Cultivating awareness and educating and inspiring women and men globally, Feminist.com is a dynamic online community that acts as a portal, funneling generative ideas while providing information and resources that address issues such as violence against women, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and peace.
And just who is the feminist behind this dot com? Marianne Schnall, founder and Executive Director, is also a writer and interviewer who has dedicated herself to building the organization’s ever-broadening horizons. Interviewing influential and powerful women and harnessing their inspirational messages has been her forte.
As it turns out, 2010 was an exceptional year for both Feminist.com and Marianne. In December, Feminist.com celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, and along with that milestone, Marianne Schnall launched her new book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness, and Finding Your Own Voice.
Born in New York, Marianne says she realized early on she was going to be a writer, right from the time she won a city-wide contest in sixth grade for one of her short stories. “I always really enjoyed writing,” Marianne states. “I became an English major at Cornell, and then when I graduated, I worked for a literary agent. After that I applied for a job as an editorial assistant to the managing editor of US Magazine. One of the editors there started sending me out to cover industry events like movie premiers and award shows. So I would go and get on the red carpet with my little recorder and ask my questions. It was really fun and glamorous, and I had a great time doing it. I didn’t think it necessarily connected with what I really wanted to do with my life, but I got a lot of experiences through it. Certainly, that’s how I started with interviewing.”
Marianne also credits the March for Women’s Lives in 1992 for influencing her career path. “I decided to ask US if they would send me to cover it as a reporter. That was the first time that I interviewed people like Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, Jonathan Demme, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cyndi Lauper. All of a sudden I found myself speaking to celebrities about a cause they felt passionate about.”
The March, as it turned out, was an awakening for Marianne on several fronts: the first with regard to her feminist consciousness—a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body; secondly, as an activist, she was able to experience the power of being in a community of people who cared about similar issues; the third awakening, as Marianne notes, was about the use of fame itself—celebrities using their renown to promote a good cause. “It was the first time that I felt that I was doing something that was really connected to my path . . . something that was meaningful, and I felt like I was talking to the real person behind the celebrity.”
Shortly after the event, Marianne left US and began doing free lance work. “When InStyle Magazine started up, I started doing their Cause Celeb column. That allowed me to interview all sorts of amazing people about their causes.” Marianne recalls talking with Bette Midler about the New York Restoration Project. “They were cleaning up a park and she was there in her overalls with her daughter and her husband.”
Investigating this whole other aspect of celebrity became Marianne’s passion. While she was interviewing famous people about their causes and charities, her husband, Tom Kay, whose background is in solar energy, was surfing another wave. “Tom always had a very pioneering way of thinking,” Marianne remarks. “He decided to launch this site on the internet called Ecomall.com back before people knew what the internet was. I mean literally, when we first launched, people couldn’t find the site because they were spelling out the word dot. That’s how new it was.”
Venturing forth onto the web, Ecomall launched in 1994. Feminist.com took off soon after in 1995. “People didn’t even understand what we were doing. They didn’t have home computers, no one had e-mail, and no one knew what the internet was.” As Marianne explains, after having just interviewed Gloria Steinem and other feminists she found herself at a picnic one day speaking with a women’s studies major—a conversation which led her to acquiring the domain name Feminist.com. “I got the name before I knew what Feminist.com was going to be and before I would have ever said ‘I’m a feminist’. That wasn’t part of my identity.”
Marianne immediately called several friends and colleagues to help define what this budding organization would represent. Those friends, still on the board and advisory board today, include Amy Richards, Lauren Wechsler Horn, Karen Obel Cape, Susan Celia Swan, and Jennifer Meyerhardt. Together, along with her husband, Tom, they pioneered what literally has since become a “feminist Google.”
“Back then, about 15% of internet users were women,” Marianne states, “so there were very few women on-line. Also, most organizations didn’t have websites. So the very first thing we did was to provide a service to have a free web presence for groups like the Ms. Foundation, Equality Now, Girls Inc., and V-Day.”
As it also turned out, Marianne relates, V-Day was actually founded at a Feminist.com board meeting. She recounts how she made the initial connection with Eve Ensler through the suggestion of a mutual friend of theirs, actress and activist, Kathy Najimy.
“Kathy just said, Her name is Eve Ensler. She’s a writer, she’s a feminist, she’s an activist. Call her. Don’t ask questions.” Marianne did just that and has shared a rich history with V-Day ever since. “Eve was just starting to do the Vagina Monologues downtown and knew she wanted to do it as a fundraiser to help stop violence against women. She came to a Feminist.com board meeting in my dining room. That’s where the term V-Day was coined and where the seeds for that first fundraiser happened . . . So I can really attest to what Eve has accomplished.”
The story is another example of how Feminist.com has grown, allowing structure to form naturally along the way. “The whole site has really developed organically,” Marianne maintains, “without a set mission or plan, which turned out to be a good thing because we could really change with the internet, with the number of women coming on-line, and also with where feminism was headed. We could be a little bit more fluid.”
Just as the definition of feminism has been broadening, Marianne indicates that Feminist.com is continuously evolving. She mentions how freeing it was not to approach the site holding a limited view. “There are a lot of definitions of feminism that I would definitely not sign on to. So I think that what has been wonderful about how Feminist.com has developed is that we’ve been able to see how we can use the site to correct misconceptions and how to present a version of feminism that is more inclusive—that doesn’t shy away from the little controversial elements and actually holds them up for dialogue and reflection.”
In addition, Feminist.com also looks for the voids and niches it can fill. “We’re launching a section called Young Voices in conjunction with Carol Gilligan,” Marianne offers. “She’s an amazing psychologist who wrote this pioneering book called In a Different Voice which is all about how gender roles start so early. Boys lose their authentic voice around four or five and girls lose it around nine or ten. The idea is that there’s all these societal pressures that, before you know it, make people lose their true voice. You see it so much in little girls. I have two daughters so I’m hyper aware of this type of thing, even though they’re so much more empowered and independent and centered than I was at their age.”
And giving those voices a platform is essential. Feminist.com’s new section Girls & Young Women appears to be not only offering messages of empowerment to the younger generation but also a space for their ideas to flourish. “There are two reasons why we reach out to younger women at our site,” Marianne says. “One has to do with just what we were talking about—a lot of these issues happen really early on. So we’re constantly looking for both content and resources that we can offer by, for, and about girls and young women. But also, there’s this misconception that the younger generation is just completely complacent and that there’s this kind of resentment thing going on between older and younger generations of women.”
Marianne mentions that, although there may be some truth to the statement, she believes the notion is mainly fostered by the media. “I think that it may look different . . . feminism . . . in the younger generation than it did for let’s say people of Gloria Steinem’s era . . . but I take issue with people who say that younger women these days are completely apathetic. That’s not my experience,” she contends. “It’s hard to speak for a whole generation, and granted, there are going to be exceptions to every rule. But there are so many amazing blogs and groups and things happening on college campuses these days, so I really don’t think that’s true. At Feminist.com we are constantly trying to find young women’s voices and groups that are doing amazing work, and we’re helping to promote them.”
Furthering a holistic view of feminism that encompasses being environmentally conscious is also an initiative.
In addition to supporting humanitarian causes, feminism should also include taking care of and nurturing the Earth, the planet we all live on and depend upon for our sustenance and survival. — Reflections [Feminist.com]
“I see it all as being interconnected,” Marianne asserts. “The definition of feminism that I hope that Feminist.com presents is this idea that it’s larger than just a gender thing—that it really is about our interconnection with each other and with the earth. What we do to the earth affects us. It’s a symbiotic relationship . . . So, for me, feminism is really about respect for all life and all of its various manifestations.”
As Marianne confirms, what we’re really talking about is raising our awareness and consciousness to a level that serves men, women and humanity as a whole. “It’s about love and respect,” Marianne asserts. “It’s just like the same way that having an eating disorder is self destructive—it doesn’t honor ourselves or our bodies—if we mistreat the earth . . . if we pollute the earth and put toxins into it . . . then that’s also connected to how we treat our bodies and the beautiful planet and animals that we live with.”
Marianne’s interviews have also placed her in contact with extraordinary women who are truly inspirational, linking feminism to global initiatives affecting the planet. “I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing two amazing environmentalists,” Marianne remarks “One is Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel peace prize for the Green Belt Movement. She planted forty-five million trees across Kenya. . . And then of course, there’s Jane Goodall. That was actually one of my favorite interviews. Who better to talk to about some of these themes in such a deep and thoughtful way.”
When exploring the subject, we can’t help but discover an important fact — Pillaging the earth is symptomatic of a larger problem which needs addressing: a disregard for the feminine and the abuse of women. Through columns such as those provided by Amnesty International, V-Day, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Equality Now, Men Can Stop Rape, and Nobel Women’s Initiative, as well as questions explored in the Ask Amy – Violence Against Women section, Feminist.com is offering resources to assist those who are victims of abuse as well to help on a preventative and educational level.
“Regarding violence against women, we have worked really closely with V-Day because of our long-time relationship with them.” Marianne also notes their collaboration has produced the Anti-Violence Resource Guide, which provides both international and U.S.-based resources. “I have to say, because I’ve interviewed Eve Ensler so many times and constantly post her work and V-Day’s work, I think there’s nobody better than Eve to make sure we’re remembering what’s happening in places like the Congo. Actually, out of all of the interviews that I’ve done, some of the ones that have been the most wrenching have been with her . . . And she doesn’t talk about it as just a women’s thing. It is that, but it’s also about if we’re treating women and girls this way, then that’s a symptom of an overall problem with humanity and with a culture that breeds people who rape and produce violence—with a culture that produces wars, like what’s happening in the Congo.”
Marianne also stresses the importance of not condemning men or making sweeping statements like, “Oh, all men are bad. It’s more about let’s have a thoughtful conversation.” That means including men in the dialogue and making sure they are an active part of the solution.
“We’ve had a column for many years called Men’s Voices, Men as Allies. It started out being done specifically by a wonderful organization called Men Can Stop Rape and then it evolved into including a diversity of male voices. It’s one of our most popular columns. Pat McGann and I—Pat works at Men Can Stop Rape—decided that it would be very useful and timely to devote a section to the whole idea.”
As Marianne explains, this upcoming section—Men and Women as Allies—would provide a space for dialogue. Not only would it continue highlighting men and women joining forces on issues such as rape, physical violence, and gender equity, but it would provide a venue for “redefining masculinity and helping men see how constrictive gender roles impact them in negative ways.” It would give men a safe base where they could read about the issues as well as dialogue with each other, and just as important, dialogue with women. “It’s actually one of the projects I’m most excited about,” Marianne mentions, “because I think that, with the groups and people that we have in place to be partners, we can do something in a really thoughtful, sensitive, and dynamic way.”
And isn’t that the aim? Working toward creating non-violent societies, no matter where in the world, means embracing humanitarian values. For men to ally with women, for them to break free of stagnant and harmful societal roles, for men to view gender equality as a human rights issue as well as a women’s rights objective, and for men to be a vital part of prevention makes ending violence toward women and creating a more peaceful world finally seem attainable.
Our mission is to empower people to re-imagine and transform the roles of women and men and encourage them to break barriers so they can be agents of social change in the world.
Concurrent with the partnerships men and women are creating to address the problem, women’s groups are coming to the fore everywhere around the world, and like many of the powerful movements in history there seems to be a spiritual dynamic involved. Marianne addresses the phenomenon—what’s been called spiritual activism—as it relates to feminist causes.
“Well, I think that people are calling that the fourth wave of feminism,” Marianne states. “Actually, I try to get away from linguistics although sometimes they come out of my mouth, but I do think that there’s this spirituality-infused social justice movement that is connected to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This idea that it really does start with our inner world and that we have to be the change we want to see. That’s what the Our Inner Lives section which we just launched tries to do—honor all the paths, whether you define that as spirituality or as a traditional, organized religion.”
We are committed to creating a space that represents as many women as possible—women who embody a diversity of religious, faith and spiritual identities as well as those women with an unnamed hunger, longing, or confusion. Together, we translate our compassion into tangible paths to positive change in the world, recognizing our interdependence with each other and the earth.
As Marianne indicates, there’s an interconnection between our internal and external reality. Our Inner Lives emphasizes the commonalities between many of the world’s religions and its various spiritual traditions in the sense that most of them, at heart, try to promote compassion and love.
“And it’s not just about going out and joining the Peace Corps,” Marianne enumerates. “It’s also about how you treat your neighbors or someone in your family who is being difficult and going through a hard time. Just finding ways, both little and big, to have more consciousness and mindfulness in how we’re going through the world.” Marianne regards the fact that it starts with some inner reflection—that we’re often unaware of what we can or should do. “One of the quotes I include in my book is from Natalie Portman who mentions that volunteering is more for her than it is for the people she helps. It’s very soul nourishing and meaningful and joyful—that sense of doing good.”
Feminism’s big picture encompasses so many diverse elements. What about the issue of including spirituality in the conversation? Can we go as far as to say it’s an essential part of the equation?
“I think it’s hugely important, but I think it’s delicate,” Marianne concludes. “It has to be very sensitively handled because I think, in the same way that feminism is one of those loaded terms, spirituality can be so misinterpreted.” Marianne mentions that at Feminist.com they’ve taken special care to have an advisory team that includes women from Omega Institute as well as others who represent different faiths and perspectives. She also makes a point of connecting regard for the spiritual with the need for men, as well as women, to respect and value their own feminine wisdom. “I always thought that Feminist.com represented the feminine energy in the world as being something metaphysically bigger than just the gender association of feminism. And that’s one of the wonderful things I think Omega does in their conferences, which are all about women and power—bringing forth this idea of feminine power and new paradigms of power—honoring values that are typically associated with the feminine, which doesn’t mean necessarily with women.”
Marianne makes the connection between spirituality and the need to honor feminine energy in our attempts to resolve many of the world’s difficulties. “It’s making sure that we are in touch with the feminine values that we all have—the masculine and the feminine, the yin and yang in the world.” Marianne notes the timeliness of the concept, making reference to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s important book, Half the Sky, and its global initiative. “Right now it’s becoming more mainstream to acknowledge the truth which is that helping, empowering, and educating women and girls throughout the world is completely interconnected with all of these other issues that we’re facing—whether it’s war or violence or whether it’s about poverty or the environment.”
It is definitely a vast, humanitarian effort in many ways. And in order to make any significant strides, we need to emphasize women’s leadership, especially with regard to peace initiatives. Feminist.com is highlighting the issue through its evolving Women & Peace section, which has plans to expand and will examine women’s roles in building peace.
And the reason for emphasizing female leadership is simple. As Marianne observes, women need to be an integral part of conflict resolution. “As over half the world’s population—as the mothers, the daughter, the sisters, the wives, the educators, and the leaders—we have to be involved in every aspect of the peace process in order to accomplish lasting peace. And also, just look at how domestic and political violence are connected. You can’t have peace in the larger world without looking at what’s happening behind closed doors. It’s the connection between the private and the public—how women are treated in a society. . . If you look at Afghanistan or at Kenya, girls aren’t educated . . . it’s seeing how these things are connected to why war and violence are happening.”
Throughout her assessment, Marianne stays clear of stereotyping. When speaking about “the feminine” in any arena, including peacekeeping, she stresses that she’s referring to qualities like compassion, cooperation, intuition, and expressing emotion, “and that it’s okay to cry if our son goes off to war and dies. Not that men don’t do that, but men have often been taught to suppress their emotions. Carol Gilligan talks about the first time a boy cries when he’s about four or five and he’s called a sissy and from then on thinks that showing emotion is wrong and unmanly.”
Derogatory remarks and unrealistic gender expectations have been a big part of the problem. Thus the struggle. As mentioned in Daring to be Ourselves, we don’t need to be wrestling with words, especially with the term “feminine.” We certainly don’t need to be feeling pigeonholed if we use it. Both women and men have feminine traits, and as Marianne notes, these qualities need to be celebrated as part of all of us. Could authentic living may be part of the answer? Sounds a bit simplistic, but allowing the feminine and the masculine to be expressed in our lives, whether we’re male or female, may finally help create the kind of balance our world desperately needs.
Marianne regards Omega Institute’s Women & Power conferences as being pivotal events that address this quest for balance. She acknowledges them as inspirational forums that help women believe in their ability to be leaders and voices of change. “I think that Omega is at the forefront of really promoting some of these themes that we’re talking about,” Marianne remarks. “I have such respect for that organization. Elizabeth Lesser [cofounder of Omega], who is also in my book, is a true visionary, an incredible person and author.” Marianne also makes reference to the Women’s Institute, now officially known as the Women’s Leadership Center. “Carla Goldstein, who runs it, is a very good friend of mine. They are doing really exciting work and are a very close partner of Feminist.com.”
At Omega’s 2010 Conference, Our Time to Lead, Marianne and Feminist.com cofounder, Amy Richards, taught a workshop together, Activism in Your Own Voice. “One of the things that was great about doing the workshop with Amy is we had everybody go around and say what their definition of activism was and what brought them to the conference and to our workshop . . . the women were so excited and happy to share their stories. Yes, there are these amazing people who speak at the conferences, but there are also some really amazing people in the audience.”
As Marianne concludes, women inspiring and motivating each other to keep the momentum of self-awareness and change going is important. Overcoming the fear of acknowledging their own voices—of becoming authentic—is a key step in harnessing genuine power.
At the first reading and book signing for Marianne’s book, Daring to Be Ourselves, which was held at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock, NY, she cited a quote by activist and author, Loung Ung.
Courage is when you dare to be yourself.
Marianne found that theme popping up with most of the women she interviewed. She now reflects on what the quote means to her personally as well as within the context of feminism. “I think that for the book, it just emerged as the overlying theme,” Marianne remarks. “As I looked at all of the various quotes and messages, it was just very clear that it was that simple—just being who we are. It almost sounds ridiculous because it sounds like the easiest, most obvious thing we should all be doing and yet very few of us often are, or we’ve gone through periods of our life where we’re not.”
Perhaps, as Marianne suggests, that’s because there are so many forces affecting all of us—women and girls, as well as men and boys—which constantly inform us that we’re not acceptable as we are, ceaselessly urging us to change and make ourselves into something else.
Girls, in particular, are under constant pressure from the media about their body image. Marianne reflects how that stress affected her as a teenager. “I blew dry my hair straight every day, dyed it blonde, and dieted my way until I was borderline anorexic,” she divulges. “We’re all told we have to look like a super model or just why bother. But also internally, like Carol Gilligan says, we’re told from early on not to value our genuine voice. Sometimes I think what happens—and this happens to a lot of women and happened to me for quite some time—is that we have no clue who we are, and that’s a really lost feeling to have. I think we’re so on autopilot that women can go through their whole lives having no idea who they are and therefore aren’t in touch with what would give them fulfillment and happiness. What a waste and what an atrocity. So to me, it’s really that simple and that powerful—just finding your true voice and honoring your authentic self in all the various ways that you can.”
And if you bring your whole self to the task, whether that’s furthering a feminist cause or any other human rights issue, it makes the endeavor all the more powerful.
Marianne agrees with the premise. “Yes, that’s what naturally happens . . . like when we were talking about the connection between spirituality and feminism or spirituality and activism. Once you do this kind of inner work and start honoring yourself, it becomes this contagious thing. You can’t look at other people without seeing your common humanity and recognizing yourself. I remember—I think it was with my older daughter when she was in fourth grade—there was another girl who was saying unkind things again and again. I found myself saying something so simple which really resonated, something like ‘You know, for this girl to act like that she must be a really unhappy person. I feel so bad for her because if you were a happy person, it doesn’t make you feel good to act that way.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you try, rather than fighting back or getting into a thing with her, just responding with love. You know, compliment her or just smile.’ As Marianne relays, her daughter told her the advice helped. “Now sometimes when things like that happen, I’ll just say, ‘Just respond with love,’ which is easier said than done. But sometimes it’s just about that . . . having compassion.”
Of the many fascinating women Marianne has interviewed, when asked to choose one who was particularly inspiring, she mentions Jane Fonda. Just before their interview, Marianne read Jane’s autobiography, My Life So Far, which is about her personal journey—about her eating disorders, her marriages, being an actress and the pressures and insecurities that came along with her career. “But it was also about how it took her until she was in her sixties, post her divorce from Ted Turner, to really find her power and find her voice—to find out who she was. That was a big theme through my interview with her,” Marianne recognizes. “It just had a profound effect on me because it really helped clarify the fact that the same thing had happened to me. . . It took me until my thirties to really start to wake up out of this society-imposed slumber that I had been in. So it not only was a personal revelation that way, but it also made me want to focus on making sure that we instill these messages in young women and girls so they don’t have to wait that long to reclaim their voices or, perhaps, not lose them at all.”
Although it’s difficult for her to pick one quote from Daring to Be Ourselves that resonates with her own personal journey, after a moment of reflection, Marianne acquiesces. “It actually closes the whole book—the Alice Walker quote. It ties in with the overlying message, which has to do with finding your own voice and also finding your inner leader in order to produce change in the world.”
We do carry an inner light, an inner compass, and the reason we don’t know we carry it is because we’ve been distracted. We think that the light is actually being carried by a leader or somebody that we have elected or somebody that we very much admire and that that’s the only light. So we forget that we have our own light—it may be small, it may be flickering, but it’s actually there. So what we need to do, I think, is to be still enough to let that light shine and illuminate our inner landscape and our dreams—especially our dreams. And then our dreams will lead us to the right way. — Alice Walker
Expanding on those words of wisdom, Marianne offers further insights to those of us who feel a bit dwarfed by the overwhelming needs we see expressed in the world today—whether they be women’s agendas, humanitarian issues, or global initiatives addressing peace and security. What exactly should we remember as we venture forward?”
“To have love and compassion for yourself,” she says plainly. “To take the pressure off that you can do it perfectly. . . It’s starting where you are and not thinking that you’re going to go out and found another V-Day. It’s literally just looking at your own family, your own neighborhood, and into your own community as you go through the day for ways to be mindful. It’s about how you’re interacting and the energy you’re putting out into the world. And . . . it sounds corny . . . just spreading love the best we can.”
Spreading love may just be a dare in itself. But if it’s a heartfelt desire, we’ll muster the strength to be up for the challenge. With enthusiasm and courageous effort, Marianne exemplifies that one woman is capable of doing just that—believing in a vision and becoming herself.
Visit Marianne’s website to find out more about Daring to Be Ourselves and for scheduled appearances.