Quick Thanks for Rubbing My Eyes

Dear Millicent,

I wanted to write a quick thanks to Jessica Valenti, who announced today that she is leaving Feministing. Her fellow bloggers and people who actually know her have written a lot of grand things about it. I don’t know her, but have watched her build her public persona at a public distance.  Over the years she has become perhaps the most open public figure about building her career and path, and it has been a strikingly honest and inclusive conversation.

In 2006, I got a press pass to attend the NAPW Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women. I had just become a doula, and was happy to find a conference that was in driving distance. I wrote for a tiny local paper, and was happy to get accepted as press because it meant I could get in for free. Otherwise, I never would have  been able to afford it.  I had only written two freelance articles by this point, and had never actually been considered as press by anybody. The invitations to press breakfasts were entirely overwhelming.  I also had to wake up at four every day to get to the conference on time. I add this detail so you can have a picture of me, wrinkled, sleepy, poorly put together, with a notebook and pen and no idea what I was getting into.

As I walked up to the registration table on the first day, there was a glamorous woman with long brown hair, outstanding outfit, and smart laptop case checking in before me. It was Jessica Valenti. I didn’t know who she was, but I tagged her as fancy press. Fancy enough to have a computer that didn’t take 45 minutes to warm up. Fancy enough to need internet access at all times.  Somebody who knew what they were doing. I mumbled my own credentials after her and followed her in the ballroom where the conference had already started.  We both sat at a table in the back, where she seemed to know everybody.  Months later, I would realize I was sitting next to Samhita Mukhopadyay, and that when she asked me what I wrote about it and who for, there was a better answer than “I’m just covering this for a small local weekly,” and then grimacing my way out of further conversation.

But I was a blind baby bird, unaware, and underprepared.  I didn’t know that it was Amanda Marcotte that Valenti was talking to.  I had never heard of Feministing, or Pandagon, or Our Bodies Ourselves, The Guttmacher Institute, Sistersong, Exhale, Dorothy Roberts, Carol Joffe, or anybody or organization that was working on women’s rights. I didn’t get on fire about feminism until that conference, where within the first 30 minutes I realized everybody in the room knew oceans more about women’s rights than I did, and I admired them all wildly for it. I spent the entire four days underwater, hiding in the back and trying to absorb as much as possible. And I was alone at the conference, which is fine if you actually have something to say to other people, but I was so out of my league that I spent most breaks looking at brochures, and most meals trying to figure out how to have confidence and unabashed ignorance at the same time. I think it mostly came off as an unenticing nonchalance.

In short, I was a miserable failure. This was also when I had a very crappy day job, a very crappy wardrobe, and a grand sense of not having my shit together. The conference was completely invigorating, overwhelming, and exhausting. It cleaned me out, broke me down, gave me that whack on the head that there were other paths than the one I was on, and people were walking those paths very well.

I went home, looked up all the people I didn’t know. I found Feministing. It’s the first blog that showed me what a blog really was, and what the potential of blogging was. It also explained feminism in a manageable way to me, proving that feminism was just as much about offensive shirts at Walmart as it was about major policy reform. I got my toes wet, in the safety of my own home. I watched Valenti go on Colbert, publish books, build a career that is much bigger than I assumed possible.  She’s two years older than me, and I want to thank her for building something big, and proving that such things can be built. But what I really want to thank her for is for intimidating me. I felt like an asshat for not taking more advantage of who I met at the conference, but I also felt so new, and new in the bad way, like where you don’t even know how your  muscles work let alone use them well. Five years ago, watching her walk into that conference with her laptop scared the shit out of me. But it also woke me up.

So best wishes to Valenti as she moves on to her next projects, and keeps building.




4 Responses to Quick Thanks for Rubbing My Eyes

  1. I still think about that conference some times. It was the most radical, eye-opening conference I’ve ever been to. I really walked away knowing how much the uterus and what it can do scares people, and creates a desire to control and punish like almost nothing else.

  2. Carla Fran says:

    Oh man! Amanda Marcotte. I was also super-intimidated by you, with your cool laptop and every time I saw you, you seemed to be having very important conversations. Thanks so much for commenting!
    It’s a relief to hear that somebody with your experience also thought it was an eye-opening conference. I thought I was just going to see birth activists and pro-choice activists talk together. I had no idea that I was going to get mentally thrashed in the way that I thought grad school always would but never quite did. One of my favorite parts was that all speakers had to introduce their reproductive histories before speaking, which made such a constant and complete argument for how real inequality was. It was a fast education.

  3. Pingback: The Feminist Blog: A Retrospective « Millicent and Carla Fran

  4. Jessica says:

    Carla, just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write something – I’m flattered, and really appreciate the kind words. And you calling me glamorous totally made my day. 😉

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