Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Melissa Of Shakesville Shares Some Truth

Melissa can be found daily fighting the good fight at Shakesville

1) It is my understanding that you identify as a feminist.  Would you please share your feminist click moment?

Rather than one specific moment, coming to feminism was more like a series of clicks.  Some of the earliest clicks took place at church; I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran, where women are *still* not allowed to be president of the congregation, no less ordained.  During my childhood, women were granted the right to lector and girls the right to acolyte for the first time, but the gender disparity was still evident. 

I remember asking why women were not allowed to be ministers, and my pastor fed me the usual bullshit line about how the Bible says women can't teach men about God, so naturally I followed up with a question about why women were allowed to teach Sunday School then.  When he gave me an unsatisfactory answer, I asked my mother, who usually tried to spin me with the religious rationalizations, and I could tell she considering doing it, but just decided to be honest this time.  She plainly told me, with a bitterness in her voice I still recall, that the reason women were allowed to be Sunday School teachers was because, if they weren't, there wouldn't be Sunday School. 

It was moments like that, moments of truth that spoke to inequality, that formed the basis of my feminist perspective.

2) Upon reading Shakesville one thing that comes readily apparent is your dedication to covering a myriad of topics.  Do you find that you have difficulty balancing interests in the name of intersectionality, and what topics do you feel still require more attention than they are currently receiving?

I don't find that I have difficulty balancing interests; there's not a finite amount of space at Shakesville, so I don't feel as though anything ever has to be sacrificed in favor of something else, except insomuch as it comes to what I personally have time to cover—although, as regards issues of intersectionality, I'm obviously not the best person to cover every issue, or even most, anyway.  I struggle more with trying to find people who are willing to bring their unique perspectives to Shakesville, who can speak to experiences and intersectionalities I simply don't have. 

I am immensely grateful to the women and men of color, LGBTQIs, parents, women and men who are differently- or disabled, chronically ill, atypically partnered, non-American, recovering addicts, formerly homeless, abuse survivors, etc. who tell pieces of their stories and share their perspectives at Shakesville. Because marginalized people's stories often aren't told in the mainstream (or told with some fucked-up agenda), it's incumbent upon us to tell our own stories on our own terms wherever we can, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It's our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance. Making the personal public and political is so important—and I want to use Shakesville toward that objective as best I can.

As regards what issues still need more attention, the list is endless.  There are so many issues of concern to marginalized people which are all but invisible within mainstream culture—so much "conventional wisdom" about sex, race, sexuality, gender expression, body size and stature, disability, mental illness, addiction, class, religion (and lack thereof), sexual assault, etc. that needs to be challenged.  Any lack of parity in any place among any people means that we've still got work to do.

3)  Clearly from your commitment to Shakesville, blogging is very central to your work as a feminist activist.  What caused you to choose this format and how do you see the work of feminists online in aiding in the advancement of women?

I started blogging primarily in protest of the Bush administration, which, while necessarily containing an important element of feminist critique, was not uniquely born of my feminist activism—so I chose the format almost incidentally because of my profound loathing of Bush.

The existence of feminist spaces online is a really important counter to the proliferation of explicitly misogynist spaces online.  I don't know how online feminism will aid in the advancement of women overall, but there is an obvious and immediate practical benefit to spaces that are welcoming to and supportive of women when so much of the internet is overtly hostile of women and feminist ideas.

4) Even though Womanist Musings is a much smaller blog it has frequently been invaded by those who seek to push a negative framework.  How do you deal emotionally with angst and the troll like behaviour that writing from a feminist perspective often causes in others?  What steps do you feel are essential to creating a safe space for all to engage?

The emotional component of blogging as a feminist woman is something I don't particularly like to talk about publicly, as it's just handing wank material to trolls who want to "own" every piece of me.  It's none of their business if their antics bother me or not.

In terms of creating a safe space, I can't recommend enough a commenting system that allows banning and a willingness to use the banhammer when necessary.  I feel no obligation whatsoever to sacrifice feelings of comfort and uninhibited expression for other commenters to honor the "right" of one or two wankers who get off on bullying people in a place they otherwise feel safe.  No one has a right to walk into my house and piss on the carpet and call it free speech.

I suspect that most feminist bloggers start out with a willingness to engage in good faith even the most objectionable commenters, believing that it's possible to change minds with an honest debate.  But after you've been doing it awhile, the telltale signs of a wind-up artist—someone who's just there to troll for shits and grins—become so obvious that your choice is: Spend three hours publicly debating this idiot to expose hir for what zie really is for the benefit of people reading along, or just ban hir and save yourself the hassle.  The former is a waste of our time.  We should save my energy for debates that matter, for people whose minds really can be changed—and most of the bloggrrls who've been around the block a few times seem to take precisely that position.  Which is why the banhammer is so handy!

5) Though clearly taking the position to advocate on the side of social justice is certainly admirable it cannot be said that it comes without a cost.  People fight very hard to maintain undeserved privilege.  What consequences have you faced for taking the strong positions that you do and has this influenced whether or not you choose to speak out about a particular issue?

I've rather famously lost a job for criticizing the Catholic Church from a feminist/pro-LGBTQI perspective.  As fallout from that, I had people come to my house, dump garbage on my lawn, leave bizarre messages outside my house, send threats, etc.  I pretty regularly get disturbing emails, which go into one big file of crazy, just in case.  Shakesville was slammed off its independent server by a massive DOS attack, and taken down permanently by hackers.  A "progressive" news site which was considering me for a section editor position made as a condition of my potential employment not only quitting Shakesville but deleting the entire blog.  (Naturally, I declined.)

I haven't felt obliged to self-censor on particular topics, because I can never predict what posts are going to start a firestorm, anyway; often, it's the posts I'd least expect.  A throwaway post last year on a video game called Fat Princess caused an enormous shitstorm, which continues to reverberate.  The post that elicited the aforementioned DOS attack was about fat acceptance.  The ugliest comment thread I've ever had in Shakesville's history was on a post about treating rape as a joke.  None of them felt to me like particularly controversial posts, even by mainstream standards.  None of them were posts I would have avoided writing if I were trying to avoid controversy.  So, even if I wanted to avoid negative consequences to my blogging, I don't think I could.

6) There is a clear division in the blogosphere between feminist blogs and so-called progressive blogs, how do you feel that we can best approach encouraging the idea that womens issues are central to the conversation?

I quite honestly have no idea, aside from promoting the progressive political blogs who I feel don't marginalize women's issues, e.g. Digby (Hullabaloo) and Steve Benen (Washington Monthly).

7) Would you please share with us the names of some of the women that you admire and how their work has influenced your life?

This list is far too long—I wouldn't even know where to begin!  Take a look at the women of Shakesville: The contributors, the guest bloggers, the commenters, all the amazing female bloggers on the blogroll.  It's just page after page of inspiring, funny, brilliant, amazing women from all over the planet with every attribute and circumstance one can imagine.  I can't even think about the number of spectacular women I've met because of blogging without blubbing all over the place!  [blubs]

8)  It is my belief that it is not enough to advocate feminism.  We must seek to live out our principles in our everyday experiences.  How does feminism inform your daily life outside of your blog?

In every way possible.  My blog is a full-time endeavor, and all of the behind-the-scenes work is executed within a feminist framework.  Every movie I watch or advert I see or book I read is viewed through a feminist lens.  I advocate feminism whenever given the opportunity, even if obliquely.

My personal relationships are informed and deeply shaped by my feminism.  Particularly my relationships with my husband and my father can sometimes feel like a series of negotiations in which I must assert myself as equal and autonomous human being, rather than Person Filling the Role of "Wife" or "Daughter" (which frequently has as much to do with my own socialization and resulting expectations as theirs).  My husband is open to these negotiations and generally engaged with them; my father is significantly less so.

What's more interesting is that being known as a "practicing feminist," for lack of a better term, lol, tends to color other people's reactions to me, even people I've known a long time.  They tend to be more circumspect when discussing certain topics; misogynist epithets have been jettisoned from our conversations.  Some men I know do it resentfully and make a big production out of how they have to "behave" around me, but more than that I've had people get excited about flexing their feminist muscles and tell me how they've started to notice inequalities they didn't notice before or bring me examples of injustice about which they'd like me to blog.

9) There continues to be a big push to make intersectionality more than lipservice in feminism.  Many women routinely complain that their voices are either silenced or particularly marginalized thus creating sub groups within the movement. Would you agree with the aforementioned statement? How would you suggest that we work towards a more inclusive feminism in which all experiences are equally represented?

Yes, I do agree with it, and I'm not sure there's a silver bullet answer to how we fix it.  Because each of us plays a different role in that marginalization, each of us has to devise our own individualized role to play in the solution.

Starting with, quite frankly, whether we even want to be a part of the solution.  There are, surely, some privileged people who don't *want* more inclusivity, for all the familiar reasons that people protect their privilege, and there are also some marginalized people who don't *want* to be included in the existing structure for various and understandable reasons, and would rather create something new altogether than reforming what already exists.  And when people who regard the existing structure as fine as is, and people who regard the existing structure as inherently corrupt and unfixable, participate in reform conversations alongside good-faith reformers under the guise of being their allies, they inevitably (and unsurprisingly) take control of the conversation in ways that are profoundly counter to any actual reform.

All of which is hardly unique to feminism.  This same dynamic plays out in the semi-annual "Where are all the female bloggers?" conversation in the progressive political blogosphere.  There are always allies and non-allies on both sides of the inclusivity conversation, privileged and marginalized.

Working toward a more inclusive feminism in which all experiences are equally represented starts, IMO, with choosing to be an authentic ally, no matter what side of the conversation one's on.  You can't be conflicted or half-assed about it, you know?  You either want it, or you don't.

For my part, I try to facilitate inclusivity by providing space on whatever little platform I've got to women and feminist-allied men of every stripe, as contributors and guest-bloggers, by opening up blogarounds three times a week so any blogger can promote hir work without hesitation at Shakesville, by linking to a diversity of female and feminist-allied male bloggers, by mentoring smaller bloggers who contact me with questions (whether technological or philosophical), by maintaining a safe commenting space, and by listening to requests, suggestions, and criticisms from marginalized bloggers.

Is that perfect?  No.  But it's the best I've got so far.

10)   Finally your feminist wish list.  What goals would you like to see feminism strive for over the next five years and how can we best achieve them?

Oh, Maude.  I don't even know how to begin answering this question.  Too many teaspoons to count!

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