Red Ink Series, hosted by Michele Filgate & Books Are Magic, presents:
A Panel on Feminist Publishing
moderated by the editors of LIBER: A Feminist Review
November 17, 2022; Wild East Brewing Co., Brooklyn
JENNIFER BAUMGARDNER: I’m happy people came out. We’re still kind of in that pandemic zone where it’s like, “Should I leave my home? It’s so cold,” so I appreciate that people made the effort.
Our panelists are going to come on down when I say their names. Sarah Leonard, first, is the editor-in-chief of LUX and a contributing editor to Dissent and also The Nation.
Jamia Wilson is currently vice president and executive editor at Random House, and she was the director of the Feminist Press recently. She’s the author of several books for young readers, including This Book Is Feminist and Young, Gifted, and Black.
Bridgett Davis is the author of the acclaimed memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers—and you wrote the screenplay already. It’s going to be turned into a movie with Plan B Entertainment and Searchlight Pictures. I met Bridgett when she wrote the wonderful novel called Into the Go-Slow, published by Feminist Press when I was ED. We got to know each other then, and you’ve been an incredible friend ever since—I’m acting like you’re the only one I know—I know Jamia really well, too, and I met Sarah recently at the LIBER offices.
Debbie Stoller is the person I’ve known the longest. I met Debbie in ’93 or ’94, soon after she started Bust Magazine. “The magazine for women who have something to get off their chest” used to be the tag. Also, Debbie is the author of the New York Times-bestselling knit and crochet book series Stitch ‘n Bitch. There are a lot of other books you’ve done, Bust-related, and you’re a big proponent of lifting up domestic activities that have been written off by feminism and pointing out the artistry and the pleasure of knowing how to do them, like knitting, cooking, et cetera.
Those are our panelists, and Charis, I think you’re going to ask some questions.
CHARIS CAPUTO: Just to give a little context about why we’re here: earlier this year Jennifer and I started a print and online magazine called LIBER, dedicated to the discussion of feminist history, culture, and writing. A big part of our mission was to call attention to and explore the deep connection between feminism and publishing. In our first issue, we ran a timeline of feminist publishing, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Women in the 1790s and going through the explosion of feminist presses and periodicals in the 1960s and ’70s that eventually brought feminist issues into the mainstream, on into the Third Wave of zines and magazines and blogs and so forth.
So, I wanted to ask each of you to name a couple publications, books and magazines, that were important in your formation as a feminist and as a writer—or publisher or editor.
BRIDGETT DAVIS: I’ll start. Obviously, Ms. was really instrumental. It came along when I was a teenager—wait, no I wasn’t. Or yes, I was. When did it start?
BD: I was pretty young, but its existence really made a difference for me, just knowing it was there and being stunned by that word, Ms. I took it on right away and decided, I’m going to be Ms., even though I was probably nine. The other magazine that was reallyimportant to me was Essence, and in particular the editor Marcia Gillespie, because “Getting Down” [her editor’s column] was something that I and all my friends read religiously, even before we were old enough to fully understand what she was saying. We knew she was talking to us, and that just hadn’t happened before.
DEBBIE STOLLER: The most important writing for my feminist journey was Gloria Steinem’s essay “If Men Could Menstruate,” which I read in high school. It was assigned by a cool high school instructor called Ms. Albert. I’m old enough that that essay had come out shortly before we read it. It really changed my thinking about how we put value on different things; basically, if we associate them with men or with women.
Then, in the ’90s, Sassy Magazine came along. It didn’t change me as a feminist because I already was one, but it blew my mind that there was a publication showing the way that I knew girls and women and feminists to be, rather than the wall of women’s magazines that confronted us with a very narrow definition of women and pop culture. Sassy really showed the pleasures and the joys of being female, rather than everything that was terrible about it, that you had to control.
Then, Barbara Ehrenreich—may she rest in peace—before she started doing stuff about workers’ rights, wrote quite a few feminist books. The Feminization of Sex and The Hearts of Men, for instance—just great cultural insights into men and women and culture that changed my life.
JAMIA WILSON: Love all of these books. I feel that I was really lucky to have a mother who was a Black feminist professor, although she taught in the sciences. I just thought my mom was so cool. I wanted to do whatever she was doing. She would read Essence at the beauty parlor, and so I wanted to be able to talk with the grown women about what they were talking about, about these op-eds by people like Chirlane McCray and things like that that were happening at that time. My mom subscribed to Ms. She gave me a copy of a Feminist Press classic, But Some of Us Are Brave, a very landmark book in my life, a beautiful book that you edited the new edition of, Jennifer. So, that was a book that really helped me see myself for the first time in the conversation around feminism.
Zora Neale-Hurston’s I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive. Sassy, Bust, Manifesta—I was a teen at an all-girls school that was started by Bluestockings feminists, so those were the archives that were being passed around with us. In the 1990s, that was a time where I felt it was really fresh to be a young feminist learning and feeling that we could talk about theory and pop culture with equal value. Also, I feel like reading Mary Shelley was really important to me in school, and to think about how these ideas have been around for a long time, and feminism is evolutionary.
SARAH LEONARD: I came of age as a feminist as I was graduating college. I considered myself a feminist well before that, but it wasn’t the center of my attention. My thinking had really been on the Left. I dutifully read Marx, and I started trying to figure out how I could actually apply and expand and challenge these ideas through a feminist lens. So, I was very interested in questions of capitalism and equality in the world, and those play in constructing gender and vice-versa.
This was a moment when a lot of feminist material had been turned into consumer material. I read a book called One-Dimensional Woman [by Nina Power], which attacked marketing stuff on the basis of it being empowering in a very, very clinical way, which, at twenty-two, I found thrilling. That made me want to focus my attention on feminism. My politics really solidified when I read bell hooks’s [Feminist Theory: from] margin to center, which offers a definition of feminism [that fights sexist oppression without neglecting class, race, and imperialist oppression]. I thought, “Okay, that’s the framework,” and that’s what I’ve been operating off of ever since. At that time, you had things like Jezebel, which were engaging directly with pop culture. They had a great essay I’ve never forgotten by Moe Tkacik about how she forgot a tampon inside of her for, like, two weeks, and the essay gets progressively more gruesome. What was funny about it was that it seemed to evade the male gaze. It was deeply unappealing, but it was also something you could kind of imagine doing, and her life was also very chaotic and messy. There was something I really liked about that type of writing, and so, in thinking about making a magazine, it’s been about evading the male gaze with the more serious politics that come from a bell hooks-like framework.
Of course, when I was thinking about LUX, I looked to Ms. There’s a big history of Ms., and I read it, and I thought about what went right and wrong, and that was really helpful.
DS: Can I add to mine? Listening to you guys and thinking about the power of publishing and writing by women—the difference it makes—has made me realize that my first gasp and recognition of this was when I read Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Right? This was a truth-telling story by a woman written about girls. There were no other stories about girls that were being told. There were, like, sanitized versions of what girlhood was about, and girlhood on television was never anything like those stories written by men. A story written by a woman who had been a girl, who really told this truth—it was totally mind-blowing and important.
JB: I couldn’t agree more with Are You There, God. That was one of the most important books in my life. I read it with my son, who’s now eighteen, when he was eleven. He let me read it to him out loud. We’d lie in bed together at night before he went to sleep, and I’d read it, and he was totally into it, because periods etc. are kept hidden from boys, too.
Debbie, I first met you in 1994, interviewing you for Ms. Marcia Gillespie was my boss. You said something like, “We created Bust because Ms. sucks. It should be so much better. It should be so much funnier and sexier and more interesting.” It was a revelation, because I was starting to feel a little constrained myself, even though I loved working there. I want to ask Debbie and Sarah, since all three of us have started magazines, taking on that resource-intensive responsibility, what compelled you to create Bust and LUX, and—do you regret it?
DS: Well, we started Bust in 1993, and it was like a hobby. We used to say we were tri-quarterly because we “tried to be quarterly.” We had full-time jobs. I had gone to grad school and studied the impact of pop cultural images on women’s sense of themselves and power, and specifically, back then, in the ’80s, all anyone talked about were women’s magazines and how they caused anorexia, gave women such a terrible image of themselves. Now there are no women’s magazines and women still find ways to have terrible self-image, so we were wrong. There’s something else at play.
But, anyways, we wanted to make a magazine that was the opposite of that. A magazine about feminist joy. Ms. was about feminist misery. It was super important stuff, but I thought it had to be possible to have a magazine that wasn’t like regular women’s magazines that make you feel shit—that would make you feel good, from a feminist perspective.
Do I regret it? Well, it wasn’t a very financially supportable business and still isn’t, but no. It’s been super fun, and I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to do it for almost thirty years.
SL: That’s incredible. Something to aspire to. Yeah, starting a magazine is obviously an insane thing to do, and I think, for me, it was that I was living a political moment, the post 2008 political moment. There were waves of protests, the rise of a young Left, and a lot of the media that was being constructed out of that new Left was white and male, and the problem that came out of that was a) a lot of the public intellectual work reflected the limitations of its founders, and b) the media you produce as a movement affects who you bring into the movement. So, if it’s legible to everybody that all these publications are full of white guys who think that anything to do with gender or race is a peripheral distraction from the coming revolution, you’re going to get more of those people coming it. It’s a self-perpetuating problem that creates real political problems. I was watching that with horror.
I had worked with long-standing magazines like The Nation, and that was an interesting point where you could see the old Left interacting with the new Left and having the same problems again. I just found it to be a disappointing landscape.
Meanwhile, the people I was most interested in reading, who I thought had the most creative political ideas, were feminists. The people who understood that we experience the world through a set of identities that don’t just have to do with class were doing the most interesting organizational work. I became interested in the idea of a publication that reflected those conversations and that point of view and also challenged establishment political positions from the Left, but no one could say we weren’t feminism. I mean, we’ve had more than one piece that criticizes Planned Parenthood, for example, for their failed political strategy. I’ve volunteered for them. I value their clinics. At the same time, there are large feminist organizations whose strategies have failed us. From where are the critical voices going to come? From within feminism. It’s good to have that conversation in a way that’s not trying to get rid of those institutions or attack them from the Right. I was not finding a venue where that was happening, or where that was a consistent point of view instead of a one-off, “let’s have the crazy radical write an op-ed.”
Pleasure was very important to us as well. We thought that women’s magazines are aspirational: they try to make you thin or whatever. We wanted to be aspirational too but towards other things, to show that there are forms of pleasure that don’t have anything to do with buying things. The aspiration was comradeship, community, beauty, all sorts of things that have nothing to do with selling ads.
JB: Can you say briefly what your critique of Planned Parenthood was? I can think of a lot of critiques, but I’m just curious as to the one in LUX.
SL: The reported piece we ran was about clinics in Texas which were trying to unionize, and the response was to fire everyone. That’s obviously bad in itself, but the deeper flaw there is that there are people who are very passionate about reproductive justice, reproductive rights—they have a variety of politics within themselves, but they’re very passionate about the things that Planned Parenthood says they represent. The goal of any movement should be to make those people stronger. They’re our best people to push the politic forward, and instead, you make them weaker by underpaying them and not allowing them to unionize. That does not say a lot for what the grassroots investment is.
Separate from that—and this isn’t specific, even, to reproductive rights—but Planned Parenthood is very tied to the Democratic Party, which just means that the Democrats aren’t that scared of them. The Democrats have not prioritized reproductive rights for years and years and years. I mean, it’s lip service. There’s a lot of “Make a monthly donation,” a lot of “Turn up to this rally,” but there’s not a really grassroots strategy. It’s a litigation strategy and a lobbying strategy, which hasn’t worked. In the meantime, they’ve done things like discouraging people from learning to do at-home abortions, and look, I don’t want to have an at-home abortion, but they’re safe. It’s not helpful for a large organization to say they’re not.
CC: I think this gets into one of my questions, which is about how, given that so much of feminist discourse is now showing up all the time in mainstream media, it makes one wonder, what is the purpose of an outlet that’s dedicated feminist? I think that one of the answers to that is that it allows us to dig into intra-feminist conflict in a way that might be too risky or too scary to do out in front of the world. So I wonder what are the conflicts we should be having, or are having?
JW: I used to always say that I wished that the conversations people were having—their own happy hour conversations, or at their own dinner party, or their own cohort, specifically intergenerationally—could be held in some sort of forum where we could just talk to each other about those issues and really hash them out. I think that, at the core, so many of the things that we want are the same: the core issues, the core resolutions, the roots. I would always have that visualization in my head when I would feel that tension of being in one of those spaces, grievancing in one of those spaces myself, and then thinking, What if we could actually talk about it across difference in our movements? I specifically named generational conversations because I do feel that there are a lot of schisms about different theories of change and whose theory of change is most effective. I’m personally not somebody who buys into this dialogue that I think has been inherited in some ways that, because we paid dues through suffering, you should pay them too in order to be free. That’s a conversation that I would like to have as a collective to say, “I am so sorry for your trauma. I am so sorry for everything you did, and that’s why we need to work together to just dismantle all of those structures together. Thank you for creating a world in which I don’t have to feel that pain. That is what I want for the next generation.”
One example of that for me: I’ve argued for many years to amazing feminist mentors that student loans were the top of my agenda above all other issues as a voter. That really pissed some people off. They said, “How can it not be repro? You worked in repro organizations, you care about it.” I said, “Obviously, repro is the means of production, so I understand that, and my means of production have been controlled by the fact that I’ve been in debt slavery due to Bush-era high-interest policies made to make Black people poor, to keep a permanent underclass, and to make sure that white upper-class patriarchy will still remain intact.” The very prospect of having that conversation with some people was so terrifying because they felt like it was off message, damaging, and potentially ruinous to whatever crumbs we were going to get.
I’m a part of feminist theologian Megan Waterson’s House of Mary Magdalene. She’s my author and a friend, and I used to go to her house for this very feminist church where we would have communion of dark chocolate and wine. And one of the women in that space said, “You know, I just realized that the crumbs are no longer delicious.” That’s the conversation I want to have with the people who are concerned about Gen Z voices having critiques. We’re concerned that, if we were to expand the conversation, if we were to include pronouns and see people for who they are and include disabilities and other issues to the front of our conversation, that we would somehow be giving something up. I want to say, “The crumbs are no longer delicious.”
What if we were to think about having it whole? What does that mean? I think all the conversations that I want to have would be wrapped up in that, that somehow we’ve been beaten up into this place where we think that maintaining access to the crumbs is more important than being free.
DS: I remember when we had that conversation, Jennifer, and I was like, “Why don’t they have Kathleen Hanna on the cover? There’s riot grrrl stuff going on and they totally don’t know.” You said, and I remember this, “Well, if they step outside of what their readers expect, all these people will cancel their subscriptions, and they’re sort of beholden to their subscribers.” And I was like, “Eh, that’s terrible, that would never happen to us.” But, you know, I just turned sixty a couple weeks ago, and I know that there are things that I learned that I held tight to as a Third Wave feminist that don’t work anymore, and I know that when I was coming up in the ’90s and Third Wave feminism was happening, I had a lot to say and it was stuff that ’70s feminists didn’t like. I tried very hard to gracefully exit the stage and realize that now, I’m now that dinosaur that I was so frustrated with, and I have to allow these other voices to speak. My whole time in feminism, I thought feminism was this great thing to argue, sort of this argue, and the most fun thing to me was to turn the world around and around and around and see what different kinds of solutions you could come up with. I have to say that I do not feel like that is the circumstance that I’m in now. There are definitely questions that I would want to raise and write about that I know would get us cancellations from subscribers. We would get cancelled on the internet. I don’t do it. It’s the way things are. I’m just gonna roll with it. There are conversations that I wish were more popular, but it’s really not for me to say anymore. Although, I’m still happy to be here.
CC: I’m wondering if you see any disadvantages to running or being put out by an outlet that calls itself feminist. I’m coming from the perspective of someone with an MFA. When I’m in a room with literary people and I tell someone I work in feminist publishing, often, I can see them turn off because they think, Oh, what you do is not for me, or It’s not aesthetically serious. So, even though there’s not as much blatant misogyny, I still feel people pull away from that sometimes. I feel self-conscious about it. I also feel that there are a lot of people who have legitimate reasons to have baggage with the term feminism, so I’m wondering how you approach that, or if that’s a concern for any of you.
BD: I’m not sure this is applicable, but I think about it in terms of when I was attempting to publish my second novel, which I couldn’t get published, to be blunt. It’d been ten years since I’d written the first book, and my agent was shopping the book everywhere, and it just wasn’t getting picked up. I then decided to rewrite the book, just threw out 350 pages and restarted and rewrote it. I had a friend who knew someone at Feminist Press, and I thought, Why not try? The editor, Amy Scholder, read the manuscript and, I’ll never forget it, said to me, “I love how political it is!” What?! I was like, wow! Because I then understood, not necessarily exactly why other editors were passing on it, but it just clicked for me. “Oh, I get it. This story of a young Black woman who finds herself in a political environment in Nigeria and comes into her own is not mainstream. It is feminist.”
It really changed everything for me to be published by a place called Feminist Press. It allowed me to acknowledge that I’m a feminist writer, that the things I care about are reflected in my work, and I was suddenly able to make it clear: “Yup, that’s me, and this is a Feminist Press!” And now I’m part of this community, as though some shutters that’d been down went up, and I was like, “That’s right, there are places in the culture that very literally and directly speak to feminist issues in a literary space and are embracing writers who want to do that, who are speaking to that worldview.” It was an incredible opportunity for me to more clearly acknowledge what I was about in a way you can’t always do in commercial publishing.
SL: Yeah, I do think about it sometimes. It can sometimes seem that if you label your project in any particular way, including feminist, you’ll turn off some people. I do think, though, that we look at the magazine a little bit like an organizing project, so we’re not actually trying to organize all people at the same time. We’re trying to identify a community and then expand that community, so we want to find the people who identify with those sorts of contexts or at least are curious about those sorts of contexts, maybe don’t totally hold those politics yet. Whatever. I think that it helps to construct a community, sort of like what you’re saying, and I also think of a magazine as a machine for training people. So, you train editors, you work with writers to get better over time. I’ve often worked at small magazines, so you can’t say you have the same influence on the culture as, like, the New York Times. You’re not a general interest magazine. So, what are you? You’re essentially upstream. You’re putting ideas into the culture that are a little bit more radical, or a little bit more challenging, or just weirder, sometimes. You’re helping to produce those ideas with talented writers. Often, if a writer is writing for a small magazine, sometimes they’re newer or they don’t have as big of a platform, and it’s always a pleasure when you work with someone overtime and then they get too big for your magazine. You want that. It means the magazine is working to assist and produce intellectuals.
I think a feminist magazine is doing something specific, which is producing feminist intellectuals and feminist intellectual work, feminist journalists. Often, you can take a journalist who’s a talented reporter and thinks a little bit about feminism and assign them something that causes them to ask themselves feminist questions. And then you’re developing someone who’s a talented journalist in the world into more of a feminist, and they’re going to go on and continue asking those feminist questions in their career. That type of work is more likely to happen in an institution that’s identifying itself specifically as feminist and working through these types of questions. So, I think it can limit you in some ways, but it enhances you a lot in other ways.
JB: Jamia, I think of you as having worked in media-focused feminist spaces. Publishing wasn’t your primary thing until you led Feminist Press from 2017-2020. Now you are in leadership at one of the biggest publishing houses in the world, Penguin Random House. Mainstream publishing generally has an allergy to hiring outside of traditional publishing boxes. I’m interested in your experience in this, I’m assuming, pretty contrasting job.
JW: I have loved it, being at Random House. I think it’ll be two years in January. They’ve flown by. What is interesting is that I always think about what’d it’d have been like if I’d have joined another imprint, because I loved Feminist Press, and thank you, Jennifer, and thanks to the Feminist Press team for bringing me into the Feminist Press family. It was such an amazing experience. I loved going to work every day knowing that the books that we would publish would make a difference. It’s so mission-driven, and you felt it in the lifeblood and the heartbeat of every day at Feminist Press and the beautiful authors that we would work with.
When the summer of 2020 zeitgeist was happening, the racial reckoning, all the different names we’re talking about, there were a lot of conversations going on about the institutions like publishing. What does it mean? When I had this opportunity to go to Random House, I wanted to discern, What am I feeling called to do in this moment? because my instinct at first was, “I am a feminist, I like being in these feminist spaces. I know my family, I know my community, and Feminist Press is where I need to be.” And I also had this deep, spiritual knowing that this was the kind of change that was pulling me, a gravity that was bigger than myself that was saying, “This scares you in the kind of way that you have to follow.” I felt that before Feminist Press, too. I thought, If I were to leave right now, who would it lift up? Who would get promoted? Who would grow? And perhaps, in that transition with all the things happening in that moment, as I went into something new, a door would open for others to be in deeper leadership. That was really the main impetus.
Random House was started with the mandate to publish things at random. It felt like a place I could be me and be free and acquire things on a very entrepreneurial list. The books that speak to me and have the publishing impact that you get in a house like that for the kinds of authors I gravitate towards, the kinds of values that are in those books. So, if you look at my list now, you see a lot of feminist voices. You see a lot of conversations about race, about class, a lot of the things I would’ve been working on in Feminist Press, but in a different context, with a wider reach. I think, for me, the move has felt really good because the idea of Random House is radical. Because it exists, and because there are so many books that define generations, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison—there are so many people that’ve been involved with that imprint that made me feel like I should follow the inertia there. It’s a place where I get to work with this really amazing team to learn how to direct resources toward the books I believe in. That’s been really great. I’ve received a lot of support and also had a lot of fun just experimenting with what it means to build a list at this time in a place like that.
The big difference for me is that there is something you get in an indie publishing environment that is just different. Having sales conferences with all these smaller imprints, the radical publishing collective, writing your terms to Amazon together—those are the things I miss. I miss the grassroots energy of that, but I also feel like I direct that energy into the editorial work that I’m doing and the cultivation of authors who I really feel that the world needs to hear. It’s been a great journey and I am really excited about what’s happening at Feminist Press right now, too. That’s the thing I always go back to. I feel it was the right call at the right time because I see what’s happening with the books there, and it’s amazing.
CC: I wanted to end with something that I read recently. This is from a project that some Barnard alumni did in 2011 called I Am Not a Good Enough Feminist. I read this recently, and it really spoke to me. It is partially about something you talked about, Jamia—generational debt, this feeling that we can never really pay off the debt to our feminist foremothers. The thing I wanted to read from it was about that energy that marginal or indie publishing can bring. This is from an interview that they did with the journalist Laura Flanders. They’re asking her about the value of working on the margins vs. working in the mainstream, and if you’re working on the margins, are you only sort of preaching to the choir, as it were?
Flanders says, “I think you always have two jobs. The choir doesn’t keep showing up if you don’t keep preaching to them, so there is something to be said for preaching to the choir. That’s why the preacher comes out every week. That’s why they keep showing up. The head of New Directions for Women, a women’s newspaper in the ’80s, used to say it is the independent media that brings the issues to the boil, and it is the mainstream that inhales the stream.”
[floor opens for questions]
QUESTION 1: My question is for each of you. In the endeavor you’re currently working on, how do you define feminist success?
DS: I define success as something that every individual feels for themselves. Somebody wants to have a great family and a great family life, somebody else wants to have fame, somebody else wants to have a lot of money, somebody else wants to have a career. I think that’s a really individualistic thing. You guys are probably going to have different perspectives, but I don’t think the idea of feminism means that then you have to be something else.
It would mean a lot of me if people would realize that Bust was coming from a feminist place. I feel like we have to keep making the same point about why we do what we do and how that is feminist, even though it isn’t about feminism—just telling women’s stories, trying to center and normalize our experiences. Our culture normalizes male experiences as neutral and female experiences as the outside, and all we try to do is flip that, and that’s why it’s feminist. But people don’t understand. For me, if people say, “Yeah, Bust is a feminist magazine,” that’d be just great.
BD: I really love that question. I think that so much of what feminism means for me at this point is to be able to center Black women’s lives. That, to me, is a feminist act. I’m a writer and my latest work is another memoir. It’s about my relationship with my sister Rita, who died when she was just forty-four from lupus. This is about, obviously, losing her, but it’s also about our rich connection and her incredible life, and also the question: was her death inevitable? I’m really looking at the ways that trauma, inherited and lived, is actually experienced in the body, particularly if you’re a Black woman. So, success for me would be to get this book written in the way that I want, get it out into the world. The success would be people reading about this one unknown Black woman who lived in the twentieth century and seeing not just her humanity but the universality of that story, and hopefully, I’d really feel successful if someone stopped and understood the depth of systemic racism as it affects one individual woman, her sister, and all the people who loved her.
JW: I think, at my core, it’s a personal one and a collective one for many reasons, and I was very moved by everything everyone said. If anything I do in terms of what I’m editing or what I’m writing myself, because I also write, is specifically focused on books for young readers, writing to my inner child. I am a childfree person who loves other people’s kids. It’s the greatest. I’m a very spoiling godmother and cousin and lovebug to all kids. I feel like, if the work I’m doing helps people feel free, or if it helps them feel closer to feeling like they have released a truth, that they can be truthtellers, that they can be their own, live on their own terms and not need external validation for their inherent birthright to be 100% who they are in all of their intact beauty, all the messy, that they can be that—all of us who’ve been told that our bodies and our spirits are abject—that’s all I want. That’s success.
Of course, in this field I’m in, people care about sales on BookScan and all that kind of thing, and for me, the thing I actually measure the most when it comes to things I put out in the world, it’s about: what conversation did it start? Who did it connect? Did it ignite empathy? Did it move people’s feet on the ground to action? Did it inspire people to help one another and to be more human? That’s what I think success is, and just hearing what everyone else has been saying, I feel like a call that inspires people to connect and be together in a community.
Bust has meant so much for me personally. I grew up in it, reading it, seeing myself in it, and then to have the opportunity to write for Bust has been such an honor for my life. I love to write for Bust and to have the opportunity to work with you and to publish your books, to work with my heroes and be on this panel with my heroes, that is so special. It also makes me think it might make people feel less alone. We’re hearing so many oppositional voices about the work we do. We’re hearing the questions because other people are afraid. What I really want when we’re having those times is for you on the page, through a book, to be able to have that moment of thinking, Oh, I put value out into this world, simply because of what I am and the art that I create and who I bring together.
Events like the one we’re having right now are an example of that, just for people to know that you aren’t alone, and you have a community that sees you.
SL: I have a very particular answer for LUX. It’s a different answer because of the type of publication, and it’s funny to listen to you guys. I mean, I could think of a couple times when a novel has basically saved my life, so in the case of LUX, if the definition of feminism is the struggle against sexist oppression, then the idea of the magazine is to make a contribution to that struggle. It makes itself useful. To take an example, the unionization article I talked about, that took a real investment of time and resources, getting someone to report in Texas and figuring out the article and putting it out. One result was that people in the article and people doing organizing—we did an event with them, and it became a sort of organizing space for them. Then, that was useful to them going forward, and we saw other media pick up around that issue in more mainstream places. To me, that is an instance of success.
There is maybe a slightly separate question, which is: what makes LUX a good magazine? What keeps LUX in business? Those are other sorts of questions, and with a magazine, the most important thing is the mix. Do you have a mix of joyful, pleasurable, day-to-day stuff, personal narrative, things that make you feel a relationship with the writer, that make you feel less alone, and also things that the community turns to as an issue to deal with. There’s a mix of those things. I think that’s what makes us a good magazine. What keeps us in business—God only knows. We’ll see. I think that’s how we think about when we’re succeeding as a feminist publication. People feeling in community is also something a magazine ought to be achieving if it’s good.
DS: Can I revise my answer? Everyone’s talking about how this stuff makes you feel less alone, makes you feel seen, makes you feel acknowledged. In a world where your experience is supposed to be seen on the outside, it makes you feel your personal experiences are much more universal than you think. So, I should’ve said that what we want with Bust is for women and readers to kind of feel how I felt when I was reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. The idea that you’re part of something larger.
JB: I was just thinking about the mission vs the material realities. Like with LIBER, we need to get institutional subs in place, or it’s just gonna die. That’s where I’m at. And Dottir, my publishing house, can be a burden. Like, a $50,000 printer bill is a burden, but I started it because Anastasia Higginbotham is a really talented writer and artist, and no one would publish her. I just believed in her vision so much and got so excited about being the cheerleader and midwife—that part has been very gratifying—I just sort of saw it through. We made these books, and I did what needed to be done since it didn’t seem like any publisher, independent or not, was interested. They just didn’t see the potential, and because I did see it, I needed to step in and create the vehicle for publishing her.
CC: I think the most exciting part of creating LIBER for me is to be building a community, to be bringing great writers in conversation with each other about things that matter to us and to them. That’s been so exciting and I would be excited to grow with that community. But, yeah, we’re so focused on the practical stuff right now that it’s hard to see that vision. Hopefully, we can continue to make it work on a practical level.
BD: Can I just say, as someone who’s not mired in the practical aspect, LIBER has really been nice to write for. Just to know you’re going into something in which you’ll be beautifully edited, that’s a gift. But also, it’s like, “Yup, this is gonna be a totally feminist take. I don’t have to worry about it, I don’t have to nudge my editor to come around to that point of view. I’m going in like that.” That’s liberating, and there aren’t a lot of spaces where you can do that. I’ve done book reviews for The New York Times. I try to be the same writer in every publication and it’s not always easy. There are different kinds of editing experiences—I’ll just say that.
QUESTION 2: I really like how we’re toeing the line here between talking shop about what it is to run feminist publications or publish feminist titles and some of the titles of that, and then the question of what it means to be putting feminists in dialogue and conversation with each other and to be editing feminist voices. In building community, both with your writers and actually running publications or publishing books, what does it mean to get people invested in your projects? I mean that monetarily and in terms of getting an idea out there.
JB: Well, with for-profit publishers, it’s not about raising money from donations. It’s about selling books, and selling subs.
DS: One thing I can tell you from thirty years of running Bust is that nobody wants to advertise to feminists. Like, if you’re a magazine or content that’s about beauty and fashion, you’ll get advertisers. If not, you just won’t. Jezebel, there’s no way that they’re making money. They have to be supported by other publications. Bitch Magazine folded, Ms. is on life support, and I’ll tell you something now that we have yet to announce, but we sold Bust to another company a couple weeks ago because we were on the verge of bankruptcy. The only way we could continue was to be part of some other publisher—and I still don’t know if it’s going to work.
I was thinking about this a lot, coming here, knowing we were going to talk about feminist publishing. With books, I think it’s different. You have to depend more on the people who want the content to pay for the content. Like, an advertiser-supported model is just never, never, never going to work for any kind of feminist content, not because it’s not great content, but because advertisers don’t give a fuck about feminists. Like, that’s the last kind of people you want to advertise to.
JB: Maybe especially to a socialist feminist magazine. How does LUX deal with that?
SL: The history of Ms. was very informative because they talk about advertising constantly. Gloria Steinem proposed that advertisers that usually focus on men advertise to women as an emerging market since women do most household buying and are targets for other kinds of products and always have been. What actually happened was that the advertising department increasingly demanding that Ms. prove to advertisers that they were bringing in the kind of demographics that the advertisers wanted to see, which was rich and white. So, the editorial vision for Ms. and the advertising requirements for Ms. did not mesh. The need for advertisers had a bad effect on the editorial content. Gloria Steinem has written about this explicitly [See “Sex, Lies, and Advertising,” Ms. magazine, July/August 1990, pp. 18-28].
For us, it’s a mix of subscriptions and finding donors, and we don’t have enough. It is a specific feminist problem, but it’s also bigger. Any major publication right now is not supported by advertising. They’re supported by a billionaire who’s taken interest in owning a media company, or they’re supported by venture capital, which, five years later, goes away when they decide they want said media to make a profit, which it doesn’t. We’re trying to construct a healthy mix of subscribers and finding some people with money. And in an increasingly unequal society, you have to organize money. It’s a huge problem. Everyone spends a huge amount of time extracting wealth from a few people, and it sucks. It’s ridiculous.
DS: You’re writing all this socialist, anti-capitalist content, and then you still have to go to the people who are the most successful at capitalism for the big donations—that’s difficult.
SL: Well, I don’t know if it’s always the people who’ve been personally the most successful at capitalism who are most open to critiques of capitalism. There’s a lot of money in a lot of places, a lot of people who feel pretty ambivalent about it. There’s no clean money in the world, you know? And it is always an interesting question to us. We think about what money we take, and oddly enough, we haven’t had to make a call on whether to take a million dollars from Exxon. I believe it’s possible. Hopefully it’s possible. We hope to make it more possible.
I think there’s an interesting conversation to be had, which is maybe too long for this panel, but it’s that I think a lot of people have been investing money in a lot of progressive projects of various kinds that are now kind of on their back foot and losing a bit as we see the ascent of the Right, and they’re looking for places to put it. I’m curious if that’s going to a phenomenon that the Left will take advantage of.
DS: Maybe it should be, like, a punishment. Like, Bernie Madoff and people who make a lot of money through capitalism illegally should have to donate.
JW: I was in the nonprofit industrial complex for a long time, including a tech nonprofit/B corporation [designating a socially “good” business]. It allowed for certain kinds of monies and investors who needed a return on investment but cared about social good to be a part of that. We did not engage with VC, but it allowed for that stream of money, and there were rules about how that needed to be apportioned and everything, but we could show with people’s hours how much of the work they did for that part of the org, and how much they did for the 501c3 nonprofit as it’s designated.
When I was at Feminist Press, I sought to diversify our models. Not too much focus on fickle individual donors, maybe get more public funding and work that through. That also allows that stability and doesn’t necessitate that you have certain contacts. You can then try to get sponsorship from corporations and other people who benefit from the good that we do in the world as a mission-driven organization to diversify.
I try to diversify my own personal portfolios. I used to have a lot of fear around dealing with money and feeling like it was somehow impure, and I finally realized that me learning and gaining literacy about this and still having the politics I have and redistributing this bread feels good to me. That’s how I think about it. I would like to make more bread to redistribute. I just think that there’s a real, important need for us to be more collaborative about a system that’s made us feel like we have to be more competitive about understanding the money, how we’re redistributing it, who’s playing what roles in what spaces to get the money to all our people.
DS: I just have one more story that I think is interesting, since you [Jamia] are working for a mainstream publisher now and most of us are still indie. When I first was approached by Workman about doing a book, I’d been more getting into knitting, spending a lot of time thinking about the feminist perspective of what I was doing and why I was into it and how these crafts and art forms had been degraded. I thought a great title for the book was Take Back the Knit, you know, ’cause there’s “take back the night,” but with knitting. [The publishers] were like, “Uhh, it’s going to be called Stitch ‘n Bitch,” which is what my knitting groups were called. And I had thought the press was going to talk about feminism, but of course they didn’t! I mean, my book would’ve bombed if it was called Take Back the Knit.
Workman knew what more people liked and the book sold like hotcakes. It changed my life. There’s something to be said about a mainstream take, sort of like a Trojan horse, giving you the chance to get your feminist message in there.
JW: Well, I love Take Back the Knit. Like, for us, that works.