Allied Arts & Media

Moving Pictures: What We Learned from Women Filmmakers at TIFF 2019

Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) on the red carpet in at TIFF 2019 in Toronto. Photo by Frazer Harrison

Last year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and its counterparts in Cannes and Venice committed to achieving gender parity in film selections by 2020, signing the historic 5050×2020 agreement. With the Share Her Journey fundraising campaign, TIFF created the Micki Moore Residency (for female screenwriters), the inaugural TIFF Talent Accelerator (for female directors, producers, and writers), and achieved gender parity in both the TIFF Filmmaker Lab and TIFF’s programming team.

Despite those initiatives, the total number of female-fronted films barely nudged up from 35 to 37 percent at TIFF, a fact lamented by TIFF’s own co-head, Joana Vicente. In 2019, Venice selected only two films by female directors for its 21-film competition while Cannes selected four out of 19. Unlike Vicente, the heads of Cannes and Venice argued that redressing exclusion by quotas alone could dilute quality.

Women directors enjoyed the last laugh at that, with Manele Labidi’s Arab Blues winning Venice’s audience choice award, and Mati Diop taking the Grand Prix at Cannes for her film Atlantics, while also making history as the first Black woman director to compete at Cannes.

Here at LiisBeth, we wondered what happens when women get the opportunity to direct the storytelling? Do film plots, points of view, and ideas shift? And what might feminist entrepreneurs directing enterprises of their own take away from these narratives?

Five Films, Five Takeaways

At TIFF 2019, many international films made by women rejected facile notions of “girl power” or “leaning in” in favour of more dissonant, challenging plots. Take this cross-section of five films, which unsettle assumptions about who women are, what we can achieve, and what our models for work can be.

Arab Blues: Things Rarely Go According to Plan

I can see why French-Tunisian director Manele Labidi’s bittersweet comedy won the audience choice award at Venice. It was my favourite, too.

The film follows young, intrepid Selma (Golshifteh Farahani), who studied in Paris for 10 years, as she returns to her hometown in Tunis to start her own psychotherapy practice for locals, post-revolution.

Challenges abound. The labyrinthine licensing bureaucracy forces Selma to work around the law. Locals are amused or irritated by her services. Yet her sessions soon become truly rewarding moments in the film. They not only reveal the limits of Selma’s tacit mentor, Freud (whose portrait hangs on her office wall), but also how she is an outsider in her own hometown.

Ultimately, Selma’s status as an outsider helps her forge her own path and build a more culturally nuanced “talking cure.” Starting from a vague desire to “help,” Selma learns why she really chose this path, which deepens both her practice and her clients’ lives.

The takeaway: Entrepreneurs know that the best laid (business) plans can fall apart fast. Many opportunities must be seen—and seized—on the fly. Only much later can we see why we started.

How to Build a Girl: Success at Your Own Expense Equals Failure

Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures

Coky Giedroyc’s UK film brings to life Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel. Working-class ’90s teenager Johanna (a dynamite Beanie Feldstein) morphs into “Dolly Wilde,” a mean-spirited music journalist alter ego. Her scathing review of Queen, for example, bears the withering headline, “Bohemian Crapsody.”

Discussions of entrepreneurship often emphasize the value of failure. How to Build a Girl, however, reveals that failing can be a lot harder for a working-class girl stuck among posh bros. For Johanna, there’s no safety net if she doesn’t win, yet dudes set the terms for that “win.”

The more Johanna becomes Dolly, and the more men reward her, the more we see all the problems of her “success.” That makes for a refreshing feminist rebuke: Don’t mistake sexist cynicism for intelligence, let alone success.

No spoilers, but this well-written script will have women, especially those who’ve had to play “one of the guys,” cheering on nerdy, smart-girl Johanna long past the closing credits.

The takeaway: Trying to become someone you’re not isn’t worth it—even if all signs point to a win.

 Harriet: Don’t Lead Later, Lead Now

After directing the haunting Eve’s Bayou in 1997, Kasi Lemmons joined a coterie of Black American filmmakers who seemed on the cusp of transforming the film industry. Sadly that did not materialize thanks to persistent Hollywood racism.

Lemmons’ latest, Harriet, suggests a new day. It’s a suspenseful biopic of Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then returned to lead others to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Indeed, Harriet begs the question of why it took so long for the story of this amazing woman to reach the big screen.

Played with verve and grit by Cynthia Erivo, the diminutive Harriet displays a fierce will to eliminate slavery. Underestimated, even by herself at first, she begins in fear-driven flight, and then buoyed by faith and success, dives undaunted into leadership.

Harriet illustrates and intertwines three layers of Black female leadership—Harriet Tubman, Erivo in an Oscar-worthy performance, and Lemmons as auteur. For all three, defeat should have been inevitable, but they persevered.

The takeaway (in Harriet’s words): “I’ve come this far on my own, so don’t you dare tell me what I can’t do.”

Atlantics: Communities, Not Individuals, Generate Heroism

For those in social justice–driven enterprises, it’s hard to keep fighting the good fight, day after day. Directed by Mati Diop, this Senegalese-French-Belgian co-production, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, is both ghost story and love story, a poetic, magical take on how we can keep on pressing on—if we don’t try to go it alone.

Atlantics opens with several men demanding, but not receiving, unpaid wages for their work on a half-finished high-rise in Dakar. From there, we see the relentless, sun-bleached ocean. Crashing waves foreshadow how the men will soon be doomed refugees, a juxtaposition that drives two star-crossed lovers apart.

Or do they part? Atlantics dives into magical realism to suggest that unresolved historical trauma will have the last say. Mourning women left behind start to embody the men’s ghosts—and demand retribution. Eschewing realism, Atlantics offers a powerful, poignant parable.

The takeaway: By acting as a community, substantive social change can unfold.

Three Summers: Adversity Can Reveal Surprising Allies

We don’t always know who our allies are until push comes to shove, and those who show up may not be whom we expect.

This Brazilian-French film, directed by Sandra Kogut, offers a canny exploration of class struggle. The legendary Regina Casé plays Madá, the lead housekeeper at a wealthy resort in Rio de Janeiro. Over three summers, we see how her boss’s white-collar crimes affect but do not defeat Madá.

Based on the real-life Operation Car Wash investigation in Rio, Three Summers isn’t interested in rich criminals. They’re more sad sacks than masterminds. Instead, the film spends time with the staff, mostly women led by Madá. They are as pragmatic and resourceful as they are funny and kind, even when caught in the crossfire.

Madá transitions from identifying with her employers to supporting her coworkers and strikes up a friendship with her ex-boss’s elderly father, Lira. He’s abandoned—like the staff—and considered useless by his own self-absorbed family. Three Summers builds a plucky collective of who’s left behind, and how they survive this failed (last?) resort.

The takeaway: Allies take surprising forms. We need to stay connected to those who show up for the hard work, for these allies will prove far more valuable in the end.

That’s a wrap! If you attended TIFF, what films made you leave the theatre inspired and ready to act?

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Activism & Action

Lessons from the Downfall of a Feminist Leader

Victorial Claflin Woodhull, Politician, Entrepreneur, Feminist

Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872, more than a century before Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton. She gave speeches at several suffragist conventions, befriended Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and advocated for women’s rights as a leader of first-wave feminism.

Yet few people have heard of Victoria Woodhull. Those who have don’t often realize that Woodhull was also a serial entrepreneur who notched many “firsts.” She was the first woman to set up a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She published the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, the first feminist newspaper of its kind in the United States. It gained national notoriety, advocating for a woman’s right to control her own sexuality and calling out the societal hypocrisy of tolerating married men having mistresses. It was also the first American publication to print The Communist Manifesto.

Yet, after achieving all those firsts, Woodhull was tossed in jail, her reputation was shredded, and she lost the fortune she made. Her feminist beliefs came at a high cost. But there are many lessons feminists can take from the spectacular rise and downfall of this 19th century feminist entrepreneur.

Lesson #1: Dire Necessity Can Breed Opportunity

Victoria Woodhull’s entry into entrepreneurship wasn’t a choice, let alone a privilege.

Woodhull was born in 1838 in Ohio to an impoverished family, and her family’s hardships forced her into an enterprising way of life. Her father committed insurance fraud and gambled. Her mother only allowed Woodhull to attend school intermittently between the eighth and eleventh grades, and her parents forced her into marriage a few weeks before her fifteenth birthday, under the assumption that her husband—Canning Woodhull, 28, who claimed to be a doctor— would economically provide for his young wife. But her husband was an alcoholic, had several mistresses, and did not practice medicine.

Before divorcing her husband (and keeping his name), Woodhull returned to her parents’ house with her two children in desperate financial need. Her father set her up as a fortune teller in an Ohio boardinghouse. “At that time, there was enormous interest in the occult,” writes Woodhull’s biographer Marion Meade in Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull. “Vicky predicted future events, gave business advice, solved bank robberies, straightened the feet of the lame, and made the deaf hear again. Or so she later would claim.”

And so, Woodhull launched her first business, offering psychic services, which set her on an entrepreneurial path that led to considerable success later in life.

Modern women entrepreneurs can see a version of their story in Woodhull’s. According to the 2018 Global Entrepreneur Monitor Report, as many as 17 percent of entrepreneurs in North America are motivated by financial need. Many women start businesses not because they want to quit full-time jobs or seek career fulfillment, but because they desperately need money and see no other options. This trend is known as “necessity entrepreneurship.”

In running her first business, Woodhull learned how to read the market for trends, honed her people skills through client interactions, and eventually won herself the mentor she needed to pivot to other businesses.

Lesson #2: The Precarity of Male Funding

In 1863, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the wealthiest man in the United States. Woodhull met him after she moved to New York City with her new husband, Colonel James Blood, and her younger sister, Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin. Keen to have his fortune told, Vanderbilt attended his first psychic reading with the sisters and became a repeat customer. Traces of sexual interest permeated through his relationship with the two—he asked Tennie to marry him; she refused—but he continued to book their services and eventually started teaching them how to buy and sell stocks.

The sisters acted on his advice. At the time, women were not allowed inside the New York Stock Exchange, even as visitors, so they sent Woodhull’s husband to make their trades on Wall Street. Eventually, the sisters opened their own brokerage firm, becoming the first women to do so, with Blood serving as their accountant and secretary. Vanderbilt agreed to invest in their enterprise. He was no feminist, but the idea of two women on Wall Street “appealed to his sense of humour,” biographer Meade wrote.

Vanderbilt’s role in Woodhull’s business has echoes in today’s relationship between male venture capitalists and women-run businesses. Vanderbilt provided crucial financial support, and Woodhull knew that having a male mentor in her corner was advantageous, but their business relationship didn’t change the rules of the patriarchal culture she operated in.

Initially, Woodhull’s reputation soared, and with it came financial success. Journalists had unusually kind words for the first woman to ever work on Wall Street, and she became an immediate sensation in the press (though, as one might expect, reporters focused more on her elegant outfits and physical beauty than her business).

Woodhull soon became very wealthy. She moved into a mansion in Manhattan, opened her doors to her family, and turned her home into something of a salon for New York City radicals.

But the precariousness of Woodhull’s reliance on Vanderbilt’s investment became clear after she developed a public persona as a feminist. She spoke at women’s suffrage conventions and, with her sister Tennie, started the feminist newspaper Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. She helped launch a new political party, the People’s Party, later named the Equal Rights Party, and ran for president in 1872.

Not surprisingly, when Woodhull’s advocation of “free love” (a woman’s right to decide when to marry, divorce, and bear children without social restriction) sparked criticism, Vanderbilt withdrew his support and money, with disasterous consequences for Woodhull’s brokerage firm and newspaper. Without Vanderbilt’s stamp of approval, she was no longer considered a dignified businesswoman. Other men stopped doing business with Woodhull, and she was forced to shutter her newspaper and her office on Wall Street.

Lesson #3: The Personal is Political

As Woodhull built her public reputation as an entrepreneur, publisher, and politician, she kept her personal life out of the public eye. Her marriage situation would have been confounding to her contemporaries. Divorce was rare. She and her husband considered themselves “free lovers,” engaging in extramarital affairs. Woodhull even welcomed her first husband back into her home in Manhattan when he showed up at her door, drunk and homeless.

Woodhull’s personal life blew open in the New York press when her vengeful mother, Roxanna Claflin, filed a lawsuit against Woodhull’s husband, claiming he tried to murder her. The charges were quickly debunked in the courtroom, but reporters covering the case leapt on the salacious details of Woodhull’s home life, revealing to all of New York City that Woodhull lived with “both of her husbands.” By then, Woodhull was a widely recognized feminist, and the negative press fuelled accusations that the women’s movement would destroy the crux of Victorian society: the sacred family unit.

The scandal accelerated the bankruptcy of Woodhull’s brokerage firm and snuffed out her nascent political career.

Modern women entrepreneurs may identify all too well with the web of “conditionals” that trapped Woodhull: You can use your voice, so long as the public approves of what you say; start a business, but only if you can attract and retain the financial support of men; pursue sexual freedom, but at your own peril and risk losing your career and reputation.

Woodhull’s downfall utterly disproved the belief she held at the peak of her success, that women simply have to act like men’s equals in order to become their equals. Only after her business and political ambitions imploded did Woodhull understand how wrong she had been.

Lesson #4: Patriarchy Has Many Ways to Silence Difficult Women

Desperate to save her reputation, Woodhull used her newspaper to plead her case and amplify her voice. She wrote in the Weekly: “Victoria C. Woodhull’s personal and individual private life is something entirely distinct from her public position…. If Mrs. Woodhull has valuable ideas, what has her past history to do with them?” When that didn’t win over detractors, she took a more aggressive stance in a letter to the New York Times, contending that plenty of men practiced free love and received no criticism for it. “I shall make it my business to analyze some of the lives,” she concluded.

The first person she took to task was Reverend Henry Beecher, the most famous pastor in the country with more than 2,000 congregants gathering for his Sunday sermons. He publicly railed against free love and prostitution, while privately conducting numerous extramarital affairs. Woodhull was friends with one of the couples involved in Beecher’s infidelity, so she published an exposé about the reverend’s hypocrisy in the Weekly.

A young male lawyer levelled obscenity charges at Woodhull for her article on Beecher’s affairs, and Woodhull was actually jailed—for weeks—as her trial date was continually postponed. With Woodhull behind bars, the Reverend’s reputation was restored, while Woodhull’s was further damaged.

When Woodhull was finally released, she fled to England, married a wealthy count and lived out her remaining 44 years disavowing feminist philosophies she once held so dear and had worked so hard to make reality. Woodhull became the type of woman her younger self would have been dismayed by: fearful, quiet, repressed.

Lesson #5: The Strength of Feminism Is in Diversity

It’s hard not to read Woodhull’s story as a dire warning. When a woman speaks up, it’s often her reputation and personality rather than her ideas that are put on public trial. Perhaps this is especially true when the woman in question is an entrepreneur, politician, or media figure—or all three as Woodhull was. The financial and personal repercussions were severe for Woodhull who lost her home, her family, her life’s savings, even her faith in feminism. With such an historical precedent, is it any wonder that more of us don’t start companies, dare to effect change, or run for office?

Certain aspects of Woodhull’s plight remain shockingly relevant. Women-run businesses still rely heavily on financial support from male investors who determine the (patriarchal) rules they must abide by. The media still puts women on trial for the public offence of being a woman—passing judgement on looks, dress, personality, and behaviour—as well as punishing every deviation outside “acceptable” norms. Woodhull’s allegations against the untouchable Reverend Beecher foreshadow #MeToo exposés of powerful men, but a lone woman’s voice still doesn’t carry much weight; it took many years and victims before Harvey Weinstein was brought to justice. And Woodhull’s wrongful imprisonment for daring to take on a powerful man sadly echoes in President Trump’s “lock her up” taunts aimed at his political rival, Hillary Clinton.

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly feminist newspaper had challenges that contemporary feminist publications still face. In her final post on Rookie, founder and editor Tavi Gevinson wrote about the complexities of raising money from male investors and then having to be answerable to them, as Woodhull was with Vanderbilt. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner parlayed their public personas to grow an audience for Lenny Letter, which tied the fate of the publication to the reputations of the founders, as Woodhull’s newspaper was. When the two celebrities tweeted their support for a man accused of sexual assault, some writers were so angry they boycotted the site, undoubtedly contributing to the closure of Lenny Letter soon after.

Woodhull’s rise and fall, both in the context of her own time and ours, has a key takeaway: there is a particular danger in over-identifying any one person, business, or publication with the feminist movement. Today’s socially conscious entrepreneurs seem to understand the pitfalls of attaching a feminist media business to a personal platform. Consequently, more publications try to amplify a multiplicity of perspectives. Kayla E., editor-in-chief of Nat. Brut literary magazine, emphasizes that publishing a feminist magazine comes with this responsibility. “It’s not just about my singular vision as an editor,” she says. “We have a duty to advocate for our readership. I want Nat. Brut’s legacy to be that we cared, that we saw people, heard people, and gave a platform to people who wouldn’t have otherwise had one.”

Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly didn’t survive past its sixth birthday. Hopefully, feminist publishing successors, amplifying a chorus of feminist voices, will be much harder to stamp out.

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Will Next Generation News Media Ownership Be Gender Balanced?

The world needs more women media company entrepreneurs


It’s April 2019. How difficult is it to launch and grow an innovative an independent journalistic media enterprise as a woman? Especially since the industry appears to be financially collapsing all around us. What unique barriers do women media entrepreneurs face? Is there any equity inspired public support?

Three years ago, along with the support of a few advisors and friends, I launched LiisBeth. We noticed and became increasingly concerned about the significant and persistent gender, diversity and inclusion issues in the growing entrepreneurship and innovation economy. We saw that no one was dedicated to interrogating it from a feminist point of view. We ignored the fact that media enterprises were folding all around us. In the Canadian news media space alone, over 260 outlets have closed in the last 10 years. The fact that there are fewer journalists today than ever before didn’t give us pause either. Since 2011, for every job lost in journalism there have been 17 jobs added in public relations and advertising (-1,230 vs. +21,320). We tenaciously believe the fourth estate—versus spin doctoring—remains important to any functioning democracy, and that storytelling can change lives, society, and the course of history. We persist despite the odds. We pivot and iterate. That’s what entrepreneurs do.

But back to what it’s like to grow a media enterprise as a woman? Two quick answers come to mind.

It’s beyond hard. Investors love media tech platforms. But are wary about investing in journalistic content. Even fewer want to spend money investing in feminist-led editorial programs that might upset the status quo. Or unnerve friends in positions of power who helped them get to where they are. Fear of reprisals for truths told are a real concern for many. Society also doesn’t like to hear women who think. Feminist writer Rebecca Solnit notes: “Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it [the status quo], often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the centre; those who embody what is not heard, or what violates those who rise on silence, are cast out.” What she is telling women media entrepreneurs is this: Starting a fashion blog or parenting media property would be far less risky. And likely more successful in attracting readers and growth bucks.

Barriers? Plenty. Starting with having an opinion, and a vagina—especially a mature one. Women publishers in search of truth, with iron stomachs and interrogative skills, scare people. Women entrepreneurs face significant access to investment capital barriers. Women over 50, like myself, are ineligible for the majority of publicly funded entrepreneur support programs which generally favour youth. As if that demographic, lovely and challenged as it is (I have an 18-year-old), is the only one capable of innovating and in need of income. We end up bootstrapping and growing our ventures one relationship-based subscription at a time, only scratching the surface of our true potential, feeling very much alone.

Yet, we need more women-led news media entrepreneurs than ever before. If what we want is a more inclusive society—and democracy—we need more women of colour, Indigenous women, feminists, and LGBTQ media enterprise founders in this space.

report released in December 2018 by The Discourse underscores the need even further. The report says, “…the majority of [news media] upstarts are founded by men, and predominately white men. Most female founders are also white. If news outlets owned and operated by women and people of colour cannot access support to start and grow, the next generation of Canadian media will not represent Canadians in their ownership, newsrooms, stories published, and communities served.”

The good news is that many enterprising women of all backgrounds are beginning to notice the opportunity. Toes are in the water.

Yet unless readers and innovation economy ecosystems begin to support promising, diverse, women-led media outlets with their dollars, these new enterprises and their hungry journalist freelancers will experience the life-span of a Mayfly.

For those of you who have been reading about the Canadian federal government’s new $645M news media support fund and think this might be the answer—it’s not. At least not if what we are looking for is the development of diverse media enterprises. The fund’s criteria excludes small startups because it’s a tax credit, which means it’s only helpful if your enterprise generates a taxable profit in the first place (highly unlikely for a startup). Applicants are also disqualified if they “significantly promote a particular interest”. For example, outlets with a mandate to advance gender equity as part of their reporting work. Throughout, it favours large, established patriarchal print-led news organizations over startups that can add new voices to the mix.

Erin Millar, the founder of SheEO supported and venture funded news media startup, The Discourse Media, expressed similar concerns.  In The Discourse March 30th newsletter, Millar writes “As currently described they [funding program criteria] will disincentivize entrepreneurship and investment in early stage startups, and will ultimately chill innovation.”

The Canadian Periodical Fund’s business innovation grant program is also startup phobic—set up to fund “new projects” like consultant-led strategic planning exercises and small “i” innovation band-aids for established, large magazines. Versus supporting a digital startup’s growth phase with operating grants that can help them grow beyond the tadpole stage. At present, its idea of what a startup needs is a mere $5000 in seed money. If you are in the biz, you know that $5000 doesn’t even cover the cost of funding the development of two decent stories—if you aim to pay fairly i.e. at minimum writers’ union wages.

Given these facts, it is remarkable that entrepreneurs exist in the media space at all. Especially since industry analysts and experts routinely point out that in a social media-for-free world, traditional news and magazine industries are dead. Adding, “Besides, millennials don’t read.”

No wonder even patient social impact investors run for the hills.

However, my observation is that millennials do read and there are studies that back me up. In fact, people of all ages are reading more than ever. People are tired of vapid and often sponsored content, and are increasingly willing to pay for what they read—if they trust and find value in a publication’s editorial program. People are also realizing one media source—just like one doctor— can’t meet all of one’s needs. We need a variety of sources and formats to make healthier sense of what’s happening in an alternative fact, AI infected, digital media world.

So is there hope for entrepreneurs thinking of starting the next “Canadaland” or “Atlantic Monthly”? According to a recent research report by newcomer Discourse Media, “..there is a promising, emerging sub-sector within the media industry consisting of independent, digital media outlets using audience-pay models to deliver public service journalism in communities underserved by existing media. This sub-sector is innovative, dynamic, fast-growing and positioned to have a disproportionate impact on the renewal of the Canadian news ecosystem with a relatively modest investment.”

As a reader-supported feminist media upstart, LiisBeth is proud to be part of a rising tide of original content-creating entrepreneurs. And we hope you, our donating readers, are equally proud to be part of an indie media movement. A movement that will one day topple today’s dominating, but weakening, thunder-foot media giants and give way to an emergent landscape of vibrant, flowering and taproot-like ventures which will add texture, balance, and colour to today’s civic discourse.

We are already seeing some great examples of new indie digital media outlets though again, the large majority are male-led. The list includes  The NarwhalTaproot, Edmonton, Working it Out Together (WOIT), The Logic,, The PointerIndian and CowboThe SprawlMedia IndigenaThe Public Record, and The Deep.

History is full of examples of the power of the pen.

If you are keen to make a difference and help drive much needed systems change but not prepared, or in position, to start your own news media enterprise, consider at least emailing your local MP and ask them to advocate for a gender-based analysis of media ownership in this country, and the incorporation of a “set aside” in this fund that will ensure the advancement of women-owned media outlets.

Our hopes for a future gender-just world just might depend on it.

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Writing “Under His Name”

Photo: Unsplash


Five years ago, I was a senior marketing executive for a global academic publisher, developing communication strategies for STEM textbooks and public health journals. After the birth of my first child, I requested flexible working hours and was turned down. So, I joined the swelling ranks of mothers in the UK who have turned to self-employment in order to bring in a much-needed second household income while staying at home with my son.

As a publishing media graduate, I had always dreamed of being a writer before being lured onto the more financially stable path of marketing. I saw motherhood as my chance to start again. And so, in-between my son’s playdates, I scoured the internet top to bottom, reading articles like “How to Become a Freelance Writer and Earn $4,000 a Month” and “How to Become a Freelance Writer FAST With No Experience!” in my quest to kick-start a freelance writing career.

I learned enough about the seedy underworld of ‘content farms’ to know that I didn’t want to be the kind of writer churning out search engine–optimized, keyword-rich articles for as little as $2 a piece. While many new writers build a portfolio by writing for free, I would not be one of them.

Eventually, I came upon an ad posted by an online publishing platform with a large global readership: “Creative Writers Wanted to Produce Viral Content.” For all of US$17 an article, I wrote about the benefits of lemon water, cold showers, and cuddles. Mother by day, creator of listicles from the absurd to the ridiculous by night. Through the exhaustion of new parenthood, I made up life hacks for success, slimming, and sleep, trying hard to convince myself that I was, at least in some loose sense of the word, a writer. My words, however trivial, were being read on the internet by thousands—and sometimes millions—of people.

Several months in, I spent one memorably fraught evening making GIFS of KonMari folding techniques, before Marie Kondo’s Netflix show was even a thing. After that, I could hack the vapidity of the treadmill no more and set off in search of something slightly higher up the freelance food chain.

I found it in the form of a UK content agency advertising for “experienced writers with a journalistic background.” Though the output was more engaging, I was once again a cog in a machine run by white men. But they liked my writing and were willing to pay £25 a piece (C$48) so it felt like a step (albeit a baby one) in the right financial direction.

When my son was asleep and the washing was on—during what feminist writer Tillie Olsen called the “tag-ends of time”—I wrote about the ramifications of Brexit for American tech companies looking to expand overseas, the power of virtual reality for workforce training providers, and the organic baby food market for a design and branding agency. Though the deadline/family time balance was ever precarious, I genuinely enjoyed both the research and the writing (tea, silence, blurt:edit:polish).

And then I accidentally discovered the vast chasm between what the content agency was charging their clients for content and what they were paying me to write it. It was like 15 times more. I had not thought myself naïve, but the discovery shocked me out of my breastfeed-write-sleep-repeat routine long enough to realize that, somewhere between my eagerness to write and my willingness to please, I had been financially exploited.

From planning to publication, each article took me an average of five hours to complete. No matter how I looked at it, I was working for well below minimum wage. But for the self-employed, entrepreneurs, and freelancers, there is no mandated minimum wage. Some writers charge per day while others by project, word, or hour. New as I was to the game, setting my fees felt like a guessing game, with my sense of self-worth at one end and how much the client is prepared to pay at the other. And, since that client might be a cash-strapped startup or a corporate giant, there was a large sliding scale between the two. Meanwhile, I was competing against an almost endless supply of budding writers caught in a race-to-the-bottom wage war.

But I began the process of determining my worth by working out my ideal effort-to-earnings ratio. I requested a third more money per article. The agency agreed. Suspiciously quickly. In pitching myself too low, I had fallen foul of the “motherhood penalty,” as reported by 40 percent of US creative freelancers, the price to pay for familial flexibility. But after another six months, I went after a more ambitious uplift of 50 percent and won it. Two years on, I finally feel that, at £250 (C$430) per article, I am being paid a fair price for my work.

And then I began to realize that my dissatisfaction with content writing was never just about the money. Seeking fair pay provoked a wider awakening, prompting me to question some of the deeper inequalities within the content writing industry.

As a content writer, I create blog posts and thought leadership articles for business leaders, startup founders, and creative agencies. I do the research, thinking, and writing, but they get the credit for authorship with that coveted byline. This is simply how the global content marketing industry works. And it’s seriously big business (projected to be worth US$412 billion by 2021), with a 16 percent annual growth rate.

Then one day, an article I wrote for an app developer was featured in an industry publication. I had written plenty just like it but this time, the thrill of seeing my words on screen was tempered by the irritation of seeing the managing director take public credit for them.

I tried to develop a transactional mindset, but consciously commodifying your work is easier said than done. While readers implicitly understand that certain types of text (web copy, white papers, press releases, marketing material) are curated either collectively in-house or by an outside agency— with the copywriters accepting total anonymity as part and parcel of the job—content writing is often a much more personal affair. Even the most clinical of content writers trail nuanced wisps of themselves in syntax, style, and substance.

But we don’t get a wisp of credit. Over time, as I wrote opinion-driven, long-form articles for mostly male business leaders, my exchange of service for money had become a more problematic entanglement of submission/power. When I became the sole writer behind a series of first-person articles credited to a male entrepreneur, I started to really question the feminist implications of my work.

The articles were for an online platform celebrating and encouraging ethical business practices. Writing on behalf of that male entrepreneur, I extolled the virtues of trust and transparency in leadership, called for an end to unpaid internships, and promoted planet and people-centred policies. I was writing about everything I believed in. Therein lay the problem.

Because in writing “under his name,” my own identity diminished. I’m certainly not the first faceless female freelancer to write opinion-led articles that are publicly credited to someone else. I’m probably not the first to feel ethically uneasy about it either.

Of course, there are male content writers—just as there are female CEOs who engage them—but, as a female ‘thought provider’ to a male ‘thought leader,’ I was beginning to draw connections across the wider business world in which women do the hard thinking and men take the credit.

What, then, was the answer? Leave content writing for journalism and get proper public recognition for my work? That may resolve my feelings of discontent, but I also had to confront the uncomfortable truth that, since He has the authority and business reputation, I was more likely to be ‘heard’ writing under His byline. Thanks to the media’s devaluation of the female experience, my own story ideas were unlikely to command the column inches nor the publication rates of those within the Straight White Male paradigm. Do I remain an invisible but reasonably well-paid content writer? Or a financially struggling but satisfied freelance journalist?

For a while, I tried to enact change from within, using my anonymity to redress the gender imbalance as I saw it. I proposed features that celebrated International Women’s Day and made the business case for diversity. I prioritized quotes from female business leaders over male ones and wrote about businesses that had a poor track record on inequality. All the while signing off as Him with a personal flourish. On the surface, my subtle acts of resistance seemed positive, but I also worried about unwittingly leading readers to think that gender bias in business is less of a problem than it really is.

Writing as Him, I advocated for total supply chain transparency in manufacturing. As myself, I am calling for the same premise to be applied to the content writing industry. Specifically, I would like to see businesses publicly acknowledge the co-creational contributions of freelance writers, just as they would credit the designer who built their website. If work must be ghost-written on first publication, I recommend at least letting writers claim credit on their website. If not, writers should be able to charge a premium.

For me, content writing has served its purpose, allowing me to develop my craft and build a portfolio. But it has also become an affront to my own potential, denying me both authorship and agency. Beginning in 2019, I am reclaiming both, writing under my own name and using my words to voice a new narrative—my own. My new web portfolio features a new section entitled ‘This Is Me.’

Financial Tools of the Trade

Check out these national writing associations for recommended pay rates: London Freelance Fee Guide, the Editorial Freelance Association in the US, and the Professional Writers Association of Canada.

Sample Newsletter

Dispatch #21


Ilene Sova, Superwoman, 2013



Why start a business in an industry in crisis (publishing, media, journalism), targeting a demographic (feminist entrepreneurs and business owners) that adds up to a hyper-niche space, and that few, if any advertisers care about (their enterprises tend to be small; read: they have no money).

Because, as Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack, a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”

Creating Cracks 

I recently picked up the book Making Feminist Media by Elizabeth Groeneveld (2016) at the library. The book is about Groeneveld’s insight into feminist media after studying five significant “third wave” feminist publications (Bitch 1996-present, Bust (1993-present), HUES (1992-1999), ROCKRGRL from 1995-2006, Venus Zine (1994-2010), Canada’s Shameless (2004-present), and the only online publication studied Rookie (2010-present).

While their feminisms diverge, what they all have in common is that they aimed to cleave cracks in the steely grey morass we call the system to advance an agenda of social, political, and economic gender equity and equality. Despite the operating challenges and hate mail they received (a phenomenon even before the age of internet trolls), they still triumphantly created vibrant and life-changing media spaces where women and girls could have authentic conversations that matter to them.

Groeneveld notes that these magazines demonstrate, by the nature and stories of their very existence, “what the capitalist market can and cannot sustain.” Their history also shows us why it is so important that healthy societies ensure alternative narratives are heard: These stories become the fodder for the coffeehouse or kitchen table debates that sometimes later lead to the founding of new movements, inventions, businesses or community initiatives that better our world. These magazines didn’t just retread safe consumer narratives—they inspired new ones that catalyzed social change.

If They are so Important, Why is Feminist Media so Hard to Fund?

Feminist media in North America has been around since the early 1700s. A study by Kathleen Endres and Therese Lueck, referenced in Groenveld’s book, which catalogued 76 feminist publications, notes that over one-third of them were defunct after 10 years. Most hung by a financial thread (even in the ‘good old days’ of periodical publishing). If they play such an important role in the lives of women, and our collective path to gender equity, we have to ask why they are so unsustainable.

For starters, enterprises of all sorts generally do better when they address huge markets with big consumer-minded audiences, and in comparison, the number of people who engage with feminist media is low. The fact that the community is also fractured exacerbates the addressable market size problem. There is no one feminism.  While many have a base of loyal paying subscribers, there never seems to be enough of them to make the reader-supported model work on its own. Also, many feminists have (with good reason) been historically suspicious of corporate funding, if not outright anti-capitalist and anti-consumer in their worldviews, and this has not helped the bottom line. Magazines who started to become too commercial in an effort to survive were sometimes punished by their own readers (read: unsubscribed).

However, this appears to be changing. Feminist entrepreneurs, in particular, generally agree that the new imperative is not to ignore capitalist economics, or capitalism as mass culture, but to invent a feminist interpretation of what capitalism could be like if guided by different values. For “how to” inspiration, many look to the social innovation and evolving social enterprise space. New organizational models (e.g.non-hierarchical network organizations or collective impact organizations) and transformative funding models (e.g. community bonds, impact investors, crowdsourcing) are part of today’s feminist changemakers toolkit.

While market realities still befall many, the few recent success stories referenced in the book demonstrate that it is possible to craft an acceptable collage of compromise between sustaining an independent medium for feminist audiences and running a financially viable enterprise that can pay editors, illustrators and writers at the very least, a living wage.

This is good news for the future of feminist media and anyone interested in advancing gender equality and equity. The reality is that new worlds start with new stories.  We need feminist media and storytellers. In fact, it would seem, given recent world events and troubling trends, that we need these outlets and voices more than ever before.

“…reading feminist magazines is much more than the consumption of information or entertainment; it is a profoundly intimate and political activity that shapes how readers understand themselves and each other as feminist thinkers.”–Elizabeth Groeneveld

As a feminist business magazine, LiisBeth is also engaged in navigating this tricky feminist media enterprise design, operating and funding terrain. And as a result we too are working to craft our own unique pastiche of sustainability. For example, rather than accept the either/or options of becoming a nonprofit or for profit, we customized our articles to reflect a for-profit/non-profit hybrid. We chose to further our commitment to social purpose by becoming a certified  B Corp. And like others in the feminist media sisterhood, we also look to leverage new funding sources (e.g. crowdsourcing) along with innovative and aligned sponsorships, swaps (SwapcityB2B, Bunz) and partnerships to build and sustain what we started.

For now, with just over 600 subscribers, we are not yet a bonafide crack—just a chisel mark. But with your continued support, we can indeed become one of the many cracks that lets the light in.

(To subscribe to LiisBeth today, click here)

Other feminist media to consider this holiday season:
/  (Now defunct, but amazing archive online)

LiisBeth Field Notes

We think this video featuring Marlon James (author of the 2015 Man-Booker-prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings) is one worth watching—and showing your kids. In this video, he talks about the difference between being a non-racist and an anti-racist. Being a non-racist facilitates inaction—perhaps you don’t discriminate, but you also don’t actively work to stop discrimination. He makes a strong case. Simply standing on the sidelines by being non-racist is not enough.

To go a level deeper on understanding the distinctions regarding where one is on a spectrum of non-racist to anti-racist advocacy is also well illustrated in this chart prepared by Rina Campbell of Campbell Consulting in Chicago. In Campbell’s chart, she looks at the difference between a passive non-racist, active non-racist, ally behavior, and anti-racist advocacy, at the individual, community, educational and systemic levels.

After reviewing Campbell’s chart, think about where to you fit in. And then think about how this spectrum framework would apply to your relationship with feminism. We think the same logic can also be applied to other forms of discrimination like gender inequity. Are you sexist? Non-sexist? Or anti-sexist?

Gifts That Keep On Giving: Introducing the B-CORP Gift Guide

Okay, if you are going to buy gifts this holiday season, here is an opportunity to spend your shopping dollars in ways that matter. You can get to the Canadian B Corps online gift guide here. B Corps are businesses committed to positive social and environmental impact. And guess what?! We’re in there!

Other Cool Links to Nifty Gifts:

1. LiisBeth Bookshelf—recommended reads by LiisBeth (when you order via our website, you help us out too!)

2.  Mashable’s feminist gift guide

Can’t Miss Events

LiisBeth attended the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) last year and became a fan of this hidden gem of an event. This year it will be from Jan. 10 to Jan. 21, 2017. They usually sell out, so hurry and register here.

The Feminist Art Conference of Toronto is a volunteer-based organization that brings together artists, academics, and activists to consider feminist issues through art.

LiisBeth is hosting one of the community panels at the FAC on Saturday, Jan. 21, entitled Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation. Panelists include Jack Jackson (All Jacked Up), Renishaki Kamal (Fidget Toys), Emily Rose Antflick (Shecosystem) and more!

And for Your Calendar in 2017, Don’t Forget to Mark:

  • Canadian Women’s March to Washington, Jan. 21.  This event has been organized to support women’s issues in the USA and has now become a Global Movement.A small group of dedicated volunteers are leading the Canadian Initiative and will support these efforts across Canada including a Delegation to Washington, DC. Want to join in? Register here!
  • Forum for Women Entrepreneurs Pitch for the Purse event, Feb. 20, Vancouver, B.C.
  • International Women’s Day March, March 8, 2017
  • Ontario Pay Equity Day, April 19, 2017
  • Digifest is a three-day conference located on Toronto’s waterfront that focuses on the future of education, creativity, entrepreneurship, gaming, and technology; organized by George Brown College. It also features a pitch competition. April 27-29, 2017

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