Credit to Author: Nona Willis Aronowitz| Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2019 21:06:16 +0000
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“I did not want to be a person who was sitting down with the New York Times,” Moira Donegan says in a video for that very publication. Her voice, shaky and crackly, is overlaid onto B-roll of her: face pallid, bags under her eyes, gait stiff. At one point, the camera pans down to Donegan’s trembling, writhing hands. “Are you a little nervous right now?” someone asks from behind the camera. “Yeah!” Donegan replies, her forehead wrinkling, as if it’s the most obvious thing she’s ever heard.
The video was taken in the dead of winter 2018, just after Donegan revealed in a long essay for The Cut that she was the creator of the anonymous crowdsourced Google spreadsheet called Shitty Media Men. Meant as a warning to other women, the list had attributed a wide range of bad behavior and misconduct—from “weird lunch dates” to “rape”—to male media employees. Given that it became one of the major flashpoints of the #MeToo movement, it’s wild to remember that the list was on the internet for less than 12 hours on October 11, 2017, just a few days after the Harvey Weinstein story had dropped. In the two weeks since The Cut piece was published and the video was taken, Donegan had barely left her apartment, leaving only to buy groceries and go to her girlfriend’s house. Her inbox was flooded with emails from people “whose motives I didn’t know, and some of them were pretty cruel.” She was unemployed, unslept, and terrified.
“My future at that time in that moment was very uncertain, and I had a lot of evidence to think it was going to be small and bleak,” she told me, almost two years later.
A lot has happened since then, some of it bleak, but none of it small. At 29, Donegan is now a columnist for the Guardian US and is working on a book about sexual violence, due out in 2020. She has more than 42,000 Twitter followers, to whom she shares her thoughts about leftist history, feminism, media, and Elizabeth Warren, her preferred 2020 presidential candidate. One of the men on the list filed a lawsuit against her, for defamation and distress, seeking $1.5 million in damages, but Donegan has some formidable legal representation on her side.
Her work has allowed her to move with her partner, Kat, into a small but charming prewar apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The first time we met to talk for this piece, Donegan and Kat cooked me a meal of roast chicken, vegetables, and sparkling wine. A bookshelf to the left of the table was stuffed with titles like Susan Faludi’s Backlash, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Joan Didion’s The White Album. Things have calmed down considerably, but in the depths of the controversy, it was hard for her to imagine the life she has now.
“I did something that I still believe was the right thing to do,” she said. “But it had implications far beyond what I’d anticipated.”
In early 2017, months before the #MeToo movement and the seismic shift in her life, Donegan wrote a review in the New Yorker of Rebecca Solnit’s book The Mother of All Questions. In it, she discusses the tradition of feminist storytelling as an organizing tool, name-checking early Second Wave feminist groups like the New York Radical Women and Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which held small women-only meetings to discuss how sexism seeped into their daily lives. Donegan seems reverent of history but skeptical about consciousness-raising’s net effectiveness: “After all, if telling these stories had the power to change the way women are treated, why do we still have so many stories to tell?” she wrote. “Having the power to speak is not the same as a guarantee that you’ll be listened to.”
This review hints at her professional ambitions at the time—“I always thought I was going to be a book critic,” she told me—but it also reveals the left’s post-election defeatist strain. Women’s stories of pain and violence were everywhere, with increasing visibility, but telling them didn’t seem to be doing anything. A man who’d been accused of misconduct by dozens of women and been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault had become one of the most powerful people in the world; the wave of so-called cancellations were months away.
Donegan had only recently educated herself about the feminists she referred to in that piece, but she’s had an interest in both writing and gender for many years. She was a sulky teen in the idyllic town of Redding, Connecticut, who listened to Riot Grrrl, wrote in her journal, and browsed feminist zines at the local bookstore. She went to Bard College and majored in creative writing, then wrote her senior thesis about an obstetrician named Clovis Pierce, who coercively sterilized women, most of them Black and poor, in a rural part of South Carolina in the 1970s. Then, after an Americorps fellowship in New Orleans, Donegan came to New York to attempt magazine writing.
She had an unpaid internship at n+1, working to support herself through shifts at a dress store and later by copyediting at Us Weekly. She thought she was just going to be ringing people up at the former gig, but the job ended up fueling her feminism as she found herself constantly giving pep talks to self-conscious women. She was, as she recalled, directly confronted with women’s “near-universal conviction that they were moral failures, as evidenced by their bodies.”
Just before this period, in 2012, the early radical feminist Shulamith Firestone died. Donegan had passively identified as a feminist “in the 1990s way, without really knowing what it meant,” and she had taken one class about feminism in college, but suddenly she realized that Second Wave feminists, women she was vaguely aware of “in unflattering terms,” were real people who were still around. She read Firestone’s manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex, radical even by today’s standards. “It’s an insane book and you can tell she wrote it in a fever,” Donegan said. “There were parts of it that I found racist and there were parts of it that I found trippy in a very late-60s way, like the techno-futurist manifesto at the end. I was like, Wow, she went there.” Amid its chapters about artificial wombs and the abolition of the nuclear family, Donegan saw something familiar: women weaving their individual feelings in with actual theory.
This personal-political connection crystallized when, starting in 2014, Donegan helped start an “accidental consciousness-raising group” that met on and off for a year. It began as a kind of feminist book club, with a handful of other n+1-affiliated twentysomething women, most of them white, who were frustrated by the “defanged,” Lean In feminism that was on the rise. They started with the Marxists—Nancy Fraser’s Fortunes of Feminism, the Italian feminist Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero—and quickly moved on to Angela Davis and bell hooks and Kate Millett. Donegan called it “consciousness-raising” because “that’s what every session became, whether we wanted it to or not. Women found that the texts provoked recognition or rage at events in their own lives.” Eventually, they started deliberately, officially designating the second hour of their meeting to that endeavor.
The Isla Vista murders that year—in which Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree as “retribution” for women not having sex with him—felt like “a moment of legitimation” for the feeling Donegan and her friends had about the connection between sexual rejection and misogynist violence. “I started to understand that the experiences that me and other women were having because we are women,” she said, were “political experiences with the seriousness of political analysis.”
At this point, she had joined n+1 as an editor and started graduate school. She eventually transitioned to full-time jobs, ending up as an assistant editor at the New Republic. I briefly met Donegan around this time, in the summer before the 2016 election, when she was living in a huge, cheerily dilapidated group house in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that she’d found on Craigslist years earlier. I’d received a Facebook invite for a salonesque panel about ambition with writers Arabelle Sicardi, Jenna Wortham, and Ana Cecilia Alvarez—and since the group house was one block from my apartment, I decided to check it out. As I wandered around the gigantic living room, couches strewn around at weird angles, I was struck by the lack of ego and political dread. The surreal election hadn’t yet reached its jarring conclusion. We were in that strange moment during the late-stage Obama years between Occupy and the rise of “resistance” rhetoric, between the discredited Rolling Stone campus rape article and the tidal wave of #MeToo.
Then, in October 2017, Donegan read the Harvey Weinstein investigation in the New York Times. She was “utterly unsurprised” by it; even though she hadn’t even heard of Weinstein, she thought, “Oh yeah. Of course there’s a guy like that.” But a few days later, Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece came out, and something about its intentional, emotionally invested style hit Donegan hard. She and her friends started asking each other: “How many Harvey Weinsteins are there in our industry?”
These discussions, and “the cumulative weight of the secrets we’d been keeping on behalf of these men,” amounted to a breaking point for Donegan. After a fitful night of sleep, she opened a Google document, set the columns, wrote a disclaimer, and sent it to about eight close female friends. Donegan knew that most rapes aren’t reported, and the women who do report face a lot of hostility and antagonism. “I made this document in good faith,” she said. “The anonymity was not meant to enable false accusations. It was meant to protect accusers.”
By the evening, there were more than 70 men on the list, but that wasn’t the scary part. It was that, when Donegan looked at the list again after work, she could see hundreds of those “weirdly obscure” animals Google assigns to unnamed users. Donegan looked at the anonymous armadillos and capybaras and dragons, and thought: “I’m going to lose my job, I’m never going to be able to write again, I’m gonna have to hide.” She immediately assumed she’d be sued.
“I did something that I still believe was the right thing to do. But it had implications far beyond what I’d anticipated.”
The “noble part” of her brain was saying: Leave it up. The anonymity of the document had made people willing to say things they never had before, and she wanted to keep that option available. But the scared part of her brain realized she’d lost control, that the list was in the hands of people she couldn’t trust. She took down the document that night, but it was too late: BuzzFeed was already reporting on it, and many other news outlets followed. Her name wasn’t public, despite the fact that lots of people in the media knew she was the creator. Donegan remembers the response as “universal condemnation,” though the reality was more complicated. Many recognized that the list, while not a perfect solution, was “born out of frustration,” as Stassa Edwards wrote in a sympathetic piece for Jezebel.
Shortly after the list blew up, Donegan entered the “rough time.” Suddenly, she no longer worked at TNR. (Donegan says she is “not at liberty to discuss” the issue, while TNR has claimed that Donegan did not leave because of the list.) She couldn’t afford her room in the Crown Heights group house anymore, so she sublet a teensy room in an apartment where the oven didn’t work. Kat, then Donegan’s brand-new girlfriend, had a medical emergency that sent her to doctors all over the city. Many media people Donegan had been close to iced her out—perhaps, she speculates, because they interpreted her as tainted, or because someone they loved was on the list. There was, she said, a “tick-tock certainty that eventually I was going to be exposed.”
And then, one day, that threat became reality. After she’d declined a strange and vague request from the contrarian writer Katie Roiphe, asking her to comment on the “feminist moment,” a fact-checker from Harper’s asked Donegan to confirm that she was the creator of the list. “I spent the rest of the afternoon in a fetal position crying on my bed,” she said. She confided in a friend and said, “Tell me everything’s going to be OK.” Instead, her friend freaked out. “She saw me as being in dramatic and immediate danger.”
Donegan decided the only choice she had was to reveal herself on her own terms. Like a “doomsday prepper,” she said, she’d already drafted some parts of a piece in case the worst happened—a go-bag of an essay she later perfected after pulling an all-nighter. The New Yorker turned it down, but The Cut’s Stella Bugbee accepted it, and it went up on January 10. Frightened, Donegan lay low for weeks; a journalist found her brother and knocked on his door in San Francisco. To the people sending irate, sometimes violent emails, she was still a “hideous monster” who’d enabled false accusations.
But to many others, she was a feminist hero. Her piece provoked, she said, “a humbling and beautiful amount of love and support.” Donegan’s coming-out and its aftermath mirrored sexual assault survivors’ experience of being publicly dragged through the mud, which was what an anonymous list was supposed to shield women from. If you ask Donegan, her experience with scrutiny and online misogyny just underscored the need for that kind of list. Through this lens, Donegan’s story, told in her own eloquent words, struck many as brave and clarifying. It still made her a target, but now she was a target with the respect of activists and media gatekeepers.
She figured she’d try to create something positive from this moment—especially because she was badly in need of work. “If you’re involved in a high-profile feminist internet controversy, people aren’t exactly lining up to hire [you],” she said. “It foreclosed a lot of possibilities. So it was sort of like, what [else] can I possibly do, even just for money, than take this opportunity and use this platform to advocate for women’s liberation?”
I'm so happy that it's packed!!!" Donegan texted me as we sent pictures back and forth from Washington Square Park on a damp September day, trying to find each other’s exact location. The Elizabeth Warren rally had filled up faster than we anticipated, and soon we were hopelessly separated. We listened to the speech on opposite sides of the park, as Warren told the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and how it directly inspired the career of Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor and the first woman appointed to the U.S. cabinet.
After the rally, Donegan and I met up in front of the Washington Square Hotel. “I feel, like, terrified and very naïve at how much I want this person to be president,” she told me—much as many Hillary fans must have felt. “I’m waiting for her to break my heart. But it’s nice to be in the middle of that kind of public happiness for once.” She was impressed by the speech, which put an emphasis on the federal judiciary, and she appreciated the Perkins framing. Warren was “reminding people that there is a lineage of women-led worker power,” Donegan said, “and [Perkins] is a really useful and inspiring example of that.”
A few days later, we met at a place full of that same lineage: the feminist bookstore Bluestockings, on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, (her suggestion). I was frightfully early, so I bought Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and watched a store employee hawk female condoms (“for all genders,” she clarified). Donegan was late—she was scrambling to hit a deadline for, coincidentally, The Cut.
Donegan has spent the past year digging further and further into our collective feminist heritage. As soon as her essay in The Cut was published, a handful of literary agents reached out to her. But she already had an agent, with whom she’d long been mulling a book examining womanhood through the lives of female saints, “like The Argonauts, but Catholic.” For obvious reasons, though, it seemed more urgent to write a directly political feminist book—and more practical, given her job prospects at the time. She toiled on a proposal until May, and in early summer, sold the book, which she described as “a feminist analysis of sexual harassment and assault, presented through the survivor’s perspective.”
Researching the book has forced her to confront some of what she calls the “enemy feminists” that have been written off by the younger generation. She’s come to see them as individuals rather than a problematic monolith: Susan Brownmiller, for instance, “said some pretty inexcusable things about Emmett Till”; on the other hand, “her historical research about rape is absolutely unparalleled.” Unlike Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon, there are things Donegan would never support, like pitting the carceral state against sex workers or partnering with the religious right, but “I admire how uncompromising they were. They had the courage of their convictions.”
Her legacy as the list creator continues to move her into that same status of an unflinching figurehead, despite (or perhaps at times because of) the threat of great personal cost. Donegan said she can’t talk about the lawsuit brought against her last year by Stephen Elliott, one of the men who appeared on the list; he filed one day before the yearlong statute of limitations for defamation was up. What seemed at first to be a deeply existential threat to abuse survivors and free speech alike—Elliott’s lawyers have attempted to subpoena Google for the names of anyone who contributed to the document, with the intent to sue them as well—has now taken a tentatively triumphant turn. Shortly after the lawsuit was announced, an iconic feminist attorney offered her services pro bono: Robbie Kaplan, a co-founder of Time’s Up, who represented Edith Windsor in the Supreme Court case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Google has thus far resisted attempts to gather data about the list, and in March, a federal judge narrowed down Elliott’s case considerably. In May, Donegan’s attorneys served a motion to dismiss Elliott’s defamation complaint, citing lack of malice.
One might imagine such experiences could isolate her indefinitely, but as with many women before her, the #MeToo years have given Donegan a profoundly renewed respect for consciousness-raising. To her, that means hearing another woman’s story and not only relating to it, but realizing it’s a “gendered pain,” rather than “a neutral, inevitable force of shittiness in one’s life,” she said. She also now understands that it’s not just activism: Since women’s lives are often not taken seriously, sharing stories doubles as data collection “from which we can begin to trace patterns and form theories.” That data is essential for feminism, whose history gets routinely erased. “I find that we’re reinventing the wheel, because there’s this history that’s been taken away from us,” Donegan said. “Consciousness-raising is something that’s a lot harder to take away. Opinions can be written off in a way that a person’s story can’t.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.