A plea for feminist women to keep on writing

If you identify as a woman and you have ever expressed your opinion on the Internet, odds are, you’ve gotten some feedback. Or, I should say, backlash. Because while it’s natural for anyone who makes a public statement to encounter people who disagree with it, women have to contend with reactions that go way beyond the pale of “disagreement,” and often end up sounding like downright threats. In fact, this issue has become so pernicious that, according to the Washington Postsome feminist writers are beginning to retire.

In the article, author and feminist writer Jessica Valenti, xoJane’s Emily McCombs, Rookie writer and feminist advocacy group director Jamia Wilson, and GQ contributor Lindy West, who interviewed one of her trolls for a This American Life segment, all say pretty much the same thing: Harassment comes with the territory and, in the case of Valenti and McCombs, they’re not sure if they would do it all over again, or at least not using their real names.

Obviously, this is pretty disheartening. These great women have inspired me (and countless others) to do what I do. I read their pieces. I get their newsletters. I follow them on Twitter. But harassment is powerful, and I don’t think I’d have the strength to withstand even half of the insults that often-anonymous users have directed at them.

In some ways, it looks like this problem can be traced back to the classroom. A recent study by the Women’s Media Center revealed some bleak facts about journalism majors. While female students make up about 75% of the college classroom, they only account for a little more than a third of the jobs in the industry. Either the sexism in the industry is so pervasive that women aren’t being given equal opportunities, or women are holding back in fear of the inevitable hate storm, or both.

I started my first blog in high school. It was mostly for me and the few friends I had met through the Internet, but I quickly deleted it after some people in my real life, some not-so-nice students in my high school class, started circulating it and leaving nasty comments and messages. I felt dumb for putting myself out there, for thinking that my voice was worth listening to.

I swore I wouldn’t put myself in that position again, but once I was in college, I was drawn to my school’s blog, which was kind of like the newspaper, but focused on commentary and more thoughtful features. I applied, was accepted, and I loved writing for it. It was funny and important and weird all at the same time, and by my senior year, I was the editor-in-chief. I learned to hone my voice and develop my style, but one of the most valuable things I learned was how to handle criticism. I received feedback that was both thoughtful and hurtful. Professors raised interesting and sometimes challenging points, and so did I. I once wrote a post about a sexist advice packet given specifically to the women on our campus who were about to go abroad (Leave room in your suitcase for shopping!), and by the next year, the language had been changed. But I was also called a “bitch” and worse by anonymous commenters. So I had a taste of what it was like to feel triumphant about making a difference but also to feel helpless in the face of trolls.

One of the most important articles I ever read was by Lindy West, and it was titled “If I Admit That ‘Hating Men’ Is a Thing, Will You Stop Turning It Into a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?” It directly addresses those detractors who accuse feminism of discriminating against men — though it accomplishes even more. It’s a comprehensive breakdown of almost every piece of criticism that the movement gets, listed one by one, for West to thoughtfully and articulately combat every misunderstanding and stereotype floating around out there, like how “unfairness” isn’t the same thing as systematic disenfranchisement. Seriously, bookmark it. Keep it handy. You might have to refer to it the next time you’re in an uncomfortable conversation.

Anyway, this was bold. To directly address a group of people who are predisposed to disagree with you is destined to lead to some harsh criticism, and it did. In fact, I wouldn’t recommended dignifying some of the more bilious responses by delving into the comments section because I can assure you that they are not nearly as calm, well-reasoned, and intelligent as the article itself. But at the same time, isn’t it sad that this is something we’ve come to accept? That the comments will be horrible, so don’t even bother? Part of the reason these women field so much negativity from online forums is because those of us who are supportive, or even just neutral, are advised to stay away.

So, actually, the next time someone writes something that’s important to you, make sure you let them know. Even if commenting isn’t your thing, get on there anonymously and compliment the writer on a job well done. It makes both the writer and the other like-minded readers feel happy. Or we can even take things a step further: If nice words don’t outweigh the ad hominem attacks, and moderating those attacks is too onerous for the editors, then let’s get rid of the section all together. That’s right, no comments. Personally, I don’t see this as an infringement on free speech. This just forces the conversation out of the faceless, impersonal, unaccountable world of screens and into a real-life environment where people have to own what they say. That way those who genuinely care about the topic either way will need to make the effort to start a dialogue. How much do you want to bet that the people who are just there to hurl slurs won’t even bother? Right, because for them, it’s never about having a conversation.

And this is why I beg my fellow feminists to please keep writing. Because we all know that we are not free from the sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination that faced our forebears. If the trolls are good for one thing, it’s to remind us of that: There are still plenty of people out there who harbor hate and prejudice in their hearts, and we can’t let them get away with it. I know it’s easier for me to say, when I haven’t sustained the relentless assaults and name-calling that the women I look up to have. But for every lewd and outrageous comment directed your way, there’s more people willing to have a discussion, and even more young women who need prominent female voices to inspire them, like I was.

I can with certainty say that the female writers I admire would be sorely missed if they were to put down their pens (metaphorically speaking). I would hate for the hate to overwhelm them, and since it doesn’t get said enough, let’s say it here: Thank you. Thank you to Lindy and Jessica and Jamia and Emily and all the other feminists who have been speaking their minds regardless of the backlash, and sticking up for women even when it’s an uphill battle. Your words touch us more than you could ever realize, even those who don’t yet realize how lucky they are to be reading them.

[Image via here]

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