This week I read a piece written for The Nation by Jessica Valenti, and it sent me on a trip down memory lane. It wasn’t the article itself, so much as who wrote it. I encountered Jessica Valenti and feministing.com when I was at a particularly lonely stage of my PhD. That said, the article itself got me thinking about my evolution as a feminist as well. Entitled “Feminists for the Win,” it details some of the ways in which feminists and feminist agendas are making progress in the United States. It ends with a call to action, and reminds readers that while some advances have been made this year, much feminist activism has necessarily been defensive. While every good basketball player knows that sometimes a good offence requires good defence, Valenti underscores the importance of continually, relentlessly moving forward in the fight for rights for women. When I finished reading the article I found myself thinking about how I came to claim a feminist identity, and whether or not it had anything to do with my current position in the academy. For, while Valenti doesn’t say as much in her article, there are many many other writers who acknowledge that despite its promise of academic freedom, the academy is not an equal opportunity space.*
In part, I became a feminist through reading. I come from a family of voracious readers. My dad keeps a list of all the books he’s read each year, and last year the list numbered over one hundred. My mother laments that I don’t remember how much she read to me as a child. We were not a family that watched television during meals, but sometimes we have been known to all have our books out at the table. Indeed, I recall my mother signing my up for synchronized swimming lessons in an attempt to get me out of the reading chair and into socializing with other children…when I was eight.
I can’t claim classical literature as an influence on my feminist development, not really. Rather, I owe my nascent feminist to a teen magazine. When I was in high school I started reading Sassy. Now long-defunct, Sassy was, for me, an outlet to another world. I was living in small-town North Carolina where I felt out of place, alone, and lonely. While I am sure I wasn’t the only one in my high school feeling like an outsider, I sure felt like I was an island. Sassy was brash, witty, and not afraid to swear! In its DIY-ish pages I learned about the Riot Grrrl movement, about why politics should matter to me, and I learned how to make my own clothes. In reading the infamous “It Happened to Me” column, I learned that I wasn’t alone, and that troubling, terrible, and sometimes hilarious things happened to other people. Along the way I also learned about feminism.
When Sassy went the way of YM and other body-image-obsessed magazines I stopped reading them altogether … until I discovered Bust and Bitch. Around this time I was in university, I was making friends with other feminists, activists, and generally politicized folks. I felt less lonely, and I was more connected to on going issues in the world. I never felt as though I knew enough, or had all of the answers, but I was developing a vocabulary and a community through which to continue thinking out loud. Granted, that community was by this time largely an embodied one: we saw one another, were in classes together, and lived in the same town. There was no Facebook yet, and while forums and listserves were active, they didn’t happen to be a part of my everyday life. So, while my lived experiences and my growing communities of brilliant, politicized people have ultimately been the most informative of my feminist identity, initially it all started with an imagined community of magazine readers.
Is this still the case? For all the phenomenal community-building that digital space can do, I wonder, have wildly popular interfaces like Facebook flattened out some of the radical possibilities of imagined communities? Certainly, there are countless feminist and feminist-inflected groups out there on the interwebs. I think of CWILA, of Lemon Hound, of VIDA to name a very few. But I also think about the site I find myself on most regularly durning the day… I go to Facebook for connection, for distraction, for a sense of imagined — and immediate — community. Last week though, a friend of my posted an article about Facebook banning a feminist activist for calling out misogyny on her page. And then I read this article.
What about you, readers? How did you come come to claim feminism as part of your identity? And where do you forge your communities?
*See for just one Canadian example Sherene Razack, Sunera Thobani, and Malinda Smith’s co-edited States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the Twenty-First Century.
2 thoughts on “Sassy and Imagined Communities: One Version of How I Became a Feminist”
I am still in the stage of reading Bust and Bitch to develop my inner feminist, but I was influenced by the people close to me, not digital or imagined communities: My sister would come home from university and tell me what she learned in Women Studies, as well as lend me her copies of Herizons; I debated women in film with my high school teacher; and I watched hours upon hours of Joss Whedon with my brother. These last two were very important. I was able to have in depth discussions with open minded males about gender roles, and I learned to articulate my feminist frustrations. Imagined and digital communities are wonderful, but there is something to be said for direct dialogue.
Sassy got me through high school. It really did. It was, like you say, a window out of my tiny shithole town out onto a world full of urban, urbane feminists with good taste in music and a sense of humour. God, I miss Sassy.
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