The Demise of ’90s Feminist-Zine Culture

Grappling with the impending closure of Bitch magazine at a time when women’s rights are under threat

copied pages of magazines creating a collage on an orange carpet
Elizabeth Renstrom for The Atlantic

In the late 1990s, learning about something obscure took effort. You’d have to make your way to the right bookstore or know the edgy older person who might turn you on to a special record, a book, or a zine. These pre-internet objects were community builders; if you met someone who had heard of the specific thing you were into, you made a very cool friend. That was Bitch magazine. I don’t remember the first moment I read it, but it was omnipresent in the world I inhabited—riot grrrls, punks and hardcore kids, women’s-studies majors, the LGBTQ community, activists. Bitch wasn’t just a publication—it was an identity marker.

Despite occupying a niche corner of the media world, Bitch was highly influential. A self-described “feminist response to pop culture,” it ran media criticism and cultural commentary on topics including fat politics, nonbinary identity, Black feminism, and masculinity, using the confrontational style of in-your-face politics often synonymous with ’90s-era third-wave feminism. It would go on to publish some of feminism’s most formative writing, including voices such as Tamara Winfrey-Harris, Joshunda Sanders, and Katherine Cross. Celebrity interviews included underground it-girls such as Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofalo. Just as I sat in a women’s-studies class criticizing zines like Bitch for not being diverse enough, it dropped an interview with bell hooks.

Bitch recently announced that it will stop publishing in June. To fully grasp this news requires understanding how much it managed to persevere—and how much its ethos has, in ways both obvious and subtle, found traction in mainstream media. The story of Bitch is, in part, the story of how feminist publications influenced the coverage of gender issues writ large. But it’s also the story of the difficulties of keeping independent outlets afloat, especially in the face of a feminist backlash. Its evolution reflects the tangles within feminism over the past several decades, and within the feminist press. And its end makes urgent the question of what constitutes feminist media today, even as the ongoing threat to women’s rights underscores how much we still need that domain.

Bitch launched in 1996, its name a reclamation of a term used to insult women who live outside the expectations of a demure femininity. “If speaking my mind makes me a bitch, I’m proud of that,” one of the co-founders, Lisa Jervis, said in explaining the name. (Another co-founder, Andi Zeisler, has defended the title against finger-wagging; the magazine’s initial effort to be incorporated was rejected because the name was deemed offensive.) It entered at the height of zine culture, and succeeded feminist publications such as Bust Magazine (still in circulation) and Sassy (merged with Teen magazine in 1996, which in turn effectively shut down in 2009). It also predated and influenced the feminist blogs and outlets of the early 2000s to early 2010s, such as Feministe, Racialicious, Feministing (where I was the executive editor from 2009 to 2012), and later Jezebel, the Crunk Feminist Collective, The Hairpin, The Frisky, and Rookie Magazine, among many others. Along with a slew of gender-centric verticals like Salon’s Broadsheet, Slate’s DoubleX, and Vice’s Broadly, these sites created an ecosystem that has sometimes been dubbed a “heyday” of feminist media.

Many of these feminist outlets have since folded; Bitch managed to outlive them. But its era saw the rise of publications with an explicit mission to create space for feminist voices and analysis—and, more to the point, to call out mainstream outlets that were still slut-shaming women for sexual assault or proclaiming the death of feminism. Bitch and its peers also let young women explore their lives outside the glossy magazines, which were driven by corporate advertising and thus often reflected the very issues feminists were critical of—diet culture, the beauty industry, the wedding-industrial complex, and luxury fashion. Feminist media said there was another way.

A lot has changed since then. Feminism has always been messy, its ranks rife with debate about what the fight, at heart, is really about: For some, it’s straightforwardly about gender equality. For others, it’s a larger endeavor that considers the many facets of our experiences: race, class, sexuality, sexual identity. These tensions are playing out today as well, with some women shunning the “feminist” label in favor of embracing a wider set of social and political issues. That broader tack can sometimes read as a type of “post-feminism,” a rejection of a politics singularly focused on gender advancement—and, in the media context, of coverage that might seem to concentrate on gender and inclusion at the expense of the material conditions shaping women’s lives. Still, much of that critique is lobbed not at indie feminist media—which have tended to be consciously collaborative in their approach—but at what is perceived as mainstream feminism, friendly to corporations and quick to churn out an easy empowerment slogan.

The media industry has also changed. Sexual assault, allegations of workplace harassment, the struggles of working mothers—all issues of long-held concern to feminists—are, overall, covered responsibly and with serious resources by well-funded journalistic outlets, which also employ columnists offering cogent analysis from the feminist perspective. Fairly or not, such coverage is also more likely to be taken by a general-interest public not as marginal, but as central to societal interest. (It’s no coincidence that many of us who worked in feminist media left for those bigger publications. I went to Teen Vogue, Jill Filipovic is writing for CNN, and Dodai Stewart is an editor at The New York Times, to name just a few.)

Over the years, the feminist message has also been co-opted, and sometimes diluted, by the very women’s magazines that Bitch and its peers critiqued. Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitansuch glossies, with their focus on lifestyle and fashion, weren’t explicitly feminist, but have long published in-depth journalism on matters that affect women’s lives. Their increased coverage of social-justice issues, including body inclusivity and trans rights, doubled as an implicit recognition that such stories and perspectives had gone mainstream and came with an audience that could be captured.

Social media, too, has had an outsize effect, allowing people to express their opinions through Twitter threads or Instagram stories, without needing the infrastructure of a magazine. These outpourings have replaced the stream-of-consciousness blog posts that defined early-aughts digital culture. Internet activism can, like feminism itself, sometimes feel like a popularity contest, in which infighting and performative one-upmanship, as opposed to earnest and eager debate, are go-to strategies. At its best, though, the participation of historically marginalized voices online replicates the critique-from-the-margins position that indie feminist outlets held.

So what does feminist media even mean today? At the height of the blog era, it meant cultural commentary and media criticism—similar to some of what appears on Substack these days—in which just about anybody could make observations about social ills, politics, and culture. This form of opinion journalism was valuable, creating a space for writers and bloggers to think, explore, connect, argue, and, sometimes, yes, rage. Many feminist publications sat between journalism and advocacy. As others have argued, the shrinking of these spaces is, in large part, due to the success of that advocacy. You’re now more likely to see pockets of feminist writing in a lot of different places across media—perhaps via a particular author or argument. But that more distributed vision of feminist media lacks what dedicated spaces like Bitch gave us: the conviction of being part of a community with a shared purpose, clear models for writing persuasively about feminist politics, and the unwavering coverage that a mission-driven publication can provide.

Some outlets still explicitly do that work. Jezebel is still around, though it’s perhaps less culturally influential than it used to be; Bust is still here too, though it leans heavily into lifestyle. Autostraddle and Salty Newsletter cater to women and trans and nonbinary people. And Bitch held on for as long as it did because, to its credit, it took care to reach out to a new generation of readers. But the ecosystem is smaller than it once was. There is a hole where Bitch and others were, at a time when sustained attention on women’s rights is ever more necessary. The cutbacks to the rights of vulnerable communities—communities that feminist publications have long covered—continue: full-scale attacks on reproductive rights, the state-by-state war on trans youth, mothers being pushed out of the workforce, women still bearing the brunt of care work. In the 25 years since Bitch was launched, conditions have, in many ways, gotten worse for women, not better.

In 1988, the soon-to-be publisher of Sassy magazine told The New York Times that she’d show that feminism was a viable enterprise. “Feminism is not the property of the women’s movement … I’m going to prove that you can run a business with feminist principles and make money,” she famously concluded. Sassy effectively shut down eight years later. A few weeks ago, as people shared the role Bitch had played in their feminist upbringing, many decried its closure as the end of an era, while others felt that that era was already long gone. I’m not sure whether it’s gone or just morphing. Mission-driven media come with difficulties; employees tend to be overworked and underpaid, expected to go above and beyond for the “cause.” But the purpose of an independent feminist press, if we can figure out how to sustain it, is different from mainstream journalism’s; the focused, sometimes seemingly niche work it does is a necessary additive to traditional reporting and op-ed writing, and a check in a sea of media monopolies. In that context, the folding of venerable publications is a monumental loss. The very reason we still need them is often the very reason we lose them.