for many more “students,” as long as they have access to devices and hotspots. Websites like Everyday Feminism, launched in 2012, seek to make feminist issues accessible to anyone curious about feminist thought, offering courses as well as a steady stream of content that walks people through how to live more in line with their feminist values and how to mobilize for feminist progress. Their writers, in some ways, became de facto professors themselves—breaking down complex issues and becoming a source of guidance and support for up-and-coming activists who may never have been able to pursue feminist knowledge in a classroom, or struggled to apply the lessons they learned to their real lives—but their content reaches “over 4.5 million monthly visitors from over 150 countries,” making their classroom much larger than those in your standard university hall.

Social media has also changed the context of feminist knowledge. Links about feminist issues, primers on feminist theory, and opinion and analysis pieces by feminist thinkers are now situated on websites like Facebook and Twitter, between links by mainstream media outlets, and found in streams of links amidst pop culture hot takes, and mainstream news coverage. Feminists are no longer simply having conversations within their movement, only talking to each other; they are now in a position to shape the much larger conversations happening on our timelines.

Individual feminists can now make feminist voices go viral, sometimes overpowering perspectives by people who hold institutional power, just by sharing links from feminist websites to their circle of friends. Feminist perspectives can now be woven into every conversation—and in response, feminist perspectives have become more widespread. Those feminist magazines which lit the way for feminist blogs also helped raise a generation of writers “infiltrating” old-guard newspapers and magazines to lift up feminist voices, or steer coverage of women’s issues that was once invisible in the popular press. In this way, social media has the potential to fully democratize Women’s Studies ideas—to make the ideas from our discipline not only accessible, but widely accessed; and to remove feminist thought not only from the ivory tower, but from every silo in which it was originally documented and preserved. Social media makes feminist thought into much-needed public property and challenges the structures which have kept it from claiming that space for so long. It also allows women without the financial means to shape academia or the media landscape to participate wholeheartedly in feminist movement-building. The feminist press has always been a critical source of community and conversation—and social media has made the possibility of connection even greater. Feminist scholars can now engage in real-time with their subjects as issues evolve in a news cycle; feminist journalists can confront detractors or put their work in new context with the click of a button; and feminist readers and organizers can forge relationships with feminist scholars, writers and editors with a simple “like.” The Internet has created new space for organizing, which feminists have attempted to seize with great success, but it has also allowed feminist knowledge to be created, shared, and commented on in real time.

Fifty years after the founding of Women’s Studies and what we now see as the feminist press, we are finally seeing the realization of the aims that guided our foremothers. Feminist theory now shapes collective discourse—not just in academia, but across communities—and feminist knowledge is now accessible to the women/marginalized communities who need it most, and who for too long could not afford entry to the spaces where it was being produced and disseminated. These victories, of course, are not meant to erase the real risks many feminist voices have taken—especially bloggers like Anita Sarkeesian, who was one of the major targets of the #GamerGate movement—in speaking out online or elsewhere in the media.

The next generation of Women’s Studies scholars have tools at their disposal that their foremothers never could have imagined. While the future of GWSS has yet to be written, one thing is clear a half century into this work: The future is feminist, and much of it will ultimately unfold online.

Works cited:

American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 2017. “The State of Women and Gender Studies in Four-Year Colleges and Universities.” Report prepared by the Staff of the Humanities Indicators. https://www.amacad.org/humanities-indicators/profile-women-and-gender- studies- departments-hds-3. [Accessed: 5/28/2020]

Bailey, Moya & Trudy. 2018 “On misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism,” in Feminist Media Studies. 18(4): 762-768.

Boxer, Marilyn Jacoby. 1998. When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women’s Studies in America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” in University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1989(1): 139-167.

Everyday Feminism. “About.” https://everydayfeminism.com/about-ef/ [Accessed: 5/28/2020]

Goldberg, Emma. 2019. “Farewell to Feministing and the Heyday of Feminist Blogging,” in New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/business/media/feminist-blogs- feministing.html [Accessed: 5/28/2020]

James, Stanle M., Frances Smith Foster & Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds. 2009. Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” Working Paper 189, Wellesley Centers for Women. Wellesley, MA.

Piepmeier, Alison and Andi Zeisler. 2009. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Powell, Catherine. 2018. “How Social Media Has Reshaped Feminism.” Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/blog/how-social-media-has-reshaped-feminism [Accessed: 5/28/2020]

Sarkeesian, Anita. 2019. “Anita Sarkeesian looks back at GamerGate.” Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2019/12/23/20976891/anita-sarkeesian-gamergate-review-feminist-frequency-game-industry [Accessed: 5/28/2020]

Sinister Wisdom. “History.” http://www.sinisterwisdom.org/history [Accessed: 5/28/2020]