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Beyond Digital Feminism

Jill Filipovic, interviewed by Matt Seaton

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


On June 16, 2021, we published “How US Abortion Politics Distorts Women’s Lives in Conflict Zones,” an in-depth report by Jill Filipovic, with photography by Nichole Sobecki, on the way the US, as the world’s major aid donor, damages humanitarian groups’ ability to deliver reproductive health care for women in crisis situations. US policy essentially bars relief agencies from providing abortions even to survivors of “rape as a weapon of war”—a practice common in armed conflicts that has had legal recognition as a form of genocide since the mass killings of civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s.

Gary He

Jill Filipovic, 2017

The issue has come to the fore again recently with the horrifying reports of systematic sexual violence inflicted on women and girls alongside the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. And Filipovic’s reporting puts a spotlight on how American prohibitions on spending federal dollars on abortion provision extend to refugee camps from Uganda to Bangladesh, where girls and women—pregnant, in effect, by a war crime—are deprived of appropriate reproductive health care. In other words, by exporting its domestic culture war on the issue, the US is exercising a form of antiabortion imperialism.

It seems a grim picture, especially at a time when, in the US, Roe v. Wade faces its most serious legal challenges in decades. But Filipovic also documents the successes that some humanitarian agencies, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, and other, informal actors, have had in chipping away at the American interdiction on medical care urgently needed by women who’ve had to flee cruel abuse and dire circumstances.

Filipovic’s article, the result of considerable research and fieldwork, awakened me to a new side of her work. I knew her writing in the past decade primarily as an op-ed contributor and opinion columnist with an avowedly feminist voice for The Guardian (where, by way of disclosure, I was her editor in the US for a spell) and for The New York Times. Her reporting from an international, indeed global, perspective was less familiar to me. When we corresponded this week, I asked her about that.

“Women’s rights have always been a primary interest—and, as it turns out, women are everywhere in the world,” she said. “While my work has never been totally US-focused, I’ve moved away from needing to feel like I’m an expert on everything I write about, and have instead started by asking, ‘what do I want to know more about?’ That question has been leading me outside US borders.” And she added: “It has broadened my political imagination and extended the range of my empathy to focus my work on the people who don’t get to decide who governs in America, but do nonetheless see their lives indelibly shaped by American policy.”

But this also seemed a distinct turn away from opinion journalism, previously so much her signature. What lay behind that?

Around the same time I began working as a writer, there was a growing demand for more “content”—death to that term!—in a new online universe where clicks were a leading metric and publications needed more than a newspapers’ worth of stuff every day to meet reader demand. That opened a door, and as a writer who was also drawn to advocacy, I walked through it. I love opinion writing and have been lucky to have been able to make a career of it.

It’s also been humbling to get a little older and understand, more and more, how little I know and how much there is to learn. I’m in the very fortunate position now where my opinion-writing work feels sustainable enough that I can explore other ways of telling stories—that I can lead with curiosity, and follow that where it goes. That has led me to more reported work where I get to be outside of the frame, asking questions and trying to understand something important and complicated.

The trajectory of Filipovic’s career did indeed track the rise of online commentary. Like many of her generation—including such subsequent brand-name writers as Ezra Klein, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Matthew Yglesias—she cut her teeth as a blogger, but Filipovic was a member of a distinct cohort of young women.

She joined Lauren Bruce’s Feministe in 2005 as a writer and editor, started at NYU School of Law the same year, and continued blogging while working as a litigator. Together with Feministing, founded the previous year by sisters Jessica and Vanessa Valenti, Pandagon, Jezebel, and other like-minded platforms, this constellation of the blogosphere became known as “digital feminism” or “the feminist Internet.”

Fifteen years on, the closure of Feministing in December 2019 provoked a series of elegies sounding the knell for that era. Though I’d read Filipovic’s own retort to those, I was interested to learn what she saw as the movement’s achievements.

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When I was a young blogger, there were very few feminists on the op-ed pages; stories about motherhood and reproductive rights were often relegated to the style section. Feminist bloggers breathed new air into the feminist movement and reshaped mainstream media: now…just about every mainstream outlet includes feminist-minded pieces; and reporting on issues that disproportionately impact women is stronger, more common, and more accurately categorized.

And its limitations?

The few resources that did exist were not always going to the folks who were the most talented, creative, or effective, but often to the women who struck the powers-that-be as the most palatable. It was striking to see that, while the “digital feminists” themselves were an incredibly diverse group of women, the ones who got the most attention and who were eventually plucked out by more powerful institutions were often, though not exclusively, white, city-dwelling, and college-educated—myself included. I think that’s a movement problem, but it’s not just a movement problem—it’s a society problem.

And there were huge differences in how a very motley crew of “digital feminists” saw their work and the feminist space itself. Is it really possible for a single movement [feminism] to fully and evenhandedly represent the interests of more than half of the world’s population? I’m not sure.

I do think feminist movements today are in a better place than they were a half-century ago, or even ten years ago. They are still messy and complicated and vastly imperfect, but I see a lot of progress in the churn.

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