Even among Portland's vibrant independent publishing culture, Bitch has always been hard to ignore.

Yes, there's that bold name, attached to a magazine dedicated to providing a feminist response to pop culture. And the razor sharp social critiques. And unflinching interviews with creators and critics like Alison Bechdel, bell hooks, Issa Rae and Judy Chicago. But Bitch's nonprofit status, monthly-sustainer revenue model and efforts at community engagement such as their writers fellowship program have not just made it stand out, but allowed it to survive for a quarter-century and counting.

Founded by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler in Oakland, Calif., in 1996, Bitch didn't become Portland-based until 2007. But it was here that the magazine truly took root, crystallizing its goals and identity while establishing business practices and a culture that better reflected actual feminist ideals.

Ahead of its 25th anniversary issue hitting newsstands this week, WW spoke with Zeisler about the magazine's journey, its memorable covers, and that whole dildo ad controversy.

The B-Word. Bitch hits 25. (Nailah Howze)
The B-Word. Bitch hits 25. (Nailah Howze)

WW: What was your goal when you first founded Bitch?

Andi Zeisler: We all unabashedly loved pop culture while recognizing how little it loved us back, and we wanted to talk about that and find others who wanted to talk about it. In 1996, pop culture was considered unserious—you just didn't see it covered the way it is now. But so much of how people, especially young people, learn about the world and their place within it comes through movies and TV and music and magazines, and we wanted to consider that in the context of feminism. We also wanted to make feminism itself as relevant as we knew it was, and point out that pop culture and media both reflect and shape how people think of and value women. Plus we all really loved magazines as a medium.

How have the past 25 years differed from what you expected?

I think the main way things have differed is in the landscape and politicization of media. We launched at a time when the conventional wisdom was that print media was going to be made obsolete by the internet. But this was also a time of massive media deregulation in the United States that resulted in four or five multinational conglomerates gaining the majority of control of TV and radio broadcasting, book and magazine publishing, movie studios. It's hard to overstate the damage done by the Telecom Act of 1996, but nearly everything that's terrible and damaging about media now can be traced back to it. The fact that Bitch has managed to survive at all reflects how important it is to look critically at the media not as individual products meant to entertain and inform us, but as a cultural and political force.

Does Portland feel like Bitch's home now?

For me it felt like home almost from the start, both personally and for Bitch. We've partnered with a lot of local organizations, as well as with many of the colleges and universities in the area. We felt like we'd really arrived when The Zinester's Guide to Portland started including us. When the Bernie's building sold and we lost our office, we had a tag sale to unload bookshelves and furniture, and so many people who came had stories about discovering Bitch at Reading Frenzy or Powell's or in a class at PSU or Lewis and Clark's Gender Symposium. The feeling that the organization is of Portland, rather than just in Portland, has felt very special.

What are some stories you're most proud of?

It's too hard to pick favorites, but I'm proud that Bitch was in many cases the first national outlet to publish stories on a lot of topics that later became trending topics or tropes in more mainstream media: Things like the fundamentalist Quiverfull movement, the gendered dimensions of prison reform, fan fiction, gender and chronic pain, discrimination against transgender athletes.

What about your favorite covers?

Again, probably too many to list, but one of the most fun covers we did was for our Pulp issue in 2013. We crowdsourced ideas from readers, and the cover ended up being an homage to pulp novels and men's "adventure" stories of the 1950s and '60s: an illustration of Emily Dickinson and an army of laser-eyed sloths fighting a multi-tentacled creature. The Emily Dickinson Museum contacted us to get a print of the image, which was the highest compliment we could have hoped for.

I know the name has brought some controversy over the years. But I'm more curious about the infamous dildo ad drama of 2002. 

Women-owned sex-toy shops were really on the rise at that time, and Babes in Toyland, which later rebranded as Babeland, was one of our regular advertisers. They bought the back cover of one issue, and their ad pictured a woman's hand gripping a big purple dildo. We were, in retrospect, naive about what impact it would have on the back cover, in full-color and totally unavoidable. We started getting letters and phone calls every day from people cancelling their subscriptions. A few of them were like, "Look, I'm just not ready to explain dildos to my child." Others said that the ad made them feel like they couldn't read the magazine on public transportation. There were university libraries and women's centers that felt it crossed a line.

Then the U.S. Postal Service sent us a sternly worded directive that they would only deliver copies of the issue if it was distributed in black polybags as "obscene" literature, the way Playboy or Maxim magazines were. Polybagging is expensive, it's bad for the environment, and bookstores sometimes don't want polybagged magazines on their shelves. Some people wanted us to push back on the assumption that a photo of a dildo is inherently obscene, others wanted to debate the content of the ad itself—it was a lot. Definitely a learning experience, though.

What's next for you and for Bitch?

I've stepped back from my role a lot in recent years, and 2021 will be my last year on staff. I always said it would be time to go when I could no longer name most of the people on the red carpet of the MTV Video Music Awards. But I feel optimistic about the future, and I hope the organization can continue growing and evolving to mirror the ways that feminism itself has grown and evolved. It's not a monolith and it's not a label. I hope Bitch continues drawing readers in and showing them that media and popular culture are places where feminist thought and activism can make a difference.