Yesterday my colleague Deborah Coughlin and I announced our departure from Feminist Times, and founder Charlotte Raven's intention to put the project on ice while she seeks out a more sustainable funding model. You can email her with suggestions on firstname.lastname@example.org
I joined Feminist Times, an online, alternative women's magazine, 14 and a half months ago, when Charlotte was still hoping to name it after the iconic Spare Rib. It's been an incredible adventure and I announced my decision to leave with a heavy heart, and a lot of mixed feelings.
Feminist Times is an organisation that has always had feminist, anti-capitalist ethics and principles at our core, so I felt it was important to use my final editorial to explore the challenges we've faced along the way. The following is cross-posted from Feminist Times.
The tweet above was one of my personal highlights of Gender Week - a week that confirmed my long-held suspicion that Twitter is no place for civilised debate. In an effort to keep our own content prominent in the Gender Week hashtag overnight, when conversations online tended to take their most unpleasant turn for the worst, we scheduled a series of tweets to be posted every 30 minutes outside of office hours. When I saw this tweet, the morning after it was sent, I couldn't help but LOL.
"Here's how you know a feminist blog is owned and operated by men: they have an office, and keep 'office hours' @Feminist_Times #GenderWeek"
I laughed not only because of how ludicrous the suggestion is, but also because of how painfully, excruciatingly ironic it is in the context of Feminist Times.
I remember reading Virginia Woolf's famous essay A Room of One's Own as a student and aspiring writer, and thinking "f*ck, I'm never going to make it as a writer." The notion of a room of one's own is popular in feminist thought around the importance of creating women's spaces - take the Rooms of our Own project, aiming to provide a work space in London for women's businesses and organisations, and the Room of our Own feminist blog network, founded by Feminist Times contributor Louise Pennington - but it's only half of the statement from which the essay takes its title. Woolf wrote: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction", but the same is true of non-fiction and journalism.
Many feminist blogs have neither money nor a room of their own - run by volunteers working remotely in their free time. What Feminist Times set out to do was something radically different - not just a blog, but an online magazine which maintained regular, high-quality output by paying staff and contributors alike; an ad-free haven from commercial women's magazines, funded instead by a community of members who felt passionate about independent feminist media, and who had the opportunity to meet with each other and the editorial team to help shape the content.
We started out with money - the result of a one-off crowdfunder - but no place of our own. In an effort to keep overheads minimal our first workspace, Charlotte's kitchen table, was shared with her husband and children and - appropriately for a feminist publication - two cats. Our working day was divided into school time, when it was quiet enough to hold editorial meetings and discuss project ideas, and after-school time, when it wasn't. We did try it once or twice, resulting in some pretty off the wall ideas being thrown into the mix; four-year-old John was adamant that We're on Safari would have made a better name for the website than Feminist Times. Less endearingly, there was also the threat of excitable children running in and out during sensitive interviews with women working in the domestic violence or FGM sectors.
Working out of Charlotte's home meant the lines between home life and work life were inevitably blurred; like many working mothers, Charlotte had to juggle work with childcare and family life. School holidays meant time off for Charlotte, and temporary eviction to nearby cafes with WiFi for Deborah and I.
But children were not our biggest obstacle to harmonious working hours; while the older of Charlotte's cats was perfectly content to share her home with us, the younger one objected violently - and I still have the scars to prove it! When he wasn't attacking us in defence of his territory, this ferocious kitten was getting himself lost or stuck in trees; holding the ladder while Charlotte climbed onto the shed to coax him down very quickly became part of my job description. There were other perils too, from protecting our laptops from the water pistol that 9-year-old Anna was using to train the cat out of his aggressive behaviour, to occasional baked bean or tomato ketchup splatters adorning our notebooks. Never was the expression "never work with children or animals" more relevant.
Eventually Deborah found us some respite, negotiating free use of the basement room below her friend's knitting shop, iKnit London, one day a week. It was a surreal haven - three women working on a feminist website, surrounded by balls of coloured wool and posters showing different breeds of sheep. Ok, so there was no phone reception or natural light - not ideal for running a new business - but we were thankful for the weekly peace and quiet. Sadly, as with borrowing space from family, favours from mates quickly wear thin, and invading the knitting shop basement was never going to be a long-term solution, though we loved it while it lasted.
Unlike many feminist bloggers, having feminism as both a day job and a passion meant we all struggled to switch off, particularly during those all-consuming first few months when press attention and public anticipation were so high. Ideas were flowing constantly - often in the form of emails sent by iPhone at anti-social hours - and we were quickly beginning to feel burnt out by the intensity of the project.
By the time we started looking for an office - a real place of our own, that would allow us the work-life balance we so desperately needed - it was money we were lacking. Though our number of monthly paying members was growing, it wasn't growing quickly enough to sustain full-time salaries and contributor fees while also leaving enough left over for desk space. The solution - far from proving our alleged maleness - came in an unexpectedly feminist form when we met Hilary and Sarah from Shoreditch Trust, a charitable organisation that owns a number of shared office spaces in Hackney.
The women in the Shoreditch Trust office had heard Charlotte on Woman's Hour the morning that Feminist Times launched and were excited not just about the project itself but about the prospect of getting more women into an office space that was, at the time, almost entirely occupied by men working in the creative and tech industries. Because of this, and the fact we were running on a shoestring, they suggested providing us our first three months of desk space through their Echo scheme, which we featured as part of our Christmas anti-consumerism theme week, #IDontBuyIt. Echo, or Economy of Hours, is a marketplace where members trade using time and skills, instead of money. It's a radical, alternative economy and, as an organisation with anti-consumerist feminism at our core, we loved the concept.
So it was agreed; for three months we would pay for our desks by providing publicity for a number of Shoreditch Trust's projects, training and workshops for other Echo members and Shoreditch Trust, and free tickets to our events, as well as using their event space to host our January members' event Is Fat Still a Feminist Issue?
Having our own office was a god-send for getting some work-life balance back and improving our productivity during the working day; we can't think Hilary and Sarah enough for the opportunity. All of a sudden we had a bookable meeting room in which to plan, discuss, interview and meet contributors uninterrupted, and a lockable cupboard in which to store our accounts and invoices. We had somewhere to leave review copies of the books we were sent without the fear of a cat or a breakfast mishap destroying them, and we celebrated by stocking up on some stationery of our own. I quickly cultivated a stash of teabags, Cup-a-Soups and value instant noodles in my cupboard, in order to get maximum usage out of the instant boiling water machine in the communal kitchen; Deborah was amused by how readily I adapted to our tightened salaries by reverting to the lifestyle of a fresher!
Our time in the office was responsible for almost all of my personal Feminist Times highlights: some brilliant, inspiring meetings with our contributing editors, who always left me feeling uplifted, and a marked improvement in the consistency and quality of the content we were commissioning and producing. Even paying back the Echo hours for our desk space provided some incredibly rewarding experiences for Deborah and I, like meeting the women behind Bump Buddies, a peer mentoring project for expectant mothers, and running a workshop for the young people on Hilary's Active Citizens course.
My biggest frustration will always be that during that time, while our content, our readership and our social engagement were going from strength to strength, our funding situation was steadily becoming less and less sustainable, despite the brilliant efforts of our fundraiser Jenna. As Deborah and I gradually reduced both our salaries and our working hours, we were grateful to still have use of the office all week for the freelance work that we took on to supplement our incomes.
In that context, my amusement at the tweet about our office hours was bittersweet. Though clearly a ridiculous assertion, the sentiment underlying it was telling of the way we, even in feminist circles, think about women's work. So often women's work is unpaid, a labour of love, that women expect to work for free and, like many others in the digital age, expect online content to be free too. It's true of almost every feminist website online; in fact, as we were preparing to wrap things up at Feminist Times, Everyday Victim Blaming, a fantastic feminist campaign run entirely by volunteers, tweeted that they were at crisis point and desperately needed funding to continue. Their supporters responded fantastically but, the fact is, beyond one-off donations, funding is so hard to come by for women's projects.
Although it was a fairly well publicised founding principle, many of our contributors were still surprised to find that we paid for every single piece of content unless the writer was publicising an event, business or campaign. Our small but loyal core of members allowed us to maintain this policy right up until the final week, although ironically some of our most engaged contributors were also Feminist Times members, indirectly paying their own contributor fees!
Not only are women so often expected to work for free but, as the tweet implies, it's not enough for running a feminist website to be just a full-time job - it should be a 24/7 vocation, like everything else about being a feminist, or even being a woman. How dare we want to shut down Twitter for the evening, after being on it for work from 9.30 till 6, and have some down time? How male of us to want a work-life balance. How dare our small team - two of us shared responsibility for day-to-day management of the website and social media - not moderate comments or respond to tweets immediately? And how dare we ask readers to contribute to the funding of the site, demanded many of the same people who I'm sure would have seen us as selling out had we bowed to commercial pressures and taken advertising for fad diets and lipstick, like virtually every other women's magazine that isn't run by volunteers.
In many ways, Feminist Times has been a labour of love like any other. 14 and a half months ago, Charlotte Raven and I took a chance on each other; I entrusted her with my first step on the career ladder, and she entrusted me with playing a key role in acting out her vision. Though it's not taken quite the path I expected it has been an incredible learning experience and I've gained more, personally and professionally, than I can fit on my CV. Thank you, Charlotte, for the opportunity.
I am immensely proud to have been a part of Charlotte's vision for Feminist Times, and of what Deborah and I have achieved on the website since taking on our new roles at Christmas. It's been an enormous privilege to interview so many brilliant women - Anne Scargill, Leta Hong Fincher, Dr Louise Irvine, Angela Berners-Wilson, Nimko Ali - and to work with so many more. I hope you'll all stay in touch. It's been a real pleasure, but all good things must come to an end - and I need money and a room of my own if I am to continue writing anything at all.
Sarah Graham is a journalist, writer and editor, who has been published by the Telegraph, Guardian, Metro, Press Association, Open Democracy, and more. She has been deputy editor of Feminist Times since December 2013, having joined as the founding Editorial Assistant in May 2013. Today she leaves Feminist Times to work freelance, in a room of her own. Follow her @SarahGraham7