Bitch magazine has been around since 1996, long before Jezebel or DoubleX or Beyoncé performing in front of a giant “Feminist” sign.* The publication’s objective—to provide a feminist response to pop culture—is evident is its most recent issue, where a piece on “the contentious intersection of Western capitalism and the hijab” ran alongside a tribute to MTV’s Daria. During an idle scroll through social media last week, I came across a fundraising campaign for Bitch Media, the Portland, Oregon–based nonprofit that publishes the magazine; in the wee hours of the drive, it looked like it wasn’t going to hit its $30,000 goal. I called up Bitch’s publisher, Kate Lesniak, who talked about the challenges of running an independent feminist media organization in the age of Trump. (The following interview has been condensed and edited.)
Slate: You just finished up a fundraising campaign, right?
Kate Lesniak: Yes. The campaign ended on May 31. We run about four fundraising campaigns a year. And we do that because that’s the rhythm of our cash flow. Bitch prints a print magazine, and that can be very expensive.
I got worried when I saw that the campaign was going to end in a few hours and the goal hadn’t been met yet.
I’ve been a fundraiser for a long time, whether in politics or here in a feminist media organization, and thinking about deadlines and the way that people respond to deadlines—hands down, people will give at the last possible moment. The closer you are to a deadline, the more likely folks are to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I think this is really important, I’m going to step up and do something about it.” One of the results of not expecting corporate sponsorship or angel investors is that we don’t have a consistent big check coming from somebody. It means that we have to ask our readers for support.
You’re trying to move away from tireless fundraising toward a more sustainable model with the B-Hive membership program, but it seems like now you’re caught in this moment of having to do both.
We’ve had to shift and tell a different story and say, “Bitch is not just a magazine. We’re a multimedia organization.” Honestly, we have more listeners for some podcasts than we do print subscribers. It’s about shifting our revenue model to match the organization that we are now and paying as much attention to funding those different programs as we do to printing the magazine and mailing it out.
Despite it being a difficult climate for media and journalism, institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post have received big postelection subscription bumps.
One of the things that people are starting to say is, “What media outlets provide the media that I believe in, or some sort of values that I ascribe to?” You see the New York Times say, “If you believe in truth, subscribe to the New York Times.” You see these values statements put out by news organizations because they want to say, “We have a theory of change about how the world should work, and this is our role in that,” and that is just ripped straight from the playbooks of social justice and community organizers.
Has politics taken on a new emphasis in your fundraising?
Bitch has always been political, but we want to be intentional about not letting political coverage, especially of Trump and Trump’s administration, take over the other things that are happening at Bitch. We’ve tried to compartmentalize that coverage of Trump. I think the last time I ran the numbers on it, the readership of our political coverage has been up by 17 percent since the election.
The fact that we’ve elected a white supremacist to the White House reflects the culture that we’ve always been living in. Now that more people know about that and believe it, because it’s been validated by 63 million Americans, let’s talk about that. Bitch has always been here to do the same work, and I think that speaks to the lasting power of the mission we were founded with.
How do you think about Bitch’s place in the landscape now, with such an explosion of feminist media?
First of all, it’s awesome to see so much feminist media out there. It’s a testament to the work we’ve also been doing for 21 years and that other outlets have been doing for so long. For example, Teen Vogue is doing amazing work right now. However, if you look at the difference between Teen Vogue and Vogue, the natural progression from Teen Vogue is not to Vogue—it’s to Bitch, it’s to some other magazine, it’s to reading Everyday Feminism.
We have the opportunity to say that “empowertising” and the co-optation of feminist language by corporations—this stuff is dangerous. We’re independently funded and we don’t have to answer to anybody. We believe that there’s a connection between where you get your funding from, who’s controlling your bottom line, and the things that you’re able to say.
What if a corporation comes along that also seems to have a feminist message and wants to advertise?
We don’t ever want to be reliant on the success of an advertising campaign with our readers. If there’s a massive corporation that wants to reach out to our readers and our readers call bullshit on it, then that’s not living up to our values. This is something that Andi Zeisler, the co-founder of Bitch who still runs our fellowship programs, talks about, and a lot of folks talk about this: When you believe that you’re buying a product with a feminist message, you get this underlying sense that you are doing the feminist work that needs to be done in order to change the world by buying that product. And the truth is that buying a T-shirt, buying a stick of deodorant, getting “Fuck Trump” lipstick—that’s not the work that needs to be done in order to change the world. It waters down both the tactics and the language of feminism as a movement and co-opts them for corporate profit.
*Correction, June 6: This post originally misstated that Beyoncé performed in front of a "Feminism” sign. It said “Feminist.”