A Big Think Interview With Jessica Valenti
Jessica Valenti is a feminist writer and blogger. She is the founder and editor of the popular blog and online community, Feministing.com, and the author of three books: Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know, and The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. She is also a co-editor of the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, which was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top 100 Books of 2009.
Question: Why did you start Feministing.com?
Jessica Valenti: I started Feministing -- I had just started working at a nonprofit women's organization, a national mainstream feminist women's organization, and I was right out of grad school. I'd got my master's in women's and gender studies, and I was really, really excited to be working for a big feminist organization. And I thought it was going to be kick-ass, and I thought, you know, I was going to change the world. And I got there, and while it was great and I met a lot of really wonderful and interesting women, I felt like young women kind of at the organization and in the mainstream feminist movement in general weren't really being listened to; that there was a lot of lip service about how important young women were to the movement, but at the end of the day our opinions didn't matter much. So that really kind of got me started thinking about creating a space where younger feminist voices were really the center.
Question: What divides the feminist movement?
Jessica Valenti: You know, I don't know that it's so much a generational divide between feminists as there are just different modes of feminist thought. But it just struck me as really odd that there were all of these conversations going on about what young women were up to. Were young women having too much sex? Were young women politically apathetic? Are young women socially engaged or not? And whenever these conversations were happening, they were mostly happening by older women and by older feminists. And maybe there would be a younger woman quoted every once in a while, but we weren't really a central part of that conversation. We weren't really being allowed to speak on our own behalf.
Question: Was your site initially funded?
Jessica Valenti: We were not -- we're still struggling with how to fund the site. I just started it up. I just started it up with two other women I was working with and my sister, and we just started blogging and did it as a side project. I don't think any of us really expected it to take off in the way that it did. But I remember at the time doing -- right before we started the site -- doing a Google search for the term "young feminism" and the term "young feminist," and the first thing that came up was a page from NOW, the National Organization for Women, that was about 10 or 15 years old. And it just struck me as so odd that there was all of this young feminist activism going on, but that it wasn't necessarily being represented online, that the first things in a Google search to come up were really, really old. So I think to a certain degree we really filled a gap, and that's why we got such a large readership.
Question: How did you decide on the site’s voice?
Jessica Valenti: There was no real strategic decision about editorial tone. It was kind of a write whatever you want to write, and we'll see how it goes. I think that we lucked out in that all of the women who started writing at the site were really funny, and I don't think that's something people are used to seeing or hearing when they read feminism. You know, you think feminism and you kind of think academic, women's studies, dry, humorless; there are all of these stereotypes that go along with what feminist thought is and what feminist writing is. So I think the fact that we had a real sense of humor and we didn't take ourselves too seriously when we started writing really helped.
Question: Have you been surprised by the success of the site?
Jessica Valenti: I'm still constantly surprised by the success of the site. You know, we've been growing our readership every month, and we're kind of like, where are they all coming from? This is wonderful! And I think one of the best surprises was that you hear so often that young women don't care about feminism, that young women don't identify as feminists. But really, the majority of our readers are young women. So to see so many young people kind of get involved and really take to the site was a really exciting thing.
Question: What’s your ultimate goal for your blog?
Jessica Valenti: Take over the world. I think one our biggest goals right now, just internally, is to become sustainable. You know, Feministing is really still a labor of love for a lot of us. Almost all of us have other full-time jobs and really do this on the side. So you know, if we could find a way to really fund the site and make it so that we had a staff and an office, you know; I can't imagine anything better than a Feministing office.
Question: What would you say to people who are turned off by feminism?
Jessica Valenti: You know, something I say a lot when it comes to anti-feminist stereotypes is that they exist for a reason. The stereotypes of feminists as ugly, or man-haters, or hairy, or whatever it is -- that's really strategic. That's a really smart way to keep young women away from feminism, is to kind of put out this idea that all feminists hate men, or all feminists are ugly; and that they really come from a place of fear. If feminism wasn't powerful, if feminism wasn't influential, people wouldn't spend so much time putting it down. Something you hear a lot is that feminism dead. But if feminism is dead, why do people try so hard to kill it? Something just isn't making sense there. So I think when young women hear like, hey, someone's trying to get something over on me, you know, someone's trying to deliberately keep me away from a movement that could make my life better, I think that really resonates with them. And I also think that when they meet other feminists, you know, when they see the Feministing writers or when they see women in their own lives who identify as feminists, and the realize they're not these scary, horrible people, that makes a big difference.
Question: Should feminists try to appeal to conservatives?
Jessica Valenti: That's a really great question. I do -- part of the goal of Feministing and part of the goal with a lot of the writing that I've done is to make feminism more accessible, and definitely to make feminism more mainstream, because I do think that more people are feminists than they realize. You know, people hear the word, and they don't want to identify as feminists, but they believe in feminist values, you know. They believe in equal pay for equal work. They are upset to see rape statistics and the statistics about violence against women. They believe in reproductive justice. But I am really hesitant to kind of open up the doors and say, well, whatever women do is feminist because they're women and they're doing it. You know, I get nervous with that sort of thing.
And I'm also really aware of how feminism and feminist rhetoric has been appropriated by the right. There's a lot of anti-feminist organizations out there, like the Independent Women's Forum and Concerned Women for America, that will use feminist language, that will use words like empowered and even say we're the new feminists -- you know, the way that people talk about Sarah Palin sometimes as a feminist. I think that's really dangerous. I mean, it goes to show the power of feminism that people want to use the language of feminism, but I do fear that it'll kind of get turned into something that's absolutely unfeminist. You know, people ask me a lot, well, can you be pro-life and be feminist? Can you be conservative and be feminist? And I think that yeah, maybe personally you can be those things. But I think if you're advocating for legislation, or if you're fighting to limit other women's rights, then you can't really call yourself a feminist.
Question: What is feminism?
Jessica Valenti: You know, I always go with the dictionary definition of feminism, which is just social, political and economic equality for women. And that's kind of a strategic thing on my part, because I think that it's the hardest definition to argue with. You know, who doesn't want that? Everyone wants equality for women.
Question: What are the most damaging myths about modern feminism?
Jessica Valenti: Like myths about feminism, or just -- I think there are a couple of dangerous myths surrounding feminism. I think the idea that feminism is dead is dangerous because it leads women and men to believe that (1) they don't have to do anything; the work has been done, and that everything is okay now; and (2) it leaves them kind of alone, I think, in a struggle, and that's something I've seen a lot when I go to colleges and I speak to young women. They know that something is off; they know that the world is a messed-up place. They know that the world is a sexist place because they've had experiences in their own life; they see things happening to their friends, to their parents. And -- but because feminism isn't widely accepted, because they don't necessarily have access to feminist thought or to feminist groups, they don't necessarily have a language to put behind the feelings and the thoughts that they're having. And they certainly don't have a support system to let them know like, hey, that's okay; you're right, that is screwed up. And I think that's really a terrible, horrible thing, and that's part of the reason why I think making feminism accessible to more people is so important.
Question: What does making feminism “accessible” mean?
Jessica Valenti: Just letting people know that it's out there, you know. Letting people know that it's out there, but also -- I think it's really a shame -- you know, I grew up definitely a feminist, but I didn't call myself a feminist until I took my first women's studies class in college. And I think it's really a shame that so many young women come to feminism that way, that they come to feminism so late, first of all, and that it's really something that is -- it's a privileged institution; it's a privileged movement. For a lot of women who don't go to college, or for a lot of women who aren't in New York or D.C. or someplace where there's like a large feminist organization they can get involved in, they may be doing feminist work, right, like locally or with a grassroots organization or in their own lives, but if they don't have that support system and if they don't have that availability to feminist language, I think we're missing out on something.
Question: Why do people resist feminism?
Jessica Valenti: I think people resist feminism because they're scared. I think for women, they're scared of being picked on or of being called out. I hear from a lot of young women, you know, I don't want to call myself a feminist because I don't want to get in an argument with someone. And it's just not cool; like it's not a cool thing to be associated with. There's no benefit to saying that you're a feminist. But you do kind of get a nice patriarchal pat on the head if you say, oh, I'm not like that, like I'm not one of those crazy feminists, which is something that happens a lot, where young women or young men will express some sort of feminist ideal, will say, you know, I think it's crap that Wal-Mart won't give out emergency contraception, but I'm not one of those crazy feminists. You know, there's always that caveat there. And it's really unfortunate, I think, that people are missing out. Whether people identify as feminists or not, if they're doing work that furthers a feminist cause, I think that's wonderful, like if it works for me, right, it works for the movement. But I do think that personally they're missing out. If you don't identify as a feminist, you're missing out on this whole community that's out there that could really help you with your work, help you with your personal life, and just give you support.
Question: Do you find breaking feminism into waves productive?
Jessica Valenti: I don't find the wave model very productive, because I think it kind of serves to fan the flames of generational tension, or make it seem like there's more generational tension than there actually is. And it also makes it seem as if there's a beginning and an end to each of those movements, or it seems much more connected to me than anything else. I mean, don't get me wrong; I'm glad that we have a history at all and that we can talk about feminist history. But I do think that it doesn't really pay attention to the complexity and the nuance that is feminist thought. And it also tends to privilege kind of the mainstream movements, right? So for the second-wave movement there was all sorts of feminist work being done, but when you think about second wave, you think Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and you don't necessarily think about maybe some of like the other women who were doing feminist work or smaller organizations. So I think we run the risk of not paying attention to all of the work that's being done.
Question: Who are your major influences?
Jessica Valenti: The biggest thinker that's influenced my feminism is definitely Bell Hooks, who's a feminist cultural critic, because of her accessibility but also just because she's a genius. But one of the things I really like about doing work online, and the thing I like about the work I'm doing now, is that I get to meet feminists all the time and I get to read new feminists every day on the blogosphere. And it's really that kind of diversity of thought that informs me more than anything else these days. It's just kind of learning something new all the time. And I kind of love that there's not really a feminist canon; or maybe there is, but it's being changed, that it's a constantly moving canon in the feminist blogosphere. I love that.
Question: How can research on biological gender differences be reconciled with feminism?
Jessica Valenti: That's a really difficult question. Yeah, there's going to be biological differences between the genders. There's going to be biological differences between two women or two men. There's biological differences between all of us. My concern is, why are we so concerned about it? Why are we so worried about it? Why, whenever a study comes out about men do this one way and women do this one way, or men's brains and women's brains -- why are we so interested in that? You know, what makes us so fascinated by differences between the sexes? And I think more often than not that interest is deeply embedded in sexism. You know, the studies about differences between the sexes that you see kind of get propped up in the media are more often than not denigrating women in some way, saying that women really don't have any spatial understanding, and that's why they can't park. You know, it always comes back to something like that.
Question: Has blogging changed feminism?
Jessica Valenti: I think that blogging and the Internet has completely changed feminism for ever, I think. You know, it used to be, 10 years ago, if you wanted to have a strong, influential voice in the feminist movement, you really needed to be part of this New York/D.C. elite group of feminists, or part of a mainstream feminist organization. And now it's kind of an amazing thing that you can just start a blog and put your voice out there and build your readership. I know I certainly wouldn't be writing books if it hadn't been for the feminist blogosphere, and I think that's a really amazing thing. And just the sheer power of outreach I think is incredible. It used to be that if someone was to get involved in feminism, it was probably because they were already interested. They were already interested in feminism; they were already interested in being an activist, and they found their way to like a NOW meeting or to a consciousness-raising group or something like that.
What we find a lot on Feministing is a lot of our readers kind of came to us by accident. A story I tell a lot because I think it's so interesting is a couple of years ago this teenager wrote me an e-mail because she had found the site after doing a Google search on Jessica Simpson. She was a big Jessica Simpson fan. And she ended up on the site because I think I had written something about Jessica Simpson's father and a virginity pledge and something like that, and just really the sexism behind that. And she got to the site, and she wrote me this e-mail saying, you know, I thought all feminists were older and hated men and weren't funny; I couldn't believe that this was what feminism was about. And she stuck around and she became a regular reader, and we got -- I mean, we continue to get a lot of e-mails like that, so just kind of stumbling upon feminism by accident; and having this kind of subversive outreach I think is a really incredible thing.
Question: Is the current wave of feminism global?
Jessica Valenti: Yes, I think feminism has always been global. I think there's feminism everywhere throughout the world. I think, though, for Western feminism and for American feminism, it not so surprisingly continues to center Western feminism and American feminism. And I think the biggest hurdle American feminists have in terms of taking a more global approach is that too often when you hear American feminists talk about international feminism or women in other countries, it kind of goes along with this condescending point of view like we have to save the women of such-and-such country; we have to help them. And -- when more often than not they're already helping themselves in some other way. So I think that it's incredibly important that we're actually paying attention to the feminism that's going on on the ground in different countries and see what we can do to support the work that's already going on, as opposed to kind of assuming that we know best for women in other areas.
Question: Why are so few women engaged in public debate?
Jessica Valenti: I wonder that constantly. I -- whether it's the op-ed pages or the Internet, women's voices are out there, but they're not -- you know, they're not put out into the mainstream, and they're not brought to the forefront. And I do think that's part of systemic sexism. Like I don't think that there's a guy behind the desk at every newspaper saying "No, woman" and sending her on her way, but that's what's systemic about it, right, like that people don't quite realize that maybe they're attracted to a male op-ed more than a female op-ed, or because of networking they know this person from going out to a bar with them. There's all sorts of reasons, I think, kind of day in and day out that influence that sort of stuff.
And I also think that right now, on-line especially, there's this trend of kind of having women's Web sites or women-only spaces, which I don't -- you know, I go back and forth on. You know, obviously Feministing is kind of a women's space in a certain way, even though we have a lot of male readership and people who don’t identify as women. So there is a kind of an upside to it, but I think to a large degree, when we kind of separate ourselves out, it furthers the notion that women's issues -- that there are such things as women's issues, that these aren't everyone's issues, that women's issues are special issues or special-interest issues, or we're bringing in the gender card. Well, when men talk, that's the gender card too, you know. So I'm just really weary of all of this separating out.
Question: Why are most websites for women aimed at consumption?
Jessica Valenti: Yeah. I've been thinking about this a lot, that all of the Web sites for women -- and I'm thinking specifically of like corporate Web sites for women -- are really consumer-driven. They do really assume that all women want to do is shop and -- well, and shop and shop. And I don't think it's surprising, because I think it's recreating the same paradigm that you see with a lot of women's magazines or that you see in real life or with advertisements or with TV. But I do think that we have this incredible opportunity because being on-line -- the Internet is a relatively new space -- we do have this incredible opportunity to change that dynamic, to make sure that women are present in all sorts of spaces, not just women-only spaces. I mean, I think a part of that is going to have to be making general public spaces on the Internet a bit safer for women. If you go to places like YouTube, it's a cesspool, and a lot of the comments are really horrifying and misogynist and harassing. And I think that online harassment has become so ubiquitous on the Internet that a lot of women do feel safer, whatever that means, in spaces where they know like people are not going to bother them in that kind of way.
I'm talking about -- the Internet generally -- whenever you hear something about sexual assault, right? If there's an article about sexual assault, if there's a video about feminism on YouTube, you're going to get the most horrible, disgusting comments ever. And sometimes the comments are pornographic, and sometimes the comments are really harassing. So I think that it's kind of a difficult place for women to write sometimes. I mean, the Internet is the new public space, right? And because women are out in public, people don't like that in much the same way that if you're walking down the street you get harassed. I think the same kind of thing happens online, and I think that's why a lot of women are hesitant to put their voice out there.
There's been all sorts of stories. There was kind of an infamous incident happened a couple of years ago when a technology blogger called Kathy Sierra, her life was threatened. She had people posting Photoshopped pornographic pictures of her, and this has happened to me; this has happened to a lot of feminist writers I know. When you put your voice out there in a really public way, or you're saying something that's strong, or you're saying something that's political, or you're saying something that people aren't necessarily used to hearing women say, people get really uncomfortable. And because folks have the anonymity factor, and they don't have the same kind of accountability that they do in the real world, they're much more likely to say really horrible, disgusting and scary things. And there's only so many rape threats you can get before you start thinking, hey, maybe I shouldn't be writing.
Question: Is feminism growing as a movement?
Jessica Valenti: I think feminism is taking off. It's just not visible in the way that we would like it to be. I do think that there is a real crisis of masculinity that's happening in America. I think the problem is -- the way it's being framed is that there's a problem with masculinity because women are too powerful, or women are taking up too much space. And that's the way it's being talked about, rather than what's going on with men that maybe they're in school less, or that they feel like they have to adhere to a certain ideal of what men are supposed to be like? So instead of focusing on men and focusing on what we can do to prop them up, people seem really incredibly focused on the fact that women are doing well and maybe that's not such a good thing.
Question: Is it more effective to promote feminism to those who are marginalized?
Jessica Valenti: That's a great question. I think it is effective when activists work from the margins, and I think that's the best way to go about it. And I do think that it's increasingly being more effective with the work that's being done online, that it is a bit more democratized, that whatever kind of activism is being done, it's not necessarily coming from one centralized place. One feminist organization isn't saying, okay, go out and change the world, or go out and organize around this. While they are doing that, they're doing it in conjunction with other groups that are doing it in conjunction with other blogs. Small blogs are starting up big campaigns. I think that's really a step in the right direction, because you are getting more voices out there, and maybe while one organization is focusing on one aspect of an issue -- they're focusing on abortion, right? -- another organization is saying, okay, but what about birth control? Another organization is saying, okay, what about sterilization and the right of women to have children? So just the idea that all of these different voices can be working on the same issue but bringing something different to the table I think is really important.
Question: How do conservatives hijack feminist language?
Jessica Valenti: I think what bothers me the most about the way that people appropriate feminist language is that they are the same people who are -- you know, anti-feminists -- they're the same people who say that feminism is ruining the family, yet when it behooves them to, they'll say Sara Palin's a feminist -- when all of a sudden it works in their favor. And I think that's really upsetting to a lot of feminists. But it also is really dangerous in terms of how the word becomes watered down and who gets to use that word, and who gets to use that word for the work that they're doing. Something else that's really happening that I've noticed -- and this has happened with like third-wave feminists -- is that people seem to think, because of the way that the media has appropriated third-wave feminism or young feminism, that all young feminists are about is like pole dancing and girls gone wild and how empowering it is. Like they'll start calling anything feminist.
I saw an article about a year ago where the manager of the Pussycat Dolls, which is kind of this like striptease band, girl band, said, oh well, the girls are totally third-wave feminist. This is what third-wave feminism is about. Like you don't get to use that word. You don't get to say that something is feminist as a way to sell back sexism to women, as a way to further consumerist ideas. It's really incredible, but it's really effective, right? Like it's an incredibly effective tool. One of the funniest things I saw was that the fastest-growing form of plastic surgery is the designer vaginas, the labiaplasties and the replaced hymens and all of this sort of stuff. And if you look at the press releases from a lot of these places, they use feminist language. They say things like women now have equal sexual rights, so cut your labia off. You know, it doesn't really make sense, but they know that that's a great way to think that they're woman-friendly. And you see that a lot, I think.
Question: Will Sarah Palin’s legacy impact how future female candidates are viewed?
Jessica Valenti: I hope not, but yes. Yeah, I do. I mean, I think that the election and watching Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton and the way they were treated was a really, really interesting moment. And it was bad for both of them. You know, as much as I disagree with Sarah Palin, there's no denying that she was the victim of sexism over and over again in the campaign. But what you kind of saw happening was that both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton filled these models of femininity, like whereas Hillary was like the ball-busting -- what was it? -- the takeout that her voice reminds me of taking out the trash. She was like the ball-busting man hater, and Sarah Palin was the male-friendly like sex symbol. And neither of those are really great, accurate, realistic, nuanced, complex models of what it means to be a woman, or what it means to be a woman in politics. But that's what they were stuck with, and I think that we're going to continue to see those kinds of narratives when it comes to women in powerful positions, that people aren't comfortable thinking of women as people, right? Like we're not people, we're women, and that means something completely different, especially when you have power.
Question: Who do you see as a new model for feminism?
Jessica Valenti: Oh, that's great! I've been thinking a lot about Lady Gaga and what she means for feminism. I think -- I find her completely fascinating, and I really like what she has to say. And she's kind of said in interviews, you know, spoken out against homophobia and misogyny in the music industry. And I think just her performance of sexuality, but also of power and of femininity and what is being feminine and being a woman mean, is really fascinating. I think people are going to talk about it for a long time. I don't know that it's going to inspire social change or social justice, but I do think that having these kind of moments in pop culture and people to look to in pop culture to discuss these issues can be really transformative.
Oh, when she did an interview -- I forget who it was with -- she was saying that we need to call out musicians for when they have homophobic lyrics or when they have misogynist lyrics. And she -- just the fact that someone with so much power in pop culture would use the word misogyny was like mind-blowing to me.
I do think that the model of young womanhood that's put out right now by kind of our consumer culture is really damaging. I think that the ideal of young womanhood as it's seen in pop culture specifically is a really kind of vapid, conceited, concerned with money and looks kind of thing that you'll see in a lot of reality shows. And I think that's really damaging, not just because it's a terrible role model to put forth, but that it also puts across this idea to the American public that this is what young women are like, that this is what all young women in America are like. And that's not what I see when I go to visit college campuses. It's not what I see in the young women I know. I see politically engaged and socially aware young women who are interested in making change and doing good things.
Question: Do you think new forms of misogyny are emerging?
Jessica Valenti: Oh, wow, what a great question! I do think -- I don't know if there's a new misogyny out there. I think there's the same old misogyny out there, but I do think that with what's going on online, probably misogynists are finding each other more than they used to, and there's a pretty active -- men's rights movement, they call themselves, though they don't do much on behalf of men; most of their ideas are based on the idea that feminism is bad; it's an anti-feminist movement more than it is a men's rights activist movement -- but they're pretty widely known online, and they're kind of part -- they share roots with like the pickup artists' movement and all sorts of stuff.
And actually, George Sodini, the man who shot those women at a gym in Pennsylvania not too long ago, this past year, was kind of peripherally involved with some of them online. So I do think that kind of paying attention to the misogyny and the anti-feminism that's happening online and the way that these men are bolstering each other and supporting each other in really violent views about women is something important that we need to pay attention to, because I think that, especially when it comes to people who are saying really extreme things online, we have the tendency to think that they are just kooks, or that you shouldn't pay attention to them, you shouldn't take them seriously. But I do think that there's a real danger there. It used to be if you were really hateful towards women, and perhaps if you had violent ideas about women, that maybe it was just you alone, and that was not something that you were going to express to the people in your life. But because there's no accountability on line in the same way there is in real life, all of a sudden you can say like, yeah, I hate women; I want to kill women. And you can say that online, and not only will you find a place to say it, but you'll find a place to say it where people are like, yeah, me too.
Question: How do you feel about the controversy related to your marriage?
Jessica Valenti: You know, on Feministing it was overwhelmingly positive and supportive when I got married, and most of my commenters were extremely happy and expressed as much. I think it's one of the difficulties in being kind of a public or semipublic figure in any sort of political movement, that everything that you do is analyzed, especially when you're online and especially when you choose to write about your personal life, which I have done to a large degree. It kind of goes with the territory. But when I did get married, and specifically after I got married and the New York Times style section featured my wedding in the vows column, which is really traditionally kind of seen as an elitist column, and it is, but I was happy to be in it. I thought it was good that they were covering a feminist wedding.
And after that happened and people seemed so upset by it, I kind of had to just let it go, you know. You have to have your personal life, and at the end of the day I think what people forget, especially when you're online, is that you're a person too, right, and that you're not this ideal of feminism, that everything you do like feminism just like falls in your wake. That's not how it happens. Like we're all trying to negotiate a really difficult and sexist world the best way that we know how, and we all make decisions that are right for us, and some of our decisions might not be right for everyone else.
And when we got married, we did the best that we could to kind of incorporate our politics and our feminism into the wedding. It was difficult for us because when we got engaged it was right after Prop 8 happened in California, so we had a lot of conversation about shall we get married at all, shall we wait until everyone can get married? But to us it felt like a really passive thing to do, to just not do something as a way of expressing politics. So for us, what we did was, in our ceremony, same-sex marriage was kind of a part of what our officiant talked about in the ceremony. We donated to an organization that fights for same-sex marriage rights, and we indicated as much like on little cards on the table. And it was something that was just a part of the ceremony, and for us and probably for a lot of my family members, extended family members, who maybe are more conservative, that was kind of a radical thing for them to hear. And that seemed more active to us, more activist to us, than not doing anything. So that was the right decision for us. It certainly doesn't change anything that's going on in the world, and it certainly doesn't make marriage a fair institution or a not-sexist institution, but it was the way we went about it.
Question: Can feminism be compatible with traditional institutions?
Jessica Valenti: That's a hard question! I think that almost all traditional institutions are sexist, and they're probably racist and homophobic, and they're all of these things. But a lot of them, like marriage, are too embedded into the culture to give up. Like people are not going to give up marriage. But we can try to make it more fair. We can try to change that institution and make it more equal. And I do think that's happening. I do think that people are aware of that, and I think that that's really the best we can do.
Question: If you could go to dinner with anyone—living or dead—who would it be?
Jessica Valenti: Oh, my gosh! That's such a hard question! Who would I go to dinner with? I don't want to pick a feminist, because maybe I could probably like figure out a way to get like dinner with a feminist. Oh, my God. This is going to sound kind of twisted, but I think Raymond Carver, the writer, who I love, and is kind of like a -- you know, was an alcoholic and not like necessarily a very good person. But I just have always really loved his short stories, and I would just love to pick his brain.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Jessica Valenti: What keeps me up at night? Stress from blogging keeps me up at night. What keeps me up at night is how to make Feministing specifically, but also just kind of the online world, better for feminists and more effective. I think -- you know, after doing this for a bunch of years, and I've been at it for five, it becomes more difficult every day, because the more readers you have, the more criticism you get. And especially when you're doing feminist work and you're doing political work, the more hatred you get also. And just trying to balance the negativity with the reality that you are making positive change in people's lives, and trying to remember that.
Question: What is an ethical dilemma you’ve faced?
Jessica Valenti: That's hard! I think -- when I started blogging, it was -- and the site's readership was very small -- it was really important to me that our comments were just completely open, right, and anyone who wanted to comment, whether they disagreed really strongly or not, could comment on the site. And it was really important to me as a feminist to talk to each and every one of them and to try to have a conversation with all of them. And even if they were completely anti-feminist or misogynist, I kind of had this idealistic point of view that if I just spent five minutes talking to them, they would understand why this work was so important. And as the site got bigger, we kind of ran into this problem of is this realistic, and is this the best way to serve our community? You know, to have this kind of complete openness in comments. And now I am of the opinion of moderating more and more and more. But that initial hurdle to make comments moderated and to kind of curb people's voices when they were hateful or anti-feminist or not progressing the conversation was a really difficult hurdle for me to get over. But now that I'm over it, I'm really over it.
Question: What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
Jessica Valenti: Worst career advice I've ever gotten. God, I don't get that much career advice. I mean, I think -- one of the sad things about doing this kind of work and doing this work online is that there's not much in terms of mentorship because we're kind of creating stuff as we go along. So I don't get much career advice at all, and I would like some. But I mean, certainly when I was younger -- I can say this -- when I was younger, and I think I was in high school, actually, and it was a guidance counselor or someone said, you know, you're just too loud; like you need to just stop talking so much and stop being so opinionated; like no one wants to listen to you because you're really annoying. And I'm glad that I didn't shut up, because it seems like people are listening.
Question: What's the biggest obstacle you've ever had to overcome?
Jessica Valenti: The biggest obstacle I ever had to overcome. I think the biggest obstacle I still have to overcome is myself, and just kind of struggling every day with what to do with the work and where to go next. I think that we're our own worst enemies in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to doing work where you're criticized a lot or doing work where there's a lot of hater directed at you; and to not constantly second-guess yourself. And so I think just getting over that and recognizing that I actually do know what's best for me, that I do know what's best for the community that I'm helping foster with other people, that we do know what's best for the people in our lives, and to not take the haters too seriously.
Question: What has been your biggest career mistake?
Jessica Valenti: Biggest career mistake. I think my biggest career mistake has been taking on too much. And I think this is kind of -- I think it's related to the Internet world, where you're always multitasking and you have a million windows open and you feel like you can do a lot at the same time. And of course the down side of that is that you're not taking a lot of time to be thoughtful and to think about each piece that you're reading or each thing that you're writing. And I do wish -- along the way sometimes you look back at the stuff that you blogged five years ago, and you can't believe that you wrote that. I do wish that I would have taken more time to be thoughtful with everything that I put out into the world, rather than be so excited that anyone was listening that I just kind of spewed it out as quickly as possible.
Recorded on December 11, 2009
A conversation with the founder and editor of Feministing.com.
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