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Feministing is a major feminist website which has a long history of having a culture of problematic content in both posts and comment threads. Specifically, site administrators have been questioned and called out numerous times about ableist, transphobic, classist, and sizeist language used in posts on Feministing and tolerated in the comment threads.
This language and the silence on disability, trans, class, and size issues is a problem on a feminist website because these things are feminist issues which impact and hurt women all over the world. When called out, administrators have often responded dismissively, if at all, and have sometimes actively silenced the people calling them out. Readers reported repeatedly reporting abuse and sending emails complaining about ableist language and receiving no response, and pointed to examples in comment threads of situations in which a commenter requested that ableist language be addressed and was shut down, treated dismissively, or piled on by other commenters and administrators.
On 1 October 2009, a post went up including the use of the word “invalid.” This annoyed me. Having conversations with numerous disabled feminists about the issue, I decided to write Feministing, both privately and publicly. My goal was to discuss the specific post of concern, and to more generally ask Feministing to address the issue of ableism on their website.
Aware of the fact that people had tried before and failed, I didn’t have high hopes, but I felt it was worth another try. A highly public one. So I wrote a letter, and asked that people who felt that ableism does not belong in feminist discourse cosign it, republish it, distribute it, and generally make some noise. Numerous people joined me in doing this and also wrote open letters of their own.
I want to stress here that my goal was not to coopt the ongoing challenge to the staff at Feministing about the ableism on their site. My goal was to try and act as a tipping point, to push Feministing into action by mobilizing people who are upset about this, and by collecting everyone’s comments, thoughts and concerns in one place to present a clearly unified discussion about the issues. This has been tried before, to no effect, but I had some hopes that the Feministing staff might be more receptive to a discussion now than they had been in the past.
My goal here was to open up a dialogue which includes the staff at Feministing, disabled feminists, and allies, to get Feministing to address the ableism on its site and to change the culture at Feministing to make it more inclusive.
I’ve been reading you guys for a while now. I haven’t always liked everything you do or say, but I think that you bring some important issues to my attention and sometimes some good conversations happen on your website.
But, you know, in recent months I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the exclusionary language and attitudes I see on your site, most particularly in reference to people with disabilities and people in lower social classes. You have a pretty poor track record on even covering disability issues, and the casual ableism which I see in your comment threads and sometimes in your very posts is extremely grating. It is especially irritating to see dismissive responses from site administrators when this issue is brought up.
Today’s post on chivalry was the last straw. Courtney used the line “If having my car door opened makes me feel like lover man thinks I’m an invalid, not so feminist.” This is offensive.
I’d like to point you to a piece I wrote recently, “Why Inclusionary Language Matters,” because I think you need to read it. Using ableist language is not just offensive, it’s antifeminist. And I would really appreciate it if y’all would stop doing it and stop tolerating it in your comment threads. I would also love to see y’all including more posts talking about topics related to disability and disability issues.
Please address this. Feminism includes people with disabilities. Disability is a feminist issue. Please make Feministing more inclusionary.
s.e. smith/meloukhia (meloukhia at gmail dot com)
The following individuals have reposted/cosigned this letter on their websites. This list is in no particular order. Many of them have written their own open letters/comments, which should all be read, because they are all excellent:
abby jean (more here)
Indie Goddess & Illegal Jesus
Chally (who wrote at the same time I did and did not receive a response)
Anna (who has been writing for a very long time and has not gotten a response)
Isabel the Spy
Reconcile (who did get my name wrong, but that’s ok, it’s hard to spell!)
bifemmefatale (who cosigned on the Feministing Community Site! Please see the comments thread here; I really want to thank Wildly Parenthetical and Alixana for being very on it in this thread and for trying to keep the discussion focused)
Amandaw (please note that she has posted an open letter of her own with specific concerns and issues she would like to see addressed!)
Anna at Trouble also started a roundup of posts related to ableism at Feministing; please comment to get your post added there. Or, if you came here from there, please comment so I can add your post to the list of cosigners/people with suggestions/etc. were_duck is also collecting links on the issue. sasha_feather has a more general collection of links on disabling language, including links discussing ableism at Feministing.
Nothing, for a while. Then Courtney published an apology on the post in question (after I had sent my letter, natch). The Feministing administrators left for the weekend while the numbers of cosigners grew here and people republished my open letter and wrote letters of their own.
At around 11:30 AM PST on Monday, 5 October 2009, Courtney sent me an email (CC’d to other Feministing staff):
Thanks very much for the thoughtful, constructive email.
I am, to be completely honest, new to disability studies and clearly guilty of some of the ignorant language reflexes that it fights against. I’ll definitely check out the article you sent and make a good faith effort to incorporate it into my writing here and elsewhere. I was really moved by the section in Examined Life where Astra Taylor films here sister and Judith Butler touching on some disability issues, but that’s as much exposure as I’ve really gotten.
I appreciate you taking the time to write.
*FYI, my response in comments was absolutely earnest. I meant the apology, not to be dismissive.
Just so we’re clear here, since there has been some confusion about this, Courtney did not go out of her way to respond to me privately. I posted this letter here first, and emailed Feministing’s general email account shortly after with a copy of the text and a link, with the idea that Feministing staffers would come here to see the comments. It didn’t occur to me that Courtney would choose to respond in email, and I suspect that she didn’t follow the link I sent her (evidenced by “I’ll definitely check out…”) to see the conversation happening here. So I don’t want anyone getting upset that Courtney responded to me privately; she responded via email because I sent an email first. And I debated whether or not to post her reply, given that it was in an email and that I protect emails sent to me by commenters, so thought I should extend the same courtesy to Courtney even though she’s not a commenter. When I felt like she wasn’t engaging and also felt very uncomfortable about corresponding only in private on a very public matter, I decided to go public with her email so that people would know what was going on, since I had told several people that I had heard from her.
I responded to her email shortly after I received it:
Thank you very much for your thoughtful and considered reply; it’s important to me to know that you are paying attention to the issue of unconscious ableism in your own language. However, I think it’s important to note that I (and many others, many of whom are listed as cosigners at my website) are concerned about the trend of ableism on Feministing in general, and would like to see that addressed (and possibly help to address it). It’s definitely hard to effect change without the tools to do so, and we would like to get those tools into the hands of the Feministing crew; you can see some suggestions and requests from readers on my open letter, and I’m sure many would be eager to engage further, knowing that y’all are listening.
What can we do to get a productive dialogue going? Start an open thread to get people talking? Set up some sort of round table discussion between some folks with disabilities and the Feministing staff? Get a person with disabilities on the Feministing masthead? You guys are definitely one of the major feminist sites out there, and taking a strong stance against ableism and incorporating discussions about disability issues into your regular site offerings would make a huge difference for feminists with disabilities and feminists in general.
At 8:15 PST on Tuesday, 6 October, I received a response from Courtney:
Hi again meloukhia,
Thanks for your response. I love the idea of getting some content up, initially, and maybe figuring out some other innovative ways to address the intersections between disability rights and gender issues etc. in the future. Do you want to set up a g chat time that we could then publish as an interview? (I find this can be easier than doing a phone conversation and then having to write a transcript with this kind of thing.) I’m also planning on reading the piece you sent and writing a post on it once I’ve had time to be thoughtful about it (I’m a little crazed at the moment).
Again, just want to reiterate that I appreciate your energy, proactivity in bringing this to my attention, and willingness to help educate me and our readers. I do want to make clear that I can only speak for myself and my own shortcomings. Each editor at Feministing has her own interests/challenges/expertise. I hope you won’t lump everyone in with me. We also have trouble handling the huge amount of moderation that goes into having traffic like ours, so we can’t be responsible for reader comments, though we know it reflects on the site as a whole by the very nature of the beast.
In any case, I’m grateful to be in dialogue and eager to learn and provide an opportunity to educate our community. When is good for you to set up a g chat interview?
If you don’t mind, I would like to invite other people to participate in any conversation we have, because this is an issue which is much larger than me. I know that Anna (email redacted) in particular is definitely interested in talking to you and the Feministing staff, and I suspect that several others may be as well. I also really want to stress that while talking to you is *great*, we really would like a chance to talk to the entire staff or to have some sort of communication with the rest of the staff (like a convo with you on GChat with a transcript which gets read by all staffers, a chat with multiple Feministing staffers, etc.), because we are concerned about the culture of ableism on Feministing, rather than trying to single out any one contributor for attention. Your post may have sparked this latest round of asking Feministing to address ableism, but there are much larger issues here. We would like Feministing to be a safe place for people with disabilities, and the only way to make that happen is to address everyone.
I think GChat is a terrific idea, but don’t want to set a specific time until I have had an opportunity to ask other people when would be good for them. Lots of people have some really great ideas and thoughts which they would really like an opportunity to share with you. Hopefully if everyone provides some time windows which are good for them, an obvious time will present itself. I will try to get back to you this evening with a list of potential chat times from our end so we can see which ones will work with you/other Feministing staffers who would like to participate.
Amandaw also asked me to pass on her open letter to the Feministing staff: http://threeriversblog.com/2009/10/open-letter-to-feministing.html She doesn’t feel up to engaging in chat/dialogue right now, so pulled her thoughts together in a post.
I’m also curious to note that you reference not being responsible for reader comments; you do have a “report abuse” button which would seem to indicate that the staff are concerned about abusive comments and will remove or address them. Maybe you can expand a little more on how the “report abuse” function works in our group chat.
In further private conversation with Courtney, I realized that she was not aware that I was speaking with multiple people, as opposed to just speaking for myself, and that we were concerned not about Courtney specifically, but about site-wide issues with ableism on Feministing. It seemed that there was a bit of miscommunication going on.
So, while I initially posted a public invite asking people to join a chat, it became evident that we needed to take a time out to coordinate a conversation between Feministing staffers and feminists with disabilities; I stressed that we wanted to have a conversation which will effect change on Feministing, not a conversation about Courtney in particular, and, understanding that, she obviously needed time to talk with other staffers and to sort out her own schedule, because committing to change ableism on Feministing is, you know, a pretty major time commitment. A time commitment we’d already made, but one which Courtney did not realize the scope of.
Courtney said, “Courtney is excited about having a dialogue between disabled feminists and Feministing, but needs some time to talk with Feministing staff and think about how to organize it in a way which will be productive.”
My hope was that Courtney or someone else on the Feministing staff would be able to act as our point person in a group dialogue with Feministing.
Then, someone went and posted a copy of my open letter to Feministing, and all heck broke loose. Several of the disabled feminists who have been active in the ongoing discussion attempted to wade in, and Jessica Valenti also became involved. She also emailed me privately to bring up the post and the situation in the comments. Ultimately, she closed the thread at our request because we felt like a productive dialogue was not happening, and probably could not happen until we had an opportunity to meet with the Feministing staff and talk about how they would like to address ableism on their site.
Here’s what Jessica said when she closed the thread:
I’m closing comments on this thread (unless the OP emails me to request I open them back up) because the conversation has ceased to be productive. I’m leaving all comments up, because I don’t want to erase the ugliness – but rather leave it up as an example of how things can be extremely hostile in the community.
The Feministing staff is in talks with several disability rights bloggers, some of whom have been active on this thread, and will have more to say on the issue of abelism at Feministing in the near future. Thanks for your patience and participation, everyone.
I left this statement up while we worked out the details of the chat:
We are currently talking with Jessica about a group conversation with some representatives from the disabled feminist community and some Feministing staffers. Speaking for myself, I greatly appreciate that Jessica contacted me, and appears to be interested in a group dialogue with all of us. Hopefully between us, Jessica, and Courtney, we can have a productive discussion which will result in some changes at Feministing. I hope to be able to keep everyone updated about what is going on as things unfold, although there may be some radio silence while we work out the details of when/how we are going to have a conversation.
The chat took place on 16 October, 2009. A copy of the transcript can be found here.
Since this time, no additional communication has taken place between us and Feministing (beyond Anna sending a booklist, as requested, and abby sending a followup email, which Feministing quoted without attribution on their website, making it appear as though they had written the suggestions abby had written, and refusing to apologize/address/correct this when it was brought up), and Feministing’s content/moderation have not changed at all. The site is still rife with ableism, from both contributors and commenters, and it’s clear that there is absolutely no interest in fixing this. Quixotess called for a boycott, suggesting that people stop reading/linking to Feministing until they addressed this issue. Given the success of the trans-led boycott…I think it’s safe to say that Feministing has no intent of changing the entrenched exclusionary culture.
Here’s what I wrote when I initially published the open letter:
I would like Feministing to respond to this. Courtney’s apology, while nice, is not a sufficient response. It does not adequately address the problem. I would like Feministing to participate in a dialogue with the many people who have cosigned this letter to address the issue of ableist content on their website. (It sounds like this is in the works.)
I would like to see a front page post about ableism and disability issues. I would really like it if that post directly addressed the ableist tone on Feministing’s posts and comment threads, and indicated that ableism would no longer be tolerated in posts or in comments, including on the Community site. I would love it even more if a blogger with disabilities (not a temporarily able bodied blogger talking about disability issues) joined their masthead to foster a more inclusive dialogue and start educating Feministing and their readership about disability and why disability is a feminist issue.
I would also like the Feministing staff to read the open letters from Amandaw and Annaham, in which specific issues and examples of problems are discussed, and suggestions for addressing the ableism on Feministing are made. I would like the Feministing staff to email Anna, who has repeatedly asked for communication from them (Anna is now part of the group of feminists corresponding with Feministing). I would like Feministing to explain why repeated emails in the past have not been answered, and why I was the only one who got a response in the latest round of emails. I would also like Feministing to explain why “report abuse” flags on ableist language were ignored.
What would I like them to do now? Well, I would like them to stop paying lip service, and to actually change the culture at their site. To crack down in moderation and make it clear that exclusionary language of any kind, whether directed at disabled persons, trans folk, lower class folk, people of colour…will not be tolerated. And I’m like the contributors to watch their words with more care, to not use exclusionary language in their posts, to not post links to things which contain offensive content. I would like Feministing to be more diverse, to center voices other than those of white, middle class, able bodied, cis, het feminists.
And, you know? Maybe that’s not something they can do. Which brings me to…
Cosign. You can cosign right here in the comments, if you like. You can also cosign on your website, by reprinting this letter, or writing one of your own and linking to this letter. If you cosign on your site, please let me know, so I can include you in the list of cosigners above. I am trying to link every cosigner I see on the Internet, but I am sure I am missing someone, and I may be getting names wrong, so it’s better if people just send me links (meloukhia at gmail dot com) or add a link to the comments. Cosigning this letter, obviously, does not mean that you are cosigning/endorsing this entire website, just the letter.
Spread the word. Tell your readers. Tell everyone. Make sure that people cosign here, cosign offsite and get linked here, or cosign on a post which links here. I’m stressing links back to this ain’t livin’ because I want Feministing to see a unified presentation, rather than having to hunt around the Internet for scattered posts and links.
Email Feministing. Tell them that you are no longer interested in tolerating ableism on a major feminist website. Be polite, but be firm. Provide constructive suggestions for improvement and stress the fact that disability is a feminist issue which you would like to see addressed. If you feel thus inclined, post your emails/any responses you get. Several people have told me that they have emailed Feministing and not received a reply, which troubles and upsets me.
Add your thoughts about what you would like Feministing to do. In the comments, on your own website, on the comments in another website, in an email to Feministing. Wherever you feel comfortable.
And, since this doesn’t appear to be working; promote the sites which do include people. Promote the sites which do center the voices of people living in marginalized bodies. If Feministing doesn’t want to cover these issues, to acknowledge that feminism needs to be bigger than this, then, fine, let’s leave them out of it. We don’t need them. And we don’t need to invest energy in trying to fix Feministing, when we could be using that energy to build something great, to make feminism inclusive of all women.
You do not have to be a person with disabilities to care about disability issues. You do not have to be a person with disabilities to think, specifically, that disability is a feminist issue. You do not have to be perfect in respect to the use of ableist language in your own life and the recognition and study of disability issues in your own life to recognize that a major feminist website should not be tolerating ableist dialogue. We are all works in progress, and none of us are perfect, but that lack of perfection does not mean that we cannot call others out on inappropriate behaviour.
To all the people who have cosigned here and elsewhere, to all the people who have linked this, emailed this, Tweeted this, etc. Thank you to all of the people who have posted letters of your own and/or emailed Feministing. Thank you to all of the feminist allies who have cosigned, even if you don’t necessarily call yourselves feminists. Thank you to all of the feminists with disabilities who have been asking Feministing to address this issue for years. Hopefully, this time, we can make a difference. If we can’t, the Internet may just break my heart.
Ableism is not feminism. Spread the word.