From riot grrrls to "Girls": Tina Fey, Kathleen Hanna, Lena Dunham and the birth of an inspiring new feminism

The Web's not perfect, but it has helped produce an amazing new generation of writers, activists and stars

Published August 31, 2014 7:00PM (EDT)

Beyoncé, Taylor Swift          (AP/Jordan Strauss/Reuters/Steve Marcus)
Beyoncé, Taylor Swift (AP/Jordan Strauss/Reuters/Steve Marcus)

Excerpted from "Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements"

New Feminist Writing: In Print and Online

Texts have helped to spread feminist ideas since the beginning of the U.S. women’s movement — from suffragist newspapers in the nineteenth century to mimeographed manifestos of the late 1960s to bestselling feminist books in all eras. In the late 1960s, it was not uncommon for feminist groups to write political statements, or manifestos, outlining their beliefs and goals. Such documents tended to come out of consciousness- raising and political groups, produced by a collective of women rather than just one author. Documents of this type, such as the “Redstockings Manifesto” (1969), were widely circulated in pamphlet form and often republished in feminist journals and anthologies, some of which became bestsellers, such as the collection "Sisterhood Is Powerful" (1970). Likewise, the emergence of a new feminist sensibility in the post-1990 era can be connected to texts, whether Rebecca Walker’s 1992 Ms. essay or feminist books preceding it, such as Susan Faludi’s "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" (1991) and Naomi Wolf’s "The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women" (1991). Texts were especially important in giving a presence to this new feminism, since it did not rely on the gathering of women in activist groups. If the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the rapid formation of groups and publication of their manifestos, the feminism that emerged in the mid-1990s developed primarily through the publication of individually authored texts. Texts named the generation, texts energized it, and reading texts became a way of participating in the contemporary movement.

The boom in new feminist writing in the 1990s and 2000s, much of which used the terms “third wave” or “next generation,” often took the form of anthologies of individual essays, almost exclusively written in a first- person voice, which provided concrete examples of how young women (and some men) were living feminism in a supposedly “postfeminist” era. These collections were joined by monographs which also described feminism through an autobiographical voice, as well as books that sought to give young people concrete examples of how to engage in everyday activism. More recent books have attempted to reach even younger women — and girls — to encourage them to see why feminism is still vitally important. Two new feminist magazines also began publishing in the 1990s — Bust (created in 1993) and Bitch (created in 1996)—both of which took a decidedly “ third wave” approach in their look and their content. “Just as Ms. harnessed the vibrant pamphlet culture of women’s liberation, Bust and Bitch founders tapped into the rich feminist ’zine culture associated with the Riot Grrrls movement,” which had combined radical feminist politics with a punk rock, do-it-yourself aesthetic.

At the same time, a new crop of feminists began publishing books that discussed the wide range of activist projects that younger feminists were working on, including issues as varied as the environment, the prison industrial complex, and media representations of women. As the 1990s progressed, young feminist scholars — many of whom had been trained in women’s and gender studies and were now professors themselves — began publishing books that took a more scholarly approach to this new feminism, tracing its history and its theories and critically analyzing what exactly this new feminism was all about.

What these books all had in common was a central thesis: feminism is still relevant and vitally needed. Whether they presented this point through autobiographical testimony, appeals to younger women to recognize their innate feminism, or blueprints for how to do activism in the twenty-first century, these books reached a broad audience and helped to bring about a renewed interest in feminism in the United States. This writing did not come out of group meetings or collective visions of a feminist movement, but it helped create and foster a feminist mindset among a wide range of younger women and men in the United States, leading them to go out into the world and continue the feminist fight.

The development of the Internet, whose history parallels that of post-1980s feminism, created a new form of collectivity and textual practices that would have been unheard of by prior generations. If women’s liberation was “the last American movement to spread the word via mimeo machine,” then this new group of feminists would be the first to spread the word via e-mail, text messages, and social media like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. (Facebook started in 2004, YouTube in 2005, and Twitter in 2006.) This new technology allowed for previously unimagined speed and reach in disseminating feminist ideas. The emergence of a vibrant feminist online culture — including widely read feminist blogs, a term that emerged in the 1990s to mean a “Web log” — enabled feminists around the globe to respond immediately to each other’s ideas and to create virtual communities that provided friendship and political allies.

The events of September 11, 2001, were “a turning point in the blogging boom,” as blogs became a way to quickly relay information and communicate with others during a time of national crisis. According to recent studies, women are active members of the blogosphere, online at the same rate as, if not slightly higher than, their male counterparts — leading to what some have described as the rise of the “lady blogger” movement. Blogs and other forms of Internet publishing have thus helped to get women’s voices heard in a way that more traditional forms of media have, so far, failed to do. For example, according to the feminist OpEd Project, in 2012 women constituted only 20 percent of the authors featured on the opinion pages of major newspapers, all of which are now also online. While some well-known opinion writers of both sexes focus on feminist issues — for example, both Gail Collins and Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times regularly write about gender inequality — in general, such concerns do not make it into the front section of the paper. Feminist blogs have thus provided a much- needed service in keeping feminist issues at the forefront of the national — and international — discussion. And such blogs have become a major part of the blogosphere: a 2006 British study found that feminist blogs made up 6 percent of active blogs, or 240,000 of four million active blogs. Feminists also used Twitter, Tumblr, and other Web applications to analyze pop culture and share feminist ideas, such as in Feminist Disney Tumblr, which deconstructs Disney movies. While the Web is not a utopian space in which sexism has been eliminated — indeed, evidence suggests that the anonymity of the Internet makes hate speech and misogynist attacks more common than in face-to-face encounters— the Web has made it possible for feminists to respond to sexism in new ways, both individually and collectively. The lively presence of feminism in the blogosphere has made feminism more accessible than it has ever been, and it has also ensured that feminist ideas can reach audiences that previously would not have encountered them. In short, a fourteen-year-old girl today is much more likely to discover feminism online than at her local library or bookstore. That means she is much more likely to discover feminism in the first place.

Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has proven to be the primary means by which feminist ideas have circulated and feminist actions have been organized. “Our activism is inseparable from technology,” said Shelby Knox. “We began our activism online. Blogs are our consciousness- raising groups. ... Blogs serve the purpose of helping us figure out our ideology, have disagreements with each other, and figure out what actions might work best without having to all be in the same place. They have equalized feminism, because you don’t have to have the money to be in a women’s studies class or be able-bodied enough to attend a consciousness- raising group every week or to stand on a picket line.” Requiring only that someone have Internet access, blogs have helped to democratize contemporary feminism and have enabled a wide variety of people to make their voices heard— not just a small group of anointed feminist leaders. The blogosphere has been compared to an earlier form of feminist action: consciousness raising. “From our homes, offces, or schools, the Internet permits us to do what feminist consciousness- raising groups did in the 1960s and 1970s — cross boundaries and make connections among and between diverse feminists, diverse women.”

Jessica Valenti’s popular blog is one example of how feminism has become “wired” in the Internet era. Valenti was born in 1978 and grew up in an Italian American household with a feminist mother who brought her along to reproductive rights marches. After getting a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies from Rutgers, she became part of the blogging boom when she founded the blog Feministing in 2004. As she reflected, she wanted “to provide a space for younger feminists who didn’t have a platform. I was a 25 year-old who found it profoundly unfair that an elite few in the feminist movement had their voices listened to, and that the work of so many younger women went misrepresented or ignored altogether.” In its first decade, Feministing became a global phenomenon, attracting over a hundred thousand readers from around the world. The blog built a consciousness-raising-type community through its “Comments” section, which allowed readers to respond in real time to what they were reading; young women, including teenagers, got involved by posting their own writing. Feministing also started a campus program to provide resources and support to feminist groups and bloggers on college campuses.

Valenti would go on to write a number of popular feminist books aimed at younger women, including "Full Frontal Feminism" and "The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women," publish op-eds in major newspapers, and become a contributing writer at the Nation magazine — so she has not entirely neglected traditional print media. The blog that she started would win numerous awards, including the 2011 Sidney Hillman Prize for social and economic justice in blog journalism. That same year, Valenti retired from the blog, stating that she wanted Feministing to provide “a space for new and young voices” and “remain a place for younger feminists to build their careers and platforms.”

Moya Bailey is another example of how the feminist blogosphere has produced a new generation of writers and activists. After graduating from Spelman College in Atlanta in 2005, Bailey began a PhD program in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Emory University, where she met other young women of color who were interested in how to use new Web-based technologies to build feminist community. This led her to cofound a social network called Quirky Black Girls (QBG), which allowed, in her view, “a diverse group of self-identified QBGs to post our own videos, music and imagery, all the while building bravery and challenging each other’s thinking.” From there she joined the Crunk Feminist Collective, a self-described “hip hop generation feminist blogging crew,” which launched a popular blog, Twitter feed, and Facebook page. According to their mission statement, the collective use “crunk” — a southern black term for “crazy drunk,” or out of one’s mind — “because we are drunk off the heady theory of feminism that proclaims that another world is possible.”“The internet allows for people who do not have immediate community to build communities online,” said Bailey. “For people with disabilities, the internet has allowed for community in ways that our inaccessible world [hasn’t]. It’s made feminist language more accessible. Feminists have used digital media to spread feminism and affect real change.” Online feminism also provides a space to address white privilege, racism, and other forms of division that have historically divided feminists. “The divisions remain,” said Bailey, but she thought that because of the active presence of women of color on social media and blogs, there was “more of an opportunity for folks to be told when they make mistakes.”

As Vanessa Valenti and fellow feminist blogger Courtney Martin described it in a 2012 essay: “Contrary to media depictions of online activity as largely narcissistic and/or ‘slactivism,’ young women across the country — and all over the world, in fact — are discovering new ways to leverage the Internet to make fundamental progress in the unfinished revolution of feminism.” A protest that same year at Seventeen magazine illustrates their point. Activists, many of whom were teenage girls, demanded that Seventeen stop using Photoshopped images of girls, arguing that such images led to unrealistic body ideals, eating disorders, depression, and low self- esteem. An online petition to Seventeen, on, gathered eighty-six thousand signatures, and an online video documentary on the subject, made by two teens, was viewed by over thirteen thousand people. Protesters also demonstrated outside of Seventeen’s New York offices, holding a mock photo shoot to honor what real girls look like. These actions worked: Seventeen editor in chief Ann Shoket publicly committed to ending the magazine’s practice of Photoshopping girls’ bodies in a special “Body Peace Treaty” in the August 2012 issue. In many ways, this protest echoed the one held forty years earlier at the offices of the Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1970 one hundred feminists held an eleven-hour takeover of the magazine, demanding that the Journal hire a female editor in chief, end its discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, and devote more of its pages to serious issues. Both protests were successful; both led to changes at the magazines being targeted. The Seventeen protest, however, reached a far greater number of people through the power of the Internet, undoubtedly raising the consciousness of thousands, most of whom never set foot in New York.

Pop Culture and Feminist Style

Popular culture in all its various forms — music, television, film — has been an integral part of the assertion of this post-1990 feminism and its particular aesthetic sensibility. The riot grrrl movement — a feminist offshoot of the do-it-yourself punk music scene — that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been credited as an early example of this new feminist style. Bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile played songs that addressed rape, sexual harassment, and eating disorders with lyrics that mixed raw anger with emotional vulnerability. Riot grrrl performances also captured attention. In what became one of her signature moves onstage, Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna would take off her shirt to reveal the word “slut” written on her stomach, “confronting audiences with what they might want to see (a topless woman) and what they might think of such a woman, all in one fell semiotic swoop.” Other genres of music a lso began to produce self- identified feminist performers, with rap and hip- hop leading the way; artists like Queen Latifah, Salt-n-Pepa, and TLC used their lyrics and performances to assert agency and claim a voice within a male-dominated genre. These performers and many others — including mainstream pop musicians of the 2000s like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga — sang songs of female empowerment that reached a mass audience. Unlike the women’s rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, this new generation of musical artists often presented their feminist messages while wearing hyperfeminine clothing, rejecting the earlier era’s androgyny in favor of the sexually provocative feminist style pioneered by Madonna in the mid-1980s.

Feminist characters became slightly more common on the small and large screen during the 1990s and 2000s, although both television and film continued to focus on male-driven narratives aimed at male viewers, in which female characters were frequently sidelined. On daytime television Oprah Winfrey was queen, becoming one of the most recognized women in the United States and an outspoken advocate for feminist issues — although Oprah seemed to deliberately avoid using the word “feminist” so as not to alienate her audience. During the prime-time slot, women characters took on new jobs as cops and judges, but they still seemed stuck in the same roles that they had been in since television was invented: as wives and mothers. Even the highly successful ABC television series "Modern Family" (2009– ) — touted for its progressive portrayal of a gay male couple raising a child — was hardly modern when it came to its women characters, none of whom had jobs outside the home. Behind the scenes, women fared far worse: a 2012 study found that although women account for half of all moviegoers in the United States, they represent only 7 percent of film directors, 13 percent of writers, and 20 percent of producers. And while girls and women were involved in athletics more than ever before thanks in great part to the changes brought by Title IX in 1972— women’s sports could barely be found on television, particularly during the all-male, prime-time evening slot reserved for football.

The HBO series "Sex and the City" (1998–2004) thus provided a unique female-centered universe in its portrayal of four strong working–women characters who defined themselves as each other’s family and who regularly discussed topics such as sexual agency and female orgasms, abortion, how to balance motherhood with a career, whether to get married, and economic success. The characters also discussed feminism itself and the choices it had made possible for women, reÆecting the values of the many women who worked on the series as writers and directors. The series came to define a new generation of women, just as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970–77) had three decades earlier. Yet "Sex and the City" — along with its next-generation successor, the HBO series "Girls" (2012– ) — focused almost exclusively on white, economically privileged women, and thus did little to dismantle stereotypes about who the beneficiaries of feminism were. In order to find a more diverse representation of women and of feminist issues, viewers often had to turn to smaller, independent films, like "Real Women Have Curves" (2002), a film about one young working-class Latina’s journey to self-acceptance, directed by Colombian American filmmaker Patricia Cardoso.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes in popular culture over the last two decades has been the emergence of women (and often feminist) comedians into the previously all-male world of stand-up comedy and comedy writing. Women like writer-actress-producer Tina Fey used humor to challenge sexism and misogyny and to astutely reflect on what passed for gender equality in the twenty-first century. On the inaugural episode of Fey’s critically acclaimed series "30 Rock" (2006–13), which she wrote, her alter ego, Liz Lemon, is described as “a third- wave feminist,” and over the course of the series Fey humorously poked fun at modern womanhood and the media-hyped crisis over “having it all.” Other feminist comedians during this period included Mindy Kaling, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho, who famously summed up her generation’s entitlement: “If you say you’re not a feminist you’re almost denying your own existence. To be a feminist is to be alive.”

The rise of what was dubbed “girlie feminism” during this period provides an interesting lens through which to examine what had changed in feminists’ relationship to femininity since the 1960s and ’70s. “Girlie feminism” embraced many aspects of traditional femininity on an aesthetic leve l— wearing dresses, makeup, and high heels, for example — while insisting that the conscious wearing of such feminine garb did not signal that a woman was brainwashed by the patriarchy. Many younger feminists argued that they no longer felt constrained by gender, which they viewed as a social construction rather than a biological fact, and they were thus free to enjoy the pleasures of “girlie” femininity without feeling oppressed. Some went as far as to argue that adopting a feminine style was a way of rebelling against the androgynous uniform mandated by an earlier era of feminists. As one young feminist argued, “Unlike my first- and second-wave predecessors, no one force-fed me femininity. Quite the contrary: I had to fight for it tooth and nail.” This “girlie” aesthetic — often performed with a knowing wink — can be seen in much of the iconography and language used by this generation. For example, the blog Feministing chose as its logo an ironic appropriation of the traditional “mud-flap girl,” reworking this sexist image (commonly found on the mud-flaps of trucks) by having its “girl” give the viewer the middle finger. Likewise, Bust magazine routinely featured cover models in traditionally feminine sexualized poses, such as the pin-up girl, while advocating feminist, progressive points of view. The reclaiming of the word “girl” — sometimes as a growling “grrrl” — and the use of terms like “lady blogger” also were signs that this generation had an ironic detachment from the linguistic markers that had defined earlier generations, when feminists fought for female adults to be recognized as mature and capable women not child-like girls.

All of these different examples of “girlie” culture point to one of the ongoing challenges of post-1990 feminism: namely, how to (re)claim aspects of traditional female sexuality and femininity in a culture in which the sexual objectification of women is omnipresent and in which any expression of female sexual agency becomes co-opted by the dominant culture. The riot grrrl movement’s political, feminist assertion of “grrrl power,” for example, was easily transformed into the Spice Girls’ watered- down “girl power,” used to sell bland Top 40 songs and T-shirts rather than incite a revolution.

Embracing high heels, lipstick, and the term “girl” as markers of a new feminist style may have made sense at feminist gatherings where these signifiers were used to indicate a generational shift within feminism, yet within the larger culture high heels and lipstick still signified a commitment to traditional femininity that no ironic wink could undermine. Some argued that what matters is a woman’s agency; as long as it is the woman herself who is choosing to present herself in a hyperfeminine or sexualized manner, then what’s the problem? Others disagreed, saying that women’s reclamation of traditional feminine culture under the banner of feminism is a sign of how far we still have to go to truly escape from the rigid confines of gender and to move beyond a limited view of empowerment.

Excerpted from "Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements" by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon and Astrid Henry." Copyright © 2014 by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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