What a sad day! I kept thinking we would turn it around and praying for a miracle. Leaving our office for the last time last week, with the FemT box files in a shopping bag, I felt mainly sadness but also a little relief. No more sleepless nights worrying or fruitless hours writing supplicating emails to rich people. No more guilt about not being fully present for my husband and young children or my FemT colleagues. I’m looking forward to spending time with my family (as disgraced politicians say) with a clear conscience, and gathering my thoughts for the rest of the summer and possibly longer.
I won’t miss being resented from afar; I am privileged but my life is far from enviable. I am in the early stages of Huntington’s disease, cognitively impaired, and struggling with many aspects of every day life. I lose things, break things, hurt myself, rage at Tom and the children. This is a symptom and can’t be addressed by anger management techniques. My dad is in the late stages of Huntington’s disease; he can’t speak, read, swallow or co ordinate his movement but is otherwise compos mentis and so all too aware of his predicament.
I don’t think quickly now and have sometimes struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace of this project. My short term memory is shot and my mind wanders. I exist much of the time in a state of terrified befuddlement. Furthermore, I can no longer multi-task, which might explain why I’ve struggled when too many things are going on at once during this project (i.e. most of the time) and there’s literally nothing I can do about it.
I haven’t previously written about Huntington’s Disease in Feminist Times and I was in two minds about mentioning it even now. On one hand I want to tell the truth, but on the other I worry that my condition will make FemT less credible (and perhaps less tempting to publishers and investors).
But not telling the truth is worse. The whole point about FemT is that it was true to life, unlike the other media. The truth is that my daily life recently has been assembled piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle with my family and FemT colleagues’ help.
Thank goodness for Deborah and Sarah; my FemT colleagues have been wonderful help for the hard of thinking. They can work magic on my half-formed ideas and sharpen my copy. They work and think a hundred miles a minute but, unlike most prolific writers, the quality of their output is consistently high. I didn’t think this was possible. I’m completely in awe of them because they are multi-skilled, and can balance the books and husband our limited resources very effectively. Because of them I have a clear conscience whatever happens next.
Like a Big Brother contestant, I come out of this project more vividly alive than when I went in, disinhibited and ready to reveal all. My wise colleagues have cautioned against full disclosure, so what follows is an edited account of the last 18 months rather than the whole nine yards. I hope you will forgive digressions and deviations as I want convey what it felt like as well as the whys and wherefores of how we got to this point.
The setting off point of all modern feminist ‘journeys’. You must begin with masturbation, whether relevant or not, if you want people to sit up and take notice.
Vivenne Albertine from the Slits begins her memoir with an account of a lifetime not masturbating. She says masturbating when you are single is like getting drunk when you’re miserable; it makes you feel more lonely. I liked this. Maybe the same is true of literary masturbation – I have read so many accounts, for business rather than pleasure, and felt lonely afterwards .
It isn’t taboo, as Petra Collins and Caitlin Moran claim. Moran’s new novel begins with a masturbation scene. The woman interviewing her on Newsnight looked thoroughly embarrassed. Who put her up to it?
Collins says: “We’re taught to hide our menstrual cycles and even to hide masturbation.”
Are we? In fact we are being goaded to reveal the intimate facts in public, on pain of being accused of prudery. I am not a prude or repressed, but won’t wank in public. Feminist Times isn’t a wank fest. I wanted there to be one place where authenticity didn’t equate to baring all.
In fact, it’s not talking about the intimate details of your sex life that is taboo. Men love it.
I have known our art director Lucy for 32 years, but only recently got to know her. We were in the same class at secondary school and I kept distracting her with my big ideas and stopping her from concentrating. I tried to convert her to Marxism and Modism, but it didn’t work. She didn’t join the school students’ strike or beg her mother to let her see The Jam’s last ever concert. She was her own person; much less malleable than the people in my gang. They thought she was straight, and it took me a while to realise – we were the conformists.
We kept in touch, and she did get a word in edgeways eventually. I met Lucy for coffee in Foyles eighteen months ago and pitched this big idea to her. She took a long time to respond. I kept emailing her for an answer. She had been consulting (very sensible) and thinking and only when she had done so did she agree.
Lucy is the subversive soul of Feminist Times. She wouldn’t talk about wanking on Newnight and her reticence makes her stand out . We had such a good time mocking up concept covers. One was a full bleed cover of a bare breasted Femen activist with a chainsaw. Lucy said the straights (although she wouldn’t use that term) in her studio were giving her funny looks.
One of our digital consultants said Lucy’s logo would alienate Telegraph woman, Grazia woman and even Guardian woman. It looked like a stop sign and broke every design rule, including the one that said it was good to experiment as long as the results aren’t experimental. There was still time to rethink, but not much. Once we were out there on the margins, there would be no way back…
The unfocused group
It wasn’t a focus group and we weren’t brainstorming. I bought a whiteboard, because I was nervous, then hid it in the broom cupboard just in time.
“What are you doing?” Anna said. “Don’t you want to use it?”
“Why did you buy it?”
“Shhh! They’re here!”
One of the brilliant things about this project was having an excuse to get in touch with people I admired. Playwrights Emma Crowe and Penny Skinner, Kat Banyard, writer and activist Jan Woolf, artist Marica Farquar and Hannah Pool were all mildly or moderately drunk around my kitchen in the early days (not all at the same time). It was a riff on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party.
These conversations were respectful, revealing and hilarious. We were connecting. Kitty Finer thought of our brilliant strapline ‘Life not lifestyle’, Kate Tempest was very excited by our vision of a women’s magazine with no celebrities or brands that told the truth. It seemed more timely and necessary the more we talked about it. Why hadn’t this happened before? And why did Private Eye have the monopoly on humour? Bloody Woman’s Hour, with features on ‘do you let your dog sleep on your bed?’ and no SOH didn’t speak to us.
We wanted satire, investigations, columns and properly written features. Some of us really wanted a printed magazine, others weren’t that bothered. Radical empathy was a founding principle. We wouldn’t judge women or hold them accountable for the ills of society. There would be no shaming or blaming. We would have positive reviews. But they wouldn’t be bland.
So many open questions. How did we feel about lesbian mud wrestling if the wrestler was funding her art? And what price honesty? How would it play? Laying yourself bare was very risky as some of us had already discovered. Would positivity come out bland? We were at the intersection of life and art! It was thrilling and scary.
These women aren’t muses or ‘inspirational’ in a Woman’s Houry way. I often thought, we need a new word for this. I should have asked the unfocused group while you were there.
What a brilliant idea! I wanted a brand and sponsorship free space for women and the membership model seemed to have more integrity than one off asks on Kickstarter where the commitment was one sided.
Someone said crowdfunding is like a courtship. You show the public your best side, offer them presents and positivity, garlanded in tweets. An unwise crowdfunder sticks the ask on a site and gets on with his life. In fact you are meant to promote your project (and yourself) in creative and compelling ways continually. You are selling yourself. The paradox of crowdfunding is that it is still all about you and me, not really a form of collective ownership at all.
This sounded exhausting. Our membership model was a marriage; not a dalliance. We wanted a long term commitment; a relationship that could grow and deepen over time. I had never been in that kind of relationship with hundreds of people simultaneously. I’d also never tweeted so didn’t know the form.
We called in the ‘relationship based engagement experts’, then fell out with them. They said it was about making people connect with me by tweeting and communicating in my voice, which made sense, then said we should ask founder members for more money, which didn’t.
Our relationship with our founder members was the lynch pin of the project; I felt I knew them but couldn’t be sure. When we asked them whether they still wanted to commit to the project if it wasn’t called Spare Rib I still held my breath. But the vast majority did, which was hugely motivating.
It has been a privilege getting to know so many of you and I have happy memories of our time together. I’m sad that this relationship will be broken off rather abruptly at the end of this week. I’m sorry it didn’t work out…
I think the membership model might have worked if we’d had more time to reach critical mass.
Hashtag not Spare Rib
We needed a new name as good as Spare Rib. And fast. Crucially it mustn’t seem as if we’d tried too hard. From what I recall, that name had come about organically. A joke that stuck, like all the best names. I knew the more we thought about it the worse it would be, but what was the alternative? We tried to crowd source, but people were obviously struggling. There were a lot of biblical references, Lilith, some suffragette ones, Purple Sash. I loved Redstocking which was Shulamith Firestone’s activist cell but it was already taken. In fact all the good names were already taken.
This is how mad we were. One afternoon we were kicking around ‘fall’ ideas, specifically the feminist rehabilitation of Eve as the heroine of the piece. We were under a lot of pressure to deliver and then… a breakthrough. Someone had suggested Eve’s Apple several hours ago, I wasn’t keen. But what about APPLE?
It had a ring to it. Slightly surreal and edgy but not clever clever. I could see the logo in my mind’s eye. An apple with a bite taken out of it. A powerful founding myth and a feminist joke. We will gorge on the forbidden fruit and hang the consequences. I was so happy, then we all noticed the logo on the back of our computers at the same time. `
We had a short list, put it to a vote, then ended up with the second placed name. I hated Feminist Times at first it, as it seemed banal and literal minded. But quirky is the new normal in publishing. There is a magazine called Elephant, another called Tirade and an online women-fronted tv show called Fox Problem. A straightforward name is as radical today as weird was in the seventies.
Elle on earth
The lads mags are folding or recalibrating and feminists are delighted. Nuts is no more. Loaded has turned it’s back on lad culture after publishers felt it’s “lewd content was lowering the tone.” Will the strapline ‘for men who should know better’ be consigned to the dustbin of history?
Men are no longer behaving badly when feminists are looking, but women are. Women’s magazines are still full of hot chicks demonstrating the truth of the old maxim; a little bit of what you fancy does you good.
What about the lewd content of women’s magazines? Won’t Cosmo be lowering the tone when Loaded has a cover image of Antoina Byatt? The feminist gaze has been on lads mags, and our old adversaries have been growing in confidence and borrowing our clothes without asking when we were out campaigning.
The argument against women’s magazines is the same as ever. They pretend to be your friend, then stab you in the back. Mean girls who keep you guessing about their motivations. They are party animals. And killjoys. They preach indulgence and abstinence in the same breath. Spend, shag, repent. No wonder we’re confused. Lads mags weren’t conflicted. There were no ads for detox spas in the back of Loaded.
So why don’t womens mags “move with the times” like Loaded? Nobody’s telling them to. They appear to be making it new and constantly reinventing themselves into people with short memories. In fact, it is a repetitions compulsion.
Every few years, a womans magazine is launched for people who don’t like woman’s magazines. Marie Claire was aimed at women who feel patronised by the women’s media, and want long features and occasional references to A N Other country.
Now Elle is “the best of the bunch” because it has long features, according to Vagenda.
I wish we hadn’t taken part in Elle’s rebranding feminism project. Who are they to tell us we have an image problem? And imply that they can fix it by giving us a makeover. They flattered us, made us feel special by seeming to be interested in us. Such lovely ladies they are too, talking about how intelligent Elle was compared with its competitors.
I wanted Feminist Times to be a real friend, not a fake one, who would dump you over a fashion faux pas or a mistimed downward dog
Elle wants feminists to take a chill pill. If we use quiet voices, people will listen. That makes me so bloody angry. I was rational and reasonable when this project began, but no more. The newspapers all enrage me, Women’s magazines, ditto.
I’m angry with Ed Milliband for not being angry enough about food poverty and the destruction of the NHS.
And outraged that feminism has been co-opted by brands. Fuck Dove and all the others.
I’m angry about the new female stereotypes, and the old female stereotypes. Reports of the ladettes’ death were exaggerated,
I am even angry about the lack women at board level for the first time. The boards sound like a bear pit so this isn’t surprising.
And I’m angry about how the equal pay act isn’t being implemented and won’t be until there is transparency.
A year on I’m more convinced more than ever that feminism needs some firebrands, not milquetoasts.
The bottom line
We produced some amazing content and held some memorable events but some aspects of our business plan – no corporate sponsorship and no slave labour – didn’t pay off in the current climate. The project wasn’t supported by a phalanx of cheap interns because we believed that was wrong. And we were committed to remaining free from the dead hand of advertising and corporate sponsorship.
I wanted FemT to be different, but in the end the income from membership alone was not enough to keep it going. Rather than break our promise to reject intern labour and advertising, we decided to stop. We have kept our integrity and I want to put the project on ice while we work out if there is another way of funding the project that’s both ethical and sustainable. My Feminist Times email will be open for the next several months; please feel free to submit any suggestions and let me know if you want to get involved. If you have an idea of how you could relaunch it I’d be pleased to hear from you.