Tuesday, July 29, 2014

BlogHer14: An Unapologetically Feminist Conference

In the same week that the hashtag #womenagainstfeminism was trending on Twitter, I attended the 10th annual BlogHer conference in San Jose, California. An unapologetically feminist affair attended by thousands of women and a handful of men, it is a conference that puts women's voices front and centre.

BlogHer co-founder, Elisa Camahort Page @ElisaC

A conference does not grow this large without sponsors and swag. For some (probably many) an event like this is primarily about building relationships with brands and learning how to best monetise online spaces. And for their part, companies are more than happy to co-opt the language of female empowerment to better sell their products.

Yet for all the fluff and commercialism - including a surprise appearance by a Kardashian at the HairFinity stand - the heart of this conference lay elsewhere.

One Kardashian does not erase a mainstage that included keynotes by author and blogging superstar Jenny Lawson (@TheBloggess), comedian Tig Notaro (who many of us discovered via her memorable appearances on NPR’s This American Life), HuffPo founder, author and in the words of her interviewer Guy Kawasaki “quote machine” Arianna Huffington, and the politically outspoken star of Scandal Kerry Washington.

Comedian Tig Notaro

Kerry Washington (left) being interviewed by Demetria Lucas @abelleinbk

One Kardashian does not erase the appearance of feared and revered Silicon Valley journalist Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) - whose line "Bossy has worked for me, Sheryl Sandberg" drew huge laughs and applause from the audience - interviewing Twitter's Melissa Barnes, that rarest of species, the female high tech executive.

Arianna Huffington being interviewed by Guy Kawasaki

And one Kardashian does not erase the importance of the decision to make the intersection of race, gender, feminism and the internet the focus of the closing keynote , a panel discussion led by and  featuring no less than six women of colour.

The closing keynote Intersectionality panel 

Intersectionality panellist @FeministaJones

Away from the mainstage, the breakout sessions on Digital Activism (led by fellow expat Australian Jo White @MediaMum) and the Future of Mom Blogging, were exceptional. To see the phenomenon of "Mom Blogging" discussed as a serious and potentially radical enterprise was a revelation and a relief. And the diversity of this panel - which saw a self-described white Jewish lesbian Dana Rudolph (@mombian) seated beside Natasha Taylor-Nicholes, an evangelical homeschooling and gay marriage accepting African American woman - to me drew attention to the way that conversations change and are enriched when 'other' voices are given a seat at the table. 

BlogHer is that rarest of opportunities, a chance for women to join together as a community, to celebrate friendships that are founded on shared values and interests rather than mere proximity (thanks to the talented Alexandra Rosas @GDRPempress for this insight during her inspired 10x10) and to move beyond the silos and echo chambers that our online - and for that matter – real lives often become, far more so than many of us would like to admit.  

At no point in the conference was this more apparent to me than during A’Driane Nieves reading of her Voices of the Year (VOTY) post, “America not here for us”. The reading shook the room, made many uncomfortable, and saw others give a standing ovation. For a few minutes those of us who have not experienced a lifetime of racism were asked to consider what it really means to be black in a country founded on slavery. 

I am now considered a BlogHer veteran, having attended the conference for three years running. In some ways I still feel like an outsider, and on most days an imposter. The fact that this feeling, of being an imposter, was raised multiple times by some of the most impressive women in the room is something I find both comforting and disturbing. One cannot imagine the same sentiment being expressed - let alone experienced - by men who have achieved at the same levels. 

Contrary to the sentiments expressed under the #womenagainstfeminism hashtag, we  do need feminism, and as feminists we desperately need and deserve that rare opportunity that BlogHer provides: to step out of our online spaces and spend real time in a forum where women's voices and experiences are given the space to be expressed, debated and treated with a level of gravitas that is too often missing in all the spheres in which we live out our lives.