As I sat reading Michelle Goldberg’s Washington Post opinion piece, “Feminist writers are so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire,” I could feel the arteries in my neck constrict, and the muscles in my shoulders tighten; I could sense my breaths grow shallow and my pulse begin to pound in my temples. Fight or flight. My nervous system catapulted into overdrive. And then it hit me. This is exactly where I live most of the time now, overwhelmed by the level of vitriol being hurled at women whose only wish is to see everyone treated equally.
Organized online misogyny forces us to acknowledge that we live in a society where those in positions of power have become so fearful of losing their privileged status that they must attack those who are seeking equal treatment. Such attacks are increasingly hostile, and include threats of rape, disfigurement, and death. Just look at the recent fallout from Gamergate, or the rape and death threats that resulted when Caroline Criado-Perez suggested that Jane Austen appear on the British ten pound note: “’I’m going to pistol whip you over and over until you lose consciousness then burn ur flesh’ and ‘I will rape you tomorrow at 9pm” and “a bomb was placed in front of your house’” (Slate).
And the hatred spreads well beyond the Internet, appearing in everyday microaggressions that have become so expected and accepted that they don’t even cause us to blink. Recently, South Carolina state senator Tom Corbin provided a prime example of microaggression when he spoke at a state legislative dinner, addressing 45 male legislators and one lone female senator: “’Well, you know God created man first,’ he said. ‘Then he took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat’” (msnbc).
I have dedicated much of my career to advocating for the rights of girls and women. Yet every day I experience pushback—from my students, male and female, who have grown up in a postfeminist world where feminism is considered the f-word and all feminists are men hating extremists; from the university, which is still very much a man’s domain (at the University of Colorado, 67% of professors are male, a percentage that hasn’t shifted much in the last decade); from online critics whose primary purpose seems to be to silence all women; from those who feel women should not share their truths and tell their stories.
I dared to do this work because other women dared to do it before me. And I don’t want to give it up, as it is clearly evident that there is much work still to do. Yet Goldberg’s article gave me pause. I don’t think women will be bullied off the Internet. I do believe, however, that some may change their approach. Pro-choice advocate Jacklyn Munson gave up writing online and plans to attend law school. Abortion rights activist Lauren Rankin moved away from online activism and is researching different approaches that will allow her to feel less exposed while still making a positive difference (Washington Post).
As for me, it may well be time to reevaluate my own course. I am proud of all the work I have done. I don’t regret putting my own story out into the world, even though it made me vulnerable and subjected me to criticism, because I know it also had a positive impact on women who identified with my experiences. I am incredibly grateful to the women who came before me and risked their own careers and lives in order to tell their truths and stand up for the rights of girls and women. If they had not had such courage, I never would have found the strength to share my own story or to teach theirs.
But I sense my focus shifting. I need to move away from the negative backlash, and move toward positive change. I would love to work on a project that would bring more women into the K-12 curriculum, or work with young children on issues surrounding healthy relationship development, tolerance, and respect. I would like to step back from reaction, and move toward a more proactive approach to equality. I would simply like to teach human kindness, empathy, and understanding so that we could all know what it is like to walk in each other’s shoes. Perhaps such a simple approach to a complex problem could actually make a difference. What do you think?