Rita Henley Jensen, founder of the feminist website Women’s eNews, died on Wednesday. Feminist media lost a titan.
I met Rita when she hired me as an intern at Women’s eNews, a position that, unlike most of the competition, actually paid money. I was a college sophomore studying journalism and newly interested in feminism. It was Rita who assigned me my first stories, one on Title IX and one on gender discrimination in identifying and treating heart disease. Her newsroom was small yet efficient, her editorial team a racially diverse group of women. She was one of the earliest to anticipate the power of feminism and the internet. Women’s eNews, the site she founded, pre-dated most of the feminist blogs that served to catapult the careers of so many feminist writers (myself included) and was the first to publish a long list of successful female journalists.
Rita was up-front about her own story and struggles — the domestic violence she escaped, the welfare she had relied on, the single motherhood that had often left her hungry, the breast cancer she survived. She spoke often and proudly of her daughters. She championed other women, whether she was giving a totally inexperienced 19-year-old a paid internship position or highlighting some of the brightest and most interesting women from around the globe through the Women’s eNews “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” event, which was going on long before the Women in the World Summit or other women-centric conferences.
For 14 years after my internship ended, Rita and I stayed in loose touch, mostly through listservs dedicated to women and media. She left her editorial role at the site she founded, and dedicated her time to the Jane Crow Project, her site on maternal mortality among black women in the United States. Rita picked her projects from a place of passion and fierce determination. She always chose the uphill battles and the marginal causes and embraced them with a tenacity that could veer into the obstinate. Rita did not relax; she did not posture; she did not try to pretty up her politics or mold her rhetoric into something more palatable in order to sell her cause. How could she? She didn’t do her work to feel good or even to revel in small victories. She did it because she gave a damn. Rita was constitutionally incapable of looking the other way when her heart and conscience were involved.
In many of our communications over the past decade or more, we were sparring partners. We came from different generations and different worldviews. I sometimes found her single-minded and myopic, and I’m sure she found me naïve and often plainly wrong. But she took me on with the respect one shows an equal and worthy adversary; never once did she treat me with the condescension a lesser boss may have directed at a former intern several decades her junior.
Off the listservs, Rita showed up when it mattered. I emailed a feminist group trying to secure a laptop for a high school boy whose mother, an immigrant nurse’s aide and family friend, was beaten nearly to death by his father. Rita wrote back almost immediately: “I am on it.”
Years earlier, journalist Kathryn Joyce was having trouble getting paid for an assignment. Rita “offered to accompany me to small claims court,” Joyce wrote. “It didn't come to that, but it's always remained with me as an incredible show of solidarity to someone who was a virtual stranger to her.”
I’m not sure I ever properly thanked Rita for hiring me so many years ago. She opened a door and suggested that writing about gender could be a viable career. She suggested I was worth something, no small gift to offer a perpetually insecure not-quite-woman.
Rita was a fighter — for her own life, for her children, for other women, for the feminist cause. That could make her cantankerous and difficult; it also made her effective. Like every feminist before her and all of us who follow, she was imperfect and sometimes challenging. She was also one of the good ones, the custodian of an enormous heart. Rita was a Nasty Woman par excellence. And she taught and armed so many of us that, long after her passing, she will fight on.