Social media sharpens our feminist solidarity
Feminism is dealing not just with sexism, but also its own uneasy relationship with privilege and race.
Feminist conversations are becoming louder in the online sphere. Even if you had no interest in following feminist activists on Twitter or reading blogs and websites dedicated to the cause, you would be hard-pressed to ignore online conversations related to everything from sexist marketing ploys to another rape, another violent assault, against a woman.
Like other intellectual communities, feminism has long found a home on the internet, and a great deal of its value lies in the communal support of other feminists.
"I think that the internet [in forms such as blogs and Twitter] has provided a space in which feminists are able to talk to each other around the world far more easily, to see linkages between issues globally, and has enabled feminists to engage in global and local feminist conversations in new ways," says Jennifer Thorpe, editor of FeministsSA.com.
She points out that, although feminism has become more available online, "this obviously still limits it to an elite group of users who have access to the internet", but the growth of smartphone usage almost certainly means that accessibility is increasing.
Accessible, too, are the number of spaces where complex academic theories are unpacked and articulated for those of us not au fait with feminists like bell hooks or Betty Friedan.
"I think in many cases the academic nature still exists but you've also been able to look at it in other ways – activist, layperson, sociological, casual, everyday experience case study," says Thorpe.
A good example is the Vagenda, a British online magazine run by Rhiannon Lucy Coslett and Holly Baxter, both in their mid-20s, and their countrywoman Caitlin Moran – journalist, columnist and writer of the bestselling How to Be a Woman – is immensely popular for similar reasons.
Moran has been criticised for her populist approach; Coslett and Baxter defend her in a post on the New Statesman, which neatly encapsulates her appeal: "This woman has removed the dust and the stuffiness from a movement which, at its most academic, is almost incomprehensible ... expressing its ideals in a way that thousands of women understand and identify with."
The internet's various feminist communities can also be immensely supportive: if you come from a background or society in which feminist values are dismissed or denigrated, finally finding a group of like-minded people can be a tremendous relief – as is discovering that other women share your experiences.
Websites such as the Everyday Sexism Project, which began in the United Kingdom but now has sister sites in almost 20 other countries, including South Africa, are based on this idea.
According to its website, the project "exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day-to-day basis. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don't even feel able to protest."
Sexism should be eradicated
Catcalls on the street or your boss calling you "darling" obviously differ from sexual violence or the wholesale suppression of rights experienced by women in some countries, but sexism is demeaning everywhere on the spectrum and should be eradicated. "By sharing your story you're showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women every day and it is a valid problem to discuss," says Thorpe.
"I think that there are both positive and negative experiences on and offline. I was harassed online by a website called cumtree.com, which posted my details on their Twitter bio and invited people to 'tell me what they'd like to do to me' and that was pretty intense and scary. But, at the same time, the responses in support of me at that time – from other feminists I didn't know – were incredible, and eventually cumtree took it down. So the sense of community is definitely a big positive."
Interacting with feminists of different backgrounds is an eye-opening experience. As a middle-class white woman I only fairly recently learned about the concept of privilege – thanks largely to Twitter. The same goes for intersectionality, a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, which refers to the different kinds of oppression and discrimination (on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and the like) that may be experienced by one person.
The problem with some of the examples mentioned above is that they exemplify white feminist privilege. Actress Lena Dunham of Girls fame has been heavily criticised for the lack of diversity in her series. When Moran was asked on Twitter whether she had addressed the race issue in an interview with Dunham, she responded: "Nope. I literally couldn't give a shit about it."
The widespread unhappiness about Moran's comment is only one example of a very strong undercurrent in online feminist debate: a schism between black and white feminists, with the former accusing the latter of racism and a lack of sensitivity towards, and acknowledgement of, particular issues faced by women of colour, and with white feminists more often than not reacting defensively.
"Call-out culture" has at times turned virulent and nasty, such as the ongoing dispute between writer and academic Flavia Dzodan, who blogs at Tiger Beatdown and Red Light Politics, on one side and New Statesman writers Helen Lewis, Laurie Penny and Glosswitch (VJD Smith) on the other.
Other instances, such as indigenous American rights advocate Lauren Chief Elk's criticism of Eve Ensler's One Billion Rising movement, have been less harsh but no less pointed.
"The thing is, the debate between black feminists and white feminists is obviously old, going back to the Seventies when the likes of bell hooks and others argued that race and gender could not be separated," explains Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, history scholar at Rhodes University and founding member of the Women's Academic Solidarity Association.
"This debate is ongoing because structural inequality and social attitudes still make it likely that white and black women have different experiences. I think in this era the debate continues quite sharply in the social media platforms and in a way a new generation is finding the parameters of the discussion for itself.
"There's a lot of debate online so, inevitably, the feminism debate emerges and it begins to show that there are new intellectual communities forming, and their online presence does spill over into the offline public domain."
As the conversations continue, one hopes that we will listen more than we speak.