So much for post-feminism.
The world of networked hurt that descended on the spiteful media enterprise that is Rush Limbaugh revealed a tenacious, super-wired coalition of active feminists prepared at a moment’s notice to blow the lid off sexist attacks or regressive health policy. When Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” in response to her testimony before Congress on contraception costs, he may well have been surprised by the strength of the response. But he shouldn’t have been.
At latest count, nine advertisers have pulled the plug on Limbaugh.[Update: 12 advertisers and two radio stations.] Each was effectively targeted on Facebook and Twitter by an angry and vocal storm of thousands of people calling for direct action. The campaign was almost instantaneous, coordinated by no individual or organization, and entirely free of cost. Prominent feminist organizers told Forbes that it was social media’s terrible swift sword, led once again by Twitter and Facebook-savvy women, that dealt Limbaugh the worst humiliation of his controversial career, and in many ways, revealed the most potent “non-organized” organization to take the field on the social commons in the age of Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous.
“Given that much of the increased vocabulary and awareness about gender in the national discussion comes through social media and from young people, I think that instances like this one should give those who claim that young people don’t care about feminism pause!” says Rebecca Traister, a contributor to Salon and author the important feminist history of the 2008 Presidential race, Big Girls Don’t Cry. “Young people are the ones who know how to use social media in this way, and look at the kind of impact it’s having.”
“What’s most interesting to me is that in the last two years or so specifically, women have been leading the charge online to campaign for themselves against this kind of abuse, largely thanks to advances in social networking,” said media technologist Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking. ”In the past, we’d have to wait for some organization to take up the cause– create a petition, launch an email campaign — and outside of traditional feminist movement types, those campaigns rarely reached widespread acceptance.”
“Women aren’t waiting to be told what to do or which petition to sign, they’re just doing what we do best: talking and connecting,” agreed Allison Fine, senior fellow for progressive think tank Demos.
It’s the next chapter in many ways to the story that hit the public consciousness with the strong, active online reaction to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood a month ago. The response was quick, massive, and targeted. My own social graph (on both Facebook and Twitter) lit up like a summer fireworks display after sundown – stirring conversation, concentration around hashtags and shared media, and truly crowdsourced action.
“What we’re seeing right now is a continuation of the networked response to the right-wing war on women’s health that began with the Komen reaction a few weeks ago,” said Fine. “It is across generations and extra-organizational with individual women using a variety of social media channels to connect with other women and create their own protests.”
Yet it would also be a mistake to view the semi-organized reaction to Limbaugh as purely another battle between left and right on the American political spectrum. While Limbaugh’s sexist words have to been seen in the light of a Republican Presidential race that has, inexplicably, placed an opposition to contraception and women’s health at the center of its increasingly nasty public debate, the roots of El Rushbo’s humiliation also run deeper than spectrum ideology and political parties.
You can see those roots, for instance, in the brilliantly-organized campaign in late 2010 against two prominent liberal voices: filmmaker Michael Moore and talk show host Keith Olbermann. Feminist blogger Sady Doyle took Moore to task for posting bail on behalf of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assangeafter rape accusations brought by two women in Sweden confined him to custody in England, and her supporters battled both Moore and Olbermann for being dismissive of those accusations and implying they were a set-up to derail Assange’s exposure of U.S. government secrets.
Wrote Doyle in December, 2010 in a post that ignited a firestorm: “We are the progressive community. We are the left wing. We are women and men, we are from every sector of this community, and we believe that every rape accusation must be taken seriously, regardless of the accused rapist’s connections, power, influence, status, fame, or politics.”
Thousands of activists then used the #mooreandme tag on Twitter to (successfully) demand apologies from Moore and Olbermann. That campaign disproves the assertion by Fox News political analyst Kirsten Powers in the Daily Beast that “the real fury seems reserved only for conservatives, while the men on the left get a wink and a nod as long as they are carrying water for the liberal cause.”
But Powers does indeed have a point that casual misogyny among men in the media rather easily crosses ideological lines – and just as clearly, the new feminist moment online is in part a strong and serious pushback against a culture that divines a narrow, almost forgiving attitude toward violence and sexual assault against women. Among the feminist bloggers from more recent generations, tactics like the Slutwalk – and a strong effort to expose a culture of violence to the light of day – point to a renewed and yes, combative new stance. On the left, when prominent figures like Assange and Dominique Strauss-Kahn were accused of sexual violence, a new network of women stood ready to push back on political commentary that seemed to excuse or invalidate the charges. Feminist blogger Lindsay Beyerstein wrote that the target of these new protests was “the inaccurate stereotype that rape is an uncontrollable frenzy of lust that women provoke in men. That’s like imagining all theft as an uncontrolled frenzy of consumerism.”
When he used the word “slut” to describe Sandra Fluke – linking the need for contraceptives to a kind of rampant (and distasteful) sexual desire in women that society shouldn’t pay for – Limbaugh casually played the flip side of the classic “she asked for it” defense of sexual assault. The Republican Party’s most potent media figure may well have reckoned that talk radio’s legendary reach and loyal conservative audience would easily sustain a few harmless raindrops of outrage on the roof.
But he was (perhaps fatally) wrong.
There was a powerful, decentralized social venture lurking on the digital network – totally empowered and working with a toolset as potent as Clear Channel’s microphones.
“I think the feminists were always out there, but often isolated from one another or overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done and lack of time in a day,” says feminist writer Kate Harding. “Social media allows us to work together quickly and publicly for something like a boycott or twitter campaign–(mostly) without the distractions of in-group politics or disagreement on any number of other issues–and that creates an energy that makes it feel so much more like a unified movement, even when people are still quite loosely connected.”
“The dynamics of the media are such that if you’re engaged about something, be it Komen or Limbaugh you can drive your action, measure it, and add it into a larger effort,” said Bernholz. “If something resonates, you pass it on. If it doesn’t, you try something else. It’s like the supposed Facebook mantra ‘code wins.’ Everyone who participates in these networked action can see – and measure – immediately, what resonates with others and they can work fromt here.”Philanthropy measurement guru and social ventures blogger Lucy Bernholz believes that the immediate feedback loop of the social networks drove both the Limbaugh and Komen protests – even without visible leadership or a budget.
Adds Kate Harding: “I think the public aspect is really important. #mooreandme, the Limbaugh boycott, the Komen/Planned Parenthood uproar all worked because there was somewhere to express ourselves visibly. Who knows how many feminists were sending letters and making phone calls over similar instances in the past? But without any way for an outside observer to measure it, the target of a boycott or letter-writing campaign was never forced to acknowledge that criticism publicly. When your brand’s Facebook wall is overtaken by feminist outrage, you can’t just write it off as a few man-hating cranks and continue on as usual.”
After the 2008 campaign, Traister’s book painted a rosy path for feminist organizing that seemed a stretch at the time, at least to me. In Hillary Clinton‘s failed campaign, she wrote, “women’s liberation movement found thrilling new life.”
Yet her words now seem prophetic – and indeed, the sheer breadth and strength of the wired feminist network is impressive.
“Some of what we’re seeing now feels more coordinated in a way that fits with a maturation and increased confidence of online activism and with a media that, post-2008, is better trained to hear and report on this kind of response,” says Traister. “That last part really matters, and is really relevant coming out of 2008: There is an increased sensitivity around gender and around race and around sexuality that I think was not part of the national conversation ten or even five years ago.
“That makes a difference when Rush Limbaugh calls someone a slut in 2012.”
On the confluence of social ventures, media, and change.