Women’s Voices Unfettered: A Feminist Survival Issue

Yet another U.S. feminist media outlet bites the dust, a blow to women’s voices in the world. A lengthy article in the Sunday New York Times, December 8, 2019, “A Farewell to Feministing and the Heyday of Feminist Blogging” skirts around the reasons why. Is it, as author, Emma Rosenberg, writes, “Feminist media has been especially hard hit by the financial turbulence in the news industry”? Or, as she also states, “the sites were undone by their own popularity…..larger media organizations…hired [these women journalists]”? Rosenberg does a disservice by not being clear.

Like many other feminist publications, Feministing has suffered chronic underfunding and now must close down. (Image Credit: Feministing.com)

Money and the lack of it is the core reason that feminist media continues to have such trouble. This problem runs deeper than “turbulence in the news industry.” Over the summer, I wrote about other feminist media in trouble, and raised concern about how the chronic underfunding of feminist media has crippled the movement for gender equality.

At the same time that the New York Times article was published, I am researching for a book I am writing on the history of feminist media. As part of that research, I revisited the far-reaching Bangkok Declaration, a passionate assertion of plans and strategies crafted in 1994 at a special convening of feminist communicators. 480 participants came from 80 countries to contribute to the declaration. Here are some of its ambitious goals:

  • Strengthening peoples’, and more specifically women’s media, including story-telling, visual and performances arts, which build on their knowledge, wisdom and creativity.
  • A worldwide effort to document all forms of women’s communication practices, and organise workshops on how they can be used effectively.
  • Build support for 1996 to be declared International Year of Women Communicating.

Organizers of the Bangkok gathering were the International Women’s Tribune Centre, located in New York City, and Isis International in Manila. IWTC, after 38 years of serving as a central networking and development advocate for all kinds of women’s issues across the globe, folded shop at the start of this decade.

Isis International-Manila remains active to this day. Among their supporters are the Global Fund for Women and Mama Cash. This core feminist funding is vital to its operations. The organization conducts a Feminist Activist School specifically on how to use media and communications for advocacy, social change and women rights. They also run an International Women’s House as a safe haven for visitors and a massive media resource center of analytical papers from women in the South, posters, newsletters and media publications. The now 45-year old organization also publishes Women In Action, a social movement publication with in depth articles linking women’s issues to global concerns.

women's voices
Women using the extensive resource library of Isis International in Manila. (Image Credit: Isiswomen.org site on Changing Times for the Isis Resource Center)

In 2008, Isis conducted a three-year five nation research project in the Asian-Pacific region. The purpose was to uncover how groups were using new tech and traditional communication tools in interacting with grassroots women and to determine the most effect tools for grassroots women’s empowerment. The findings were significant. Radio leads the list of communciation vehicles, followed by theatre, film and face to face communication. The research underscored the need for capacity building and information sharing and lead Iris to create the International Activist School to systematize and institutionalize feminist communications. The Global Fund for Women is a major supporter of this program.

The overall experience was fantastic. I loved this training. What resonated for me was how rich and multi-layered the content was. This diversity of content meant that participants’ diversity of interests, skills and experiences could be engaged in the learning,” Artivist Estelle Cohenny from Thailand raved about her May 2019 attendance at the Feminist Activist School.

In the United States, still, there is no such organizational structure that investigates, and preserves, an in-depth feminist media analysis, while simultaneously fostering the critical capacity-building and information-sharing that is essential to sustaining feminist media. As a long time observer of feminist media, especially in the U.S., feminist radio survived best from the earliest days of the Second Wave to now. Community radio and universities stations made such shows as Sophie’s Parlor (DC) and Joy of Resistance (NYC) viable. These programs have existed on the fortitude of dedicated volunteers and the very limited expenses of producing a radio show. Other media and art forms have more production expenses and dissemination challenges.

Support from women’s funds for feminist media and culture projects has been little and rare. In part, in my analysis, this stems from a very wrong-headed policy decision made by the Ms. Foundation for Women’s Board of Directors in 1976. Their public brochure at that time outlined areas they would support – employment, healthcare, physical safety, and childcare – and is specifically stated they would not fund women’s media or culture. As one of the first feminist foundations, and still one of handful with national scope, this policy de facto became a template for new women’s funds as they evolved.

This Summer I got to read Ms. Foundation’s Board minutes of the late 1970s. There, in more depth, they explain by omission that members did not consider media or culture “survival issues”, their term, and criteria, for what they would fund. Feminist media and cultural workers in the period only knew the skeleton, public information. Dumbfounded by such lack of vision and understanding about media and culture’s central role in making change, at the time we did not feel empowered, let alone have capacity, to challenge this Ms. Foundation policy decision.

It is ironic and depressing, to note, forty years after such a policy decision, that the mainstream media – not just in the US but elsewhere, too – is under attack with “fake news.” At the same time, progressive views are forced off pages and broadcasts – by conservative, corporate media owners.

The very heart of democracy is threatened by the failure of the fourth estate to speak truth to power. And the debilitating twist of new tech giants like Facebook talk about free speech, while making millions off of its manipulation turned propaganda. Rosenberg, in her article on Feministing’s demise, misses the deeper story about money and a commitment to feminist media. The very survival issue – of women having an unfettered voice – remains at the center of feminist struggle and media justice.

In The News

See other articles on the work of Global Fund for Women: Chandra Alexandre: How Global Fund for Women is Growing its Reach and Teen Girls are Leading the Way. How Can Philanthropy Support Them?

Articles on Mama Cash: Girl Power: Helping Empower Teen Girls in Grantmaking and Funders Supporting Women and Girls Internationally and Why Feminist Philanthropy Matters

Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds of films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

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