A few months ago PBS came out with the documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America,” which tells the story of the “most sweeping social revolution in American history”, i.e. the women’s movement. It’s a wonderful video, and everyone should watch it. While it was generally lauded as a success, one of the sections, the section on “Feminism Today,” drew extensive critiques. In this section old arguments about contemporary feminism are repeated: most women today who do “feminist” things refuse the label feminist, younger women are apathetic and take for granted the rights that the past feminist movement won, etc. It adds the somewhat new claim that today’s active feminist movement focuses its energy on global issues rather than domestic issues.
A number of active feminists immediately critiqued the documentary’s take on the current women’s movement, in particular for missing the important work being done by younger feminists. One common critique is that the documentary did not even mention the vast world of online feminism.
The documentary’s take on contemporary feminism and the subsequent critiques, particularly about online feminism, bring up two important questions: Why did the documentary miss the important space of online feminism? What exactly is the impact of online feminism?
I asked the students taking my class on U.S. Women’s Movements if they follow feminist blogs. Not one student in my class (n=16) claimed they followed any feminist blog, in fact none of them could even identify one. If undergraduates who are interested enough in women’s movements to take a course on it cannot identify a feminist blog, perhaps the online world is not that important.
However, when I showed my class the section of the documentary on the contemporary women’s movement, and a critique by Jill Filipovic, they immediately started talking about their relationship to social media and feminism. A number of them, for example, had heard about Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” comment through the “binders full of women” meme that exploded on the internet seconds after he uttered the phrase. As the class discussion went on many students admitted that they got most of their feminist news and analysis through their social media sites, including knowledge about contemporary feminist themes like rape culture.
This anecdotal story suggests that the impact of online feminism extends beyond official feminist blogs, in fact its largest impact may be outside of official blogs and official activism. If this is indeed the case, I’m glad current sociologists are taking it seriously.