We’re at a critical point in the fight against sexism, and Laura Bates is at the forefront of the movement. In an effort to bring more attention to injustices, Bates founded The Everyday Sexism Project, a wildly popular website where women can “record stories of sexism faced on a daily basis.” Bates also recently released a book inspired by the site called Everyday Sexism—a collection of stories, commentary and reports that send a powerful message: you’re not alone.
The observations and assertions of this cultural-observer-turned-feminist-queen allows open and honest conversation to occur between striving young women. Since I love so much of her work, I was beyond thrilled to interview Bates. I had the chance to ask her six questions that were on my mind. Here’s what she had to say:
1. What inspired you to start The Everyday Sexism Project?
I had a sudden awakening in April 2012 after a period when I experienced several different incidents of harassment and groping, and suddenly realized that if they hadn’t all happened so close together I never would have thought twice about them, because they were so normal. I asked other women about their experiences and couldn’t believe how many had stories to tell (and how severe their stories were), but I found that the problem wasn’t taken seriously—if they tried to speak out, people said women were making a fuss about nothing. So I started the project to collect these stories, give them a platform, and force people to realize how bad the problem was so that we could begin to tackle it.
2. Your book contains accounts of the experiences of thousands of women with sexism. Were you anticipating the high amount of entries the project has received when you started the website?
No, I had no way of promoting or advertising the project so I honestly just hoped that maybe 60 or 70 women would add their stories. The viral surge of testimonies that swept in from all over the world and sent the project into the global headlines took me completely by surprise—so far we have collected 60,000 stories in just over two years.
3. What is your response to critics who claim that the content featured in the book, as well as the website, is exaggerated?
I wish it was! But sadly the reality is that women really are experiencing incredibly high levels of serious sexual harassment, discrimination, abuse, assault, and rape on a daily basis, and there is no exaggeration in these testimonies. The sheer number of women all telling the same kind of stories and often experiencing very similar things serves to corroborate the evidence. It would be an awfully big coincidence for 60,000 women all over the world to make up the same thing! And sadly, though disbelief, dismissal, and silencing are common responses from those who would rather ignore the problem than face it, we still live in a world where one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. The epidemic is very real, we need to accept it so that we can start to tackle the problem.
4. In your opinion, how best can we move forward in eliminating gender discrimination from society and our culture?
I think we need a variety of measures, and a top-down-and-bottom-up approach will work best simultaneously. In different countries there are various legislative measures that are desperately needed to ensure equality for women. For example, millions of women still live in countries around the world where domestic violence isn’t considered a crime, or where women can be jailed or even killed as a result of being a victim of rape. In other countries, leadership from government on issues such as flexible working hours and shared parental leave could make a huge difference to workplace discrimination and the under-representation of women in business and politics. It would also be a huge step forward to see compulsory relationship education in schools dealing with vital issues such as consent, online pornography, and healthy relationships. So many of these problems start early, and there is a huge amount of confusion about issues, like what constitutes rape among young people.
But alongside this leadership, we also need to see a real cultural shift in our normalized ideas and attitudes towards women. The problem is that these things all exist on a continuum and they are all connected. So when we normalize rape jokes, or shouting at women in the street, we allow the same ideas about women as second-class citizens, that underlie the more serious abuses, to become accepted and ingrained. We all have a role to play in creating this cultural shift—whether it’s being the parent who teaches their son about consent, the teenager who stops his friends from using the word ‘slut,’ the colleague who objects when a woman isn’t considered for a promotion because she’s a ‘maternity risk,’ the art director who stops illustrating unrelated stories with pictures of women’s legs, or the person who steps in when they see a woman being harassed on the train. We have to send a message that misogyny, sexual harassment, and abuse are no longer socially acceptable. It’s not about men vs. women, it’s about people standing up together against prejudice.
5. You’ve created an environment in which women can openly and honestly discuss their experiences and fears. If you could give one piece of advice to these women, what would it be?
To be aware of their rights. So often, we hear from university students who are being groped in nightclubs, or women in the workplace who are being denied promotions because of family plans, who don’t realize that they are legally protected from these things. In the UK, we’ve actually got a lot of the legislation in place, but unfortunately, it isn’t trickling down in practice because people don’t always realize what their legal rights are. Having said that, I also think it’s vital that change is structural. It’s not enough to empower women if the world around them remains biased against them. So I’d also like to send a message to everybody, not just women, that we all have a part to play in being active bystanders—by stepping in and speaking out when we see these things happening. It’s often much easier to take action when you’re not the victim.
6. And lastly, what is your go-to girl power anthem?
Haha good question! Sorry if it’s a cliché, but it has to be “Respect” by Aretha Franklin!