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Cat Talk: Feminist Strategies for Collegiate Feminist Student Organizations
When people ask me “What’s a zine?” I struggle with creating a concise answer. Zines are small magazines. Zines are independent publications. Zines are often a form of political or social activism. Zines were a large part of the third-wave feminist movement. Zines are outlets for creating and cultivating counterstories and countercultures. Zines are a part of DIY culture and alternative media. Zines are badass? It is even more difficult to explain why I chose to create a feminist zine at IPFW. Why didn’t the campus feminist organizations just make a newsletter for the Women’s Studies department? Why did Cat Talk need different contributors, couldn’t I just write it myself? Why did it have to be a feminist zine? My goal for this paper is to discuss the history of zines within the feminist movement, how feminist pedagogy influenced the inception and direction of Cat Talk as a method of feminist activism, and how the collaboration between their university’s three feminist-oriented student organizations has strengthened Cat Talk and influenced the campus-wide understanding of the roles of activists and students.
To do this topic justice, I have organized my paper into four sections. First, the history of zines and the feminist movement; second, a discussion of feminist pedagogy within zine culture; third, the history of Cat Talk, IPFW’s campus feminist zine, and how it has worked to create a new space for student activism; and finally, a reflection of the past year of Cat Talk and how it can improve as it progresses.
HISTORY OF ZINES & THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT
Independent publications have existed for a long time. Political pamphlets were distributed during the American Revolution, which some consider the first presence of zines. However, the inception of zines is usually attributed to fanzines in the 1920s. Fanzines were made and distributed by fans of science fiction. As technology progressed, producing independent publications became easier. The emergence of punk culture in Britain in the 1970s contributed greatly to the growing popularity of self-publishing. Punk culture was rooted in anti- authoritarian methodologies, so zines became an outlet for social activism.
Zines, according to Anna Poletti in her paper “Self-Publishing in the Global and Local: Situation Life Writing in Zines,” are “self-published, low-budget publication produced predominantly by people between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five… While the publication can take any form, they are usually booklets a5 or a6 in size, black and white photocopied, and hand bound with staples, string, or sewing” (Poletti 184). This is referring to zines after the initial development of zine culture in the 1970s. Zines are usually traded or distributed at no cost, which ties into the intersection of zine and DIY culture. DIY cultures value “the continued critique of the producer/consumer binaries of commercial culture as enacted through various forms of cultural independence, as well as more vigorous acts of protest” (185). Zine culture focuses heavily around community events and organization.
Feminist zines began with the Riot Grrrl movement in the early 1990s. The Riot Grrrl movement began in 1991 when Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman, and Jen Smith worked together to create a feminist zine entitled Riot Grrrl. Other feminists, including Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, began hosting Riot Grrrl meetings with other women. These meeting included individuals who were involved with zine making, activism, music, or members of the punk community. In July of 1992 there was a national Riot Grrrl convention in Washington DC. The convention “brought girls from all over the country together to discuss issues central to the movement at the time: sexual identity, self-preservation, racism awareness, surviving sexual abuse, and whether Riot Grrrls fit or didn’t fit into the punk community” (Dunn 139). After the Riot Grrrl convention, the Riot Grrrl movement skyrocketed. By 1993 there were weekly Riot Grrrl meetings in a dozen cities across the United States as well as countries in Europe. According to Kathleen Hanna, the intent of the Riot Grrrl movement was, “not trying to make money or get famous; we’re trying to do something important, to network with grrrls all over, to make changes in our lives and the lives of other grrrls” (140).
As grrrl zines grew in popularity among feminists, Riot Grrrl DC members Erika Rienstein and May Summer saw the need for a zine distribution network. In 1993 Rienstien and Summer formed Riot Grrrl Press. One of the main reasons for creating a self-representing and independent zine distribution network was the misrepresentation of the Riot Grrrl movement in mainstream media. By creating a self-authorizing network, the Riot Grrrl movement gave itself the ability to promote itself without being compromised by critical and ill-informed mainstream media outlets. By creating a Riot Grrrl Press, feminists were able to share experiences and ideas that had no outlet for women or minorities. In the article ““We Are The Revolution”: Riot Grrrl Press, Girl Empowerment, and DIY Self-Publishing,” Joanne Gottieb and Gayle Wald are quoted writing:
Most obviously, the “zines foster girls” public self-expression, often understood as the ability to tell private stories (secrets), which are otherwise prohibited or repressed by the dominant culture. These include girls’ descriptions of their experiences coming out as lesbian; the disclosure of their traumas as rape and incest survivors, or as women struggling with eating disorders; and their gushy affirmations of girl-love and devotion to punk music. Thus publicized, such narratives often become the stuff of political commitment and affirmation of girls’ legitimacy within the realm of the political. (Dunn 152)
Riot Grrrl Press offered an expansive network for feminists to share their experiences in a way that respected their right to be involved and engaged individuals that women were historically denied.
The Riot Grrrl movement opened up the avenue for feminist self-expression and Riot Grrrl Press created an established network for said self-expression. According to Anne Elizabeth Moore:
Zines are currently one of the means by which hidden histories occasionally come to light. Zines are personal, small-scale paper ventures and tell the kinds of stories deliberately ignored, glossed over, or entirely forgotten by mainstream media. Zines are created by prisoners, young girls, people with emotional and physical disabilities, queers, geeks, non-native speakers of English, survivors of sexual assault, radical offspring of conservative politicians, homeschoolers, members of the military, Native Americans, sexworkers, and anyone else who has ever self that the voices speaking for them in the larger culture weren’t conveying their stories. (145)
Zines, especially within the Riot Grrrl movement, created a safe space for counterstories to be expressed and shared. They also allowed for the feminist movement to be more intersectional. One of the largest criticisms of feminism was its focus on white, middle-class, educated, American women. Zines allowed for a widening of the feminist movement. Creating zines was relatively easy, at least easier than former means of publication and distribution, so more individuals were able to involve themselves in the feminist movement.
As stated earlier the media attention surrounding the Riot Grrrl movement and Riot Grrrl Press was strained, to say the very least. Interviews of Riot Grrrls often misrepresented the movement, and in many cases, outright skewed facts and quotes. Pieces from zines were taken out of context for mainstream media articles, and riot grrrls were often misconstrued as nothing but angry women or sex objects. In response to the misrepresentation of riot grrrls in mainstream media, Erika Reinstein said, “What were are doing is sincere and real. We are not trying to be trendy or the next big thing like we’re some kind of pop band. We are a group of girls who get together for support and to network because we need each other in this society that wants to act like we don’t exist” (147). As Riot Grrrl zines worked as a form of counterstorytelling in a counterculture, the misrepresentation by mainstream press outlets was, in many ways, unsurprising. Magazines such as Seventeen and Spin wrote articles that focused on how members of the Riot Grrrl Movement dressed rather than their political, social, or feminist viewpoints. After the inception of Riot Grrrl Press, many members of the Riot Grrrl movement participated in a “media blackout” where they merely referred any mainstream media outlets to Riot Grrrl Press for any further information about the movement.
The Riot Grrrl Movement and Riot Grrrl Press faced many obstacles, most of which involved time and money. One of the founding principles of Riot Grrrl Press was creating feminist zines that were freely available to anyone. So, in most cases, they were distributed for free. The riot grrrls who worked at Riot Grrrl Press were not paid and often had to use personal contacts and illicit means in order to get zines printed. Additionally, because those who worked at Riot Grrrl Press did not get paid, they had to have “real” jobs in order to sustain their lives, which made finding the appropriate amount of time difficult. At the end of the 90s, after changing hands many times, Riot Grrrl Press ceased to exist. However, it made a lasting impression on both zine culture and the feminist movement.
Zine culture and feminism aren’t the exact same thing, but they go together very well. Zine culture erupted from the anti-authoritarian, punk rock subculture of the late 1980s. Many of the first zines of the Riot Grrrl movement dealt with unapologetically political and personal topics that would not have been discussed, let alone published or distributed, in any mainstream publication. As feminism, especially third-wave feminism, relied on the expansion of feminist discourse, zines were the ideal outlet for feminist expression.
In the article “Theoretical Feminisms: Subjectivity, Struggle, and the ‘Conspiracy’ of Poststructuralism,” the author Pamela Moore discusses the interwoven nature of “theory” and “feminism.” She writes, “These terms have sometimes been understood as separate, embattled terrains—theory being identified with masculinity and ivory towers, feminism being identified with woman-friendly practices and real-life struggles” (Moore 1). Moore’s article focuses on feminist poststructuralism but outlines many of the ways in which feminism and feminist ideologies have been excluded from academia. Moore argues that a feminist understanding, most notably because of its respect for subjectivity, is essential to having comprehensive, multidisciplinary theories. This idea is supported by feminism as a movement and is exemplified by the feminist zine subculture. Feminism must have avenues to challenge itself so that all women, all feminists, can be a part of the movement.
Felicity Colman’s paper “Affective Self: Feminist Thinking and Feminist Actions,” discusses the importance of the subjective, or affective, self. Colman defines the affective self as “feminist and as active in seeking an ethical engagement with the world” (Colman 545). Colman lays weight on the importance of understanding one’s self, both in terms of feminist theory and as determined by individual cultures. She argues that understanding, accepting, and respecting the affective self is vital to individuals as well as culture as a whole. She states:
The inequity and inaccuracy of gender prejudices is infuriating in its cultural stronghold. The repercussions of gender-role bias against women are blindingly obvious in any and every social, political, and cultural situation, in any gathering and institution around the globe. The way you are made up, speak, and act, and the ways you make yourself up, speak and act—over the duration of your body’s lifetime—enable how you can or cannot move in your culture-state. To enter the creative voids in the sense of a concept site that is not colonized by a particular structural politic—one of those pure sites you fine/make yourself wherein multiple possibilities extend—requires another making up, a making off with sense, a rearrangement of eyeliners, color, symmetry, and “sensible” behavior. (548)
The “creative void” of which Colman speaks can be found, in my opinion, in the act of making zines. Creating feminist zines can be an act of putting feminist theory into practice, in cultural or academic settings.
Moreover, feminist pedagogy in higher education also involves creating spaces where personal experiences can be viewed in a critical framework. Feminist pedagogy through IPFW’s Women’s Studies department include, “small classes that emphasize a student-centered approach to learning, one that recognizes the value of self-exploration, collective investigation, community dialogue, and feminist methods of research.” All of these aspects can be found in feminist zine culture. They intertwine.
CAT TALK: A CAMPUS FEMINIST ZINE
In conclusion, feminism used zine culture not just to create counterstories but also to share them and to use them to further the feminist movement, to widen the feminist lens, and to insert the experiences of women and minorities anywhere in a world that denies them that space. As a movement, feminism relies on the expression of personal, subjective viewpoints in order to be an intersectional movement. Both feminist culture and zine culture respect diversity and the importance of diverse viewpoints. Which brings us to Cat Talk. The zine’s inception was a burst of feminist motivation that only continued due to the interest of students and faculty. After the first two months of self-printing Cat Talk, the officers of Campus Feminists in Solidarity (including Amanda Neumann, editor of Cat Talk) submitted a proposal for funding through IPFW’s Student Government. The process for which was full of paperwork and planning, as many smaller, more liberal student organizations don’t receive funding easily. During the same semester Lauren Murfree created IPFW Voices’s of Choice (VOC). VOC is a pro-choice organization that emphasizes education about reproductive rights and sexual health. The organization began, in part, as a response to frequent anti-choice organizations on campus and their tendency to display large (sometimes billboard size) photos of “aborted babies.” These photos are displayed near walkways and outside campus buildings and are often accompanied by different on and off-campus groups. It was obvious to all involved that Campus Feminists in Solidarity’s zine would be a great forum for discussion about reproductive rights and VOC’s mission. Similarly, TRIOTA, another feminist-orientated student organization, and its members became involved in creating academic and activist related pieces for Cat Talk. These three students organizations—CFS, VOC, and TRIOTA—became the base for Cat Talk.
One of the downfalls of living in a conservative state is dealing with everyday bias and an often-conservative majority. Feminism doesn’t always foster positive responses. At the proposal hearing for Cat Talk’s funding bill, one of the issues brought up by a senator was that Cat Talk was promoting issues that already had a space for discussion—The Communicator, IPFW’s student newspaper. And perhaps some of the articles from Cat Talk could have been published in The Communicator. The problem with that was IPFW didn’t need another traditional newspaper. Cat Talk intended to be a way to merge feminist discussion and student activism into campus discourse while also being a creative outlet for students. And it needed to be a zine because of that very fact—zines are not objective journalism. Zines are raw, unprofessional, noncommercial, and personal publications. By their very nature zines challenge the idea that objective writing is the only form of written communication that can be respected, that can be important, that can foster real activism. This idea, quite frequently, is reflected in academia. The objective nature of academic and journalistic writing excludes the vast majority of human experience and both zines and feminism challenge that flawed viewpoint. The human experience is diverse. The human experience is beautiful. The human experience is tragic. The human experience is full of pain, loss, birth, death, creation, destruction, love, lovers, sex, abuse, and so much more. Cat Talk needed to, at the very least, attempt to fill the space between activism and academia. This impassioned feminist argument, along with a well-reasoned budget and the support of many student senators, proved successful and granted Cat Talk the funds to publish for the rest of the academic year.
In the first year of Cat Talk had 20 different contributors, many of whom submitted more than one piece of writing or artwork to the zine. Topics addressed included personal stories of catcalling and taking action (take pictures of them!), #BlackLivesMatter, sexual consent, reproductive rights, body positivity, feature pieces on badass women throughout history, workplace harassment, feminism in pop culture, and local feminist events.
In creating Cat Talk, we aimed to create a creative third space that intertwined campus life with feminist activism. Having a feminist activism organization (IPFW Campus Feminists in Solidarity), a Women’s Studies honors organization (TRIOTA), and an organization that focuses on reproductive and sexual health (IPFW Voices of Choice) helped create a diverse base for a student feminist publication. Cat Talk became a way for students from the different organizations to explore the issues most important to them. This encouraged students to reflect on feminism in a creative, collaborative way. Simply handing out topics for stories or feature pieces wouldn’t have work—every story emerged from an existing or newfound interest. Likewise, Cat Talk offered the opportunity of closer collaboration with the three organizations. The zine was a way for different organizations to spread the word about their events. VOC’s craft nights and Condom and Candy events, CFS’s production of The Vagina Monologues and zine-making sessions, and TRIOTA’s Bagel Tuesdays and events for Women’s History Month. Eventually, events from other organizations such as IPFW OUTspoken, The Resource Center, and IPFW’s Women’s Studies department were published in Cat Talk as well. This helped expand the reach of the organizations and their events to students who were previously unfamiliar with their presence on campus. This close collaboration strengthened the organizations and their members all while making a badass student zine.
So, what next? Where does Cat Talk go from here? Working within the bounds of an inherently privileged institution has its limits and its benefits. Cat Talk has come this far (nine issues this November!) but it still has time to grow. Luckily, Cat Talk has welcomed new contributors nearly every issue and students and faculty have continued to express their interest. Looking forward, the plan is to continue to stay true to the original aims: to create an open and sustainable feminist dialogue on campus, provide a public venue for students to refine and express their feminist viewpoints, and expand the reach of campus feminist organizations. The challenge now is to figure out new ways to attract contributors and readers. The zine is published online and shared on various social media but, like most endeavors, it has the potential to grow. The growth of Cat Talk and the growth of campus feminist organizations are intertwined.
The two groups we have been most involved with the production of Cat Talk are IPFW Campus Feminists in Solidarity and IPFW Voices of Choice. Currently, I, Amanda Neumann, am the President of CFS. Cat Talk helped me feel comfortable expressing my feminist ideas in a broader context and encouraged me to become more active in campus feminists organizations. Lauren Murfree is the Founder/President of VOC and Treasurer of CFS. Likewise, working with Cat Talk has engendered Lauren to become more active in other causes and organizations. Working together has allowed for more cross organizational of events including Take Back the Night, The Vagina Monologues, and the upcoming book sale fundraiser with VOC, TRIOTA and CFS. We also plan on conducting more partnerships with new student organizations. For example, we plan on working with IPFW Students for Life, a campus anti- choice organization, in the upcoming semester on the partisan issue of the Syrian refugee crisis. Lauren Murfree and the President of IPFW Students for Life are currently working towards a joint fundraiser in the spring. Of course, the event will be promoted in Cat Talk. We hope that we can spread feminists ideals and student activism with often opposing organizations through fundraising endeavors. When you’re able to see the humanity in the opposition it gives you another perspective and a better understanding about what they stand for idealistically.
Opportunities like working with other student organizations, especially for the sake of activism, is just one way that IPFW campus feminist organizations have worked to create a more inclusive student activism presence on campus. We hope to continue this work in whatever creative ways that we can think of in future campus activism.
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