Sandra Fluke, attorney and women's rights activist, after her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Sandra Fluke, attorney and women’s rights activist, after her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Credit: Jared Soares for PBS NewsHour on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–When the Susan G. Komen for the Cure went public about its internal rift over Planned Parenthood in January, the year was off and running for women’s media rights and leadership.

Before 2012 was over, Planned Parenthood, under the leadership of Cecile Richards, was lauded for its winning record of campaign spending.

One of the biggest episodes of this women’s media year involved Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law student that Limbaugh called a slut and insulted no fewer than 46 times. Jodi Jacobson “and 3,565 followers” started a petition to get ProFlowers to withdraw its sponsorship of “The Limbaugh Show.” It spread like wildfire on the Web and within a month 68 sponsors dropped support. The Limbaugh show still airs, but due to an inflated contract, over-hyped listener numbers and very low revenues, it is costing radio stations to run it.

The Melissa Harris Perry show launched in February on MSNBC, adding a huge boost to the voices of progressive women of color.

New Jersey teenagers used social media to press for a female moderator of the presidential debates. They garnered a lot of press and whether coincidence or not, Candy Crowley wound up moderating CNN’s face off between President Barack Obama and the GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Women organized when Virginia and Texas attacked abortion with new laws–TRAP aggravations (medically unnecessary, politically motivated state regulations) in the former and trans-vaginal ultrasounds requirements in the latter. They led demonstrations on Capitol steps and the feminist blogosphere moved public awareness by ripple effect from their platforms into other progressive and mainstream media.

To ridicule the Texas law, for instance, Gary Trudeau created a character who seeks an abortion appearing in his longstanding “Doonesbury” strip. It was censored in over 50 media outlets. The year wasn’t even a quarter over yet.

Inflammatory GOP Comments

During the thick of the election two Senate candidates–“illegitimate rape” Todd Akin and “pregnancy by rape ‘was part of God’s plan'” Richard Mourdock–bellowed their ignorance about women’s bodies. Feminist media writers and spokeswomen were no longer alone. GOP candidate Romney provoked a flood of visual amusement and Halloween costumes with a debate reference to “binders full of women.”

By the year’s midpoint, 25 studies, reports or articles that investigated forms of severe media bias against women were published.

“Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study” by two professors–Nicole Martins at Indiana University Bloomington and Kristen Harrison, director of the Media Psychology group at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan–documented the deleterious effects of television on the self-esteem of young boys of color and all girls.

In a study of film festivals, The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that only 18 percent of independent dramatic works are directed by women.

In January at the Sundance Film Festival, dramatic and documentary features submitted by women made up a meager 17 percent. (Reason why that matters: When women can’t tell stories they can’t dismantle repressive norms and foster visions for change.)

In February VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, released its annual report, The Count. It continued to find women’s bylines in low supply at major literary magazines and reports on literature. The New York Review of Books ranked with a particularly low score of 19 women to 133 male writers.

Among a myriad of data in “Women Rule,” a report by Women Who Tech, it was found that 55 percent of women use social media but only 5 percent of tech start-ups are women owned.

That’s just a sample. All told, the year’s findings on women and media provide an anthology of persistent discrimination by corporate, commercial media. Which is why more women-owned independent media is paramount.

2012 Accomplishments, Setbacks

In this area we see quite a few accomplishments. To name just a few:

  • Women’s eNews, the nonprofit publisher of this commentary, is now in its 13th year.
  • RH Reality Check transitioned to its own 501(3), and through outstanding growth is now hiring five new staff.
  • Feminist Frequency’s “Tropes vs Women” video series drew 6,968 backers on Kickstarter with $158,922; making a funding rate of 2,548 percent. (Yes, 2,548 percent, not a typo.)
  • After a successful Indiegogo fundraiser, Women Action and the Media, a national advocacy organization which seeks gender equity in media, is building a network of members–“a new kind of justice league”–to initiate a gender justice media ecosystem.

But the year also saw setbacks:

  • Tight money forced New Moon Girls, a 20-year-old magazine, to cancel its summer hard-copy edition.
  • In August, after 24 years of operation, Boston-based Teen Voices closed its doors.
  • The 40-year-old Our Bodies Ourselves has had to tighten its belt. They just concluded a special fundraising campaign, “Send Our Bodies Ourselves to Congress,” to make sure lawmakers were better informed about real women’s health issues. The effort squeaked by with just enough raised to send every member of Congress a copy of the book.

Women’s media matters because, among other things, it affects laws and politics.

Five of the six female candidates supported by the Women’s Campaign Fund won their Senate races. This is a great victory. In the House races, however, the campaign’s 16 wins were outnumbered by 22 losses. State legislative challenges turned up a higher failure rate for candidates backed by the fund.

What if more women’s media could have covered more of these races? We’ll never know the answers, but we know media with a gendered view can spotlight women’s issues within local congressional districts not only during election cycles, but also on an on-going, regular basis.

In 2013, champions of progressive women need to build alliances with independent women-led media to accomplish this. In the new year women with capital resources, and other investors, need to step up to increase their support of women-led media.

If not, we will lose the ability to frame issues on our own terms and many of our concerns will remain invisible. Hiring a first-ever woman to work on media policy from a gender justice lens–like ensuring the Federal Communications Commission fulfills its commitment to women’s media-ownership or tying together all the variant media reports of 2012 into one large sweeping report–would be a good place to begin.

Ariel Dougherty is media maker and strategist with over 40 years experience working in the feminist media and cultural communities.

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