A Feminist Voice for Younger Women

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.




Recorded December 11, 2009

Jessica Valenti started her popular feminist website because she felt that her generation wasn’t being heard.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.