Bitch Media will shutter next month, ending a 26-year run as one of the publishing world’s rare independent, feminist voices. From humble origins as a zine in ‘90s, Bitch went on to influence a generation of feminist media, growing to encompass not only a print magazine but a website, podcasts, and a college speaker series. But all of that was no match for the realities of 2022: As a statement the organization released on April 12 explained, “despite incredible effort, we have concluded that we are unable to sustainably continue creating the quality content that our readers and supporters expect.”
The timing here really stings: One of the publishing world’s most respected independent feminist voices is closing just as the country has been plunged into a state of feminist emergency, in the form of the impending Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade. On a recent episode of The Waves, Slate’s podcast on gender and feminism, I spoke to Bitch co-founder Andi Zeisler about the state of feminist media, what happened to Bitch, and whether some of the same backlash that led to the end of Roe was a factor in its closure. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: One thing about Bitch that is obviously radical is the title. I think we forget how big a deal it was to title a magazine Bitch. Now, you maybe say to your friend, “Hey, bitch,” but bitch was a bigger deal, or it was more transgressive back then. How did you pick the name?
Andi Zeisler: A lot of it really came down to the fact that strong women, women who stand up for themselves, women who don’t act the way everyone wants them to, there are a lot of words that aren’t gendered to talk about people who are not acting like you want them to. But with women, bitch is always the first one. And growing up in New York City, we had certainly heard it a lot. If you’re walking down the street, someone catcalls you and you don’t answer, bitch is the thing that you’re going to be hearing next.
We really thought about the way that there was a kind of anticipatory retaliation to the title. So we were like, “Well, people are probably going to call us that, so we’re just going to go ahead and do it and call ourselves that first.”
Feminism and its place in the culture changed so much since you founded the magazine. How did that affect things?
At the time we started Bitch, feminism was still not something that people were scrambling to associate themselves with. But it’s true that particularly with the rise of the feminist blogosphere and social media as well, feminism became something that was demystified for more people. For Bitch, for a really long time, we didn’t really think of other feminist outlets as our competition. We really treated it as a rising tide lifts all boats. The more feminist media there is, the more feminists there will be.
Unfortunately, this feels like a particularly bad time for Bitch to go under. It’s never been clearer than right now that there’s a vast difference between feminism as an aesthetic and feminism as a foundational need and a foundational process of liberatory politics.
The writer Jude Doyle wrote a lovely remembrance of Bitch on Medium. One point they made really stood out to me, they wrote that these closures are a sign of the current anti-feminist backlash and that the shuttering of feminist publications and the impending appeal of Roe v. Wade are intrinsically linked. So this might be incredibly naive or failing to see the big picture of me, but I tend to think of Bitch’s situation and others like it as more about the economic realities of the publishing industry or maybe even consumer fatigue with what you’ve called feminism as an aesthetic, marketplace feminism. So what do you think about that?
I love Jude’s piece. I just thought it was really lovely and I really appreciated that they talked about so many different aspects of what made Bitch different. I agree with you though that so much of Bitch’s struggles have always been related to the idea of how people value media and whether they value independent media. It was really never easy financially to be a feminist nonprofit, like none of us got in it for the money. That was never a thing. But over the years, certainly the thing that made us stand out in an increasingly digital marketplace was the fact that we also had a print magazine. But the print magazine became increasingly hard to sustain because the cost of printing kept going up, the magazine distribution process is very arcane and often quite wasteful.
That presented us with a real dilemma in the sense that the print magazine was our flagship product, but it was also the thing that tied up the most money and kept us from really being able to develop a lot of our non-magazine programming, whether that was podcasts or our campus program.
After the announcement was made about closing and there was the initial round of loving eulogies, some former Bitch staffers spoke up on social media about working conditions at the magazine and company, basically talking about how overworked they felt. One of them was Marina Watanabe, a former Bitch social media editor, and she wrote a thread on Twitter that she ended by asking, “Is it possible to be an independent feminist org that exists under capitalism and not have these issues of burnout and overwork?” What do you think?
I think that’s an incredibly valid question and it’s certainly one that has come up so many times during Bitch’s lifespan. And unsustainability isn’t just financial. If everyone is feeling overworked and everyone is feeling burned out and everyone feels like they’re doing two or three jobs, that’s also not sustainable. I think with nonprofits and often with workplaces that are by and for women, there can be this dangerous dynamic that you get into of feeling like, “If I complain that I’m working too hard or I’m not getting paid enough, I am going against the spirit of this project.”
We were always very conscious of not wanting to perpetuate that. At the same time, I feel like increasingly so many media organizations, nonprofit or not, have those problems. It is a problem with capitalism, and not just feminism. I think overwork and burnout are really endemic to most progressive organizations, and I can’t really say for sure what would solve that.