With no apparent sense of irony at all, the faith site Beliefnet allegedly hired a guest blogger who writes about feminist issues … and then told her she couldn’t use the word “feminist” anywhere in any of her blog posts.
Why? Because “feminist” is such an offputting word.
The blogger in question is Kristine Holmgrem, a Presbyterian pastor, playwright, and feminist. As she told the journalism blog JimRomenesko.com, the editors vetted her beforehand and well understood her POV:
“I said to them [during a group interview], ‘You’ve got to know that I’m a Presbyterian pastor, but I come to the world as a feminist.’ They said, ‘That’s fabulous. We want a wide range of views on the site.’”
But when it came down to the nitty gritty — designing the look of the column, choosing a name — Beliefnet made it clear that what they were really looking for in a feminist columnist was something not quite so … feminist.
To quote from one of her emails with a Beliefnet editor, via Romenesko:
We’re ready to get started on the header for your blog however first we need the title of your blog and any creative direction you may have (i.e. colors you want to include, any themes, a headshot, etc.). I believe you and Jana previously tossed around a few title possibilities including “Feminist Pulpit Notes.”
While I agree that title is certainly straight forward, I think it would resonate with our readers more if the title was a bit “softer.” Our readers are looking for editorial that’s uplifting, motivational, inspirational, etc. and I think your blog will perform better if the title speaks to that aspect of your blog. Do you have any ideas along those lines?
Holmgren then wrote back that she thought “Sweet Truth: Thoughts Of a Faithful Feminist” might be a good (albeit wordy) column title. Here’s email number two, when the editor tries to make it really, really clear they want nothing to do with the dirty, bad word “feminism”:
I love “Sweet Truth” however I would suggest changing the tag line or deleting all together as I’m concerned about the negative connotation that our readers may associate with the word feminism. In addition, we’ll want this blog to focus more on Christianity/spirituality as opposed to issues related to feminism. What do you think of simply “Sweet Truth.”
Holmgren then told this editor she needed to speak with her on the phone. It was there she was told by the editor, “We know our readers are offended by the word.” Yes, offended.
To her credit, Holmgren told Beliefnet she’s no longer interested in a column with them. Frankly, the site deserves all the embarrassing press they’re getting now that she’s spoken to Romenesko. (Romenesko is a widely read, inside-baseball site for the journalism industry.) I can understand Beliefnet’s concerns, which all blogs have, about their editorial mission and serving their audience — but it’s so strange to me that their editorial mission is “don’t be yourself, don’t have a unique voice, be more like this thing we already have!” Did they simply think they were hiring an “inspirational” columnist and thought any old Presbyterian pastor would do, even one that has clearly stated she writes about feminist issues? Did they simply not vet her well enough, a la John McCain and Sarah Palin? Did they make false promises that she could write about whatever she wanted and revoke them later, as far too many employers have been known to do?
We don’t know. But we do know Beliefnet is adamant that “feminist” and “feminism” are scaaaaaary words. There’s loads of history with political buzzwords (Rush Limbaugh and “feminazis,” etc.) that could be unpacked here and they would do well to unpack it. Not just for the sake of intellect, but for the sake of their own survival. They’re trying to market to the audience they already have and seem more concerned with “not scaring them away” instead of growing them. Real talk, people who work on the Internet: You need to grow your readers and your traffic! Just because a column might bring in more feminist readers (or Republican readers, or vegan readers, or whatever) doesn’t mean your site is going to crack in half and all hell will break loose. In fact, quite the opposite might happen — it might grow and be all the more robust and better for it. By labeling the column “feminist,” it would likely put the column on the radar of the extremely active online community of feminists (including those, like myself, who have a Google alert for the word “feminist”). It’s also possible to write about feminist issues and only use the word sparingly so that you are not shoving it down people’s throats — like, say, hiding a pill inside a piece of bologna for the dog. Although, frankly, comparing feminism to a pill is more offensive to me. Feminism is just … beliefs. This is Beliefnet.
By claiming its readers find the word “feminist” so “offensive,” Beliefnet is limiting their audience — not to mention doing a disservice to their readers by allowing them to harbor a misunderstanding about feminism and how it connects with some people’s understanding of spirituality. That is what’s truly sad about this story to me: Beliefnet is a site about spirituality, and for many people, social justice issues like women’s rights and LGBT rights are closely tied to spirituality. For me personally, social justice issues are my strongest tie to Christianity. Two of my favorite spiritual leaders, Rev. Debra Haffner and Elizabeth Lesser, are both feminists. It’s distressing to me that they and Kristine Holmgrem are effectively shut out of Beliefnet’s narrow definition of spirituality and religion.
It’s too bad for Beliefnet that they won’t have their feminist column because it couldn’t handle feminist “beliefs.” I do very much hope Holmgren finds a home for “Sweet Truth” elsewhere and that Beliefnet learns to see the irony in this fiasco.
Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.