Talking Liberally Progressive Parley: Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com

Do you remember how you first became involved with progressive politics? For me, it was through feminism. Taking women's studies classes (not to mention fielding all those catcalling pervs on the street!) alerted me to the overwhelmingly pervasive lack of equality that women still experience, which only opened my eyes to the many social injustices going on around me. But feminism and progressivism aren't seamlessly united-- what certainly surprised me is how matters of women's rights seem to get pushed to the periphery of liberal thought. Which is why when it came time to choose a progressive leader to interview, there choice was simple: Jessica Valenti! Jessica is the executive editor of feministing.com, a blog devoted to connecting young feminists and pointing out misogyny in everyday media and culture, as well as the author of the books Full Frontal Feminism and He's a Stud, She's a Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. We met for lunch, where we not only explored the ties connecting feminism and progressivism, but shitty first jobs, the never-ending influence of activism, and those dang feminizing conservatives. Enjoy!

Claire Finch: So tell me about feministing.com

Jessica Valenti: Feministing basically started 4 years ago. I was working at a feminist organization, it was the first job I had out of grad school and I was super-excited to be working for a national organization. I thought it was going to be amazing, and it wasn’t amazing at all, it was kind of horrible-- I felt like they were giving a lot of lip service to younger women but not necessarily putting us in decision-making positions or asking our opinions, or even inviting us to the cool meetings. But whenever it was time for a conference, or there was a photo opportunity, it was like, "Young women front and center, women of color front and center, look at how diverse our organization is!" But then of course, when we got back to the office, it was like, "Go make coffee."

So I think that I became a little bit jaded working at this organization, and around the same time there was a lot of the Girls Gone Wild media stuff happening where it was like, "Girls are having sex! They’re going crazy, they’re going wild! And isn’t it awful!" And I noticed that in a lot of the articles, they were talking about young women but they would never quote young women. It seemed like the mainstream media was very invested in presenting this picture of the young American woman as vapid and politically apathetic and socially unengaged, and it just didn’t match up with the women that I knew in my life…So I think that to a certain extent, when we started the blog…we kind of filled a gap. People were probably looking for young feminist stuff online and they found feministing.

So our readership grew super-fast. We wanted to present feminism in a fun, accessible, funny way…And we also wanted a site that would hold the mainstream media accountable in the way that they represented women’s issues, and the way they talked about young women, and something that would hold the mainstream feminist movement accountable for the way they don’t include younger women and women of color and low-income women in their organizational processes.

More scintillating discussion after the break!

CF: I feel that there’s a disconnect between the primary progressive blogging world and the feminist blogging world. There are some overlaps, but it seems as though they are overall very separate. Have you noticed that?

JV: I think that a lot of progressive bloggers are trying to include feminist bloggers by doing things like having us on a panel at a conference as the token vagina, you know what I mean? …A lot of lefty bloggers see feminist issues as a single issue, they don’t see how it’s connected to the work that they’re doing. Which it is, and we try to connect it, but in terms of online stuff and blogs in particular, sometimes you’re just like “Well, whatever, I’m not going to spend my time trying to convince a bunch of dude bloggers that what I write about is important and I’m just going to keep doing the work that I do and develop my community.” …But yeah, that’s nothing new. Like back with the second wave in the sixties, women were talking about all of their issues then it was like, “Oh well ladies, shut the fuck up, we need to worry about the war! We’ll get to your issues later.” It’s kind of the same thing now. You hear that a lot of “Oh, don’t worry about abortion rights just vote democratic and we’ll take care of it later.” And I’m like “Yeah, well, I’m not really so hot on trusting you with that.”

CF: What do you think is the relationship between feminism and being progressive? Because I think that there are definitely people that view themselves as progressive, but who don’t necessarily realize that women’s rights are an issue.

JV: I think that’s true. Because not just progressive blogging, but progressive politics is still very much a male domain. Not necessarily male led, but that’s who gets the most attention or gets the most play or whatever. For all men, whether they’re progressive or not, there’s very much…a fear of being feminine or being feminized, especially for liberals that are so often feminized by the right as a way to try and silence them. I think there is this fear of feminism, they just don’t see it as part of their agenda which seems strange to me. It’s kind of funny, because some of the quote on quote progressive dudes that I’ve met have been total misogynists. And I think that it often comes back to… this disconnect between what [people] were willing to say about policy, and what they were actually willing to do in their own lives. That’s kind of the disconnect for a lot of people, progressive and not progressive.

CF:How do you live feminism on a day-to-day basis in an ultimately patriarchal society?

JV:It’s such an individual thing. We all make our own daily negotiations in terms of what’s important to us. I try to stay away from the kind of judgy feminist policing that seems to be so popular these days. I mean, it’s kind of amazing; no other social justice movement eats their own like feminism does. We just have this unbelievable ability to bash each other over the head with like feminist purity. It’s really not useful, and it’s kind of ineffectual.

CF: How do you actively persuade people that feminism is a worthy cause?

JV: I think it depends on who you’re talking about…there are people who are so deeply invested in sexist structures that it’s not that they think isn’t needed, feminism actually actively frightens them, so I don’t know that those are necessarily the best people to be actively confronting. I mean, I think it’s hard for me, because when I first started blogging I was idealistic and was like, “I’m going to change peoples’ minds!” And if some anti-feminist troll came into the comments section, I was engaging with them and trying to convince them. I ended up spending so much of my time talking to brick walls. So [you have to figure out] where is your time and energy best spent… who maybe needs it the most, who’s going to be the best person to reach out to. And so for me, it was that I wanted to reach out to younger women who probably had an inkling of an idea that something was off, but they didn’t necessarily have the feminist language to put to their experiences. That was my narrow focus. Sometimes that’s how you have to do it, because doing a broader thing is just too crazy.

CF: How are you living liberally?

JV: I think as someone who does feminist work, and not just feminist blogging work…it’s kind of impossible not to live what you do. I mean, being like a professional feminist is not like being a professional anything else, I don’t get to turn it off at the end of the day, I don’t get to come home an turn on the TV and not have [my work] influence every single thing that I do. In a way it’s incredibly overwhelming and I’m sure you feel like this as well, I think a lot of political activists feel this way. You see the world entirely through this really specific and political lens, so it’s hard to live any way but liberally.