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the final word on feminism?

In a blow to independent journalism and the women's movement as a whole, The Feminist Times closed this week leaving behind a gaping hole in uncompromising pro-female literature. With a tagline "life not lifestyle", we asked Deputy Editor Sarah Graham to explore the difficulties the publication faced and what it might mean for the future of feminism.

A month ago I handed in my notice at my dream job. When I joined Feminist Times fourteen and a half months ago, I couldn’t imagine anything better than working on Charlotte Raven’s radical, alternative women’s magazine – a publication with a punk spirit, that was unashamedly feminist, anti-capitalist on principle, and had enough ethics to pay its staff and contributors alike. I still can’t really but, once the reality of being a principled, women-run start-up business in a tough economic climate kicked in, the idealism of the venture naturally made it difficult to sustain. On Monday we announced that Feminist Timesin its current form will go on ice, while editor Deborah Coughlin and I move on to other projects, and founder Charlotte Raven continues consulting on alternative funding models.

The reaction to the announcement has been really heartening, with so many messages of thanks and support from our members and readers. By Tuesday even Grazia, which Charlotte described in our manifesto as “once the crack cocaine of women’s magazines”, had reported: “It's been a bad few days for feminism. Radical magazine Feminist Times announced its last week of publishing and now, the Internet has seen ‘Women Against Feminism’ go viral.”

In its short life, Feminist Times became a hub for pluralist feminist discussion and debate, at a time that has seen the fourth wave blossom and flourish into an exciting, active movement. As Deborah wrote in Wednesday’s Independent (16 July), feminism has gone from a dirty word just five years ago, to one of the biggest marketing trends for women. The biggest challenge for feminism now is to cut through the bullshit and differentiate between advertising and activism, before (and, more crucially, after!) that fashion comes to an end. 

In December I commissioned a piece from Rebecca Winson, titled Feminism for Sale, on the commodification of feminism. Her article explored how, in the last two years, the F word has become marketers’ new favourite buzz word for selling everything from public figures to beauty products, as beautifully illustrated by the image our art director Lucy put together for the piece. It’s a world where women’s glossies are embracing “the F word”, and feminism simply means “empowering” women or “inspiring” them to “lean in” a bit further. And that empowerment can be sold in many forms – from a sharp power suit, to an anti-wrinkle cream, to a killer pair of heels, a new miracle diet, or this season’s hottest lip colour.

Feminist journalists now face the bigger challenge of continuing to shout at more dominant publications about the subjects that don’t have as much populist media appeal as “Is Beyonce a Feminist?”

 

The trouble Feminist Times had was how to monetise a publication that wasn’t interested in selling any of those things. As part of the publicity ahead of our website launch last Autumn, we worked with ELLE magazine and Mother London advertising agency, on ELLE’s ‘Rebranding Feminism’ project. What struck me most on receiving the final printed edition was how many pages of adverts I had to flick through even to get to the contents page, let alone our feature.

Going (and staying) ad-free ultimately cost Feminist Times dearly, but our readers appreciated the safe haven our content provided. As I wrote in my final editorial for the website, The struggle for money and a room of our own was a constant for the project, but I’m enormously proud of what we achieved in such straitened circumstances. At Feminist Times women could discuss fashion and beauty, relationships, health, money and work, in an honest way, acknowledging all the insecurities and anxieties that come with them, free from judgement and free from big-brand declarations that it’s possible to buy your own empowerment in all good shopping centres. But they could also discuss issues of broader interest, that are so often lacking from women’s magazines – politics, economics, racism, violence and abuse, social justice, poverty and the impact of austerity, or what the hell it even really means to be a woman. Radically, ideas were our only currency.

The loss of Feminist Times represents a loss for independent feminist journalism. Where else will feminist journalists – myself included – go to publish the articles that no mainstream publication will publish, without giving away their labour for free to volunteer-run blogs? The best possible legacy of Feminist Times will be if those voices and issues have been pushed just a little further towards the mainstream; feminist journalists now face the bigger challenge of continuing to shout at more dominant publications about the subjects that don’t have as much populist media appeal as “Is Beyonce a feminist?”

Since feminism became popular we’ve seen an influx of celebrities from Katy Perry to David Cameron being asked whether they identify with the label, but what does it all really mean? While I’ve no objection to detoxifying the term by bringing it into regular usage, it’s only any use if it does more than just sell shampoo. Ultimately feminism must exist to fight the oppression facing all women – including the gritty, unsexy realities of poverty, violence against women, and systematic, institutional discrimination.

Why not take advantage of the popularity of feminism while it lasts by taking its message directly to the opposition – even if that means sneaking it by stealth into the pages of The Sun, or a Dove marketing campaign?

 

The End FGM (female genital mutilation) campaign has been a prime example of campaigners riding the crest of fourth wave feminism with originality, creativity and humour – but without compromising their message – to bring the reality of a brutal practice to newspaper front pagesglossy magazines, and Channel 4 documentaries. Like FGM and other forms of violence against women, much of what remains for feminism to achieve is less a question of legal change than cultural. Though so many western women’s rights are enshrined in law, it’s attitudes that are yet to shift; that’s no simple ask, and I’m afraid I’ve not yet found the answer.

In April, Feminist Times caused a stir when we published two pieces on the subject of compromise – one, by Body Gossip’s Natasha Devon, titled Be prepared to compromise or ‘feminism’ will be a dirty word once again, and a response, by radical feminist blogger Louise Pennington, arguing that Feminism cannot compromise on the liberation of women. Though I agree wholeheartedly with Louise’s position, I actually found myself sympathising with both pieces. I’m suspicious of advertisers and the mainstream media co-opting feminism as a ‘trend’, but I’d rather see sexism being publicly called out than not. If feminism is to change culture it cannot only preach to the converted and, like every wave of the movement, the fourth wave is already facing its fair share of anti-feminist backlash. Why not take advantage of the popularity of feminism while it lasts by taking its message directly to the opposition – even if that means sneaking it by stealth into the pages of The Sun, or a Dove marketing campaign?

It’s a difficult circle to square. Feminist Times failed because it attempted to create an uncompromising alternative to the patriarchal media, whilst still working within the parameters of that same system. But feminism cannot afford to be a passing trend that's out by next season; for its message to be truly uncompromising it needs the energy, creativity and enthusiasm of the fourth wave to come together and establish a radical alternative that works.