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Elite white feminism fail: Barnard president’s disastrous attempt at viral marketing

Date: February 22, 2014

I received this email this week:

Barnard spam

When I saw the title “Great post!” I thought of two possibilities: it could be someone who really liked one of my blog posts, or it could be a spam. But I didn’t think that it was an email from an Ivy league college promoting its president’s new book and podcast, asking for me as a “feminist thought leader” to provide free platform without offering any reciprocity. It might make sense if I was running a big mainstream feminist site, but it feels arrogant and entitled that they would approach me this way.

I posted the screencap on facebook, and quickly found out that a couple of my friends who are also radical Asian women writers have been contacted by this Barnard College person. So it wasn’t a fluke that they contacted me; they are actively seeking non-mainstream, radical women of color writers to promote the work of Barnard College president, a highly successful white woman.

I decided to investigate further: I looked to see if anyone has accommodated their request to publicize the book and podcast on their blog, but found something more interesting. Not only is Barnard sending emails to its chosen “feminist thought leaders,” they are also posting unsolicited, unrelated comments on dozens of other people’s blogs that is indistinguishable from spam comments.

In one of the pages Barnard spammed, Feminist Forte, author Molly responded to Barnard’s spam comment:

From what I have gleaned online, Debora Spar seems to be aligned with mainstream, white, NYC-centric feminism. In other words, her feminism isn’t my feminism, so I’m going to decline.

That was exactly my thought when I saw the email, but Barnard had no response.

They even posted the same spam comment on The TERFs, a site dedicated to opposing a version of radical feminism that discriminates against trans people, but apparently the moderator did not approve their post. So they tried again (it says “I do apologize – this is my second attempt to comment”), and was approved.

Barnard is obviously trying to tap the power of viral marketing, but they are failing miserably: despite many spam comments and emails, very few blogs seem to have accommodated their request to publicize the book and podcast. Of course, part of the problem is the idea of the book itself: we are just not interested in hearing a highly privileged woman’s view of what “young women today” need or want. But it is also about how they chose to promote the book, attempting to exploit other women’s platform for their own gain without offering anything meaningful in return.

(Hey, by the way Barnard, thank you for the great idea for my blog!)


  1. I’m a Barnard alumna, and I’m so grossed out by this. And I’m not alone.

    Comment by sopranojm — February 22, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

  2. Geez, I got this exact same email a couple of weeks ago and had a similar “wha…?” response! I get spammy requests like this from for-profit sites maybe once or twice a month, and I thought at first this was one of those. I’d still argue it amounts to the same thing, really. *shudders* It was the “thought leader” phrase that really got me. If the person getting in touch with me knew anything at all (like, had spent ten seconds on my blog) they would have known I am in no way a “thought leader” … in any circles whatever.

    And a a librarian blogger who does occasionally accept advance review copies if they’re offered, I was professionally offended by the fact they basically wanted me to schill for the president of Barnard without getting even a free copy of the book in return. Like, that’s cheap dude. And also? No.

    Comment by Anna Clutterbuck-Cook — February 22, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

  3. […] of reported today that she had been contacted by a “Communications Manager at Barnard College” asking for […]

    Pingback by How Not to Pitch: Barnard President Debora Spar’s Team Pisses Off Feminists En Masse : GetBullish — February 22, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

  4. Debora Spar is NOT Barnard. She is the current president of Barnard and is a graduate of Georgetown and Harvard. We, the alumnae of Barnard, are Barnard. The majority of alumnae have no connection to Spar as she’s been president since 2008. Please refer to Spar and not Barnard in your post.

    Comment by Flavia — February 22, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

  5. Anna – Thank you for your comment. Yes, I also receive spammy requests like this from for-profit ventures, but the fact that this one claims to be feminist was really troublesome. And yea, it would have been different if they were offering me a review copy so that I could write about it.

    Flavia – I understand what you are saying, but the spam came from someone who represents Barnard, not some assistant hired by Spar personally.

    Comment by emigrl — February 23, 2014 @ 6:17 am

  6. I got that same unsolicited spammy comment on my blog a few months ago when I wrote a post about Lean In. I ignored it and thought about deleting it. Definitely distasteful.

    Comment by Jackie — February 23, 2014 @ 7:56 am

  7. I agree with you, Emi, that the leveraging of “feminism” in this seemingly wide-spread effort to promote the book is both ineffective (because whomever is behind the effort has clearly failed to do their market research) and politically troubling to me, since I don’t see asking for something in exchange for nothing to be an ethical way for anyone to do business…but particularly galling when paired with this veneer of “we’re all in the sisterhood together!” language.

    I wrote the individual who reached out to me back and said I would be willing to consider reviewing an ARC under my usual terms, and never heard back. Not even with a “thank you for replying.” Which suggests to me that they’re not interested in actually building profitable grassroots relationships with feminist “thought leaders” at all, but merely hoping we’ll all be so WOW BARNARD IS CONTACTING ME that we’ll signal boost their advertising. (A dynamic that I think undermines Flavia’s point a little above: yes, obviously, a high-level administrator and the student body or alumnae are not synonymous. But in this case they’re definitely using the Barnard brand to try and get their foot in the door with those they’ve spammed.)

    Anyway, thanks for writing this post and identifying the icky marketing tactics as more than an isolated incident. It’ll be interesting to see whether this encourages or discourages such an approach in future with other corporate-feminist ventures.

    Comment by Anna Clutterbuck-Cook — February 23, 2014 @ 10:33 am

  8. Ugh… How gross.

    How is “using more oppressed, less resourced people/organizations/bloggers to promote a version of feminism that completely ignores their issues and excludes them” not an obvious no-no? Is this not taught in Intro to Gender Studies

    Comment by Meg — February 23, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

  9. Emigrl- Yes, Spar and all employees at Barnard represent Barnard. But you are smart enough to understand the distinction. Clearly, Spar is using underlings to do her bidding and pitch her book. I want to be clear that the people with something at stake is the Barnard alumnae, NOT Spar. Spar surely makes a lot of money as President of Barnard and has been cashing in handsomely moonlighting on the Board of Directors of Goldman Sachs. I don’t see her as a respresentative of Barnard or what those who attend Barnard believe in. From you writing, I pick up a disdain for the elitism of Barnard. When, it’s far from the reality. Columbia is the most socioeconomically diverse of all the Ivies and Barnard is even more diverse than Columbia. Sure, I met plenty of wealthy white girls whose parents can afford to drop north of $160k for their 4 years at Barnard. HOWEVER, north of 40% of Barnard students receive substantial financial aid and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Slamming Barnard hurts alumnae who are not operating in Spar’s circles. This is why I ask that you slam Spar for her inappropriate use of the Barnard brand rather than slamming Barnard and everyone who is associated with this truly wonderful institution.

    Comment by Flavia — February 23, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

  10. Flavia – I feel like you are in denial of some sort. The email did not come from some random person who happened to be employed by Barnard; it came from someone who was acting in her official capacity as a representative of Barnard. If you feel that what I wrote is damaging to Barnard alumnae, it is Spar and her staff that you need to take issues with.

    That you seem to dispute the characterization of Barnard and Columbia as “elite” institutions (though my actual use of the word was specifically in reference to Spar and her feminism rather than to Barnard) is yet another example of your denial. I don’t care if it is or isn’t “more diverse” than Yale or Harvard; if you don’t think that Barnard is an elite institution, you are out of touch with reality.

    I also fail to see how this post is “slamming” Barnard students or alumnae.

    Comment by emigrl — February 23, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

  11. Emigrl,

    “*Barnard* is obviously trying to tap the power of viral marketing, but they are failing miserably…” Barnard is not trying to do anything. Spar is trying to do something.
    “But it is also about how *they* chose to promote the book, attempting to exploit other women’s platform for their own gain without offering anything meaningful in return..”
    Who is *they*? Barnard? And by Barnard do you mean the employee who is directed to do things at the whim of Spar?

    What am I in denial of?? Barnard is elitist, of course! That’s the whole point of a selective institution! All of academia is elitism! Some people equate elitism with money and power and that is what I was trying to address with the socioeconomic example. You are delusional if you think the world works in any other way.

    I don’t know what your blog is about and I don’t frequent “feminist” blogs. I just happened to land here because a fellow alumna posted this on her facebook wall. I hope you enjoy the additional traffic to your site by expressing your negative views on the email you received. Sorry you are upset that “Barnard” i.e. the officially capacitated employee who works at BC and Spar do not want to offer you something in return. Maybe Spar just thought it would be an easy way to sell books? Good luck with your endeavours! You should really try to get closer to Spar though. Because while you may not be interested in what a white, privileged woman has to say, you two certainly have a lot in common. You are both using Barnard to attract attention. Spar wants to use the Barnard brand to sell books. You want to use the Barnard name to attract people to your site. Not so different after all?

    Comment by Flavia — February 23, 2014 @ 6:56 pm

  12. Um, Flavia, you are not making any sense. You seem to be willfully neglecting the fact that the email came from someone who was acting in her official capacity as a communication manager of Barnard to promote a content on Barnard’s website written by Barnard’s president. It was not a personal act on the part of the communications manager or the president.

    As for Barnard being elitist (which, by the way, was never my point, but you brought it up), you need to make up your mind. First you say “it’s far from the reality,” and then you turn around and say “Barnard is elitist, of course!” Again, you are not making any sense whatsoever.

    Finally, I really have nothing to gain from attracting attention of people like you who seem to have no interest in my work. But even if I was using the email from Barnard as an opportunity to attract more visitors, at least I am not using my privileged status or position of authority to spam other people.

    Comment by emigrl — February 23, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

  13. […] week, in response to a post on Eminism about Barnard president Debora Spar team’s “disastrous attempt at viral […]

    Pingback by How SHOULD You Pitch to Bloggers? (Followup to “How Not to Pitch: Barnard President Debora Spar’s Team Pisses Off Feminists En Masse”) : GetBullish — March 4, 2014 @ 9:06 am

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