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This IS Feminism: Third Wave Women Writers & The 500 pounds of the Internet
a speech originally delivered at the Author! Author! book festival
Shreveport, LA July 2008
Kim Wells

August 2008

          When I found out I was going to fill in for Amy & Jennifer a couple of days ago, I thought about all the important issues relating to feminism, and especially third wave feminism, that I needed to include in my talk.  I wanted to include smart quotations from feminist foremothers like Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem, be funny and hip and witty and most of all, educate what I assumed would be a diverse audience here today.  So I sat down and started writing, but as I struggled to decide what to say, I realized that I needed to do one very important task first.  I needed to go shopping. 

          While I was out looking for something modern and yet still sophisticated, some of the sales clerks at the various places I went tried to help.  I explained I wanted a shirt that said something like “Girls Rock” or something equally feminist, something woman-powered.  I was thinking of Hello Kitty, who has emerged as a Third Wave icon of sorts.  Hot pink would be good—Third Wavers like to be a bit “girlie” because they can be both strong and pink at the same time.  At one store, the pierced- 20something led me to a rack of t-shirts.  She laughingly, if not completely seriously, gestured to a Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club t-shirt that had a dark humor inspired joke about domestic abuse that I won’t repeat, as well as shirts with the Playboy bunny logo.  She wasn’t completely serious, but she wasn’t completely unserious either.  At another store, after I explained what I wanted, the young woman said “well, we do have a shirt about Girls’ Night Out.”  Not the same thing, I explained.   But the same girl did get it that the “Respect” t-shirt I ended up with would work, well.  If the “respect” also combines such seeming contradictions as tattoos and pink and girlie and all kinds of things that one might think of as not your mother’s feminism, well, all the better. 

          Those young women even seemed interested in possibly showing up today, in hearing my talk about feminism and the Internet.  I see my adventures in shopping as a sign of a change from the image of the Second Wave Feminist, who were rumored to all be hairy-legged bra burners who hated men, could never, ever wear makeup or a dress, and wanted to disrupt society.  Young women of today can see a dark edgy ironic joke in the idea of a 30something college professor wearing a spousal-abuse t-shirt to give a talk on feminism, even if I would never, ever, wear. that. shirt.  (Yes, I get it, I just don’t think it’s quite what I was going for).  They were all working women, with various “looks”, from made-up girlie femme to goth-slacker type with a pierced lip.  And if you asked them, probably many would say “I’m not a feminist, but….”    Clearly, they owed a debt to feminists of the past who forged the rights for them to work, to be so “edgy,” to be a contradiction.  Honestly, what Third Wave feminists have most of all is the CHOICE to be many different kinds of women.  And we can do it with humor, and contradiction, and sometimes even righteous fury.  I often tell people who wrinkle their noses when I call myself a feminist that I am not “that kind of feminist”.  Then I try to explain to them that feminism is simply the desire to have a choice to truly be equal.  Everything else falls neatly behind that struggle, when you get down to it. 

          Jennifer Baumgardner & Amy Richards dedicate their co-written work on Third Wave feminism “to feminists everywhere– including those of our generation who say ‘I’m not a feminist, but...’ and others who say, ‘I am a feminist, but...’– with the faith that young women will transform the world in ways we haven’t yet imagined.”  One of the things their book does is define activism for a new generation of women born around the same time as Amy & Jennifer.  These are women who have grown up with feminism assumed, kind of “in the water, like fluoride.”  I like that analogy, because fluoride strengthens and protects, but must be used carefully and some people are still afraid of its effects.  After 30+ years of second wave feminism, what does the world look like for women?  For feminists?  For enlightened men?  And women writers and readers?  What form does activism take in the real world of taking your kids to daycare in the morning, mopping the floor, working 40 hour weeks, arguing with your spouse over laundry and all of those myriad domestic and important chores most households engage in?  Can you march on Washington while you’re grocery shopping for diapers and Sunny D?  For me, and probably for many of my generation, activism came by accident, through a sideline.  I don’t hold up banners and disrupt Congress, but I work to change society for the better, still.  For me, transforming the world happens in small, unexpected ways.  One of the ways that activism can take place is on the Internet, which I will explain more in a minute. 

          But first, my own feminist pedigree:  I am at least fourth generation working woman, and at least a second-generation feminist.  My great-grandmother Miller raised 11 kids on her farm in Illinois and was the community’s working midwife.  She raised her children to be strong, independent, and fiercely committed to family.  My grandmother lost her husband when she was in her forties, back when people still whispered “the c word” as though cancer was a shameful judgment on the family.  She worked as a telephone operator until she retired, caring for my mother and uncle in a day when very few middle-class women worked outside the home.  At 101, she is still going, although not as strong as she once did, and if you asked her today, she would probably call herself a feminist.  My mother definitely defines herself as a feminist, she who breastfed us back when the nurses sabotaged such a “weird” action by feeding the babies sugar water and she eventually was a single mom who struggled to keep us off the street, with no support from my father.  But she raised my sisters and me to be independent, and most importantly, she took us to the library and taught us that reading, and knowledge, was the best way to pull ourselves back out of the poverty into which her divorce at 35 had thrown us.  My grandmother and mother’s activism was primarily a personal activism:  raising their children alone, instilling in us a strong desire to be independent, to never believe that because we were girls, we couldn’t do whatever we wanted to do.  I assumed that I should keep going to school in spite of my own siblings dropping out, in spite of the difficulties, because I wanted out of the life my parents’ divorce had left us.  For me, feminism was definitely “in the water.”  It still is not gone, and I teach it to students on a daily basis, as well, if only by teaching an equal number of male and female authors.  I teach it to my three year old twins, both boy and girl, and I like to note that so far, they both are a mixture of princess Xena and Buttercup, Rambo and Hemingway.  My daughter can scale the 10 foot rock wall and my son likes to dance to the ballroom scene in Enchanted.  I can’t wait to see what the “fourth wave” looks like in them.

          Activism is both personal and political, as the old saying goes.  On a daily basis, I switch between being a mom, a wife, a college professor, and a writer.  I see no restrictions in mixing all of those roles; for me, feminism guarantees the choice to do everything (perhaps imperfectly, but as well as I can.)  But when I met and planned to marry my husband, a professor told me “I’d recommend against that.”  To him, for a young woman to get married meant she could lose her own identity.  And he wasn’t really all that wrong; for many women, in the past and even now, that was true.  He had no idea, though, that I am part of a generation who expected to marry men who would support them in their endeavors, though.  My husband patiently helped and paid for and hardly ever complained while it took me far too long to finish first a BA, then a Master’s degree, then the long suffering PhD.  If it weren’t for his support, in fact, I may not have made it on my own.  He washes the dishes, helps care for our twin toddlers, and hopes for the day he can quit working and be the stay at home dad. 

          So how does all this personal detail tie into third wave feminism and my own activism, in particular?  In between my Master’s degree and schoolwork for the PhD, I had the summer off.  Not wanting to be idle, I settled on designing a literary webpage.  I had no idea this would lead to a job that is essentially an unpaid 40 hour a week job, ten years later, still going, with over 3½ million visitors in the last year alone.  I had just learned HTML and thought about the cool author fan websites I admired and thought I would do one of those.  I designed my first website, dedicated to 19th century Domestic Goddesses, including Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, and others, over the course of that summer.  They were all strong women writers who challenged what women were supposed to do, writing in spite of the norm, showing women’s right to work and vote and be independent. I was very pleased with it, but it turned out to be only the start of my Internet feminism.  A few months after I had designed Domestic Goddesses, I was asked to design a broader website on women writers for an online guide website.  I spent the rest of that summer combing through websites, designing content, choosing a URL.  The guide site ended up passing on my work, but I decided that all that effort needed to be out there anyway, and put up the site myself.  After the initial site launch, I began to meet other like-minded women and men through the website who also wanted to work on this kind of web project.  We formed the community of young scholars and writers who populated a listserv and the initial staff of Womenwriters.net.  Many of those women have now become college professors and moms and authors, and they share tons of different roles. Some of them are still active on the site, including my book reviews editor, Natasha, and a frequent book reviewer from New Zealand named Moira.  The site is strongly informed by feminism, especially the idea that we can empower women through positive online experience.  So what have we actually done for women?

          In 1998, Dr. Behar-Molad’s book Women Weaving Webs: Will Women Rule the Internet? listed Women Writers as one of the “Top 100 Sites for Women” at number 88. This book ranked us among sites like Oprah (she was a lot higher on the list, though).  We have published, sometimes for the first time ever, 32 original poets, 22 fiction writers, and scores of academic essayists. We have reviewed books from over 300 women authors.  We have 10 original interviews with bestselling authors from vampire romance to horror to scholarly work on autobiography.  Our topics on the site range from women’s domestic daily lives to mentoring to cyborg feminists and everything in between.  In years, the site spans the medieval period to today—over five hundred years of women writers.  As of now, what we pay on the site is in experience and exposure.  I don’t make any money, and the authors who publish on the site do so for the sheer love of seeing their work in “print”, for exposure, for a line on their resume.  But one dream of mine is to be a paying literary website.  I do not, however, use those advertisement “click throughs” that are all over the Internet.  I once tried one that was specifically geared for women’s concerns but I hated the idea of selling out.  We are, at this stage, completely independent of everyone except my aforementioned long-suffering feminist husband. 

          I get emails all the time from people who feel they have found a community on the website, information about authors they love or didn’t know about or just wanted to read.  I also occasionally get a crazy weirdo.  Like the writer that told me he thought the Taliban had a good idea for dealing with women like me.  I told him if he came by, he better be wearing a cup and a Kevlar vest because this southern girlie feminist wasn’t wearing a burka easily.  Another example is that after publishing an article in a special Autotheory issue in 2002 by a feminist woman who worked in a brothel in Nevada, I even got an email from a man looking to set up that sort of establishment himself, hoping that I might be interested in such a job because I published the (not altogether glowing about the profession) article.  I had to tell him to stop writing to me or I would contact the authorities because he was kind of creeping me out. 

          So, not too many weirdos and mostly good vibes and positive empowerment.  The website is my activism.  A similar site could be other people’s way of affecting the world.  Seriously, the Internet is not just buying shoes and surfing for movie reviews.  I see my site as a daily act of resistance to the overtly teen male vibe of many websites, places where there is an attitude of negativity to anything women might be interested in, where rudeness and “flame wars” happen the instant someone steps outside of the norms. We counter the Internet where there are websites literally devoted to misogyny and where, as far as I can tell, the people who are making the most money on the Internet are the “adult” sites.  It is a place that women of all ages can find a first publication venue for their work, and have the experience of knowing what that feels like.  I’m proud of it.

          In Manifesta, Jennifer & Amy explain that “According to a 1998 article by Erica Jong, Time magazine alone has declared feminism dead at least 119 times since 1969” (Baumgardner and Richards 93).  The idea of feminism’s timely demise is fostered very carefully by the popular media, of which Time is probably one of the most respected examples.  For a graphic representation of the generational conflict/catfight the media perpetuates, consider, as Jennifer & Amy do, Ginia Bellafante’s Time magazine cover article of June 1998. As a means of fostering competition between generations of feminists, trotting out a young woman to write an article about her generation’s lack of interest in feminism is hardly a surprise. The cover featured a cutout photo of four women’s heads on a field of black: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and fictional character Ally McBeal, over the red-lettered caption “Is Feminism Dead?”  The article itself argued that feminism was irrelevant to a generation of women concerned with “lip gloss and self-obsessed sexual solipsism” (92). Conservative pundits of course pounce on characterizations like this one, despite the fact that the comparison is facile– three real women of various times and political arguments ranked as representative of a multi-vocal era’s political movement, and then compared to the photo of a single fictional character, privileging the fictional character, whose feminism on the show was troubled by self-doubt and confusion. 

          An even more powerful indication of Time’s answer to the question of feminism’s status was shown by the fact that Ally McBeal’s photo was in color (spotlighting her often contradictory position on feminism).  The old, dated positions of the three feminist icons were depicted in black and white, indicating graphically that those ideas were antiquated and passé. McBeal was posited as the representative of modern young women, as though there simply weren’t any real women out there who could represent the face of feminism today since it is irrelevant and therefore dead.  Manifesta gives a number of examples of the way that this article was poorly researched and inaccurate, but the idea that young women are not interested in feminism is carefully fostered by the popular media for some reason.  It is fun for some people to assume that we’re only interested in lip gloss and Manolos, that feminism’s relevance died with the ERA.  But while the Third Wave says lip gloss and Manolos are fine, we also still are interested in real feminist change (maybe even reviving the ERA, for one, or electing a woman President-- well, maybe a vice president-- or you name it).  In places like my own website and other venues, feminism is still very much alive and kicking.  It’s just quietly transforming lives.  For example:  through a series of emails, which started with a silly rude joke on his part, I once explained to a young high school male the appeal for women of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in a way that his high school teacher hadn’t reached.  It ended with him grudgingly saying that he supposed he could see what was cool about the book.  In all, the website is a venue for education, for community and for communication.  It is activism that may not make the cover of Rolling Stone, but it does create a community.  And community-building is the Internet’s biggest feminist strength.  I have 80 subscribers to my listserv, and at one time it was closer to 200.   That is a community, and one of which I am proud to be a member.

          In her famous feminist essay on women and writing, Virginia Woolf argued that for a woman writer to even exist she must have the also famous quote of “500 pounds and a room of one’s own, with a door, and a lock.” What that quotation really means is that women writers must have what many men writers have had all along—financial independence and freedom to close away the distractions of the world.  But it doesn’t have to mean closing away everything—it can also mean community, creativity not in Romantic isolation but WITH others.  Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison even reports that she wrote her first novel with children on her lap. 

          Today, the 500 pounds and a room of one’s own CAN mean something new and different:  the Internet.  And you can surf the web and make websites and poetry and fiction all the while holding those kiddos (or cats)  on your lap.  You can have a conversation with your significant other, you can shop while reading feminist theory.  It’s all about choice.   Come join the wave.  Instead of saying “I’m not a feminist, but” take out the qualifiers. 

          This, (gestures to self) and this—(gestures to room) is what a feminist looks like. 

For Kim's bio, go here

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